The Fateful Year 1898: The United States Becomes an Imperial Power

The Great Debate over American Overseas Expansion
Published: 1993-07-01

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Most Americans have come to accept as entirely normal the readiness of their government to send troops to faraway lands. With few exceptions, even those who might oppose this or that specific action readily agree that such expeditions are sometimes appropriate to protect “national interests,” stop wanton killing or otherwise “restore order.”

In recent decades, such military adventures have included President Johnson’s Vietnam fiasco, President Reagan’s ill-fated dispatch of Marines to Lebanon, President Bush’s massive Gulf War against Iraq, and the Somalia intervention of presidents Bush and Clinton. More recently, President Clinton has been talking of sending US warplanes and troops to Bosnia and Macedonia.

It wasn’t so long ago when most Americans firmly rejected global adventurism. Until the 1890s, America followed its traditional foreign policy of non-interventionism. The year 1898 was a landmark in the transition of the United States from a republic to an imperial power. Today, as Americans debate the merits of new military intervention in foreign lands, many of the arguments for and against such actions echo those made nearly a century ago, but with some interesting differences. Economic self-interest is no longer so readily acknowledged as a motive, and instead of Christianity or Western Civilization, politicians now like to talk of spreading the blessings of Democracy. What is still familiar, though, is the insistence that current American values and standards are, or should be, the model for the rest of the world.

Implicit in the following essay is a question: Would America, and the world, be better or worse off today if the United States had decided against overseas expansion and imperialism in the late 1890s?

John Ries is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame (B.A., history, 1971), and the University of Tulsa (M.A., history, 1976). He has previously contributed four reviews and one essay to the Journal. He teaches history in southern California.

Many students of history trace the beginning of America’s readiness for overseas military intervention to one of two presidential decisions:

  • President Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, which brought on the first direct involvement of US troops in a European conflict, or
  • President Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign during the 1937–1941 period to actively mobilize the United States against European “fascism” and Japanese “militarism.”

To be sure, each decision was a major break with the traditional American policy of non-intervention – a policy laid down by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding leaders. There is likewise no question but that the policies of Wilson and Roosevelt set the stage for America’s role today as the world’s foremost superpower and global “policeman.” In fact, though, this policy of interventionism was already well-established by the time the US entered the First World War. The great transition in American foreign policy took place during the final decade of the 19th century.

The 1890s

As the 1890s dawned, Americans could look back on the recent past with some gratitude. Internally the United States had been at peace since the end of the Civil War in 1865, and had not been involved in a foreign war since 1848. Reflecting its generally inward-looking mood, the country maintained only a small military force, and some questioned the need for even its minimal foreign ties. In 1889 the New York Sun told readers:[1]

“… The diplomatic service has outgrown its usefulness… It is a costly humbug and sham. It is a nurse of snobs. It spoils a few Americans every year, and does no good to anybody. Instead of making ambassadors, Congress should wipe out the whole service.”

But other forces were at work that would change all this. After several decades of dramatic economic expansion, the United States had, by the early 1890s, become the world’s leading agricultural and industrial nation. Along with its new status as an economic giant, the United States now found itself able to compete militarily in the international arena with the other great powers. It now had the economic muscle to permit it to engage successfully in foreign expansion or imperialism, the imposition of control over, and sometimes outright annexation of, overseas territory.

Many farmers and manufacturers looked ever more eagerly to foreign markets to absorb their growing surpluses, while a small but growing number of Americans wondered why they should not follow the example of rival European powers in the imperialist scramble for colonies.

“The subjugation of a continent,” remarked the Overland Monthly in 1898, “was sufficient to keep the American people busy at home for a century … But now that the continent is subdued, we are looking for fresh worlds to conquer.”[2]

In this setting came the greatest challenge so far to the principles that had guided the conduct of American foreign policy since the earliest days.

Manufactured War Hysteria

The Spanish-American War of 1898 – through which the United States suddenly became an overseas empire – did not begin spontaneously. As has happened on other critical occasions in American history, the media played an important and probably crucial role in rousing public sentiment for war.

Above all, two fiercely competing mass-circulation New York City daily papers – William Randolph Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s World – had already been doing everything possible to inflame adventurist and bellicose passions with embellished stories of Spanish “barbarism” in Cuba. By 1898, each of the two “yellow press” rivals was selling more than 800,000 newspapers a day, and equally irresponsible imitators had sprung up across the country.

In response to mounting unrest in Cuba, in early 1898 President McKinley sent the US warship Maine to Havana harbor. While the US government announced that the Maine’s was a “friendly act of courtesy,” everyone knew that this was a lie. Its real mission was to protect American life and property if and when Cuban revolutionaries took control of Havana. On the evening of February 15, a mysterious explosion suddenly blew up the Maine while it was resting at anchor in the harbor, killing 260 navy servicemen.

Without a shred of real evidence, the “yellow press” and prominent individuals immediately blamed Spanish authorities for the disaster. Even though Spain had no rational motive for provoking the United States, and no evidence of Spanish guilt has ever come to light, the incident was instantly seized upon to inflame passions for war. Headlines in the New York Journal (February 17) told readers that “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was The Work of an Enemy,” that “Assistant Secretary Roosevelt Convinced the Explosion of the War Ship Was Not an Accident,” and that “Naval officers think the Maine was destroyed by a Spanish mine.” (Hearst’s Journal would later shamelessly take credit for the Spanish-American war itself.)[3]

Pulitzer’s World (April 1, 1898) likewise branded the explosion “an act of war,” and declared that “the destruction of the Maine by foul play should be the occasion of ordering our fleet to Havana … If Spain will not punish her miscreants, we must punish Spain.” Ten days later the paper cried: “Stop the nonsense! Stop the trifling, let us have peace even at the muzzle of our guns.”

Even supposedly responsible voices joined in the national frenzy. One Presbyterian journal piously declared: “And if it be the will of Almighty God, that by war the last trace of this [Spanish] inhumanity of man to man shall be swept away from this Western hemisphere, let it come!”[4]

“Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” quickly became the rallying-cry across the United States.

Media treatment of the Maine incident foreshadowed similar cases at other pivotal times in US history, including the highly misleading and inflammatory press coverage of the German submarine sinking in May 1915 of the liner Lusitania, the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin attack (which was misrepresented by President Johnson to secure blank check Congressional authorization for unlimited war in Southeast Asia), and the fake atrocity stories that helped incite public support for the Gulf War against Iraq.[5]

US warship Maine arrives in Havana harbor, January 1898

The US warship "Maine" arrives in Havana harbor, January 1898. Its mysterious sinking was seized upon by American newspapers and politicians to inflame popular passion for war against Spain.

Predictably, the hysteria that swept the country was reflected in Congress, where lawmakers shouted at each other and ran up and down aisles like madmen. One Representative said that every Congressman “had two or three newspapers in his district – most of them printed in red ink … and shouting for blood.” Senator Allen accused Spain of “wholesale murder” in the Maine explosion, while in the lobbies war-hungry congressmen sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other bellicose songs. Representative McDowell demanded that “these murderous, treacherous, bull-fighting [Spanish] hyenas should be made to get off the Western Hemisphere …”[6]

In this crazed atmosphere, anyone who raised a voice in protest risked being labeled unpatriotic. Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard's esteemed Professor of Fine Arts, was denounced by the press as a traitor for his outspoken opposition to the war, and a Boston politician proposed that he be lynched.[7]

'New York Journal,' February 17, 1898

No newspaper did more to incite poplar mania for war against Spain than William R. Hearst's "New York Journal." Without a shred of real evidence, this issue of February 17, 1898, blames Spanish authorities for the sinking of the US warship "Maine."

Distressed by mounting criticism that he was “soft,” President McKinley on April 11, 1898, asked Congress – “in the name of humanity, in the name of civilization, in behalf of endangered American interests” – for authorization to expel Spanish forces from Cuba. Congress promptly approved, and on April 25, it passed another resolution declaring war to exist in fact, and directing the President to employ land and naval forces to wage it. The Spanish-American War was underway.

In the Far East, a US fleet under Admiral George Dewey steamed into Manila harbor in the Philippines on May 1, where it quickly destroyed the Spanish fleet there. In Cuba, some 17,000 American volunteer troops – the most famous being Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” – soon routed the weak Spanish forces there. In August, after barely four months, Spain asked for peace, and Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines came under American control. “It has been a splendid little war,” wrote US ambassador John Hay from London in a letter to his friend, Theodore Roosevelt.[8]

Hawaii Annexed

Almost incidentally, the United States in 1898 also took control of Hawaii , which had actually been an earlier target of American expansionism. Although the Hawaiian Islands had been coveted for some years by several European powers and by Japan, by 1890 a small group of prosperous Americans had succeeded in taking economic control there, including most of the country’s real estate.

Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii

Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii. In response to her "Hawaii for the Hawaiians" policy, American sugar planters, together with US government officials, overthrew her government in 1893. Five years later, the United States formally annexed the country.

In January 1893, American sugar growers, in collusion with the US ambassador there, staged a revolt against the ruling government of Queen Liliuokalani, who was, incidentally, also a gifted poet and musical composer. (Her most familiar song is “Aloha Oe.”) Alarmed by her talk of “Hawaii for the Hawaiians,” the businessmen feared that the Queen would harm their substantial economic interests. After forcing her to abdicate, the Americans established a provisional republic that wasted no time in formally asking Washington for annexation. Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland declined to act, though, and a resolution of this issue was put off for five years. In July 1898, after President William McKinley had declared that “we need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California,”[9] Congress voted to approve American takeover of the Hawaiian Islands, which were formally annexed by the United States on August 12, 1898.

The Philippines Problem

As in Cuba, the Philippines was already in open revolt against Spanish rule before the United States assumed control. The popular Filipino leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, proclaimed his country’s independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, and, at American request, his forces helped in the capture on August 13 of Manila, the capital.

With the defeat of the Spanish, the Filipinos rather naturally assumed that the United States would readily grant them independence, just as had been promised to the Cubans. But when they realized that the US intended merely to exchange Spanish rulers for American overlords, they rose in revolt in February 1899.

President McKinley was sorely perplexed by the problem of the Philippines, a country he was supposed to have once admitted he “could not have located within 2,000 miles.” Night after night he walked the floor of the White House and, as he himself said, went down on his knees and “prayed Almighty God for light and guidance.” One night it came to him “that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them [the Philippine islands] all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.” After this inspiration, the President went to bed and slept soundly.[10]

In the three-year war that followed, the United States sent nearly 70,000 troops to suppress Aguinaldo’s “insurrectionists.” The conflict quickly degenerated into a guerilla war in which, inevitably, both sides committed terrible atrocities. Americans back home were shocked to read reports of their soldiers torturing and killing prisoners. In one case, when an American soldier was beheaded by a native in a village, 89 local Filipinos were burned and shot to death in retaliation.[11] A modified concentration camp system introduced by the Americans caused the deaths of more than 200,000 Philippine civilians.[12]

By the time it was “officially” over in July 1902, the war had cost the lives of 4,000 Americans and up to 20,000 Filipinos.[13] Many more died as indirect victims, including large numbers of non-combatants who perished due to disease and starvation. On Luzon island alone, one American general estimated, 600,000 inhabitants were killed or died from the effects of the war.[14]

What had begun supposedly as an altruistic crusade for the liberation of Cuba had turned into a war to acquire overseas territory, and an imperialist action to subdue people fighting for their freedom. The brutal suppression of the Filipino independence movement can only be regarded as one of the darker chapters in American history.

In the decades that followed, American efforts to “civilize” their “little brown Filipino brothers” brought a gradual turnover to native control of the islands’ affairs, a process that was largely completed by the late 1930s. The Philippines was granted independence in 1946, although the US continued to maintain a significant military “presence” on the islands. When the last American soldiers withdrew in November 1992, an estimated $3 billion in plant and equipment, thousands of half-caste children, and an undetermined concentration of toxic waste and unexploded ordnance were left behind.[15]

The Case for Imperialism

Supporters of imperialism viewed the acquisition of overseas territory as necessary for the maintenance and promotion of American national interests. They cited, among other reasons, the value of colonial holdings as strategic assets in the on-going quest for maritime supremacy.

Probably the most influential spokesman for this view was Alfred Thayer Mahan, a Navy captain and scholar whose numerous writings on the importance of sea power to a nation’s place in the world persuaded many to “look outward.” The Influence of Sea Power upon History(1890), was probably his most important work. Someday, he predicted, the United States would have to decide the great question of “whether Eastern or Western civilization is to dominate throughout the earth and to control its future.”[16]

Among Mahan’s most important disciples was Theodore Roosevelt, who was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the outbreak of the Spanish-American war. His reckless statements suggesting Spanish responsibility for the Maine explosion contributed significantly to the popular sentiment for war. (Some years later, “Teddy” was one of the most strident voices demanding US intervention in the First World War against the German “Huns.”)

Another important follower of Mahan, and a close friend of Roosevelt, was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Influenced by Mahan, he and Roosevelt had campaigned hard for a modern American navy. Lodge was an influential voice for war against Spain, and for US acquisition of the Philippines. In a speech delivered to the Senate on March 7, 1900, he said:[17]

Alfred T. Mahan

Alfred T. Mahan, naval officer and scholar. His writings convinced many that the United States must build a large navy and play a major role as a world military power. Someday, he said, the United States would have to decide "whether Eastern or Western civilization is to dominate throughout the earth to control its future."

“Duty and interest alike, duty of the highest kind and interest of the highest and best kind, impose on us the retention of the Philippines, the development of the islands, and the expansion of our Eastern commerce.”

Perhaps the effective voice for imperialism was that of Albert J. Beveridge, US Senator from 1899 to 1911. His impassioned defense of the US takeover of the Philippines had much to do with the decision to retain the islands. In a speech delivered on September 16, 1898, Beveridge exhorted:[18]

“The ocean does not separate us from lands of our duty and desire – the oceans join us … Steam joins us; electricity joins us – the very elements are in league with our destiny. Cuba not contiguous!? Porto Rico not contiguous!? Hawaii and the Philippines not contiguous!? Our navy will make them continuous…

“[Today] we are raising more than we can consume. Today we are making more than we can use … Therefore we must find new markets for our produce, new occupation for our capital, new work for our labor… Think of the thousands of Americans who will pour into Hawaii and Porto Rico when the republic’s laws cover those islands with justice and safety! … Think of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who will build a soap-and-water, common-school civilization of energy and industry in Cuba, when a government of law replaces the double reign of anarchy and tyranny!”

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, a dashing and energetic political leader, eagerly promoted American military adventurism and overseas expansion.

In an even more arrogant address delivered before the Senate on January 9, 1900, Beveridge declared:[19]

“[This] question is deeper than any question of party politics; deeper than any question of the isolated policy of our country even; deeper even than any question of constitutional power. It is elemental. It is racial.

“God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns … He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples …

“He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America … The Philippines are ours forever. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world.”

Appealing to racial pride, Beveridge asked: “Shall [future generations] say that, called by events to captain and command the proudest, ablest, purest race of history in history’s noblest work, we declined that great commission?”[20]

President William McKinley

President William McKinley decided, after much soul-searching, that the United States must take the Philippines and "uplift and civilize and Christianize" its people.

Josiah Strong, a militant Protestant missionary, was another influential agitator for imperialism. In Our Country, a book widely circulated during the 1880s and 1890s, he preached that the Anglo-Saxon race was chosen by God to civilize the world, and that the United States should bear the main responsibility for this crusade. “It is time,” he insisted, “to dismiss ‘the craven fear of being great,’ to recognize the place in the world which God has given us and to accept the responsibilities which it devolves upon us in behalf of Christian civilization.” Millions of brown, yellow and black people, Strong said, awaited the blessings of Christianity. Through conquest, he said, the United States would bring the gospel of Jesus to these unfortunate races.[21]

William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazette, a relatively small Kansas newspaper that nevertheless had considerable national influence, wrote in March 1899:[22]

“Only Anglo-Saxons can govern themselves. The Cubans will need a despotic government for many years to restrain anarchy until Cuba is filled with Yankees … It is the Anglo-Saxon’s manifest destiny to go forth as a world conqueror. He will take possession of the islands of the sea … This is what fate holds for the chosen people.”

Apart from such supposedly idealistic sentiment, blatant self-interest was not forgotten. In the cynical view of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, “The Filipino is treacherous and deceitful. Besides, we want his country.”[23]

Imperialists also argued that the United States needed Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, and, later, Western Samoa , because of their supposed value as “stepping stones” to the rich markets of East Asia. The 1899–1900 period marked the beginning of America’s decades-long obsession with China, an on-again, off-again fixation that was both sentimental and self-serving.

'The Spanish Brute,' from 'Judge'

"The Spanish Brute," an American press commentary on the "Maine" disaster. This cartoon originally appeared in full color on the cover of "Judge," a popular illustrated magazine of the day. Such propagandistic images presaged similarly hateful caricatures in the American press of Germans during the First and Second World Wars, of Japanese during the Second World War, and of Arabs in recent decades.

Puerto Rico, expansionists also claimed, was essential for the “fortification” of the proposed canal across the isthmus of Central America. (Passage of the “Teller Amendment” at the beginning of the war with Spain meant that Cuba, which had been eyed for this purpose, would not be able to play this role.)[24] 

Finally, imperialists argued that acquiring colonial territories was necessary to keep them from coming under the control of potentially hostile rival powers, and thus would protect American security while advancing American interests. As historian and diplomat George F. Kennan has pointed out, though, this argument had little, if any substance. “In the case of Puerto Rico and Hawaii … there was no real likelihood of anybody else intervening. Puerto Rico could quite safely have been left with Spain, or given independence like Cuba, so far as our security was concerned.”

While the Philippines “was a more serious” case, especially in so far as we had “shattered” Spanish rule there following the conquest of Manila, there is little reason to suppose that the takeover of the islands by another power, even Japan, would have been “particularly unfavorable to America’s interests.” Kennan concludes by noting that “if we today cannot see a likelihood that the [relinquishment of the Philippines would have threatened American interests, than] I doubt that the people of that time could have seen it very clearly themselves.”[25]

Anti-Imperialist Arguments

Opponents of imperialism saw much danger in the seductive call to extend American power beyond the seas. Among the anti-imperialists were such prominent figures as former President Grover Cleveland, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, author Mark Twain, former US Senator and cabinet member Carl Schurz, labor leader Samuel Gompers, historian William Graham Sumner, and philosopher William James.

“America’s greatness lay at home,” said Thomas Reed, the leading Republican in the Congress, “not in some far-off group of islands no one has ever heard of.”[26] Anticipating a view that has a familiar ring today, he argued that “a great deal of work lay ahead in our own country to improve living conditions and raise the political intelligence among Americans rather than extending American rule over half-civilized people difficult to assimilate.”[27] To Harvard President Charles William Eliot, imperialism was synonymous with “militarism,” something “absolutely foreign to American society, … yet some endeavor to pass it off as patriotic Americanism.”[28]

The American Anti-Imperialist League, founded in 1899, soon gained impressive support. In a formal statement it declared:[29]

“We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends towards militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free … We insist that the subjection of any people is “criminal aggression and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our government.”

Although it did not succeed in its immediate goal, the Anti-Imperialist League upheld a venerable American tradition that would later find expression in the writings of revisionist historians of the interwar period, and in the America First Committee of 1940–1941.

James Bryce, a British opponent of imperialism, urged Americans to have nothing to do with expansion. To yield to the “earth hunger” raging among European states, he said, would be a “complete departure from the maxims of the illustrious founders of the republic.” This was a reference to the thinking of men such as Thomas Jefferson, who held that the United States must be, above all, “a standing monument and an example.”

Anti-imperialists also recalled the words of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, who admonished in 1821:

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America’s] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. But she is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners then her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”

During America’s westward expansion of the 1840s, the problems associated with assimilating millions of people of alien race served as a brake on efforts to acquire large areas of Mexico, Central America, and even Cuba. Similar considerations figured in the debate of the late 1890s.

The anti-imperialists pointed out that the United States had never before acquired territory that could not be Americanized, and eventually admitted as a state on equal standing. Puerto Rico and the Philippines, though, were remote and densely populated by peoples of alien race and language. Senator Pettigrew of South Dakota summed up by remarking that bananas and self-government could not grow on the same section of land.[30]

Carl Schurz, a highly respected Republican leader who was closely identified with his party’s efforts to “regenerate” both the American Indian and the Negro, left no doubt where he stood regarding the “yellow and brown race” of the Pacific Islands.[31] When the issue of Hawaiian annexation first came up in the early 1890s, the German-born liberal reformer expressed strong opposition in an article in Harper’s magazine. Among other things, he cited a lengthy demographic survey of the islands’ population that indicated that Americans and settlers of European descent were in a distinct minority. “If there was ever a population unfit to constitute a State of the American Union,” he declared, “it is this.”[32]

In the view of Thomas Reed, the problems that would arise over the “purchase” of the “ten million [Filipino] Malays … at $2.00 a head unpicked” would prove to be much greater than any in Hawaii. Labor leader Samuel Gompers worried that the “half-breeds and semi-barbaric peoples” of the new American colonies might undercut labor here. Imperialism, he charged, was an attempt “to divert the attention of our people from the ills from which we suffer at home.”[33]

cartoon in the 'Detroit Journal,' 1907

This cartoon in the "Detroit Journal," 1907, reflected widely-held assumptions of the time. A paternalistic Uncle Sam, backed with naval might, has the power to grant or withhold "freedom" from a childlike Cuba.

Senator Ben Tillman told his colleagues in February 1899: “As a Senator from … South Carolina, with 750,000 colored population and only 500,000 whites, I realize what you are doing, while you don’t; and I would save this country from the injection into it of another race question which can only breed bloodshed and a costly war and the loss of the lives of our brave soldiers.”[34]

Anti-imperialists emphasized the grotesque absurdity, if not hypocrisy, of entering a war to free the Cubans, and then winding up with American troops 8,000 miles away, killing to impose alien rule on seven million people against their will. This was a violation of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Tyranny abroad would beget tyranny at home.

Anti-imperialists also considered a “permanently subordinated American ‘colonial empire’ as a fundamental violation of the principle of equality laid down in the Declaration of Independence, the historic ‘co-ordinate’ basis of the American Union, and the cherished American anti-colonial heritage.” Implicitly at stake here was the character of America as a nation and as a republic.

George F. Hoar, a Republican Senator from Massachusetts, broke with the imperialist policy of his own party. In a speech to the Senate in January 1899, he said:[35]

“…Under the Declaration of Independence, you cannot govern a foreign territory, a foreign people, another people than your own, that you cannot subjugate them and govern them against their will, because you think it is for their good, when they do not … You have no right at the cannon’s mouth to impose on an unwilling people your Declaration of Independence and your Constitution and your notions of freedom and notions of what is good…”

“Imperialism and republicanism,” said Hoar, “were mutually incompatible.”[36] The Democratic Party platform of 1900 echoed this view: “We assert that no nation can long endure half republic and half empire, and we warn the American people that imperialism abroad will quickly and inevitably lead to despotism at home.”[37] George S. Boutewell, president of the Anti-Imperialist League, put it this way:[38]

“The question I put to the defenders of this war [in the Philippines]. What is the end that you seek? Is it the vassalage of these people? If so, then you are the enemies of the republic and the betrayers of the principles upon which the republic thus far has been made to rest.”

Foes of overseas expansion also argued that America’s time-honored policy had well served the nation’s defense requirements. As long as the US minded its own business, she could easily defend her shores without a great military complex. But now the United States was acquiring far-away territories that would require a costly, two-ocean navy to protect. Just how far were Americans prepared to go, skeptics asked, to become involved in foreign squabbles?

Andrew Carnegie opposed imperialism for what he regarded as common sense reasons. The Scottish-born businessman, who had made a fabulous fortune in the iron and steel industry, said:[39] 

“The naval powers of Europe, and Japan also, are apparently determined to be prepared for a terrific struggle for possessions in the Far East, close to the Philippines – and why not for these islands themselves?...

“It has never been considered the part of wisdom to thrust one’s hand into the hornet’s nest, and it does seem as if the United States must lose all claim to ordinary prudence and good sense if she enter this arena, and become involved in the intrigues and threats of war which make Europe an armed camp.

“It is the parting of the ways. We have a continent to populate and develop; there are only 23 persons to the square mile in the United States. England has 370, Belgium 571, Germany 250. A tithe [tenth] of the cost of maintaining our sway over the Philippines would improve our internal waterways; deepen our harbors; … thoroughly improve the Lower and Upper Mississippi, and all our seaboard harbors.

“All these enterprises would be as nothing in cost in comparison to the sums required for the experiment of possessing the Philippine Islands, 7,000 miles from our shores. If the object be to render our Republic powerful among nations, can there be any doubt as to which policy is better?”

Finally, anti-imperialists argued, by meddling in the Far East, the United States could not consistently forbid other powers from doing the same in the Americas – as the United States had long insisted through the Monroe Doctrine. “The Monroe Doctrine is gone!,” cried Senator Hoar.

A Constitutional Issue

Imperialism presented a difficult constitutional problem. Until the 1890s, the acquisition of new US territory was always considered “preliminary to its organization as new states, to be admitted to the Union on the basis of ‘co-ordinate equality’.” Now, for the first time in American history, “sizeable populations [were] being taken under our flag with no wide anticipation that they would ever be accepted into statehood.”[40] Imperialists responded to such considerations by insisting that the federal government had a long-established right “to acquire new territory – by purchase, treaty, or war,” and that such “colonies might be governed as Congress saw fit without assuming either future statehood or full application of all constitutional rights to the native.” In short, the Constitution need not follow the flag.[41]

It wasn’t until sometime later that the Supreme Court decided the Constitutional issue implicit in imperialism. In the “Insular Cases,” the Court upheld the legality of what had taken place. It created a doctrine of “incorporation,” which stipulated that the United States first had to “incorporate” the territory in question in order for the Constitution to be applicable.[42] The Court found, though, that none of the newly acquired territories had satisfied this doctrine, and decided that the Constitution does not follow the flag. The people of the newly acquired territories are not automatically entitled to the same guarantees of the Constitution as US citizens. The Court’s rulings confirmed what many had suspected: that the US government never intended to consider any of the colonial acquisitions for eventual statehood.

Bryan’s Betrayal

Reflecting an intense national discussion on the question of American imperialism, the debate in the US Senate over ratification of the peace treaty with Spain was likewise heated. On February 6, 1899, it barely approved the treaty by a vote of 57–27, just slightly more than the two-thirds majority needed for ratification.

William Jennings Bryan

Democratic Party leader William Jennings Bryan betrayed principle and his supporters to provide critical support in ratifying the treaty by which the United States formally became an imperialist power.

To the astonishment of his colleagues, and to the gratification of his imperialist foes, William Jennings Bryan – the Democratic party’s 1896 presidential candidate, and an acknowledged “pillar” of the Anti-Imperialist League – decided at the last minute to renounce principle and support the treaty.[43] His betrayal was based on what turned out to be a gross political miscalculation. He reckoned that if the treaty were ratified, imperialism would be a potent issue in the forthcoming election campaign, which he could then exploit to his advantage. He therefore used his considerable prestige to ensure ratification, a move that, by all accounts, was decisive in this close vote.

But the “Great Commoner” had reckoned wrongly, and went down to defeat once again in the presidential election of 1900. Benefiting from a revived economy, and taking credit for the impressive imperialist spoils of the recent war against Spain, McKinley coasted to a relatively easy reelection victory.[44] While historical “what ifs” are by nature speculative, it is intriguing to imagine the course that American policy – and world history – might have taken if Bryan had let conscience and not expediency be his guide in February 1899. At any rate, the story of America’s great transition from an inner-directed republic to an imperial power provides timely lessons for Americans today.


[1]Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (New York: 1964), p. 391.
[2]T. A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (New York: 1964), p. 422.
[3]According to a well-known anecdote (repeated, for example, in the film “Citizen Kane”), Hearst sent an artist to Cuba to produce pictures of strife there for his paper. The artist supposedly telegraphed: “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war.” Hearst, so the story goes, wired back: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” See: T. A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (1964), p. 453 (n.)
[4]T. A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (1964), p. 460.
[5]See “War Atrocity Propaganda Exposed,” The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1992, pp. 243 f.
[6]T. A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (1964), p. 474.
[7]Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), p. 175.
[8]Roger Butterfield, The American Past (New York: 1947), p. 282.
[9]B. Tuchman, The Proud Tower (Bantam Books, 1966), p. 179.
[10]R. Butterfield, The American Past (1947), p. 286.
[11]R. Butterfield, The American Past (1947), p. 285.
[12]J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty : Investigating United States History (Sacramento: Calif. State Dept. of Education, 1973), p. 511.
[13]Henry F. Graff, ed., American Imperialism and the Philippines Insurrection (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969), p. xiv.
[14]R. Butterfield, The American Past (1947), p. 285.
[15]The Washington Post, Nov. 25, 1992.
[16]R. Butterfield, The American Past (1947), p. 276.
[17]J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty: Investigating United States History (1973), p. 509.
[18]Carol Berkin & L. Wood, Land of Promise: A History of the United States (1983), p. 511.
[19]Roger Butterfield, The American Past (1947), p. 287; J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty (Sacramento: 1973), p. 509.
[20]Mary B. Norton, et al., A People and a Nation: A History of the United States (Boston: 1990), Vol. 2, p. 651.
[21]J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty (1973), p. 509.
[22]R. Butterfield, The American Past (1947), p. 287.
[23]T. A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (1964), p. 471.
[24]Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), pp. 257–258. The Teller Amendment pledged that the United States would transfer sovereignty to Cuba as soon as order had been restored. It was proposed to appease the advocates of the war with Spain who opposed imperialism.
[25]George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 ( New York: NAL/ Mentor, softcover ed.), p. 20. (Original edition: University ofChicago Press, 1951).
[26]B. Tuchman, The Proud Tower (Bantam Books, 1966), p. 163.
[27]B. Tuchman, Proud Tower (1966), p. 163.
[28]B. Tuchman, Proud Tower (1966), p. 168.
[29]J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty (1973), p, 506.
[30]T. A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (1964), p. 477.
[31]F. Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (New York: 1963), p. 242.
[32]F. Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (1963), p. 243.
[33]Mary B. Norton, et al., A People and a Nation (1990), Vol. 2, p. 650.
[34]J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty (1973), pp. 506 f.
[35]J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty (1973), p. 507.
[36]Alfred H. Kelly, and W. A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origin and Development (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1970), p. 579.
[37]J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty (Sacramento : 1973), p. 507.
[38]Henry F. Graff, ed., American Imperialism and the Philippines Insurrection (Boston: 1969), pp. xiv–xv.
[39]J. R. Chapin, R. J. McHugh and R. E. Gross, Quest for Liberty (1973), p. 507.
[40]George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (New York: NAL/ Mentor, softcover ed.), p. 18. Also cited in: Jerald A. Combs, ed., Nationalist, Realist, and Radical: Three Views of American Diplomacy (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 241; The US acquisition of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Hawaiian Islands, wrote Kennan, “represented a turning point, it seems to me, in the whole concept of the American political system.” (G. F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 [New York], p. 18)
[41]Alfred H. Kelly, and W. A. Harbison, The American Constitution (New York: 1970), p. 579.
[42]A. H. Kelly, and W. A. Harbison, The American Constitution (1970), pp. 580–584.
[43]According to F. H. Harrington in “The Anti-Imperialist Movement in the United States, 1898–1900,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, xxii (1935), pp. 211–230, Bryan and his supporters were less fervid than the Cleveland Democrats over the imperialist issue, contributing not only to the movement’s weakness, but to the defeat of the Democrats in 1900.
[44]Daniel Smith, The American Diplomatic Experience (New York : Houghton Mifflin Co., 1972), pp. 212–214.

"The greatest enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic."
—John F. Kennedy

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Mark Weber , John M. Ries
Title: The Fateful Year 1898: The United States Becomes an Imperial Power, The Great Debate over American Overseas Expansion
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 13, no. 4 (July/August 1993), pp. 4-13
Published: 1993-07-01
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 23, 2012, 6 p.m.
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