The USA in 1900: Was it an Expansionist Empire or a Regional Powerhouse?


A political cartoon of Uncle Sam who ‘teaches’ different nations how to behave after the Spanish-American War (Puck Magazine, 1899)

I prepared this work for the US History course at the University of Manchester last year. Enjoy reading it. I also attempted to touch upon the Ottoman approach toward American foreign policy at the end of the nineteenth century: Perceiving and Narrating the United States in an Ottoman Magazine

   The United States increasingly exerted its power in the global arena through political, economic, and military expansions at the end of the nineteenth century. Combining cultural and economic motivations for legitimizing its goals, the US pursued an expansionist policy in overseas conflicts through the 1890s. The US housed the Pan-American Conference, signaling its ambition over Latin America with the emergence of the Pan-American Union in 1890. The US also engaged in exercising power over the Pacific by influencing and annexing Hawaii in 1898. Most significantly, the Spanish-American War (1898) made the US an imperial power by acquiring the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico and stationing military power in Cuba. Eric Foner contended that as a consequence of the war, “the United States became the ruler of a far-flung overseas empire…established a precedent for American intervention in the affairs of other countries.”[1] To exemplify, the US participated in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China and supported Panamanian independence against Columbia in Latin America. Hence, although the US was not the most powerful empire like the British, it became an imperial power by 1900.

   Initially, economic and ideological factors brought about a major shift to transform the US into an imperial power. Michael H. Hunt disputed that ideological thinking impelled the US to implement expansionist policies.[2] For instance, American exceptionalism encapsulated that the US had a special role to spread democracy around the world, being superior to European monarchies and ‘inferior’ non-white races in relation to the idea of Manifest Destiny. This ideology stimulated the US to widen its degree of influence abroad. Henry Watterson in his newspaper declared in the 1890s that “we are a great imperial republic destined to exercise a controlling influence…to affect the future of the world.”[3] Apart from cultural urge, there was no way of pushing American borders further in its continental mainland after Westward expansion. However, the expansion of consumer goods was swiftly increased in larger quantities. This required the US to find new markets to sell its products for guaranteeing its prosperity. Williams underlined that the US turned to establishing new markets overseas to trade with other countries in an expansionist manner in the 1890s.[4]

A political cartoon, criticizing Uncle Sam, who rides a bicycle with globes (western and eastern hemispheres) for wheels. (1898)

   In this framework, several developments accelerated the rise of American imperial ambitions prior to the Spanish-American War. Firstly, the Pan-American Conference (1898) in Washington underpinned more commercial involvements in Latin America with the formation of the Pan-American Union. These enlarging commercial links bolstered the idea that the US should establish a sophisticated naval power to safeguard American trade. Primarily, Captain Mahan accentuated in the Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) that the fundamental way of expanding economic connections is to form a modern navy.[5] However, coal was the basic substance to run modern steamships and reachable stations were necessary to refuel them. Therefore, the US was interested in Hawaii as a crucial coaling station in this decade. Other than its strategic location in the Pacific, the sugar trade was also substantial to bring revenue for American vessels. Thus, the US promoted Hawaiian rebellions (1887-1895) and later annexed Hawaii in 1898.

     In the light of these developments, the Spanish-American War marked the birth of American imperial power in military and economic means. Cuba was a major center for American markets with its sugar trade like Hawaii. While Cuba was experiencing recession due to the passage of higher duties for sugar in the US Congress, Spanish hostilities toward Cubans ignited Cuban Revolution in 1895. However, Spanish forces fiercely suppressed it, prompting American businessmen because of their trade interests to activate President McKinley against Spain. The sinking of an American battleship, the Maine, around Havana was the final straw. Although its responsible was unknown, leading media outlets, also known as the ‘yellow press’, sensationalized it as a legitimizing tool for declaring war. New York Journal noted that ‘whether a Spanish torpedo sank the Maine or not, peace must be restored in Cuba at once’ since Spanish actions were ‘an intolerable evil to American interests.”[6] While Teddy Roosevelt defeated Spanish soldiers at San Juan Hill after the declaration of war, the US proclaimed that its intention was not to annex Cuba in Teller Amendment.

A political cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt who defeats Spanish forces at San Juan Hill

However, American assaults over other Spanish colonies in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico opened new overseas fronts. Essentially, Manila in the Philippines was an important harbor for China, making it a valuable spot for American markets in the Pacific as Foner indicated.[7] Thus, American battleships moved to Manila, exterminating Spanish forces. Spain demanded peace and acknowledged the defeat by withdrawing from its overseas colonies. As an outcome, the US possessed the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico and Cuba gained independence under American military control until 1902. These territorial gains ensured significant staging posts for American commercial and military ships on the way to major Pacific centers like China. Besides, the US enabled access to these new overseas markets for profitably selling its increasing goods and products in an easier way. Foner regarded the war as ‘an imperial venture…ended with the US in possession of a small overseas empire’[8]. Even, anti-imperialist people from Twain to Carnegie formed the Anti-Imperialist League (1899) against these imperial-type acts.

   Briefly, the US became an imperial power besides other empires by 1900. It achieved this status by obtaining new territories and controlling commercial dynamics in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans after tracing its multi-dimensional objectives. Particularly, the Spanish-American Conflict, or ‘splendid little war’ as John Hay, Secretary of State, called was a watershed moment to make the US a world power in the international arena[9]. The US proceeded to exercise its imperial fashion after 1900 for maintaining its interests and attaining new spheres of influence. To illustrate, its open-door policy provided new markets in China. Additionally, Platt Amendment (1901) and Roosevelt Corollary (1903) yielded the right of intervention to the US in Cuba and Latin America. Thus, the US preserved its imperial power at the turn of the twentieth century.


[1] Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty: An American History, Volume 2, (W. W. Norton & Co, 2016), 685-686.

[2] Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, (1987).

[3] Foner, 678

[4] W. A. Williams, the Tragedy of American Diplomacy, (1959).

[5] Foner, 679.

[6] “Spain’s Victory of Peace”, New York Journal, Feb. 17, 1898.

[7] Foner, 681.

[8] Foner, 682.

[9] Foner, 688.

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