United States History, 1877-

Ironies of Empire: America's 1890s Arrival as a World Power 

Kyle Wilkison

The 1890s: Decade of crisis and social anxiety

The last decade of the nineteenth century found Americans facing several social crises which fostered anxiety regarding the country's future.  Writers and others worried about the "closing" of the frontier, the arrival of unprecedented numbers of immigrants, the rising tide of undeniable class conflict and the procession of economic depressions that disrupted the economy. 

Closing the frontier

Following the 1890 census the federal Census Bureau announced that there no longer existed a frontier.  While many residents of the still rugged West might have argued that point, other Americans viewed the "closing" of the frontier with deep misgivings.  The most articulate of this group was University of Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner who argued that much of contemporary American life (including democracy) could be explained with his "frontier thesis."  Writing in 1893 he warned that "the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history."  Without the challenge of further frontiers, who knew what might become of American culture?

Frederick Jackson Turner
(PBS Photograph)

The "New Immigrants," class conflict and labor strife

Millions of  "New Immigrants" poured into American society between 1880 and 1914 from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe.  The national origins and cultures of these peoples were different enough from the dominant cultural groups already here to excite some concern over their fitness to become good Americans.  Anti-immigration critics ranged from those fearful that America was becoming "balkanized" into disconnected and rival communities to Anglo-Saxon supremacists who argued that the new immigrants were of inferior racial stock and could not be made into "good Americans." Others worried that, as working class wages went down, a rising tide of class conflict would become a tidal wave of revolution.  They pointed to the increased numbers of strikes and labor conflicts of the 1890s as evidence.    

Cultural impulse toward imperialism

Americans also experienced an impulse toward "cultural imperialism."  Some of this was as old as the concept of "Manifest Destiny," while much of it sprang from newer sources, suggested, perhaps, by the the frantic competition among the European powers for colonial holdings.  One powerful model was the example set by the British Empire whose apologists claimed to be advancing civilization with each new territorial acquisition.  Read the poem  “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling touting white supremacy and the British imperial sense of mission.  In the poem he welcomes America into the imperial fraternity after the U.S. take-over of the Philippines.

The military impulse

American military advocates and policy-makers claimed that America must grow or die.  The chief proponent of this line of thinking was U.S. Navy officer Alfred Thayer Mahan whose seminal The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) argued from the European imperial model and from the Social Darwinism model that large countries existed in only one of two states of being:  they were expanding or they were dying.   Thus, national survival, not to mention national security, depended on expansion.   Naturally, expansion required a build-up of the country's naval power.  And, coming full circle, big navies required off-shore territories as coaling stations and naval bases, else America's ships would be mere "land birds" unable to complete the long-distant missions expected of late nineteenth century navies.      

Prosperity dependent on access to foreign markets

As you know from reading the material on the "Populist Revolt,"  a sharp debate ensued about how best to curb the cyclical crashes within the economy.  Labor leaders argued for the expansion of domestic consumer demand with substantial wage increases for workers.   Business leaders preferred to look elsewhere for solutions;  soon, the conventional business wisdom had it that America's economic salvation would come from access to foreign markets.  In this way, U.S. companies could expand their customer base abroad without tinkering with the distribution of wealth at home.  The most promising foreign market of all was thought to be China.  China's huge population beckoned as potential consumers of American manufactured goods--or so thought the country's business leadership.   Access to such foreign markets were hard to come by, however, in a world dominated by huge, European empires such as Britain's.   In order to expand America's commercial reach, clearly it would be necessary to expand her military reach as well.  Imperialists and national defense enthusiasts wholeheartedly agreed.  Access to foreign markets depended on a big navy; a big navy required off-shore bases. 

The Spanish-American War, 1898

Beginning in 1895, Cubans seeking their independence from Spain courted American popular support through the pages of sensationalist U.S. newspapers such as  the New York Journal and the New York World, published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, respectively.   These and other newspapers inflamed their readers with lurid accounts of Spanish atrocities in Cuba.  Responding to the press and the public, the Congress pushed the resident to intervene in Cuba.  Military leaders began planning for war with Spain as early as 1896, including plans for an attack on the Spanish colony of the Philippine Islands off the coast of China.  President Grover Cleveland refused to budge.   His successor, President William McKinley, proved more agreeable to the pro-war forces in Congress.  

wpe2E.jpg (14218 bytes)
(U.S. Naval Historical Center)
The USS Maine entering Havana harbor, January 25, 1898; twenty-one days after this
photograph was taken the ship exploded in the harbor.  

Early in 1898 the government ordered the USS Maine to Havana, Cuba, for an ostensibly friendly call on Spanish authorities there.  While there the three-year-old battleship exploded, killing 260 U.S. Navy sailors.  What followed was a determined push for war by the press, the Congress and other militants (such as Under Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt).  At first cautious, eventually President McKinley joined in the war fever and asked Congress for a declaration of war.  Congress enthusiastically complied on April 20, 1898, despite a virtual capitulation by Spain earlier in the month.     

President William McKinley
(Library of Congress)
"In view of these facts and of these considerations I ask the Congress to authorize and empower the President to take measures to secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the Government of Spain and the people of Cuba, and to secure in the island the establishment of a stable government, capable of maintaining order and observing its international obligations, insuring peace and tranquility and the security of its citizens as well as our own, and to use the military and naval forces of the United States as may be necessary for these purposes."
--President William McKinley
McKinley's War Message to 
Congress, April 11, 1898

The course of the war itself held few surprises.  The U.S. Navy struck first at Manila, the Philippines, in the morning of May 1;  the outgunned Spanish fleet surrendered six hours later.   By the second week of June the U.S. Marines were in Cuba;  by mid-July Spanish forces in Cuba had surrendered.  See the Library of Congress' detailed chronology of the war.   

The Treaty of Paris, 1898

In its declaration of war the U.S. government specifically renounced any intention of annexing Cuba;  no such guarantees were given for Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, however.  Not surprisingly, these territories were taken from Spain and added to America's newly created offshore empire.  (During the general mood of imperialistic zeal, McKinley and the Congress had annexed Hawaii and Wake Island as well.) 

The Ironies of Empire

This was not the first time that the United States had dramatically expanded its territories. Neither was this the first time that it had done so by war with another nation (Mexico, 1846-48).  That this expansion required the violent subjugation of nonwhites (in this case Filipinos, but for much of the same century, Native Americans) was hardly new, either.  

Nevertheless, ironies of empire abounded for this self-styled democratic republic.   Many of these ironies were scathingly noted by American anti-imperialist Mark Twain in his writings.  Critics pointed out the irony of fighting to free Cubans from Spanish colonial rule then fighting the Filipino War (1900-1902) to retain colonial dominion over a captive people.  Perhaps the greatest irony of all lay in the disappointment to the business community when China proved not to be a market for American goods.   Despite America's struggle to maintain access to China (see the textbook's assessment of the "Open Door" policy), China did not turn out to be America's economic salvation. In fact, many Chinese deeply resented the liberties taken with their sovereignty, a resentment that erupted in the so-called Boxer Rebellion.  Finally, in "the Insular Cases" the Supreme Court ruled, ironically, that the Bill of Rights did not follow the flag and thus did not apply to the newly-held colonial peoples of the Caribbean and the Pacific.  

The war and annexations were not the cause of America’s arrival as a world power; for better and worse, they were merely the announcements.