Ironies of Empire: America's 1890s Arrival as a World Power
Closing the frontier
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 thedominant 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 Mans 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
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 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
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.
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.
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 Americas arrival as a world power; for better and worse, they were merely the announcements.