American Imperialism Essay examples


(Part 2)


The final significant imperialistic acquisition of the era was Hawaii. For many years, Hawaii had acted as a trading post and missionary destination. However, the Hawaiian Islands had copious amounts of arable land. Sugar and pineapples quickly became the islands’ leading agricultural exports (Hawaii). America, just as in Cuba, had become the island nation’s leading trade partner.

This economic hegemony was threatened in 1891, when Queen Liliuokalani ascended to the Hawaiian throne. The new potentate had intended to restore more power to the people of Hawaii, at the expense of foreign and American interests. This was met with hostility from Americans. A coup d’etat occurred and two years later, the Republic of Hawaii was established. The Republic’s first president was Sanford Dole, cousin of James Dole the founder of what would later become the Dole Food company. Business interests had effectively usurped a legitimate government, in the name of profits.

The second school of thought, the Conservative School, led by Samuel Flagg Bemis, stated that military victory had promoted imperialistic acquisitions. Proponents of this school hold that America had no intention of creating an overseas empire but was simply caught up in jingoistic sentiments. Military victory in the Spanish-American War had goaded America into acquiring the Philippines, an act of `adolescent irresponsibility’. (Grob, page 164).
Another supporter of this school of thought was Ernest R. May. He stated that President McKinley, in deciding for war against Cuba, was reluctant. May held that McKinley had to choose between war with Cuba or public unrest. McKinley had made the decision with cultural, religious, and economic factors in mind (Offner). Additionally, May offered a social perspective on the issue of imperialism. America at the time had undergone great industrial change. Industrial change had invariably brought about social change. Traditionally agrarian Protestants of old stock had seen themselves as becoming inferior to Catholics, whose numbers were increasing due to immigration. Imperialism, mainly attacking the Catholic Cuba, had been seen as a release valve for the religious and social tension felt between the two groups (Grob 169).

The final school of thought, championed by Julius Pratt, stated that a combination of humanitarian and religious reasons had induced American imperialism. Pratt suggested that Darwin’s survival of the fittest mentality applied to individuals as well as to nations (Grob, 165). Pratt had observed that European powers had been partitioning the world into different colonial empires. America, if it were to properly compete in the changing world, would also need to start its own overseas empire. A second facet of Pratt’s thesis was the dissemination of the American culture to less advanced people. The positive aspects of American civilization included in this the economic system of capitalism and Christianity would be for the humanitarian benefit of third-world countries. This school would most likely apply to the Philippines, which was made a commonwealth.

The three schools offered cogent arguments; however, one must first look further back into America history and traditions to properly understand imperialism. The intentions of American imperialism, though relevant, must also be viewed adjacent to the actual results the theory put into action. Additionally, the nature of the United States’ primary economic system capitalism must also be examined more thoroughly.

In contrast to the Conservative school of thought that presented imperialism as an ‘aberration,’ the United States did have a history of expansionism and acquisition of new territories. Rather, imperialism can be seen as a continuation of traditional American expansionism. The most prominent of these expansionist traditions was the Manifest Destiny. At the expanse of Native Americans and based on the slave labor of African-Americans, America expanded to the western reaches of the continent throughout the entirety of the 19th century (Nationalism and Imperialism). The only difference between early 1800’s expansionism and late 1800’s expansionism, other than the latter being called `imperialism’, was that the nation began to expand outside the continent into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

To further expound upon imperialism as not being a simple deviation from traditional American values, economic prospects must also be considered. Throughout the nation’s history, Americans have always prospered at the expense or exploitation of another race or people. For example, prior to the Civil War, the entirety of the south’s cotton economy was based on African-American slave labor. More so than just a regional aspect of the southern economy, the totality of the American people and race flourished at the expense of Native Americans; as Americans moved west, they displaced many indigenous tribes (Manifest Destiny). During the late 1800’s, with both slavery abolished and the western frontier closed, Americans had to find a new outlet for their tradition of economic exploitation (Frontier Closes, 1890). Imperialism provided for this outlet allowing Americans to expand abroad.
Pratt’s thesis, the third school, offered a somewhat qualified truism about American imperialism. It was true that European powers had craved out colonial empires and that America also needed to join the fray in order to survive. This was most evident in the case of Cuba. As noted earlier, America was Cuba’s main trade partner. This economic relationship was only made possible because of Spain’s inability to properly regulate its colony allowing Americans to prosper in the incompetence of the Spanish government. If America were to take a laissez faire stance in Spanish colony’s political welfare, there would be a great potential of America becoming disadvantaged. America would lose an important trade outlet if Cuba were snatched from the moribund Spanish empire and given to a more powerful European power such as Britain or France nations that had indubitably envied the Atlantic island colony. Therefore, Pratt’s statement about imperialism being an expression of Darwinian survival of the fittest offered some truth.

However, upon further examination, the humanitarian and religious goals of Pratt’s thesis are revealed to be nothing more than a facade for expansionism. These goals were most present in the Spanish-War acquisitions. In both the cases of the Philippines and Cuba, America claimed to be protecting the indigenous people from the enormities of the Spanish crown. Among the most salient features of McKinley’s declaration of war in the Spanish American War were `the inability of Spain to bring about permanent peace in the island [Cuba]’ and appeal to pathos by calling for `humanity’ (Beard, page 486). After both these acquisitions, however, America had committed the same restrictions and atrocities as the Spanish government. In the Philippines, the guerilla warfare had resulted in the deaths of many Americans and Filipinos (Philippines, Encyclopedia of Asian History). In Cuba, the Platt Amendment had essentially subjugated Atlantic island nation’s foreign policy to America.
The first school of thought, the progressive, most accurately described the situation of American imperialism. America had indeed been pushed to expand by economic factors. To further illustrate that American policies were dictated by economics, one must look to the nation’s foreign policy of the time. Just as in Hawaii, a nationalistic movement had occurred in China that had threatened both American and European economic interests. The Boxer Rebellion had intended to limit the influence of foreign powers. The American response, working in conjunction with other international powers, to this upheaval was the Open Door Policy. The dictum stated that China would remain autonomous not becoming a European colony thereby remaining open to international trade (Open Door Policy). This, of course, was in America’s best interest. If China were to become a colony, it would threaten the nation’s trade relations with the Asian giant.

Secondly, American capitalism must be properly examined in order to understand imperialistic motives. Throughout the 1800’s the United States had been building railroads, canals, and other infrastructures that had promoted trade and commerce. The Panic of 1893, the worst economic experience of the time, was especially terrifying to the nation because, through the national economy created by various infrastructures, the entire nation was affected. Just as the progressive school of thought advocated, businessmen had looked to foreign lands to secure the economic welfare of the nation. Therefore, the overseas acquisitions were aggressive in that they assured the United States economic well-being.
In the same vein of imperialism for economic reasons, one must recognize two fundamental trends of America throughout the 1800’s: urbanization and industrialization. Unlike the agrarian society that the founding fathers had advocated, the American society as a whole was moving away from farm virtues such as frugality and self-reliance. Instead,

industrialization had replaced traditional American thriftiness with consumerism the buying of goods for livelihood. Industrialization made the production of goods possible on a massive scale and cities offered the opportunity for the disadvantaged. These two aspects coupled together created a society that was a `recognizably modern economic system of making, earning, spending, and living’ (Business Overview 1850-1877) consumerism at the cost of the agrarian society.



American Imperialism