USA emerged as an independent nation in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. For more than a century, until the 1890s, USA followed the policy of non-interventionism in international affairs. The year 1898 witnessed a landmark transition of the United States from a republic to an imperial power.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, internally the United States had been at peace. USA was also not involved in a foreign war since 1848. Due to peace situation and her generally inward-looking mood, the USA maintained a relatively small military force. But events near closing years of the nineteenth century brought fundamental changes in the American foreign policy and military strengths.
Since achieving its independence from British colonial rule, United States had achieved significant progress in the economic field and by the early 1890s, USA was the world’s leading agricultural and industrial nation. Due to these economic developments, the United States now found itself with resources to compete militarily with the other great powers. Farmers and manufacturers of USA started looking eagerly to foreign markets to sell their surplus products.
In these circumstances, a small but growing number of Americans wanted to emulate the rival European powers in the imperialist scramble for colonies. The American continent kept the Americans busy for a century but when no further territorial expansion was possible on the American continent, USA started looking for fresh territories to conquer. 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.
It was the outbreak of Spanish-American War of 1898 which was instrumental in making USA an overseas empire. But this war did not begin spontaneously. Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were Spanish colony in nineteenth century. Cuba was demanding freedom from Spanish colonial rule and situation there was serious.
The USA had intimate commercial relations with Cuba and had invested a lot of money in Cuba. Due to this reason, her interests were at stake on account of the ongoing problems in Cuba. In response to the mounting unrest in Cuba, in early 1898, President McKinley sent the US warship Maine to Havana harbor to protect the American interests if and when Cuban revolutionaries took control of Havana. On the evening of February 15, 1898, a mysterious explosion suddenly blew up the USS Maine while it was resting at anchor in the harbor, killing 260 navy servicemen.
The Americans attributed the incident to the Spanish agency. The press and prominent individuals immediately blamed Spanish authorities for the disaster. With the benefit of hindsight, one can say that Spain had no rational motive for provoking the United States when her situation in Cuba was not strong, and no evidence of Spanish guilt has ever come to light but the incident was instantly seized upon to inflame passions for war. “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” quickly became the rallying-cry across the United States.
The American Congress and President McKinley moved with the tide of popular feeling. Resolutions were passed demanding that Spain should grant independence to Cuba and give up all intention to annex it. In face of repeated criticism that he was ‘soft’, President McKinley on April 11, 1898, asked Congress for authorization to expel Spanish forces from Cuba.
The Congress promptly approved, and on April 25, it passed another resolution directing the President to employ land and naval forces to expel Spanish forces from Cuba. The naval supremacy of USA proved decisive and brought the war to a speedy end. Soon after, the Spanish forces were defeated on land and in sea, and Cuba was liberated from the Spanish rule. Cuba was occupied by American troops for some time but later was declared independent.
Thus, Cuba was not annexed by USA but she reserved to herself the right to interfere in Cuba whenever circumstances demanded. During this war, Puerto Rico was also acquired by America and Spain disappeared from the Caribbean Sea.
But this war had another dimension too. This war between USA and Spain was not confined to the Atlantic Sea alone. It extended to the Philippines also. Spanish rule in Philippines was oppressive and ineffective. As an extension of the war, a US fleet under Admiral George Dewey steamed into Manila (Philippines) harbor in the Philippines on May 1, where it quickly destroyed the Spanish fleet stationed there. In July, 1898, Manila was surrendered.
In August, after barely four months of commencement of war, Spain asked for peace, and in December 1898 Treaty of Paris was signed between two parties. By this treaty, the Philippine islands, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam were given to the USA and Spain received a sum of twenty million US dollars as compensation for her losses in the Phillipines.
Before the outbreak of the Spanish-USA war, the Philippines was already in open revolt against the Spanish rule. They were demanding a constitutional government, freedom of the press and equality before law. 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 of Philippine’s capital city Manila. With the defeat of Spain, the Filipinos expected that the United States would readily grant them independence, just as had been promised to the Cubans. But soon, the realization struck that the US intended to keep their control over Philippines.
Consequently, Filipinos rose in revolt in February 1899. In the three-year war that followed, the United States sent nearly 70,000 troops to suppress the ongoing revolt against the American occupation of Philippines. The conflict quickly degenerated into a guerilla war and 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.
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. 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.
In 1902, a parliamentary form of government was set up in Philippines and the locals were given a significant share in the administration of the country. Gradually, the Philippines were given more autonomy and finally Philippines got her independence after the World War II in 1946. The US, however, continued to maintain a significant military presence on the islands. The last group of American soldiers withdrew in November 1992.
The decision to annex the Philippines marked an important departure in the Pacific policy of the United States. There were many reasons for this departure. Apart from the strategic and commercial advantages of the Philippines, the active competition with Germans also helped to overcome idealism in Washington. In part, the switch over to imperialism was also due to the expansion of industries in the United States.
These industries wanted foreign markets and thus it felt the need of foreign empire like European powers. Apart from all worldly affairs, the religious considerations also played their parts because Protestant missionaries were eager for opportunities to penetrate into unexplored areas and it was also given as a reason to acquire a new territory.
President McKinley also believed that the Filipinos were not yet ready for independence, and grant of independence to them would merely be to invite the Japanese or some European power to move in. He believed that with the help of Americans, gradually, Philippines would be able to govern themselves independently but till such time it is a duty of USA to bear the responsibility of governance in Philippine. According to the US president, the scramble for concessions in China furnished an abject lesson as to what the future held in store for an oriental nation unable to protect itself from outside pressures.
In 1898, the United States also took control of Hawaii. The Hawaiian Islands, due to its strategic location in Pacific Ocean, had been coveted for some years by several European powers and by Japan. But by 1890, a small group of prosperous Americans had succeeded in taking economic control of them, including most of the country’s real estate.
In January 1893, American sugar growers, in collusion with the US ambassador there, staged a revolt against the ruling government of Queen Liliuokalani. 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 Clevelanddeclined 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,” Congress voted to approve American takeover of the Hawaiian Islands, which was formally annexed by the United States on August 12, 1898.
The US government had shown great interest in the Sandwich Islands since middle of nineteenth century. In 1854,USA even signed a treaty with the native Government to annex the islands, but in spite of that, no action was taken to annex them.
There were internal feuds among the chiefs and in 1887, King Kalakaua accepted a form of government which involved control by the white settlers. In 1892, the native party reasserted itself and effected a coup d’etat. It was followed by a counter-revolutionary movement and a European Government was set up once again. A treaty of annexation was signed at Washington with the representatives of the Provisional Government and sent to the Senate for approval. However, it was withdrawn by the President later on.
In July 1898, the Sandwich Islands were finally annexed to the U.S.A. In 1909, they were constituted as a territory of Hawaii.
Germany showed a lot of interest and activity in the Pacific in last quarter of the nineteenth century. In December 1885, friction arose between the natives of Samoa and the German administrators.
In January 1886, Mr. Bayard, Secretary of State at Washington, instructed the American Minister at Berlin “to express the expectation that nothing would be done to impair the rights of the United States under the existing treaty.” The reply was in friendly terms and a conference was held in which Turkey, USA and the Great Britain participated.
In July 1886, Germany suddenly declared war on the reigning King of Samoa, deposed and deported him and set up her own nominee with a German commissioner as his adviser.
In September 1888, the natives revolted against the German protege and successfully put another person on the throne of Samoa. To counter the situation, the Germans sent a force which was ambushed by the native forces and had to suffer heavy losses. The Germans claimed and protested that the ambushing force was led by an American citizen and that led to unhappy relations between Germany and the USA.
However, German Chancellor Bismarck was anxious to maintain peace and another conference was held at Berlin in 1889. The result was that the Samoa Islands was placed under the joint control of Great Britain, Germany and the United States. As the joint control did not work satisfactorily, the Samoa Islands were divided between Germany and the US. Great Britain got her compensation somewhere else.
These foreign acquisitions were against the long held republican beliefs of the USA and therefore there were voices who opposed all these moves of acquisition of foreign territories and American imperialism. On the other hand, the supporters of imperialism in America 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.
The views of Alfred Thayer Mahan, a Navy captain and scholar, also proved influential. His numerous writings on the importance of sea power to a nation’s place in the world persuaded many to “look outward.”
Among Mahan’s most important disciples was Theodore Roosevelt, the future American President, who was serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the outbreak of the Spanish-American war.
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. Puerto Rico, expansionists also claimed, was essential for the “fortification” of the proposed canal across the isthmus of Central America. Imperialists also argued that acquisition of colonial territories were necessary to keep them from coming under the control of potentially hostile rival powers, and thus would protect American security while advancing American interests.
Voices opposing American imperialism were also strong and they also put forward a strong case for why USA should not acquire these territories. These opponents of imperialism saw much danger in the extension of American power beyond the seas. According to them, a great deal of work lay ahead in USA itself and country should invest its resources in improving living conditions and raising the political intelligence among Americans rather than extending American rule over half-civilized people who are difficult to assimilate.
The American anti-imperialist League, founded in 1898, soon gained impressive support. The anti-imperialists also pointed out that the United States had never before acquired such territories which could not be Americanized, and eventually admitted as a state on equal standing. It was highlighted that the Puerto Rico and the Philippines were remote and densely populated by peoples of alien race and language. Finally, anti-imperialists argued, by meddling in the Far East, the United States could not consistently forbid other powers from doing the same-as the United States had long insisted through the Monroe Doctrine.