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1898: Turning Point in US Foreign Policy
19th Century Expansion
From the colonies on the Atlantic seaboard to the early States of the Republic, Americans had always been expanding. In the early 19th century Americans focused on the west. The concept of Manifest Destiny, the belief that we had a God given right, even obligation to expand, justified our actions as we expanded. In fact early on, Americans believed in continental expansion, that we would eventually take the entire continent including Canada and Mexico. Americans moved west as opportunity permitted and as the US acquired new lands through purchase with Louisiana or through war with Mexico.
Americans ventured beyond the borders of our continent however. In 1853 Admiral Matthew Perry (no relation to the actor that I know of) sailed to Japan to demand trade. The Japanese since 1602 had excluded outside trade with all Europeans except the Dutch. However the ruler of Japan, the shogun, was in a weakened position now and the US sought to take advantage. In order to “convince” the shogun to sign a trade agreement, Perry practiced cannon fire on the warehouses outside the port. The shogun soon agreed to terms. In 1867 we bought Alaska from Russia for 7.2 million dollars. We tried to annex Santo Domingo under President Grant, and American sugar businessmen essentially took over in Hawaii.
Imperialism: Everybody’s Doing It!
The late 19th century witnessed a flurry of activity from Europe as it appears they just realized there is only so much land on the planet. Under their economic theories, the only way to increase their wealth was to take as much land as possible. Colonies served a dual purpose. They provided cheap raw materials to the mother country that artisans or factories could use to create expensive manufactured products. They also then bought those manufactured products and served as a market for the mother country. Europeans had not ventured into the interior of Africa really before 1880, but explorers now came back with knowledge of the interior. With that knowledge, Europeans could more safely go in and dominate, which they did. They even held a conference in Berlin in 1884 to discuss the terms of dividing up Africa. As long as you told the others what you were doing and as long as no other “Christian”, i.e. European, nation had claimed it already, they could do whatever they wanted. Soon the map of Africa read “Belgian Congo”, “French West Africa”, and “British South Africa”. They did the same with the Pacific Islands. The British went so far as Antarctica, even though those in the expedition failed to return, the flag was planted and that’s what mattered.
Late the game were the United States and Japan. After the US destabilized the political structure in Japan, the regime changed in 1869. Japan adopted a much more Western outlook and send scholars abroad to study and bring back ideas. The Meji Restoration (Meji was the emperor), resulted in a much more western government wanting to pursue western ideas, like imperialism. The Japanese first attacked China, whom most in Europe would assume would easily defeat the smaller nation of Japan in 1894. However, by 1895, the Japanese were clearly victorious. They sought their own treaty with China on the same terms as the European nations had been forcing on China since 1842, and they got it. China was falling apart. The US, while only threatening to go to war with China, had gotten their own in 1856. It seemed as though all of the major nations of the day had gone out and taken colonies.
The Global Historical Significance of Darwinism
In the 19th century, the theory of Darwinism spread like wildfire. It evolved if you will. First people applied to biology, then they applied to society in an attempt to explain disparities between the rich and the poor. Then they applied it to the rise and fall of nations. At the end of the 1800s, leaders used Darwinism to explain why nations rise and fall. It was simply survival of the fittest. All of the fittest nations had colonies. The US would soon face a moral dilemma, it had started as a nation with the denouncement of colonies and told the world that imperialism was wrong. Now the US wanted to be a world power and all the world powers had colonies.
No one bought into Darwinism more than Teddy Roosevelt. He applied to his personal life in the way he actively worked to build his own body and to the way he saw the need for America to strengthen itself through the preservation and building of natural resources. He had risen to an executive branch position under the Secretary of the Navy in 1896 and would find himself president in 1901.
The Spanish-American War
The year 1898 marked a real turning point in American foreign policy. Cuba had seen its share of conflict since 1865. The last of Spain’s colonies, they fought for their own independence. However, in 1865 the US had just concluded a Civil War and did not find itself in a position to help. The conflict died down then. In 1895 it started back. This time American sugar businessmen owned property in Cuba. They built roads and warehouses and had a clear financial interest in what happened there. Newspaper men streamed into Cuba to report on the Spanish reprisal of the revolt and detailed each atrocity via telegraph back to the states. In a move to protect Americans there, the US sent one of our only battleships, the USS Maine. During one of the riots in Havana, a letter between two Spanish officials was discovered. This letter made fun of President McKinley, one of our most loved presidents. Newspaper men published the letter and Americans voiced their outrage. They could criticize the president, but not Spain. The news of the atrocities began to wear down empathetic Americans who wanted to do something. Then on Feburary 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in the harbor. The newspapers blamed the Spanish, even though we stored gunpowder in the same area as the furnace in 1898. The Secretary of the Navy was only secretary because he helped get McKinley elected and knew nothing of boats or gunpowder, look up “spoils system in the Gilded Age” for more information. In any case, 262 sailors, American soldiers, died that night and Americans wanted answers. Teddy Roosevelt took the opportunity the next day when word made it to Washington to order Admiral Dewey, stationed in Hong Kong, to sail to the Philippines to block the Spanish fleet from leaving and going to Cuba. Teddy had no such authority, however the Secretary of the Navy was out sick for the day and as his assistant, he took it upon himself to do what could be construed as an act of war. McKinley was furious, but Teddy wrote in his diary that night “The Sec. is away and I am having immense fun running the Navy.”
Teddy resigned his position and decided to lead a group of volunteers known as the Rough Riders to fight the Spanish in Cuba. In the process, Teddy became a national celebrity. Americans consumed the stories of the Rough Riders who fought in Cuba for Cuban independence. McKinley had tried, sort of, to work with the Spanish, who clearly did not want to go to war, to avoid a conflict. Even though the Spanish caved into most of the demands, they refused to let Cuba go. Therefore, we declared that Cuba should be free and attached the Teller Amendment to our declaration of war. The Amendment declared that the US was fighting because all people should be free and that we would not seek Cuba as a colony when this was all over.
In the meantime, Teddy and the Rough Riders fought with our military in April of 1898 after the declaration. We had to build the military pretty fast. Since we did not believe in standing armies, our military consisted of 28,000 men in total in 1895, the same year the Spanish since 50,000 troops to put down the rebellion. Teddy led his men and spoke to the press, allowing them in some cases to believe he and his men had done something when in fact another regiment had actually fought the battle, such as San Juan Hill. He and his men took Kettle Hill, next to San Juan Hill, but not nearly as hard a fight. As far as wars go, this one was short. In fact a congressman called it a Splendid Little War. It lasted from April to August and we lost just under 400 men to Spanish bullets. We lost about 5,000 to diseases though. In an effort to keep bugs off of the beds of sick soldiers, buckets of water were placed at the four posts, just perfect for mosquitos who carried deadly malaria.
The End of the War and Our New Identity/Dilemma
By August the Spanish were ready to sue for peace. The Spanish government was all but broke. They did not want this war. Now they had lost Cuba. The Philippines were their last colony and it had become a drain in the money it took to maintain control and govern it. Now they had an opportunity to let it go. Typically at the end of a war in this time period, the winner would get reparations. Reparations were legal payments that the winning country would get from the loser to pay for the cost of going to war. In many cases, winning countries inflated these numbers. Spain could not pay reparations so they had a deal to offer the US. That deal, was a fully functioning and running colony. The Spanish offered the US the Philippines in exchange for 20 million dollars. That got them out of the Philippines and reparations.
The US now had to decide what to do. Would they accept this colony? Would they go back on everything they had always stood for? The world was a much different place now, and nations had to be fit in order to survive? Would the acquisition of the Philippines become a necessity?
McKinley had to decide on these questions. It sparked controversy, massive controversy. Some argued that it went against the Declaration of Independence. Others argued it was no in the US Constitution and therefore not even legal. Still others argued that it would bring in an unwanted diverse population. Whole groups even argued that we had problems here to fix first. However, many also supported the move. Economists pointed out how it would immediately expand our economy. Teddy and others argued it would be good for national prestige, arguing that Darwinism applied to the rise and fall of nations. Some argued that it would improve American masculinity, including Teddy. He said American men just needed to fight every once in a while. Lastly, McKinley and others argued that the US would do some good in the Philippines. He went around giving speeches asking Americans what they wanted him to do. However, he phrased his questions in a way to convince people. Instead of asking “What do you want me to do?”, he asked, “Do you think the children of the Philippines would benefit from American food supplies?” No one was going to say children should starve. Richard Kipling wrote The White Man’s Burden during these discussions and frames in poetry the feelings of many in the nation. McKinley also pointed out that we did not ask for the Philippines, it had been offered to us.
The people of the Philippines did not ask for this either. They fought largely for our troops in Manila. Our successes there were largely their doing and they took the losses. They expected the US to leave. When the US failed to leave but began sending in more military personnel, they fought against us. The Filipino American War resulted in the deaths of 200,000 in the Philippines and stands as an atrocity committed by the US that very seldom is recognized.
After the War
McKinley’s death in 1901 by an assassin’s bullet ushered in Teddy Roosevelt as president. A man the Republican Party never wanted to hold any political power. They made him Vice President because of his immense popularity, but the vice president really had no power. Now all of that would change. Teddy wanted to do things. From 1901 and on the US became increasingly involved in Latin America. Teddy used the Monroe Doctrine from 1823 to justify his actions in Latin America. President Monroe had issued the statement to Europe in 1823 telling them not to become involved in the affairs in Latin America as countries like Mexico declared their independence. We were the protectors of Latin America. Now we became more than protectors. We sent people to Panama to tell the people there how awesome independence is and how they shouldn’t be under Columbia (who was refusing to let us build a canal). Teddy wrote to them saying “I’m not saying you should declare independence because that would wrong of me to do. However, if you should decide to do that, we would support you.” He’s saying, “I’m not saying, I’m just saying, you know what I’m saying?” Within an hour of learning of the declaration, the US officially recognized Panama as independent and began sending people to help. It doesn’t take long for Panama to have their independence and we immediately began construction of the canal. The Spanish-American War was just the start. We gained Puerto Rico and Guam as a result of the war. Then we went into Panama. Then we began involved in loan negotiations between Venezuela and European countries. There was the Platt Amendment and the Roosevelt Corollary which extended the Monroe Doctrine even further and was resented by most Latin American nations. We went from protector to directly and intimately involved in Latin America. A last point involves Asia. In 1900 an anti foreign rebellion in northern China, the Boxer Rebellion resulted in the deaths of Europeans there and Chinese Christians (Chinese too heavily influenced by foreigners according to the rebels). The US with a handful of other European nations sent in troops to put it down. It marks the first time in US history we sent troops to another country to put down an internal rebellion. The US had gone through quite a change in very short period of time.
The Perfect Storm
In the end, the best way to understand why the US changed in the way it did in terms of foreign policy, is to look at the entire context. We know a number of factors influence our foreign policy decisions including the loss of American life as a result of a conflict between nations, our economic state at the time, our ideals, what learn through the news about what was going on in other places, our ideas to defend self determination to at least an extent, and the opinions and ideas of our political leaders. The US in 1898 saw a perfect storm of factors that led us to annex the Philippines and take it as a colony. One, the global context of imperialism mixed with Darwinism convinced many, we were in an economic recession, a bad one, from 1894 through 1898 and the economic argument made sense to many, Americans were going abroad as missionaries so they felt a sense of mission with the people of the Philippines, and finally you had political leaders ready to do this. It helps to understand all of these factors.
Foreign Policy Then and Now: Discussion Question
The US went through a huge change and took on a new role in global affairs. While not the dominant world power they would become in the next century, they were emerging as a new leader. However, the path would not be an easy or smooth one. Our ideals came into direct conflict with our actions. One way in which to mitigate that involved attempted to merge the two. Yes, the US would take a colony but they would also attempt to improve it. Perhaps it was ordained in the same way Manifest Destiny was. There appeared to be lofty ideals mixed in with pragmatic and practical concerns and ways in which having a colony and becoming involved in Latin America would benefit the US financially. So here is something to think about and discuss. Do you feel the US was more motivated by the ideals or the economic benefits at the turn of the century? Do you believe the press still plays a role in our foreign policy decisions? Do you believe we still adhere to those ideals or have we completely moved away from them? Are we guided more by our economic needs than our missionary zeal?