by Robert W. Cherny


The years between the end of the Civil War, in 1865, and the end of the century witnessed rapid and far-reaching change in the economic and social life of the United States. During those years, the nation was transformed from rural and agricultural to urban and industrial. Manufacturing developed at a rapid pace and on a dramatic scale. The number of miles of railroad tracks increased more than 600 percent, giving the US a nationwide transportation network; the new railroads also integrated the West into the national economy and accelerated that region’s economic development. Cities burgeoned as thousands of people moved from rural areas and many more thousands poured in from around the world, especially Europe, attracted by the promise (though not always the reality) of economic opportunity. By 1900, the United States had emerged as the most vigorous economy in the world—it was the world’s largest producer of steel, petroleum products, and food.

Despite these rapid changes in the social and economic life of the nation, its domestic politics changed very slowly, and its relations with the rest of the world remained minimal. During most of those years, the United States was focusing on its internal expansion and took only a small role in world affairs. Then, in 1898–1900, the US engaged in a brief but decisive war with Spain, acquired island territories stretching nearly halfway around the world, and took part in a military action in China—announcing to all that the United States was now a major world power. Though the change seemed to come almost overnight, the origins of that change began well before.

Early Endeavors, 1865–1885

Though most Americans paid little attention to foreign affairs until the late 1890s, there were some throughout the years after the Civil War who hoped for a greater role for the United States outside its borders. William H. Seward, Secretary of State during and after the Civil War (1861–1869), believed the US was destined to expand across the North American continent. When, in 1866, Tsar Alexander II of Russia offered to sell Russian holdings in North America, Seward acted quickly. In 1867, for slightly over $7 million, Alaska was in US hands. The Alaska treaty, unlike previous treaties, carried no promise of eventual statehood, a step that foreshadowed later patterns of acquisition.

Seward also paid close attention to events on the southern border of the United States. In 1861, as the United States plunged into civil war, France, Spain, and Britain sent troops into Mexico. Spain and Britain soon withdrew, but French troops remained. With support from French troops, Archduke Maximilian of Austria became emperor of Mexico. Benito Juarez, the elected president, led the resistance. Involved in its own civil war, the US government could do little more than recognize Juarez as the legitimate head of state. When the Civil War ended, however, Seward demanded withdrawal of the French troops, and the Army moved 50,000 battle-hardened troops near the border. The French troops left Mexico, Juarez returned to power, and Seward’s actions bolstered respect for the U.S. in Europe.

Some Americans had long regarded the Caribbean and Central America as potential areas for expansion. The Ostend Manifesto of 1854 had proposed acquiring Cuba. Another vision was a canal through Central America to shorten the coast-to-coast shipping route around South America. After the Civil War, both the Caribbean and the Pacific attracted attention as sites where the Navy might need bases. In 1867, seeking naval bases, Seward negotiated treaties to buy part of the Danish West Indies and to secure a base site in Santo Domingo, but both efforts failed to win the approval of the Senate.

In 1870, with Ulysses Grant in the White House, the dictator of Santo Domingo offered either to annex his entire country to the United States or to lease a major bay for a naval base. Grant opted for a treaty of annexation, but approval required support of two-thirds of the Senate. The treaty failed by a vote of 28 to 28.

Americans also had long-standing commercial interests in eastern Asia. Trading with China dated to 1784, and American missionaries began to preach there in 1830. Though they gained few converts, their lectures back home stimulated public interest in eastern Asia. At the same time, some Americans began to dream of selling American manufactured goods in east Asia, especially China. Japan and Korea had long refused to engage in trade, as a way of deflecting Western influences and power rivalries. In 1854, however, an American naval force convinced the Japanese government to open its ports to foreign trade, beginning the process of modernization that led to Japan’s emergence as a major power. A similar naval action opened Korea to trade in 1882.

Redefining the American Role in World Affairs, 1885–1898

Despite such efforts to expand America’s role in world affairs, in fact little changed during the twenty years or so after the Civil War. During the late 1880s and early 1890s, however, America’s involvement in world affairs did begin to change. One element revolved around the US Navy and the construction of modern ships capable of traveling long distances. Another related to the emergence and acceptance of new concepts of America’s global status.

After the Civil War, most federal decision-makers defined the role of the Navy as protecting American coasts, and Congress spent little on it. Finally, in the mid-1880s, under President Chester Alan Arthur, Congress authorized construction of a few modern ships. Major changes in naval thinking began about the same time, especially through the efforts of Alfred Thayer Mahan, president of the Naval War College. Through lectures and publications, Mahan advocated a large, modern navy centered on steel battleships, capable of carrying American power to distant seas. He also stressed the need for a canal through Central America and naval bases at key points, especially in the Pacific. In 1889, under President Benjamin Harrison, Congress approved expenditures to modernize and significantly expand the Navy.

Other Americans also began, in Mahan’s phrase, to “look outward.” Advocacy came from many sources, including Protestant ministers, scholars, business figures, and politicians. Though each had their own ideas and goals, the outcome was a change in the way many Americans, and especially American policy makers, viewed the nation’s role in world affairs. Josiah Strong, for example, offered the perspective of a Protestant minister and missionary. His book Our Country (1885) argued that expansion of American Protestant ideals to the world constituted a Christian duty. “The world is to be Christianized and civilized,” Strong predicted, adding that “commerce follows the missionary.”

By the early 1890s, others also looked abroad for commercial reasons. A major depression struck the United States in 1893, resulting in many factories closing their doors and laying off their employees. Unemployed workers, for the first time ever, marched on Washington, demanding jobs. The specter of mass unemployment and the accompanying social unrest caused some political leaders consider the importance of maintaining or increasing access to foreign markets for American manufactured goods as a way to keep American industry operating and thereby reduce unemployment and labor strife.

By the 1880s, popular books claimed that Anglo-Saxons—the people of England and their descendants elsewhere in the world—had demonstrated a unique capacity for civilization and had a duty to enlighten and uplift other peoples. Rudyard Kipling, an English poet, expressed these views when he urged the United States to “take up the white man’s burden,” a phrase that came to describe a self-imposed obligation to go into distant lands, bring the supposed blessings of Anglo-Saxon civilization to their peoples, Christianize them, and sell them manufactured goods. Today historians understand Anglo-Saxonism and the “white man’s burden” as imbued with racism. Such views assumed that some people, by virtue of race, possessed a superior capability for self-government and cultural accomplishment. This thinking elevated only one cultural pattern as “civilization,” dismissing others as inferior and ignoring their cultural accomplishments.

Mahan argued that the Pacific Ocean would have great strategic significance in the twentieth century and such views coincided with growing trade between eastern Asia and the United States to fuel Americans’ interest in the Pacific, especially the independent kingdom of Hawai’i. As early as 1842, President John Tyler announced that the United States would not allow the islands to pass under the control of another power. A treaty in 1875 gave Hawaiian sugar free access to the United States, producing rapid growth of the Hawaiian sugar industry and tying the economies of the two nations closely together. In the process, haoles (non-Hawaiians) gained significant economic power and political influence. On January 17, 1893, a group of haole plotters proclaimed a republic and announced they would seek annexation by the United States. John L. Stevens, the US minister to Hawaiʻi, ordered the landing of 150 US Marines, prompting Queen Liliʻuokalani to surrender, as she put it, “to the superior force of the United States.” Stevens recognized the new republic, declared it a protectorate of the United States, and raised the American flag.

The Harrison administration disavowed Stevens’s actions, but also negotiated a treaty of annexation with the new Hawaiian republic and sent it to the Senate for ratification shortly before Grover Cleveland became president. Cleveland withdrew the annexation treaty to study it and learned of the crucial role of US Marines in the success of the revolution. Disturbed by this improper use of American military force, Cleveland scrapped the treaty of annexation, because he was convinced that it did not represent the wishes of the Hawaiian people.

In 1895 and 1896, however, Cleveland took the nation to the edge of war over a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana. In July 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney cited the Monroe Doctrine and demanded that Britain submit the dispute to arbitration. When Britain refused, Cleveland asked Congress for authority to determine the boundary and enforce it. Given this assertion of American power, and increasingly concerned about the rising power of Germany, the British government agreed to arbitration. Cleveland’s action may have had some effect in persuading European imperial powers that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits in the ongoing scramble for colonies.

Cuba presented a very different situation for Cleveland. Cuba and Puerto Rico were all that remained of the Spanish empire in the Western Hemisphere. Cubans had repeatedly rebelled against Spain, and in 1894 a new insurrection erupted seeking Cuba libre (“free Cuba”). Sympathizers in the United States sent assistance to the insurgents. In response to guerrilla warfare by the rebels, the Spanish commander, General Valeriano Weyler, established a reconcentration policy—the civilian population was ordered into fortified towns or camps and anyone outside these areas was considered an insurgent, subject to military action. Disease and starvation swept through the crowded camps, killing many Cubans.

American newspapers—especially Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—denounced Spanish atrocities, sometimes exaggerating and sensationalizing their stories (a practice called yellow journalism). Some Americans began clamoring to rescue the Cubans. Cleveland, however, sought to avoid American involvement. When some members of Congress pushed Cleveland to seek Cuban independence, he only urged Spain to grant concessions to the insurgents. Just as he had earlier opposed annexation of Hawaiʻi, Cleveland now resisted intervention in Cuba, fearing it might lead to annexation regardless of the will of the Cuban people.

War and Empire, 1897–1900

There the Cuban question stood when William McKinley became president in March 1897. At first, he moved cautiously, stepping up diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Cubans. In response, Spain softened its reconcentration policy and offered limited self-government but not independence.

Relations between the two countries worsened significantly in February 1898. First Cuban insurgents pilfered a letter from Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, the Spanish minister to the United States, and gave it to the New York Journal. In the letter, Dupuy de Lôme belittled President McKinley and hinted that the Spanish commitment to reform in Cuba was not serious. The letter contributed significantly to a growing antipathy toward Spain among many Americans. A few days later, on February 15, an explosion ripped open the USS Maine, anchored in Havana Harbor. The battleship quickly sank, killing more than 260 Americans. Though lacking any evidence, the yellow press immediately accused Spain. Years later, an investigation concluded that the blast probably resulted from an accidental fire within the ship. Regardless of the cause, advocates for intervention now rallied with the cry: “Remember the Maine!”

On March 17, Senator Redfield Proctor of Vermont, a respected and thoughtful Republican, delivered a speech on the floor of the Senate, reporting on his recent trip to Cuba and confirming the extreme distress of many Cubans. Public opinion and opinion among Republican party leaders now swung even more strongly in the direction of intervention.

McKinley made a final effort at a diplomatic solution. In late March, he sent a message to the Spanish government demanding an immediate end to the fighting, an end to reconcentration, and measures to relieve the suffering. He also specified that he would serve as mediator between the insurgents and the Spanish government, and that Cuban independence could result from such mediation. The Spanish government replied by offering reforms, an end to reconcentration, and an armistice if the insurgents requested one, but said nothing about mediation or independence.

On April 11, McKinley asked Congress for authority to act. Congress approved four resolutions on April 19: (1) Cuba was and should be independent, (2) Spain should withdraw “at once,” (3) the president was authorized to use force to accomplish Spanish withdrawal, and (4) the United States would not annex the island. The first three resolutions amounted to a declaration of war. The fourth is usually called the Teller Amendment for its sponsor, Senator Henry M. Teller, a Silver Republican from Colorado. The US Navy launched a blockade of Cuba on April 21. Spain declared war two days later.

Thus the United States went to war with Spain. Most Americans wholeheartedly approved a war to relieve the suffering Cubans and establish a Cuban republic. Some, however, distrusted the McKinley administration’s motives. The Teller Amendment reflected suspicions that the administration might make Cuba an American possession. And, in fact, there were those, including some in the administration, who saw the war with Spain as an opportunity to seize territory and acquire an American colonial empire.

Americans were surprised to read in their morning newspapers that the first engagement in the war occurred in the Philippine Islands—nearly halfway around the world from Cuba. The Philippines had been a Spanish colony for three hundred years, but had rebelled repeatedly, most recently in 1896. Some Americans understood the islands’ strategic location with regard to eastern Asia—including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. In February 1898, six weeks before McKinley’s war message to Congress, Roosevelt drew upon planning exercises by the Naval War College when he cabled George Dewey, the American naval commander in the Pacific, that Dewey should crush the Spanish fleet at Manila if war broke out. At sunrise on Sunday, May 1, Dewey’s squadron did exactly that—they steamed into the harbor at Manila and quickly destroyed or captured the Spanish fleet. On June 20, a naval taskforce took possession of Guam, another Pacific possession of Spain. These easy victories immediately raised the prospect of a permanent American presence in the western Pacific, and that, in turn, revived interest in the Hawaiian Islands as a potential base halfway to the Philippines. The McKinley administration had been committed to annexation of Hawai’i, but had not been able to muster the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate on a treaty of annexation. The administration now proposed to annex the islands through a joint resolution of Congress, which took only a simple majority and was accomplished on July 7.

Dewey’s victory clearly demonstrated American naval superiority, but the state of the American Army was less imposing. The Spanish army in Cuba outnumbered the entire American Army by five to one and had years of experience on the island. Volunteers flocked to enlist. The Army was poorly prepared to train and supply them, but managed to land troops in Cuba two months later. Inexperienced, poorly equipped, and unfamiliar with the terrain, the American forces set out to capture the port of Santiago, where the Spanish fleet had taken refuge.

Theodore Roosevelt had resigned as assistant secretary of the navy to organize a volunteer cavalry unit known as the Rough Riders. At Kettle Hill, he led a successful charge of Rough Riders and regular Army units, including parts of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, made up of African Americans. All but Roosevelt were on foot because their horses had not yet arrived. Driving the Spanish from Kettle Hill cleared a serious impediment to the assault on nearby San Juan Heights and San Juan Hill, overlooking Santiago. Journalists loved Roosevelt—and newspapers all over the country declared him the hero of the Battle of San Juan Hill.

Once American troops gained control of the high ground around Santiago harbor, the Spanish fleet tried to escape. The American fleet met them and duplicated Dewey’s rout at Manila—every Spanish ship was sunk or run aground. Their fleet destroyed, surrounded by American troops, the Spanish in Santiago surrendered on July 17. A week later American forces occupied Puerto Rico. Spanish land forces in the Philippines surrendered when the first American troops arrived in mid-August. The war was over in only sixteen weeks—John Hay, the US ambassador to Great Britain, gleefully called it a “splendid little war.”

On August 12, the United States and Spain agreed to stop fighting and hold a peace conference in Paris. The major question for the conference centered on the Philippines. Finley Peter Dunne, a popular humorist, parodied the national debate in a discussion between his fictional characters, Mr. Dooley (a Chicago saloonkeeper) and a customer named Hennessy. Hennessy insists that McKinley should take the islands. Dooley retorts that “it’s not more than two months since you learned whether they were islands or canned goods,” then confesses his own indecision: “I can’t annex them because I don’t know where they are. I can’t let go of them because someone else will take them. . . . It would break my heart to think of giving people I’ve never seen or heard tell of back to other people I don’t know. . . . I don’t know what to do about the Philippines. And I’m all alone in the world. Everybody else has made up his mind.”[1]

McKinley voiced almost as many doubts as Mr. Dooley. At first, he seemed to favor only a naval base, leaving Spain in control elsewhere. However, Spanish authority collapsed everywhere but Manila by mid-August as Filipino insurgents took charge throughout the islands. Other nations, including Japan and Germany, seemed likely to step in if the United States did not do so. McKinley and his advisers concluded that a secure naval base on Manila Bay would require control of the entire island group. No one seriously considered the Filipinos’ desire for independence.

McKinley and his advisors were well aware of the political and strategic importance of the Philippines for eastern Asia. To have a major naval base there would make the United States a full member of the balance of power in east Asia, able to negotiate on a basis of equality with such powers as Japan, Britain, Russia, and Germany over such regional questions as the future of China. McKinley invoked other reasons, however, when he explained his decision to a group of visiting Methodists. He repeatedly prayed for guidance on the Philippine question, he told them. Late one night, he said, it came to him that “there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.” In fact, most Filipinos had been Catholics for centuries, but no one ever expressed more clearly the concept of the “white man’s burden.”

Spain resisted giving up the Philippines, but McKinley would accept nothing else. By the Treaty of Paris, signed in December 1898, Spain surrendered its claim to Cuba, ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States, and sold the Philippines for $20 million. For the first time in American history, a treaty acquiring new territory failed to confer US citizenship on the residents. Nor did the treaty mention future statehood. (The same was true of the annexation of Hawai‘i.) Thus these acquisitions represented a new kind of expansion—the United States had become a colonial power.

The Treaty of Paris dismayed Democrats, Populists, and some conservative Republicans, sparking a public debate over acquisition of the Philippines in particular and imperialism in general. An anti-imperialist movement quickly formed, with William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, Grover Cleveland, Carl Schurz, and Mark Twain among its outspoken proponents. For the United States to deny self-government to the newly acquired territories, they claimed, threatened the very concept of democracy. “The Declaration of Independence,” warned Carnegie, “will make every Filipino a thoroughly dissatisfied subject.” Others voiced racist arguments, claiming that Filipinos were incapable of self-government and that the United States would be corrupted by ruling such people.

Those who defended acquisition of the Philippines echoed McKinley’s lofty pronouncements about America’s duty, and never used the terms imperialism or colonies to describe the new acquisitiions. Albert Beveridge, senator from Indiana, among others, cited economic benefits: “We are raising more than we can consume, making more than we can use. Therefore we must find new markets for our produce.” Such “new markets” were not limited to the new possessions. A strong naval and military presence in the Philippines would make the United States a leading power in eastern Asia, thereby supporting access for American business to markets in China.

Now the United States set about organizing its new possessions. The Teller Amendment required independence for Cuba, but the McKinley administration refused to recognize the insurgents as the legitimate government. Instead, the US Army took control and, among other charges, developed sanitation projects to reduce disease, especially yellow fever. After two years of Army rule, the McKinley administration permitted Cuban voters to hold a constitutional convention.

The convention met in 1900 and drafted a constitution modeled on that of the United States, but it did not define relations between Cuba and the United States. In response, the McKinley administration drafted, and Congress adopted, terms for Cuba to adopt before the Army would withdraw. An amendment to the Army Appropriations Act of 1901, sponsored by Senator Orville Platt, set the terms for withdrawal: (1) Cuba was not to make any agreement with a foreign power that impaired the island’s independence, (2) the United States could intervene in Cuba to preserve Cuban independence and maintain law and order, and (3) Cuba was to lease facilities to the United States for naval bases and coaling stations. Cubans reluctantly agreed, added an annex to their constitution, and signed a treaty with the United States incorporating the Platt conditions—and effectively making Cuba a protectorate of the United States.

The Teller Amendment applied only to Cuba. The Army governed Puerto Rico until 1900, when Congress approved the Foraker Act. That act made Puerto Ricans citizens of Puerto Rico but not citizens of the United States. Puerto Rican voters could elect a legislature, but final authority rested with a governor and council appointed by the president of the United States. In 1901, in the Insular Cases, the US Supreme Court confirmed the colonial status of Puerto Rico and, by implication, the other new possessions. The Court ruled that they were not equivalent to earlier territorial acquisitions and that their people did not possess the constitutional rights of citizens—though the McKinley administration avoided the term “colony,” there was no mistaking the reality that the new possessions were, in fact, colonies.

The Philippines presented a difficult problem. Between Dewey’s victory and arrival of the first American soldiers three months later, a Philippine independence movement led by Emilio Aguinaldo established a provisional government and took control everywhere but Manila. Aguinaldo and his government wanted independence. When the United States determined to keep the islands, the Filipinos resisted.

Suppressing what American authorities called the “Philippine insurrection” required three years (1899–1902), took the lives of 4,196 American soldiers, and perhaps 700,000 or more Filipinos (most through disease and other noncombat causes), and cost $400 million (twenty times the price of the islands). When some Filipinos resorted to guerrilla warfare, US troops adopted practices similar to those Spain had used in Cuba. Both sides committed atrocities, and anti-imperialists pointed to brutal behavior by American troops as proof that a colonial policy was corrupting American values. Resistance continued into mid-1902.

Congress finally set up a government for the Philippines similar to that of Puerto Rico. Filipinos became citizens of the Philippine Islands, but not of the United States. The president of the United States appointed the governor. Filipino voters elected one house in the two-house legislature, and the governor appointed the other. The governor or the US Congress could veto laws passed by the legislature. William Howard Taft, governor from 1901 to 1904, worked hard to develop support for American control, put through some reforms, and started to build schools, hospitals, and sanitary facilities. However, when the first elected legislature met, in 1907, more than half of its members favored independence.

Late in 1899, Britain, Germany, and the United States divided the Samoan islands between Germany and the United States. The new Pacific acquisitions of the United States—Hawaiʻi, the Philippines, Guam, and Samoa—all contained excellent sites for naval bases. Combined with the modern navy, these acquisitions greatly strengthened American ability to assert power throughout the region and protect Americans’ commercial access to eastern Asia. The United States now had the military and naval basis to claim full participation in the East Asian balance of power, and soon announced its intent to do so by calling upon all concerned powers to respect the “Open Door” in China.

After losing a war with Japan in 1894–1895, the Chinese government found itself unable to resist European nations’ demands for territory. Britain, Germany, Russia, and France all carved out exclusive spheres of influence—areas where they claimed special rights, usually a monopoly over trade, and sought to exclude other powers. The McKinley administration began to fear that China might be broken up into separate European colonies and that Americans would lose the opportunity to engage in trade. In 1899, with encouragement from British sources, Secretary of State John Hay circulated a letter to Germany, Russia, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, asking them to preserve Chinese sovereignty and not to discriminate against citizens of other nations engaged in commerce within their spheres. Hay’s objective was both to prevent the dismemberment of China and to maintain commercial access for American business throughout China. Although some replies were less than fully supportive, Hay nonetheless announced that all had agreed to his “Open Door” principles.

Soon after, in 1900, a Chinese secret society tried to expel all foreigners from China. Because the rebels used a clenched fist as their symbol, Westerners called them Boxers. The Boxers laid siege to the section of Beijing, the Chinese capital, that housed foreign legations. Hay feared that other powers would use the rebellion as a pretext for military intervention that would permanently divide China. To block such a move, the United States took full part in an international military expedition to rescue the besieged foreigners (including future president Herbert Hoover) and to crush the Boxer Rebellion. Thus, the United States not only asserted its right to full participation in the east Asian balance of power, but also demonstrated that it had the naval and military capability to back up its assertion.

The American Empire

After the acquisition of Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines in 1898, and of eastern Samoa in 1899, the United States sought few additional territorial acquisitions, the exceptions being the Panama Canal Zone, acquired in 1904, and the Danish West Indies, now called the Virgin Islands, in 1916. Nonetheless, the United States established hegemony in the Caribbean during the years immediately following the war with Spain, in part by its acquisition of Puerto Rico and a naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, and in part by creating protectorates over the new nations of Cuba and Panama and the older nations of Santo Domingo, Haiti, and Nicaragua. As protectorates, these nations remained ostensibly independent but were, in fact, closely limited in their relations with other nations and even in their internal policies. All, at various times, were occupied by US forces.

Making the Caribbean an “American lake” was, in significant part, a strategic move, motivated by the need to protect American control of the Panama Canal (constructed 1904–1914) against any European power that might seek a foothold in the Caribbean that could be used to attack the canal. American dominance in the region also promoted American investment there, investment sometimes encouraged by US authorities. The presence of significant American investments, in turn, encouraged the continuation of US dominance.

The hegemony established in the Caribbean in the years after 1898 was not attempted elsewhere, in part because there was no American interest elsewhere as commanding as the Panama Canal and in part because American naval and military power was too limited. Elsewhere in Latin America, the United States often took an interest but rarely attempted to intervene militarily in nations’ internal affairs. The major exception came in Mexico during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, but that intervention was unsuccessful, demonstrating the limits of American military power.

In east Asia, the United States continued to act as a part of the regional balance of power, seeking especially to limit the expansionary efforts of Japan and to continue to defend the territorial integrity of China as the surest means of permitting continued access by American business. In Europe, the United States generally followed previous patterns of maintaining diplomatic relations with all but avoiding any involvement in the complex and highly charged European balance of power. A minor exception came in 1906, when the administration of Theodore Roosevelt cited an old treaty to assert American rights to participate in a conference in Algeciras, Spain, to determine the future roles of France and Germany in Morocco. Roosevelt directed the US representative to mediate between France and Germany in such a way as to limit Germany’s efforts to expand. More generally, under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, the United States participated in efforts to promote arbitration or mediation of international disputes as an alternative to war. Following the Venezuelan boundary crisis, successive British governments, anxious over the rising naval and military power of Germany, sought to cultivate better relations with the United States, diplomatically removing causes for disagreement and removing most of their naval and military forces from North America and the Caribbean.

This pattern of increased involvement in world affairs, but without treaty commitments to support or defend other nations, has been called unilateral internationalism. That is, the United States was thoroughly involved in world affairs—t dominated the Caribbean, held possessions stretching halfway around the world, nurtured even more widespread commercial activities by its citizens, and participated fully in the east Asian balance of power. But that involvement was unilateral, that is, the United States did not ally itself with any other nation. That pattern persisted, with some modifications, through the 1920s and 1930s, giving way to a multilateral approach during World War II and the Cold War. The territorial acquisitions of 1867–1916 have developed in various ways. Alaska and Hawai‘i have become states. The Philipppines became an independent nation allied with the Unites States. The residents of Puerto Rico are US citizens, and its constitution describes its status as a commonwealth or “Estado Libre Asociado” (translated as Associated Free State); though it remains a dependency of the United States, Puerto Rico is self-governing, but, like American states, within the overall supremacy of US law. Control over the Canal Zone has been transferred to Panama. Guam, American Samoa, and the American Virgin Islands remain US possessions, and are listed by the United Nations among the sixteen non-self-governing territories remaining in the world.


[1] Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley in Peace and in War (Boston: Small, Maynard and Co., 1898), 43–47. “Irish” dialect removed.


Robert W. Cherny is a professor of history at San Francisco State University. His books include California Women and Politics: From the Gold Rush to the Great Depression (2011) with co-editors Mary Ann Irwin and Ann Marie Wilson; American Politics in the Gilded Age, 1868–1900 (1997); San Francisco, 1865–1932 (1986), with William Issel; and A Righteous Cause: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (1985, reprint 1994).

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