Few nations' history is as glorious, and glorified, as the United States'. Britain ranks among those, but the U.S., in both perception and reality, has outdone its parent nation. It can claim the title of first true democracy, giving both men and women, blacks and whites, the right to vote. It can claim the defeat of history's most notable empire, the British, and a 200-year growth that made it the world's most powerful nation ever, with many times the potential to destroy civilization and intelligent life itself. Having noted these points, however, we find that an American trait in recognizing history is to celebrate the positive times and gloss over the darker periods. Almost as though the incredible power America wields today had been preordained or handed down by some miracle of sorts, many Americans do still perceive their imperialist past as something worth ignoring, even going so far as to say that America never was an imperialist nation. The truth, as we will see, is that America always was imperialist, though unlike Britain, France, or Germany, it needed little overseas territory, as it could have its colonies in the expanses of its western hinterland.
The term Imperialism, nonetheless, is generally used to refer to the period of 1880 to 1918, during which three decades the industrialized nations, with few exceptions, sought out new grounds to occupy, quickly filling the maps with their flags, establishing their control over African and Asian countries in order to gain the most advantageous position in their dealings with other powers.
"Imperialism” is here referred to not only in this sense, but in a general way in an attempt to describe the expansion of territorial and economic control by industrialized nations over non-industrialized nations or lands. This may not be terminologically correct, but it honors the root of the word "Imperialism” and its implications: the construction of more than a nation-state, that of an Empire. Given the possibility of confusion, however, the American expansion prior to the period of Imperialism will be given a lower-case "i”, so as to distinguish the two.
In trying to keep the size of this essay small, or better, compact, it will not deal with the various American schemes to take Latin American, Caribbean or Canadian lands; nor with African adventures. It will focus on the Pacific and directly relevant items, such as the Panama Canal.
Roots of "Manifest Destiny"
Having established that no history exists in a vacuum, we should venture to explore the origins of what has become the primary term to describe, and sometimes to justify, American expansionism. That phrase is "Manifest Destiny”, first coined in the 1840s in print, but possibly dating from much before then.
Given a reasonable approach, it is not very difficult to see how this theme came about. It literally arrived with the first white men, the Puritans who established their colonies along the shores of New England. Their profound belief in being the chosen people and having none of the problems of the Old World led to their expectation in becoming the "renovator of the world”, leading other peoples down their path as well.
As it was, all the details of American expansion had extended colonial and economic gains, beyond the mere mundane enlargement of territory. Going west, the Americans expected bases for trade with the Far East on the West Coast; when conflict with Great Britain was accepted over the Oregon Territory, the trade opportunities were foremost in American minds.
Even without expansion, American desires to remain the sole strong power in its western hemisphere stood out clearly; from the Continental Congress, a misnomer of sorts for the thirteen sea-front colonies, to the Monroe Doctrine, American realization for the United States' role in the world had been one of hemispherical supremacy. It appeared all the more natural the more one thought about it: had not the centers of global empires wandered west through the ages? Had not Athens given way to Rome, and Rome to London? Washington could easily be perceived as the next step, and if so, then no doubt it would be the final.
The Monroe Doctrine's demand for European non-involvement in the affairs of the American continents and its evolvement from a measure designed for specific incidents just occurring to a quasi-legal foundation for all United States hemispheric policy showed that the still-young nation made the bid to show its potential. The Monroe Doctrine and the more esoteric beliefs cited above merged in the 1840s to create "Manifest Destiny”, a splendid combination of economic opportunity and moral obligation, the former to be the forerunner of the latter, but the moral part being the final destination.
The Goals of American Imperialism
The untransacted destiny of the American people to subdue the continent – to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean – to teach old nations new civilization – to confirm the destiny of the human race – to shed a new and resplendent glory on mankind.
Words like these characterize the American ideals of Manifest Destiny, guiding the spirits of American politicians in their quest to come to grips with the conflicting requirements of modern foreign policy, including trade issues, and the dogmatic suggestions left by the Founding Fathers, warning of entangling alliances.
In a way, American imperialism, as it developed in the 1860s, was "isolated” – it touched upon the affairs of the countries it was aimed at, minor countries, but it had no business in the affairs of the Great Powers, to which the United States had closed but which it had not yet reached.
The Monroe Doctrine gave the necessary protection to American aggrandizement in the Americas, and the future markets of China, though bitterly contested, were not yet as major a concern to the United States as to make a commitment beyond mere trade.
That an imperialistic American foreign policy did not materialize until after the Civil War may surprise, and in fact, what changed in the years after 1865 was not so much the mental appreciation of the concept of aggressiveness (it may be noted that there were numerous plans for the annexation of Canada even outside of the War of 1812), but the decision that it was senseless to remain a bystander to international affairs.
Up to the Civil War, America's continental empire had taken shape, the Frontier had reached the Pacific Ocean, and the process of consolidation was beginning. A strong feeling of nationalism (which the war, quite unlike it was intended, fostered) was beginning to be felt, and with it came a sense of expansion, and more importantly, a legitimization for such expansion.
One of the fathers of such extension of American control, within an "Informal Empire”, was William H. Seward, Abraham Lincoln's and Andrew Johnson's Secretary of State, and a dedicated imperialist, at least within the American hemisphere. Supporter of transcontinental railways and telegraphs, among his ideas lay the concept of Mexico City as the seat of a future American empire, and the perception that Canada was already "half annexed” – and in close relation to England's John Hawkins, he saw that, "The Commerce of the World ... is the Empire of the World”. And adding to that, he realized that command of the seas, especially of the Pacific, would guarantee the control of the world's commerce.
Having established that leading figures in the government were part of the growing movement towards overseas empires, we need to discover that structural changes were having a grave impact on the perceived importance of foreign relations in the post-Civil War period. The North, untouched by the war but booming from the industrialization and increase in production that the war produced, relatively unhindered by the costs of Reconstruction in the South, was already producing a surplus by the end of 1865. And with the incredible revolution in communications, both rail and river based, the entire United States soon became a hothouse of industrial growth.
Alas, with the increased production, an immense increase in the surplus produced went hand-in-hand; and fears came up swiftly of the "bogey of the surplus”, that is, a decay in industrial capacity induced by the reducing prices of a market filled to the top with goods. Seeking out new markets, then, was a natural reaction to the situation, even though the verdict of history would suggest that the need was not so great as it was thought to be.
Imperialism in American Policy 1865 – 1898
As logical the argument appeared to the supporters of Manifest Destiny, as difficult was it to make the ideas reality. Under Secretary of State Seward, American expansion was aimed at larger goals, too large to be realized in one man's lifetime, much less tenure in office. Seward prepared his nation for the role he perceived for it by purchasing Alaska from the Russians in 1867 and making steps towards expansion into the Pacific, such as annexing Midway Island, westernmost atoll of the Hawaiian Chain.
In the light of Seward's westward expansion across the Pacific must be seen the American position towards two of the more prominent Pacific island groups, the Hawaiian and Samoan Islands.
Although the Johnson government did not proceed with the enlargement of American control of the Pacific, the Grant administration found itself confronted with a dilemma. Much as it wished to possess harbors and bases in the Pacific, the Senate was fundamentally opposed to such action. A treaty giving the United States full rights to Pago Pago Bay on Samoa was voted down twice by the Senate, much to Grant's chagrin. At the same time, a U.S. commission explored the usefulness of Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands.
Still, American interest in the Samoans had triggered the British into action. As a precautionary measure, they declared Fiji a crown colony. With the growing tensions between the colonial powers in mind, and mindful too of the possibility that too much time might be wasted, Congress finally granted the treaty giving the Americans Pago Pago for "good services” to the Samoans.
Samoa, nonetheless, could never be the stating point for American interests in Asia; too remote was its location from China, and too contested were the islands by other nations, notably Britain and Germany. And while the three powers quarreled over Samoa, for America, a much closer target for expansion seemed promising.
Hawaii, or the Sandwich Islands, as it was known for most of the 19th century, lay astride the seaways from California to China, was not controlled by any foreign power, and had been incorporated into the American sphere of influence ever since the concept of a sphere of influence had been part of American policy.
In 1820, the King of Hawaii signed a treaty of friendship with President John Quincy Adams; and American investments and settlements, profiting from the agricultural opportunities on the islands, soon created a small, unofficial American colony in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
American desires to control the islands grew with the decades, finally culminating in 1854, when Secretary of State Marcy offered the Hawaiian Islands a treaty of annexation. The local U.S. representative, however, managed to offer more to the Hawaiians than Marcy could; his design for a treaty was rejected. With this failure, and the following period of domestic problems, American attention was drawn from Hawaii until after the Civil War. Even then, however, attempts to bind Hawaii to the United States economically failed.
In 1870, a new U.S. government under U.S. Grant renewed its interest in Hawaii, exploring the uses of Pearl Harbor on Oahu and seeking new trade treaties with the kingdom. Economical problems made the Hawaiians agree to a treaty of trade; in 1875, it was signed, giving the United States exclusive rights to Hawaiian sugar.
The treaty was concluded for a period of seven years, which did not exactly solve the problem, rather, delayed its solution. The debates that erupted in 1872 both in Congress and around it did not serve to once and for all decide the problem. Under Presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur, no solution was found, the trade treaty not renewed.
The Democrat administration of President Grover Cleveland renewed the government's attempts to secure for itself control over Hawaii by trade ties. Even the Senate's demand for control over Pearl Harbor, something that the anti-colonial Cleveland did not at all desire, was in the end no hindrance to the conclusion of a renewed trade treaty that effectively tied the Hawaiians to the United States save for revolution or war.
Revolution in fact seemed a possible threat to American control over the islands. Though the rich U.S. planters were the most influential social group on Hawaii, the working classes, especially the Hawaiians, were growing increasingly restless with U.S. influences in their country. So little control did the Americans leave in the hands of the nominally governing monarchy that they could, in 1887, establish a parliamentary body and tie the monarchy to a constitution that granted much support to the upper class whites.
In 1889, a rebellion
against this influence was beaten down by U.S. troops from a Navy cruiser.
With the coming of the Harrison administration, American policy towards Hawaii grew much more distinctly expansionist – imperialist, even – and local Hawaiian economic troubles only increased the desire of middle-class Americans in Hawaii to be annexed by their mother country.
However, Harrison's administration eventually proved unable to make Hawaii a part of the United States. Before the treaty of annexation that Harrison laid before the Senate could be ratified, the second Cleveland Administration took office, withdrawing the annexation treaty from consideration and replacing it with the traditional trade treaties.
Thus the situation might have remained, had it not been for that violent end of strictly economic imperialism in the Spanish-American War.