Over the past year I have posted several things relating to American foreign policy; these have focused on the 20th Century, including President Truman’s foreign policy, the reasons behind escalation in Vietnam, and the methods that President Nixon employed in attempting to end the Vietnam War. However, so far I have avoided any commentary on the rise of American imperialism during the 19th Century; which, in itself, is rather odd, considering that I teach the modules ‘The Dawning of America’ and ‘The Reluctant Handover’ (focusing on the imperial might of Britain and America) as part of the History with English foundation degree at South Devon University Centre.

The opening weeks of ‘The Reluctant Handover’ module concentrates on the rise of America’s international power, outlining their rise from regional to international power. The steps of this can be seen throughout the 19th Century with their constant expansion on the American continent, forever moving the frontier westward. Such a movement finds its expression in the term ‘Manifest Destiny’, with the journalist John L. O’Sullivan coining the term in 1845:

And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.

0america destiny
Manifest Destiny

This expansion pushed the United States of America from a regional power nestled against the eastern seaboard to become a continental behemoth. This included expansion against native American tribes, against the Spanish in the south, against the Mexicans in the 1840s (providing vast domains, including California in the west), as well as the sale by France of the Louisiana Purchase. By the end of the 19th Century it was bursting at the seems, having grown industrially, economically, and militarily, casting its eyes at other domains and regions of the world.

0map expansion
Westward expansion: 1800s

By the 1890s this expansion continued away from the American continent itself: in 1898 Hawaii was officially annexed, and more importantly, the Spanish-American War took place. The ailing Spanish empire was no match for the might of the USA, with the brief war concluding with the ceding of vast territories, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. At the turn of the 20th Century the United States of America was set on a course of imperial expansion, almost destined to become a significant player in world events. This continued with Teddy Roosevelt’s more aggressive presidency of the early 1900s, with the so-called ‘Big Stick’ diplomacy exerting influence with the Panama Canal and the construction of the Great White Fleet.

However, the question must be asked: was this imperial future always part of America’s destiny? Some historians – including Brogan – believe that the events of 1898 marked a ‘turning point’ in the USA’s history, when the country became an imperial power at distinct odds with its past. Throughout its formation, the United States had attempted to steer an isolationist and non-interventionist course in the choppy seas of international foreign policy. Such a mantra can be traced back to President Washington’s farewell address from 1796:

Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence therefore it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships, or enmities. Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.

0george washington
President George Washington

Washington’s warning was severely tested in the immediate aftermath, particularly in the context of the Napoleonic Wars; both Britain and France attempted to coax America into the conflict as an ally, and ultimately it led to the War of 1812 against Britain. However, this isolationist strand was strong in American politics, with John Quincy Adams stating in 1821 that the country should not go ‘abroad, in search of monsters to destroy’. Although the 1823 Monroe Doctrine is often hailed as America’s first big diplomatic statement, it was in essence a defensive, reactive message to the European powers: yes, keep out of the Americas, but feel free to retain your old possessions. Therefore, in this manner, we could agree with Brogan about 1898 being a ‘turning point’ in which the USA became more interventionist and aggressive in world affairs.

However, there is an intriguing counter-argument to this notion of a ‘turning point’. Rather than American developing this imperial urge late on in the 19th Century, it was actually always present and is embedded in America’s DNA. For example, America had a long history of acting as an imperial power; as noted above, it removed native Americans from their land, defeated the Mexicans in war in the 1840s, and therefore did what imperial powers generally tend to do. But, for various reasons, this has not been fully picked up and realised by later generations.

0noam chomsky
Noam Chomsky: Salt Water Fallacy

Noam Chomsky highlights this blinkered approach to American history by noting the term ‘salt water fallacy’. Imperialism is generally perceived to be conducted whenever a country crosses a sea to take possession of land; a classic example of this would be Spain taking charge of land in the New World, or of Britain taking Australia. However, as Chomsky states, if the Mississippi was as wide as the Irish Sea, we would notice America’s aggression against the natives for what it actually was: imperial expansion. Therefore, there was no turning point in 1898, for America’s imperialism had been happening for decades prior. Chomsky develops this line of argument further and states that America was founded on the imperial instinct and that therefore there is no turning point or aberration in American history. For example, the first English colonies in North America (Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620) did not simply remain mere, small trading outposts. They expanded and did so by plundering land owned by others.

So, to go back to the title of this post – ‘The Rise of American Imperialism’ – perhaps this is erroneous. Chomsky would argue that there was no rise in the sense of a new idea that took hold of the USA; rather, the rise is in the act and scale of expansion itself. Perhaps here we find synthesis with Brogan’s ‘turning point’ argument and Chomsky’s own thesis: the turning point was merely one in which America transformed from a regional to a global power.

I look forward to covering the next few weeks of the semester with the class, particularly in unpicking the growth of American power in the 20th Century (in the world wars and its economic and cultural imperialism). Hopefully I will get a chance to return to these debates in future posts.