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Tomorrow the World


Who can doubt that the United States is an imperial power? It is an informal one, to be sure, not colonial in the sense of using military forces and colonial administrators to run territory acquired by the imperial power but rather, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has observed, one “richly equipped with imperial paraphernalia: troops, ships, planes, bases, proconsuls, local collaborators, all spread wide around the luckless planet.”1

But there was a time when the President, in the person of Theodore Roosevelt, along with influential cabinet ministers and strategic thinkers, believed that the imperial vocation, in the overt, traditional sense, was now to be America’s. As the freshman senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in 1895,

[Americans] have a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion (Westward—as Washington taught!) unequalled by any people in the nineteenth century…. From the Rio Grande to the Arctic Ocean there should be but one flag and one country.

Warren Zimmermann, a former US ambassador to Yugoslavia during the administration of Bush senior and author of Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers, has written an engrossing and timely history of five men who embraced the imperialist ethic. In addition to Roosevelt and Cabot Lodge, they are John Hay, once Lincoln’s private secretary and later secretary of state under both McKinley and Roosevelt; Captain—later Admiral—Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval theorist who wrote The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, surely the most widely read work on naval strategy ever written; and Elihu Root, an accomplished lawyer who served as secretary of war under both McKinley and Roosevelt and as secretary of state under Roosevelt, and who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on international law.

America’s victory in the Spanish-American War, the centerpiece of Zimmermann’s book, was, in Roosevelt’s words, the “first great triumph in what will be a world movement.” For well over a generation before that “splendid little war,” as John Hay famously called it, the United States had acquired no foreign lands. What happened to the country to create a climate that let these early imperialists impose their views on such a cautious president as William McKinley?

With the end of the Civil War and with the Confederate states back in the Union, the United States was once again a continental country. But, as Zimmermann points out, it was not a continental nation in the governmental sense. Only ten of the thirty-six states lay west of the Mississippi. The western lands—except for Kansas, Texas, Nevada, California, and Oregon—were “territories,” not states.

Much of the energy that had earlier fueled expansionary energies from Jefferson to Polk in acquiring territory from France, Spain, and Mexico was now spent in the winning of the Far West.2 In the thirty-three years following Lincoln’s death, all the states (except for New Mexico and Arizona, which would join the union in 1912) were settled and incorporated into continental America. This momentous change was marked by a famous address before the America Historical Association in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner, who described “the essence of America,” as Zimmermann puts it, as a pushing back of the western frontier. For Turner, the frontier was now closed. Later, in articles and in his book The Frontier in American History, Turner stressed the implications for continental America:

That these energies of expansion will no longer operate would be a rash prediction; and the demands for a vigorous foreign policy, for an interoceanic canal, for a revival of our power upon the seas, and for the extension of American influence to outlying islands and adjoining countries, are indications that the movement will continue.

Turner’s thesis powerfully affected Theodore Roosevelt.

But Turner’s views help to explain why one of the most eager expansionists, William H. Seward, secretary of state under Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, was frustrated in his efforts to acquire new territories beyond the purchase of Alaska from Russia. He himself recognized that his vision of expansion might be premature. “Give me fifty, forty, thirty more years of life,” he told a Boston audience in 1867, “and I will engage to give you the possession of the American continent and the control of the world.” Seward made overtures to acquire in the Western Hemisphere British Columbia and French Guiana, and the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Haiti, Culebra, Puerto Rico, and St. Bartholomew. None of these efforts was successful, largely because Congress refused to approve them.

Following Seward, President Ulysses S. Grant wanted to take over the Dominican Republic, but failed to get Congress to go along with his scheme. In the 1880s, James G. Blaine, secretary of state under James A. Garfield (1881) and Benjamin Harrison (1889– 1893), identified Hawaii, Cuba, and Puerto Rico as three islands “of value enough to be taken.” He made a deal with Germany for joint control over Samoa, and, like many of his predecessors, expected that Canada would be joined to the Union. None of the expansionist policies that Seward, Grant, or Blaine advocated was a result of any response to a serious foreign threat.

With an America growing ever more powerful, why were the expansionists frustrated? In his provocative book From Wealth to Power, Fareed Zakaria points out that after the Civil War, the United States was widely recognized as among the world’s great economic powers, but its interests remained those of a minor power.3 As Zakaria sees it, the reason that the executive branch of the government was denied the power to expand overseas was that Congress had great power during this period. Furthermore, the bureaucracy, the State Department and the army, which could have pushed an imperialist program, were weak relative to both Congress and the president.

Again and again, while presidents and their secretaries of state tried to convert America’s rising power into influence abroad, they could not get Congress to approve of increases in the strength of the military and the bureaucracy. Congress refused to enact civil service or military reform. The Senate turned down several annexation projects that the White House proposed, including the purchase of British Columbia. America became, in Zakaria’s definition, “an unusual great power—a strong nation but a weak state.”

The felt need for foreign markets, at least for agricultural products, somewhat subsided as the US domestic market grew after the Civil War. Zimmermann shows that even while exports grew, foreign trade declined as a proportion of the expanding gross national product. As the shift from agriculture to industry became more pronounced, the American economy became less dependent on the world market. Moreover, the home market seemed capable of becoming larger and larger so long as the protective tariff for industry was in place.4

Still, Zimmermann writes, exports tripled between 1860 and 1897, exceeding imports in most years. In 1893 the United States was the second-largest world trading nation after Great Britain. By this time a new group of imperialists was arriving on the scene, Mahan and Lodge preeminent among them. They took the financial and industrial crisis of 1892 and 1893 as evidence that foreign markets were now more than ever necessary to the economy and therefore the United States must expand its continental trade. Coaling stations in the Pacific, which Mahan saw as vital to the continued growth of a trading nation, would make it easier to penetrate the great China market; hence, the attraction of acquiring Hawaii and then the Philippines.

Yet the promise of immense riches from the Asian mainland was never quite fulfilled. Most businessmen did not automatically favor territorial expansion. They supported intervention in Cuba and later in other Caribbean and Central American countries only when these nations were unable to pay their debts to American banks and corporations. What American businessmen sought above all was stability. They were willing to justify military intervention only when no other recourse was available to guarantee that their markets and interests abroad would not be disturbed by local violence. But if violence got out of hand, then the business leaders would be happy to see US troops restore order.

Zimmermann argues that imperialism was tangible proof that the United States was a world power. “Manifest destiny,” the phrase first used in 1839 by a journalist named John O’Sullivan to justify overland expansion, reflected the idea of American exceptionalism—that the United States was not like the nations of the old world, but was chosen by God for a special destiny. When the United States expanded, seeking new territories by force, intimidation, or treaty, its leaders coupled their quest for security and economic well-being with a belief in America’s own moral superiority. As Zimmermann shows, they saw the US as an example to the world and a crusader for a Jeffersonian “empire of liberty.”

The notion of manifest destiny was reinforced by Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection. By the 1880s “social Darwinism”—the application of Darwin’s biological theories to human society—was used to justify the superiority of American capitalism by the superiority of the so-called Anglo-Saxon race. The evangelical preacher Josiah Strong in 1885 wrote a best seller entitled Our Country, arguing that “the wonderful progress of the United States as well as the character of its people, are the results of natural selection.” With its biological advantages, Strong predicted, the Anglo-Saxon race “will spread itself over the earth.”

During McKinley’s presidency, Albert Beveridge, a progressive senator from Indiana, declared that God

has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America…. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.

Harvard’s Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, dean of the Lawrence Scientific School, taught that white supremacy derived from the racial heritage of England. The distinguished Harvard historian Francis Parkman believed that Anglo-Saxon superiority was the key to the British victory over the French in Canada. James K. Hosmer at Johns Hopkins contended that “English institutions, English speech, English thought, are to become the main features of the political, social and intellectual life of mankind.” Zimmermann observes that “racially tolerant scholars, like William James at Harvard, were the exception, not the rule.”

The cultural atmosphere, in which ideas of manifest destiny, social Darwinism, and racial inequality were prominent, stimulated the imperialist appetite. But the overwhelming justification that imperialists offered for American expansion overseas was the quest for American security. Here, Zimmermann writes, the influence of Mahan, Lodge, and Roosevelt was central. A scholar more than a sailor, Mahan, though a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, spent little time at sea. His fame rested on his thesis that the United States should go beyond a navy that was largely used to defend its shores and create an offensive naval force that would extend American influence overseas. He wanted a new American doctrine that no foreign state should acquire a base within three thousand miles of San Francisco. As president of the Naval War College, he successfully urged a naval buildup to achieve these ends in the late 1880s. The White House, urged on by Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Lodge, agreed to launch a program of naval building. Mahan’s masterwork, The Influence of Sea Power on History, was read widely abroad; Kaiser Wilhelm II was a fan of Mahan’s, and ordered that his book be placed on board all German ships. By 1898 the United States had the world’s third most powerful navy after Britain’s and Germany’s.

  1. 1

    See Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “America and Empire,” in The Cycles of American History (Houghton Mifflin, 1986), p. 141.

  2. 2

    In Theodore Roosevelt’s ambitious work The Winning of the West, published in four volumes between 1889 and 1897, his subject was the conquest and settlement between 1769 and 1807 of the lands west of the original thirteen states and east of the Mississippi. Roosevelt saw American history as one of expansion: first from the Old World to the New, then to the Mississippi, and then to the Pacific Ocean. He had planned a sequel that would deal with the incorporation of Florida, Oregon, Texas, California, and New Mexico.

  3. 3

    See Fareed Zakaria, From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role (Princeton University Press, 1998), Chapters 1 and 2.

  4. 4

    Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his essay “America and Empire,” points out that the “growth of manufacturing after the Civil War persuaded some people that industrial independence was secure and that America could now compete in the world market. Those most eager for foreign markets were most determined on tariff reduction.” In his 1888 State of the Union message Grover Cleveland argued vainly that Congress must cooperate in lowering the tariff.

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