UNITED STATES HISTORY
*The Frontier closed in 1890. America had fulfilled her
Manifest Destiny to spread from sea to shining sea... but
why stop there? The late nineteenth century was the age of
imperialism for Europe; why could America not imitate the success
of the British Empire, or the French, or even the Japanese?
*The Japanese, after all, had just transformed themselves from a
feudal society to a highly industrialised one in three decades,
and then beaten China severely in the Sino-Japanese War of
*In most places, American imperialism was economic and missionary
in nature, but it was also based on new ideas of national
*In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American naval officer and
historian, published one of the most influential books of the era,
The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783. It
said that all great modern nations had become great and maintained
their greatness through sea power. Not only could a great
navy promote and protect foreign trade and colonisation, but it
could also defend the home country from foreign attack.
Through the power of blockades, a great navy could even defeat
another country without having to resort to a large-scale
invasion. Both of these were particularly appealing ideas in
America, who had no truly threatening neighbors on land and had a
traditional aversion to a standing army or foreign
invasions. Indeed, it seemed like a natural extension of the
*Mahan, and those who expanded on his ideas, concluded that
America needed a large, modern, steam-powered steel-plated
navy. This also required coaling stations around the world,
so America would either need colonies or at least friendly and
open trading partners all around the globe.
*America also needed a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific
Oceans, and considered building one in either Nicaragua
(eventually rejected because of local volcanic activity) or
Panama, which was then part of Columbia.
*In 1850, the United States and Britain signed the Clayton-Bulwer
Treaty, agreeing that neither nation would fortify or hold
exclusive control over any future canal across the Central
American isthmus. Still, both countries considered building
one, and in 1901, the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty allowed the United
States to build and control a canal across the Isthmus, although
under the condition that it remain a neutral waterway.
*The need for coaling stations would bring the United States,
Britain, and Germany to the brink of war in 1889 over the islands
of Samoa. In March, 1889, three American warships and three
German warships faced off in Apia harbour with a British warship
watching to see what would happened. The world was saved
from a war between the three powers when a hurricane sank all the
German and American ships and badly damaged the British
ship. In 1899, America and Germany agreed to split
Samoa (America still owns the eastern part) while Germany paid
Britain a large indemnity and recognised British claims in Tonga
and in parts of Africa to make up for Britain not getting a share
*In the late 1800s, America did build a large and modern navy, and
by the time World War I began, had the 3rd largest navy on Earth
(slightly behind Germany’s High Seas Fleet, but still less than
half the size of the British Royal Navy). America also began
looking for a route for a canal across Central America. As
American sea power grew, it was also able to protect and support
American missionaries and businessmen.
*American missionaries first went to the Kingdom of Hawaii in
1820. Many of their descendents remained there, some as
religious leaders but others operating sugar and pineapple
plantations, along with other Americans and Europeans who went
there to grow tropical crops.
*In 1887, Americans and Europeans in Hawaii forced a new
constitution (the Bayonet Constitution) on King David Kalakaua,
which stripped the monarch or most of his powers and limited the
rights of native Hawaiians. When he died and his sister
Lili’uokalani became queen, she tried to regain political power
for herself and equality for her people, but by now the planters
were desperate. The McKinley Tariff of 1890 had made it
uneconomical for them to sell their products to the United States,
and many wanted to be annexed to the United States.
*In 1893, a Committee of Safety overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani with
the help of a group of US Marines, and established a provisional
government that sought annexation by the US. At first,
Benjamin Harrison seemed to favour it, but many Americans,
including newly-inaugurated Grover Cleveland opposed it (although
the American public‘s opposition did not go far enough to let
Cleveland support a restoration of the Hawaiian monarchy, as he
wanted to do). Instead, the Republic of Hawaii was created
in 1894 under president Sanford Dole, although it was later
annexed as the Territory of Hawaii under President McKinley in
*Tropical crops did not just topple the Kingdom of Hawaii.
In the late 1800s, Americans began to invest in banana plantations
in Central and South America. In return for building
railroads, American companies got preferential treatment in
several countries, particularly Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras,
and Columbia. In some places, the banana companies,
especially those that merged to form the United Fruit Company (now
Chiquita Banana) and Standard Fruit Company (now Dole Foods),
became so powerful that they essentially controlled entire
countries, which came to be called Banana Republics.
*The original banana republic was Honduras. In 1910, Cuyamel
Fruit (which merged with the United Fruit Company in 1930)
complained that its taxes were too high. When the president
of Honduras refused to give the company tax breaks, Cuyamel Fruit
sent some thugs down to throw him out. The next president
gave Cuyamel Fruit a 25-year waiver from paying any taxes.
*America also had interests in China. Since the First Opium
War of 1839-1842, when the British forced China to allow the sale
of opium and gained control of Hong Kong, a series of military and
diplomatic humiliations ending in ‘Unequal Treaties’ had carved
much of China up into spheres of influence, each economically
dominated by a European country (or Japan).
*America was opposed to this, primarily because America had missed
out on the chance to get one of her own. By 1899, the
American Secretary of State, John Hay, was demanding an Open Door
policy in China, allowing any country to trade in any area without
preferential treatment or customs duties. The Open Door
would also prevent Europe and Japan from dismembering China
outright--its independence and integrity had to be
maintained. Europe and Japan agreed to this in principle,
but ignored it or at least bent the rules when they could get away
*One reason America was able to insist on this with even partial
success was because America had already taken an active role in
China, helping the other imperial powers there. Many Chinese
resented foreign domination of their economy and politics and the
widespread activity of European and American missionaries.
Among the groups who most fiercely were the Society of Righteous
and Harmonious Fists, who combined traditional Chinese religious
beliefs and martial arts techniques with aggressive nationalism.
*As the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists became more
powerful (and more threatening), the sensationalist American
newspapers of the time--known as the Yellow Press--called them the
Boxers, and when they began to attack foreign diplomats,
businessmen, missionaries, and Chinese Christians (who were
massacred by the thousands and in some cases roasted alive and
eaten), it was called the Boxer Rebellion.
*The Boxer Rebellion began in Southern China in 1899, but was not
significant until it moved north in 1900 and the Dowager Empress
began to support it. In June, 1900, the Boxers invaded the
foreign diplomatic area of Peking, where they murdered the German
ambassador. Soon the diplomats fortified their section of
the city and were besieged.
*The Boxers were confident in their success, even before the
Chinese Army began to support them, because the Boxers believed
that if they were pure of heart, the foreign devils’ bullets could
not hurt them. Their leaders proved this to them by shooting
at them with foreign guns, but they only fired blanks.
*Eventually six European countries, America, and Japan sent 50,000
troops to China to suppress the Boxers. 3,125 American
soldiers and 295 US Marines were part of the Eight-Nation Alliance
and played an important role in scaling the walls of Peking.
*The diplomats were rescued after 55 days, but the Rebellion did
not officially end until September, 1901.
*America was able to respond so effectively to the Boxer
Rebellion, and was willing to annex Hawaii in 1898, because those
were not America’s first military adventures in the Pacific.
Shortly before the annexation of Hawaii, America had embarked on
her first foreign war since the Mexican War by declaring war on
the oldest empire in the Americas, Spain.
*In the early 1500s, the King of Spain controlled half of Europe
and most of North and South America. By the late 1800s,
Spain owned the Philippines and a few small Pacific islands, Cuba
and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and a few areas in Africa.
In both Cuba and the Philippines, however, many local people
wanted independence from Spain, and thought they could get it, as
Spain was much weaker than it had once been.
*In the early 1500s, the English had barely begun to explore North
America, and would not settle it for another century. By the
late 1800s, though, the old English colonies had become the United
States and had filled up half the continent. Furthermore,
the Frontier had been filled in, and Americans wanted to expand
beyond the seas.
*This was not unusual. The more powerful European nations,
particularly Britain and France had spent the 1800s taking over
Africa and Asia, and Japan had just begun dominating its
neighbours, and beat China in a war in 1894-1895, and the United
States wanted a share in the world-wide scramble for
*One reason America wanted to expand, particularly in the tropics,
was the sugar trade. Sugar was a valuable commodity, and
many Americans had invested in sugar plantations in Cuba, Hawaii,
and elsewhere, and wanted to protect their investments,
particularly as those islands had political problems. They
also wanted to develop those islands, particularly Cuba, as places
to sell more American products.
*José Martí began a war for independence in Cuba in 1895.
The Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, in command of 150,000
troops, brutally crushed the rebellion, rounding up dissenters and
placing them in ‘reconcentration camps’ and earning the nickname
‘Butcher Weyler.’ About 200,000 Cubans died due to this
policy, and a number of American-owned sugar plantations were
*Many Americans sympathised with the Cubans, partly because we
remembered our revolutionary war, partly because American property
was being destroyed in the war and businessmen wanted to put a
stop to that, and partly because American newspapers covered the
war in brutal detail.
*Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed with each
other for readers, and therefore published the most sensational
papers they could. They exaggerated news and told it in a
very biased fashion with shocking photographs to drum up
interest. This was called Yellow Journalism or the Yellow
*The Yellow Press presented Weyler as a monster who was not only
brutal to the Cubans but ignored the rights of Americans. A
famous photograph showed an American woman being strip-searched by
the Spanish authorities. To protect Americans in Cuba,
President McKinley sent a battleship, USS Maine, to Havana.
*Soon afterwards, a private letter written by the Spanish
Ambassador to the US was stolen by Cuban rebels and leaked to the
press. It called McKinley weak and stupid. This
infuriated Americans further, and many began to call for
*Soon after this letter was published, USS Maine blew up in Havana
Harbour. An investigation showed that a Spanish mine had
blown up the ship (although years later it was discovered that the
real cause was probably an electrical failure that caused a spark
in the powder magazine). Soon Americans demanded war,
chanting ‘Remember the Maine!’
*This desire for was known as jingoism, a term from an old British
We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money
*On 25 April, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, and
on 1 May, the US Pacific Fleet under Commodore George Dewey (a
Civil War veteran who had sailed with Farragut) showed up in
Manila Bay. He was prepared to do so because the Assistant
Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, had told him to get
ready for major operations before war had even been declared.
*Dewey’s fleet destroyed the entire Spanish fleet without the loss
of a single American life (although one of his sailors did die of
*Dewey brought exiled Philippine independence leader Emilio
Aguinaldo back from Hong Kong, and he led Filipino guerrillas
alongside the US Army to take control of most of the Philippines
within a few months.
*On 13 August, US General Wesley Merritt and the Spanish general
in Manila agreed to stage a bloodless battle so that the Spanish
could surrender with honour. Aguinaldo and the other
Filipinos were left out of the bargain, and not allowed to march
*The United States also took Guam from Spain, planning to use it
as a coaling station. The small Spanish garrison there had
not even known there was a war on until the US Navy arrived, and
surrendered without a fight.
*The most conspicuous fighting of the war would be in the
Caribbean, as America invaded the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico
*This was harder than it seemed, as the US Army was still fairly
small (28,183 men), and to reach its planned war-time size of
250,000 men, it had to be augmented with volunteers, many of them
organised as militia from the various states—including some
Southern states, who had spent the past three decades resenting
the US government and US Army. One US Major-General in the
war was Joseph Wheeler, a congressman from Alabama and a former
Major-General of the Confederate Army.
*The most famous volunteers, however, were the Rough Riders, a
cavalry regiment recruited by Theodore Roosevelt from the cowboys
he had met as a rancher out west and the polo players and Ivy
League athletes he knew as a wealthy member of New York society
*Furthermore, the army had problems with supplies. Wool
winter uniforms were sent to the troops in Cuba while lightweight
summer uniforms were distributed to troops when they returned from
Cuba to cold northern harbours. Transporting horses to Cuba
was almost a total failure--although the Rough Riders were
supposed to be a cavalry unit, most of them had to fight on
foot. Canned beef provided to soldiers was of such poor
quality that an investigation was ordered by the Commanding
General of the US Army, Nelson Miles, after the war.
*Eventually, the war forced many reforms on the army and on the
militia system, most notably through the Militia Act of 1903,
which organised the state militias into the National Guard.
*Although Havana is the capital of Cuba, its main naval base and a
large part of its army were at Santiago, so that is where American
forces concentrated. The Army landed near Santiago between
22 and 24 June, 1898, while the Navy blockaded and eventually took
control of the harbour after capturing the port at Guantanamo Bay
to use for shelter during hurricane season.
*On 1 July, the US Army fought the Battle of San Juan Hill (which,
along with Kettle Hill, was part of San Juan Heights, the more
proper name for the entire battlefield), just outside
Santiago. The Rough Riders captured Kettle Hill after fierce
fighting alongside the 10th US Cavalry, made up of Buffalo
Soldiers, who actually planted the first US Flag atop San Juan
Hill (one of their white officers was John Pershing, called ’Black
Jack’ due to his command of the Buffalo Soldiers, who later
commanded the American Expeditionary Force in World War I).
*Although there were a few other battles before and after the
Battle of San Juan Hill, it was the key to surrounding and
besieging Santiago, which surrendered on 17 July, 1898.
*The US Army also invaded Puerto Rico, where they faced stiff
resistance from the Spanish, who would fight small battles and
then retreat before they could be captured. However, many
Puerto Ricans supported the US, who they believed were helping
them win their independence.
*Fighting between the US and Spain officially ended on 12 August,
1898 (and actually ended shortly after that). A peace treaty
officially went into effect on 11 April, 1899, and it made the
United States into an empire.
*The US gained Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines (where the
US Army fought a long, hard war against the Filipinos who thought
they had been fighting for their independence from Spain).
Cuba was made an independent country, but the US retained the
right to intervene in Cuba whenever necessary (as defined by the
United States). The United States also retained a perpetual
lease on Guantanamo Bay.
*John Hay called the Spanish-American War a ‘splendid little war,’
and in many ways it was. The United States lost fewer than
four hundred soldiers killed in battle (although more than 5,000
died of disease).
*In the United States, the war reinforced Americans’ opinions
favouring a strong Navy, which continued to expand in the early
1900s. It forced improvements in Army organisation and
Federal regulation of the National Guard. It helped reunite
Northerners and Southerners. It also made Theodore Roosevelt
a national hero, and his fame as leader of the Rough Riders helped
him become Governor of New York, Vice-President, a powerful
reforming President, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
*Some Americans were opposed to keeping these new colonies.
Mark Twain helped found the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898 and
served as its vice-president from 1901 to 1910. Andrew
Carnegie, Samuel Gompers, Grover Cleveland, Jane Addams, and
William Jennings Bryan were among its many prominent members.
*William Jennings Bryan ran on an anti-imperialist platform in
1900, but was unable to defeat William McKinley and his running
mate, war hero Theodore Roosevelt. Most Americans were proud
of their victory in the war, which established the United States
as a major world power.
*Although America planned to keep most of the territory taken from
Spain, it was not an easy thing to do. For one thing, the
most valuable of all the territories, Cuba, was off-limits.
*When America declared war on Spain, anti-imperialists in Congress
passed a resolution adding the Teller Amendment to the declaration
of war, saying that Cuba would not be annexed if conquered.
However, in 1902, the Platt Amendment gave America the right to
intervene in Cuban foreign and domestic affairs whenever
necessary--necessity being defined by the United States. The
main points were protection of American property in Cuba and
preferential trade agreements between the two countries. The
US Marines would also be sent to Cuba several times.
*The Foraker Act of 1900 created a government for Puerto
Rico. The US would appoint the governor (and did so until
1948) and some of the legislature, while the rest of the
legislators would be chosen by the Puerto Ricans. In 1917,
the Jones-Shafroth Act declared them to be citizens and gave them
more control over their legislature, but not equal rights with
other Americans. They could be taxed and drafted, but could
not vote in US elections, have their own members of Congress, or
enjoy some other rights.
*This inequality was because of a series of Supreme Court
decisions in the Insular Cases (mainly between 1901 and
1905). These cases declared that the Constitution did not
follow the flag--people in America’s overseas territories were not
guaranteed the same rights as Americans living in the states.
*This was particularly true in the Philippines, which were much
easier to conquer than to occupy.
*During the Spanish-American War, the US had fought alongside
Filipinos who sought independence from Spain led by Emilio
*When the Spanish surrendered, Aguinaldo helped create the
Philippine Republic and served as its first president.
However, despite what he thought, the United States intended to
keep the Philippines as a US possession to have a trading and
military base near Asia and the US did not recognise the
Philippine Declaration of Independence.
*Some fighting between Filipino and American forces took place in
1898, and in 1899 a large-scale uprising called the Philippine
Insurrection began, led by Aguinaldo.
*The Filipinos fought a guerrilla war, attacking out of the jungle
and out of villages, often hitting the US Army behind their own
lines. The US fought a war of extermination in return,
particularly under the US military governor Arthur
MacArthur. Both sides tortured prisoners and generally
fought in the most brutal fashion they could.
*Insurgents tortured American prisoners, some of whom were buried
alive, or worse, up to their necks in anthills to be slowly
devoured, or tied to trees next to anthills with their stomachs
cut open and marmalade spread on their exposed bowels. Others were
castrated, had the removed parts stuffed into their mouths, and
were then left to suffocate or bleed to death. Supposedly some
prisoners were deliberately infected with leprosy or other
diseases before being released to spread the disease among their
comrades. Spanish priests were horribly mutilated before their
congregations, as were other people who refused to support the
*American soldiers often shot surrendered in Filipinos or gave
them the water cure, forcing water down their throats until their
stomachs or bladders burst, while other Filipinos, both soldiers
and civilians, were placed in concentration camps. A few
American officers were tried in courts martial for their actions,
and many captured Filipino leaders were executed, but many
perpetrators of war crimes went unpunished.
*Many people felt the role of the US in the Philippines should be
to ‘civilise’ the local people—teach them English, end the role of
the Catholic Church in government, convert the large Muslim
minority to Christianity, and generally make the Philippines as
much like America and Europe as possible.
*Emilio Aguinaldo was captured in 1901 and only allowed to go free
after swearing allegiance to the US and asking his followers to
stop fighting. Most did so by 1902, although in more remote
areas violence lasted at least until 1913.
*Over 5,000 Americans died in the Philippine Insurrection and more
(perhaps many more) than 200,000 Filipinos were killed.
*One reason violence did decrease is that Arthur MacArthur was
replaced by a new governor of the Philippines, William Howard
Taft, who treated the Filipinos with much greater respect and
allowed some self-government (although he also was strict in some
areas, limiting the freedom of the press and imprisoning people
who protested against American rule).
*In 1916 the Jones Act promised that the Philippines could
eventually have their independence, which was granted in 1946
after the end of World War II, although the US continued to keep
military bases in the Philippines for years afterwards.
Emilio Aguinaldo did live to see this and was given a position in
the Council of State in which he served a full term before
*Despite these difficulties, by the dawn of the Twentieth Century,
America was an imperial power to match any ancient power of
This page last updated 14 August, 2020.