American Imperialism

*The Frontier closed in 1890.  America had spread from sea to shining sea, and her Manifest Destiny had been fulfilled...  or had it?  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 1894-1895.


*Indeed, Japan owed its modernisation, in part, to America.  In 1853, the United States sent Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan to attempt to open trade. He did so, threatening Japan with four modern warships. In 1854 he returned, and Japan agreed to US demands, and within a few years was trading with most of the world.


*In most places, American imperialism was economic and missionary in nature, but it was also based on new ideas of national security. 


*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 Monroe Doctrine.


*From the historical examples of 17th century warfare between Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Spain, and especially from the role of the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars, 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.


*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 of Samoa.


*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 (known as 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 1898.


*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, 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 with it, particularly after World War I, when America turned her eyes away from the rest of the world for a while.


*One reason America was able to insist on this so successfully 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 (and later Russia sent 100,000 men to occupy Manchuria once the Boxers were beaten).  3,125 American soldiers and 295 US Marines were part of the Eight-Nation Alliance (the 5th largest group, far behind Japan, Russia, and Britain, and slightly behind France), 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.

This page last updated 3 February, 2012.
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