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Editor: Edward J. Blum
Date: 2016
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1580L

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Page 484


Since the founding of the Republic, imperialism has played a central role in America's interaction with the world. It has influenced national responses to global affairs, defined foreign relations with many regions of the world, and shaped perceptions abroad of US intentions and abilities.

Because the label imperialism has often been used for political or propagandistic purposes, its scholarly application to interpretations of American history is still controversial. Stripped of its polemical dimension, however, the term imperialism describes all attitudes, strategies, abilities, and activities designed to create and maintain formal or informal empire.

American imperialism was driven by three mutually reinforcing attitudes and concerns: the quest for security, the pursuit of prosperity, and the desire for national greatness. Over the last two and a half centuries these driving forces, while never undisputed, proved remarkably durable and sufficiently flexible to accommodate transformations within the United States and the world around it.


During the first phase of imperialism, the United States steadily expanded across the continent and ventured into Asia, the Pacific Ocean, and the Caribbean basin. Security against the potential threat of the British, French, Spanish, and Russian empires in North America was a paramount concern for the militarily weak young Republic.

This concern provided an important impetus for America's own imperialism. President James Monroe's ( 1758–1831 ) famous 1823 warning against European colonial adventures in the New World was as much an expression of insecurity as it was a pronouncement of hemispheric imperial ambition. The old imperialist siren song of expansion now received an American transposition that claimed not only exception to the machinations of Old World great power politics but reinterpreted imperialism as a defensive reflex against the potentialities of European imperial incursions in North America. Empire-building was thus conceptually translated into an anticolonial measure for national survival.

While critics claimed that a republican polity could not expand by conquest and expect a successful reproduction of its constitutional system, supporters of imperial expansion, such as Monroe, Benjamin Franklin ( 1706–1790 ), Alexander Hamilton ( 1755–1804 ), James Madison ( 1751–1836 ), Thomas Jefferson ( 1743–1826 ), and John Quincy Adams ( 1767–1848 ), argued in one way or another that extensive territory and republic were not only compatible but a safeguard against national decline.

While independence had created the basis for a departure from British imperialism, Americans have also been acculturated to imperialist worldviews that framed their understanding of a wide range of issues, from international affairs to race and ethnicity. Paradoxically Page 485  |  Top of Articlethen, while Americans had freed themselves from empire, they would go on to replicate many of its imperialist political, economic, military, and cultural practices.

At the heart of American settler imperialism was the successive acquisition and conquest of vast transcontinental spaces populated by a multitude of Native American cultures. In part, such acquisitions were negotiated with other empires, such as the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 and the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Further land transfers were negotiated with indigenous cultures that were increasingly marginalized by the aggressive imperialist dynamic of the settler empire. This form of imperialism targeted Native Americans with forced resettlements, prolonged asymmetrical colonial warfare, and internal colonization. By the end of the nineteenth century, indigenous cultures were militarily defeated, confined to a reservation system, and exposed to intrusive cultural assimilation programs designed to eradicate indigenous cultural identities.

Settler imperialism also expanded into the southwestern borderlands and culminated in the Mexican-American War ( 1846–1948 ). In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ( 1848 ), the victorious United States annexed roughly 500,000 square miles (1,295,000 square kilometers) of territory (today's states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming). The complete annexation of Mexico would have been possible but was rejected on racial grounds as opponents feared the eventual inclusion of a large Hispanic population as detrimental to the body politic.

Imperialist racism played a contradictory role during this period of American expansion. Although notions of Anglo-Saxonist racial superiority interlaced much of the discourse of “manifest destiny,” contributed to the violent marginalization of Native Americans, and established imperialist race and labor regimes in the US South and Southwest, racism also prevented or delayed the acquisition of some further territory, such as Mexico in the 1840s, the Dominican Republic in the 1860s, and Hawaiʻi in the early 1890s.

While concepts of racial superiority could have an inhibiting effect on expansion, the nation's impressive economic and demographic growth acted as a dynamo of American imperialism. The quest for prosperity in the form of land and resources fueled the ever expanding settler empire. At the same time, it also provided an important driving force for noncolonial, informal imperialism beyond the North American continent. It complemented punitive military expeditions, missionary reform, and educational modernization in the Caribbean basin, the Pacific Ocean, and the Asian mainland. By the late nineteenth century, however, this informal imperialism provided a rationale for formal empire, which in turn fostered further informal imperialism in adjacent areas.

Alongside the largely uncoordinated activities of businessmen, adventurers, missionaries, and explorers, some Americans also developed broader imperialist grand strategies. In the 1850s and 1860s, William H. Seward ( 1801–1872 ), secretary of state under Presidents Abraham Lincoln ( 1809–1865 ) and Andrew Johnson ( 1808–1875 ), not only negotiated the purchase of Alaska in 1867 but also advocated territorial expansion, access to global markets, the acquisition of Hawaiʻi and islands in the Caribbean, and the construction of an interoceanic canal in Central America. Seward promoted the idea of imperial gravity by which Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean basin would ultimately become part of the United States. A further concept was developed toward the end of the nineteenth century by naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan ( 1840–1914 ), who advocated for a strong navy, a canal in Central America, access to international markets, and the annexation of Hawaiʻi and other Pacific or Caribbean islands.

Seward and Mahan provided American imperialism with intellectual depth, connected continental and overseas imperialism in a grand strategy, and offered contemporaries a coherent panorama of foreign policy options for their rising empire. Both contributed to the expanding imperialist imaginary, which received further stimulus after victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The subsequent Peace of Paris transferred the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to US control. The United States also annexed Hawaiʻi and later added Wake Island ( 1899 ), parts of Samoa ( 1900 ), the Panama Canal Zone ( 1904 ), and the Virgin Islands ( 1917 ) to its colonial empire.


The second phase of imperialism was driven by strategic considerations, the desire for commercial opportunities, concern about the impact of the closed frontier ( 1890 ) on national identity and social stability, a gendered understanding of imperialism as a rejuvenating exercise in character-building, and the desire for national aggrandizement. The shift from continental settler imperialism to overseas imperialism sparked one of the most profound foreign policy debates in US history. Prominent imperialists, such as Theodore Roosevelt ( 1858–1919 ), Albert Beveridge ( 1862–1927 ), Henry Cabot Lodge ( 1850–1924 ), Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Brooks Adams ( 1848–1927 ), interpreted the acquisition of colonies as a logical extension of America's settler imperialism and a desirable step for the country's rise to great-power status.

Anti-imperialists, such as Carl Schurz ( 1829–1906 ), Edward Atkinson ( 1827–1905 ), Andrew Carnegie ( 1835–1919 ), Mark Twain ( 1835–1910 ), and Jane Addams ( 1860–1935 ), objected and described formal imperialism as a violation of America's political and constitutional core values with potentially destructive consequences for the American polity itself.

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Satirical cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt, shown admiring his favorite among a display of presidential hats. In the early twentieth century, prominent imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt viewed the acquisition of colonies as a logical extension of America's settler imperialism and a desirable step for the country's rise to great-power status.

Satirical cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt, shown admiring his favorite among a display of presidential hats. In the early twentieth century, prominent imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt viewed the acquisition of colonies as a logical extension of America's settler imperialism and a desirable step for the country's rise to great-power status.

The debate over the merits and pitfalls of formal imperialism received widespread national and international attention, in particular as the optimistic assessments of empireenthusiasts were severely tested in America's largest colony, the Philippines, where the United States fought one of the bloodiest and most costly colonial wars between 1899 and 1913. In the end, however, it was the imperialists who carried the day as empire became awidelyaccepted and rarely contestedway oflife.

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While empires were powerful competitors, they also cooperated in multiple and often surprising ways. The US colonial empire was deeply embedded in interimperial circuits and transnational exchanges. Interimperial knowledge transfers from European empires and Japan informed American imperialism on a wide range of issues from governance to social engineering and environmental management.

At the same time, Americans also reexamined their own national history of expansion for guidance as imperial experiences, habits, and repertoires had been deeply woven into the fabric and mental reference frames of nineteenth-century American society. This habitual imperialism had manifested itself in policy choices, military experience, technological developments, cultural trends, consumer preferences, and racial outlooks. When American colonizers arrived in the nation's new tropical empire they carried with them not only the flag but also the intellectual and cultural baggage of a century of imperialism.

Although overseas imperialism produced an equally impressive residue of cultural and mental habits of empire, Americans assumed an increasingly ambivalent position toward the benefits of formal imperialism. Whereas Theodore Roosevelt's administration and the progressive imperialists had been optimistic about the ordering and civilizing influence of colonial empires, Woodrow Wilson's ( 1856–1924 ) liberal democratic internationalism diagnosed an inherently destructive dynamic in the imperial rivalries of the great powers. This climatic change, however, did not translate into the dissolution of America's colonial empire, self-determination in the European imperial possessions, or an end to the nation's habitual informal imperialism in Latin America.

In Latin America, the United States followed the established pattern of informal empire and regularly utilized the huge power differential between the nation and its southern neighbors to secure political control and advance economic and cultural dominance. Washington frequently intervened to contain unrest, protect investments, or collect debts.

“Gunboat diplomacy” complemented “dollar diplomacy” and became an instrument of policing the “American Mediterranean” as interventions targeted such nations as Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, and American Marines became a common sight in many countries of the Caribbean basin. In several cases, the short-term application of naval force turned into longterm military occupations, as in Haiti ( 1915–1943 ) and Nicaragua ( 1912–1933 ).

In the global arena, American power resulted first and foremost from the nation's dominant position in the international economic order. Although institutional internationalism and, in particular, League of Nations membership did not materialize as an option for the United States in the interwar years, liberal-democratic internationalism permeated all aspects of American foreign relations. Commercial internationalism became a core component of the conceptualization of America's relations with the world.

The weakness of the Old World and the strength of the American economy catapulted the United States to center stage in the world economy. Washington pressed for open access to international trade, negotiated debtsettlements, laid the foundations for international trade institutions, and intensified US trade relations with every corner of the globe. Of equal importance and driven by America's rise to economic primacy was the nation's effort to secure control over global information links. Finally, the interwar years also witnessed the massive expansion of the export of popular culture. The rise of Hollywood's movie industry was symptomatic for the global appeal of American popular culture. Such primacy was viewed critically and interpreted by many Europeans and Latin Americans as cultural imperialism.

Confronted with authoritarian power contenders in Europe and Asia, an international system dominated by the increasing regression of many nations (including the United States) to strict economic nationalism and forceful imperialist responses to the challenges of modernity, the United States intervened for a second time within a generation following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Unlike after World War I ( 1914–1918 ), victory in 1945 completed the power shift from the Pax Britannica to global America as the United States was determined to apply economic, military, political, and cultural power in a framework of institutional internationalism to secure a worldwide liberal-democratic internationalist order.


Since the end of World War II ( 1939–1945 ) critics of US foreign relations at home and abroad have repeatedly described the United States as an imperialist power. Such critiques rest on the observation that Washington has used its preponderant economic might after 1945 to define the contours of a global capitalist order that deepened the power differentials between the world's industrial core and its neocolonial peripheries. Closely related is the charge that the global spread of the icons of the “American way of life” that accompanied the dynamic of the US economy constituted cultural imperialism designed to replace local or regional identities with American dominance.

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Furthermore, critics charge that the anti-imperial and anticolonial stance of the United States during the Cold War was largely rhetorical. As the European powers were no longer able to uphold their colonial regimes, Washington frequently intervened to control or delay the process of decolonization, most prominently in Southeast Asia.

Finally, claims of American imperialism during the Cold War and beyond are also based on the observation that US administrations supported antidemocratic regimes, and utilized overt and covert interventions to reorganize nations and governments along American strategic parameters. The arrogance of power inherent in Washington's heavy-handed quest for allegiance is often held responsible for the erosion of the nation's credibility in many world regions.

The persistence of such imperial hubris, exemplified more recently by extraordinary renditions, the Guantânamo Bay detention camp, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse and torture, and attempts by the National Security Agency (NSA) at global surveillance, underlines how a long history of imperialist habits has left its mark on the practice and perception of America's role in world affairs.


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Frank Schumacher
Associate Professor of History University of Western Ontario

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3630800248