Imperialism is the policy or practice of extending national power over other states or areas of the world, often by annexation. Closely related to “colonialism,” imperialism is different in that it involves direct political control over dependent areas, while colonialism consists primarily of the economic and cultural domination of countries that retain their nominal independence.
The history of imperialism dates back several thousand years. It largely fell out of favor in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because of the success of movements for independence in the Western Hemisphere and the popularity of liberalism and nationalism spawned by the Enlightenment. During the second half of the nineteenth century, however, most of the rapidly industrializing countries of Europe began to engage in a new wave of imperialism in Asia and Africa.
The United States came relatively late to the practice, but its annexations in Alaska, Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Samoa were unmistakably imperialist in character. The participation of the United States in the scramble for overseas territories touched off a heated debate within the nation itself and was strongly opposed by those who felt that such activity was alien to American values and history. Its advocates countered that these adventures made the United States an “empire for liberty,” which would be of great benefit to the people of Asia and Latin America.
At the time, U.S. imperialism was, in part, a continuation of the expansionist surge of the first half of the nineteenth century, which had tripled the size of the country. The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 was a sign that the United States was not yet finished expanding its territory. The tremendous industrial expansion of the post-Civil War era led to a search for raw materials and for markets capable of absorbing American products.
The protection of America's growing economic interests around the globe required the building of a large and powerful navy, which in turn required refueling and repair stations. The publication of Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea-Power upon History, 1660–1763 (1890) convinced such influential figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and John Hay that the United States had to become a global naval power in order to defend its economic interests and take its rightful place among the Great Powers.
The imperialist surge in the United States also coincided with what the historian Rayford Logan has referred to as the “nadir of racism.” Based on pseudo-scientific theories of the time, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans were convinced of their superiority to people of color, both at home and abroad. The “soft” version of racism argued that whites had a God-given obligation to watch over and uplift people of color everywhere. The “hard” version Page 346 | Top of Articleblatantly asserted that “inferior” people existed to serve the needs and wants of their superiors and that the latter were fully justified in treating them accordingly.
Related to racism, and an additional imperialist motivation, was a fascination with foreign people and places. Popular interest in the inhabitants of faraway lands was evidenced by the anthropological exhibits at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This interest in all things exotic was seen as well in art, popular culture, advertising, and various forms of entertainment. As an example, in 1897, people bought tickets to view Eskimos brought from Greenland by the explorer Robert Peary.
By the 1870s, the United States began expansion in the Pacific Ocean, seeking to gain power, wealth, and prestige within the Pacific Rim, especially China and Japan. In 1884, it acquired Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Later, U.S. settlers in Hawaii deposed Queen Liliuokalani and offered the Hawaiian Islands to the United States. The U.S. government, however, was at first reluctant to officially incorporate Hawaii and made the islands an informal protectorate. During the Spanish-American War, the United States annexed Hawaii, whose strategic importance and mid-Pacific location soon led to an influx of the U.S. military and to the significant immigration of workers from Japan, China, and the Philippines.
The imperialist designs of the United States also led to the acquisition of the Philippines, which was still a Spanish colony in the 1890s. Led by Emilio Aguinaldo, young Filipinos had begun a movement for independence. In 1898, they initiated a revolt against Spanish rule and declared the establishment of a republic, which Spain, and later the United States, refused to recognize. When the United States went to war with Spain in 1898, allegedly over Cuba, it quickly invaded the Philippines and defeated the Spanish there. While the United States did not originally intend to keep the islands, after the war, it purchased them from Spain, purportedly to prevent them from falling into the hands of imperial rivals such as Germany and Japan. Many Filipinos did not accept U.S. rule, however, and again rose up in a rebellion, which lasted for three years.
After acquiring the Philippines, U.S. interest in China increased. During much of the nineteenth century, foreign powers had gained control of China piecemeal, with each European country claiming exclusive trading and mineral rights in its particular “sphere of influence.” The United States sought to join this list of world powers and gain its own economic sphere of influence in China. When that effort failed, essentially because the lucrative areas were already occupied, Secretary of State John Hay sent notes to the other powers outlining his Open Door Policy, in which he suggested that all countries should have equal trading rights in China. They expressed interest in the concept but politely rejected the U.S. policy, saying that it could not be enforced.
It was not until after the 1900 Boxer Rebellion that the United States was able to gain an economic foothold in China. Eight countries contributed to an international force to put down the rebellion and protect foreign interests. By sending 2,500 sailors and marines to China, the United States was able to participate in the settlement, which called for an expanded Open Door Policy.
U.S. imperialist tendencies were also evidenced in Central America and the Caribbean, as the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson intervened in these regions during the first two decades of the twentieth century. After liberating Cuba from Spanish rule, Roosevelt forced the country to accept the Platt Amendment in 1901, which allowed the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs. During his administration, the United States also acquired Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898 and the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917. Roosevelt maneuvered to gain control of Panama for the purpose of constructing a canal in 1903. The following year, he proclaimed the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States would intervene in the countries of the Western Hemisphere to maintain stability and prevent European rivals from using force to collect debts.
Taft announced an approach known as “Dollar Diplomacy,” suggesting that the United States should use its economic power rather than military might in Latin America by guaranteeing loans and promoting corporate investment. Despite these intentions, Taft continued the pattern of military involvement begun by Roosevelt, intervening in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti.
Wilson, a Democrat, was highly critical of the repeated intrusion in Latin America by his Republican predecessors. Under the Wilson doctrine, the United States would promote democracy in Latin America by refusing to recognize unconstitutional governments. In reality, however, Wilson intervened to a greater degree than Roosevelt or Taft, especially in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. In 1916, he dispatched a U.S. Army unit, commanded by General John J. Pershing, to Mexico to chase down the revolutionary bandit Francisco “Pancho” Villa—an act that might have led to war between the two countries, if Wilson had not withdrawn Pershing's forces because of impending American involvement in World War I.
U.S. imperialism during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era was a mixed bag in terms of both motives and results. It did provide certain economic benefits and military advantages, but at the cost of enduring resentment on the part of indigenous peoples and heightened rivalry with the Great Powers, especially Japan and Germany.
Healy, David. Drive to Hegemony: The United States in the Caribbean, 1898–1917. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Iriye, Akira. Across the Pacific: An Inner History of American-East Asian Relations. 1967. Revised edition, Chicago: Imprint, 1992.
LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963.
May, Ernest R. Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power. Chicago: Imprint, 1991.
Welch, Richard E. Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899–1902. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.