For a brief period the constraining influences of isolationism and anticolonialism were abandoned, and the United States engaged in direct imperialism and the acquisition of colonies. There was a range of motivations that propelled this short-lived effort at formal colonialism. By the 1890s the frontier in the continental United States had begun to close, and Americans began to look beyond the territorial confines of the United States for economic and other opportunities. This would include emigration to Alaska and various areas of the Pacific and Caribbean. In addition, the growing popularity of the inherently racist social Darwinism meant that many Americans accepted the notion that they were destined to rule over other peoples. Compounding these trends was a missionary impulse that convinced many in the country of the necessity of taking a more proactive role in the world to civilize and uplift native peoples and protect them from the worst ravages of European imperialism.
In the later stages of the nineteenth century, imperialism became a domestic political issue. In 1885 President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908), a Democrat, announced that the party would oppose future expansion or the acquisition of new territory. Cleveland resisted efforts to annex Hawaii, and after he left office following his second term in 1896 his successor as leader of the party, William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), became noted for his opposition to an expansionist foreign policy. The next Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), frequently authorized military expeditions to support his foreign policies, which were paradoxically rooted in idealism, support for international law, and self-determination. Wilson’s use of realist policies, including military interventions, to pursue idealistic goals foreshadowed the rise of internationalism within some circles of the Democratic Party and paralleled the internationalist wing of the Republican Party.
A growing number of elites in the United States also sought to operationalize the theories of naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914). Mahan argued for the need to create and maintain a powerful naval force to protect American commercial and political interests abroad. However, to maintain such a navy, the United States would need ports for refueling and repair around the globe. Mahan’s arguments were diametrically opposed to traditional American isolationism, and he urged a more proactive role for the United States in the global arena. Adherents of Mahan’s theories included such prominent figures as future president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924), a powerful member of the U.S. Senate. The Pacific Ocean was of particular importance to Mahan’s supporters because many perceived that the centuries-old westward movement of Americans would continue into the region. When U.S. Marines supported the American-led insurrection in Hawaii in 1893, it marked the onset of the nation’s imperial moment.
Victory in the Spanish-American War (1898) allowed the United States to acquire several colonies, including Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. It also led to U.S. occupation of other areas, such as Cuba, and it ignited a vigorous debate in the United States over imperialism. While pro-imperial advocates, including Roosevelt and Indiana senator Albert Beveridge (1862–1927), extolled the virtues of American expansion and the duty of the United States to promote its values and ideals among other people, a range of opponents to American colonization also emerged. Ardent anti-imperialists, including Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), and William Graham Sumner (1840– 1910), formed the Anti-Imperialist League in 1899 to oppose U.S. expansion.
Among the foremost concerns of the anti-imperialists was the incompatibility of democracy and empire. They argued that a nation that promoted self-determination and individual freedom could not also engage in imperialism. Anti-imperialists were particularly upset over the military campaign waged by the United States against Filipino insurgents who sought independence. The antiimperialists noted that the Filipinos were fighting against a colonial power in the same fashion that Americans had once fought against the British. Many anti-imperialists also had less noble reasons for opposition to imperialism, including a fear of immigration from newly acquired territories and a belief that annexation of such territories would undercut American values and ideals because the inhabitants of these regions were perceived to be inferior to Americans.
Initially, American public and political opinion seemed to be on the side of the imperialists. In addition to the direct annexation of territory, the U.S. Congress enacted the Platt Amendment (1901), which reduced Cuba to the status of an American protectorate and gave the United States the right to intervene militarily. In their efforts to increase circulation, the leading newspapers of the day openly supported and even encouraged expansion by exaggerating stories and news items in a jingoistic style that came to be known as yellow journalism.
Following the assassination of President William McKinley (1843–1901), Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent imperialist, became chief executive. Roosevelt undertook a number of actions to expand American influence, particularly in the Caribbean. He envisioned the Caribbean as an ‘‘American Lake’’ and frequently used American power to further U.S. interests. Roosevelt’s policies and style, as well as his willingness to use military force and the threat of military action, would be replicated by successive American presidents both in the Caribbean and the broader world.
A keen student of history, Roosevelt realized that the United States could avoid the costs and problems of empire by avoiding direct annexation of territory through the implementation of some of Mahan’s theories. Instead of stationing large numbers of troops in economic or strategic areas, the United States could use its naval power to force regimes to comply with American demands and interests. This would allow the United States to develop spheres of influence around the world without the cost of maintaining a military garrison or a civil service. In addition, the policy meant that the United States could avoid charges from both domestic and international audiences that it was forming an empire. Roosevelt’s strategy was a modification of British gunboat diplomacy, but it was based on the same premise: install a friendly regime and use a combination of naval power and rapidly deployable troops, such as the U.S. Marines, to support the local government.
This indirect form of imperialism would be repeatedly utilized throughout the twentieth century. There was a range of military interventions in the Caribbean throughout the early 1900s. In spite of pledges to formulate and implement a less intrusive foreign policy, presidents from both parties utilized military interventions in order to secure American interests. The major modification to the strategy of using military intervention to maintain spheres of influence would be the post– World War II rise of covert operations to replace overt military deployments.