When Theodore Roosevelt took over the presidency in September 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley, he inherited many of McKinley’s policies and programs. During McKinley’s second run for office, he promised to continue programs of prosperity intended to lift the U.S. out of the depression of 1893. The gold standard assigned value to bank notes based on the corresponding price of gold, while imperialism promoted greater U.S. involvement in foreign nations. Roosevelt, despite much public skepticism, vowed to preserve and expand McKinley’s programs.
An important issue during McKinley’s presidency was U.S. involvement in China. In a war that started in 1894 and ended in 1895, Japan defeated China, and for the next several years China was in disarray. In the aftermath of the war, Japan and major European powers moved in to take control of China’s substantial resources. Many U.S. leaders feared that if America did not join in, we would miss out on a huge economic opportunity. McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hay, sent a note to the countries with an economic stake in China requesting an “Open-Door Policy” that respected Chinese rights and promoted fair competition among those interested in Chinese resources. Britain, Germany, France, and Japan agreed to the policy, assuming that all of the other key countries would commit. Russia declined to commit to the plan, which caused dissension among the other countries and made the “Open-Door Policy” weak and relatively ineffective. Still, the “Open Door” continued to be the primary approach that the U.S. took toward China.
By 1900, a group of Chinese patriots known as Boxers, rebelled against what they viewed as European exploitation. They killed 200 foreigners with the battle cry “kill foreign devils.” A multinational task force of 18,000 troops, including American soldiers, was quickly assembled to quell the rebellion. The Boxer group was disorganized and easily suppressed by the superior allied forces. The leaders of this multinational force assessed cash-poor China an indemnity of $300 million payable immediately. America realized that this reparation was excessive and would only punish and further repress the Chinese. As an act of friendship, the U.S. remitted $18 million to the Chinese, who as a sign of appreciation, sent students to the U.S. to study. These students later returned to China and were key players in the move to “westernize” China and help improve Chinese/American relations.
The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of unprecedented American prosperity and power. The economic and social environment was perfect for the rise of the International Darwinism movement. Followers of this movement applied some of the fundamental views of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) to international politics. They believed that the earth belonged to the strong, and with America quickly growing in strength, there was a strong surge of support for increased U.S. imperialism.
The International Darwinism movement was enthusiastically promoted by Josiah Strong’s book, Our Country: It’s Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885). The book asserted that natural law dictates that strong countries will dominate weaker countries and that the Anglo-Saxon race is superior to other races. Inspired by Strong’s book, many American imperialists began calling for the spread of American religion, culture, and values to what they considered “backwards” third-world countries.
Another concern for many American businesspeople, politicians, and religious leaders was that the U.S. would not be able to keep pace with European powers. During the 1880s and 1890s, many European nations had flexed their imperial muscles throughout much of Africa, the Pacific, and China. Imperialists feared that the U.S. would be frozen out of these regions and would not be able to spread its influence or reap the financial benefits. Many people began to strongly encourage the federal government to spread American influence, and the government was more than happy to comply.
In 1895, Cuban citizens revolted against their Spanish occupiers because of widespread poverty and oppression and what they perceived as Spanish tyranny. Some of the poverty was due to high U.S. duties that were placed on Cuban sugar. In a reactionary move to the revolt, Spanish General “Butcher” Weyler herded thousands of Cuban civilians into “reconcentration” camps. These camps were filthy and many of the residents died of diseases that flourished in these overcrowded and unsanitary camps. The sentiment of the American people was strongly against Spanish barbarism and there was a call of support for the Cuban people.
Newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer played a major role in shaping the attitudes and opinions of Americans during this era. These two men owned many major newspapers across the country, and they were engaged in a fierce rivalry. In an attempt to outdo one another, they routinely created sensational headlines designed to “scoop” the competition. Unfortunately, these “yellow journalism” headlines were often enhanced or sometimes entirely made up in order to maximize their sensationalism. On February 9, 1898, Hearst greatly stoked the fire of anti-Spanish sentiment when he published a private letter written by Spanish diplomat Dupuy de Lome that was very critical of President McKinley. De Lome was forced to resign, but the public was angered and outraged by the sensational stories and began to call for armed intervention in Cuba.
President McKinley ordered the battleship USS Maine stationed in Havana Harbor ostensibly to monitor the situation and keep the peace. Then, on February 15, 1898, the Maine suddenly exploded in the harbor killing all 260 officers and crewmembers aboard. Immediately, both Spanish and American officials began investigating the cause of the explosion. The Spanish investigation concluded that the explosion was the result of an internal malfunction, and they ruled it an accident. However, after a hurried investigation, the American investigators reported that a Spanish mine caused the explosion. Spain attempted to pacify the U.S. and avoid armed confrontation with an offer of arbitration. However, fueled by the ever-present “yellow press,” the U.S. was enraged and ready to go to war, with the American public proclaiming, “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain.” Years later in 1976, a thorough investigation was conducted and it showed that the Spanish theory was correct and the explosion was accidental.
On April 11, 1898, Congress declared war on Spain. They also ratified the Teller Amendment, which pledged to give Cubans their freedom after the Spanish were defeated. Many Europeans and Americans were skeptical of this anti-imperialistic pledge. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, acting in the absence of the Secretary, ordered Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish-controlled Philippines at Manila Harbor. The U.S. also annexed Hawaii to use as a naval base in the Pacific on July 7, 1898. Although American confidence was very high, on paper the Spanish possessed a superior army and a navy of equal status. However, their navy was run-down and far from its home base.
The U.S. Navy easily destroyed the aging Spanish fleet in Manila. In the battle, over 400 Spanish sailors were killed or wounded, while the U.S. suffered no casualties. Having crushed the Spanish Navy, Dewey had no choice but to wait for ground support as his sailors were incapable of ground combat. Finally, soldiers arrived to lead the attack on the capital. The soldiers recruited rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, and on August 13, 1898, soldiers collaborating with Filipino rebels quickly captured Manila.
The U.S. Navy had similar success in Cuba. They engaged the Spanish Navy and easily defeated it. The U.S. suffered only one casualty compared to over 500 Spanish casualties. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army, including Roosevelt’s famed “Rough Riders”, routed the Spanish but suffered significant fatalities. There were many other battles and skirmishes, but the U.S. Army’s most significant enemy was their lack of logistical preparedness, not the Spanish. For example, they were wearing wool uniforms in the intense heat, and were very susceptible to tropical illnesses. In addition, the lack of medical knowledge concerning the causes and treatments of tropical diseases such as malaria cost many American lives. During the course of the war, 400 U.S. soldiers were killed by Spanish hostilities, while over 5,000 were killed by disease. Despite these American shortcomings, the Spanish military was greatly overmatched, and they surrendered on August 12, 1898.
Later in 1898, the Pact of Paris was signed, which freed Cuba from Spanish rule and gave the U.S. control over Guam and Puerto Rico. Cuban freedom was conditional, as they were pressured to sign the Platt Amendment, which prohibited Cuba from contracting debts and allowed the U.S. to intervene militarily at its discretion. The U.S. agreed to pay $20 million for the Philippines, since it was captured the day after the armistice was signed and therefore was not considered a spoil of war. The U.S. acquisition of the Philippines, the first American venture into true imperialism, sparked a great deal of domestic debate.
In America, the Spanish-American War prompted a fast growing anti-imperialist movement, with members such as prominent authors, philosophers, and academics, including Mark Twain, Jane Addams, and Andrew Carnegie. The Filipino people longed for freedom after years of Spanish rule. In the Downes v. Bidwell case of 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that products imported from U.S. territories are subject to duties and the “Constitution does not follow the flag.” These and other rulings were referred to as “insular cases” and denied residents of occupied territories the rights and protections afforded by the Constitution. These rulings set an important precedent, since previously acquired land had been eligible for these rights as well as future statehood. The U.S. did not grant the Philippines independence, but instead, annexed it. On February 4, 1899, a bloody three-year revolution began that left over 600,000 Filipinos dead and was responsible for more American casualties than the Spanish-American War. In the aftermath of World War II, the America granted the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946.
An important discovery that resulted from the Spanish-American War was America’s need to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. During the war, ships in the Pacific had to travel around South America in order to join the fleet in Cuba. The U.S. now had to protect and supply its far ranging territories in Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines. The U.S. was also beginning to emerge as a world economic power and needed quicker shipping routes to meet its international business needs. Another significant reason for a quick route between the Atlantic and the Pacific was that the U.S. Navy was fast becoming an important, global military player. President Roosevelt began to swing his “big stick” in order to achieve his dream of building a canal in Central America.
Initially, proponents of the canal considered two sites: Nicaragua and Panama. However, experts quickly concluded that Panama would be a more advantageous and realistic site. Despite Roosevelt’s intentions, there were still several legal challenges to overcome before he could build the canal. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 between the U.S and Britain asserted that the U.S. could not have sole control over an isthmian canal in the Americas. However, the British were engaged in the South African Boer War and were feeling increasingly threatened by their European neighbors, so they were willing to repeal the treaty. In 1901, the British and the Americans signed the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty that allowed the U.S. to build and fortify a canal. England had little to lose by signing the treaty, and in exchange hoped to secure the U.S. as an ally in a conflict with Germany that was beginning to look inevitable.
In addition to legal challenges, there were other significant obstacles to building a canal. Panama was eager to secure the canal project in the hope that it would revive their lagging economy. However, Panama was controlled by Colombia, and the Colombian Senate rejected a treaty that would have allowed the U.S. to lease a six-mile zone in Panama. The offer called for an initial payment of $10 million and an annual disbursement of $250,000, which the Colombians viewed as inadequate. Roosevelt was enraged by Colombia’s refusal to cooperate and he was determined to secure the canal area one way or another. A Panamanian uprising against Colombian rule began on November 3, 1903. This coup was backed by Panamanians who sought the prosperity the canal offered as well as representatives of the company that hoped to sell the land to the U.S. for $40 million. The U.S. did not actively encourage this rebellion, although they viewed it as a fortunate development.
Colombian soldiers were poised to crush the rebellion, but U.S. naval vessels would not allow them to cross the isthmus and engage the revolutionaries. Using questionable legal precedent, President Roosevelt quickly recognized Panama’s independence three days later. This was a bitter victory for the U.S., as it secured the necessary land for the canal, but hurt foreign perception of America as well as American relations in Latin America. Latin Americans were already concerned about American control in Puerto Rico and Cuba, and now they began to fear their neighbor to the north.
After years of dubious politics and relationships, construction began on the Panama Canal in 1904. Many obstacles were encountered, including landslides, pestilence, and labor problems. However, a team of engineers persisted, and finally in 1914 the Panama Canal was opened and heralded as the greatest technological achievement of its time. The total costs to complete the job were staggering. In addition to $400 million in financial costs, the loss of good will toward America was incalculable. The English author James Bryce referred to the project as “the greatest liberty Man has ever taken with Nature.”
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Latin American nations began defaulting on massive loans from European powers such as Germany and England. Many of these “Banana Republics,” including Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, had borrowed heavily and had no way or intention of repaying their debts. This issue came to the forefront in 1903, when German warships sank two Venezuelan vessels and bombarded a Venezuelan town. Their intention was to intimidate Venezuela into paying its debts, but they inadvertently threatened Roosevelt and America’s sense of security as well.
Roosevelt was intent on keeping European nations out of the Americas. He feared that if he allowed Germany and England into the Hemisphere to collect debts, they might decide to set up permanent bases, which would have been a violation of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Also, the U.S. did not want the European powers to “extort” Latin American countries, thereby bankrupting them. In order to prevent their presence, Roosevelt devised the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which instituted a policy of “preventive intervention.”
In this clever maneuver, Roosevelt stated that the U.S. would now function as “the policeman of the Caribbean.” Under this arrangement, the U.S. took over the management of tariff collections in 1905. This meant that whenever a Latin American nation was overdue on a debt to a European power, the U.S. would intervene. America would pay off the foreign debt, and then take responsibility for collection, thereby guaranteeing the European loan. The Europeans quickly agreed to this arrangement, as it ensured the prompt payment of the debt, but they were skeptical of America’s motivation. Many people in America, Europe, and Latin America viewed this as yet another imperial move by the United States. Anti-imperialists believed that America was removing the traditional imperialists who were taking advantage of the Banana Republics, for no other reason than to take their place.
The U.S. experienced a number of advantages by assuming control of these customshouses. Corruption and embezzlement were rampant in many of these Latin American countries. The U.S. ran the customshouses fairly and equitably and helped ensure that corruption was minimized. In the short run, several of these Latin American countries began managing their money more efficiently and achieving financial security for the first time. Countries such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela were able to manage their resources more effectively and were beginning to emerge as viable trading partners. However, over time as the U.S. began to return control to local governments, many returned to their corrupt and inefficient ways, which ended this short era of relative prosperity.Despite the success of the Roosevelt Corollary, there were also several drawbacks. Essentially this was a perversion of the Monroe Doctrine, which was considered a sacred document in American politics. It also set another negative precedent for U.S. involvement in Latin America. This new policy was used for years as justification for military and political intervention throughout the region. For many decades, the U.S. performed military landings in Central America and stationed Marines in Nicaragua and other countries in semi-permanent bases. Also, Roosevelt’s “cowboy diplomacy” strained relations not only with Latin American nations, but with the rest of the world as well. The Roosevelt Corollary helped give notice that the U.S. was emerging as a significant world power that could not be ignored.
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