How America Became an Imperial Power
By Dr Syed Amir
A little over two centuries ago, America gained its independence from Britain and in time became the United States of America. The country’s founding fathers, having suffered under foreign rule, enshrined the sanctity of the principle of self-determination in their Declaration of Independence, which defines “liberty as an inalienable right.” Thomas Jefferson, the third US president, was insistent that “we should have nothing to do with conquest.” Later events showed that the vision of the founding fathers did not endure.
Starting with thirteen original states in 1776, the US vastly expanded its size over the next century. In 1803, President Jefferson bought nearly 828,000 square miles of territory from France that had fallen on hard times because of the Napoleonic wars in Europe. For the 15 million dollars that was paid for the land, the president doubled the area of the country. Known as the Louisiana purchase, it is considered as one of the most profitable real-estate deals in history.
In 1867, the US made another lucrative purchase when it bought the vast territory of Alaska from Russia for the bargain price of $7.2 million. The land was unexplored, sparsely populated and comprised largely frozen wilderness. Many Americans were unhappy that the then Secretary of States, Willian Seward, wasted money on worthless wasteland, and disparagingly dubbed the deal as “Seward’s Folly”. They were proven wrong, however. Alaska endowed with rich mineral resources, including oil, now has a thriving population and a major tourist industry.
Following the 1492 discovery of America, several European powers had carved out large chunks of land in the newly-discovered continent. Spain acquired vast areas in North, Central and South America. Its colonies and the quantum of wealth extracted from them, catapulted Spain to the status of a leading global power in the sixteenth and seventh centuries. But its power and glory did not last long. Beset by political conflicts in Europe and buffeted by powerful national liberation movements in the Americas, Spain lost control of most of its far-flung domains by the early nineteenth century. In 1819, it agreed to sell Floridato the United States, and then in 1821 was forced to grant independence to Mexico.
Newly independent Mexico soon became embroiled in a territorial dispute with its powerful neighbor to the north, the US, leading to the Mexican-American war (1846 to 1848). Weak and still recovering from the aftermath of its debilitating freedom struggle, Mexico was forced to cede to the US a number of western states, including California, New Mexico and Arizona
By end of the 19th century, the US had become an industrial and military power of some significance and had been asserting itself on the world stage. Gone were the days when a much weaker America in the late 18th century under President Thomas Jefferson could not protect even its merchant ships from the barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. With power came new ambitions. A heated debate was set off in the US whether, following the example of European countries, it should also acquire an overseas empire. Powerful politicians argued passionately for and against the proposition.
Theodore Roosevelt, the future president, emerged as a fervent advocate for the projection of American power and spread of Western civilization far and wide. His equally persuasive opponent was Mark Twain, the famous humorist, author and travel writer. Twain upheld the doctrine of human equality and right of all nations to rule themselves. The movement against colonization notwithstanding, the strident voices in favor of acquisition of territory won out. In a recent book, The True Flag, author Stephen Kinzer describes in exquisite details how the US was transformed from a peaceable nation state to an imperial power.
For European powers - Britain, France and Spain - building an empire had been a slow, arduous process. The history of US empire building followed a different trajectory. The story of how America became an imperial power in just one short year in 1898, is fascinating and unprecedented. It also illustrates how unscrupulous politicians and news media could manipulate and sway public sentiments in favor of war. Roosevelt, who had long been looking for a war to fight to assert the new American power, soon found a new opportunity to fulfill his aspirations. Installed as assistant secretary of the navy by President McKinley, he zealously embarked on a mission of building warships to boost US naval power. Now, he was faced with where to deploy this force.
By the late 19th century, Spain had been reduced to a second-rate power, a pale shadow of its former grandeur. Yet, it still possessed Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Spain’s overseas possessions offered tempting targets for any powerful adventurer. Spain’s hold on Cuba was already shaky in the face of continuing agitation against its rule. A movement emerged in America to dispossess Spain of its colonies. Alleging mistreatment of American citizens and native Cubans, the US news media started a campaign urging military intervention in the island. If any immediate excuse was needed to initiate the hostility, it was provided by the explosion on the US naval ship, USS Maine, that was anchored off the coast of Cuba, ostensibly on a goodwill mission.
Three weeks after its arrival, for reasons still unknown, the USS Maine suffered a huge explosion on board and sank, taking 258 American sailors with it. The ship was loaded with ammunition and most likely exploded because of some mechanical problem, but the press and the hawkish politicians immediately branded it as an act of sabotage and held Spain responsible for it. Emotions were raised to a fever pitch and soon the senate passed a resolution declaring war against Spain, demanding that it vacate the island. A bedraggled Spain was hardly able to resist. Nevertheless, it refused to comply, and an American flotilla was dispatched to expel it.
The ensuing conflict known as the Spanish-American War was mostly a one-sided affair, although the US newspaper motivated to sell papers falsely portrayed the battle as “an epic conflict.” The newspapers were filled with “delirious reports of battlefield victories in Cuba.” Spain capitulated in just over three months and forced to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1898, with Spain agreeing to surrender its possessions, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the US in exchange for a paltry sum of $20 million. Cuba finally won its independence from the US in 1902.
American occupation of the Philippines proved far more troublesome than Cuba. The Islands had been under Spain for over three centuries, since Ferdinand Magellan discovered them in 1521. In the year 1898, this far flung outpost of the empire was only lightly defended by a feeble, demoralized Spanish garrison. A week after the declaration of war, on May 1, 1898, an American fleet of six warships streamed into Manila Bay to threaten the Spaniards. They were opposed by “slow-moving, poorly armored Spanish fleet.” The captain of the American fleet, Admiral Dewey, relishing the lopsided contest and aware of the weakness of the opposing side, gave the order that has gone down in military history: “you may fire when you are ready.” The battle was over in hours, and at the end nine Spanish ships had been sunk or damaged with no American losses.
There was great jubilation in America on receiving the news and, as is often the case, the victory was taken as a sign that God was on the side of the Americans. Next question was what to do with the new territory? Even President McKinley had only a hazy idea where the islands were and is quoted as saying “somewhere away around the other side of the world.” Yet, the American occupation of Philippines proved very costly. As the US attempted to pacify the island and consolidate its hold, it met a fierce resistance from the local population. The war continued for ten years and cost 600,000 Pilipino lives. The conflict finally ended after the US withdrew following the Second World War.
Having captured both Cuba and the Philippines, the US expansionist lobby was pining next for the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. Roosevelt urged, “Don’t make peace until we get Puerto Rico.” In July 1898, American forces took possession of the island without encountering much resistance. The territory is now part of the US, but there is a lack of consensus among its residents whether it should be incorporated as the 51st state.
The Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific were a big prize at the time, defenseless, without a central authority or administration. American sugar plantation owners and protestant Christian missionaries were already well established there, supposedly on a mission to Christianize and civilize the native population. The United States annexed Hawaii in 1898. Initially, in 1900, its status was defined as a territory, but in 1959 both Hawaii and Alaska were given the status of full states and since have been integrated with the rest of the country.
The history of US imperialism is remarkably different from the European colonialism, since, unlike European colonies, most of the territories US captured have become integral part of the country on their own free will.
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