Written by Vladimir Moss



    Russia and America were the exceptions among the nineteenth-century "Greater European" empires - Russia because she rejected the democratic ethos of the others, and America because she rejected the very idea of empire. In fact, she was officially so anti-imperial that, as Niall Ferguson notes, "when Santo Domingo (the future Dominican Republic) effectively offered itself up for annexation in 1869, the proposal was defeated in Congress."[1]

     And yet America was an empire in all but name. Essentially, she was the same type of commercial empire as the British, and by the later part of the nineteenth century had even overtaken the British, thanks to the techniques of standardization of parts and mass production. "In 1870," writes David Landes, "the United States had the largest economy in the world, and its best years still lay ahead. By 1913, American output was two and a half times that of the United Kingdom or Germany, four times that of France. Measured by person, American GDP surpassed that of the United Kingdom by 20 percent, France by 77, Germany by 86."[2]



     Perhaps the first openly imperial (and anti-monarchical) act of the United States was the annexation of Hawaii. “The Kingdom of Hawaii,” writes Protopresbyter James Thornton, “gained the recognition of the United States and the major European powers in the 1840s. In 1887, a constitutional monarchy was created, the constitution of which the king, Kalakaua, only reluctantly signed. When the king died in 1891, his sister, Liliʻuokalani, succeeded him as monarch. Not liking the restrictions on monarchical power in the 1887 constitution, the queen began the process of adopting a new constitution, which would restore some of the rights of the throne. In 1893, men opposed to any constitutional revision overthrew the queen, proclaiming a provisional government. A petition was sent to the United States asking that it annex Hawaii. However, President Grover Cleveland, disapproving of the manner in which the queen’s government was toppled, declined to annex the islands. An independent Republic of Hawaii was then formed and the idea of annexation by the United States was set aside until after the expiration of President Cleveland’s term of office. The islands were formally annexed as the Territory of Hawaii in July 1898 during the administration of William McKinley.

     “By the late 19th century, the United States had become a major power in the world. Evidence of that power was the Spanish-American War. Some historians regard that war as the beginning of American interventionism in the world’s affairs. Others dispute that, since no foreign alliances were involved, seeing it only as a part of American expansionism that had begun with the Louisiana Purchase.     

     “In February 1895, Cubans began an insurrection against Spain’s control of the island. Over the next several years this struggle for independence became ever more harsh and bloody, so that by early January 1898 the American consul-general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, came to believe that American lives and property were in danger. He therefore asked the United States to send a battleship to Havana Harbor as a show of force, to discourage any threats to American citizens. The battleship Maine was dispatched, arriving January 25. On February 15 the Maine mysteriously exploded and sank, killing 266 American sailors. An American Board of Inquiry determined that the ship was likely sunk by a mine, while Spain’s investigatory commission determined that the explosion came from a malfunction inside the ship itself.

     “In 1974, Admiral Hyman Rickover led an investigation of the sinking, concluding that a fire in the coal bunker caused an explosion in an adjacent ammunition magazine. Another investigation, this one financed by National Geographic magazine, was inconclusive and only demonstrated that either theory — internal coal fire or external mine — was possible. Whatever the case, which we may never know with certainty, it is highly improbable that the Spanish government or military would have authorized the deliberate sinking of an American warship and thereby sparked a war in which a Spanish defeat was a near certainty. At the same time, it is abundantly evident that elements within the American political establishment of that time desired war and thus seized the occasion of the sinking to rouse public opinion in favor of war. ‘Remember the Maine’ became their incendiary catchphrase.

     “On March 30, 1898 the United States demanded that Spain grant Cuba immediate independence, a demand that Spain refused the following day. Consequently, on April 11, President McKinley asked Congress to authorize the deployment of U.S. troops to Cuba to end the strife there. Congress passed a joint resolution demanding Spain’s immediate withdrawal from Cuba and authorizing McKinley to use whatever force necessary to gain Cuba’s independence. An ultimatum was sent to Spain, and the United States initiated a blockade of the island. That brought a declaration of war by Spain against the United States on April 23. On April 25, Congress declared war on Spain retroactive to April 21.

     “At the Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, led by Commodore George Dewey, defeated and destroyed a Spanish squadron and seized Manila. Subsequently, 11,000 U.S. troops landed on the Philippines, which then came under American tutelage. The Spanish-controlled island of Guam was captured without bloodshed on June 20. Puerto Rico was attacked by sea beginning May 12, and by land June 25. Armed conflict continued on that island until the end of the war. Victory in Cuba was achieved by joint naval and ground action. The U.S. Navy first took Guantánamo Bay in early June, and then Santiago de Cuba in early July. Ground troops were landed in the far south, just east of Santiago de Cuba. Over the next several weeks the United States fought and won a fiercely contested series of battles. After its string of defeats, especially at sea, Spain sued for peace. On August 12, an armistice was signed, halting all hostilities, followed by a peace treaty on December 10. As a result, Spain ceded control of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States, and also relinquished control of Cuba, which became a U.S. protectorate. Thus America gained several overseas possessions that, among other things, vastly enhanced its naval strength.”[3]

     Indeed, it was the growth in America’s naval power that more than anything else underpinned her growing power among the nations. For "until such times as the United States had a world-class navy, it could not really enforce its claim to what amounted to a hemispheric exclusion zone. In the 1880s the American fleet was still an insignificant entity, smaller even than the Swedish. However, inspired by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan's hugely influential book The Influence of Sea Power upon History, the United States embarked on a navy-building program more ambitious even than Germany's. The achievement was astonishing: by 1907 the American fleet was second only to the Royal Navy. With this, the Monroe Doctrine belatedly acquired credibility. When Britain and Germany blockaded Venezuela in 1902, in response to attacks on European ships and defaults on European debts, it was Theodore Roosevelt's threat to send fifty-four American warships from Puerto Rico that persuaded them to accept international arbitration. By the early 1900s Great Britain recognized the United States as one of those rival empires serious enough to be worthy of appeasement."[4]

     America was becoming the world's major liberal "anti-imperial empire", whose main motivation was commercial gain. In this commercial motivation, the Americans were similar to the British; but they were less committed to Free Trade as the British. Moreover, more "purely" imperial reasoning also played its part. Thus "the American imperialist Albert Beveridge claimed, 'We are a conquering race, we must obey our blood and occupy new markets and if necessary new lands.' The Pacific was 'the true field of our operations. There Spain has an island empire in the Philippines. There the United States has a powerful squadron. The Philippines are logically our first target.'"[5]

     The new imperial mood, writes J.M. Roberts, "was vividly caught in 1898 by one newspaper's observation that 'a new consciousness seems to have come upon us - the consciousness of strength - and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength... whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle. It means an Imperial policy..."[6]

     We see this in the words of leading American politicians. Thus President McKinley at first hesitated to intervene in Cuba. But then his political opponent Theodore Roosevelt mocked him, saying that he had "no more backbone than a chocolate éclair".[7] McKinley crumbled, therefore, not because he had rationally come to the conclusion that this intervention was in America’s best interests, but because he feared being called a “sissy”. And so, after a "splendid little war", - would any contemporary politician in the western world dare to use such a phrase? - in the President's words, the Spanish conceded defeat in both Cuba and the Philippines.

     In Cuba, writes Joseph Smith, "the military intervention of the United States transformed a struggle for national liberation into a war of American military conquest. Americans used their superior power to dictate the peace settlement and the future political status of the island. The pre-eminence of the United States in Cuba was symbolically demonstrated in Havana on 1 January 1899 when the American military authorities refused to allow armed rebel soldiers to participate in the ceremonies marking the formal evacuation of the Spanish army from the island. It was a historic moment ending almost four centuries of imperial rule by Spain... Cuba had finally become independent in 1902. But independence was more nominal than real. Overshadowed by 'the monster', Cuba entered the twentieth century as an American protectorate rather than a truly independent nation."[8]

     In the Philippines it was a similar story. "McKinley's reported justification for annexing the [Philippines] was a masterpiece of presidential sanctimony, perfectly pitched for his audience of Methodist clergymen: 'I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you... that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way - I don't know how it was but it came... (1) That we could not give them back to Spain... (2) That we could not turn them over to France and Germany - our commercial rivals in the Orient... (3) that we could not leave them to themselves - they were unfit for government... (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. 

     "As McKinley portrayed it, annexation was an onerous duty, thrust upon the United States by the will of Providence. Such religious appeals doubtless had considerable public resonance. The decisive arguments for the occupation with the American political elite were nevertheless more military and mercenary than missionary" - especially in view of the fact that the Philippinos were Catholics.

     At the Treaty of Paris, the Philippines were ceded to the United States for $20 million - a good price, it would seem. But the eventual cost was much greater, because the Filipinos decided not to accept the Americans as their new colonial masters…

     As a result, writes John B. Judis, "the United States then waged a brutal war against the same Philippine independence movement it encouraged to fight against Spain. The war dragged on for 14 years. Before it ended, about 120,000 U.S. troops were deployed, more than 4,000 were killed, and more than 200,000 Filipino civilians and soldiers were killed."[9] The war alone, not counting post-war reconstruction, cost $600 million.[10]

     American imperialism was not always so violent. In 1898, after decades of interference, the Americans annexed Hawaii without bloodshed, and Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by Spain in the same year. However, it was the violent conquest of the Philippines which proved to be the turning-point in American foreign policy.

     In what happened in the Philippines, as Ferguson writes, "seven characteristic phases of American engagement can be discerned:

Impressive initial military success

A flawed assessment of indigenous sentiments

A strategy of limited war and gradual escalation of forces

Domestic disillusionment in the face of protracted and nasty conflict

Premature democratisation

The ascendancy of domestic economic considerations

Ultimate withdrawal."[11]

     Judis writes: "Prior to the annexation of the Philippines, the United States stood firmly against countries acquiring overseas colonies, just as American colonists once opposed Britain's attempt to rule them. But by taking over parts of the Spanish empire, the United States became the kind of imperial power it once denounced. It was now vying with Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan for what future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called 'the domination of the world'.

     "Some Americans argued the country needed colonies to bolster its military power or to find markets for its capital. But proponents of imperialism, including Protestant missionaries, also viewed overseas expansion through the prism of the country's evangelical tradition. Through annexation, they insisted, the United States would transform other nations into communities that shared America's political and social values and also its religious beliefs. 'Territory sometimes comes to us when we go to war in a holy cause,' U.S. President William McKinley said of the Philippines in October 1900, 'and whenever it does the banner of liberty will float over it and bring, I trust, the blessings and benefits to all people.' This conviction was echoed by a prominent historian who would soon become president of Princeton University. In 1901, Woodrow Wilson wrote in defense of the annexation of the Philippines: 'The East is to be opened and transformed, whether we will or no; the standards of the West are to be imposed upon it; nations and peoples which have stood still the centuries through are to be quickened and to be made part of the universal world of commerce and of ideas which has so steadily been a-making by the advance of European power from age to age.'

     "The two presidents who discovered that the U.S. experiment with imperialism wasn't working were, ironically, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had been an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. takeover of the Spanish empire. '[I]f we do our duty aright in the Philippines,' he declared in 1899, 'we will add to that national renown which is the highest and finest part of national life, will greatly benefit the people of the Philippine Islands, and above all, we will play our part well in the great work of uplifting mankind.' Yet, after Roosevelt became president in 1901, his enthusiasm for overseas expansion waned. Urged by imperialists to take over the Dominican Republic, he quipped, 'as for annexing the island, I have about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to.' Under Roosevelt, U.S. colonial holding shrunk. And after the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, Roosevelt changed the United States' diplomatic posture from competitor with the other imperial powers to mediator in their growing conflicts.

     "Upon becoming president, Wilson boasted that he could 'teach the South American republics to elect good men.' After Mexican Gen. Victoriano Huerta arranged the assassination of the democratically elected President Francisco Madero and seized power in February 1913, Wilson promised to unseat the unpopular dictator, using a flimsy pretext to dispatch troops across the border. But instead of being greeted as liberators, the U.S. forces encountered stiff resistance and inspired riots and demonstrations, uniting Huerta with his political opponents. In Mexico City, schoolchildren chanted, 'Death to the Gringos'. U.S.-owned stores and businesses in Mexico had to close. The Mexico City newspaper El Imparcial declared, in a decidedly partial manner, 'The soil of the patria is defiled by foreign invasion! We may die, but let us kill!' Wilson learned the hard way that attempts to instill U.S.-style constitutional democracy and capitalism through force were destined to fail."[12]

     From 1900, as J.M. Roberts writes, there began "the building of an isthmian canal to connect the Caribbean and the Pacific, a project canvassed since the middle of the nineteenth century, and once attempted by the French. The half-century's talk of building one was coming to a head when the Spanish-American war broke out. American diplomacy negotiated a way round the danger of possible British participation; all might have seemed plain sailing, had not a snag arisen when, in 1901, a treaty with the United States providing for the acquisition of a canal zone from Colombia was held up by the Colombian legislature. A revolution was more or less overtly engineered in Panama, the area of Colombia where the canal was to run, and the revolutionaries were given United States naval protection against the Colombian government. A new Panamanian republic duly emerged which gratefully bestowed upon the United States the necessary land together with the right to intervene in its affairs to maintain order. Work at last began in 1907 and the canal was duly opened in 1914 [more precisely, on August 3, 1914, the day Germany declared war on France], an outstanding engineering triumph. The capability it created to move warships swiftly from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back transformed American naval strategy. A deep distrust had been sown, too, in the minds of Latin Americans, about the ambitions and lack of scruple of American foreign policy."[13 

     And no wonder. For while the New York Times not inaccurately called the American engineered revolution that preceded it "an act of sordid conquest"[14], the project itself cost 5,600 lives (mainly black employees)...[15] In view of the fact that the new century was to be America's century, in which "the empire of liberty" supposedly "saved the world for democracy" against fascist, communist and Muslim dictators, it is as well to remember this imperialist prelude to its greatest acts, a prelude that presages, perhaps, the empire’s ultimate fate…

     While American power might have looked old-fashionedly imperialist from a Latin American or Filippino perspective, there were in fact subtle but important differences between American and European imperialism. As Adam Tooze writes, “Having formed itself as a nation state of global reach through a process of expansion that was aggressive and continental in scope but had avoided conflict with other major powers, America’s strategic outlook was different from either that of the old power states like Britain and France or their newly arrived competitors – Germany, Japan and Italy. As it emerged onto the world stage at the end of the nineteenth century, America quickly realized its interest in ending the intense international rivalry which since the 1870s had defined a new age of global imperialism. True, in 1898 the American political class thrilled to its own foray into overseas expansion in the Spanish-American War. But, confronted with the reality of imperial rule in the Philippines, the enthusiasm soon waned and a more fundamental strategic logic asserted itself. America could not remain detached from the twentieth-century world. The push for a big navy would be the principal axis of American military strategy until the advent of strategic air power. American would see to it that its neighbours in the Caribbean and Central America were ‘orderly’ and that the Monroe Doctrine, the bar against external intervention in the western hemisphere, was upheld. Access must be denied to other powers. America could accumulate bases and staging posts for the projection of its power. But one thing that the US could well do without was a ragbag of ill-assorted, troublesome colonial possessions. On this simple but essential point there was a fundamental difference between the Continental United States and the so-called ‘liberal imperialism’ of Great Britain.

     “The true logic of American power was articulated between 1899 and 1902 in the three ‘Notes in which Secretary of State John Hay first outlined the so-called ‘Open Door’ policy. As the basis for a new international order these ‘Notes’ proposed one deceptively simple but far-reaching principle: equality of access for goods and capital. It is important to be clear what this was not. The Open Door was not an appeal for free trade. Amongst the large economies, the United States was the most protectionist. Nor did the US welcome competition for its own sake. Once the door was opened, it confidently expected American exporters and bankers to sweep all their rivals aside. In the long run the Open Door would thus undermine the Europeans’ exclusive imperial domains. But the US had no interest in unsettling the imperial racial hierarchy or the global colour-line. Commerce and investment demanded order not revolution. What American strategy was emphatically directed towards suppressing was imperialism, understood not as productive colonial expansion nor the racial rule of white over coloured people, but as the ‘selfish’ and violent rivalry of France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan that threatened to divide one world into segmented spheres of interest.

     “The [First World] war would make a global celebrity of President Woodrow Wilson, who was hailed as a great path-breaking prophet of liberal internationalism. But the basic elements of his programme were predictable extensions of the Open Door logic of American power. Wilson wanted international arbitration, freedom of the seas and non-discrimination in trade policy. He wanted the League of Nations to put an end to inter-imperialist rivalry. It was an anti-militarist, post-imperialist agenda for a country convinced of the global influence that it would exercise at arm’s length through the means of soft power – economics and ideology. What is not sufficiently appreciated, however, is how far Wilson was willing to push this agenda of American hegemony against all shades of European and Japanese imperialism…. As Wilson drove America to the forefront of world politics in 1916, his mission was to ensure not that the ‘right’ side won in World War I, but that no side did. He refused any overt association with the Entente and did all he could to suppress the escalation of the war that London and Paris were pursuing and which they hoped would draw America onto their side. Only a peace without victory, the goal that he announced in an unprecedented speech to the Senate in January 1917, could ensure that the United States emerged as the truly undisputed arbiter of world affairs…”[16]

     “For Wilson as for [Theodore] Roosevelt the war was a test of America’s new self-confidence and strength. But whereas Roosevelt wanted to prove the manhood of the US, for Wilson the war raging in Europe challenged the nation’s moral equilibrium and self-restraint. By America’s refusal to become embroiled in the war, its democracy would confirm the nation’s new maturity and immunity to the inflammatory wartime rhetoric that had done such harm fifty years earlier. But this insistence of self-restraint should not be misunderstood for modesty. Whereas interventionists of Roosevelt’s ilk aspired merely to equality – to have America counted as a fully-fledged great power – Wilson’s goal was absolute pre-eminence. Nor was this a vision that scorned ‘hard power’. Wilson had thrilled in 1898 to the excitement of the Spanish-American War. His naval expansion programme and his assertion of America’s grip on the Caribbean approaches was more aggressive than that of any predecessor. In order to secure the Panama canal, Wilson in 1915 and 1916 did not hesitate to order the occupation of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and intervention in Mexico. But thanks to its God-given natural endowments, America had no need of extensive territorial conquests. Its economic needs had been formulated at the turn of the century by the ‘Open Door’ policy. The US had no need of territorial domination, but its goods and capital must be free to move around the world and across the boundaries of any empire. Meanwhile, from behind an impenetrable naval shield it would project an irresistible beam of moral and political influence.

     “For Wilson the war was a sign of ‘God’s providence’ that had brought the United States ‘an opportunity such as has seldom been vouchsafed any nation, the opportunity to counsel and obtain peace in the world…’ – on its own terms. A peace accord on American terms would permanently establish the ‘greatness’ of the United States as ‘the true champion of peace and of concord’…”[17]


[1]Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, London: Allen Lane, 2004, p. 41.

[2]Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, London: Abacus, 1999, p. 307.

[3] Thornton, “Partnering with Putin”, New American, November 20, 2015,

[4] Ferguson, Colossus, pp. 42-43.

[5] Diana Preston, The Boxer Rebellion, London: Robinson, 2002, p. xxiii

[6] Roberts, The Penguin History of the Twentieth Century, London: Penguin, 2000, pp. 102-103.

[7] David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty, London: Penguin, 2010, p. 295.Reynolds, p. 295.

[8]Smith, "Heroes of the Cuban revolution: Marti, Maceo and Gomez", Historian, N 44, Winter, 1994, pp. 7-8.

[9] Judis, "Imperial Amnesia", Foreign Policy, July-August, 2004, p. 50.

[10] Ferguson, Colossus, p. 50.

[11] Ferguson, Colossus, p. 48.

[12] Judis, op. cit., pp. 53-54.

[13] Roberts, op. cit., p. 105.

[14]See Anthony Delano, "America's Devious Dream", BBC History Magazine, vol. 7, no. 11, November, 2006, pp. 21-25.

[15] Reynolds, op. cit., p. 301.

[16] Tooze, The Deluge, London: Penguin, 2015, pp. 15-16.

[17] Tooze, op. cit., pp. 44-45.

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