Overview of Anti-imperialism vs. Imperialism

When the Civil War drew to a close in 1865, the United States had not yet emerged as an imperialist nation, although the groundwork had long been laid. The prehistory of American imperialism lay in the European appropriation of Native Americans’ lands and in post-Revolutionary demands that the United States annex Florida and Louisiana. In 1823 President James Monroe (1758–1831), hoping to prevent Spain from reclaiming former colonies in Latin America, declared the entire hemisphere off-limits for European expansion. Labeled the Monroe Doctrine in 1852, this policy provided a pretext for the threat of military intervention in 1895, when, shortly after gold was discovered in Venezuela, Great Britain, which controlled Guiana, disputed boundary lines.

Throughout the twentieth century, the United States called on the Monroe Doctrine to justify its dominance over hemispheric conditions, the most notable instance being President John F. Kennedy’s invocation of the doctrine during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

The United States also had a proto-imperialist history in its several moves to acquire contiguous lands.

Calls for the annexation of Canada were frequent throughout the nineteenth century. The most famous—as well as the most successful—move, however, was the Mexican-American War of 1848, ending in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded 529,200 square miles of Mexican territory to the United States—California, New Mexico, and parts of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Texas, also formerly part of Mexico, had already been annexed in 1845.

This history of U.S. relations with other American states meant that by the late nineteenth century the people of the United States were already familiar with the idea of taking over neighboring lands or intervening in hemispheric disputes.

They were also sharply aware of the ongoing imperialist moves by the European powers, as Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France either acquired new colonies or centralized control over existing ones. The Boer War of 1899–1902, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the Belgian exploitation of the Congo, French intervention in northern Africa and the Far East all impressed Americans, some favorably, others unfavorably. What was clear to all was that the European imperial powers were reaping extraordinary economic benefits from lands far from their own geopolitical borders. For many Americans, especially those ambitious to extend American business interests, it became clear that overseas expansion was the way to harness American energies and turn them to profitable development. Many Americans both spoke and wrote to this end; among them Alfred T. Mahan (1840–1914), whose books The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660–1783 (1890) and The Interest of America in Sea Power (1897) advocated development of a world-class navy that could be used to protect U.S. maritime commerce. Integral to this plan was the necessity of a canal cutting through Central America and overseas colonies that could serve as military bases.

Mahan’s ideas were favorably received, in large part because they fed into a general cultural investment in the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States had a special mission to expand across the entire North American continent and beyond, especially to Central America and the Caribbean. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny, in turn, was closely allied to a set of racial ideologies that ranked the world’s races according to pseudoscientific criteria of intelligence and character traits and that used Darwin’s evolutionary ideas to develop, especially through the writings of the social scientist Herbert Spencer, a philosophy of ‘survival of the fittest’ that could be used to justify military and economic conquest. In most of the charts developed to illustrate racial hierarchies, Anglo-Saxons (people who could trace their origins to the Germanic tribes—Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—who invaded Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries) were at the top and people of African origin were at the bottom, whereas ‘Asiastics,’ as they were called, occupied a variety of middle ranks, often closely related to skin color.

The promulgation of these racial ideologies throughout American society encouraged a cultural assumption that American institutions—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the economic and political systems generally—were Anglo-Saxon inventions. This led to two further assumptions, deeply held even when contradictory. The first was that ‘inferior races,’ as they were known, were incapable of understanding democratic principles. The second was that it was America’s duty to export U.S. economic, social, and political systems (generally coded under the rubric ‘civilization’) to other nations. This complex was compounded by a Christian missionary tradition that had been operating since John Eliot proselytized to Native Americans in the seventeenth century, a tradition that valorized conversion to Christianity and held that no nation could be truly ‘civilized’ unless it was fully Christianized. It is important to note here that for many Americans, especially those invested in the ideology of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the word ‘Christian’ only referred to Protestants, and ‘Christianity’ referred to the entire complex of Anglo-American cultural values. This meant that Spain’s former colonies, which had been Christianized by Catholics, could usefully be regarded as fertile grounds for Protestant missionizing as well as U.S. cultural, political, and economic domination. Most important, it facilitated an American assumption that most non-European countries were militarily vulnerable compounds of inferior races and social, cultural, and religious difference. This compound of vulnerability, inferiority, and difference sanctioned American intervention overseas. Expansionists argued that nations colonized by European powers were oppressed and would welcome American aid in throwing off their oppressors and in establishing American institutions. When the erstwhile colonists resisted appropriation by the United States, the complex of American attitudes enabled the new imperialists to argue that because the insurgents were racially and culturally backward, they would require first pacification, and then a prolonged education in Western values and technologies before they could govern themselves.

Invasion of other countries also helped in the national project of post–Civil War reconstruction. Amy Kaplan has noted that one benefit of the imperial push in the late nineteenth century was to provide a means of bringing the North and the South together. Although the Civil War was officially over, sectarian hatreds still festered, and the notion that men would fight again, this time united as Americans against a foreign power, helped overcome sectional differences as the military forces looked outward, beyond U.S. borders. Here, too, emphasis on Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, U.S. political institutions, and America’s Christian mission combined to convince Americans that it was, as President William McKinley (1843–1901) stated regarding the Filipinos, America’s duty ‘to educate [them], and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them’ (Millis, pp. 383–384). In the process of bringing Western ‘civilization’ to other nations, Americans who had seen each other as enemies began to rediscover their commonalities, and the ‘work’ of imperialism thus also served to facilitate the work of reunification and cultural community.

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