American Imperialism

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What motivated American Imperialism?

What motivated American Imperialism? Relate the main motivations and events of American Imperialism and foreign policy in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

American Imperialism was motivated by a desire to acquire new markets for trade, compete with Europe for land and resources, establish a powerful military presence, and extend American influence throughout the Western Hemisphere.

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Historians have linked US imperialist impulses to what historian Frederick Turner called the closing of the American frontier in 1890. At that point, railroads and settlement had "tamed" the Wild West, leaving the continental United States without new territory for conquest. Under this theory, the United States began to look outward for new regions to control.

This urge for expansion meshed well with US foreign policy ambitions to be the dominant force in the Western hemisphere. Our foreign policy increasingly identified the entire hemisphere (and not just US territory) as our sphere of influence.

This coincided, not surprisingly, with the enormous growth and industrialization of the US economy in the decades after the Civil War. The United States was an increasingly dominant power in the world in the late-nineteenth century and had muscle to flex. It desired to push out the remnants of the weakened Spanish empire from the hemisphere, and this became an impetus for conflicts in places like Cuba and the Philippines.

Making such conquest palatable to a voting public that often is uneasy about spending money and lives fighting unnecessary wars happily found a rationale in an ideology that stated that, rather than exploiting resources in controlling other countries, we were taking on the humanitarian burden of civilizing "backwards" populations and bringing them a superior way of life.

The US, watching the European powers dividing up Africa in this period, saw that Europe had grown wealthy through imperialism and wanted a piece of this seemingly-lucrative pie. The nation had the resources to invest to become an imperialist power and took advantage of the possibility.

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From about the time of the War of 1812 onward, the industrial interests in the U.S. held the American consumers as their own captive market through the tariff on imported goods. The tariff made foreign-made goods more expensive, so that most of the time, American consumers bought American-made goods. This was particularly difficult for the Southern states, where industry was less developed, and played a role in the tensions that led to the Civil War. Industry in the US could not produce goods as cheaply as did England or France, so the US had to acquire markets by force. So they set about acquiring for themselves captive markets outside of the United States: exclusive trading privileges in the Latin-American republics and part of China, as well as through outright possession of Hawaii and the Philippines.

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American imperialism was motivated by four main factors: economic, political, geographic, and cultural.

The economic factors were desires to find new markets for trade. By extending colonial power throughout the world, the US would have new trading partners and markets. In addition, the US would be closer to new markets; when the US became a colonial power in the Philippines, it opened up trade with East Asia.

Politically, imperialism was spreading nationalism/patriotism. It would be a point of pride to maintain colonies globally. It also makes sense from a military standpoint to have colonies in different regions of the world in case a military operation needs to be launched; this is the case with Guam, which was an American base during WWII that allowed US military operations to be carried out in the Pacific theater against Japan.

Geographically, America has interest in competing for land alongside its European counterparts. In the late 19th century, Africa was carved into pieces by the Europeans at the Berlin Conference. Europeans gained land and resources in Africa, and the US wanted to join in on land gains across the world. This ties in with the economic factors; with more land, you are virtually guaranteed to expand your capacity for trade and gain new natural resources.

Culturally, the US wanted to extend its influence and way of life throughout the world. This reason also includes a desire for humanitarianism, wanting to help out countries and peoples the US perceived to be politically, economically, or culturally impoverished. This concept was outlined in Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden," where Kipling is making the argument that other countries are not civilized (read: living Western lifestyles) and it is therefore Americans' and Europeans' duty/burden to help them. Please understand that it is thinly veiled racism to assume that other cultures that are not Western are in any way uncivilized.

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There were three main causes of American imperialism during this time.

First, there were economic motives.  America was becoming more of an industrial power in these days.  Americans believed that it was important to find new sources of raw materials and to find new places to sell their goods.  This helped lead to imperialism.

Second, there were military motives.  This was the era in which Alfred Thayer Mahan’s idea of the importance of naval power was very widely believed.  In this age of coal-powered ships, a naval power needed bases where ships could stop and refuel.  Imperialism got the US such bases, helping to give it more power.  Americans wanted military power and empire to show that their country was strong and important.

Finally, there were cultural motives.  This is the idea of the “white man’s burden.”  There were those who felt the US had a responsibility to spread its supposedly superior forms of culture, government, and religion to people who were less fortunate.

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