America acquires an empire



America acquires an empire


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America acquires an empire


The Imperial Republic



By the end of the nineteenth century, the territorial expansion that had characterized much of the history of the United States had dramatically slowed, a victim of its own rapid success. But the desire to expand did not end with the “closing” of the western frontier. Now supported by the ideas of Social Darwinism, a new Manifest Destiny turned national attention to events and territory beyond American shores. The critical year was 1898. First Hawaii was annexed, and then the country went to war against Spain in Cuba. This “splendid little war,” as Secretary of State John Hay described the surprisingly quick and thorough American victory, electrified the population and gave Washington direct control over the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. In addition, Cuba now became a virtual American protectorate. In a matter of months, the United States leaped into the ranks of the imperial powers. This American empire had been acquired for several reasons: The need for new markets and a racist belief in the superiority of Western civilization cannot be denied, but strategic considerations and a desire to compete on an equal basis with the great powers of Europe were also factors. Key figures in this story in the 1890s were ardent imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst, anti-imperialists such as William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Carnegie, and men torn in both directions such as William McKinley. Public opinion was also divided, but swayed by both the new “yellow press” and the actual taking of lands, it ultimately came down on the side of the expansionists. By 1900 it was clear that the enlarged international position would require the United States to have a better military system and more assertive diplomacy if the new American empire was here to stay.



A thorough study of Chapter 20 should enable the student to understand:


1.   The Manifest Destiny of the 1890s and how it differed from the Manifest Destiny of the 1840s

2.   American foreign policy objectives with respect to Europe, Latin America, and Asia at the dawn of the twentieth century

3.   The variety of factors that contributed to the ultimate American decision to become more imperialistic

4.   The relationship between American economic interests, especially tariff policy, and developments in Hawaii and Cuba

5.   The long- and short-term causes of the Spanish-American War

6.   The technological and other reasons for the rise of the “yellow press” and its role in influencing public opinion

7.   The military problems that Americans encountered in fighting both the Spanish in Cuba and the Filipino insurrectionists in the Philippines

8.   The problems involved in developing a colonial administration for America’s new empire

9.   The limitations of the United States as a global force at the turn of the twentieth century

10. The motives behind the Open Door notes and the Boxer Rebellion

11. The nature of military reforms carried out by Elihu Root following the Spanish-American War



1.   Why Americans turned from the old continental concept of Manifest Destiny to a new worldwide drive for territory

2.   How the Spanish-American War served as the catalyst for transforming vague imperialist stirrings into a full-fledged American empire

3.   How the nation had to make attitudinal, political, military, and ideological adjustments to its new role as a major world power



1.   Compare and contrast the old and the new concepts of Manifest Destiny. Had the economic, philosophical, and racial motives changed?

2.   The United States has always been an expansionist nation. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?

3.   The United States did not turn to expansion immediately following the Civil War. Why the delay? Why were Americans hesitant, even doubtful? How and why did the Spanish-American War change that view?

4.   Discuss the personalities, philosophies, and developments (at home and abroad) that stirred American interest in territorial expansion off and on between the Civil War and 1900.

5.   What impact did the “yellow press” have on American opinion on expansion in the 1890s? How did new technology help the yellow press more strongly influence public opinion? What criticisms might be leveled against that press?

6.   Was the Spanish-American War in fact a “splendid little war”? What was splendid about it? What was sordid, seamy, and ill-conceived about it?

7.   Analyze the positions for and against ratification of the Treaty of Paris, 1899. Why were the anti-imperialists opposed to the treaty? Why did they lose the debate?

8.   Discuss the causes and consequences of the Filipino insurrection against the United States. Why has this war been so little remembered by subsequent generations of Americans?

9.   Discuss the background and results of the American Open Door policy in China. Was it  little more than a “theoretical victory” for the United States?

10. What weaknesses in the U.S. military were exposed in the wars in Cuba and the Philippines? How did the United States respond to these problems? What strengths were shown?



1.   Locate Florida, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico and the major cities in each.

2.   Identify the sites of the most important U.S. victories in the Spanish-American War— Western Hemisphere and the Pacific.

3.   Locate the Philippines, Australia, Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, and Midway.

4.   Which possessions were obtained by the United States in the treaty with Spain? Which possessions were obtained by the United States shortly after the Spanish-American War, but not directly as part of the treaty?

5.   Locate the basic sea route toward the U.S. mainland from the South Pacific.



1.   Why could it be said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”?

2.   What European powers other than Great Britain had significant imperial holdings?

3.   How did the American empire compare in size to those of major European powers by 1900?

4.   Why were events in Cuba of such great interest to the United States?

5.   How did the Philippines get involved in a war ostensibly about Cuba?

6.   What developments made Santiago the key point in the Cuban theater of the war? What were the results?

7.   How did the results of the war change American attitudes toward future events in the Caribbean?

8.   Why was the acquisition of Pacific islands so important to American trading and naval interests?

9.   How were the annexation of the Philippines and the pronouncement of the Open Door related?

10. What advantages did American imperialists hope to gain from American possession of the Philippines?

11. How would annexation of the Philippines affect future U.S. relations with China, Japan, and the European powers?

12. What geographic features of the Philippines made it so difficult for the United States, or any central authority, to control the area?

13. How did the freeing of Cuba and the acquisition of Puerto Rico secure American hegemony in the Caribbean Sea?


These questions are based on the preceding map exercises. They are designed to test students’ knowledge of the geography of the area discussed in this chapter and of its historical development. Careful reading of the text will help students answer these questions.


1.   Why did the United States fight the Spanish-American War in both the Caribbean and the Pacific?

2.   Why did the United States decide to acquire the Philippines, but not Cuba, following the Spanish-American War?

3.   In what ways would nineteenth-century colonial acquisitions help shape twentieth-century American interests and concerns?



Robert L. Beisner, Twelve Against Empire (1968)

H. W. Brands, Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines (1992)

Kenton Clymer, John Hay: Gentleman as Diplomat (1975)

Michael Hunt, The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914 (1983)

Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Aboard, 1876-1917 (2000)

Stuart Creighton Miller, “Benevolent Assimilation”: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903 (1982)

Joyce Milton, The Yellow Journalists (1989)

H. Wayne Morgan, America’s Road to Empire (1965)

Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979)

Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century (1998)

Walter LaFeber, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Policy, Vol. 2: The Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913 (1993)

David M. Pletcher, The Diplomacy of Trade and Investment: American Expansion in the Hemisphere, 1865-1900 (1998)

Hyman Rickover, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed (1976)

Emily S. Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945 (1982)

Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right (1995)

Merze Tate, The United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom (1965)


For Internet resources, practice questions, references to additional books and films, and more, see this book’s Online Learning Center at


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America acquires an empire