The Rise of U.S. Imperialism in the early 20th Century

     The colonization of Puerto Rico in the early 1900s by the United States began a policy in which the U.S. became an imperialistic nation. This policy undertaken by the U.S. shows that economic interests trumps U.S. belief in democracy. This initial act of colonization of Puerto Rico would have long lasting effects on both U.S. foreign policy in the form of modern imperialism and on Puerto Rico itself.
      Imperialism, it sounds like a strong and intimidating word, well in truth, it is. According to the dictionary, imperialism is defined as this: “the policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition….” Imperialism has been around for several centuries; however the modern context of the word mainly refers to the British Empire and specifically to the time period of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The British Empire grew out of Great Britain exploring the new world and establishing colonies. It eventually became an empire and out of this, the phrase “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” The British Empire reached it’s zenith during the reign of Queen Victoria (World Book Encyclopedia “U” 68).
      The United States hasn’t always been imperialistic. Out of the United States’ 230 years as a country, it has only been within the last 100 years it has practiced imperialism. This is due in part of the infancy of the U.S. as a nation. The U.S. maintained a policy of isolationism until the late 19th century. In the late 19th century, the U.S. began to become a major player in international trade and the arena of world affairs and therefore needed more “breathing room”
      The Spanish-American War (1898) and the years shortly thereafter was when U.S. imperialism was really started. The Spanish-American War was during the presidential administration of President McKinley. It was caused by the sinking of the U.S. battleship, USS Maine, in Havana harbor in 1898. The U.S. blamed Spain and a war quickly started thereafter, of which the U.S. quickly won (“World Book Encyclopedia “U” 183). Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris the U.S. acquired Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain in return for $20 million.
      With a win under its belt, the U.S. began to flex its political muscle in the form of an imperialistic policy. The U.S. had by this time three main objectives in regard to foreign policy; build a canal in Central America, become a dominant player in the affairs regarding the Caribbean, and annex Hawaii. (Campbell 14) As the result of the Spanish-American War, these objectives could be reached. By the turn of the century, the U.S. had already annexed Hawaii and was well on there way to having a canal built. As for the Caribbean, under the provisions of the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. had a strong hold on the situation there. Instead of helping other countries establish stable democratic governments, the U.S. acquired these countries and ruled them as a war trophy.
      The dawn of the 20th century ushered in an era of extreme imperialistic policies. President McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and Vice-President Roosevelt assumed the presidency. It is during Roosevelt’s administration in which the United States’ imperialism policy became ever so clear to the world. He was known for his policy of “talk softly, but carry a big stick.” The “big stick” in which he is referring to is the full force of the U.S. military. The U.S. military would be the primary enforcer of President Roosevelt’s imperialistic policies. To show the world he meant what he said, he sent a naval task force on a around the world voyage. This voyage was meant to show primarily Japan that the U.S. was a force to be reckoned with in the Pacific Ocean. During this time period, the queen of the seas was the battleship and the task force consisted of sixteen battleships. So having this many battleships go on a public relations cruise was a significant sign that the U.S. was now a major player in global affairs and that the U.S. wouldn’t be bullied or threatened by other countries in the way it carries out its foreign policy.
      His imperialistic policy stance was clearly evident before he became either president or vice-president. His primary reason or excuse for this policy was security of the U.S. and its interest. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt pushed his imperialistic agenda by lobbying for a Nicaraguan Canal and the reason for this is so that U.S. battleships could have a shorter route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and vice-versa (Schoonover 73).
      Once he became president, building a canal was one of his top priorities. By 1903, he knew he couldn’t negotiate with either Nicaragua or Colombia to let the U.S. build a canal so he took matters into his own hands. What happened next was definitely not democratic in any way but imperialistic. The United States, with his authorization, backed a revolution by wealthy Panamanian landowners. With U.S. backing the revolution was successful and on November 6th, 1903 the Republic of Panama was formed (Musicant 135). Twelve days later, President Roosevelt got the permission he sought to build a canal in Central America. The Panama Canal was finally finished in 1914, five years after Roosevelt had left office but he lived to see his pet project become a reality.
      After Theodore Roosevelt left office, his successor Howard Taft didn’t follow in the footstep of his predecessor in regards to foreign policy. Howard Taft primary concern was domestic issues and the only time he intervened in another country’s political affairs was in Nicaragua in 1912, when he sent in U.S. Marines to establish order. When order was restored, a small contingent of U.S. Marines remained in country for nearly two decades to ensure that peace would prevail (Musicant 150-156).
      The time between Woodrow Wilson’s presidential administration through WWII were a time of inactivity in regards to U.S. imperialism. Both WWI and the Great Depression occurred during this time period and the U.S. was in no position to be a dominant world power.
      This quickly changed right after WWII with the threat of communism in both Europe and Asia. The U.S. began to re-exercise its imperialistic policy around the world in the name of world peace and upholding democracy, even though in reality the U.S. was trying to compete with the Soviet Union to prove who the great superpower was. The U.S. fought in many wars, conflicts and misc. military operations between the beginning of the cold war to the present day all in under the guise of ensuring freedom but in reality the U.S. was mainly protecting both its political and material interests around the world. Some examples of these engagements include Korean War (Conflict), Vietnam, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, and mostly recently both Gulf Wars of 1991 & 2003. The first Gulf War did liberate Kuwait but in reality it was all about the oil in the Middle East. The same goes with the Gulf War of 2003. Clearly, you can see that the U.S. will turn a blind eye to promoting and ensuring democracy when its economic or political interests are being jeopardized.
      The country that has been impacted and is still affected by the U.S. which has caused controversy recently is Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico as previously mentioned was acquired by the U.S. as a result of the Spanish-American War as with the Philippines and Guam. However, the Philippines gained their independence in 1946 and Guam is still a U.S. territory, but Puerto Rico has stirred the most controversy and discussion in regards to its status than any other U.S. territory.
      Currently, Puerto Rico is officially considered a commonwealth of the United States. Puerto Rico officially became a commonwealth of the U.S. on July 25, 1952 when its new flag was raised by its governor at the time (Bhana 164). Even though it is considered a Commonwealth of the U.S., it is still subject to U.S. laws and U.S. policy in regards to its legal status and security.
      Democracy in Puerto Rico has had to overcome a lot of obstacles in order to be where it is right now in the 21st century. Right after the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico in 1898, it didn’t try to make Puerto Rico a democratic government but in contrasts, it treated harshly. Between end of the Spanish-American War and 1900, Puerto Rico was under military occupation by the U.S. military. In 1900 the troops were removed and replaced with a U.S. appointed governor (Malavet 36, 37).
      Little changed in regards to Puerto Rico until WWI. The Jones Act of 1917 gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, but not to the fullest extent unless they chose to live in the United States (Malavet 41) Slowly but surely, Puerto Rico was gradually taking steps to independence thanks not the U.S., but to circumstances of the day.
      After the Jones Act of 1917, no progress was made to solve the status question of Puerto Rico. This was due primarily because of difficulties with Congress and its bureaucracies. It wasn’t until Harry S. Truman became president did the U.S. begin to make progress once again in deciding the status question, but the progress slow and based on caution (Bhana 93). Puerto Ricans didn’t give up and still pressed on, and were eventually rewarded when their country was given the power self-govern.
      This now brings up one key question; should Puerto Rico be allowed to join the Union and enjoy the privileges of statehood? This question has been tossed around for over fifty years and still is a subject to controversy. In addition this issue regarding Puerto Rico future has been brought before the United States Congress many times.
      First and foremost, it is the people of Puerto Rico that has the final say in this debate of whether to be become a state of the United States of America since they are the ones who have to live with this decision even though the political decision rests with the United States Congress. Within the last fifteen years, there have been two nation wide democratic elections held in 1993 and 1998 respectively to see if the people of Puerto Rico want their country to be part of the U.S. Both times the people of Puerto Rico have voted to note support such a motion (Malavet 87, 89). So clearly the people of Puerto Rico are not ready or willing to have their country become part of the United States. Perhaps one day they will join the Union, but not today.
      As for the United States Congress’ involvement, the last time they were involved was in 1998 when HR 856 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. This bill was a proposal that was meant to have English be the official language in Puerto Rico and provide a roadmap for Puerto Rico to be admitted into the United States (Malavet87,88). However this bill died within the bureaucracy of Congress and nothing significant has happened since then to solve the question of Puerto Rico’s status or future.
      One possible reason for Puerto Rico’s hesitancy of becoming a state could be because long lasting effects of U.S. imperialism. One of the most recent examples of U.S. imperialism is the use of Vieques Island as a practice range for the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy bought out most of the property in the 1940s and was considered the majority owner of the island (Barreto 23). Is what the U.S. Navy did right? Is U.S. national defense more important that Puerto Rico’s rights? Well apparently, the U.S. Navy thought so. U.S. Navy Admiral Ernest E. Christensen stated that the U.S. national interest outweighed those of viesqueses (Barreto 35). The U.S. Navy, under extreme pressure from the locals on Vieques Island, finally closed the base on the island and withdrew completely in 2003. Clearly the shear will of the people can have a significant impact in the arena of foreign policy.
      The U.S. might not be actively engaged in an imperialistic-type policy, but there are some subtle examples of U.S. policy that do push the envelope. Imperialism has been practiced by many countries for a long time now, and will continue to be used by countries that seek to gain power and influence. U.S. imperialism saw its peak during the early 1900s, but hasn’t completely gone away and probably won’t anytime soon. Also, the long term effects of U.S. imperialistic policy on countries that were affected will not disappear or diminish in anyway in the near future, but will be forever engraved in the history of those countries.
Barreto, Amilcar Antonio. Vieques, the Navy, and Puerto Rican Politics. Florida: The University Press of Florida, 2002
Bhana, Surendra. The United States And The Development of the Puerto Rican Status Question, 1936-1968. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1975.
Campbell, Charles S.. The Transformation of American Foreign Relations 1865-1900. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Malavet, Pedro A. America’s Colony. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
Musicant, Ivan. The Banana Wars. New York: Macmillan, 1990.
Schoonover, Thomas. War of 1898 and the Origins of Globalization. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
World Book Encyclopedia, vol. “U”. USA, World Book Inc., 1994