Oxford lecture, 21 January 2011, “American Empire”

American Empire

1. Continental expansion –mostly achieved by 1865, indeed by the Mexican War of 1846-48 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which obtained the “Mexican Cession” of California, New Mexico etc but:-

2. Post-Civil War expansionism;
Alaska (1867)
The Reconstruction South as a “colonial area”? see (D. Meinig, vol. 3 of The Shaping of America: Transcontinental America, 1850-1915);
Grant’s unsuccessful attempt to acquire Santo Domingo 1871 (Dominican Republic)

3. The idea of the empire of liberty (Jefferson)

4. How did this work in practice?

a. The Indians (from domestic dependent nations, 1831) to tribes on reservations who were wards of the nation (1871), not citizens (Indian Citizenship 1924)

b. Alaska as unincorporated territory till 1912

c. The territories, particularly of New Mexico and Arizona – were ruled from the center- territorial governors were not elected; denied statehood till 1912

The role of race in these matters

Importance of all this was that the previous continental imperialism served as justification for saying that later imperialism was not a break with the past – see Walter L. Williams, “United States Indian Policy and the Debate over Philippine Annexation” Journal of American History 66, no. 4 (March 1980)

5. 1890s – expansion overseas

the usual interpretation – outward pressures

the revisionist view
external non-imperial connections provide the context for the imperial adventure.
In particular, business interests in Cuba – capital affected by the Cuban-Spanish war for Cuban independence;
Humanitarianism raised in consciousness by a decade of moral reform activity (Armenian massacre relief, 1894-96, and Russian, 1891, and Indian, 1897, famine rescue agitations) — frustrations over the Reconcentrado policy of Gen. Val. Weyler plus the sinking of the USS Maine >>>

6. War of 1898: Causes and consequences

a. “humanitarianism” as an outpouring

b. makes US a world power

c. makes US aware of the world more

d. reconciliation of north and south from the Civil War

e. Treaty of Paris, Dec. 1898 with Spain

7. Why did the U.S. decide to keep the Philippines?

a. trade; the Open Door?

b. to stop another European power from taking it?

these two may be reconciled, as what was the problem about having another European power there unless the US wanted access to the markets of East Asia?

8. Formal empire also included – Puerto Rico, Guam (1898); Samoa (1899), Cuba (1898-1902)
Panama Canal Zone (1903); Virgin Islands (1917)

Hawaii 1898 as a territory, but like Alaska was from 1912, kept as a territory for a very long time, in fact till 1959

5. Each of these acquisitions had its own logic—Puerto Rico guarding the Canal approaches; Samoa a coaling station in SW Pacific; Virgin Islands also on the canal approaches
Hawaii, a naval base

So this is all the formal empire; but
a. it’s mainly islands that can serve as bases – hence the “island empire”

b. it is to safeguard commerce – -the Philippines also fits this to some extent as does Hawaii which becomes the US pacific fleet naval base

But there’s more; the informal empire

9. Informal empire- exert political or economic control without sovereignty- often involved military interventions that were temporary—in other words, the threat of coercion if the quasi-colonies did not follow policies pleasing to the United States and U.S. business interests

this grew out of the period of the formal empire and the war of 1898

The prototype is Cuba – the Platt Amendment giving Cuba independence from Jan 1 1903– under that law the US retained the right to intervene to protect US interests, including the right to intervene if the finances of those places were not being run properly – and of course the agreement gave US control over Guantánamo Bay. The lease for the latter was renegotiated in 1934, when the Platt amendment was repealed.

financial protectorates; financial control

if the financial conditions aren’t met or American companies or citizens are affected by internal events in those countries, then the US intervenes militarily
this happened repeatedly
Especially Cuba, 1906, 1909
Haiti 1914-34 (direct rule)
Dominican Republic, 1916-34 (though with financial supervision before this)
Nicaragua 1912-32 (small contingent as a waring mostly)
Etc. etc

10. Open Door – Open Door Policy re China (1900) and Open Door as an “empire of free trade” — see William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) and Empire as a Way of Life (1980)
Weaknesses in this argument (the China Market was an illusion; high US tariffs in the period, 1897-1920s conflicted with free trade)

11. Amnesia/Denial of empire part of American exceptionalism – because of the prominent of the informal empire and the nature of the formal empire

Shown in terms used — Insular possessions–Bureau of Insular Affairs

Role of historians in this – they treated, as Samuel F. Bemis did, the “great aberration”

12. Anti-imperialism (i.e., US anti-imperialism)
Opposition in 1898-1902 located in Democratic party and Socialists, women’s groups; Mugwump elite reformers; old abolitionists
Opposition rooted in anti-colonial tradition – uncomfortable with formal empire; but also included a racist dimension over concern about possible citizen status in the future for Filipinos

13. Comparisons: US is not an empire unlike any other
a. strong similarities to the British empire- – especially if one includes Australia and Canada as comparable with the continental empire of the American west
b. regarding annexations of subject areas and peoples, both preferred informal control; and bases and seaports rather than hinterlands (seaborn empires v. land based)
c. The US was drawn into formal empire to protect areas from possible alternative foreign intervention (Virgin Islands and the Philippines, Samoa) – so too Britain in Malay States, East and West Africa etc.
d. both preferred the Open Door– and the US took over the trade dominance from Britain in Latin America in the early 20th century
e. both intervened to crush the Boxer rebellion as part of an international force- cooperated. Civilization v. barbarism
f. In fact 1898-1917 saw an Anglo-American rapprochement –

14. Learning from other empires

Modernisation and empire — in the key case of the Philippines, the U.S. sets out to provide schools, hospitals, roads etc (and in Panama, and in Cuba, 1898-1902) — but had to adapt even economically as in control of forests, 1903-10 where scientific forestry policies had to be amended.

The moral stance (anti-opium for the Philippines, 1903-08) became a defining characteristic—the U.S. would not have an “immoral” empire where such things were tolerated.

15. The Philippines

What’s in a Name?: is the 1899-1902 conflict between the US and Filipino republicans a “Philippine Insurrection” as known in the US or a war for Philippines independence?

What to do with the Philippines? Motives for annexations

The division in Partisan policies: Democrats v. Republican

Jones Act 1916 (limited autonomy to Philippines)

Independence to be granted in ten years from 1934
(spurred mainly by Tariff issue concerns on imports of Filipino sugar; racial fears, fears of Filipino immigration)

Independence 1946


Apart from works cited above, for further explication of the material discussed in the lecture see:
Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano, The Colonial Crucible (2009)

Ian Tyrrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (2010)

On the recent “empire of bases”

Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004)

Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008)

Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2002)

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