Expansionist policy at the end of the 19th Century


By the end of the 19th Century, America’s expansionist policy and a dynamic economy had delivered the ‘eagle’ to the status of world power. The ‘Splendid Little War’[1] of 1898 eloquently vindicated an expansionist policy, and provided a solution to the economic problems which had faced America since 1893. Although expansionism had been omnipotent before the war, the nature of the victory and the strategic reality that it confounded, authorised the economically based imperialism of the 20th Century, embodied in the “Open Door Notes” of 1899-1900. Reasons that have surfaced are multifarious, and have included Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, the economic communities drive for colonial acquisition, and humanitarian idealism. Despite the numerous reasons, and there have been many, the justifications for the war, therefore, had to involve a great deal of idealism to achieve realist ends.


Intervention in Cuba was both necessary and inevitable however the poignant question is, why did it take so long? This paper argues that the intervention in Cuba and the Philippines was caused by a series of events which unfolded after 1896 and caused a break down in diplomacy. These events, coupled with the actions and attitudes of certain Jingoes[2], persuaded the cautious McKinley to move decisively. By March, the situation had to be resolved by American intervention. The situation was intractable. Hence in April the justification for war was made to Congress on four premises; the humanitarian need of the Cubans, the threat to American commerce and trade, the impedance of American’s in Cuba and the threat to American security[3]. As with most political justifications, McKinley stated them in reverse order.


Too many authors have attempted to portray this as either imperialism, Manifest Destiny or Monroe Doctrine. It has been remarked that there is a latent tendency within the human mind to define something to avoid the necessity of understanding it[4]. If the reason for the intervention in Cuba was loosely based on Realpolitik, or a Monroe Doctrine interpretation, McKinley’s cautious nature is bewildering. Furthermore, arguments purporting the benevolent McKinley, pushed by the sympathy of the American people and the Yellow Press, the fact that little autonomy was extended to the Cubans after intervention must be ignored. McKinley was a shrewd politician, who had a deep understanding of the American political climate of the 1890’s. Although his international knowledge was limited, he could hardly have been the President most ignorant of international affairs. He did, however, understand the imperative of upholding international law, and the problems that would face America should Spain amass a European coalition against them.


Expansionism has been a cornerstone of American political life since the War of Independence. Whilst the Civil war provided a temporary hiatus, successive governments renewed the initiative with vigour there-on. By 1880, a series of ‘wars’ against Trans-Missouri Indians had lead to continental expansion reaching its perceptual zenith. Offshore aggrandizement occurred globally; opening Korea single handed in 1880; attending the Berlin conference in 1883-4 for the access to African markets; curtailing Hawaiian autonomy between 1887 and 1893; and pursuing arbitration with the British over Venezuela and Nicaragua from 1893-1896. Despite these accumulations, the war with Spain must feature as the predominant feature due to the brash confidence that it divulged in the “Open Door Notes”.


In questioning the reasons for the expansionist policy that lead to the war with Spain, economic determinants have been active. As early as 1900, F. H Giddings stated that prior to 1898 the demands of American businessmen, primarily agricultural magnates, influenced President McKinley to acquire new territory, and primarily in the East[5]. A former opponent of McKinley’s and bitter critic, Senator R.F Pettigrew, constantly depicted McKinley as under the thumb of business. However, and to the contrary, Marcus Hanna, one of the agricultural magnates in an address to an agricultural body, stated on the coming to power of McKinley in 1896, “now don’t you fellows fool yourself by thinking that we will be able to give McKinley instructions.”[6] The comments made by Hanna were due a poignant insight of the nature of McKinley, that he was a shrewd, cautious and independent actor, who was adept at understanding the political landscape.


Further economic determinants have come