Reasons for Expansionist Policy


By the end of the 19th century expansion had become a predominant feature of American foreign policy. The continental westward expansion by the end of the 1880’s; perceivably had reached its zenith, and abundant reasons existed for the acquisition of a new offshore commercial frontier. A depression; which forged a need to compete with foreign powers on a commercial and strategic level, as well as a sense of duty known as manifest destiny embodied the ideal and real interpretation of expansionist foreign policy. Within foreign policy circles and the wider community; both staunch opposition and renewed support existed for the inflating empire, which transgressed traditional party lines and North-South divisions. The role of economic factors has played a dominant role in analyses conducted of this period. Justification was simple; it was America’s “duty” to continue its expansion and ‘civilize’ the third world. The ‘Splendid Little War’ of 1898, and the ‘Open Door Notes’ of 1899-1900 represent a significant turning point in the global rise of the United States.


This paper shall focus on the difference of opinion that surrounded the war with Spain and the ‘independent internationalism’ that resulted. The reasons for going to war were both real and ideal. Real, in the sense that; the war applied the Monroe Doctrine to the zone, and acted to secure the markets of Porto Rico, Cuba, and belatedly the Philippines to the expanding US export market. It was ideal in the sense that McKinley acted upon the sympathy, which the American people had felt for the neighbour oppressed by the imperial European power. It must be noted that America’s concern was to uphold, at least ideally, a sense that they encouraged freedom of self government against imperialism. The case is that the opinions of the people of the acquired territories were not at all considered, only the American national interest, thus providing the paradox between the ‘reasons’ and ‘justifications’ of US expansionism.


That there was an expansionist policy at the end of the 19th century is not debatable. After the Civil War the US became a world power. In moving into the balance of power considerations, a number of decisive movements were made: the Dominican Republic was annexed in 1870, acquisitions in Samoa in 1878; helping Europeans control Morocco in 1880; the opening of Korea single handily in 1882; the manoeuvring for open markets in Congo in 1883-4; claiming rights to Pearl Harbour in 1887 and finishing the job in 1893; with arbitration being sought with the British over Nicaragua and Venezuela. By 1895 the attention of the Cuba’s battle for independence lead to the war with Spain over Cuba, and netted the United States the Philippines, Porto Rico and Guam in 1899. By this stage the Asian market place was seen as the way out of the depression 1897 and lead to the dispatch of 5000 troops to China in 1900.[1]


In questioning the reasons for the expansionist policy, those who have sought to impress the economic motives have been active. In 1900 F.H. Giddings in Democracy and Empire suggested that prior to 1898; the demands of the American businessman for new markets to alleviate the 1890’s depression had influenced President McKinley to consider acquiring new territory in the Far East[2]. R.F. Pettigrew, a bitter opponent of the McKinley administration and former senator despised the depiction of the President being under the thumb of business. Williams, Kennedy, LaFeber, and Pletcher have more recently and more sophisticatedly, examined the deterministic nature of the coinciding rise in the acquisition of foreign territory and the increase in foreign trade. All studies though give reference at some point to the depression of the 1890’s which was thought to have occurred due to over production. However, Damiani, in Advocates of Empire argues that after examining documents after the signing of the armistice failed to uncover much evidence that suggests that McKinley was influenced into war by business. Nor, he argues, did the administration have a well defined plan for empire. He states that McKinley was “not particularly enthusiastic about expansion” and that “the advocates of empire stumbled along the imperial path fitfully and uncertainly”.[3] All that this shows is that internationalism was not to occur faster than the US, or President McKinley, was ready