United States Expansionism, a thing of the past, present or future’
King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 1:9 “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” To understand the root causes behind a nations desire for expansionism, it is necessary to examine the motives as well as the benefactors of such expansionism. Who benefits from increased expansionism’ The government, special interests, big business or a combination of all three’so what’s new today’
As early as 1787, James Madison wrote: “The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter.” (Madison 68). His point at this time was to show that a larger, rather than a smaller republic has less chance of having internal insurrections and upheavals rather than smaller more confined bodies of citizens. Thus the argument can be established that our countries leaders were well aware of the implications of expansion from not only a materialistic and profitable point of view but one of control over its citizens by distance as well. Thomas Paine in his “Common Sense” pamphlet took the position that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birth of a new world is at hand.” (Paine 15).
Looking back upon these policies in 1803 at the time of Jefferson, we can easily see that not only were his efforts at such expeditions as those of Lewis and Clark dedicated to science and discovery but also to investigate possible trade and exploration of natural resources in previously unknown parts of the country. Expansionism continued in this country throughout the nineteenth century until its present day borders were established between Mexico and Canada. The concept of Manifest Destiny dictated that the United States had the ‘God given’ right to explore and appropriate as much property as well as any indigenous natives of those properties even at the risk of provoking war with other nations. Although the United States had no shortage of unoccupied lands, expansionists argued that the republic must continue to grow in order to survive. Echoing the political philosophy of Jefferson, they viewed an abundance of land as an indication of a prosperous republic, and warned against the concentration of political and economic power in any one area.
The practical application of the telegraph, steamship and railroad proved to the naysayers that a transcontinental nation was viable as well as possible. Obviously the profit potential for well connected special interests such as the steel and railroad industries were in favor of expansion in any part of the world from which they might benefit.
Additionally the public consensus of the day held a somewhat romantic view that the United States was empowered by God to take over and appropriate whatever lands were needed. Josiah Strong writes in 1885 that “It seems to me that God, with infinite wisdom and skill is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour to come in the world’s future…The unoccupied arable lands of the earth are limited and will soon be taken.” (Strong). The population at the time believed the United States was the answer to everything and were in awe of nothing. There were no boundaries for the United States. Limits did not exist for the American spirit and the ideal, morals, customs and religion of the day was just the tonic for the illnesses of the world’s impoverished nations. We would become a beacon of light to the darkness of the world. (McDougall).
Once the continental boundaries had been established, the leaders of the nation as well as the leaders of the special interest corporations no doubt observed what was taking place with the colonization of Africa by the European nations in the late 1800’s. The United States was not invited to participate in the distribution of the African nations which held a tremendous amount of potential for countries such as France, England, Germany and Belgium. These nations, as well, felt that it was their destiny to ‘civilize’ the world. The United States was missing out and lagging far behind its European counterparts and thus embarked upon a novel approach to satisfy its expansion and imperialist appetite. These desires for more territories lead to the expansion of the United States and its interests by the creation of a war with Spain.
A new invention called photo-engraving allowed newspapers to print photographs for the first time in the history of journalism. Prior to this time, only wood cuts or metal engravings could be used, both of which were time consuming and expensive. Two American publishers, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer vied for increased readership of their newspapers by using a tactic which became known as ‘yellow journalism’. Both newspapers in their efforts to outdo each other, published accounts and photographs of the abuses heaped upon the citizens of Cuba by their government. These accounts inflamed the American public to the extent that it would soon become necessary to intervene in an effort to control these atrocities. The sinking of the United States battleship, the USS Maine on February 15th, 1898 was all that was needed to declare a state of war against Spain and start what was to become known as the Spanish-American war. The United States had long felt that Cuba was ‘rightly’ theirs, a claim shared by many other countries as well. The long term effects and benefits of such a war can be seen through such governmental leaders as Secretary of State, John Hay who called the conflict “a splendid little war.” Others such as Senator Albert Beveridge approved of the actions of the government by saying “The Philippines are ours forever….We will not renounce our part of the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world. …and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.” (Beveridge).
Just as the Crimean War brought prosperity back to England at a critical time, the United States needed a similar event. The 1899 History and Conquest of the Philippines makes a very clear case for the intervention of the United States for commercial motives. There was also a need for something to occupy the armed forces of the United States. The steel industry was very influential in its quest for larger and larger naval forces. The US Army had very little left to keep it busy once the Indian situation had been brought under control. Army leadership was chomping at the bit to have something to wage war upon. Senator John Thurston of Nebraska made the following in a speech to the United States Senate…”War with Spain would increase the business and earnings of every American railroad, it would increase the output of every American factory and it would stimulate
every branch of industry and domestic commerce.” Of course the fact that Thurston had worked as an attorney for the Union Pacific railroad prior to his election to the Senate may have had some effect on his statements.
The term expansionism, imperialism or any other connotation must be viewed through glasses of doubt in order to determine the base motive for such efforts. Our efforts from the 1700’s through today must be examined from all points of view to see who will benefit and why they will do so. Few efforts in the history of any country have been for purely humanitarian purposes and without some sort of self serving motivation for either self preservation or material gain for those closest to the seat of power and authority. Thus the policy of expansionism by the United States today is not all that different from the policy of the government of the 1790’s or the 1890’s. The advent of faster forms of media such as televisions and the internet have enabled the voting public to be a more informed participant than in years past which has resulted in a more divided populace over the practices which had been accepted without questioning in years past.
We have the advantage over our ancestors in that we can be aware of the movements of our government by both parties as they are happening. We should not be deceived into thinking that one party or another is pure as the driven snow….as some celebrity of years past quipped about some other rival….”She’s as fresh as the driven slush.”
We would do well to watch and heed the lessons of history to determine and gain insight as to what the true motives and objectives are for our intervention into any venture, militarily, humanitarian or otherwise.