Episode 28: American Imperialism Hi, I’m John Green, this is CrashCourse
U.S. History and today we’re gonna talk about a subject near and dear to my white,
male heart: imperialism. So, here at CrashCourse we occasionally try
to point out that the U.S., much as we hate to admit it, is actually part of a larger
world. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, you mean like Alaska?
No, Me from the Past, for reasons that you will understand after your trip there before
your senior year of college, I do not acknowledge the existence of Canada’s tail.
No, I’m referring to all of the Green Parts of Not-America and the period in the 19th
century when we thought, “Maybe we could make all of those green parts like America,
but, you know, without rights and stuff.” Intro
So, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period of expansion and colonization
in Asia and Africa, mostly by European powers. As you’ll know if you watched Crash Course
World History, imperialism has a long, long history pretty much everywhere, so this round
of empire building is sometimes called, rather confusingly, New Imperialism.
Because the U.S. acquired territories beyond its continental boundaries in this period,
it’s relatively easy to fit American history into this world history paradigm. But there’s
also an argument that the United States has always been an empire.
From very early on, the European settlers who became Americans were intent on pushing
westward and conquering territory. The obvious victims of this expansion/imperialism were
the Native Americans, but we can also include the Mexicans who lost their sovereignty after
1848. And if that doesn’t seem like an empire
to you, allow me to draw your attention to the Russian Empire.
Russians were taking control of territory in Central Asia and Siberia and either absorbing
or displacing the native people who lived there, which was the exact same thing that
we were doing. The empires of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries were different because they were colonial in their own special way. Like, Europeans
and Americans would rule other places but they wouldn’t settle them and more or less
completely displace the native people there. (Well, except for you, Australia and New Zealand.)
American historians used to try to excuse America’s acquisitions of a territorial
empire as something of an embarrassing mistake, but that’s misleading because one of the
primary causes of the phenomenon of American imperialism was economics. We needed places
to sell our amazing new products. And at the time, China actually had all of
the customers because apparently it was opposite day.
It’s also not an accident that the U.S. began pursuing imperialism in earnest during
the 1890s, as this was, in many ways, a decade of crisis in America.
The influx of immigrants and the crowded cities added to anxiety and concern over America’s
future. And then, to cap it all off, in 1893 a panic caused by the failure of a British
bank led the U.S. into a horrible economic depression, a great depression, but not The
Great Depression. It did however feature 15,000 business failures
and 17% unemployment, so take that, 2008. According to American diplomatic historian
George Herring, imperialism was just what the doctor ordered to help America get out
of its Depression depression. Other historians, notably Kristin Hoganson,
imply that America embarked on imperial adventures partly so that American men could prove to
themselves how manly they were. You know, by joining the Navy and setting sail for distant
waters. In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan published
“The Influence of Seapower upon History” and argued that, to be a great power like
Great Britain, the U.S. needed to control the seas and dominate international commerce.
Tied into this push to become a maritime power was the obsession with building a canal through
Central America and eventually the U.S. decided that it should be built in Panama because
you know how else are we gonna get malaria. In order to protect this canal we would need
a man, a plan, a canal. Panama. Sorry, I just wanted to get the palindrome in there somewhere.
No we would actually need much more than a man and a plan. We would need ships and in
order to have a functioning two-ocean navy, we would need colonies. Why? Because the steamships
at the time were powered by coal and in order to re-fuel they needed coal depots.
I mean, I suppose we could have, like, rented harbor space, but why rent when you can conquer?
Also, nationalism and the accompanying pride in one’s “country” was a worldwide phenomenon
to which the U.S. was not immune. I mean, it’s no accident that the 1890s saw Americans
begin to recite the pledge of allegiance and celebrate Flag Day, and what better way to
instill national pride than by flying the stars and stripes over … Guam.
So pre-Civil War attempts to expand beyond what we now know as the continental United
States included our efforts to annex Canada, which were sadly unsuccessful, and also filibustering,
which before it meant a senator talking until he or she had to stop to pee was a thing where
we tried to take over Central America to spread slavery.
But, the idea of taking Cuba persisted into the late 19th century because it is close
and also beautiful. The Grant administration wanted to annex it
and the Dominican Republic, but Congress demurred. But we did succeed in purchasing Canada’s
tail. You can see how I feel about that. To be fair, discovery of gold in the Yukon
made Seward’s icebox seem like less of a Seward’s folly and it did provide coaling
stations in the Pacific. But we could have had rum and Caribbean beaches.
Ugh, Stan, all this talk about how much I hate Alaska has me overheated, I gotta take
off my shirt. Ughhh. Waste of my life. So hard to take off a shirt dramatically. I’m
angry. Anyway, coal stations in the Pacific were
important because in 1854 we “opened” Japan to American trade by sending a flotilla
of threatening black ships under Matthew Perry. No Stan, not that Matthew Perry. You know
better. By far, America’s best piece of imperial
business before 1898 was Hawaii. Like, I like oil and gold as much as the next guy but Hawaii
has pineapples and also had sugar, which was grown on American owned plantations by Chinese,
Japanese, Filipino, and native workers. Treaties between the U.S. and the Hawaiian
governments exempted this sugar from tariffs, and America also had established a naval base
at Pearl Harbor, which seemed like a really good idea…then.
We eventually annexed Hawaii in 1898 and this meant that it could eventually become a state,
which it did in 1959, two years before Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
And this leads us nicely to the high tide of American imperialism, the Spanish-American-Cuban-Fillipino
War. The war started out because native Cubans
were revolting against Spain, which was holding on to Cuba for dear life as the remnant of
a once-great empire. The Cubans’ fight for independence was brutal.
95,000 Cubans died from disease and malnutrition after Spanish general Valeriano Weyler herded
Cubans into concentration camps. For this Weyler was called “Butcher” in
the American yellow press, which sold a lot of newspapers on the backs of stories about
his atrocities. And at last we come to President William McKinley
who responded cautiously, with a demand that Spain get out of Cuba or face war.
Now Spain knew that it couldn’t win a war with the U.S. but, as George Herring put it,
they “preferred the honor of war to the ignominy of surrender.” Let that be a lesson
to you. Always choose ignominy. Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document?
The rules here are simple. I guess the author of the Mystery Document.
I’m either right or I get shocked. Alright, let’s see what we’ve got today.
With such a conflict waged for years in an island so near us and with which our people
have such trade and business relations; when the lives and liberty of our citizens are
in constant danger and their property destroyed and themselves ruined; where our trading vessels
are liable to seizure and are seized at our very door by warships of a foreign nation,
the expeditions of filibustering that we are powerless to prevent altogether — all these
and others that I need not mention, with the resulting strained relations, are a constant
menace to our peace, and compel us to keep on a semiwar footing with a nation with which
we are at peace. Thank you, Stan. This is obviously President
William McKinley’s war message to Congress. You can tell it’s a war message because
it includes the word “peace” more than the word “war.”
By the way, it’s commonly thought that the President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration
of war, he didn’t; he let Congress take the lead.
That’s the only time that’s ever happened in all of American history, which would be
more impressive if we had declared war more than 5 times.
So, the document shows us that, at least according to McKinley, we officially went to war for
American peace of mind and to end economic uncertainty.
It was not to gain territory, at least not in Cuba. How do we know? Because Congress
also passed the Teller Amendment, which forswore any U.S. annexation of Cuba, perhaps because
representatives of the U.S. sugar industry like Colorado’s Senator Henry Teller feared
competition from sugar produced in an American Cuba. Or maybe not. But probably so.
Also not the cause of the war was the sinking of the USS Maine. The battleship which had
been in Havana’s harbor to protect American interests sank after an explosion on February
15, 1898 killing 266 sailors. Now, most historians chalk up the sinking
to an internal explosion and not to Spanish sabotage, but that didn’t stop Americans
from blaming the Spanish with their memorable meme: “Remember the Maine, to hell with
Spain.” Let’s go to the Thoughtbubble. The actual war was one of the most successful
in U.S. history, especially if you measure success by brevity and relative paucity of
deaths. Secretary of State John Hay called it a “splendid little war” and in many
ways it was. Fighting lasted about 4 months and fewer than 400 Americans were killed in
combat, although 5,000 died of, wait for it, disease. Stupid disease, always ruining everything.
There weren’t a ton of battles but those that happened got an inordinate amount of
press coverage, like the July attack on San Juan Hill at the Cuban city of Santiago, led
by future president Theodore Roosevelt. While it was a successful battle, the real significance
is that it furthered Roosevelt’s career. He returned a hero, promptly became Governor
of New York and by 1900 was McKinley’s vice president. Which was a good job to have because
McKinley would eventually be assassinated. A more important battle was that of Manila
Bay in which commodore George Dewey destroyed a tiny Spanish fleet and took the Philippines.
This battle took place in May of 1898, well before the attack on Cuba, which strongly
suggests that a war that was supposedly about supporting Cuban independence was really about
something else. And what was that something else? Oh right.
A territorial empire. As a result of the war, the U.S. got a bunch of new territories, notably
the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam. We also used the war as an opportunity to annex
Hawaii to protect our ships that would be steaming toward the Philippines. We didn’t
annex Cuba, but we didn’t let it become completely independent, either. The Platt
Amendment in the Cuban Constitution authorized American military intervention whenever it
saw fit and gave us a permanent lease for a naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
Thanks Thoughtbubble. So, Cuba and Puerto Rico were gateways to Latin American markets.
Puerto Rico was particularly useful as a naval station. Hawaii, Guam, and especially the
Philippines opened up access to China. American presence in China was bolstered by
our contribution of about 3,000 troops to the multinational force that helped put down
the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. But in the Philippines, where Americans had
initially been welcome, opinion soon changed after it became clear that Americans were
there to stay and exercise control. Emiliano Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipino
rebellion against Spain, quickly turned against the U.S. because his real goal was independence
and it appeared the U.S. would not provide it.
The resulting Philippine War lasted 4 years, from 1899-1903. And 4,200 Americans were killed
as well as over 100,000 Filipinos. The Americans committed atrocities, including
putting Filipinos in concentration camps, torturing prisoners, rape, and executing civilians.
And much of this was racially motivated and news of these atrocities helped to spur anti-imperialist
sentiment at home, with Mark Twain being one of the most outspoken critics.
Now, there was some investment in modernization in the Philippines, in railroads, schools,
and public health, but the interests of the local people were usually subordinated to
those of the wealthy. So, American imperialism in short looked like most other imperialism.
So Constitution nerds will remember that the U.S. Constitution has no provision for colonies,
only territory that will eventually be incorporated as states.
Congress attempted to deal with this issue by passing the Foraker Act in 1900. This law
declared that Puerto Rico would be an insular territory; its inhabitants would be citizens
of Puerto Rico, not the United States and there would be no path to statehood.
But this wasn’t terribly constitutional. Congress did extend U.S. citizenship to Puerto
Ricans in 1917. Now it’s a commonwealth with its own government that has no voice
in U.S. Congress or presidential elections and no control over its own defense or environmental
policy. The Philippines were treated similarly to
Puerto Rico, in a series of cases between 1901 and 1904 collectively called the Insular
Cases. But Hawaii was treated differently. Because
it had a sizeable population of American settlers who happened to be white.
Ergo, it became a traditional territory with a path to statehood because white people and
also pineapples. Now let’s briefly talk about anti-imperialism.
There were lots of people who objected to imperialism on racial grounds, arguing that
it might lead to, like, diversity. But there were also non-racist anti-imperialists
who argued that empire itself with its political domination of conquered people was incompatible
with democracy, which, to be fair, it is. The Democratic Party, which had supported
intervention in Cuba, in 1900 opposed the Philippine War in its platform. Some Progressives
opposed imperialism too because they believed that America should focus on its domestic
problems. Yet those who supported imperialism were just
as forceful. Among the most vocal was Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge who argued that imperialism
was benevolent and would bring “a new day of freedom.”
But, make no mistake, underneath it all, imperialism was all about trade. According to Beveridge,
America’s commerce “must be with Asia. The Pacific is our ocean … Where shall we
turn for consumers of our surplus? Geography answers the question. China is our natural
customer.” In the end, imperialism was really driven
by economic necessity. In 1902, Brooks Adams predicted in his book
The New Empire that the U.S. would soon “outweigh any single empire, if not all empires combined.”
Within 20 years America would be the world’s leading economic power. We didn’t have the
most overseas territory, but ultimately that didn’t matter.
Now, the reasons for imperialism, above all the quest for markets for American goods,
would persist long after imperialism became recognized as antithetical to freedom and
democracy. And we would continue to struggle to reconcile
our imperialistic urges with our ideals about democracy until…now. Thanks for watching.
I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by my high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Rojas, and
myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café. Every week there’s a new caption for the
libertage. You can suggest captions in comments where you can also ask questions about today’s
video that will be answered by our team of historians.
Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.
This is the part where Stan gets nervous, like, is he gonna go this way or this way
or this way? I’m going this way. Imperialism –