Clinton St. Quarterly, Vol. 3 No. 2 Summer 1981

Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley all responded to the rising demand for markets and sought to reform varoius heathens while challenging Europe’s global power. But expansion was also advocated by many noneconomic groups. One of the more charming bits of our folklore holds, for example, that the Navy was beached and broken from 1865 until it was refloated during the 1890s on the imperial rhetoric of Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan. The truth is rather different. On the one hand, the windblown wooden ships remained quite effective. Even without counting the Atlantic and European squadrons, the fleets on other stations made 5,980 port calls between 1869 and 1897. Those visits were concentrated in the areas noted for their potential as markets and sources of raw materials. Their sailing orders emphasized the importance of preventing European powers from obtaining special advantages and of supporting local governments favorable to American interests. On the other hand, leaders like Benjamin F. Tracy quietly began, early in the 1880s, to build a new battle fleet. As often happens, the delayed start of that program enabled the United States to build ships that were significantly better than the first generation of European vessels. None of that detracts from Mahan’s importance, but it places him in proper perspective. As a result, it was the Navy that defined the imperial strategy for a war against Spain to free Cuba—namely, take Manila as well as Santiago and Havana. Mahan was only one of many American intellectual leaders, moreover, who were developing systematic theories and arguments for imperial expansion. There is a significant amount of vigorous Christianity in Mahan’s writing, for example, and the late-nineteenth-century missionary movement did a good deal to excite people about the American gospel (and its attendant commercial rights) in the Middle East tnd China. And when combined with the doctrine of Social Darwinism by such spellbinders as John Fiske and Josiah Strong, it created imperial best sellers. The people who made policy were pro bably more directly influenced by less flamboyant analyses and syntheses. Some of those were offered by thoughtful and informed business leaders like Charles Conant and J.P. Morgan. They understood how the once relatively open marketplace had come to be dominated by a few large operators in each major part of the econStandard Oil and other imperial spokesmen wanted to sustain the empire everywhere under any and all conditions. But thoughtful and moral conservatives like Herbert Clark Hoover and Dwight Morrow argued for coming to terms with reality and negotiating equal relationships. omy (including many aspects of agriculture) and how the increase in productivity had generated an insatiable demand for markets and raw materials. They viewed the marketplace as an integrated system that required close management at home and expansion overseas. Others, typified by Brooks Adams and Frederick Jackson Turner, offered grand historical interpretations that directly or indirectly indicated that expansion was the key to sustaining welfare and democracy. Such imperial ideas—and related actions—were persistently criticized by a range of socialists on the left to traditional laissez-faire conservatives on the right. They never mustered enough support to change the imperial policy between 1890 and 1920, but they did occasionally limit its thrust—as in Cuba, the Philippines and Mexico. Even so, in several crucial episodes, most strikingly Panama and World War I, many of the critics became imperial patriots eager to extend American power and reform the world. Peace at our Price During those three decades, therefore, the United States evolved and acted upon a coherent and dynamic imperial outlook. The image of themselves that Americans developed in those years is best characterized as one of the United States as a benevolent, progressive policeman. That view was classically expressed by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson: the former in his famous corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and the latter in his cry to make the world safe for democracy. Modern criminology defines three primary idioms of police activity: the watchman, the legalistic and the service. The first concentrates on keeping the peace, preferably by intimidation but if necessary by recourse to violence. The second functions on the assumption that there is a single standard of conduct. The third honors the values and priorities of its particular community. Between 1890 and 1920, Americans synthesized all three on a global scale: keeping the peace as defined by one community’s standard of conduct. But Americans also knew what they wanted to do with that peace. Elihu Root, who served as Secretary of State as well as Secretary of War, explained that with his typical clarity and candor. The issue was “the door, being open, shall lead to something.” “Intercourse with [a country like Algeria] demands the existence of internal conditions favorable thereto.... Equality of opportunities for trade with all natives ... improvement of the condition of the people that will enable them to profit by the opportunities of foreign traffic... The power to repress subversive disorder and preserve the public peace.... [And] people shall be made in a measure fit and able to profit by the advantages” of being integrated into the imperial system. Wilson’s grandiose effort to institutionalize America as the benevolent progressive policeman of the world provoked two major debates. The most famous one concerned whether or not it was possible-let alone wise—to undertake that project. Wilson was defeated by a fascinating coalition. One group was composed of imperial-minded leaders who concluded that it was pragmatically possible; the others were led by anti-imperialists who effectively portrayed the proposal as one that would destroy the image of America as benevolent and progressive. The second discussion grew out of that fight over the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations and became a long dialogue from 1920 to 1940 between the two elements in the coalition that defeated Wilson. To a surprising degree, moreover, it was conducted in the candid language of the nature and the limits of empire. The majority of historians who matured during that debate committed a grievous diservice to themselves, and the rest of us, by using the cliches of isolationism and internationalism to define and analyze that highly significant dialogue. The protagonists fully understood that those terms grossly distorted both the issues and their own high seriousness. 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