During the first half of the 19th Century, America experienced no major involvement in international affairs. Most of the American expansion during this period was towards its bordering lands which were occupied and readily became part of the US.
The last half of the 19th Century saw America’s expansion into possessions that were separate from the American continent. The United States was now joining a league of other countries, such as, France and Germany that were scrambling for the control of the underdeveloped world.
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The period between 1890 and 1905 saw the US become an aggressive imperialist state. America engaged herself in several international affairs including her involvement with Hawaii and Samoa islands, the war with Spain and controversies over Cuba, Puerto Rico and Philippine (Brinkley, 2007: 559). Fear of dwindling natural resources was among the factors that motivated international involvement. Other drivers included the American politicians’ aggressive push for a foreign policy to address the bloody labor disputes amongst other humanitarian courses and foreign trade.
1) Hawaii and Samoa
The involvement with Hawaii is among the earliest of the American international involvement.
The island of Hawaii served as a very important way station for the ships belonging to America in its trade with china. America wanted to establish a permanent base for the Navy and Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu. The number of Americans settled in Hawaii was also increasing and by late 1880s were dominating the Hawaiian economy and politics (Brinkley, 2007:442). These events were exerting pressure on the native Hawaiians who saw Americans as wrestling power from them. American penetration into this island state started as early as 1790 when the first American set foot in Hawaii. Since then, many merchants, missionaries and planter settled in Hawaii and began devastating the society. In 1887, America opened a naval base at the Pearl Harbor.
By 1890, most sugar plantations in Hawaii were owned by the Americans who depended on immigrant Asian workers. The rise of a powerful Hawaiian queen into the throne in 1890 who challenged American dominance resulted in the lifting of the privilege granted to Hawaiian sugar in international trade. This action by the US greatly hurt the economy of the Hawaii islands prompting American planters in Hawaii to conclude that the only option for them was to join the US. In 1898, Hawaii was fully adopted and became part of the US. During the period beginning in 1878, America was eyeing the island of Samoa with an aim of establishing a naval base at Pago Pago harbor. America successfully convinced Samoan administration to sign a treaty that granted US permission to establish a station at Pago Pago in exchange for the American arbitration of any difference that would arise between Samoa and any other nation.
Samoa also attracted other powers who were also interested in controlling her harbors. Great Britain and Germany too secured treaties that enabled them get privileges from Samoa. After a long intrigues between the three powers, Samoa was divided between the US and Germany with the US retaining Pago Pago harbor.
2) The Spanish-American war
The war between the US and Spain arose as a result of events happening in Cuba. Cuba was under the rule of Spain and since1868 fought in a bid to attain independence.
Cubans again took arms in 1895 complaining of Spanish misrule. Both the Spanish and the Cubans side and the outcomes were devastating. Spain established concentration camps where civilians were confined and died in their thousands due to malnutrition and diseases. This time round, the conflict received much attention from the press and shocked Americans sensibilities. Cuban immigrants flocked into the US and gave strong support to a party based in New York and also supported Cuba’s bid for independence. The rise to power of President McKinley in 1897 set the war into action (Brinkley, 2007:549). McKinley strongly protested the uncivilized and inhuman conduct of the Spaniards in Cuba.
Fearing reprisal, the Spaniards agreed to modify conditions in the camps and to grant Cuba semi autonomy. However, a letter written by a Spanish minister and the blowing up of an American battleship in Havana harbor ignited hostility from America (Walter, 1963:425). Though at first McKinley was reluctant to go into war, there was push by others in his administration. A declaration for war was received in April 1898 leading into the ‘splendid little war’ as john Hay, the America secretary of state called it.
The war started in April and was over in august 1898 and gave the Americans the victory. The major reason for this fast success was because the Spanish were already weakened by the Cuban resistance. Immediately war over Cuba was over, the Americans the wrestled Puerto Rico and the Philippines from the Spanish rule
1890s was a very significant period in the American history as she plunged herself in international affairs.
This era saw America acquire several overseas colonies. It was a period of the American imperialism that initially took the form of humanitarianism intervention. It is worth noting that the purpose of this international intervention was initially unclear. America became a new voice in international affairs and her decisions were listened to by other world powers.
Brinkley, A. (2007).
American History: A survey, 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Walter, F. (1963).
The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898. New York: Cornell University Press