The roots of empire

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]

One more glance backward – this time at America as it reinvented itself between the Spanish-American War of 1898 and its entrance into World War I, and we can move on to consider the 20th century’s impact in terms of economics, and then in terms of culture.

America in the year 1900 found itself fundamentally transformed, in ways only half perceived. In the century to come, the consequences of consequences of consequences would lead to world leadership, perhaps to world domination. But in 1900, we were only at the beginning of things.

The nineteenth century – the 1800s – had seen the United States grow from 15 states, almost all of them on the Atlantic seaboard, to 45 states extending from Atlantic to Pacific. From being a small country located at the fringe of things, trying to stay out of the way of France and England as they fought their 20-year duel which we call the Napoleonic Wars, the United States had become a power in itself, acknowledged by European powers to hold sway over the entire Western Hemisphere. But the war of 1898 changed the nature of the country in fundamental ways.

The war itself, as we shall see in the next chapter, resulted in the end of Spanish rule in Cuba and Puerto Rico and, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Philippine Islands, all of which had been Spanish for nearly 400 years. The U.S. did not attempt to rule Cuba, settling for becoming massively influential with successive governments, and took over governing Puerto Rico without major problems. But in the Philippines, it promptly found itself attempting to suppress a native revolt – which is precisely what Spain had been unsuccessfully attempting to do in Cuba. The parallel made many people uneasy. In fact, the transformation of a continental republic into an ocean-spanning empire spurred the development of the Anti-Imperialist League, of which Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was a prominent member. Not that such sentiments helped the Filipinos.

Once having acquired the Philippines, the question of how to hold them against possible foreign challenge led logically to the acquisition of a chain of islands to provide coaling stations for warships of the two-ocean navy that would henceforth be needed. The Hawaiian Islands were acquired by a neat bit of sleight-of-hand in the year 1900. Wake, Midway, Guam, and American Samoa were similarly acquired. That the Japanese might look askance at this projection of American military power nearly to the coast of China was perhaps inadequately appreciated. But here was one of the roots of the war in the Pacific. (Forty years later, Japan would capture Wake and Guam, and its attempt to capture Midway would lead to perhaps the most one-sided upset victory in naval history.)

In September, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States when president William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt, an avid imperialist, promptly helped the province of Panama secede from the recalcitrant republic of Columbia, and began construction of the Panama Canal, to facilitate world trade by removing the necessity of rounding Cape Horn, at the distant tip of South America, and, not incidentally, to provide similar passage for American warships, thus greatly multiplying effective American naval power. The new Panamanian government was willing to concede pretty much anything the U.S. demanded, and so there emerged a ten-mile-wide strip from coast to coast, the Panama Canal Zone, essentially U.S. territory cutting the country into northern and southern halves. Digging the canal, which had defeated a French company many years earlier, was a massive job that took many years. The canal opened in 1914. just in time for the beginning of the World War.

(Demonstration of the need for the canal came during the War of 1898, when an American warship left San Francisco for Florida. It left March 19 and arrived in Florida May 24, after a journey of 14,000 miles. Had the Panama Canal been in existence, the journey would have been 10,000 miles shorter.) See

Roosevelt also embarked on an ambitious program of naval construction and sent the fleet around the world as a demonstration not only of American military might but of newfound American confidence. The stage was set for U.S. involvement in World War I, with all the consequences which, as we have seen, would follow. The war began in 1914. The Lusitania was sunk in early 1915, but failed to bring the United States into the war. Year after year, news of the ghastly slaughter – especially on Germany’s western front – was accompanied by propaganda from all sides, all attempting to influence American opinion. President Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan that “he kept us out of war,” but in April, 1917, felt compelled by Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare to ask for a declaration of war. Thereafter, the hard-pressed British Navy transferred a massive amount of know-how (and, inadvertently but unavoidably, transferred command of the seas) to the U.S. Navy, its new ally. Within a couple of years came victory, disillusionment, and isolationism, and so onward to another world war, a cold war, and global military supremacy.

So much for the military course of the United States in the twentieth century. Now we need to return to the year 2000, and go over the same years once again, this time looking at economics.

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