U.S. Imperialism and 1898

By Spalding, Hobart | Monthly Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

U.S. Imperialism and 1898


Spalding, Hobart, Monthly Review


Historians generally view 1898 as a key date in United States and world history. The U.S. victory in what they call the Spanish-American War of that year marks the aggressive emergence of Yankee imperialism on the world scene, complete with colonies and an informal empire. Like most dates, 1898 doesn't open or close an era, but represents a year in which significant changes became obvious. Only by looking at events leading up to and immediately after the war does its full significance come into focus. But first we should note that the term Spanish-American War is incorrect. Spain and the United States fought a war, but the Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Filipino people also struggled against Spain and the United States. The conflict, therefore, should be named the Spanish-Cuban-Puerto Rican-Filipino-American War. It is not called this because imperialists cover up the history that they do not want people to know. The material that follows shows some of the reasons why the truth has remained mostly hidden.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, an industrial and financial elite clearly emerged as the most dynamic class in the United States. The economy expanded rapidly and industry began to replace agriculture as the dominant sector. But the economy did not just move steadily upward. Either depression or serious recession marked fully half the years from 1873 to 1897. These sharp downturns, which to many contemporary observers appeared more and more violent over time, threatened the system's stability. They fueled growing social discontent. In depressions, millions lost jobs or could not find employment. Working people and small farmers responded by forming unions or agrarian organizations, and large-scale urban riots occurred. The late nineteenth century became a time of massive strikes by workers in steel mills, mines, factories, and ports. It was also a time in which medium and small farmers, African-American and white, marched together for their rights. Many contemporaries argued that without an outlet, internal social tensions could only build, leading eventually to class war. As a result, people began actively to look for a way to avoid these cycles. By the 1890s, ruling-class consensus held that sustained U.S. prosperity and the safety of the capitalist system rested on expansion.

Until the Civil War, people saw expansion as a purely continental phenomenon. The natural boundaries of the United Sates lay from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and included Alaska, added in 1867). After the 1860s, two changes occurred. First, people began to enlarge their vision. By 1898 many thought that the U.S. sphere encompassed not only Caribbean islands, but Hawaii, and some places in Asia as well. This represented a huge leap from a continental vision. Second, U.S. foreign policy took a more aggressive tone, displaying a willingness to confront other powers, such as Great Britain, engaged in the race for colonies, empire, and trade.

To expand, the United States needed force to back up its actions or to threaten others into submission. And so, along with expansionism, came the idea of a strong navy. As one U.S. statesman put it, "the man-o'-war precedes the merchantman and impresses primitive peoples." But prior to 1890 the navy remained a disaster and the army numbered only 25 thousand ill-equipped troops. Influential businessmen and members of Congress argued that national prosperity depended upon commercial expansion, which by definition meant conflicts over markets and raw materials. A strong two-ocean navy would provide both defensive and offensive protection. A Central American canal would connect the fleets. The nation needed strategic bases overseas, particularly in the Caribbean to protect any canal. Expansionist Congressmen voted funds to back these ideas. In the 1880s and 1890s, the navy was rebuilt and was on its way to becoming equal to even the famed British fleet. Naval power would play a vital role in 1898 and a trans-oceanic canal became one key plank in the expansionist platform.

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