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History of United States imperialism

At its creation the United States was a collection of small colonies on the eastern seaboard with little international import. What was to become the United States of America had existed for almost two centuries as part of the British Empire. The emergence of an independent nation after during the American Revolution was a rejection of colonialism. Over the next two centuries the United States first spread across the North American continent and then rose to become the world's most dominant power. Some argue that this means by which the United States expanded and asserted its authority were imperialistic, and others disagree.

Table of contents
1 Controversy
2 Continental Expansion
3 The Mexican American War
4 The Civil War
5 Age of Imperialism
6 American Imperialism after World War II
7 Historians
8 Things to Incorporate
9 See also


Much of the controversy of this debate stems from the unclear definition of the term imperialism, and also the highly pejorative nature of the word. A Marxist analysis views any exports of capital as being imperialism, by this argument most of the Third World are today America's colonies. Other view social and economic control as being the heart of imperialism, and thus nations like Canada can be viewed as imperial fiefdoms. Others view military intervention alone to be the grounds of imperialism, and thus American imperialism is only manifest in actions such as Vietnam War, or the invasion of Grenada. While almost all historians would consider the U.S. control of the Philippines to be imperialistic, as it followed very closely on the models of other imperialist powers, most other events are far more contrversial.

While for most of the United States' history imperialism has been a term used to decry American policies in recent years some have adopted the view that some forms of imperialism are desirable. Michael Ignatieff argues that American interventions should enforce intrinsic notions of human rights, and should have a form of "Empire Light" to do so. On the right-wing there are now thinkers who believe the United States should aggressively pursue imperialism, these include Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol.

Continental Expansion

According to some who argue America has been imperialistic the first step on the road to imperialism was the conquest of the Native American peoples who inhabited North America. This view began to be advocated in the 1960s and 1970s by such historians as Walter L. Williams. The American expansion westward had many similarities to European activities in Africa and the first arrivals of Europeans in the Americas. The long running series of Indian Wars are quite similar to later American conflicts in the Philippines. Others argue that their is a difference between expansionism and imperialism. They argues that the American expansion driven by settlers and a need for more land was very different from European imperialism that was primarily a search for raw materials and new markets, with colonization and settlement only an occasional side effect.

See also Indian Wars.

The Louisiana Purchase and the Louisiana Government Bill

The Louisiana Purchase, the 1803 transaction of the gigantic western Louisiana Territory from France (Napoleon Bonaparte) to the United States (Thomas Jefferson), is often considered the first major event in American expansion, although it is rarely cited an act of imperialism. However, the Louisiana Government Bill that followed it, although less well-known, is often cited as an early instance of heavy-handedness and hypocrisy in the early United States.

After the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Government Bill, which denied the new United States territory the right to self-government. Instead, it was to be ruled by military officials under direct orders from the capitol. Since most of the population of the territory consisted of non-whites and Catholics, Jefferson felt that the government should suspend its right to self-government until enough white settlers moved west to command a majority. Modern-day critics of this choice point out the irony in the fact that Jefferson, who had decried British denial of American self rule in the Declaration of Independence, was now issuing the orders to deny self-rule in an American territory, issuing commands from half-way across the continent.

Some would argue that the actual owners of the bulk of land was neither France nor the United States but rather the Native Americans who had resided on it for centuries and who were not consulted about this transaction. Others would reply that this would be to apply a 20th-century viewpoint to 19th-century circumstances, and to assume a concept of ownership of land not actually held by Native Americans.

The Mexican American War

The Mexican-American War from 1846-1848 is often viewed as motivated by American imperialism. In 1846, the President of the United States, James Polk, sent soldiers to the disputed zone between Mexico and the newly annexed Republic of Texas in what most historians describe as a provocation for war. American forces quickly defeated those of Mexico, and at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico was forced to cede what is now almost the entire Southwest and California to the United States for only $15 million. A faction called the Continental Democrats had advocated annexing all of Mexico. At the time, the war was denounced in the North both as imperialism and also as a pro-slavery conspiracy to add more slave territory to the United States.

Today, there is some question over the nature of the Mexican-American war. There is little disagreement that it was aggressive in nature, prompted by Manifest Destiny. However, some historians claim that it was simply a grab for more territory, whereas others see it as part of a concerted expansionist movement reminescent of imperialism.

The Civil War

At the time of the United States Civil War many Southerners looked on the Union's action as imperialistic. Tracing their ideals back to the American Revolution, the Confederacy proclaimed that they had the right to self-government just as young America did in 1776. Some Southerners today still refer to the Civil War as the "War of Northern Aggression."

Age of Imperialism

The late nineteenth century is the era which the most historians consider to be one of imperialism. The annexation of Hawaii and the fall-out from the Spanish-American War saw the United States very closely adopt the European model of empire. The era also saw the first widespread protest against American imperialism. The population was divided between those that saw the economic and strategic benefits of colonies and those that felt it was counter to America's founding ideology. Noted Americans such as Mark Twain spoke out forcefully against these ventures. The same period saw other notables such as Rudyard Kipling advocated the idea of The White Man's Burden to civilize the rest of the world.

During this same period the American people continued to strongly chastise the European powers for their imperialism. The Boer War was especially unpopular in the United States and soured Anglo-American relations.


The Kingdom of Hawaii was long an independent monarchy in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. During the nineteenth century first American missionaries and then American business interests began to play a major role in the island. Most notable were the powerful fruit companies, such as Dole Pineapple. After a coup financed and directed by American interests the island became a republic in 1894 and in 1898 Hawaiian President Sanford Dole agreed to his nation's annexation by the United States. The republic ended in 1900 and the country became a territory of the US.

The Spanish-American War

Uncle Sam balances his new possessions, which are depicted as savage children. The figures are identified as Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Cuba Philippines and "Ladrones" (the Mariana Islands).

With the Spanish-American War the United States greatly increased its international power.

The Spanish-American War took place in 1898. The Treaty of Paris (1898), ended the Spanish-American war, giving the United States possession of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Cuba in exchange for $20 million.'

Conflict in the Philippines

The Philippine-American War (1899-1913) is perhaps the most egregious example of United States imperialism. While many Filipinos were initially delighted to be rid of the Spanish rule of the Philippines, the geurilla fighters soon found that the Americans were not prepared to grant them much more autonomy than Spain had. Thus for the next six years American forces engaged in a war in the jungles of the Philippines against the insurgents. The war was expensive and quite unpopular in the United States, but eventually victory was obtained.

Latin America

The early decades of the 20th century saw a great amount of interference in Latin America by the US government, often under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine, but often actually in aid of US corporate interests. Many argue that the United States had a de facto empire in the Americas throughout this period.


While American intervention had begun earlier with Matthew Perry forcibly opening Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, this period saw the United States expand its presence in Asia. The US pushed through the Open Door Policy that guaranteed its economic access to China. It also vigorously acquired small islands in the Pacific, mostly to be used as coaling stations.

American Imperialism after World War II

As with most aspects of American imperialism these more recent events are still disputed (especially in America itself) as many believe that they were not imperialist in nature. Many of the post war actions were implemented as the result of Cold War policy and anti-Communism feelings, which were the basis of much of the United States foreign policy. During this period the United States actively intervened in the politics of many nations, usually on the stated grounds to prevent the expansion of the influences of the Soviet Union, which quite open imperialistic tendencies.

Some critics alleged that the United States' adversary to the Soviet Union and anti-Communist paranoia was causing the American government to become needlessly imperialistic, and was either propping up or overthrowing foreign regimes on often questionable grounds or suspicions. Other critics, especially those on the far left went even farther, alleging that the threat of Communist / Soviet expansion was a largely non-existent, and that the United States was simply meddling in the affairs of other states for more openly imperialistic purposes, such as gaining control of resources, land, or military bases.

This left wing thought became prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly as a result of the backlash against the Vietnam War. Leading advocates of this new anti-imperialism included Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali.

The most notable aspects of this period tend to be American military interventions in areas such as Vietnam, Grenada, and Iraq. Many would argue, however, that cultural and economic imperialism had far greater effects.


During the 1960s and 1970s it became fashionable to view the Soviet empire in eastern Europe as comparable to the American domination of western Europe. It was argued that through economic and military pressure the United States pursued hegemony just as aggressively as the Soviet Union. In recent years this view has lost popularity, however.

The Third World

The following is a list of incidents involving the United States which some view as having hidden or overt imperialist motivations:

As well as these military interventions the United States also pursued and gained economic controls over many developing states. It was aided in this by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Cultural Imperialism

Since the end of the Second World War the United States has been dominant in most of the cultural industries, and has often been accused of Cultural Imperialism. American movies, television, food, and music are popular throughout the world. Many argue that these serve to inculcate populations with American values while at the same time destroying indigenous cultures. This is often of greatest concern in other developed nations such as France and Canada. There is no consensus as to whether American cultural imperialism is intentional on the part of the States. The lack of government investment in American culture makes the spread of American movies, food and so on, more of a side-effect of capitalism than of Americanism per se.


Views on the concept of United State Imperialism have often been influenced by the opinions of the well-known historians of that period, who, in turn, are often influenced by the cultural and social attitude of their eras.

Historians known for their views on the topic include:

Things to Incorporate


Key Figures


See also

American Empire, History of the United States