Digital History

United States Becomes a World Power

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Digital History ID 3158



By 1890, the United States had by far the world's most productive economy. American industry produced twice as much as its closest competitor--Britain. But the United States was not a great military or diplomatic power. Its army numbered less than 30,000 troops, and its navy had only about 10,000 seamen. Britain's army was five times the size of its American counterpart, and its navy was ten times bigger. The United States' military was small because the country was situated between two large oceans and was surrounded by weak or friendly nations. It faced no serious military threats and had little interest in asserting military power overseas.

From the Civil War until the 1890s, most Americans had little interest in territorial expansion. William Seward, the secretary of state under presidents Lincoln and Johnson, did envision American expansion into Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Iceland, Greenland, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands. But he realized only two small parts of this vision. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for $72 million and occupied the Midway Islands in the Pacific.

Americans resisted expansion for two major reasons. One was that imperial rule seemed inconsistent with America's republican principles. The other was that the United States was uninterested in acquiring people with different cultures, languages, and religions. But where an older generation of moralists thought that ruling a people without their consent violated a core principle of republicanism, a younger generation believed that the United States had a duty to uplift backward societies.

By the mid-1890s, a shift had taken place in American attitudes toward expansion that was sparked partly by a European scramble for empire. Between 1870 and 1900, the European powers seized 10 million square miles of territory in Africa and Asia, a fifth of the world's land mass. About 150 million people were subjected to colonial rule. In the United States, a growing number of policy makers, bankers, manufacturers, and trade unions grew fearful that the country might be closed out in the struggle for global markets and raw materials.

A belief that the world's nations were engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival and that countries that failed to compete were doomed to decline also contributed to a new assertiveness on the part of the United States. By the 1890s, the American economy was increasingly dependent on foreign trade. A quarter of the nation's farm products and half its petroleum were sold overseas.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval strategist and the author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, argued that national prosperity and power depended on control of the world's sea-lanes. "Whoever rules the waves rules the world," Mahan wrote. To become a major naval power, the United States began to replace its wooden sailing ships with steel vessels powered by coal or oil in 1883. But control of the seas would also require the acquisition of naval bases and coaling stations. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm had copies of Mahan's books placed on every ship in the German High Seas Fleet and the Japanese government put translations in its imperial bureaus.

During the late 19th century, the idea that the United States had a special mission to uplift "backward" people around the world also commanded growing support. The mainstream Protestant religious denominations established religion missions in Africa and Asia, including 500 missions in China by 1890.

During the late 1880s, American foreign policy makers began to display a new assertiveness. The United States came close to declaring war against Germany over Samoa in 1889; against Chile in 1891, over the treatment of U.S. sailors; and against Britain in 1895, over a territorial dispute between Venezuela and Britain.

American involvement in the overthrow of Hawaii's monarchy in 1893 precipitated a momentous debate over the United States' global role. They debated whether the U.S. should behave like a great power and seize colonies or whether it should remain something different.

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