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Overview of American Becomes a World Power
Digital History ID 2917

During the 1890s, the United States showed little interest in foreign affairs. Its army, with just 28,000 soldiers, was one-twentieth the size of France's or Germany's. Its 10,000-man navy was a sixth the size of Britain's and half the size of Spain's.

Toward the end of the 19th century, interest in foreign affairs mounted. Some worried that the United States was being left behind in the scramble for territory, markets, raw materials, and outlets for investment. Others, such as the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, believed that national prosperity depended on control of sea lanes. Still others believed that the United States had a special mission to uplift backwards peoples.

Beginning in the late 1880s, a new assertiveness characterized American foreign policy, evident in disputes with Germany, Chile, and Britain. In 1893, Americans in Hawaii forced Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate; the United States annexed Hawaii five years later. War with Spain in 1898 led to the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, where the United States confronted a two-year insurrection.

Fear that the United States was being shut out of trade with China led Secretary of State John Hay to issue the 1899 Open Door Note. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine declared that the United States would exercise “international police power” in the Western Hemisphere. The United States assisted Panama in securing its independence from Columbia in order to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The U.S. occupied Nicaragua for 20 years, Haiti for 19 years, and the Dominican Republic for 8 years.


At the turn of the 20th century, the United States became a world power. In 1898 and 1899, the United States annexed Hawaii and acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, parts of the Samoan islands, and other Pacific islands. Expansion raised the fateful question of whether the newly annexed peoples would receive the rights of American citizens.

The Spanish American War and the acquisition of the Philippines represented both an extension of earlier expansionist impulses and a sharp departure from assumptions that had guided American foreign policy in the past. For the first time, the United States made a major strategic commitment in the Far East, acquired territory never intended for statehood, and committed itself to police actions and intervention in the Caribbean and Central America.