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BIG IDEA: American leaders sought to expand and become an imperial nation for a variety of reasons, but most significantly to have access to natural resources and markets. There were some critics of imperialism.

Americans have believed for a long time that we are exceptional in the world. This idea has led American leaders to involve ourselves in other countries. Sometimes we think we can fix problems or can teach other people the best way to live or run their government. This idea might go as far back as the Pilgrims who believed that their success as a colony in the 1600s was because they had a special covenant with God.

The most common reason Americans took control of distant lands was to make money. Sometimes they were looking for raw materials. Sometimes they wanted to have access to markets with people who would buy American-made goods.

Sometimes imperialism was motivated by religion. Christian missionaries in the United States travelled abroad to spread their beliefs. Usually they looked down on the beliefs and traditions of the people they met. Hawaii is one example where this was true.

Other Americans (and Europeans) believed that their culture was superior to all others, and it was their responsibility to share their way of life with the lesser people of the world. This idea was nicknamed the White Man’s Burden. Clearly, it is based on racism.

An important reason politicians became interested in taking control of territory was to provide ports for the navy to stop and refuel their ships. The author Alfred Mahan argued that great nations need colonies and navies to protect trade. Theodore Roosevelt believed in this idea. Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines all had good harbors.

The United States began taking control of territory outside of the contiguous 48 states in 1867 when we purchased Alaska.  Later in the 1890s we took control of more territory by annexing Hawaii and Samoa.  The European nations also were involved in imperialism at this time in both Asia and Africa.

Not all Americans liked imperialism. Some believed it was bad to take land that belonged to other people. Some thought it was too expensive. Still others did not like the thought of foreign people moving to the United States after their homes became American territories.


BIG IDEA: The United States fought a war with Spain that was about Cuban independence, but led to the acquisition of former Spanish territories such as Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

The United States went to war with Spain in 1898 because of Cuba. Cuba was one of the last Spanish colonies in the Americas. Cubans wanted independence, and some people in the United States were sympathetic to the Cuban cause.

At the time, newspapers were competing with each other to sell more copies. Writers and publishers exaggerated stories and used bold, sensational headlines. A popular topic was Spanish cruelty toward Cubans. After reading such stories, many Americans wanted the United States to intervene in Cuba.

The USS Maine, an American battleship, exploded while visiting Havana, Cuba. It is still unclear why the explosion happened, but Americans blamed the Spanish and demanded war.

As part of the declaration of war, Congress passed a law stating that it would not make Cuba an American colony.

The Spanish-American War was a lopsided victory for the United States. American ships destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines and American troops overran the Spanish troops in Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt became a national hero while leading his men in battle in Cuba.

True to their promise, the United States allowed Cuba to become independent, but passed a law saying that they would intervene if there were problems in Cuba. In this way, Cuba was always mostly, but not entirely independent.

As a result of the war, the United States took control of the Spanish territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

The Filipinos had also been fighting for independence when the war broke out. Filipino leaders thought that the war would lead to independence the same that it had for Cuba. However, after defeating the Spanish, the Americans stayed. The Filipino freedom fighters began a rebellion against American rule. A bloody conflict resulted.

In the end, Americans captured Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the Filipino resistance and the rebellion ended. The Filipinos agreed to a deal in which the Americans maintained control of the country but allowed the Filipinos to make many of their own decisions. The United States kept the Philippines as a colony for about 50 years.


BIG IDEA: Americans wanted access to markets in China and influence in Latin America.  Leaders were willing to use overt military power and economic influence to get their way.

European powers had been interested in having control in China for many years. There were important markets with lots of customers in China. Instead of taking full control and making China a colony, Europeans carved up China into zones. These spheres of influence were places where only businesses from one country could operate. The British controlled Shanghai, for example.

The United States did not like this arrangement. American leaders declared an Open Door Policy. They said that Europeans had to let American companies do business anywhere they wanted.

Some leaders in China objected to the control Europeans and Americans had in their country. In one case, a group called the Boxers launched a rebellion and the Europeans and American had to send 2,000 soldiers to defeat them.

During the early 1900s, three American presidents dealt with issues related to imperialism. The first was Theodore Roosevelt. His approach was nicknamed the Big Stick. He believed that he could use American military power (usually the navy) to intimidate less powerful nations. One example was when he sent the navy to Panama to support the Panamanian Revolution and secure the right to build the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal was a major undertaking that was initiated by Theodore Roosevelt. The canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and allows the United States to quickly shift its warships from one ocean to the other. It also serves as an important trade route.

Roosevelt expanded the Monroe Doctrine. President Monroe had declared that the Western Hemisphere was off limits to European nations. Roosevelt added his own Corollary in which he declared that the United States would intervene in Latin American nations when there were problems. The United States has done this multiple times. This American policy has not been particularly popular south of the border.

Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

President Taft followed Dollar Diplomacy. He wanted to use American economic power to influence other nations. This led to the development of the so-called banana republics. One notable example was Honduras where the American United Fruit Company manipulated the government in order to pay lower taxes.

President Wilson believed in Moral Diplomacy. He wanted people to decide on their own government. However, his idealism did not extend to American territories. When Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa attacked an American town, Wilson sent the army into Mexico to try to catch him.