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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.


BIG IDEA: Americans did not want to participate in World War I, but eventually chose to join the fight after it appeared Germany was inciting Mexico to attack the United States.

World War I was not originally a war that involved the United States. It started in Europe between the major European powers. Over the few decades before the war began, the Europeans had settled themselves into two groups. The Central Powers included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The Triple Entente was made up of the United Kingdom, France and Russia. The alliances were intended to provide support in case of attack, but they also had disastrous consequences.

The war began because the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary was murdered.  Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia, which asked for help from Russia.  Austria-Hungary asked for help from Germany, and then Russia turned to its friends France and the United Kingdom.  By August of 1914, the major powers found themselves going to war.  Most historians see it as a terrible mistake – a time when politicians failed to think calmly and take the time necessary to avoid doing things they couldn’t later undo.

All wars are terrible, but World War I was especially bad.  Modern technology meant that armies could bring machine guns, gigantic cannons, land mines, barbed wire and poison gas to the battlefield.  Humans were no match for these potent defensive weapons and inventors had not yet found ways to counter them.  The result was a slaughter.  Millions of men climbed out of their trenches and marched into a wall of bullets.  Also deadly were submarines called U-Boats, which the Germans had mastered.

For the first few years of the war, the United States remained neutral. Although most Americans supported the British, French and Russians, they did not want to join the fighting.

Eventually, however, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war because of a combination of factors. The Germans began attacking American ships that were carrying supplies to trade with the United Kingdom and France. Probably the final straw was that Americans learned of a plot to convince Mexico to attack the United States. The idea probably had no chance of success, but it made Americans angry enough to join the war.


BIG IDEA: World War I had profound impacts on the United States. Although there was never any fighting on American soil, it led to the expansion of the government, new opportunities for women and African Americans, as well as regrettable restrictions of the freedom of speech.

Americans were enthusiastic about joining the army. For many recent immigrants and their children, joining the fight was a way to demonstrate their love for their new country. A draft was implemented. There were a few conscientious objectors.

Anti-German feelings were common. There were many German immigrants and they faced discrimination. Schools stopped teaching German and German foods were renamed at restaurants.

The federal government gained in both size and power during the war. Business leaders and government officials collaborated to set prices and organize railroad schedules in support of the war effort. Future president Herbert Hoover organized the food industry and the United States fed both its own people and the people of Europe during the war.

To pay for the war, the government raised money by selling liberty bonds.

One of the dark sides to World War I were laws passed to limit First Amendment freedoms.  The Espionage and Sedition Acts made criticizing the government and the war effort illegal.  In the case of Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld these restrictions.

The war effort was good for organized labor. Labor unions worked closely with government officials who wanted to avoid strikes. It was during the war that the 8-hour workday was implemented. Pay went up as well.

Women took some jobs in factories and supported the war effort as nurses and secretaries.

For African Americans, the war was a chance to demonstrate their bravery in battle. Although they served in segregated units, African Americans were fighting against both Germany and discrimination back home. During the war, the need for factory workers in the North increased and thousands of African American families moved out of the rural South to the cities of the North to find work. This Great Migration significantly changed the racial makeup for the country.


BIG IDEA: America joined World War I at the very end and American troops saw limited fighting, but President Wilson took a key role in the peace negotiations afterward. The Treaty of Versailles that formally concluded the war included his idea for a League of Nations, although the Senate refused to ratify the treaty and the nation moved toward isolationism in the 1920s.

The United States entered the fighting in the last year of World War I. Germany had been suffering under a terrible blockade and was short on food and supplies. Russia had already exited the war and was in the middle of a civil war. American commanders refused to let their troops be split up and insisted on fighting together as one large group. They were still a tiny fraction of all the men on the battlefields of Europe.

The end of the war came on November 11, 1918.  The European powers had lost millions of men in battle, as well as civilians.  A flu pandemic swept the world in 1918 killing millions more.

President Woodrow Wilson went to Europe after the war had finished to negotiate a peace deal. He believed it was an opportunity to forge an international system for a lasting peace. He described his vision for a peaceful world in a speech entitled the Fourteen Points. The most important of these was the creation of a League of Nations in which future conflicts could be resolved without war.

The result of the negotiations was the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson succeeded in getting the Europeans to create a League of Nations, although they also imposed a harsh punishment on Germany. Germany was forced to admit that the war had been their fault and pay enormous reparations. This punishing element of the treaty would be used later by Hitler to blame Germany’s problems on its neighbors.

Wilson’s efforts to join the new League of Nations faced a major challenge. The Constitution gives the Senate the authority to ratify all treaties signed by the president. One element of the League of Nations was a commitment by every nation to defend any nation under attack. In theory, this would deter nations from going to war since they risked punishment from the entire world. In reality, Republicans in the Senate feared that this would mean the United States would be forced to join wars that were not really its business.

When it looked like the Senate was going to reject the Treaty, Wilson travelled the nation giving speeches to build public support. This also failed and the Senate voted against the treaty. Without the United States, the League of Nations was seriously weakened. It is possible that if America had been at the table, World War II might have been avoided, but we can never know.

By rejecting the Treaty of Versailles and membership in the League of Nations, the United States also rejected Wilson’s dream of internationalism. Instead, for the next twenty years the nation pursued a policy of isolationism.

In keeping with that new idea, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, cutting off almost all immigration from Europe and ending immigration entirely from Asia.

A fear of foreigners and dangerous foreign ideas swept the nation. With the success of the communist revolution in Russia, a Red Scare started. Immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted in a deeply flawed trial that many saw as evidence of a national eagerness to root out dangerous ideas.