There have been, more or less, three American Empires since the founding of our Republic. The First we all study in school; Manifest Destiny! From Sea to Shining Sea! Between the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, the United States expanded across the continent, waging war against Mexico and countless native tribes, using diplomacy and money against Spain, France, and Great Britain. We could call this the Incorporated Empire, for these territories were fully integrated into the United States. The original inhabitants slaughtered or rendered politically powerless, populated by settlers and pioneers, they were molded over into copies of America, and one by one admitted to the Union. Undoubtedly, this Imperial expansion must be referred to as “Empire”, to do otherwise would be absurd. But the definition of an empire, at heart, is a nation within which some territories and peoples rule over others. Since the admission of New Mexico and Arizona as states in 1912, the continental United States has consisted of, formally at least, equal states. The Third we all know about, thought we don’t name it an Empire. Today the United States exercises a direct hegemonic power over the world that no other country in world history could ever have dreamed of. There are American military bases in seventy foreign countries, and American fleets in every ocean on the globe. It is a postmodern empire; an imperium shorn of conquest or territorial rule, consisting of raw power and nothing else. But today I want to talk about the Second American Empire, the short-lived American colonial empire.
In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy describes both the nineteenth-century United States and Russian Empire as having “crumbling frontiers”. By this he meant both countries lacked a firm border, they simply trailed off into vast wildernesses held by nomads. For both empires, this provided vast opportunities for expansion and growth, and Kennedy connects this directly to their emergence in the twentieth century as global superpowers. But in 1890, the U.S Census Bureau declared the frontier to be closed, there was, quite literally, no more land to conquer. Within a decade, America had followed the example of France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and countless other European states. It had begun to expand abroad.
There were deep-seated institutional aversions to colonialism in the American body politic. President Washington famously warned against “entangling alliances” in his farewell address. President John Q. Adams said of the United States that “She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own”. To say that America was non-expansionist would be absurd, given the ongoing genocide against the Native Americans and the war of conquest against Mexico in 1846-1848. But there does not seem to have been much interest in establishing the “colonial relationship” that formed the bedrock of the European empires, in which a metropole exercises direct control over distinctly foreign and subordinates territories. There were exceptions to this, of course. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska Territory from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million, and that same year the U.S Navy took possession of Midway Atoll. These were our first foreign colonies, but in context it seems clear these were exceptions, rather than the beginning of a new policy. Alaska was seen as a useful trading base, and as a way of weakening British and Russian power in the Pacific. Midway was seized for it’s guano mines, and to serve as a steamship refueling station. In 1867, an attempt to purchase the Virgin Islands from Denmark fell through, and in 1869, the U.S Senate voted down a proposal by President Grant to annex the Dominican Republic. In 1893, American settlers in Hawaii overthrew the native monarchy and petitioned from U.S. annexation—but were denied by President Cleveland, who refused to countenance what he saw as an illegal coup d’etat.
Expansion in earnest does not begin until the Spanish-American War of 1898. The causes of the war, and of the paradigm shift it entailed in American foreign policy are beyond the scope of this essay. Certainly, there had been prominent imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, advocating for such a policy for years. Much of their sudden success may have had to do with the closure of the frontier in 1890, and the end of opportunity for “internal” colonization. Much of it may have been linked to the global New Imperialism, and the rampant competition between France, Britain, and Germany for colonies in Africa and Asia. As the U.S emerged as a world power, it only made sense that Americans sense of national pride would be linked to securing a “place in the sun”. Whatever the case, imperialist advocates saw the (almost certainly accidental) destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbor as a useful pretext, and were able to pressure the McKinley Administration into declaring war on Spain on April 21st. Three months later, Spain sued for peace. Despite myriad incompetencies committed by the inexperienced U.S. Army, the American Navy won decisive victories over the Spanish at the Battles of Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba. The Treaty of Paris, signed later that year, transferred soverginity over the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the USA, while establishing an independent Cuba as a virtual U.S. protectorate.
The Spanish-American War is remembered in the American historical narrative, if for nothing more than Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. But it’s a mistake to think of it as the “glorious little war” it’s sometimes described as. The consequences of the Treaty of Paris would keep American troops in the field for years to come, as the inhabitants of the new American colonies realized how little American rhetoric of “liberation” really meant. The United States had entered the war with a open promise to support Cuban revolutionaries in establishing an independent Republic, which they (more or less) kept. But while the U.S. cooperated with the soldiers of the self-proclaimed First Philippine Republic during the war, they soon made it clear that they had no intention of allowing an independent Filipino state to emerge postwar. Fighting broke out in February 1899, and in June, the Republic declared war on the United States. After initial attempts at fighting a conventional war, the outgunned and outnumbered Filipino troops fell back to the wilderness and fought a guerilla campaign. It proved to be of little avail. President Emilio Aguinaldo was captured in March 1901. The final formal forces of the Republic surrendered in April 1902. Still, resistance continued to burn in remote areas, and the insurgency would not be fully suppressed until 1913.
This war has been almost entirely forgotten by Americans today, but it was a very big deal at time. Over 100,000 American troops were deployed to the Philippine Islands over the course of the war, suffering between 4,000-6,000 deaths. Filipino civilian causalities are believed to have been between 250,000 and 1,000,000, mostly from disease and starvation. The atrocities were horrific. American troops tortured and summarily murdered both Filipino soldiers and civilians, carrying out both direct reprisals for attacks on American soldiers and scorched-earth campaigns. Most notoriously, General Jacob Smith initiated the Samar Massacre of approximately 2,500 civilians by telling his men “I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” Later court-martialed for “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline”, General Smith was retired from the army as a result. The war sparked intense controversy at home as well; as American soldiers chased guerillas through the swamps and jungles of Southeast Asia, prominent intellectuals bitterly condemned the entire ordeal. Mark Twain famously complained that
“I thought we should act as their protector—not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now—why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.”
The Filipino War was not popular, and the backlash almost certainly prevented many more blatant annexations. But it did not stop the march of American colonialism. In July 1898, Congress passed the Newlands Resolution, annexing Hawaii over intense opposition from it’s native inhabitants. That same month, American marines landed on uninhabited Wake Island and raised the American flag, claiming it as a territory. In 1899, the U.S. signed the Tripartite Convention with the United Kingdom and Germany, partitioning the Samoan Islands into German and American colonies. In 1900, American troops participated in the Eight-Nation Alliance that marched on Beijing and crushed the Boxer Rebellion. The “Open Door Policy“, announced by Secretary of State John Hay in 1899 is sometimes described as anti-Imperialist, but in practice it mainly served as a way of protecting American interests in China without expensive conquests. The Policy did not prevent American from maintaining territorial concessions in Shanghai and Tianjin, or from stationing troops there permanently in 1927 and 1912. Despite pledges from Washington D.C to ensure the independence of Cuba, the island remained under military occupation until 1902, at which point they were required to ratify the Platt Amendment, a series of articles designed to ensure American diplomatic and commercial dominance.
I.-That the government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes or otherwise, lodgement in or control over any portion of said island.
II. That said government shall not assume or contract any public debt, to pay the interest upon which, and to make reasonable sinking fund provision for the ultimate discharge of which, the ordinary revenues of the island, after defraying the current expenses of government shall be inadequate.
III. That the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba.
IV. That all Acts of the United States in Cuba during its military occupancy thereof are ratified and validated, and all lawful rights acquired thereunder shall be maintained and protected.
V. That the government of Cuba will execute, and as far as necessary extend, the plans already devised or other plans to be mutually agreed upon, for the sanitation of the cities of the island, to the end that a recurrence of epidemic and infectious diseases may be prevented, thereby assuring protection to the people and commerce of Cuba, as well as to the commerce of the southern ports of the United States and the people residing therein.
VI. That the Isle of Pines shall be omitted from the proposed constitutional boundaries of Cuba, the title thereto being left to future adjustment by treaty.
VII. That to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.
VIII. That by way of further assurance the government of Cuba will embody the foregoing provisions in a permanent treaty with the United States.
The result of this treaty was profound. Cuba became an economic adjunct of the United States, existing mostly to supply raw materials to U.S. markets and totally dominated by American companies, and Article VII. would be used to gain control of the Guantanamo Bay naval base that we still (infamously) control today. By the time of the Treaty’s ratification, President McKinley was dead, murdered by an anarchist. But his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, would not renounce his imperialist policies. On the contrary, T.R had long been an advocate of Imperial expansion, and would use his presidency to push forward that agenda even further.
The United States had a long history of being economically and politically involved in Latin America (see the Monroe Doctrine) but under Roosevelt this began to transform into an explicit policy of creating an active Sphere of Influence on the European colonial model. The cornerstone of this was the seizure of the Panama Canal Zone. Various proposals for building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama had been floated since the 16th century, and a major French effort had been undertaken in the 1880s. In 1902, the U.S. began negotiations with Colombia, which controlled the isthmus, to purchase the rights to construct a canal. Disputes over American extraterritoriality and how much compensation would be assigned to the respective countries led to the Colombian senate voting down the proposed treaty in 1903, at which point the U.S. began giving sub rosa encouragement to local rebels, who dutifully rose up and seized control of the province. Absurdly, the United States invoked an existing treaty with Colombia giving them intervention rights to protect “lives and property” in Panama to forbid Colombian troops from entering the region to suppress the rebels. America then signed a treaty with the new Panamanian government, in which Panama ceded total soverginity over a twenty-mile wide strip of territory connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The U.S. also gained the right to expand the zone at their desecration, in return for which Panama received a lump sum of $10 million and annual payments of $250,000. It is worth noting that the “Panamanian” negotiator of this treaty was a Frenchmen named Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who represented the bankrupt Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panama; upon the treaty’s signing the U.S. government purchased the company’s assets for $40 million. By all accounts, the actual Panamanians were less than pleased with this treaty, but were forced to accept it as a fait accompli. Later, the Republic of Panama would also be forced to ratify a constitutional amendment giving the U.S. rights of military invention.
Roosevelt’s other great imperial legacy was the Roosevelt Corollary. Inspired by the 1902-1903 Venezuela Crisis, Roosevelt proclaimed the American right to intervene in Latin American nations to stabilize their finances. In theory, this would help support the Monroe Doctrine, by preventing Latin American nations from defaulting on their debts to European states (as had happened with Venezuela). In practice, this ushered in an era of near-constant U.S. military action around and throughout the Caribbean. The United States re-occupied Cuba between 1906-1909, sent in troops in 1912 to help the government suppress the Negro Rebellion, and stationed several thousand marines on the island between 1917 and 1922, where they patrolled the sugar plantations to protect them against bandits and insurgents. The U.S. landed marines in Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925. In 1914, the U.S. military seized the gold reserves of the Banque Nationale d’Haïti and conveyed them to New York, upon request of the country’s creditors. American soldiers or warships were deployed to the Dominican Republic in 1903, 1904, and 1914. The U.S. stationed troops in Panama between 1918 and 1920. In Nicaragua, American troops first saw action in 1909, before returning in 1912 to intervene in the Nicaraguan Civil War. As a result of that, a permanent U.S. occupation force remained in Managua until 1933. In 1911, Nicaragua signed the Knox-Castrillo Treaty, establishing U.S. control over much of the country’s financial system. In 1916, the Bryan–Chamorro Treaty would be signed, granting the U.S. permanent rights to build a transoceanic canal and leasing the Great and Little Corn Islands to the U.S. for the purposes of constructing a naval base. These interventions would collectively become known as “The Banana Wars”.
The backdrop to these was the increasingly consolidation of economic power in Central America and the Caribbean by a few powerful American companies, most famously the banana importers Standard Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company (now Dole Food Company and Chiquita Brands International). During the 1910s and 1920s these company took advantage of the dependence of the Central American economy on commodity exports to amass a monopolistic position. In 1904, the term “Banana Republic” was coined to describe the situation in Honduras, where United Fruit had become known as ” El Pulpo” (the octopus). The banana companies secured control of the telegraphs, railways systems, and port facilities of these countries as well, and often intervened in politics to ensure support from the government. By 1930 United Fruit owned 3.5 million acres of land across Central America, was the largest single employer in the region, and the largest landowner in Guatemala. This created a synergistic effect. The presence of American economic interests in Latin America created pretexts for American imperial interventions, while increasing American military presence helped preserve the dominance of the U.S.-based companies.
President Taft largely followed in Roosevelt’s footsteps, with the avowed policy of “Dollar Diplomacy” not preventing the drumbeat of small-scale military interventions from continuing unabated. Ironically, it was President Woodrow Wilson who would radically shift our imperial policies to the South—in the direction of escalation. For all his high-minded rhetoric about “making the world safe for democracy”, Wilson saw the relationship between the United States and it’s Latin American neighbors as one of rule of the latter by the former. Following his election in 1912, Wilson moved to expand the scope of the Banana Wars.
From 1910 to 1920, Mexico was caught in the grips of a series of civil wars collectively known as the Mexican Revolution. At the time of Wilson’s election, the President of Mexico was Victoriano Huerta, who had taken power in 1913 with the assistance of the U.S. ambassador through the simple expedient of murdering President Francisco I. Madero, his brother, and his vice-president. By all accounts, Wilson despised Huerta and saw him as a murderous thug (true). His efforts to depose him, however, soon became essentially indistinguishable from previous U.S. interventions south of the border. This can be best be seen in the 1914 Occupation of Veracruz, a pointless and counterproductive use of force that merely confirmed Wilson’s inability to operate outside of conventional imperialist frameworks.
The American invasion of Mexico in was sparked by a seemingly minor affair; on April 9th, a small party of American sailors were briefly detained by Mexican state guards in Tampico. They were released almost immediately with an apology from the city’s governor, but for many Americans, this was an intolerable insult that demanded vengeance. The Administration demanded a Mexican salute of the American flag, Huerta refused, and a week later, American marines were landing in Veracruz to express Wilson’s displeasure with the regime. Intended as a bloodless seizure of the customs house and docks, the fighting soon spiraled out of hand. American marines and bluejackets fought a bitter house-to-house struggle against a ragtag army of soldiers, police, and urban partisans. When the dust settled, the US found itself in total control of Mexico’s largest and most important port. The Wilson Administration seems to have believed that by striking a blow against Huerta, it served the cause of Mexican freedom. But in many ways, the Veracruz Incident is hard to distinguish from any other imperialist adventure. In many ways, it follows the basic template for gunboat diplomacy established in 1850 by Lord Palmerston during the Don Pacifico Affair. A slight was committed against a citizen of the Great Power, the government of said Great Power demands reparations and symbolic submission (the demanded salute), and when this is not forthcoming, armed force is used to acquire it. In the end, every major revolutionary leader condemned the invasion, and the U.S. withdrew after six months.
U.S. involvement with the Mexican Revolution would continue with the so-called “Border Wars”, a series of skirmishes between American troops and Mexican revolutionaries and bandits along the U.S.-Mexican border. This culminated in the Pancho Villa Expedition of 1916-1917, when the U.S. army crossed into Northern Mexico to search for the revolutionary chieftain Pancho Villa, in retaliation for his attack on the town of Columbus, New Mexico. It is against this backdrop of undeclared war that the Zimmerman Telegraph should be understood, by the by.
However, it was in Hispaniola that Wilson’s break with past continuity became most apparent. Previous U.S. military interventions across the region had usually been brief and of small-scale. The longest-term one, the twenty-one year occupation of Nicaragua, consisted of a small garrison of marines supporting an allied local regime. But in 1915, with the republic sliding into one of its perennial civil wars, the US invaded Haiti and seized control of the entire country. In the spring of the following year, the Dominican Republic followed suit, giving the U.S. military direct control of the entire island of Hispaniola. In Haiti, a puppet government was installed and compelled by armed force to sign the Haitian-American Treaty of 1915, which legalized the occupation and established effective American control over most matters of government. U.S. marines would remain in the country until 1934. In the Dominican Republic, efforts to co-opt local politicians failed. There, martial law was simply declared and a naval officer became military governor of the Republic, a situation that would remain until 1926.
Resistance was especially fierce in Haiti, where the U.S. regime reintroduced corvée labor and the Southern Aristocrats who still held a disproportionate share of officer positions in the U.S. marine corps made no attempt to hide their contempt for the Afro-Caribbean elites of the Haitian Republic. In 1917, the U.S. introduced a new constitution, written by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. It ended the historical Haitian prohibition on foreign ownership of property, ushering in a new era of economic dominance by American plantations. Several thousand Haitians and thirty-one Americans died in what became known as the First and Second Cacao Wars.
Also in 1917, Woodrow Wilson ratified the Treaty of the Danish West Indies, in which Denmark ceded the islands that are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands to the United States in return for $25 million.
Wilson’s presidency would end in 1921, after two full terms. In retrospect, it was the high-water mark of the Second American Empire. At this time, the U.S. held a sizable swath of the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska in the far north, to American Samoa in the south, with Hawaii, Midway Atoll, Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines forming a “bridge” across the Central Pacific to Asia, where the U.S. held a share of the International Settlement in Shanghai and maintained a marine garrison. This pan-Pacific empire was connected to the Atlantic by the Panama Canal Zone, another U.S. colony. In the Caribbean, the U.S. controlled the islands of Puerto Rico and the U.S.V.I., and held formalized protectorates over Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, and Haiti, with a long-term military occupation of the Dominican Republic still ongoing, and predominant U.S. economic influence ruling Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. American imperialism would never end—we still hold several of these territories today. But the overt, colonial era would begin to wane. Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover would not end American commitments to the Empire, but they would begin to ignore them, focusing on domestic affairs.
The end date of Banana Wars is usually set in 1934, with President Roosevelt’s proclamation of the “Good Neighbor Policy“, pledging an end to U.S. interference in Latin America. Roosevelt withdrew American troops from Haiti and Nicaragua, and annulled the Platt Amendment. That same year, Congress passed the Tydings–McDuffie Act, establishing local self-government for the Philippines and setting a ten-year framework for independence. But whatever Roosevelt’s intentions, U.S. imperial control would remain, if in altered form. Starting in the 1930s, U.S. military occupations would be replaced by local dictatorial regimes would could impose economic and political order without expensive interventions or direct rule. Often these regimes were established by the local police and paramilitary forces trained by the U.S. marines in previous years. In Empires at War: 1911-1923, Christopher Copozzola writes:
Among these neighbors were: Harmodio and Arnulfo Arias, who rose to power in Panama in 1931 and pressured US officials to relinquish control of the Polícia Nacional so that they could use it as a political force aimed at suppressing their opponents; Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who had headed the Guardia Nacional soon after US troops had departed in 1933 and three years later used the force to topple the government of Juan B. Sacasa; Manuel Quezon, the first president of the Philippine Commonwealth, who rose to power within the US colonial regime as an informant for the secret division of the Philippine Constabulary; Rafael Trujillo, who as a young man gave up his dead-end job as a sugar mill security guard in January 1919 to join the Guardia Nacional Dominicana, then rose to the head of the Guardia, and used the force to seize power in 1930.
The foundation-stones of the Third Empire were laid in the early 1930s, as the project of American colonial rule was gradually replaced by the project of “soft” economic power supported by compliant local dictators. With the exceptions of the Dominican Occupation of 1965 and the Grenada Invasion of 1983, U.S. interventions since have tended to use local proxies and clandestine operations, such as the prototypical 1954 Guatemala Coup, in which the CIA destroyed the democratic government of the country on behalf of the United Fruit Company. Even as Britain and France fought to hold onto their colonies in the wake of the World Wars, the United States was building a new system of imperial control. America may have come later to colonialism, but we pioneered neo-colonialism.