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American Imperialism




Learning Targets:

  • I can explain the political, economic, & cultural factors that fueled the growth of American imperialism.

  • I can describe the causes and effects of the Spanish American War.

  • I can compare and contrast Roosevelt, Taft, & Wilson's foreign policies, & I can evaluate the consequences of each.


Critical Vocabulary:

Alfred Thayer Mahan, Queen Liliuokalani, General Valeriano Weyler, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, Yellow journalism, Dupuy de Lôme, USS Maine, Teller Amendment, Commodore George Dewey, Emilio Aguinaldo, Rough Riders, Treaty of Paris, Treaty of Paris, Platt Amendment, Insular Cases, Roosevelt Corollary, Commodore Matthew Perry, Spheres of influence, John Hay, Open Door Policy, Boxer Rebellion, Treaty of Portsmouth, Gentlemen’s Agreement, Great White Fleet, Root-Takahira Agreement, Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, Dollar Diplomacy, Moral Diplomacy, Jones Act, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, ABC Powers, Venustiano Carranza, General John J. Pershing

Seeking Empire

The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of unprecedented American prosperity and power. The economic and social environment was perfect for the rise of the International Darwinism movement. Followers of this movement applied some of the fundamental views of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) to international politics. They believed that the earth belonged to the strong, and with America quickly growing in strength, there was a strong surge of support for increased US imperialism.
Many different groups pushed for American expansion overseas. Industrialists sought new markets for their products and sources for cheaper resources. Nationalists claimed that colonies were a hallmark of national prestige. The European powers had already claimed much of the globe; America would have to compete or perish. Missionaries continually preached to spread their messages of faith. Social Darwinists such as Josiah Strong believed that American civilization was superior to others and that it was an American's duty to diffuse its benefits. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote an influential thesis declaring that throughout history, those that controlled the seas controlled the world. Acquiring naval bases at strategic points around the world was imperative.
Hawaiian Annexation

By the time the United States got serious about looking beyond its own borders to conquer new lands, much of the world had already been claimed. Only a few distant territories in Africa and Asia and remote islands in the Pacific remained free from imperial grasp. Hawaii was one such plum. Led by a hereditary monarch, the inhabitants of the kingdom prevailed as an independent state. American expansionists looked with greed on the strategically located islands and waited patiently to plan their move.
Interest in Hawaii had begun in America as early as the 1820s when New England missionaries tried in earnest to spread their faith. Since the 1840s, keeping European powers out of Hawaii became a principal foreign policy goal. Americans acquired a true foothold in Hawaii as a result of the sugar trade. The United States government provided generous terms to Hawaiian sugar growers, and after the Civil War, profits began to swell. A turning point in US-Hawaiian relations occurred in 1890, when Congress approved the McKinley Tariff, which raised import rates on foreign sugar. Hawaiian sugar planters were now being undersold in the American market, and as a result, a depression swept the islands. The sugar growers, mostly white Americans, knew that if Hawaii were to be annexed by the United States, the tariff problem would naturally disappear. At the same time, the Hawaiian throne was passed to Queen Liliuokalani, who determined that the root of Hawaii's problems was foreign interference.
In January 1893, the planters staged an uprising to overthrow the Queen. At the same time, they appealed to the United States armed forces for protection. Without presidential approval, Marines stormed the islands, and the American minister to the islands raised the stars and stripes in Honolulu. The Queen was forced to abdicate, and the matter was left for Washington politicians to settle. By this time, Grover Cleveland had been inaugurated President. An outspoken anti-imperialist, Cleveland thought Americans had acted shamefully in Hawaii. He withdrew the annexation treaty from the Senate and ordered an investigation into potential wrongdoings. He aimed to restore Liliuokalani to her throne, but American public sentiment strongly favored annexation.
The matter was prolonged until after Cleveland left office. When war broke out with Spain in 1898, the military significance of Hawaiian naval bases as a way station to the Spanish Philippines outweighed all other considerations. President William McKinley signed a joint resolution annexing the islands, much like the manner in which Texas joined the Union in 1845. Hawaii remained a territory until granted statehood as the fiftieth state in 1959.
The Spanish-American War and Its Consequences

In 1895, Cuban citizens revolted against their Spanish occupiers because of widespread poverty and oppression and what they perceived as Spanish tyranny. Some of the poverty was due to high US duties that were placed on Cuban sugar. In a reactionary move to the revolt, Spanish General Valeriano Weyler herded thousands of Cuban civilians into “reconcentration” camps. These camps were filthy and many of the residents died of diseases that flourished in these overcrowded and unsanitary camps. The sentiment of the American people was strongly against Spanish barbarism and there was a call of support for the Cuban people.


Newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer played a major role in shaping the attitudes and opinions of Americans during this era. These two men owned many major newspapers across the country, and they were engaged in a fierce rivalry. In an attempt to outdo one another, they routinely created sensational headlines designed to “scoop” the competition. Unfortunately, these “yellow journalism” headlines were often enhanced or sometimes entirely made up in order to maximize their sensationalism. On February 9, 1898, Hearst greatly stoked the fire of anti-Spanish sentiment when he published a private letter written by Spanish diplomat Dupuy de Lôme that was very critical of President McKinley. De Lôme was forced to resign, but the public was angered and outraged by the sensational stories and began to call for armed intervention in Cuba.
President McKinley ordered the battleship USS Maine stationed in Havana Harbor to monitor the situation and keep the peace. Then, on February 15, 1898, the Maine suddenly exploded in the harbor killing all 260 officers and crewmembers aboard. Immediately, both Spanish and American officials began investigating the cause of the explosion. The Spanish investigation concluded that the explosion was the result of an internal malfunction, and they ruled it an accident. However, after a hurried investigation, the American investigators reported that a Spanish mine caused the explosion. Spain attempted to pacify the U.S. and avoid armed confrontation with an offer of arbitration. However, fueled by the ever-present “yellow press,” the U.S. was enraged and ready to go to war, with the American public proclaiming, “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain.” Years later in 1976, a thorough investigation was conducted and it showed that the Spanish theory was correct and the explosion was accidental.
On April 11, 1898, Congress declared war on Spain. They also ratified the Teller Amendment, which pledged to give Cubans their freedom after the Spanish were defeated. Many Europeans and Americans were skeptical of this anti-imperialistic pledge. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, acting in the absence of the Secretary, ordered Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish-controlled Philippines at Manila Harbor. The U.S. also annexed Hawaii to use as a naval base in the Pacific on July 7, 1898. Although American confidence was very high, on paper the Spanish possessed a superior army and a navy of equal status. However, their navy was run-down and far from its home base.
The U.S. Navy easily destroyed the aging Spanish fleet in Manila. In the battle, over 400 Spanish sailors were killed or wounded, while the U.S. suffered no casualties. Having crushed the Spanish Navy, Dewey had no choice but to wait for ground support as his sailors were incapable of ground combat. Finally, soldiers arrived to lead the attack on the capital. The soldiers recruited rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, and on August 13, 1898, soldiers collaborating with Filipino rebels quickly captured Manila.
The US Navy had similar success in Cuba. They engaged the Spanish Navy and easily defeated it. The US suffered only one casualty compared to over 500 Spanish casualties. Meanwhile, the US Army, including Roosevelt’s famed “Rough Riders,” routed the Spanish but suffered significant fatalities. There were many other battles and skirmishes, but the US Army’s most significant enemy was their lack of logistical preparedness, not the Spanish. For example, they were wearing wool uniforms in the intense heat, and were very susceptible to tropical illnesses. In addition, the lack of medical knowledge concerning the causes and treatments of tropical diseases such as malaria cost many American lives. During the course of the war, 400 U.S. soldiers were killed by Spanish hostilities, while over 5,000 were killed by disease. Despite these American shortcomings, the Spanish military was greatly overmatched, and they surrendered on August 12, 1898.
Later in 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed, which freed Cuba from Spanish rule and gave the US control over Guam and Puerto Rico. Cuban freedom was conditional, as they were pressured to sign the Platt Amendment, which prohibited Cuba from contracting debts and allowed the US to intervene militarily at its discretion. The US agreed to pay $20 million for the Philippines; since it was captured the day after the armistice was signed and therefore was not considered a spoil of war. The US acquisition of the Philippines, the first American venture into true imperialism, sparked a great deal of domestic debate.
In America, the Spanish-American War prompted a fast growing anti-imperialist movement, with members such as prominent authors, philosophers, and academics, including Mark Twain, Jane Addams, and Andrew Carnegie. The Filipino people longed for freedom after years of Spanish rule. In the Downes v. Bidwell case of 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that products imported from US territories are subject to duties and the “Constitution does not follow the flag.” These and other rulings were referred to as “insular cases” and denied residents of occupied territories the rights and protections afforded by the Constitution. These rulings set an important precedent, since previously acquired land had been eligible for these rights as well as future statehood. The U.S. did not grant the Philippines independence, but instead, annexed it. On February 4, 1899, a bloody three-year revolution began that left over 600,000 Filipinos dead and was responsible for more American casualties than the Spanish-American War. In the aftermath of World War II, the America granted the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946.
The Roosevelt Corollary

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Latin American nations began defaulting on massive loans from European powers such as Germany and England. Many of these “Banana Republics,” including Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, had borrowed heavily and had no way or intention of repaying their debts. This issue came to the forefront in 1903, when German warships sank two Venezuelan vessels and bombarded a Venezuelan town. Their intention was to intimidate Venezuela into paying its debts, but they inadvertently threatened Roosevelt and America’s sense of security as well.
Roosevelt was intent on keeping European nations out of the Americas. He feared that if he allowed Germany and England into the Hemisphere to collect debts, they might decide to set up permanent bases, which would have been a violation of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Also, the US did not want the European powers to “extort” Latin American countries, thereby bankrupting them. In order to prevent their presence, Roosevelt devised the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which instituted a policy of “preventive intervention.”
In this clever maneuver, Roosevelt stated that the U.S. would now function as “the policeman of the Caribbean.” Under this arrangement, the US took over the management of tariff collections in 1905. This meant that whenever a Latin American nation was overdue on a debt to a European power, the US would intervene. America would pay off the foreign debt, and then take responsibility for collection, thereby guaranteeing the European loan. The Europeans quickly agreed to this arrangement, as it ensured the prompt payment of the debt.
The effects of the new policy were enormous. Teddy Roosevelt had a motto: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” To Roosevelt, the big stick was the new American navy. By remaining firm in resolve and possessing the naval might to back its interests, the United States could simultaneously defend its territory and avoid war. Latin Americans did not look upon the corollary favorably. They resented US involvement and animosity against their large neighbor to the North grew dramatically. By the end of the 20th century, the United States would send troops of invasion to Latin America over 35 times, establishing an undisputed sphere of influence throughout the hemisphere.
Reaching to Asia

The United States could not ignore the largest continent on earth forever. Since Commodore Matthew Perry “opened” Japan in 1854, trade with Asia was a reality, earning millions for American merchants and manufacturers. Slowly but surely the United States acquired holdings in the region, making the ties even stronger. Already Alaska, Hawaii, and American Samoa flew the American flag. The Spanish-American War brought Guam and the Philippines as well. These territories needed supply routes and defense, so ports of trade and naval bases became crucial.
The most populous nation on earth was already divided between encroaching European empires. China still had an emperor and system of government, but the foreign powers were truly in control. Although the Chinese Empire was not carved into colonies such as Africa, Europe did establish quasi-colonial entities called spheres of influence after 1894. Those enjoying special privileges in this fashion included Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan. Secretary of State John Hay feared that if these nations established trade practices that excluded other nations, American trade would suffer. Britain agreed and Hay devised a strategy to preserve open trade. He circulated letters among all the powers requesting that all nations agree to free trade in China. While Britain agreed, all the other powers declined in private responses. Hay, however, lied to the world and declared that all had accepted. The imperial powers, faced with having to admit publicly to greedy designs in China, remained silent and the Open Door Policy went into effect.
By 1900, a group of Chinese patriots known as Boxers, rebelled against what they viewed as European exploitation. They killed 200 foreigners with the battle cry “kill foreign devils.” A multinational task force of 18,000 troops, including American soldiers, was quickly assembled to quell the Boxer Rebellion. The rebel group was disorganized and easily suppressed by the superior allied forces. The leaders of this multinational force assessed cash-poor China an indemnity of $300 million payable immediately. America realized that this reparation was excessive and would only punish and further repress the Chinese. As an act of friendship, the US remitted $18 million to the Chinese, who as a sign of appreciation, sent students to the US to study. These students later returned to China and were key players in the move to “westernize” China and help improve Chinese/American relations.
Nobel Peace Prize for Roosevelt

Japan was also a concern for the new imperial America. In 1904, war broke out between Russia and Japan. The war was going poorly for the Russians. Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate the peace process as the war dragged on. The two sides met with Roosevelt in New Hampshire, and before long, the Treaty of Portsmouth was arranged. Despite agreeing to its terms, the Japanese public felt that Japan should have been awarded more concessions. Anti-American rioting swept the island. Meanwhile, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. This marked the first time an American President received such an offer.
Relations with Japan remained icy. In California, Japanese immigrants to America were faced with harsh discrimination, including segregated schooling. In the informal Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, the United States agreed to end the practice of separate schooling in exchange for a promise to end Japanese immigration. That same year, Roosevelt decided to display his “big stick,” the new American navy. He sent the flotilla, known around the world as the Great White Fleet, on a worldwide tour. Although it was meant to intimidate potential aggressors, particularly Japan, the results of the journey were uncertain. Finally, in 1908, Japan and the United States agreed to respect each other's holdings on the Pacific Rim in the Root-Takahira Agreement. Sending troops overseas, mediating international conflicts, and risking trouble to maintain free trade, the United States began to rapidly shed its isolationist past.
The Panama Canal

An important discovery that resulted from the Spanish-American War was America’s need to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. During the war, ships in the Pacific had to travel around South America in order to join the fleet in Cuba. The U.S. now had to protect and supply its far ranging territories in Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines. The U.S. was also beginning to emerge as a world economic power and needed quicker shipping routes to meet its international business needs. Another significant reason for a quick route between the Atlantic and the Pacific was that the US Navy was fast becoming an important, global military player. President Roosevelt began to swing his “big stick” in order to achieve his dream of building a canal in Central America.
Initially, proponents of the canal considered two sites: Nicaragua and Panama. However, experts quickly concluded that Panama would be a more advantageous and realistic site. Despite Roosevelt’s intentions, there were still several legal challenges to overcome before he could build the canal. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 between the US and Britain asserted that the US could not have sole control over an isthmian canal in the Americas. However, the British were engaged in the South African Boer War and were feeling increasingly threatened by their European neighbors, so they were willing to repeal the treaty. In 1901, the British and the Americans signed the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty that allowed the U.S. to build and fortify a canal. England had little to lose by signing the treaty, and in exchange hoped to secure the U.S. as an ally in a conflict with Germany that was beginning to look inevitable.
In addition to legal challenges, there were other significant obstacles to building a canal. Panama was eager to secure the canal project in the hope that it would revive their lagging economy. However, Panama was controlled by Colombia, and the Colombian Senate rejected a treaty that would have allowed the U.S. to lease a six-mile zone in Panama. The offer called for an initial payment of $10 million and an annual disbursement of $250,000, which the Colombians viewed as inadequate. Roosevelt was enraged by Colombia’s refusal to cooperate and he was determined to secure the canal area one way or another. A Panamanian uprising against Colombian rule began on November 3, 1903. This coup was backed by Panamanians who sought the prosperity the canal offered as well as representatives of the company that hoped to sell the land to the U.S. for $40 million. The U.S. did not actively encourage this rebellion, although they viewed it as a fortunate development.
Colombian soldiers were poised to crush the rebellion, but U.S. naval vessels would not allow them to cross the isthmus and engage the revolutionaries. Using questionable legal precedent, President Roosevelt quickly recognized Panama’s independence three days later. This was a bitter victory for the U.S., as it secured the necessary land for the canal, but hurt foreign perception of America as well as American relations in Latin America. Latin Americans were already concerned about American control in Puerto Rico and Cuba, and now they began to fear their neighbor to the north.
After years of dubious politics and relationships, construction began on the Panama Canal in 1904. Many obstacles were encountered, including landslides, pestilence, and labor problems. However, a team of engineers persisted, and finally in 1914 the Panama Canal was opened and heralded as the greatest technological achievement of its time. The total costs to complete the job were staggering. In addition to $400 million in financial costs, the loss of good will toward America was incalculable. The English author James Bryce referred to the project as “the greatest liberty Man has ever taken with Nature.”
Dollar Diplomacy

William Howard Taft was easily elected in 1908, because a majority of Americans believed that he would continue the popular Republican policies laid out by President Roosevelt. Taft was susceptible to outside pressure, and he often submitted to the desires of Congress and special interest groups. Roosevelt and many Americans were angry and dismayed when Taft began to stray from the Republican platform. However, one area in which Taft consistently pursued Roosevelt’s aims was in expanding America’s influence abroad.
Taft used America’s growing economic power as a diplomatic tool. He urged Wall Street investors to invest money in foreign markets in order to increase American influence abroad. Investors were especially encouraged to invest their money in foreign markets in which the US had strategic interests, such as the Far East and the Panama Canal region. Many people were critical of Taft’s plan and his critics denounced this strategy as “dollar diplomacy.” In fact, the senate refused to sign several treaties, but the president encouraged private banks and Wall Street investors to act independently.
One goal of dollar diplomacy was to preempt foreign powers from gaining or enlarging an investment foothold in key markets. Many European countries had been imperial powers for decades and held a significant advantage over the US in several global markets. The administration believed that if American investors were firmly situated in these markets economic rivals such as Germany would be US but its trade partners as well, creating better foreign relations. Taft also assumed that the expenditure of money in foreign markets would increase American influence abroad and would help further its foreign policies. Of course, the overriding belief was that foreign investments would enhance American businesses, which in turn would grow the economy and enrich the government.
A primary focus of dollar diplomacy was the Manchurian region of China. Japan and Russia controlled a large portion of Manchurian resources including the railroads. Taft, like many people of the era, believed that whoever controlled the railroads also controlled the economy. He believed that without an interest in the Manchurian railroad system, the U.S. would be frozen out of the emerging Chinese markets and the United States’ “open door” policy in China would be undermined. Taft personally sent a telegram to the Chinese Government on behalf of American investors interested in railroads in the Yangtze Valley. In 1909, Secretary of State Philander C. Knox offered the Japanese and Russians a deal. He proposed that American bankers and industrialists would purchase the Manchurian railroads from Japan and Russia and return them to Chinese control. Japan and Russia flatly refused the offer, which publicly embarrassed the Taft administration. Taft persevered in his efforts to gain influence in China, and in 1912 the US and five other nations offered the new Chinese Republic a huge loan.
In an extension of the Roosevelt Corollary, Taft encouraged investors to spend money in Latin American countries such as Honduras and Haiti. Adhering to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, Taft would not allow foreign investors into Latin American markets, so America felt a responsibility to support these financially struggling republics. Many of these nations were constantly on the verge of financial collapse and required foreign investment to strengthen their shaky foundations. Political turmoil in this region later required US troops to protect the substantial American investment. In 1912, a group of 2,500 marines landed in Nicaragua to suppress a rebellion, and they remained for 13 years due to continued instability. This was another action that increased distrust of America among many Latin American nations.
Moral Diplomacy

In 1912, within one week of taking office, Woodrow Wilson removed governmental support for American businesses operating in the Caribbean and China. Wilson was an intense critic of imperialism and his goal was to reverse Roosevelt’s “big stick” policies and Taft’s “dollar diplomacy.” His vision for US foreign policy was based on morality. He strongly believed that his immediate predecessors had pursued a policy that would breed dislike of the US and often sacrifice goodwill for short-term gain. For this reason, Wilson’s foreign policy has sometimes been called “missionary diplomacy” or “moral diplomacy.”
After Wilson’s policies were instated, American bankers withdrew their support for Taft’s six-nation loan to China, which caused the loan to collapse. Wilson also immediately repealed the Panama Canal Tolls Act that exempted U.S. vessels from paying tolls at the Canal. The repeal of this act pleased England who was angry at paying tolls that US ships were exempt from. Another of Wilson’s anti-imperialist actions was the signing of the Jones Act of 1916. The Jones Act promised the Philippines independence as soon as they were able to demonstrate that they had a stable government. However, this act proved to be less than successful, as the Philippines were not granted independence until 30 years later on July 4, 1946.
Haiti had been a key target of Taft’s “dollar diplomacy.” It was an exceptionally poor nation even by Caribbean standards and Taft tried to improve the Haitian economy through the influx of American investment. Wilson began withdrawing some of America’s involvement and influence when he took office, although many Americans continued to live and own property in Haiti. In 1914 and 1915, the Haitian people were outraged by the oppressive nature of their President, so they rebelled, literally tearing him to pieces during a bloody revolution. In response, Wilson reluctantly sent troops to Haiti to protect American citizens and investments. He agreed to a treaty with Haiti in which the US would help police the nation and supervise its finances. Due to continued Haitian instability, US troops remained in Haiti for 19 years. Despite Wilson’s intentions, the US continued to exert influence throughout the Caribbean.
For the United States, another key area of concern in Central America was Nicaragua. Its close proximity to the Panama Canal made Nicaragua’s stability crucial to American interests in the region. Nicaragua asked the US for help, and in 1911 American bankers and investors reorganized the Nicaraguan financial structure and began to manage its customs service. They were successful in bringing some stability to the country, but in 1912 a violent political revolution began. This revolution greatly concerned the US, since an armed insurrection in the region threatened the security and the prosperity of the burgeoning Panama Canal. The US responded by sending 2,500 troops to the nation. Although the troops were rarely involved in combat, they remained in Nicaragua for 13 years.
Wilson’s “moral diplomacy” achieved mixed results. One of his primary goals was to stabilize the Caribbean and Latin America during the onset of World War I, with a minimal amount of American involvement. Also, he wanted to completely reverse Roosevelt’s “big stick” policies and remove all elements of Taft’s “dollar diplomacy.” However, Wilson faced a great deal of pressure from imperialists as well as American industrialists. Despite Wilson’s intentions to limit US involvement in the region, he sent troops to Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, which ensured a US military presence in the Caribbean and Central America for decades. Ironically, regardless of his sincere intentions to halt the spread of imperialism, Wilson intervened in Latin American affairs more than any other president.
The Mexican Revolution

The Latin American country most important to the well-being of the US was its neighbor to the south, Mexico. Mexico is a nation rich in resources, but its ineffective and corrupt governments had exploited the Mexican people for years. A series of brutal dictators had controlled the country for decades, and many of them mismanaged Mexico’s resources, making themselves rich while the majority of Mexicans were desperately poor. Tension had been high for years, and there had been several attempts at revolt, but the dictators were successful at suppressing any significant revolution.
Mexican leaders sold the country’s resources to foreign investors, often at the expense of Mexican citizens. Americans owned 43 percent of the land in Mexico, while foreigners from other countries owned 25 percent. By 1913, American investment in Mexico was well over a billion dollars, including significant ownership in railroads, oil resources, and mines. Porfirio Diaz, the leader at that time, was particularly ruthless and oppressive. Eventually, the number of foreigners profiting from Mexican resources and Diaz’s cruelty helped promote a strong surge of nationalism in Mexico.
The first Mexican Revolution began in 1910. The people were led by the radical Francisco Madero. Madero and his followers staged a successful campaign, and in 1911 they gained control of Mexico and appointed Madero president. He was very popular and viewed as a president of the people, but in 1913 another revolutionary group assassinated Madero. The leader of the coup, General Victoriano Huerta, then assumed the presidency.
As a result of the instability and revolution in Mexico, a huge influx of immigrants fled to the United States. Many Mexicans feared Huerta, and fled the country in order to escape his tyranny. The majority of these immigrants settled in the southwestern US, where they lived in segregated communities and were used as cheap labor for building railroads. All told, over one million Mexicans migrated to the United States in the early twentieth century.
During this revolutionary era in Mexico, over 50,000 Americans owned property and lived in Mexico. They began to feel threatened by this newfound Mexican nationalism, and called for protection from the US government. Other Americans not living in Mexico also asked for intervention, including “yellow journalist” William Randolph Hearst. Although Hearst may have truly desired aid for Americans living in Mexico, he was surely influenced by his ownership of a Mexican Ranch larger than the state of Rhode Island. Despite growing pressure, President Wilson was reluctant to intervene in Mexican politics. He had been working to reduce American involvement in Latin America, and was very hesitant to interfere and risk a direct conflict with Mexico.
Although Wilson was unwilling to play an active role in Mexico, he by no means condoned the tyrannical Huerta regime. In fact, Wilson was one of the few foreign leaders who did not accept the legitimacy of Huerta’s leadership and refused to recognize his government. As Huerta’s violence towards his people continued to escalate, Wilson was forced to act more directly. He stated that he would “…teach the South American republics to elect good men,” and in 1914 the U.S. began supplying weapons to Huerta’s rivals. Venustiano Carranza and Francisco “Pancho” Villa, were the leaders of a rebel army created to unseat Huerta.
In April 1914, a group of American sailors on shore leave was arrested in Tampico, Mexico. The US was outraged, and the sailors were quickly released with the apologies of the Mexican government. However, Mexico was unwilling to provide the 21-gun salute demanded by the Americans. Seizing the opportunity to finally remove Huerta and end his tyranny, Wilson asked Congress for permission to use force against Mexico. In the meantime, while still awaiting Congressional approval, Wilson ordered the navy to seize the port of Vera Cruz. This action not only angered Huerta, it also upset the rebel leader Carranza, who viewed this act as exceeding the boundaries of the informal agreement between his group and the United States.
As tensions continued to mount, war with Mexico seemed inevitable until Argentina, Brazil, and Chile intervened. The so-called “ABC Powers” interceded and attempted to reach an agreement between the United States and Mexico. These powerful South American nations helped the US undermine Huerta, and in 1914, after intense internal and external pressure, President Huerta stepped down as ruler of Mexico. The open presidential seat was filled by Venustiano Carranza who still harbored resentment toward America because of the US meddling at Vera Cruz.
Despite his distrust of Carranza, President Wilson reluctantly recognized the legitimacy of Carranza’s presidency. Meanwhile, Carranza’s former general, Pancho Villa, had now emerged as his chief rival. Villa not only defied Carranza’s régime by leading an armed revolution, he directly challenged the extensive US involvement in Mexico. In an effort to rebuild a relationship with Mexico, Wilson supported Carranza against Villa and sent arms to sustain Carranza’s armies. Villa was angered by Wilson’s actions, and retaliated by killing 18 Americans in Mexico and then embarked on a bold raid into Columbus, New Mexico killing 19 Americans.
Americans were stunned and outraged by Pancho Villa’s brash actions. President Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing to lead several thousand troops into Mexico to capture Villa. General Pershing’s army moved quickly into Mexico and engaged Villa’s supporters, who were known as Villistas. The disorganized Mexican rebels were no match for the better-trained and equipped US forces, and Pershing won several convincing victories. However, he was unable to find Pancho Villa, which was the ultimate goal of the mission, and this failure did little to enhance the international reputation of the US military. Finally, as it no longer seemed possible for the US to remain out of World War I, Wilson recalled Pershing and his men in January 1917.
Both Taft’s “dollar diplomacy” and Wilson’s “moral diplomacy” achieved mixed results. Taft’s foreign spending and interventionism gained the US short-term allies, but also created long-term animosity throughout Latin America. It strengthened the US economy through increased American investment abroad and allowed America to gain a position in several emerging global markets. Upon taking office, Woodrow Wilson attempted to reverse most of Taft’s foreign policy. Wilson’s staunch anti-imperialism was a completely new approach for America. He withdrew government support of American investors in foreign markets and attempted to bring America back within its borders. However, his reluctance to intervene militarily in foreign affairs was often seen as hesitant and weak and caused many of his policies to be largely ineffective. Eventually, Wilson’s approach to foreign policy proved too unrealistic for success in the Western Hemisphere, but the true test of his foreign policy would come on the other side of the Atlantic in World War I.


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an illustration

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coup d\'etat, 1903




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