Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines imperialism as “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly: the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence.”1 According to this definition the American role in the world from the late 19th century forward can be described as imperialist. Although the acquisition of territory has not been used as the United States’ primary strategy of imperialism, it has used a combination of economic supremacy and cultural influence to institute its hegemony throughout the globe. The United States’ assertion of power worldwide is not an isolated reaction to perceived Cold War Era threats, but rather direct actions born from economic, political, and cultural conceptualizations and ideologies of American policy makers and elite classes. The ability to establish the United States’ imperialism not only depended upon foreign policy initiatives which promoted broad influence and control overseas, but was also reliant upon the maintenance of domestic support for such initiatives.
One ideological foundation for expansionist American foreign policy and economic principles is evident in Anders Stephanson’s book Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. This workcontends that the concept of Manifest Destiny has shaped the foreign policy ideology of the United States from the seventieth century to the Cold War. Manifest Destiny is a tenet put forth in the mid ninetieth century that the territorial expansion of the United States was not only inevitable but also divinely ordained. Stephanson’s argument outlines how this principle has been applied first to westward continental expansion and then broadly applied in the twentieth century to international commercial expansion. Stephanson’s interpretation of American foreign policy ideology suggests a long history of expansionist designs.
Even before the concept of Manifest Destiny was articulated its tenets could be seen in the rhetoric and policies of early leaders. The notion that expansion is central to the political economy, the role public policy plays in influencing economic and social prosperity, appears in the policy and rhetoric of early Revolutionary leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Drew McCoy demonstrates these concepts in his book The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. McCoy’s analysis is valuable to the discussion of the United States’ imperialism because it highlights the early realization that American success and prosperity are dependent upon foreign markets and free trade decades before the concepts of the Open Door or Manifest Destiny were ever formally expressed. Even at its earliest stages the United States’ leaders had a keen awareness that American wealth is reliant upon expansion and global economic interaction.
Chief among concerns of political economy was American imitation of the European mercantilist system, even in these early conceptualizations of the economy the idea that there should be an Open Door existed. Many Republican leaders rejected a manufacturing based economy and closed trading systems. Instead they embraced the virtues of an agriculturally based system. The Jeffersonian promotion of an agriculturally based society, however, did not mean that America would remain an isolated subsistent economy. Instead Jeffersonian thinkers promoted the concept of free trade so that surplus goods could be sold to markets worldwide. As the republic aged its leaders soon realized that the agricultural free trade system coupled with continental westward expansion were necessary to America’s economic prosperity. Although Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana in 1803 provided opportunities for westward expansion, efforts to preserve the agriculturally based economy like the Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812 soon undermined Jeffersonian hopes for an agriculturally based economic system and resulted in the ultimate acceptance that manufacturing was necessary for American economic success and advancement. The political economy of this early period demonstrates that certain economic realities had to be embraced in order to facilitate the expansion the American economy required to maintain its growth and prosperity.
The Jeffersonian proprietary-competitive market capitalism of the ninetieth century required new markets and constant expansion, but central to the formation of the United States’ economically expansive foreign policy in the twentieth century is the rise of the corporate-administered market system. To truly understand the economic determinates motivating much of the United States’ imperialist foreign policy, we must also understand the evolution, or creation rather of America’s economic and political systems. In The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics, Martin Sklar argues that a corporate reconstruction of American capitalism emerged from two competing capitalist ideologies: the proprietary-competitive market stage and the corporate-administered market stage in the period between 1890 and 1916. Not only did the rise of corporate capitalism alter the capitalist market and property relations, but it also transformed the role of the federal government. Many engaged in proprietary business sought the protection of the federal government to provide coexistence, stability, and fair play within the new system, leading to greater support for government regulation of economic institutions. Like its predecessors corporate capitalism required economic expansion abroad as well as the maintenance of trading partners and constant growth in markets.
American economic expansionism prior to the Cold War is also evidenced in the work of William Appleman Williams. William’s interpretation of American foreign policy in the twentieth century emerges from the ninetieth century policy of the Open Door. In a time when European Spheres of Influence controlled world trade, the United States’ economic prosperity depended upon entrance into the international economic system in order to dispose of surplus goods and secure raw materials. The United States was in no position to enter into the colonial system which dominated the international economy and had to find alternative ways to enter into the system. Written in 1899 by U. S. Secretary of State John Hay, the Open Door Notes called for equal and impartial trade with China as well as the continuation of Chinese territorial and administrative control. This policy is the first overt expression of American economic intentions abroad and has also laid the ideological foundation for much of America’s foreign policy formation in subsequent decades. According to Williams this principle of access to “open” trade abroad has informed the formation of foreign policy throughout the twentieth century. He argues that the policy of the Open Door is no less imperial than the system it sought to overturn. Williams’ thesis asserts that instead of an empire of territory the Open Door policy informed the creation of an empire of economics, bases, and ideology.
These themes of American expansion in the early part of the twentieth century emerge in Emily Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945. Rosenberg chronicles America’s economic, cultural, and political expansion abroad, which she refers to as “Americanization.” She argues that initially American commercial and cultural interests where promoted abroad by private individuals. But in the twentieth century this spreading of the American dream became the interest of the federal government. Private interests increasingly entered into the public sphere and were incorporated into the United States’ official foreign policy objectives. Rosenberg describes this shift toward public administration of private interests abroad as “liberal developmentalism,” or the integration of economic needs with the liberal ideologies of democracy and free market trade. According to Rosenberg the emergence of such tenets promoted the expansion of American influence and the creation of an informal empire through its foreign policy initiatives, commerce practices, and military action.
Thomas McCormick’s work America’s Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War draws from Williams’ ideas regarding the Open Door as well. Rather than the traditional school of thought which describes American foreign policy during the Cold War as a protective reaction to a looming Soviet threat to democracy, McCormick asserts that the traditional American practice of economic expansion discussed by Williams’ advanced the Cold War. McCormick’s argument couples Williams’ thesis that American foreign policy is driven by the Open Door with the world-systems theory developed by French historian Fernand Braudel. The central theme in McCormick’s analysis is that since its inception in the fifteenth century capitalism has been an inherently expansionist economic system. Although capitalism has gone through many incarnations the theory of world-systems describes basic traits of the capitalist economic system. According to this system the world is usually divided into three groups: the core, periphery, and semi-periphery. He argues that normally this system is governed by a balance of power between leading core nations, however, despite this general pattern a single hegemonic power has emerged twice during the history of the capitalist world economy. Great Britain first emerged as a hegemon between 1815 and 1870; followed by the United States rise to dominance between 1945 and 1970.
The devastation brought by World War II to Europe as well as the United States’ new economic supremacy lead to its emergence as a hegemonic center. McCormick argues that economic dominance is essential to any hegemony, and that the primary driving force behind the United States foreign policy in the decades following World War II was the maintenance of this hegemonic role and the capitalist world system it depended upon. Key to maintaining power was the United States’ economic control and continued prosperity. McCormick demonstrates economic tactics such as militarization, military Keynesianism, Dollar Diplomacy, and a search for markets in the core, periphery, and semi-periphery used by the United States to preserve its hegemony. McCormick argues “economic supremacy is the indispensable base of hegemony.”2 Not only is power dependent upon economic superiority, but achieving economic strength and control fuels a need to intervene or interfere with the economic, political, and cultural systems of other countries. This leads to American practices, such as the exportation of its economic principles and the expansion of its influence abroad, to quickly become mechanisms in the maintenance of an imperial system.
In the decades following World War II America did not expand and maintain its imperial foreign policy objectives only through direct political initiatives or military interventions and actions, but also through the extension of its consumer culture to a larger world market. In Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through 20th-Century Europe, Victoria de Grazia argues that after World War II the United States established itself as a Market Empire. De Grazia primarily focuses upon the American standard of living’s influence upon the European way of life following the war and also its eventual ability to become a global cultural hegemon. Like Rosenberg and McCormick, De Grazia’s work is written in the spirit of William Applemen Williams’ thesis suggesting the Open Door’s influence of the U. S.’s foreign policy motives. She argues that America’s market empire swept through Europe by spreading its consumer-capitalism and overturning the bourgeois social system.
Despite the effort by many European’s to preserve their traditional class system, consumer-capitalism came to dominate European economies in the decades following World War II. De Grazia demonstrates how America’s market imperialism successfully influenced European systems using subtle soft power rather than overt dominance. Her analysis begins by discussing the acceptance and expansion of business oriented organizations like Rotary International by Europeans. De Grazia also describes the adoption of a high standard of living similar to the American standard of living. In Europe, however, mass consumption threatened established class systems by providing mass access to luxury goods previously reserved for the bourgeoisie. Central to de Grazia’s argument is the soft or subtle nature of power used in a market empire. Although American consumer-capitalism threatened many traditional European systems, it was largely adopted because it provided a more luxurious living accommodation for a wider number of people and could be easily absorbed and altered to fit European needs and customs. This ultimately made the American Market Empire more palatable to Europeans because it subtly engulfed established cultural and economic structures rather than removing them; and also allowed Europeans to comfortably function within the system.
Like De Grazia, Reinhold Wagnleitner’s book Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War explores the expansion of America’s consumer-capitalist system and popular culture in Europe. Wagnleitner’s analysis, however, focuses on the United States’ direct control over avenues of culture and media in post war Austria. Rather than use direct marketing and coercion, Wagnleitner argues that the United States capitalizes on her postwar military and political advantage to subtly impart its consumer culture on Austria through control of its cultural centers. Like McCormick, Wagnleitner describes America’s use of its post war economic superiority and reconstruction efforts like the Marshall Plan to emerge as an economic imperial power.
Traditional European bourgeois perceptions that American culture was base and crass posed a challenge to American cultural and economic expansion. Wagnleitner argues that United States was eager to prevent the expansion of Fascism and Communism in postwar Europe because they threatened America’s desired free trade system. The United States not only sought to export its consumer culture, but also had to gently encourage Europeans to accept it and internalize its practices as their own. Wagnleitner presents his argument by discussing the major venues through which culture was disseminated in post war Austria. According to Wagnleitner the American government established the Information Services Branch to “de-Germanize” or “de-nazify” Austria and demonstrate American cultural superiority. By influencing cultural expression and practices through press, radio, literature, education, music, theater, and film the American government spread not only its version of consumer-capitalist Democracy but also its consumer based popular culture.
Wagnleitner’s work is an important addition to the historiography regarding foreign policy and the United States economic imperialism. His analysis highlights that not only are direct foreign policies used to infuse American Capitalist Democracy throughout the world, but more subtle strategies of disseminating cultural practices are also used to encourage acceptance of American economic hegemony and the creation of consumer markets. In an age of mass political access, winning the cultural conceptualization of mass populations is just as necessary for the maintenance of hegemony as influencing foreign governments through overt foreign policy initiatives.
Although imperialism is generally defined by an aggressive world power’s acquisition of territory, this is not the case in the United States’ version of imperialism. Instead during the twentieth century U.S. imperialism is more broadly defined as the expansion of its economic, military, political, and cultural influence abroad without the direct attainment of foreign territory or government administration. U.S. dominance of world markets, political interactions, and military intervention in the twentieth century were not the result of defensive and protectionist reactions to Cold War threats, but rather the product of historical foreign policy conceptualizations based from traditional economic ideologies and goals such as Manifest Destiny and the Open Door. In the twentieth century these ideas are transformed into international policies and initiatives that promoted the expansion of U.S. economic interests and cultural practices abroad. And where heightened by the emergence of socialist systems during the Cold War that threatened the U.S. vision of the world economic order. This promotion of U. S. economic influence and superiority laid the foundation for American dominance of world economic, political, and cultural systems.
1 Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “imperialism.”
2 Thomas McCormick. America’s Half-Century: America’s Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989). 5.