Chapter Theme



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28

America on the World Stage,
1899–1909

Chapter Theme


Theme: In the wake of the Spanish-American War, President Theodore Roosevelt pursued a bold and sometimes controversial new policy of asserting America’s influence abroad, particularly in East Asia and Latin America. America’s Asian policies were quite successful, but Roosevelt’s interventionism and “Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine” stirred resentment in Latin America.

chapter summary


America’s decision to take the Philippines aroused violent resistance from the Filipinos, who had expected independence. The brutal war to defeat the Filipino rebels was longer and costlier than the Spanish-American conflict.

Economic interests, missionary efforts, and European imperialistic intrusion led to growing American involvement in China and East Asia. Hay’s Open Door policy helped prevent the European great powers from dismembering and colonizing China. The United States joined the international expedition to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, but pursued a more generous policy than the Europeans.

Bryan’s anti-imperialist campaign lost badly to McKinley in 1900. Assuming the presidency after McKinley’s death, Theodore Roosevelt brought a new energy and assertiveness to American foreign policy. When his plans to build a canal in Panama were frustrated by the Colombian Senate, he helped promote a Panamanian independence movement that enabled the strategically important canal to be built. He also altered the Monroe Doctrine by adding a “Roosevelt Corollary” that declared an American right to intervene in Latin America, stirring considerable resentment south of America’s borders.

Roosevelt successfully negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War but angered both parties in the process. Several incidents showed that the United States and Japan were now competitors in East Asia.


developing the chapter: suggested lecture or discussion topics


  • Show how the United States after the Spanish-American War was increasingly acting like a “great power” in world affairs, especially in Asia, and how Roosevelt energetically promoted this involvement despite the traditional belief in American “isolationism.”

    references: Marilyn Young, The Rhetoric of Empire: America’s China Policy, 1895–1901 (1968); Charles E. Neu, Troubled Encounter: The United States and Japan (1975).




  • Explain why the Philippine-American War was the most serious consequence of the Spanish-American War. Consider the disturbing questions it raised about America’s new international involvements, especially imperial control of a distant, hostile people.

    reference: Richard E. Welsh, Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899–1902 (1975).




  • Examine Roosevelt’s aggressive determination to build the Panama Canal in relation to America’s growing international assertiveness, particularly in Latin America. Show how American involvement in the Panama coup and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine aroused sharp Latin American opposition.

    reference: Richard H. Collin, Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990).




  • Discuss the role of Asian immigration and the fear of the “yellow peril” in shaping America’s relations with East Asia in the early twentieth century.

    reference: Alexander DeConde, Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy (1992).

for further interest: additional class topics


  • Discuss the Philippine-American War in relation to the debate over imperialism considered in Chapter 27.




  • Examine Roosevelt’s theory and practice of the “big stick” in foreign policy, especially in his relations with Latin America.







  • Take up the question of gender in relation to American foreign policy and American imperialism, particularly the idea that aggressive overseas action was one way for men (including Theodore Roosevelt) to assert their masculinity in an era of growing feminine influence in society and culture.

character sketches

John Hay (1838–1905)


Hay was Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, secretary of state under McKinley and Roosevelt, and a noted poet and historian.

Hay’s uncle’s law office in Springfield, Illinois, was next to Lincoln’s, and Hay’s childhood friend John Nicolay arranged for Hay to become Lincoln’s private secretary, even though Hay was only twenty-three. He performed many personal chores for the Lincolns at the White House and was sometimes awakened by a sleepless Lincoln, who would tell him jokes. Hay and Nicolay later wrote a ten-volume biography of Lincoln that presents the president in a highly favorable light but reflects serious scholarship rather than mythologizing the national hero.

In the 1870s Hay became a celebrated literary figure. His poetry, such as Pike County Ballads and Other Pieces, was quite popular, but his novels were mostly attacks on labor unions. Hay was the closest friend of historian Henry Adams, and the two built adjoining houses across the street from the White House. Hay appreciated Adams’s philosophical distance from politics but could not accept his friend’s dark pessimism about public affairs.
Quote: “I need not tell you the lunatic difficulties under which we labor.…All the powers treat us as a central Hello Office, and we strive to please the public. If I looked at things as you do, in the light of reason, history, and mathematics, I should go off after lunch and die.” (Letter to Henry Adams about Open Door policy, 1900)
reference: Tyler Dennett, John Hay: From Poetry to Politics (1933).


Philippe Bunau-Varilla (1859–1940)


Bunau-Varilla was the French engineer who energetically promoted the Panama Canal and the Panamanian revolution, and negotiated the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the United States.

As a young engineering student, Bunau-Varilla had come under the spell of Suez Canal builder Ferdinand Lesseps, and Bunau-Varilla became convinced that his mission in life was to complete Lesseps’s work by building the canal across Panama. Besides distributing stamps showing Nicaraguan volcanoes, he bombarded senators with favorable information about Panama, while carefully concealing the overwhelming problems the French builders had experienced there in nearly twenty years of effort.

He played a key role in fomenting the “revolution” in Panama, having obtained assurances that the United States would intervene as soon as independence was declared. He wrote the constitution and designed the flag of the new republic, and he gave both to one of the plotters.
Quote: “I have been exposed to calumny in my long fight against ignorance and falsehood.…I have served the Republic of Panama, and her interests are coincident with those of the canal. Once the treaty is ratified, I will have fulfilled the pledge I made to myself twenty-three years ago.”
reference: G. A. Anguizola, Philippe Bunau-Varilla: The Man Behind the Panama Canal (1980).


George Goethals (1858–1928)


Goethals was the American engineer who built the Panama Canal.

Although a career military officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, Goethals never fired a weapon except in basic training. After the first two engineers assigned to the canal job resigned, Goethals was given near-absolute power over the Canal Zone in order to speed up the job.

Besides planning and supervising the construction, he managed over thirty thousand employees and their families, and created social institutions like jails, courts, hospitals, and so on. He set aside every Sunday morning to hear individual complaints from the workers.

Goethals was a tough, unsmiling, chain-smoking martinet. Someone once asked a family member how Goethals amused himself, and the reply was, “He does not amuse himself.”


Quote: “The real builder of the Panama Canal was Theodore Roosevelt. It could not have been more Roosevelt’s triumph if he had personally lifted every shovelful of earth in its construction.” (1919)
reference: David McCulloch, The Path Between the Seas (1977).

questions for class discussion


1. Why was the Philippine-American War such a brutal affair, and why is it not as well remembered as the less costly Spanish-American War?
2. Did Roosevelt more often “speak softly” or use the “big stick”? Was his approach to foreign policy aggressive or simply energetic?
3. How did the Roosevelt Corollary distort the Monroe Doctrine? What were the consequences of the Roosevelt Corollary for American relations with Latin America?
4. Was the United States essentially acting as a “white, Western imperialist” power, or did American democratic ideals substantially restrain the imperialist impulse?

makers of america: the filipinos

Questions for Class Discussion


1. Compare the Philippine immigration to America with that of the Chinese (Chapter 23). How did American imperial ownership of the Philippines make the Filipinos’ experience different from that of other Asians?
2. Even though more immigrants have come from the Philippines than from China or Japan, it seems that most Americans do not regard Filipinos as they view other Asian immigrants. Why might that be so? Is the awareness of the Filipino presence greater in Hawaii and the West Coast than in other parts of the country?


Suggested Student Exercises


  • Analyze the political history of American-Philippine relations as described in this chapter of the text. Consider its relation to the history of Filipino immigration described here.




  • Compare the “old” Filipino immigration described here with the “new” post-World War II immigration from the Philippines.

expanding the “varying viewpoints”


  • Julius Pratt, Expansionists of 1898 (1951).

    A “traditional” view of imperialism:

    “The Manifest Destiny of the 1840s had been largely a matter of emotion. Much of it had been simply one expression of a half-blind faith in the superior virility of the American race and the superior beneficence of American political institutions. In the intervening years, much had been done to provide this emotional concept with a philosophic backing.…Far-fetched and fallacious as their reasoning may appear to us, it nevertheless carried conviction.…The observation must be made that the rise of an expansionist philosophy in the United States owed little to economic influences.…The need of American business for colonial markets and fields for investment was discovered not by businessmen but by historians and other intellectuals, by journalists and politicians.”


  • William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959).

    A “revisionist” view of imperialism as a product of economic expansionism:



    “Men like McKinley and other national leaders thought about America’s problems and welfare in an inclusive, systematized way that emphasized economics. Wanting democracy and social peace, they argued that economic depression threatened those objectives, and concluded that overseas economic expansion provided a primary means of ending that danger. They did not want war per se, let alone war in order to increase their own personal fortunes. But their conception of the world ultimately led them into war in order to solve the problems in the way that they considered necessary and best.”

questions about the “varying viewpoints”


1. Which of these two interpretations better explains (a) the war with Spain, (b) the decision to keep the Philippines, and (c) the U.S. involvement as a “great power” in world affairs?
2. Which historian would see American imperialism more as “inevitable,” and which would see it more as a matter of choice?
3. Which of the two would judge American imperialism more harshly as a violation of moral principles and a threat to American democracy?


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