Erasmus university rotterdam


Existing interpretations of American imperialism



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1.2 Existing interpretations of American imperialism

Given that he central research question of this master thesis asks whether the foreign policy endeavors of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were of an imperialistic nature, it is therefore necessary to consider what has already been written on the subject. There exists a vast quantity of secondary literature on this topic, especially on the career of Theodore Roosevelt given his lofty standing in American history. Unsurprisingly, Taft’s administration has been the subject of less focus, though there remains a wealth of secondary source material on aspects of his presidency. In this section, it will only be possible to mention a fraction of the literature that pertains to this research area. However, the titles and authors I have read and examined represent a fair cross-section of the field.

Warren Zimmermann’s First Great Triumph (2002) is an analysis of five figures that he regards as the instigators of America’s ascendency to the status of a world power at the turn of the 19th century. Theodore Roosevelt is a key player in the book, and Zimmermann actually labels his tenure as ‘The Imperial Presidency’.15 The book is notable because while it is critical of American atrocities in the Philippines conflict and of the questionable ethics of Roosevelt in relation to Panama’s separation from Colombia, Zimmermann doubts whether any of the peoples affected would have been better off in the long run had the United States not interfered. Zimmerman ultimately states that the era saw the creation of an authentic American imperialism “that was confident in its objectives but modest in its application”,16 thus asserting that the USA was imperialistic, but different. The book is also of particular interest to this thesis because it brands Theodore Roosevelt “a sphere of influence realist”17, suggesting that he had a broader strategic blueprint for the U.S.

Akira Iriye (1977) castigates Theodore Roosevelt’s handling of the Panamanian uprising as an embarrassment to the U.S., ‘which seemed to engage precisely in the same kinds of gun-boat diplomacy and secret machinations that were associated with European imperialism.’18 He later concludes that U.S. interventionism in the Caribbean ‘was a particular form of imperialism, without involving colonization or territorial seizure. Instead, the United States turned the region into its sphere of influence through its military presence, canal construction and economic influence. While the use of force and the establishment of colonies were kept to a minimum, there was a distinct departure from the traditional approach which had generally emphasized informal control of the Caribbean region. The United States was little different from the other imperialist powers in thus having various kinds of approach and maintaining several levels of control over foreign lands…..The United States was now a full-fledged member of the community of imperialists.’19 It also bears noting that for Iriye there was no European style imperialism, because it was much varied and diverse in reality.



Iriye’s assessment of U.S. imperialism is not shared by all in the scholarly community however. The central argument of Richard H. Collin’s Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990) is essentially that encouraging capitalist development was not ominous but a means of applying North American principles to other cultures as a way of ending the region’s revolutions, wars, and instability.20 Collin uses “context” as a historiographical device through which to defend the ideological determinants of United States policy. The book therefore represents a point of view, and is one in a long line of texts that have as their central goal the defense and justification of U.S. policy in the period. His study is derived from a single context: the North American one. Latin historiography is almost universally ignored. Latin American archival records are largely left ignored, except for a few token references. The reader does not therefore get a truly useful representation of the Latin American context. This is also true of a great deal of the literature pertaining to this topic. Too often, they offer only one vantage point- the North American- and ignore the indigenous perspective. This has meant that the historiography in this area has often been partisan and concerned with justifying U.S. conduct.




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