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Sentimental Imperialists (1981) by James C. Thomson is further evidence of this. When seeking to trace the roots of later American expansionism, it states that by the final decades of the 19th century, imperialism had become normal for the major Western powers-and even Japan.21 It was this, he argues, that gave America its impetus for overseas expansion and that the U.S. foray into the imperial stakes was justified by earlier European endeavors. This text also broadens the debate on whether the United States newfound interest beyond its own continental limits was driven by economic factors, stating that it would be mistaken to conclude that from the late nineteenth-century ‘American expansionism was wholly- or even primarily- economic in motivation. The returns are not yet in from the historiographical debate on this question. For every scholar who ranks economic causes first, there is another who finds the picture more complicated.’22 Indeed, Sentimental Imperialists goes much further than most when suggesting that ‘morally, politically, and strategically, the heart of the new expansionism was the acquisition of a large colonial empire, the projection of American military and naval power into Asia and Latin America on a permanent basis, and the deliberate emergence of the United States as one of the key forces in the international balance of power.’23 This assertion goes further than the majority of writers on this topic, most of who dispute that America ever had any real designs on accruing vast colonial acquisitions.

It’s not a totally isolated viewpoint however. William Appleman Williams led the revisionist charge, authoring a dozen books including The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) and Empire as a Way of Life (1980). His portrayal of the United States as an imperialist power bent on forcing its economic and political will around the world was a seismic shock to the traditionalist accounts which emphasized the role of political factors such as hemispheric defense, public opinion, the new navalism and the rise of racist expansionist ideologies as being the chief motor of overseas acquisitions.24 In his 1980 work Empire as a Way of Life, Williams sets out to attack American militarism as the product of a drive for empire, first over Indians and blacks, then over Mexicans, and finally over the whole world excepting the USSR and Eastern Europe. Imperialism, he argues, has been the main force in American history. His disdain for American conduct against Spain in the war of 1898 is made plain by his description of the conflict as a “crusading, punitive, and imperial war”, a “gratuitous attack” upon the Spanish Empire, motivated by a desire for the Philippines.25 Until that point, historians had traditionally viewed American ascendancy as haphazard, a chance product of Manifest Destiny or of events beyond American control, such as the Spanish-American War. However scholars increasingly began to argue that expansion was a rational, pragmatic response to internal tensions and conflicts dramatized by the Panic of 1893, when America was hit by an economic depression, the greatest to have affected the country in its history to that point.26

Appleman William’s works were a dramatic rebuttal of the traditional exceptionalist narrative that had been dominant in the historiography on American imperialism. Traditional exceptionalism had determined that America’s unique values of democracy, liberty, and self-government had led the United States to be a distinctive global power, compelling the American state to behave differently than European powers: America’s values and democratic institutions thus meant that the United States never constructed an empire.27 The influence of Appleman William’s writings would become one of the primary motors behind the emergence of a new counter trend in the historiography on American imperialism. This revisionist school, aptly branded by Go (2011) as Liberal Exceptionalism,28 stressed that while the United States practiced imperialism, it was a special and unique form, benign and liberal in comparison to the preceding European metropoles. Liberal exceptionalist historiography thus surmises that the U.S. empire has been distinctly democratizing, liberal and tutelary rather than repressive because that is how America does things.29
According to others, the connection drawn in the 1890s between expansion and naval power was central to the emerging American imperialism. Influential naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan and other exponents of an imperialist foreign policy held that America’s dynamic economic growth demanded new overseas markets, sources of raw materials, and investment opportunities- partly in response to the shock of the Turner Thesis, as mentioned above. The United States, they contended, needed a large merchant marine protected by a great navy to compete commercially with the European powers, which were busy acquiring colonies in Africa, Asia, and among the islands of the Pacific. To support its expanded sea power, the argument continued, America would also need to acquire overseas strategic bases and colonies and construct an isthmian canal in Central America to ease naval and commercial movements between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Spanish-American War was thus the translation of these imperialist ideals into action. Imperialists defended the decision to annex the Philippines on the grounds that the Filipinos needed enlightened U.S. rule and that the island chain’s proximity to China would facilitate American commercial penetration of what was anticipated to be a vast market in the future.30

Flanders also states that it was the ‘extension of U.S. influence, rather than territorial aggrandizement, that characterized American imperialism after 1900’31, largely due to the fallout from the bloody Filipino campaign. In the early 20th century, this approach focused on the Caribbean region, where U.S. policy was concerned with safeguarding the strategically key Panama Canal (completed in 1914) and preventing the expansion of European influence. The United States feared that the chronic fiscal and political instability of the Central American and Caribbean nations would invite European intervention. The Roosevelt Corollary then asserted pre-eminent U.S. influence in the America’s and invested the United States with a right of intercession in the Western Hemisphere to keep order and repel foreign interference. U.S. military interventions and the establishment of American financial protectorates in Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Nicaragua expanded American hegemony in the Caribbean up through WW1. Washington installed U.S. customs collectorships in several Latin American countries, placing their government revenues under American control, and pursued a policy of dollar diplomacy to secure economic and political leverage.32

What these texts help to highlight is that there remains a debate within the historiography on this topic. Debate still rages over whether the United States was truly an imperial player in this era and if so, what its motivations and intentions were. As demonstrated earlier, the traditional exceptionalist school was largely dominant in the subject’s historiography until the intervention of the revisionists, whose charge was chiefly led by the writings of Appleman Williams. Resultantly, the liberal exceptionalist school was borne as a reaction. This school has had a substantial effect on the historiographical debate and “remains a central paradigm in American imperial studies.”33 And while American conduct in Iraq post-9/11 has led to an increase in radical accounts of American foreign policy- claiming that America has always been an imperial power intent on accruing an empire- the traditional exceptionalist school remains the chief challenger to the dominant liberal exceptionalist paradigm.

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