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By: Sanidhya Singh

Instructor: Erin Frame

American Imperialism in the 

Early 20th Century

Annexation of Hawaii

The United States was interested in Hawaii for several reasons. Firstly, Hawaii was a Pacific Island with abundant natural resources (sugar, seafood, etc.) that could be used to satisfy the demands of the mainland US. Most important, however, was the military advantage of having Hawaii as part of the US due to its strategic location in the Pacific. Hawaii was the perfect location for a military base to keep the Japanese in check. There was only one problem: The Queen of Hawaii was against foreign intervention after a sugar tariff destroyed the economy on the islands.

To remedy this, sugar planters staged a rebellion with the help of US Marines and led to an American flag flying over Honolulu. However, Grover Cleveland (the president at the time that this rebellion had concluded) was against the forceful annexation and hoped to help the Queen of Hawaii regain her throne. Unfortunately, the American people favored Hawaii's annexation. Annexation became inevitable once war broke out with Spain in 1898 and the military bases on the islands proved vital as way stations to the Spanish Philippines. The territory was officially annexed under President McKinley and Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.

The Spanish-American War broke out in Cuba when the USS Main mysteriously sank in Havana Harbor and the American press employed yellow journalism to convince the American people that the Spanish were at fault. This led to a small war, which the US won due to its naval and overall militaristic superiority. In the peace treaty, Spain   ceded the Philippines to the US. All was well until February 4, 1899, just two days before the US Senate ratified the annexation treaty, when Filipino nationalists rebelled. What ensued was one of the bloodiest conflicts in the US's history. 

Over the course of three years, over 4,200 Americans soldiers and over 20,000 Filipino combatants died. It is estimated that more than 200,000 Filipino civilians also passed away during the conflict due to violence, famine, and disease. Resistance at home in the US against the annexation also grew, with many thinking that it was morally wrong for the US to engage in colonialism (proponents of annexation supported the action because it gave the US a chance to build up a presence in the Asian sphere while providing a new market for American goods.) Brutal fighting ensued and US forces finally took control and beat the Filipino resistance. The US gave the Philippines a   good degree of autonomy in the following years with what President Taft called the "policy of attraction." The policy served to attract the elite and common folk who didn't agree with the Filipino resistance by promising freedom, social reform, and economic development. The Philippines calmed down (apart from the occasional minor insurrection) and was granted its independence after World War 2 in 1946.

Annexation of the Philippines

Cuba & Puerto Rico

Cuba and Puerto Rico came under US rule once the Spanish ceded the territories after their loss in the Spanish-American War. The US granted both territories relative autonomy. However, the US kept its power over these territories through the Platt Amendment. Under this amendment, the US reserved the right to interfere in the business of the colonies under the pretext of maintaining good government. Under these policies, the US was able to passively increase its sphere of control and ultimately advance its international strength.

However, both Puerto Rico and Cuba put up struggles during their early years. The first 20 or so years of Puerto Rico's existence under the US were plagued with protests for equality and more independence (US Military efforts were cut short in 1898 due to yellow fever). Their concerns were addressed by the Foraker Act of 1900, which established a civil government and the Jones Act, which gave Puerto Ricans US citizenship. Cuba had occasional independence movements which were silenced by the US under the Platt Amendment. Cuba eventually gained its independence from the US in 1902, yet Puerto Rico remains a US Commonwealth to this day. 

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal was started by the French in 1880, but construction stopped once the French were overrun with disease and confusion regarding the canal. The US resumed construction in 1904 and the canal was completed in 1914. The US succeeded at what the French failed due to the elimination of disease causing mosquitos and better sanitation. The US completed the canal due to the benefits the country would reap from it. Trade from South America to the US would take a fraction of the time (as compared to going around the tip of South America).

During the construction of the canal, Panama consequently earned its independence from Columbia. According to the Hay- HerrĂ¡n Treaty, the US could have use of the Isthmus of Panama for financial compensation. However, the Columbian Senate, fearing a loss of sovereignty, declined. Following this, President Roosevelt backed Panamanian nationalists in their bid for freedom. President Roosevelt prevented the Colombians from beating the nationalists by shutting down the American-owned trains that the Colombian troops were planning on using to travel to Panama. The US then recognized the Republic of Panama as an independent nation and made a deal with the new republic for the exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone by the US ($10 million up front and an annuity of $250,000 a year- a deal criticized as an infringement on the sovereignty of Panama by the people of the new republic). Panama was finally granted ownership of the Panama Canal Zone by the US in 1999.

Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary

The Monroe Doctrine was issued by President James Monroe in 1823. It was issued during a time of international reorganization, with global powers acquiring territory around the world. In an attempt to secure the stability of the Western Hemisphere, President Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine. In it, he warned European nations to not get involved politically or militarily with nations in the Western hemisphere. In return, he promised that the United States would not involve itself in European affairs. By issuing the doctrine, President Monroe gave the United States the ability to expand its spheres of influence (and ultimately increase its strength) with little threat of European intervention.

The Roosevelt Corollary was issued by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. It was an addendum to the Monroe Doctrine. It stated that the US reserved the right to intervene in the affairs of any American republic (one in the Western hemisphere). This gave the US military the power to intervene in any nation that was facing political or financial instability ("chronic wrongdoings" as it was called in the official document). This gave the US the power to directly influence the nations in its sphere of influence, giving it the power to mold the political sphere in which it operated. This ultimately bolstered the strength of the United States and benefitted the nation politically and financially (ex. could help put rulers in power that were more friendly to trade with the United States).


In my opinion, imperialism is the expansion of influence over different countries and possibly the acquisition of territory to spread influence over. In the US's case, imperialism was influencing the Western Hemisphere and having very direct influence over Cuba, the Philipines, and Puerto Rico. The US may have been motivated to take part in imperialism for several reasons. Firstly, the US may have been motivated by the financial benefits to imperialism (since having influence over countries can foster more international business while opening new markets for American goods). Secondly, the US may have been motivated by the political benefits. The countries in the United States's sphere of influence were likely to support the US, giving it more diplomatic power and a higher reputation internationally. In the end, imperialism was beneficial to the US and helped the US grow into the superpower that it ultimately became.