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What were the primary motivations and factors that led to the U.S. shift from isolationism and continental expansion to imperialism by the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
America’s so-called “shift” from isolationism and continental expansion to imperialism by the late 19th and early 20th centuries was really nothing more than a natural evolution of America’s “Manifest Destiny.” Before the US could enter its imperial phase beginning with the Spanish-American War at the turn of the century, it had first to square accounts on the continent by pushing its borders as far as they could be pushed. Once the West had been thoroughly settled and the Union held together (the major conflict of the 19th century), the US could turn its attention to foreign lands and global plans to facilitate the spread of the American Empire. It would have been impossible for the US to achieve imperial objectives any earlier, for up to the end of the 19th century, it had its hands full defining itself at home, securing the land from other groups, tribes, and nations; and staving off collapse at the hands of internal opposition. The victory of the Union over the Confederates settled the matter once and for all regarding who controlled the destiny of the US: it would be the central government—not the individual states. Even though Hamilton had argued in the Federalist Papers that a central government would be needed to prevent the individual states from becoming entangled in foreign wars, the opposite was the real truth: the central government would now have free rein to entangle the whole US in foreign wars and it would do so for the whole of the 20th century without looking back. The only dilemma would be how to convince an American public that entanglement in foreign wars was really in their best interest.
The Social Aspect
The yellow journalism used to justify the Spanish-American War was not the first case of the government using the press as its own public relations department. But it did start a trend that grew to what the press has become today: PR for the Pentagon, but masked under a cloak of humanitarianism. The cry of “Remember the Maine!” was how the muckrakers motivated the average American to back the war against Spain for possession of colonial land in the Philippines. Other Americans, notably those of the women’s movement as well as literary figures like Mark Twain, deplored the imperial plans of America’s federal government. When World War I began, Woodrow Wilson ran on the platform promise of keeping America out of the war—but he soon betrayed that promise when the Lusitania sank. He still needed to curry favor with the public and he did so by convincing Carrie Chapman and the Women’s Movement to sell out their anti-war principles in exchange for the right to vote. With the women now supporting the war effort, America’s transition into imperial nation became smoother (Peck 1944, 43).
Before all that, the concept of Manifest Destiny had paved the way for the notion of American exceptionalism. O’Sullivan (1845) coined the phrase, arguing that it was American’s manifest destiny to take control of the…world is a business,” states Arthur Jensen in Network—and that was certainly true in the 20th century. World War I was all about business: prying apart the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, thwarting Germany’s ascension on the Continent, giving Israel the promise of a homeland in exchange for backroom financing.
The primary motive of America’s shift from isolationism to imperialism was business, plain and simple. America had really only been isolationist for a time anyway—time enough for it to take over the land to the West and prevent a secession. The Industrial Revolution altered the market substantially and created an environment in which there was a need for nations to rush to secure their footing around the world as the world would now be vying for natural resources. Smith’s Wealth of Nations would turn into a zero-sum game, in which instead of all nations sharing the wealth it would be one nation controlling the board and dictating terms to the weaker nations. America shifted to imperialism in order to corner the market and assert its control of the board. The Spanish-American War was the first move. World War I was the second move. World War II would be checkmate. By 1945, the US would be calling the shots and only the Soviet Union would come between it and hegemony the world over. In the end, it was always America’s Manifest Destiny to rule the world because from the beginning it was the idea of the Founders that they were God’s Chosen and that God had given to them the special and unique opportunity to…
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