With the topic in mind, the paper begins with an overview of American foreign policy in the early days of the period being presented. American Foreign Policy Prior to the Late 1890s Prior to the late 1890s, American foreign policy was mostly focused on ways for America to insulate itself from the rest of the world, evidenced by the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, the taking of the Midway Islands off of Hawaii as an American territory in 1867, and later, the acquisition of Hawaii as a territory.
What these strategic moves show is an American initiative to put as much distance between the United States and the other nations of the world as possible. At that time in history, oceans and land borders were an effective barrier against foreign interference, more so than today. Reasons for the Change in American Foreign Policy in the 1890s Once America entered the 1890s, attitudes about foreign policy began to shift from the previous desire for isolationism, for a variety of reasons.
In the specific interest of democracy and its proliferation around the world, the United States found it necessary to look beyond its own borders for fertile land to plant the seeds of democracy, as most historians agree that the United States frontier was officially “closed” as of 1890, making it necessary to look elsewhere to spread American influence if so desired. The United States also had legitimate reasons to be concerned about the foreign policies of others in the world, illustrated by the expansion of European influence in Asia and Africa, as well as economic concerns that affected foreign policy.
The 1893 depression that rocked the American economy necessitated a way to distract the people from their domestic problems, as well as ways to find international markets for American products as a way of relieving the economic ills brought by the depression of 1893. Domestic industries also had an acute need for raw materials, many of which could only be obtained overseas, and the only way to effectively obtain them from overseas was to build a relationship with foreign countries, which admittedly was not part of foreign policy to any measurable extent up to this time.
Prominent Americans Involved in the Formation of Foreign Policy Whether in an official government function, or as a result of other actions, there are several noteworthy Americans who shaped the course of foreign policy at this time, and indeed changed the course of history to a substantial extent. Government leaders who had a loud voice in regard to American foreign policy during this era were of course President Theodore Roosevelt, as well as powerful senators such as Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Secretary of State John Hay who served in this capacity both Under Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and others.
In the world of American industry, men such as Andrew Carnegie were held in high esteem for their foreign policy views, as were “celebrities” such as author Mark Twain. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the most influential “civilians” in foreign policy at this time was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, it is alleged, sensationalized headlines in an effort to ignite the American interest in engaging Spain in what would be come to be known as the Spanish American War, as well as other events.
This type of activism played a pivotal role in the shaping of American foreign policy. Foreign Policy in Latin America, Asia and Europe As America undertook a more active foreign policy due to government and private citizen involvement, it encountered challenges from several areas of the world, both relatively close to her borders and overseas. One of the most significant tests to American foreign policy at that time came from Spain, namely in regard to the issue of Cuba.
More specifically, Cuba had not gained independence from Spain up to this time, as the rest of Latin America had. Cuban revolt against Spain had been ongoing for many years, but Cuba remained Spain’s only American territory, and was important to the Spanish for its strategic location as well as for its resources in sugar, beef and tobacco. The United States also had substantial business interests in Cuba and therefore desired to confront Spain in regard to possession of Cuba.
In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain, a war which ultimately resulting in American victory and possession of Cuba, but at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of American lives. Upon possession of Cuba, the United States established the Guantanamo Marine and Naval Base in Cuba, which still exists today. Regarding the involvement of America in foreign affairs overseas, following the Spanish-American War which gave America possession of Cuba, America began to move further away from its native soil, acquiring Guam and the Philippines as territories as well.
America also became more involved with foreign powers in regard to trade as a result of the acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone, and President Theodore Roosevelt sought to flex American muscle by such displays as the launching of a naval fleet of huge ships which traveled to foreign ports, proudly displaying the American flag as a clear message that America was in a sense “moving into the neighborhood”. Succeeding Roosevelt in the presidency, Woodrow Wilson’s emphasis on diplomacy and missionary type foreign relations led to American intervention and war in Europe.
When World War I first began to erupt in Europe, the United States attempted to stay neutral in the dispute, which was impossible due to America’s wish for neutrality on one hand and the desire to prevent Germany from winning the war on the other. Wilson, attempting to toe the line between American entrance in the war and efforts to assist in the defeat of Germany, tried to be involved without going to war, which he soon learned was impossible, throwing America headlong into World War I.
The American entrance into World War I, it should be noted in fairness, was also made necessary by the aggression of other countries. Specifically speaking of German aggression against the United States, German submarines sank the British liner Lusitania in 1915, killing among others 128 Americans, followed by continued German warfare aimed at United States merchant ships on the seas that the United States tried to sail as a neutral nation.
There is also evidence of an organized German effort to wage war on the United States, which certainly accelerated the American path to World War I. American Foreign Policy as it Appeared Around 1920 In the years around 1920, America’s foreign policy, in a sense coming full circle from the isolationist policies of the early 1890s, seemed to look inward, namely in the area of immigration, and how the huge influx of people from other countries seeking a new life in America was affecting the lives of those already in the country.
During the beginning of the 20th century, millions upon millions of people had come to the United States, and as the number of people coming from other countries increased, the opposition to this among Americans increased as well. The United States in the early 1920s was no longer willing to accept huge numbers of immigrants as in the past. With this in mind, several laws were passed to limit the numbers of immigrants allowed admission into the United States, signaling the end of one of the largest mass migrations of people from many nations to one nation in the history of the modern human race.
As immigration slowed to a mere trickle, a small but significant movement of Americans to Europe was taking place, but this was mostly in the area of the intellectuals, artists and authors, who sought the deep cultural history of Europe to stimulate their creativity and quest for knowledge and exposure to ancient cultures. Closing Thoughts In retrospect, American foreign policy from 1880-1920 was truly a vital ingredient in defining the expansion of the United States, as well as establishing democracy as a force to be respected, and in some cases reckoned with, in terms of international foreign relations.
In addition, the land acquisitions and strategic alliances that were formed during this era play a part in the economy and security of the United States even today. This being said, as a closing thought, it is intriguing to consider the role that history has in not only defining and explaining our past, but also setting a course for the future. Therefore, it is the duty of every thinking person to treasure history and learn from it, lest, as the old saying goes, we become condemned to repeat it.