The Age of Imperialism

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States pursued an aggressive policy of expansionism, extending its political and economic influence around the globe. That pivotal era in the history of our nation is the subject of this online history.


Expansion in the Pacific

A Letter to an Emperor

Footholds in the Pacific

The Spanish-American War

Remember the Maine

Yellow Journalism

A Splendid Little War

A Gift from the Gods

The Boxer Rebellion

Spheres of Influence

Fists of Righteous Harmony

The Panama Canal

President Roosevelt

Joining the Waters

U.S. Intervention in Latin America

Teddy's Legacy

The End of an Era

Image Credits


Teacher's Guide now available

Expansion in the Pacific

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan

After temporarily resolving the problems of Reconstruction and Industrialization, Americans began to resume the course of expansion. The horrors of the Civil War had interrupted the original Manifest Destiny that began in the 1840s. Now, as pioneers settled the last western frontiers, expansionists looked yet farther to the west—toward Asia and the Pacific.

A leading expansionist, Captain Alfred T. Mahan, cautioned that the Pacific could "be entered and controlled only by a vigorous contest." As head of the Naval War College, Mahan believed that America's survival depended upon a strong navy. He argued that a strong navy would require island possessions to serve as naval bases. The time had come, Mahan wrote, for Americans to turn their "eyes outward, instead of inward only, to seek the welfare of the country."

Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry

Matthew Calbraith Perry

American ships had long been active in the Pacific. The New England whaling fleets scoured the ocean in search of their prey. The China trade had been enriching Yankee merchants since 1784. Japan, however, had effectively closed its doors to outsiders, and it restricted foreign ships to a small part of Nagasaki.

More about President
Millard Fillmore,

including a picture

Commodore Matthew C. Perry, commander of the United States naval forces in the China seas, was a staunch expansionist. Back in 1852 he warned President Fillmore that the British, who had already taken control of Hong Kong and Singapore, would soon control all trade in the area. Perry recommended that the United States take "active measures to secure a number of ports of refuge" in Japan. President Fillmore agreed with Perry. In 1853 he ordered the Commodore to open negotiations with the Emperor of Japan.

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A Letter to an Emperor

U.S. Navy map of Japan, 1853
(Edo, labeled Yedo, is the
former name of Tokyo.)

Brief history of the

Kayama Yezaimon, daimyo of Uraga, raced to the battlement, the clash of the warning gong still ringing in his ears. Stopping beside the brass cannon that guarded the entrance of Edo Bay, he scanned the horizon. The summer sun flashed high above the blue Pacific, and beneath it four ships approached with the tide.

As the ships sailed closer, the daimyo, his samurai, and their retainers watched in silent awe. Two huge steam frigates spouted thick black clouds as they maneuvered against the wind. With their paddle-wheels churning the water, the frigates came about, bringing their gun-decks to bear upon the shore defenses. Two sailing ships waited downwind in support. Bright signal flags fluttered from halyards.

Abe Masahiro

Abe Masahiro, head
of the Roju (governing
council) under Shogun

Kayama scowled. Through a telescope he studied the ships, which were well beyond the range of his small shore batteries. The ships bristled with cannon much more formidable than his own. Identical flags flapped at the stern of each vessel—red and white stripes, with white stars on a patch of blue. Kayama barked out an order. A samurai ran forward and dropped to one knee. The daimyo instructed the samurai to ride to the castle of Abe Masahiro, and to inform the shogun that a barbarian fleet blocked the mouth of Edo Bay.

From the fo'c'sle of the sloop of war Saratoga, Lieutenant John Goldsborough watched as dozens of Japanese galleys approached the American fleet.

They were all fantastically decorated with flags and banners. They were propelled by from ten to twenty oars each with generally two or three men at each oar. None of the boats were permitted to come alongside any ship in the Squadron, though they all appeared quite anxious to go alongside the Flagship. Still none were permitted until we were fully convinced that a high officer was in one of the boats. Then he alone, with an interpreter who spoke Dutch, was allowed to come over the Susquehanna's side.

Part of the U.S. Japanese Squadron

Part of the U.S.
Japanese Squadron
under Commodore
Perry's command

On board the Susquehanna, Commodore Perry's aide, Lieutenant Contee, informed the official that the Commodore carried a letter from the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan. The Commodore intended to deliver the letter personally to an official representative. Since the Commodore was of the highest rank in the United States Navy, Contee said, he would meet only with a Japanese official of equal status.

Two days later, Kayama Yezaimon visited the Susquehanna. He informed Captain Adams that the Americans must take their message to Nagasaki. Perry refused to meet with Kayama, but he wrote a message.

"The Commodore will not go to Nagasaki," Adams read. "If this friendly letter of the President to the Emperor is not received and duly replied to, he will consider his country insulted, and will not hold himself accountable for the consequences."

Toda Izu

Toda Izu, governor
of Uraga

After several more days of haggling, a suitable representative, "Prince" Toda, arrived in Uraga. With cannon salutes and a marching band, Perry led a parade of marines to meet the Japanese delegation. He presented Toda with the president's letter, enclosed in a rosewood box trimmed with gold, and announced that he would return for the emperor's answer in the spring.

Perry impressed the Japanese officials with his diplomacy and with the technological superiority of his ships and weapons. The Japanese shogunate decided to grant the minor trade concessions that President Fillmore asked for in his letter. Forming a treaty with the Americans, they reasoned, would prevent another European power from imposing even greater concessions.

In February 1854, Perry returned to Edo with eight ships. He accepted the favorable reply to Fillmore's letter and visited several Japanese ports before beginning the long voyage home. His diplomatic mission had officially established the United States' presence in Asia. Still, the Americans never realized that they had been negotiating with a mere shogun. For the emperor to consult with barbarians was unthinkable.

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Footholds in the Pacific

Learn about the formation
of the Hawaiian Islands.

View current and historic
maps of the Hawaiian
Islands, once called the
Sandwich Islands.

Images of Hawaii from

As ships crossed the vast ocean to trade in Asia, islands in the Pacific became important stops for coal, provisions, and repairs. In the South Pacific, the American navy negotiated for the right to build a base on the Samoan island of Tutuila. The Hawaiian Islands, which lie closest to the American mainland, had long been an important stop for the Pacific fleet. Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, offered one of the most attractive natural bases in the Pacific.

In the early 1800s, missionaries from New England made the arduous voyage to Hawaii and settled there. They sent back news of fantastic economic possibilities in the islands. Soon other Americans followed to become sugar planters and to establish profitable businesses.

King's Palace, Toward Waikiki, Oahu, in 1826

Detail from King's
Palace, Toward Waikiki,
Oahu, in 1826

To the native Hawaiians, or Kanaka Maoli, their island was a paradise. The sea, the abundant fruit trees, and the rich, fertile soil provided the Kanaka Maoli with all their necessities. Because of the perfect year-round climate, their simple shelters were adequate and comfortable. To the Americans, however, the Kanaka Maoli behaved like foolish children, as one early visitor described:

The ease with which the Hawaiians on their own land can secure their food supply has undoubtably interfered with their social and industrial advancement. . . . [It] relieves the native from any struggle and unfits him for sustained competition with men from other lands. The fact that food is supplied by nature takes from the native all desire for the acquisition of more land. Today's food can be had for the picking, and tomorrow's as well. Instead of grasping all he can get, he divides with his neighbor, and confidently expects his neighbor to divide with him.

Treaties between
the United States
and Hawaii: 1826,
1849, 1875, 1884

While the Kanaka Maoli were content to live in their traditional, idyllic ways, Americans were busy building huge plantations, warehouses, railroads, drydocks, banks, hotels, and stores. They soon dominated the island's economy, and they were able to influence its government as well. Americans created and controlled Hawaii's legislature and cabinet, and they limited the power of the native king.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, disputes arose between the Kanaka Maoli and those of foreign descent. "Hawaii for Hawaiians" became the slogan of people who sought to restore the traditional ways of the kingdom. Others called for the annexation of Hawaii by the United States. Annexation would eliminate the recent trade restrictions on sugar and revive the island's faltering economy. Secret organizations, such as the Annexation Club, plotted revolution.

Background information
about the Hawaiian

In the midst of this unrest, Queen Liliuokalani assumed the throne upon the death of her brother, King Kalakaua. At age fifty-two, Liliuokalani had already governed the islands as regent during her brother's long absences. She was well qualified to take control of the government. An American newspaper reporter who interviewed the new queen described her as "strong and resolute. Her manner was dignified, and she had the ease and authoritative air of one accustomed to rule." Educated in American schools, Liliuokalani's voice "was musical and well modulated, and she spoke remarkably pure and graceful English." Islanders who favored annexation hoped that the new queen would support their interests.

Sanford Ballard Dole

Sanford Ballard Dole

Liliuokalani, however, was determined to eliminate American influence in the government. She tried to create a new constitution that would strengthen the traditional monarchy, but her cabinet refused to cooperate. The American residents were outraged. They organized the Committee of Safety and appointed members of the Annexation Club as its leaders. On the morning of January 17, 1893, armed members of the committee attacked. They took over the government office building. From its steps they read a proclamation abolishing the monarchy and establishing a provisional government. The provisional government "would exist until terms of union with the United States of America have been negotiated and agreed upon." Sanford B. Dole, an elderly judge with a flowing, white beard, became its president.

U.S.S. Boston

U.S.S. Boston

Text of the Constitution
of 1887,
which gave
Queen Liliuokalani the
right to rule Hawaii

(See especially
Articles 21 and 22.)

Hawaiians who were loyal to their queen tried to come to her defense and stop the revolution. When they arrived in Honolulu, however, American troops confronted them. The United States minister, John L. Stevens, had sent for a battalion of marines and an artillery company from the cruiser Boston. They were ordered to protect the provisional government. For the Hawaiians, resistance was hopeless.

Queen Liliuokalani sadly surrendered her throne. She wrote a document in which she "yielded to the superior forces of the United States." She pleaded with the U.S. government to "undo the actions of its representatives and reinstate me in the authority I claim as the Constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands." Meanwhile, the Provisional Government sent five representatives to Washington to apply for annexation. They quickly drew up a treaty, and President Harrison signed it and submitted it to Congress.

Biography and photo of
Grover Cleveland

Text of a speech by
President Cleveland
which he expresses his
"desire to aid in the
restoration of the status
existing before the lawless
landing of the United
States forces at Honolulu
on the 16th of January

Before the Senate could approve the treaty, however, a new president took office. This president, Grover Cleveland, had reservations about taking over an independent country. He withdrew the treaty and sent a special commissioner to Hawaii to investigate the revolution. The commissioner reported that Minister Stevens had conspired with a small group of revolutionaries to overthrow the government. Cleveland replaced Stevens with a new minister and tried to restore Liliuokalani to the throne.

President Dole flatly refused to give the government back to the Hawaiians. He told President Cleveland that the United States had no right to meddle in Hawaii's internal affairs. Congress agreed, and it adopted a "hands off" policy toward the island. Dole's new government then created an army and held a constitutional convention. On July 4th, 1894, the government unveiled the completed constitution and declared an independent Republic of Hawaii.

Despite Liliuokalani's pleas for help, other governments quickly recognized the new republic. In desperation, supporters of the queen began to collect weapons and to make secret plans to overthrow the republic and restore the monarchy. They planned to strike on the morning of January 7, 1895, but informers told the government about their plot.

At dawn, as the queen's supporters slipped silently ashore on Waikiki, government soldiers opened fire. A few of the rebels fell dead or wounded; others surrendered. The government declared martial law. During the next few days, government troops defeated the disorganized rebels in a series of brief but deadly skirmishes. Within two weeks, they completely suppressed the uprising and captured its followers, including Queen Liliuokalani. The prisoners were tried for treason. Liliuokalani was forced to sign a document in which she finally renounced all claims to the throne.

Biography and photo of
William McKinley

Excerpts from the
1993 Apology Resolution
signed by President Clinton
to acknowledge
the 100th anniversary
of the overthrow
of Kingdom of Hawaii

Now secure in its power, the republican government turned its attention to international relations and trade. In 1896, however, the election of a Republican, William McKinley, as president of the United States, rekindled Hawaiian hopes for annexation. President McKinley, like many Republicans, favored expansionism, and he welcomed the new annexation treaty. A joint resolution of Congress annexing Hawaii passed both houses, and the islands became American possessions.

While Congress was considering the annexation treaty, an American fleet was steaming across the Pacific to attack the Philippine Islands. The United States had gone to war.

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The Spanish-American War

Remember the Maine

U.S.S. Maine

January 25, 1898—The U.S.S. Maine enters Havana harbor,
about three weeks before it was blown up.

Cuba in 1898
Provides background information
about the Cuban insurgency against
foreign control both before and just
after the Maine incident

Map of Cuba
(This is an interactive map—for
example, click on Havana for a more
detailed view of the city.)

For a wider view of the region:
Map of Caribbean region
Map of Latin America

The battleship Maine drifted lazily at its mooring. Although the Havana night was moonless, the Maine's gleaming white hull—longer than a football field—contrasted against the blackness of the sea and sky. Smoke wisped from its two mustard-colored funnels. Random lights sparkled from its portholes and its bridge.

Captain Sigsbee

Captain Sigsbee in the captain's cabin aboard the Maine

In the captain's cabin, Charles Sigsbee sat at a table writing a letter to his wife. The trouble in Cuba, he wrote, would soon be over. The new Spanish governor of the island seemed to have the situation under control. During the three weeks that the Maine had been in Havana, Captain Sigsbee had seen no sign of Cuban rebels. He'd entertained the Spanish officers in his mess, and he and his staff had been entertained lavishly by the local officials. Although Sigsbee found the bullfights to which he'd been invited somewhat barbaric, the Spanish officers behaved as perfect gentlemen.

General Fitzhugh Lee

General Fitzhugh Lee

Even Fitzhugh Lee, the American consul, seemed optimistic. A month earlier the old general (Lee had commanded a cavalry division under his uncle Robert E. in the Civil War) had summoned a battleship to "protect American interests." Although the Maine was only a second-class battleship, it was the largest ship ever to enter Havana harbor. To the Cubans, it was a floating American fortress right in their capital city.

Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee, 1898

Capt. Charles
D. Sigsbee, 1898

Aboard the Maine, "taps" sounded at ten minutes past nine. Captain Sigsbee describes what happened next.

I laid down my pen and listened to the notes of the bugle, which were singularly beautiful in the oppressive stillness of the night. . . . I was enclosing my letter in its envelope when the explosion came. It was a bursting, rending, and crashing roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character. It was followed by heavy, ominous metallic sounds. There was a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, a list to port. The electric lights went out. Then there was intense blackness and smoke.

The situation could not be mistaken. The Maine was blown up and sinking. For a moment the instinct of self-preservation took charge of me, but this was immediately dominated by the habit of command.

Captain Sigsbee managed to reach the deck, now slanted down sharply toward the submerged bow. He climbed aft toward the only part of the ship that was not awash. Fires had broken out all over the vessel, and they lit the harbor in an eerie red glow. In Havana lights began to shine from windows that had just been smashed by the blast. Most of the crew had been asleep in their berths at the forward part of the ship, which was already at the bottom of the harbor. The stern sunk more slowly.

Crews from nearby ships manned lifeboats to rescue the surviving crewmen of the Maine. "Chief among them," Sigsbee wrote, "were the boats from the Alfonso XII. The Spanish officers and crews did all that humanity and gallantry could compass." Reluctantly, Captain Sigsbee abandoned the Maine, which continued to burn and explode throughout the night.

The twisted, burnt wreckage of the Maine's stern and bridge was still above water in the morning. It remained there for years. Two hundred fifty-four seamen were dead, and fifty-nine sailors were wounded. Eight of the wounded later died. The navy conducted an investigation into the cause of the disaster, but it never discovered who was responsible for the explosion.

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Yellow Journalism

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

Drawing of
"The Yellow Kid"

The American press, however, had no doubts about who was responsible for sinking the Maine. It was the cowardly Spanish, they cried. William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal even published pictures. They showed how Spanish saboteurs had fastened an underwater mine to the Maine and had detonated it from shore.

Film showing a one-horse
paneled newspaper van
arriving to deliver the
"New York World" to a
crowd of newspaper
carriers in Union Square,
New York.

Sample articles from
Chronicling America: American
Historic Newspapers

As one of the few sources of public information, newspapers had reached unprecedented influence and importance. Journalistic giants, such as Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer of the World, viciously competed for the reader's attention. They were determined to reach a daily circulation of a million people, and they didn't mind fabricating stories in order to reach their goal.

They competed in other ways as well. The World was the first newspaper to introduce colored comics, and the Journal immediately copied it. The two papers often printed the same comics under different titles. One of these involved the adventures of "The Yellow Kid," a little boy who always wore a yellow gown. Since color presses were new in the 1890s, the finished product was not always perfect. The colors, especially the Yellow Kid's costume, often smeared. Soon people were calling the World, the Journal, and other papers like them "the yellow press." "They colored the funnies," some said, "but they colored the news as well."

A minor revolt in Cuba against the Spanish colonial government provided a colorful topic. For months now the papers had been painting in lurid detail the horrors of Cuban life under oppressive Spanish rule. The Spanish had confined many Cubans to concentration camps. The press called them "death camps." Wild stories with screaming headlines—Spanish Cannibalism, Inhuman Torture, Amazon Warriors Fight For Rebels—flooded the newsstands. Newspapers sent hundreds of reporters, artists, and photographers south to recount Spanish atrocities. The correspondents, including such notables as author Stephen Crane and artist Frederick Remington, found little to report on when they arrived.

cartoon depicting Cuba's difficult situation

Puck magazine published this cartoon depicting Cuba's difficult situation in the 1890s.

"There is no war," Remington wrote to his boss. "Request to be recalled."

Remington's boss, William Randolph Hearst, sent a cable in reply: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." Hearst was true to his word. For weeks after the Maine disaster, the Journal devoted more than eight pages a day to the story. Not to be outdone, other papers followed Hearst's lead. Hundreds of editorials demanded that the Maine and American honor be avenged. Many Americans agreed. Soon a rallying cry could be heard everywhere—in the papers, on the streets, and in the halls of Congress: "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain."

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A Splendid Little War

The wreck of the U.S.S. Maine

The wreck of the U.S.S. Maine

Chronology of the war (from the NYPL's Online Exhibition of the
Spanish-American War)

In the wake of the Maine incident, Congress hurriedly appropriated $50 million to prepare the nation for war. "Big navy" supporters, including the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, appropriated the lion's share of the money. Next, President McKinley insisted that Spain agree to a cease-fire with the Cuban rebels and negotiate a permanent settlement with them. After a slight delay, Spain agreed to the American demands. Two days later, McKinley asked Congress for authority to use military force to end the Cuban conflict. Essentially, this was a declaration of war.

The United States Army was not prepared for war. After the Civil War, the country had drastically reduced its army. Most army units had been scattered throughout the west, where they had fought and confined Native Americans. Volunteer and National Guard units quickly assembled in Tennessee. Regular-army divisions, filled with new recruits, rushed to Florida to await the invasion of Cuba.

Back to the Pacific The navy, however, needed little preparation. The Pacific fleet was visiting Hong Kong when the news of war arrived. Commodore George Dewey quickly provisioned his ships and set off to attack the Spanish colony in the Philippine Islands.

World map showing location of
the Philippine Islands

Map of the Philippine Islands

Another Philippines map

Philippine History

Chronology of Events Leading to
the Philippine-American War

Photos of the U.S.S. Olympia

Photo and biography of Captain Gridley

Photos of the U.S.S. Boston

Photo of Commodore George Dewey.

Once at sea, Commodore Dewey had his men paint all the ships. Once a bright white, the ships were soon covered with a dull gray to make them less visible to the enemy. Next, Dewey ordered that everything made of wood, including the piano on his flagship Olympia, be tossed over the side. Splintered wood presented a greater danger to his crews than enemy shells. Then with chests, chairs, and tables bobbing in the water behind them, the ships went after the Spanish fleet.

Commodore George Dewey

Commodore George Dewey is depicted here commanding
the battle of Manila Bay. He does so from his
flagship Olympia.

After searching throughout an oppressive tropical night, Dewey found the Spaniards in the shallows of Manila Bay. At dawn on the first of May, the Olympia led the fleet in single file toward its enemy. The Spanish opened fire long before the Americans were within range. The Olympia moved still closer. When it reached effective range, it turned sharply to the west, bringing all its guns to bear upon the Spanish fleet.

"You may fire when ready, Gridley," Dewey told his executive officer. With a deafening roar, the huge cruiser's guns erupted. The flagship swung around in a wide circle, and each ship followed, guns blasting as it passed. "We made five trips past the fleet," a gunner on the Boston wrote.

Just two hours after the beginning of the battle we hauled out and, withdrawing a few miles, the order was given for breakfast. I was exhausted from the heat, loss of sleep, and lack of proper food. I went up on deck. Below the thermometer was at 116°, and the fresh air was a great relief. From this vantage point, I could see the destruction we had wrought.

World front page announcing the victory

The Spanish-American War in Motion
This presentation features 68
motion pictures produced between
1898 and 1901 of the Spanish-
American War and the subsequent
Philippine Revolution.

When the thick, black smoke that had obscured the battle cleared, he saw the Spanish fleet, battered and afire. The battle had been won. Eight seamen suffered wounds aboard the Boston (the same ship that had helped "liberate" Hawaii). One man died from the heat before the battle began. They represented the total casualties for the fleet.

When the news of the stunning victory reached home, Americans cheered ecstatically. Dewey, "the conqueror of the Philippines," became an instant national hero. Stores soon filled with merchandise bearing his image. Few Americans knew what and where the Philippines were, but the press assured them that the islands were a welcome possession.

Teddy Roosevelt

Biography of
Teddy Roosevelt

A timeline of Roosevelt's life

Rough Riders Despite Dewey's early victory, the war in the Caribbean was getting off to a slow start. More than 250,000 soldiers rushed enthusiastically into the service. The army's quartermaster corps, however, had only fifty-seven men to supply the army with equipment. Soldiers gathered in Florida and waited impatiently for supplies and transportation. Some individuals organized and outfitted their own regiments. One such individual, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, resigned his post and formed a volunteer regiment of cavalry. Teddy Roosevelt did not intend to miss his chance at glory.

Roosevelt had been born forty years earlier to a wealthy New York family. He described himself as "a sickly, delicate boy" who "suffered much from asthma, and frequently had to be taken away on trips to find a place where [he] could breathe." Determined to overcome his physical limitations, Roosevelt embarked on a grueling program of body building. He practiced boxing, hunting, and riding, and after college he spent three years as a working cowboy in the wild Badlands of Dakota. "It was still the Wild West in those days," he wrote. "The West of the Indian and the buffalo hunter, the soldier and the cow-puncher." There he "led a free and hardy life with horse and rifle."

Roosevelt's political career began in the New York legislature. Next, after running unsuccessfully for mayor of New York, he served as that city's police commissioner. A loyal Republican, he campaigned tirelessly for McKinley in the 1896 election, and the president rewarded him with an appointment to the Department of the Navy.

TR and his Rocky Mountain Riders

TR and his Rocky Mountain Riders,
or "Rough Riders"

Now, seeking again the "hardy life with horse and rifle," Roosevelt waited in Tampa with his men. His regiment, which called itself the Rocky Mountain Riders, consisted mostly of cowboys from the West, although it contained a few Indians and wealthy polo players from the East as well. The papers called the regiment "Teddy's Terrors," but its commander was Leonard Wood, a physician who was also a colonel in the regular army. Roosevelt served as lieutenant colonel.

"Tampa was a scene of the wildest confusion," Teddy remembered. "There was no semblance of order." Thousands of men, horses, mules, and supply wagons were scattered about haphazardly in the tropical heat. Somehow the expedition reached Cuba. Still, "different parts of different outfits were jumbled together. . . . For instance, one transport had guns, and another had the locks for the guns. Soldiers went here, provisions went there, and who got ashore depended upon individual activity."

Roosevelt, always active, got his regiment ashore quickly. "We disembarked with our rifles, our ammunition belts, and not much else," he remembered. "I carried some food in my pocket, and a light coat which was my sole camp equipment for the next three days."

Cuban Soldiers
Read more about the role of Cuban
soldiers, who had nearly won their
island's independence from Spain by
the time Teddy Roosevelt arrived

With the July temperature climbing above 100°, the soldiers plodded off through the thick jungle toward the city of Santiago. Wearing uniforms made of wool, the men struggled against the heat. Those who managed to obtain rations often discovered that their food had spoiled. Soon the ranks were riddled with malaria, fever, and dysentery. (Before the war ended, 5,200 Americans would perish from disease.) General Shafter, the army's commander, realized that if he didn't capture Santiago soon, he might not have an army left.

After a few brief skirmishes, the armies confronted each other. The Spanish defended the San Juan hills, a long ridge east of Santiago. The Americans, arrayed in the valley below, sent up an observation balloon to study the city's defenses.

San Juan Hill

San Juan Hill

Print depicting an
African American soldier
during the march
toward San Juan Hill

Roosevelt, who had managed to obtain a horse, rode up and down the lines anxiously. "I had come to the conclusion," he said, "that it was silly to stay in the valley firing up at the hills. . . . The thing to do was to try to rush the entrenchments." Never a man to stand on ceremony, Teddy took it upon himself to order the charge.

With a pistol in one hand an a saber in the other, Teddy spurred his mount forward. His face grew flushed; his glasses clouded with steam; a wide grin covered his face. The rough riders followed on foot, and the Ninth Cavalry, an African American regiment, rushed forth beside them. As he reached the crest of Kettle Hill, Teddy saw its defenders fleeing before him. He fired at one of them, and later remarked that the man fell "as neatly as a jackrabbit."

Atop Kettle Hill, the soldiers dined on captured Spanish provisions. Later Teddy left his men and rode to the top of San Juan Hill, but the Tenth Cavalry, another African American regiment, had already stormed and captured it. That night the Americans repelled a Spanish counterattack. In the morning, General Shafter demanded that the Spanish commander surrender.

Captain-General Ramon Blanco

Captain-General Ramon

Photos of Spanish wrecks
after the battle

A Big Turkey Shoot Ramon Blanco y Erenas, governor general of Cuba, received Shafter's demand. He responded by ordering his fleet to attack the American ships blockading Santiago harbor. If the Spanish could destroy the Americans' supply line, he thought, they could force the enemy to withdraw. His fleet commander, Admiral Cervera, disagreed. Attacking a force four times the size of his own seemed like suicide. Nevertheless, Cervera obeyed his orders, and in the hazy dawn the Spanish, led by the magnificent Maria Teresa, bravely steamed into battle.

The Americans were ready. Four first-class battleships (any one of them might have been a match for the whole Spanish fleet), two cruisers, and several smaller ships enclosed the mouth of the harbor in a half-circle. Tugboats filled with reporters scurried in their wake. The Oregon fired the first shot of the battle, and soon black smoke blurred the bay.

Painting of the Battle of Santiago de Cuba

Painting of the Battle of Santiago de Cuba

"It was a big turkey shoot," Seaman Cross of the Oregon said. "The Fleet came out and went to Davy Jones' locker."

By one o'clock the battle was over. The Spanish fleet was destroyed, and with it sank all hope of victory in Cuba. General Nelson Miles, the old Indian fighter, led a force to Puerto Rico. He conquered the island and its few Spanish defenders easily. In effect, the war was over.

Commemorative poster
from the Spanish-
American War

Spain agreed to an armistice. In the four months of fighting, Americans had lost a total of 460 soldiers in battle. Compared to the Civil War, in which tens of thousands were often killed in a single day, these casualties seemed insignificant. "It's been a splendid little war," the ambassador to England wrote to his friend, Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt returned, the hero of the war. Because of his heroism on Kettle Hill, he'd been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. His popularity swept him to the governorship of New York. Like Dewey before him, Roosevelt memorabilia filled shop windows. One of the more popular items was a cuddly stuffed animal wearing a bandana and glasses. People called it the "Teddy Bear."

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A Gift from the Gods

American troops

American troops on the ramparts at Manila, c. 1898-1901

More about Mark Twain's views on the Philippines

Excerpts from an anti-imperialist essay by Andrew Carnegie

A list of links to additional anti-imperialist essays, speeches, and pamphlets

In the months following the Spanish-American War, the winds of expansionism blew strongly across the United States. There was a lot of talk about "Manifest Destiny," and many people suggested that America should assume its role as a world power. In Congress, legislators called for the annexation of all Spanish territories. Some newspapers even suggested the annexation of Spain itself. Expansionists such as Roosevelt, former President Harrison, and Captain Mahan argued for creating an American empire. Others, including Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, and Mark Twain, opposed these ideas.

In October, representatives from Spain and the United States sat down in Paris to work out a treaty. President McKinley appointed a "peace commission" to represent the United States. A majority of the commission's members believed in expansionism. No representatives from the colonies whose fates were being decided attended the Paris conference.

Map of the Caribbean region
(to locate Puerto Rico)

Large map of Guam
(includes locator map)

The Spanish delegates assumed that the United States would annex Cuba. They suggested that the United States also take over Cuba's $400 million debt. The Americans declined. After all, the war had been fought in support of Cuban independence. However, they were glad to accept Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

The American army already controlled the city of Manila, but it had not ventured into any other areas of the Philippine Islands. After signing the treaty, President McKinley ordered the War Department to bring all the islands under military control. The people of the Philippines, he decided, were too "uncivilized" to govern themselves. The Filipinos were shocked. For two years they'd been fighting for their independence from Spain. Since the United States had supported rebels in Cuba and Hawaii, they expected support for their independence as well.

Commodore Dewey wrote to his superiors and pointed out that the Filipinos seemed better prepared for self-government than the Cubans did. The War Department responded by sending more men and equipment to Manila. Emilio Aguinaldo, the wiry leader of the Filipino independence movement, felt betrayed. Aguinaldo admired the United States. He liked to be called "the George Washington of the Philippines." He had helped the Americans fight the Spanish. Now the Americans and the Spanish residents of the islands were fighting him.

Biography and photo of
William Howard Taft

Aguinaldo led his bitter troops into the jungles, and for three years they fought a brutal war against the military government. In the end the overwhelming power of the American forces defeated them. The Americans confined many Filipinos in concentration camps like the ones the Spanish had used in Cuba. William Howard Taft was appointed head of the Philippine Commission, charged with replacing the military government with a civilian legislature. Despite the plan to prepare the Philippines for independence, however, Americans continued to rule the islands until after World War II.

The war in the Philippines claimed four times as many American lives as the war with Spain did. Few Americans, however, rejoiced at the victory. There were no heroes. No parades greeted the returning troops. For many, this war seemed to contradict some basic American values.

"I have been criticized a good deal about the Philippines," McKinley said, "but I don't deserve it. The truth is . . . they came to us as a gift from the gods."

"Congratulations," Andrew Carnegie wrote to a leading expansionist. "You seem to have about finished your work of civilizing the Filipinos. It is thought that about eight thousand of them have been completely civilized and sent to heaven. I hope you like it."

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The Boxer Rebellion

Spheres of Influence

Canton, China

Canton, China: seawall and harbor crowded with sampans, c. 1895

Throughout the nineteenth century, China's emperors had watched as foreigners encroached further and further upon their land. Time and again, foreigners forced China to make humiliating concessions. Foreign regiments, armed with modern weapons, consistently defeated entire imperial armies. Now, as a new century was about to begin, Cixi, empress dowager of the Qing Dynasty, searched for a way to rid her empire of foreign parasites.

John Hay

John Hay

Text of John Hay's
First Open Door Note

Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and Russia all claimed exclusive trading rights to certain parts of China. They were dividing China into "spheres of influence." Some even claimed to own the territory within their spheres. By acquiring the Philippines, the United States became an Asian power too. Now, with a strong base of operations just 400 miles from China, American businesses hoped to take advantage of China's vast resources. The foreign spheres of influence, however, threatened their ambitions.

So while the empress was hoping to close China to foreigners, Americans were looking for a way in. John Hay, now Secretary of State, had an idea. Since public opinion, strained by the Philippines war, would never support the use of force, he decided to negotiate. He sent letters to all the foreign powers and suggested an "Open Door" policy in China. This policy would guarantee equal trading rights for all and prevent one nation from discriminating against another within its sphere.

The nations replied that they liked the concept of the Open Door, but that they could not support or enforce it. Hay's plan had been politely rejected. Nevertheless Hay announced that since all of the powers had accepted the Open Door in principle, the United States considered their agreement "final and definitive."

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Fists of Righteous Harmony

While the outside powers bickered over who would control China, Cixi issued an imperial message to all the Chinese provinces.

Empress Dowager Tsu Hsi

Empress Dowager

The present situation is becoming daily more difficult. The various Powers cast upon us looks of tiger-like voracity, hustling each other to be first to seize our innermost territories. . . . Should the strong enemies become aggressive and press us to consent to things we can never accept, we have no alternative but to rely upon the justice of our cause. . . . If our . . . hundreds of millions of inhabitants . . . would prove their loyalty to their emperor and love of their country, what is there to fear from any invader? Let us not think about making peace.

In northern Shandong province, a devastating drought was pushing people to the edge of starvation. Few people there were thinking about making peace. A secret society, known as the Fists of Righteous Harmony, attracted thousands of followers. Foreigners called members of this society "Boxers" because they practiced martial arts. The Boxers also believed that they had a magical power, and that foreign bullets could not harm them. Millions of "spirit soldiers," they said, would soon rise from the dead and join their cause.

A 'Boxer' in 1900

A "Boxer" in 1900

Their cause, at first, was to overthrow the imperial Qing government and expel all "foreign devils" from China. The crafty empress, however, saw a way to use the Boxers. Through her ministers, she began to encourage the Boxers. Soon a new slogan—"Support the Qing, destroy the foreigners!”—appeared upon the Boxers' banner.

In the early months of 1900, thousands of Boxers roamed the countryside. They attacked Christian missions, slaughtering foreign missionaries and Chinese converts. Then they moved toward the cities, attracting more and more followers as they came. Nervous foreign ministers insisted that the Chinese government stop the Boxers. From inside the Forbidden City, the empress told the diplomats that her troops would soon crush the "rebellion." Meanwhile, she did nothing as the Boxers entered the capital.

Foreign diplomats, their families, and staff lived in a compound just outside the Forbidden City's walls in the heart of Beijing. Working together, they threw up hasty defenses, and with a small force of military personnel, they faced the Boxer onslaught. One American described the scene as 20,000 Boxers

advanced in a solid mass and carried standards of red and white cloth. Their yells were deafening, while the roar of gongs, drums and horns sounded like thunder. . . . They waved their swords and stamped on the ground with their feet. They wore red turbans, sashes, and garters over blue cloth. [When] they were only twenty yards from our gate, . . . three volleys from the rifles of our sailors left more than fifty dead upon the ground.


Artillery of International
Relief Force to
Beijing, 1900

Timeline of
Chinese History

Art of the
Qing Dynasty

Background about the
Forbidden City, now
The Palace Museum

The Boxers fell back but soon returned. Surrounded, the foreigners could neither escape nor send for help. For almost two months, they withstood fierce attacks and bombardment. Things began to look hopeless. Seventy-six defenders lay dead, and many more were wounded. Ammunition, food, and medical supplies were almost gone. Then, shortly before dawn, loud explosions rocked the city. Weary defenders staggered to the barricades, expecting a final, overpowering Boxer attack. But as a column of armed men approached them, they began to cheer. Help had arrived at last.

After a month of no news from their diplomats, the foreign powers had grown worried. They assembled an international relief force of soldiers and sailors from eight countries. The United States, eager to rescue its ministers and to assert its presence in China, sent a contingent of 2,500 sailors and marines. After rescuing another besieged delegation in Tientsin, the international force marched to Beijing, fighting Boxers and imperial soldiers along the way.

The international troops looted the capital and even ransacked the Forbidden City. Disguised as a peasant, the empress dowager escaped the city in a cart. She returned to the Forbidden City a year later, but the power of the Qing dynasty was destroyed forever.

Because it had participated in the campaign, the United States participated in the settlement that followed. Hay called for an expanded "Open Door," not only within the spheres of influence, but in all parts of China. He also recommended that the powers preserve China's territory and its government. Other powers agreed, and the Open Door policy allowed foreign access to China's market until World War II closed it once again.

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The Panama Canal

President Roosevelt

Panama Canal

Panama Canal: Culebra Cut, c. 1910-1920

see President McKinley
at the
Pan-American Exposition

The popular acclaim that carried Teddy Roosevelt to the governorship of New York didn't stop there. In 1900, Republicans nominated Teddy as President McKinley's running mate. McKinley won a second term, and Teddy was sworn in as vice-president. Six months later, an assassin's bullet killed McKinley. At age 42, Theodore Roosevelt became the nation's youngest president.

Teddy Roosevelt's
Inaugural Address

Maps of Panama:
Panama Canal Zone

Large relief map

Roosevelt assumed the office with the same vigor with which he charged up Kettle Hill. A long believer in Captain Mahan's theory of sea power, Roosevelt began to revitalize the navy. Now that America's empire stretched from the Caribbean across the Pacific, the old idea of a canal between the two oceans took on new urgency. Mahan had predicted that "the canal will become a strategic center of the most vital importance," and Teddy agreed.

"The canal," Roosevelt said, "was by far the most important action I took in foreign affairs during the time I was President. When nobody could or would exercise efficient authority, I exercised it."

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Joining the Waters

Abandoned French machinery

Abandoned French
machinery in Panama,
c. 1910-1914

In 1878 Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer who built the Suez Canal, began to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, which was then part of Colombia. Tropical disease and engineering problems halted construction on the canal, but a French business (the New Panama Canal Company) still held the rights to the project. Roosevelt agreed to pay $40 million for the rights, and he began to negotiate with Colombia for control of the land. He offered $10 million for a fifty-mile strip across the isthmus. Colombia refused.

"We were dealing with a government of irresponsible bandits," Roosevelt stormed. "I was prepared to . . . at once occupy the Isthmus anyhow, and proceed to dig the canal. But I deemed it likely that there would be a revolution in Panama soon."

Teddy was right. The chief engineer of the New Panama Canal Company organized a local revolt. Roosevelt immediately sent the battleship Nashville and a detachment of marines to Panama to support the new government. The rebels gladly accepted Roosevelt's $10 million offer, and they gave the United States complete control of a ten-mile wide canal zone.

Biographical info about
Osmund Osmundsen, a
Norwegian immigrant who
worked as a ship rigger
during the building of
the canal. Includes
historical photos

Roosevelt ordered army engineers to start digging. Thousands of workers sweated in the malarial heat. They tore up jungles and cut down mountains. Insects thrived in muddy, stagnant pools. "Mosquitoes get so thick you get a mouthful with every breath," a worker complained. The mosquitoes also carried yellow fever, and many fell victim to the deadly disease before Dr. William Gorgas found a way to stop it.

steam shovels

Steam shovels digging
the Panama Canal

Some Americans did not approve of Roosevelt's behavior. "There was much accusation about my having acted in an 'unconstitutional' manner," Teddy shrugged. "I took the isthmus, started the canal, and then left Congress—not to debate the canal, but to debate me. . . . While the debate goes on, the canal does too; and they are welcome to debate me as long as they wish, provided that we can go on with the canal."

Smithsonian Institution's
"Make the Dirt Fly"
Panama Canal exhibition

TR Papers at the
Library of Congress

Work did go on. Despite lethal landslides, workers with dynamite and clumsy steam shovels cut their way across a continent. They built a railroad, three sets of concrete locks, and a huge artificial lake. Nine years later the freighter Ancon entered the new channel. Hundreds of construction workers hopped aboard for the historic ride. A shiny towing locomotive pulled the Ancon into the first lock. Bands played and crowds cheered as the ship slipped into the Pacific.

Roosevelt liked to repeat an old African saying: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick. You will go far." In Panama, Teddy proved to the world that he was willing to use his big navy as a stick to further American interests.

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U.S. Intervention in Latin America

Teddy's Legacy

Domingo City, San Domingo

Main business street, Domingo City, San Domingo, c. 1901. The Dominican
Republic was another site of U.S. intervention in the early 1900s.

Time line of U.S.
intervention in
Latin America

The Monroe Doctrine:

Text (plus some
background information)

Brief analysis of doctrine

Roosevelt Corollary

Between the end of the Spanish-American War and the dawn of the Great Depression, the United States sent troops to Latin American countries thirty-two times. It used the Roosevelt Corollary, or addition, to the Monroe Doctrine to justify intervention. In the corollary, Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed that the United States, because it was a "civilized nation," had the right to stop "chronic wrongdoing" throughout the Western Hemisphere.

"Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship," he said. "Chronic wrongdoing, however, . . . may force the United States to exercise an international police power." Teddy didn't hesitate to use this "police power" to strengthen his country, but he was always careful not to upset the balance of world power.

William Howard Taft, former governor of the Philippines, followed Roosevelt into the White House. Taft believed in economic expansion, and he introduced a policy called "dollar diplomacy." This policy used diplomacy to advance and protect American businesses in other countries. Taft employed Roosevelt's corollary in Nicaragua and other Latin American countries to protect American investments.

Maps of Nicaragua:

Large map

Smaller map of
Nicaragua with
geographical facts

Another map

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

More about William
including a

American businesses had been active in Nicaragua since the 1850s. The lush country attracted American fruit growers and mining companies. Others believed that Nicaragua offered the best site for a canal, and they invested in land. Cornelius Vanderbilt started a company that transported passengers between New York and San Francisco via the Nicaraguan jungle. Shortly after Commodore Perry opened Japan, Vanderbilt plotted to take control of Nicaragua.

With Vanderbilt's help, a young adventurer named William Walker set out with fifty-seven followers to conquer Nicaragua. A short, freckled man with sharp green eyes, Walker formed an alliance with a group of local rebels and defeated the Nicaraguan forces. He proclaimed himself "commander in chief," and soon thousands of Americans rushed into the country. Many Americans wanted the United States to assume direct control of Nicaragua. The government, however, was afraid to upset the fragile balance between "free" and "slave" territories.

Walker eventually quarreled with Vanderbilt about the transit company, and soon another revolution drove him from power. In 1860 Walker died before a firing squad. American economic involvement in Nicaragua lived on.

Foreign Intervention in
Nicaragua, 1850-68

(Library of Congress)

More about Adolfo Diaz.

General information
about Nicaragua:

Nicaragua Profile
(CIA World Factbook)

Background Notes:

Nicaraguans confidently expected the canal, and they gladly accepted loans and payments based on its eventual construction. By 1909 the United States-Nicaraguan Concession was largest American company in Nicaragua. That year the Concession's chief legal counsel, Philander C. Knox, resigned to become Taft's Secretary of State. When Nicaragua's ruler cancelled an agreement with one American business and threatened the Concession, the company organized another revolution. Adolfo Diaz, a Concession employee, became the new president. Taft quickly recognized the Diaz government.

When still another revolt threatened Diaz, Taft invoked the corollary and ordered American marines to suppress the rebellion. Then he and Knox worked out a plan to collect the money that Nicaragua owed to foreign investors. Under the plan, American banks took control of Nicaragua's customs collection. They applied the money they collected directly to the country's debt. The marines remained in Nicaragua's capital to serve as "international police" and prevent any further revolts. Except for a short period in 1925, they stayed for 21 years.

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The End of an Era

The two decades that sandwiched the turning of the century enclosed a turning point in American history. Despite George Washington's advice to the contrary, the years saw American interests scatter across the globe. America had flexed its muscles, and the world had cowered. But the ease with which America gained its new possessions obscured the responsibilities that came with them. Dollar diplomacy would soon drag a reluctant America into the muddy trenches of the Western Front. The "Open Door" welcomed a series of squabbles that later erupted in a mushroom cloud. But few in that innocent era could foresee such extraordinary events. Most believed that America was simply following its natural order, its destiny.

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