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United States Foreign Policy, 1890-1900

The decade of the 1890s begins with the emergence of the United States as a world power. It was a world power in some ways throughout the 19th century. At the turn of the century, the US became the pre-eminent power on face of earth.
Foreign relations are highly complex and controversial. One must consider formal and informal contacts with other nations; social and cultural contacts when time is available. Understanding foreign affairs requires analysis, critical thinking. Scholars try to identify constants, concepts, factors, which have helped shape foreign relations. They try to discover cause and effect and evaluate consequences.


1. Meaning and significance of national sovereignty, of independence.

2. What is the basic goal of US foreign policy? Do moral considerations have a place in foreign relations?

3. How do we assess the position of US in world affairs? In terms of economics and politics? What is the influence of the US on others and what is the influence of others on the US?

4. How have policies been shaped? By realistic analyses? By domestic issues? By both?

5. Have the actions of the US been realistic?

What should be the goals of US foreign policy? The greatest good for the greatest number? Better working relationship in world. Why? National security? What about morality in foreign policy? Should US foreign policy be moral or immoral?
There have been two principal schools of thought in the scholarly community. The Realists, people such as George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, believe that power should be the main consideration, that only it matters much. They believe that humans have certain innate limitations; have built-in aggressive tendencies; and suffer from original sin (each person's belief that he/she is the most important thing in creation, God, in other words). The Idealists believe that morality is relevant. Idealist believe that humans are intrinsically good, that they can be trusted in some circumstances The average citizen in the US often sees foreign affairs in moral terms. What are the alternatives?
Is foreign policy aimed at any long time goal? US domination? Peace? Policy will be imperfect, a Judeo-Christian idea.

The Institutional Framework of US Foreign Policy

Who makes the ultimate decisions?
Polling did not start until the 1934-45 period. Before then, idea of what public opinion is (was) ascertained by reading newspapers, mail received by President, and Congress. Public opinion was shaped by pressure groups. Politicians have to use polls, mail received, and editorials. Public opinion has an effect upon foreign policy and its formation.
Experts? Populace decide the ends; the experts decide the means. What is an expert? Is there any practicality in following experts? Experts oppose one another, have differences of opinion.
The State Department? It is an arm of foreign policy. It has the problem of political appointees. Bureaucrats are sometimes a good thing. State Department has been ill-provided for. Do low salaries equals low caliber? Attacks on State Department bureaucracy undermine its effectiveness. Inadequate funds are provided for overseas embassies. The tradition of amateur diplomacy (by dilettantes) hurts the conduct of diplomacy.
The military? The goals of foreign relations is to further the ends of the nation through peaceful means, but, when this fails, the military comes into play. Functions: advice, intelligence, and backing up diplomacy.
Congress? Money, treaties, appointments, shape public opinion, resolutions passed, and investigations.
Conclusion. Is a wise foreign policy conceivable in the US, given the nature of the country? Democracy is not a very precise efficient means to decide anything.

Basic or General Propositions About US Foreign Relations

US conditions in the 19th century which affected attitudes towards outside world:

1. Geographic isolation. Physical separation from Asia and Europe. Military technology was such that the oceans were "moats." A large military establishment was unnecessary.
2. Strongest in Hemisphere.
3. Ample room for expansion within continental boundaries. Didn't have to fight European or Asian nations to gain territory. The US was strongly anti-colonial but expansionistic.
4. Diversity of ethnic background. The US is a nation of immigrants. There is a tendency for immigrants to retain loyalties and animosities of the former home.
5. Mercantile and industrial interests of the people. Rich people. It early became a maritime nation because it had an abundance of harbors, rivers.
6. US has always been immensely rich in natural resources. Power came to t easily and quickly. Riches worked to ease internal difficulties and dissatisfaction.
7. US is and was a democratic nation. This worked to color national psychology. It provoked a sympathy for democratic movements elsewhere and a dislike for non-democratic countries etc.
8. European conditions of the 19th century. The Balance of Power in Europe was delicate. After 1815, European nations tended to neutralize each other. Interference in the New World would be opposed by other nations if a nation tried it.

All these helped shape US attitudes toward outside world.


1. Indifference to foreign relations in late 19th century. There was talk abolishing the State Department. There was a distrust of the formality of diplomacy.
2. The US developed an attitude of moral superiority towards Europe and the rest of the world. Saw itself as the land of opportunity; the epitome of democracy; etc. Nineteenth century European conditions aided this view as did immigration from Europe.
3. There was a tendency to think that the US had a certain mission to fulfill in the world, that the US was the last hope for the world. Questions were raised as to how goal of saving world was to be accomplished. Idea accepted that US stay home and encourage democracy from afar, that it should be the "model state," leading by example.
4. Americans seem to have concluded that they were physically superior to others (still believed especially in unsophisticated circles today). US won its wars in the 19th century except the War of 1812. In the Oregon controversy of 1846, some urged war to drive the British out. Would have been a defeat because the US had 7 steam warships; Great Britain had 128. Feeling of physical superiority in line with small military.
5. Belief that the US should avoid entangling alliances. This was based on the belief that the US was different from rest of the world and should not become involved with rest of the world. George Washington's idea was essentially political, that the US should not enter into any political agreements which would involve US in politics of other countries. This policy had served the US well; it kept its independence. Isolationism from Asian and European affairs had become traditional by the end of the 19th century. Isolationism is a political idea. Economic, social, and cultural contacts were necessary and desirable. More strongly felt where Europe was concerned.
6. There was a tendency to believe that it was almost always possible to settle international controversies by negotiation, by diplomacy. Saw force as unnecessary; trusted other nations. The US kept the few treaties it made with European powers in the 19th century. That gave it confidence in human affairs.


In the 19th century, the US adopted certain attitudes and interrelated principles:

1. isolationism from Asia and Europe
2. belief in neutral rights, that political conflicts between nations should not interrupt freedom of the seas
3. Monroe Doctrine
4. non-intervention
5. recognition of de facto governments (hoped that democratic governments would benefit);
6. sacredness of treaties
7. morality in international laws
8. humanitarian mission
9. trade and commercial interest
10. Indifference to foreign relations

The goal of expanding the economy was to draw the US into contact with other nations.
How successful would nation be in adopting these policies until late 19th and early 20th centuries? The problem in the diplomatic history of the United States was adjusting the older attitudes to changing conditions.
At the end of the 19th century, the US deviated from these ideals. Why?

1. The communication revolution meant better communication and longer range vessels with the effect of bringing nations into closer contact and ending the strategic advantage of geographic isolation.
2. Industrialization in world continued. In 1897, the value of manufactured goods exported by the US exceeded the value of manufactured imports. The US was becoming a world power.
3. Japan, France, Germany were developing in the same directions as US. There was rivalry for sources of supply and markets. Germany and others were seeking colonies.
4. Shift in European power relations, particularly the military rise of Germany after 1870. This meant a challenge to the English position in Europe. England could no longer spend as much energy in New World. US position weakened as a result because it had always relied on the protection of the British navy. The effect was that the US became involved more deeply in world affairs.

New Directions in 1890-1900

In the 1890's, many Americans cast covetous eyes on outside US, on Samoa, Central America, and the Philippines. The US was building of first-rate navy by 1900. In 1895, during the Venezuela Boundary Dispute, the US took a hard line. It intervened in the Cuban War for Independence (the Spanish-American War). There was a flood of expansionist literature.

Why break with the past?

1. There was no room to expand in the US.
2. Industrial maturity
3. Desire for adventure
4. American sense of mission; the arrogant belief that it was to save the world
5. The belief that great nations have colonies
6. Strategic arguments, that the US had to position itself for defense
7. Frustration in the US
8. Social Darwinism

It is impossible to sort these motives into the most important, i.e. in an ascending or descending scale.
There was little rational, realistic, careful evaluation of the place of the US in the world and in foreign affairs in late 19th century.

The Spanish-American War (1898)

All that was needed was a spark to set US off. Why the US intervened in the Cuban War for Independence:

1. Yellow Journalism, the sensationalism and often lies of the newspapers, particularly the Hearst and Pulitzer papers.
2. The de Lome letter, the private letter in which the Spanish ambassador criticized President McKinley.
3. The USS Maine sinking in Havana harbor which was falsely blamed on the Spanish.
4. The Ten Years War (1868-78) between Spain and Cuba, which the insurrectionists lost.
5. Sympathy for the suffering of the Cuban people.
6. The strategic location of Cuba which commands the entrance to the Caribbean.
7. Desire by some US citizens to invest in Cuba.
8. Desire to convert Cuba from a Roman Catholic into a Protestant nation.

Groups which supported war against Spain:

1. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Albert Beveridge, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Hay.
2. Laboring groups feeling 1893 depression.
3. Bryan and the Populist group who believed that Cubans were suffering as they were suffering in the US under business interests. They were displacing aggression.
4. Hearst and Pulitzer exaggerated Spanish effort to suppress the rebellion.

Expansionist sentiment seems to be the main cause.

Why was business opposed to war? It would disrupt business and the fear of change.

The US supposedly got involved in the war to free suffering Cubans, but the US was involved in the Philippines. TR and others had made sure that naval vessels were off in Asia within striking distance of Manila. Dewey bottled the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, so Spanish fleet would not attack US west coast.

Treaty of Paris (October 1,1898; ratified in 1899)

1. The US took Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
2. It paid Spain $120 million.

President McKinley at first resisted demands for war. Congress managed to whip itself into a frenzy; threatened to declare war itself. Spanish had agreed to give in to the US demands on as many points as possible. Congress had little thought of any gain, acquisitions. The Teller Amendment was a disavowal. Few Americans knew where Spanish possessions were.


Changed national attitudes. Dewey's victory, the San Juan Hill charge legend, the ease with which Spain was defeated made many US citizens feel imperialistic, feel the surge of testosterone. The war changed US destiny. Hawaii was annexed by joint Congressional resolution, setting a precedent. Cuba was given its independence with certain conditions.
Sparked a national debate over imperialism. The Republicans supported annexation even though they had initially been the strongest opponents to war. Democrats said no, as well as Populists and labor groups. William Jennings Bryan urged ratification of the treaty. Reversal of positions had taken place. ASpain had lost control of these areas so it was out duty to take them."
These colonies were not compatible to the American way of life and government was the anti-imperialist attitude. They were merely the first step in a long train of imperialistic development. The problem with the US acquisition of colonies was shown by the Philippine Insurrection. Emilio Aguinaldo organized an insurrection against the US, seeking to make the Philippines independent of the US. It lasted until 1902. The US, which supposedly believed in independence, squashed it. He died in 1964. White Man's Burden parody by New York World. The Insurrection left a bad taste in many mouths.

New Responsibilities and Obligations

1. The US had no colonial policy
2. Created security problem for the US. The strategic position of the US had already been weakened.
3. Army sadly in need of repair, reconstruction.
4. Almost imperceptible shift in attitudes. Better US-United Kingdom relations; worse US-German relations. Acquisition of US colonies like UK colonies. Germany in throes, demonstrating desire for colonies. Germany had seemed to have sided with Spain; Britain was benevolently neutral; didn't criticize the US. Rapprochement of relations between US and the UK.
5. Formed no entangling alliances; involved US in closer relations contacts with other nations. Most Americans saw no real break with Monroe Doctrine, caused enlargement of the Monroe Doctrine. Philippine acquisition made other nations question Monroe Doctrine logic since the US violated the Doctrine by going to war against Spain and then acquiring territories.
6. A canal across Central America was needed, as well as a larger navy. The US was involved in Far East competition. Became element in world. balance of power.

Many Americans would not recognize these new obligations.
In the 1890's, the US people deviated significantly from patterns of the past largely for emotional reasons and found new responsibilities at a time when the world was changing. The US had intervened for purely idealistic reasons, not from a realistic appraisal of situation.