The American Empire:
The Beginnings of World Dominion
[Chapter 5, of the book, The American Empire
(New York: Rand School of Social Science, 1921]
Scott Nearing (1883-1983) was a leading leftist
critic of imperialism throughout most of his long life. In his
political autobiography he named four officers of the
Philadelphia branch of the Anti-Imperialist League among the six
people who most influenced his political beliefs in the period
after his graduation from college. He was fired by the
University of Pennsylvania in 1915 because of his outspoken
opposition to World War I and his case led to the movement to
establish tenure for teachers and professors in the United
States. Through involvement with the single tax movement in the
early 1900s he was exposed to socialism and joined the Communist
Party for a short time in the 1920s before being expelled
because of his independent (non-Leninist) analysis of
imperialism. While a Party member he served as a trustee and on
the publications committee of the American Fund for Public
Service Committee on American Imperialism and on the national
committee and as chair of the All-America Anti-Imperialist
League. A life-long anti-imperialist, Nearing would later oppose
U.S. interventions in Cuba and the war in Vietnam in the 1960s
1. The Shifting of Control
During the half century that intervened between the War of 1812 and
the Civil War of 1861 the policy of the United States government was
decided largely by men who came from south of the Mason and Dixon
line. The Southern whites, -- class-conscious rulers with an
institution (slavery) to defend, -- acted like any other ruling class
under similar circumstances. They favored Southward expansion which
meant more territory in which slavery might be established.
The Southerners were looking for a place in the sun where slavery, as
an institution, might flourish for the profit and power of the
slave-holding class. Their most effective move in this direction was
the annexation of Texas and the acquisition of territory following the
Mexican War. An insistent drive for the annexation of Cuba was cut
short by the Civil War.
Southern sentiment had supported the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and
the Florida Purchase of 1819. From Jefferson's time Southern statesmen
had been advocating the purchase of Cuba. Filibustering expeditions
were fitted out in Southern ports with Cuba as an objective; agitation
was carried on, inside and outside of Congress; between 1850 and 1861
the acquisition of Cuba was the question of the day. It was an issue
in the Campaign of 1853. In 1854 the American ministers to London,
France and Madrid met at the direction of the State Department and
drew up a document (the "Ostend Manifesto") dealing with the
future of Cuba. McMaster summarizes the Manifesto in these words: "The
United States ought to buy Cuba because of its nearness to our coast;
because it belonged naturally to that great group of states of which
the Union was the providential nursery; because it commanded the mouth
of the Mississippi whose immense and annually growing trade must seek
that way to the ocean, and because the Union could never enjoy repose,
could never be secure, till Cuba was within its boundaries."
(Vol. viii, pp. 185-6.) If Spain refused to sell Cuba it was suggested
that the United States should take it.
The Ostend Manifesto was rejected by the State Department, but it was
a good picture of the imperialistic sentiment at that time abroad
among certain elements in the United States.
The Cuban issue featured in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1858. It
was hotly discussed by Congress in 1859. Only twenty years had passed
since the United States, by force of arms, had taken from Mexico
territory that she coveted. Now it was proposed to appropriate
territory belonging to Spain.
The outbreak of hostilities deferred the project, and when the Civil
War was over, the slave power was shattered. From that time forward
national policy was guided by the leaders of the new industrial North.
The process of this change was fearfully wasteful. The shifting of
power from the old regime to the new cost more lives and a greater
expenditure of wealth than all of the wars of conquest that had been
fought during the preceding half century.
The change was complete. The slaves were liberated by Presidential
Proclamation. The Southern form of civilization -- patriarchal and
feudal -- disappeared, and upon its ruins -- rapidly in the West;
slowly in the South -- there arose the new structure of an industrial
The new civilization had no need to look outward for economic
advantage. Forest tracts, mineral deposits and fertile land afforded
ample opportunity at home. It was three thousand miles to the Pacific
and at the end of the journey there was gold! The new civilization
therefore turned its energies to the problem of subduing the continent
and of establishing the machinery necessary to provide for its vastly
increasing needs. A small part of the capital required for this
purpose came from abroad. Most of it was supplied at home. But the
events involved in opening up the territory west of the Rockies, of
spanning the country with steel, and providing outlets for the
products of the developing industries were so momentous that even the
most ambitious might fulfill his dreams of conquest without setting
foot on foreign soil. Territorial aggrandizement was forgotten, and
men turned with a will to the organization of the East and the
exploration and development of the West.
The leaders of the new order found time to take over Alaska (1868)
with its 590,884 square miles. The move was diplomatic rather than
economic, however, and it was many years before the huge wealth of
Alaska was even suspected.
The new capitalist interests began to feel the need of additional
territory toward the end of the nineteenth century. The desirable
resources of the United States were largely in private hands and most
of the available free land had been preempted. Beside that, there were
certain interests, like sugar and tobacco, that were looking with
longing eyes toward the tempting soil and climate of Hawaii, Puerto
Rico and Cuba.
When the South had advocated the annexation of Texas, its statesmen
had been denounced as expansionists and imperialists. The same fate
awaited the statesmen of the new order who were favoring the extension
of United States territory to include some of the contiguous islands
that offered special opportunities for certain powerful financial
The struggle began over the annexation of Hawaii. After numerous
attempts to annex Hawaii to the United States a revolution was finally
consummated in Honolulu in 1893. At that time, under treaty
provisions, the neutrality of Hawaii was guaranteed by the United
States. Likewise, "of the capital invested in the islands,
two-thirds is owned by Americans." This statement is made in "Address
by the Hawaiian Branches of the Sons of the American Revolution, the
Sons of Veterans, and the Grand Army of the Republic to their
compatriots in America Concerning the Annexation of Hawaii."
(1897.) These advocates of annexation state in the same address that:
"The revolution (of 1893) was not the work of filibusterers and
adventurers, but of the most conservative and law-abiding citizens, of
the principal tax-payers, the leaders of industrial enterprises, etc."
The purpose behind the revolution seemed clear. Certain business men
who had sugar and other products to sell in the United States,
believed that they would gain, financially, by annexation. They
engineered the revolution of 1893 and they were actively engaged in
the agitation for annexation that lasted until the treaty of
annexation was confirmed by the United States in 1898. The matter was
debated at length on the floor of the United States Senate, and an
investigation revealed the essential facts of the case.
The immediate cause of the revolution in 1893 was friction over the
Hawaiian Constitution. After some agitation, a "Committee of
Safety" was organized for the protection of life and property on
the islands. Certain members of the Hawaiian government were in favor
of declaring martial law, and dealing summarily with the conspirators.
The Queen seems to have hesitated at such a course because of the
probable complications with the government of the United States.
The U.S.S. Boston, sent at the request of United States Minister
Stevens to protect American life and property in the Islands, was
lying in the harbor of Honolulu. After some negotiations between the "Committee
of Safety" and Minister Stevens, the latter requested the
Commander of the Boston to land a number of marines. This was done on
the afternoon of January 16, 1893. Immediately the Governor of the
Island of Oahu and the Minister of Foreign Affairs addressed official
communications to the United States Minister, protesting against the
landing of troops "without permission from the proper
authorities." Minister Stevens replied, assuming full
On the day following the landing of the marines, the Committee of
Safety, under the chairmanship of Judge Dole, who had resigned as
Justice of the Supreme Court of Hawaii in order to accept the
Chairmanship of the Committee, proceeded to the government building,
and there, under cover of the guns of the United States Marines, who
were drawn up for the purpose of protecting the Committee against
possible attack, a proclamation was read, declaring the abrogation of
the Hawaiian monarchy, and the establishment of a provisional
government "to exist until terms of union with the United States
have been negotiated and agreed upon." Within an hour after the
reading of this proclamation, and while the Queen and her government
were still in authority, and in possession of the Palace, the
Barracks, and the Police Station, the United States Minister gave the
Provisional Government his recognition.
The Queen, who had 500 soldiers in the Barracks, was inclined to
fight, but on the advice of her counselors, she yielded "to the
superior force of the United States of America" until the facts
could be presented at Washington, and the wrong righted.
Two weeks later, on the first of February, Minister Stevens issued a
proclamation declaring a protectorate over the islands. This action
was later repudiated by the authorities at Washington, but on February
15, President Harrison submitted a treaty of annexation to the Senate.
The treaty failed of passage, and President Cleveland, as one of his
first official acts, ordered a complete investigation of the whole
The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations submitted a report on the
matter February 26, 1894. Four members referred to the acts of
Minister Stevens as "active, officious and unbecoming
participation in the events which led to the revolution." All
members of the committee agreed that his action in declaring a
protectorate over the Islands was unjustified.
The same kind of a fight that developed over the annexation of Texas
now took place over the annexation of Hawaii. A group of senators, of
whom Senator R. F. Pettigrew was the most conspicuous figure,
succeeded in preventing the ratification of the annexation treaty
until July 7, 1898. Then, ten weeks after the declaration of the
Spanish-American War, under the stress of the war-hysteria, Hawaii was
annexed by a joint resolution of Congress.
The Annexation of Hawaii marks a turning point in the history of the
United States. For the first time, the American people secured
possession of territory lying outside of the mainland of North
America. For the first time the United States acquired territory lying
within the tropics. The annexation of Hawaii was the first
imperialistic act after the annexation of Texas, more than fifty years
before. It was the first imperialistic act since the capitalists of
the North had succeeded the slave-owners of the South as the masters
of American public life.
3. The Spanish-American War
The real test of the imperial intentions of the United States came
with the Spanish-American War. An old, shattered world empire (Spain)
held Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. Puerto Rico and Cuba were
of peculiar value to the sugar and tobacco interests of the United
States. They were close to the mainland, they were enormously
productive and, furthermore, Cuba contained important deposits of iron
Spain had only a feeble grip on her possessions. For years the
natives of Cuba and of the Philippines had been in revolt against the
Spanish power. At times the revolt was covert. Again it blazed in the
The situation in Cuba was rendered particularly critical because of
the methods used by the Spanish authorities in dealing with the
rebellious natives. The Spaniards were simply doing what any empire
does to suppress rebellion and enforce obedience, but the brutalities
of imperialism, as practiced in Cuba by the Spaniards, gave the
American interventionists their opportunity. Day after day the
newspapers carried front page stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba.
Day after day the ground was prepared for open intervention in the
interests of the oppressed Cubans. There was more than grim humor in
the instructions which a great newspaper publisher is reported to have
sent his cartoonist in Cuba, -- "You provide the pictures; we'll
furnish the war."
The conflict was precipitated by the blowing up of the United States
battleship Maine as she lay in the harbor of Havana (February 15,
1898). It has not been settled to this day whether the Maine was blown
up from without or within. At the time it was assumed that the ship
was blown up by the Spanish, although "there was no evidence
whatever that any one connected with the exercise of Spanish authority
in Cuba had had so much as guilty knowledge of the plans made to
destroy the Maine" (p. 270), and although "toward the last
it had begun to look as if the Spanish Government were ready, rather
than let the war feeling in the United States put things beyond all
possibility of a peaceful solution, to make very substantial
concessions to the Cuban insurgents and bring the troubles of the
Island to an end" (p. 273-4).(1)
Congress, in a joint resolution passed April 20, 1898, declared that "the
people of the Island of Cuba are, and of right ought to be, free and
independent.... The United States hereby disclaims any intention to
exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island except
for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that
is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to
The war itself was of no great moment. There was little fighting on
land, and the naval battles resulted in overwhelming victories for the
American Navy. The treaty, ratified February 6, 1899, provided that
Spain should cede to the United States Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the
Philippines, and that the United States should pay to Spain twenty
millions of dollars. As in the case of the Mexican War, the United
States took possession of the territory and then paid a bonus for a
The losses in the war were very small. The total number of men who
were killed in action and who died of wounds was 289; while 3,949 died
of accidents and disease. ("Historical Register," Vol. 2, p.
187.) The cost of the war was comparatively slight. Hostilities lasted
from April 21, 1898 to August 12, 1898. The entire military and naval
expense for the year 1898 was $443,368,000; for the year 1899,
$605,071,000. Again the need for a larger place in the sun had been
felt by the people of the United States and again the United States
had won immense riches with a tiny outlay in men and money.
Now came the real issue, -- What should the United States do with the
There were many who held that the United States was bound to set the
peoples of the conquered territory free. To be sure the specific
pledge contained in the joint resolution of April 20, 1898, applied to
Cuba alone, but, it was argued, since the people of the Philippines
had also been fighting for liberty, and since they had come so near to
winning their independence from the Spaniards, they were likewise
entitled to it.
On the other hand, the advocates of annexation insisted that it was
the duty of the United States to accept the responsibilities (the "white
man's burden") that the acquisition of these islands involved.
As President McKinley put it: -- "The Philippines, like Cuba and
Puerto Rico, were entrusted to our hands by the providence of God."
(President McKinley, Boston, February 16, 1899.) How was the country
to avoid such a duty?
Thus was the issue drawn between the "imperialists" and the
The imperialists had the machinery of government, the newspapers, and
the prestige of a victorious and very popular war behind them. The
anti-imperialists had half a century of unbroken tradition; the
accepted principles of self-government; the sayings of men who had
organized the Revolution of 1776; written the Declaration of
Independence; held exalted offices and piloted the nation through the
The imperialists used their inside position. The anti-imperialists
appealed to public opinion. They organized a league "to aid in
holding the United States true to the principles of the Declaration of
Independence. It seeks the preservation of the rights of the people as
guaranteed to them by the Constitution. Its members hold
self-government to be fundamental, and good government to be but
incidental. It is its purpose to oppose by all proper means the
extension of the sovereignty of the United States over subject
peoples. It will contribute to the defeat of any candidate or party
that stands for the forcible subjugation of any people." (From
the declaration of principle printed on the literature in 1899 and
1900.) Anti-imperialist conferences were held in New York,
Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, Boston and other large cities.
The League claimed to have half a million members. An extensive
pamphlet literature was published, and every effort was made to arouse
the people of the country to the importance of the decision that lay
The imperialists said a great deal less than their opponents, but
they were more effective in their efforts. The President had said, in
his message to Congress (April 1, 1898), "I speak not of forcible
annexation, for that cannot be thought of. That, by our code of
morals, would be criminal aggression." The phrase was seized
eagerly by those who were opposing the annexation of the Spanish
possessions. After the war with Spain had begun, the President changed
front on the ground that destiny had placed a responsibility upon the
American people that they could not shirk. Taking this view of the
situation, the President had only one course open to him -- to insist
upon the annexation of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam. This was
the course that was followed, and on April 11, 1899, these territories
were officially incorporated into the United States.
Senator Hoar, in a speech on January 9, 1899, put the issue squarely.
He described it as "a greater danger than we have encountered
since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth -- the danger that we are to be
transformed from a republic, founded on the Declaration of
Independence, guided by the counsels of Washington, into a vulgar,
commonplace empire, founded upon physical force."
Cuba remained to be disposed of. With the specific guarantee of
independence contained in the joint resolution passed at the outbreak
of the war, it seemed impossible to do otherwise than to give the
Cubans self-government. Many influential men lamented the necessity,
but it was generally conceded. But how much independence should Cuba
have? That question was answered by the passage of the Cuban Treaty
with the "Platt Amendment" attached. Under the treaty as
ratified the United States does exercise "sovereignty,
jurisdiction and control" over the island.
4. The Philippines
The territory acquired from Spain was now, in theory, disposed of.
Practically, the Philippines remained as a source of difficulty and
even of political danger.
The people of Cuba were, apparently, satisfied. The Puerto Ricans had
accepted the authority of the United States without question. But the
Filipinos were not content. If the Cubans were to have
self-government, why not they?
The situation was complicated by the peculiar relations existing
between the Filipinos and the United States Government. Immediately
after the declaration of war with Spain the United States
Consul-General at Singapore had cabled to Admiral Dewey at Hong Kong
that Aguinaldo, leader of the insurgent forces in the Philippines, was
then at Singapore, and was ready to go to Hong Kong. Commodore Dewey
cabled back asking Aguinaldo to come at once to Hong Kong. Aguinaldo
left Singapore on April 26, 1898, and, with seventeen other
revolutionary Filipino chiefs, was taken from Hong Kong to Manila in
the United States naval vessel McCulloch. Upon his arrival in Manila,
he at once took charge of the insurgents.
For three hundred years the inhabitants of the Philippines had been
engaged in almost incessant warfare with the Spanish authorities. In
the spring of 1898 they were in a fair way to win their independence.
They had a large number of men under arms -- from 20,000 to 30,000;
they had fought the Spanish garrisons to a stand-still, and were in
practical control of the situation.
Aguinaldo was furnished with 4,000 or 5,000 stands of arms by the
American officials, he took additional arms from the Spaniards and he
and his people cooperated actively with the Americans in driving the
Spanish out of Luzon. The Filipino army captured Iloilo, the second
largest city in the Philippines, without the assistance of the
Americans. On the day of the surrender of Manila, 15½ miles of
the surrounding line was occupied by the Filipinos and 600 yards by
the American troops. Throughout the early summer, the relations
between the Filipinos and the Americans continued to be friendly.
General Anderson, in command of the American Army, wrote a letter to
the commander of the Filipinos (July 4, 1898) in which he said, -- "I
desire to have the most amicable relations with you and to have you
and your people cooperate with us in military operations against the
Spanish forces." During the summer the American officers called
upon the Filipinos for supplies and information and accepted their
cooperation. Aguinaldo, on his part, treated the Americans as
deliverers, and in his proclamations referred to them as "liberators"
The Filipinos, at the earliest possible moment, organized a
government. On June 18 a republic was proclaimed; on the 23rd the
cabinet was announced; on the 27th a decree was published providing
for elections, and on August 6th an address was issued to foreign
governments, announcing that the revolutionary government was in
operation, and was in control of fifteen provinces.
The real intent of the Americans was foreshadowed in the instructions
handed by President McKinley to General Wesley Merritt on May 19,
1898. General Merritt was directed to inform the Filipinos that "we
come not to make war upon the people of the Philippines, nor upon any
party or faction among them, but to protect them in their homes, in
their employments, and in their personal and religious rights. Any
persons who, either by active aid or by honest submission, cooperate
with the United States in its effort to give effect to this beneficent
purpose, will receive the reward of its support and protection."
The Filipinos sent a delegation to Paris to lay their claims for
independence before the Peace Commission. Meeting with no success,
they visited Washington, with no different result. They were not to be
On September 8, 1898, General Otis, commander of the American forces
in the Philippines, notified Aguinaldo that unless he withdrew his
forces from Manila and its suburbs by the 15th "I shall be
obliged to resort to forcible action." On January 5, 1899, by
Presidential Proclamation, McKinley ordered that "The Military
Government heretofore maintained by the United States in the city,
harbor, and bay of Manila is to be extended with all possible dispatch
to the whole of the ceded territory." On February 4, 1899,
General Otis reported "Firing upon the Filipinos and the killing
of one of them by the Americans, leading to return fire." (Report
up to April 6, 1899.) Then followed the Philippine War during which
1,037 Americans were killed in action or died of wounds; 2,818 were
wounded, and 2,748 died of disease. ("Historical Register,"
Vol. II, p. 293.)
The Philippines were conquered twice -- once in a contest with Spain
(in cooperation with the Filipinos, who regarded themselves as our
allies), and once in a contest with the Filipinos, the native
inhabitants, who were made subjects of the American Empire by this
5. Imperialism Accepted
The Philippine War was the last political episode in the life of the
American Republic. From February 4, 1899, the United States accepted
the political status of an Empire. Hawaii had been annexed at the
behest of the Hawaiian Government; Puerto Rico had been occupied as a
part of the war strategy and without any protest from the Puerto
Ricans. The Philippines were taken against the determined opposition
of the natives, who continued the struggle for independence during
three bitter years.
The Filipinos were fighting for independence -- fighting to drive
invaders from their soil. The United States authorities had no status
in the Philippines other than that of military conquerors.
Continental North America was occupied by the whites after a long
struggle with the Indian tribes. This territory was "conquered"
-- but it was contiguous -- it formed a part of a geographic unity.
The Philippines were separated from San Francisco by 8,000 miles of
water; geographically they were a part of Asia. They were tropical in
character, and were inhabited by tribes having nothing in common with
the American people except their common humanity. Nevertheless,
despite non-contiguity; despite distance; despite dissimilarity in
languages and customs, the soldiers of the United States conquered the
Filipinos and the United States Government took control of the
islands, acting in the same way that any other empire, under like
circumstances, unquestionably would have acted.
There was no strategic reason that demanded the Philippines unless
the United States desired to have an operating base near to the vast
resources and the developing markets of China. As a vantage point from
which to wage commercial and military aggression in the Far East, the
Philippines may possess certain advantages. There is no other excuse
for their conquest and retention by the United States save the
economic excuse of advantages to be gained from the possession of the
The end of the nineteenth century saw the end of the Republic about
which men like Jefferson and Lincoln wrote and dreamed. The New
Century marked the opening of a new epoch -- the beginning of world
dominion for the United States.
- "A History of the
American People," Woodrow Wilson. New York, Harpers, 1902,
Vol. V, pp. 273-4.
- For further details on the
Philippine problem see Senate Document 62, Part I, 55th Congress,