The American Empire:
The Beginnings of World Dominion

Scott Nearing

[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 and 1970s.

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 civilization.

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.

2. Hawaii

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 interests.

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 responsibility.

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 affair.

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 ore.

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 open.

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 its people."

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 clear title.

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 booty?

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 "anti-imperialists."

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 Civil War.

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 before them.

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" and "redeemers."

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 free!

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 conquest.(2)

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 islands themselves.

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.


  1. "A History of the American People," Woodrow Wilson. New York, Harpers, 1902, Vol. V, pp. 273-4.
  2. For further details on the Philippine problem see Senate Document 62, Part I, 55th Congress, Third Session.