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Walter LaFeber : America as a World Power

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Walter LaFeber A century before 1900, Americans had been strung along the Eastern coast of the United States, 13 colonies, not really reaching into the Mississippi Valley area. Within a century the United States was a continental power. And I think it's interesting to recall that in 1900 there were probably people still alive who had been alive when the United States had no claims to the Pacific coast of the continent. Then all of a sudden in the 1890s the United States is not only a continental power, it becomes a world power and it occurs very, very rapidly. Now one politician said that the United States had achieved in three months what the great powers of Europe had tried to achieve over centuries. And I think that's fairly accurate, that the United States went into 1898 and the war of that year, really insecure, beset by depression that had been around for nearly a quarter century. Many American cities were in chaos. In San Francisco there were riots. In Chicago things were so out of hand that in the middle of the 1890s the President had to send federal troops into Chicago to restore order. There were marches on Washington just before this far, people from the Midwest coming to Washington to find out what had gone wrong. All of a sudden in 1898, with the war, things seemed to change. There was a European minister who came to the United States at this time and he was later asked exactly how many countries he had served in, and he said he had served twice in the United States. once was the America before 1898 and the second was the, America after 1898. And, as he saw it, these were two separate nations. The America before 1898, highly insecure, having all kinds of economic and social problems; the America after 1898 being a global empire, highly prosperous, one of the four great military powers now in the world as far as this navy was concerned, and rapidly becoming the number one economic power by 1899 and 1900. I think no one in 1893-94-95 could have dreamed that by 1900 Americans would have this kind of power and this kind of security.

There was a young Cornell graduate who actually became the key American diplomat in Asia after 1900, a young man named Willard Straight. And Straight looked around in 1900 and said that he thought the United States was like a person who had just tried to jump across a great chasm and had gotten over to the other side and was hanging on by their fingernails and scratching and clawing their way up the side of the cliff to get up on the other side. And I think many Americans agreed with that particular view. That is, that the United States had taken a great leap in 1898-1900. They had moved from being concerned about things on the continent to being concerned about things in the Pacific and Asia. The real question was whether we were good enough to compete with the great European powers and with this rising Japan who was actually on the scene. we had just come out of this terrible depression of the 1890s. There'd been all kinds of riots and social turmoil in the United States. Could we avoid that? Could we continue to act as an imperial power and compete with the other great powers of the world? And I think, as Straight indicated, many Americans wondered whether all of this perhaps wasn't too good to be true, that what had happened in 1898 and '99 had been so easy and the United States had moved so rapidly across the Pacific and into Asia, that maybe we weren't going to be able to hold these gains that we had gotten in the war of 1898. So I think, on the other hand, Americans were feeling very good about themselves at what they had accomplished in 1898 and 1899, 1900. On the other hand, we were now playing in the big leagues. We were now playing with the major powers who had been competing with each other for a century and we were now involved in civilizations such as in China and the Philippines with which we had very little acquaintance. And it was a question whether or not Americans were really that good an imperialist in order to pull this off.

For the United States to maintain this empire, what the United States had to do was to use force and to project that force across thousands and thousands of miles and to be able to compete in a diplomatic, military, and political way with these other powers. We had never done that. Throughout most of the 19th century we had had very friendly borders. The Canadians to the north were non-threatening. The Spanish empire to the south was falling apart. To the west, we could go all the way to the Pacific and not really have any problems. Suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of the Chinese Revolution with other imperial powers crowding in to carve up China. And the United States suddenly, in order to protect its own interests, had to deal with the Chinese Revolution, has to deal with these European powers, and somehow has to project force in a way that we never had before. The United States had never sent a military force outside the Western Hemisphere until 1898. Suddenly in 1900 we have 5,000 American troops on the mainland of Asia. Now this is stunning. This had never, never happened to another nation, and Americans were aware of this. The Europeans had long periods of preparation to get ready for this particular imperial contest. The Americans had jumped in, in 1898 and 1899 and now all of a sudden, as I say, we moved very rapidly into the big leagues and we were playing with wholly different, group of powers than we had been before 1898.

Americans could afford to be enthusiastic about being a world power because world power had come very cheaply. They had become a world power in the Pacific in about four hours. It had taken Admiral George Dewey only that long to defeat a broken-down Spanish fleet. This was surprising. When Dewey sailed out of his base at Hong Kong, British officials watched the American ships depart and one British official said to the other, "A fine bunch of fellows. Unfortunately, we shall never see them again." They thought that the American ships would probably be destroyed by the Spanish flotilla. Instead, Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in a matter of hours without any, American sailor being killed. In Cuba, the United States had won in a matter of six weeks. And it was an easy war. And so Americans came out of this war thinking that war was cheap, war was glorious, war was profitable. We ended up with a good naval base in the Pacific. We ended up with domination in the Caribbean, and the United States, by 1899, has done things that we never thought we could accomplish just 18 months before. There's also, I think, the realization on the part of many Americans in 1899 and 1900 that we have a kind of imperialism that's different. That is to say, we don't really want to colonize China. We don't want to exploit the Chinese. We want to keep China whole. We want to help the Chinese. As President McKinley liked to say, "We want to lift up and civilize these peoples." The Europeans wanted to carve up China. The Europeans wanted to colonize parts of the world. Americans didn't want to do that. We wanted to sell them American goods and lift them up and civilize them, and we wanted American missionaries to go in and teach them the virtues of Christianity. And Americans -- between 1890 and 1900, the number of American missionaries in China just about doubles. So there's a feeling here that Americans are going out on this mission and realizing their -- their destiny in the sense of helping other peoples, selling other peoples American goods, and doing this in a way that helps these people lift themselves up. So Americans are going abroad to do good as well as to do well, and this is also gives us a sense of accomplishment and something that we did not think we would have been able to do just months before we were doing it in 1899, and 1900.

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