Strong Military as a Path to Prosperity

There is a belief held by many that a strong nation can ensure stability and can promote prosperity by developing a strong military presence in a region. It is not a new theory nor is it difficult to validate when history is full of examples of empires formed by military strength who then add to their own prosperity through the quelling of regional conflict and instability. In fact, it is much easier to cite examples of empires made strong by force than by diplomacy; therefore, it should be of no surprise that the United States followed a similar path as it sought to expand its economic interests during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

What might be surprising, especially after the fact that the United States went on to flex its military might for the greater part of the twentieth century, is that there had been fierce opposition within the United States to the notion of militarizing, taking on the role of stabilizer and protector, and pursuing the status of empire.[1] Even during the years following the Monroe Doctrine many argued that the United States needed to simply concentrate on the lands of North American and leave the affairs of Europe to the Europeans. However, these well intended notions of independence and isolation failed take into consideration that sea trade could not be ‘free’ or ‘secure’ unless someone policed the waters. The United States was comfortable allowing the British Navy the job even though the British posed the greatest threat to U.S. interests at the time. However, by the end of the nineteenth century more U.S. voices were calling for a change. One of these voices was that of Alfred Thayer Mahan who wrote, “All men seek gain and, more or less, love money; but the way in which gain is sought will have a marked effect upon the commercial fortunes and the history of the people inhabiting a country.”[2] He argued that for economic gain to increase, sea trade must be protected, and rather than relying on the naval strength of others, the United States must get into the game and become a naval power. A few short years after he made his argument, the United States acquired territories and increased its markets overseas.  A larger navy was required.

When faced with questions and criticism concerning the appearance of imperial objectives, President Theodore Roosevelt responded, “When the Constitution was adopted, at the end of the eighteenth century, no human wisdom could foretell the sweeping changes, alike in industrial and political conditions, which were to take place by the beginning of the twentieth century.”[3] A few years later he would assure the critics, “All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous.”[4] Whether Roosevelt was genuine in his assurances or whether he was fully aware that the nation was heading down an imperial path is debatable, but one thing that has been clear from that point forward – the United States was no longer theoretically a regional power but had become one in reality. During the next two decades, the United States would transition from regional power to world power and the transition would happen through the use of military might.

 

[1] Many will argue that the United States never pursued or achieved the status of empire. They will claim that the United States assimilated and incorporated territories rather than acquired colonies and that the peoples of the territories were treated as citizens rather than as subjugated peoples. The debate on the question of whether the United States is or was an empire can be quite interesting to follow.

[2] Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influesnce of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890), Kindle.

[3] Theodore Roosevelt, “First Annual Message,” Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia, (December 3, 1901), http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3773.

[4] Theodore Roosevelt, “Forth Annual Message,” Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia (December 6, 1904), http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3776.

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