Tag Archives: Expansion

History: More than a Story

Broad based or narrow focused, history is not merely a collection of data, rather it is a story. At times, the story may seem dull, at other times captivating. The study of history can introduce us to the challenges and triumphs of the past. It can help us see patterns in the ‘action and reaction’ cycle of human relations.  It can help us learn from the past events which have paved the way for present actions. However, it can only teach us if we are willing to learn. Simply hearing the story is not enough. Regardless of how enthralling, action-packed, or awe-inspiring, history is not simply a story to be heard. It is a story to be understood.

Whether we look at the rise of Hitler, the arms race of the Cold War, or the growth of empire through colonialization, history can teach us about how groups of humans react when they feel threatened by other groups of humans. During the inter-war period in Germany, the people felt sorely abused by the rest of Europe. They sought a change and a savior from the economic oppression they felt was unjust. During the Cold War, citizens on both sides sought powerful military might as a means of protection from a threat often ideological more than physical. They didn’t simply want a powerful government, they wanted an all-powerful government that could protect them from phantoms as well as from armies. In both of these historical stories, if we take the time study them rather than simply hear them, we can learn that people are willing to give up basic human and civil rights in order to feel protected from outside threats. Additionally, if we go beyond the simple narrative often taught in history primers, we can see cases where people were easily persuaded to put aside their moral compass in order to achieve group affiliation and protection. While the story of Hitler and his atrocious reign of power might more easily provide examples of how people can become swayed by nationalism and nativism, the story of the Cold War also provides examples. Foreign relations, the relations between nations rather than individuals, often times reflect the very nature of human relations. Just as human and civil rights were often trampled upon in both the United States and the Soviet Union by their own respective citizenry, national sovereignty and the right to self-determination were often trampled upon by the superpowers as they spread their economic, political, and military influence. The notion that ‘might makes right’ was not constrained.

The notion of ‘might makes right’ is clearly depicted in the colonization period leading up to the twentieth century. Peoples who seemed to be less civilized in comparison to the social and political norms of Europe were to be suppressed and subjugated, or eradicated if they would not accept their place in the more ‘civilized’ society. Moral qualms were assuaged by dehumanizing those who did not fit the norm and who did not hold the power. This was not the first time the process of dehumanizing the ‘other’ for social or political gain occurred in history, but it did normalize it as culturally acceptable. Even as slavery lost support, colonial conquest and rule, including the westward expansion of the United States, reinforced the idea that certain peoples were more valuable than others. The mighty western nations viewed their culture to be better than the rest, and believed that forced assimilation was right and justified.

To the victor goes the spoils and also the chance to write the story, but history is more than just one person or nation’s account. It is a compilation of stories from many different perspectives. Like the heroic sagas of old, history can inspire and teach lessons to the listeners, but the study of history can do more. It can dispel notions that any one group of people is more perfect or more sinful than the others. It highlights the shared humanity of man; a humanity that is full of valor and full of vice.

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.

Gowing to War: Purpose and a Plan

In continuation with last week’s post about the study of the motivations of war, I decided to revisit something I wrote a couple years ago.

The Spanish-American War and subsequent Philippine War were short wars by U.S. standards but had far reaching consequences. President McKinley’s “limited war strategy” was intended to gain independence for Cuba but its limited scope also included a limited understanding of the consequences of international conflict.[1] Simply put, the United States was unprepared for war. While the navy was somewhat prepared, the army struggled under continued state and congressional opposition to a strong peacetime military force.[2] As with the American Revolution and the Civil War, untrained volunteers, “who fancied they were soldiers because they could get across a level piece of ground without stepping on their own feet,” were mustered and sent to war with little opportunity for training.[3]

Lack of preparation was one of the issues faced during the “splendid little war.” Of greater issue was the lack of a clear objective for war. If independence was the objective, then it would have seemed logical for the United States to have had greater respect for the native rebels who had worn down the Spanish forces before the U.S. arrival. Rather than respecting and aiding the rebel effort, the United States went from liberator to conqueror and rejected the notion of revolution and self-governance. Rather, the United States implemented a paternalistic imperial rule over the former Spanish colonies. Although there would be efforts at nation building and promises of self-rule, economic and military dependency became the reality.

Whatever goals President McKinley might have had in justifying war, they seem to have gone with him to his grave.[4] While Cuba would achieve a semblance of independence once the war ended, the Philippines would find itself embroiled in further war and facing an arguably unwanted annexation. The United States would become an empire by default more than by plan. McKinley’s little war would also have unexpected, long-term consequences on U.S. military strategy.

The Spanish American War and the Philippine War which created a new empire, would encourage future generations to believe that a guerrilla opposition could be snuffed-out with enough oppression, pacification, and force. While McKinley had not recognized the nature and consequences of international war coupled with imperial occupation, later presidents would justify future international wars based on the perceived successes of these conflicts. Only after it was too late would they realize that occupying islands cut off from allies and supplies was and easier task than occupying lands connected to supply networks. In a time when photographic war journalism was in its infancy, and the atrocities of war could still be ignored by civilians in the United States, pacification policies, total suppression of civilians and combatants, and a torched earth policy could subdue an enemy without public outcry. The United States would learn eventually that people may cry for war when national interests are at risk, but they have little stomach for war or the devastation war brings when faced with the brutal reality of war. Former U.S. secretary of state and retired general Colin Powell once said, “War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support.”[5] More importantly, a nation should only go to war when the president understands the clear purpose of the proposed war and has weighed the consequences, short-term and long-term, thoroughly.


[1] Allen R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. rev exp. (New York: Free Press, 1994), 286.

[2] Ibid., 303.

[3] Ibid., 290.

[4] Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 3.

[5] Tim Russert, “Powell’s Doctrine, in Powell’s Words.” The Washington Post, October 7, 2001. http://www.mbc.edu/faculty/gbowen/Powell.htm (accessed September 11, 2012).

Diplomacy and Destiny

It has been said that war is politics by other means and few would disagree with the Clausewitzian sentiment, but one might also state that diplomacy is warfare by peaceful means. Often diplomacy seeks to gain without violence the same objectives that empires of old sought to gain through war. Relying upon Machiavellian precepts of being feared rather than loved, and by justifying the means by the end results, great diplomats have doggedly pursued national interests, sometimes believing destiny had already prescribed a greater future than present circumstances provided. One such diplomat was William Henry Seward (1801-1872). In 1853, seven years before becoming U.S. Secretary of State for the Lincoln administration, Senator Seward stated in a speech titled The Destiny of America, “Nevertheless it is not in man’s nature to be content with present attainment or enjoyment. You say to me, therefore, with excusable impatience, ‘Tell us not what our country is, but what she shall be. Shall her greatness increase? Is she immortal?’”[1] Steward believed the answer to these questions were the affirmative and would spend his career seeking to increase the greatness of the nation he served.

Like other expansionists, Seward would link U.S. commercial strength with the acquisition of foreign markets and territorial holdings. When Mexico and British Canada proved unfertile soil for acquisition, Seward looked elsewhere. Seward believed that the United States had a destiny to spread its notions of liberty to the new nations breaking free from European imperialism, particularly those liberating themselves from Spain. Unfortunately, he also believed, as many did, that shaking off imperial control did not necessarily mean the people of Latin America were prepared to self-govern.[2] Seward believed the southern neighbors would be better served if they became part of the United States. Seward achieved a piece of his goal by pushing for the purchase of Alaska, and while it was considered folly at the time, the discovery of gold changed how most viewed the acquisition. He had less success in his efforts to secure other territories in the Caribbean and Central America. However, he would be remembered for the tenacity with which he sought U.S. expansion; a tenacity that often diverged from diplomacy and bordered on bullying.[3] Those who were unfortunate to have sparred with Seward would have felt bombarded and under attack, and would have wondered at the fine line Seward drew between diplomacy and war. With a focus firmly on the destiny of U.S. greatness, Seward behaved more like a commanding general than a diplomat. Seward believed the destiny of the United States was not limited to contiguous land of North America, but that it reached far beyond. Eventually Steward’s tenacious diplomacy would be replaced by combat in a war that would acquire some of the territory Seward had desired. His vision of U.S. expansion, while not achieved during his time in office, did influence the direction of U.S. expansion as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Whether through diplomacy or warfare, men like Seward were determined to see the United States fulfill its destiny of greatness.


[1] Frederick Seward, Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State: A Memoir of His Life, with Selections from His Letters, e-book (New York: Derby and Miller, 1891), 207.

[2] William Henry Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams Sixth President of the United States with Eulogy Delivered before the Legislature of New York, e-book (Auburn, NY: Derby, Miller and Company, 1849), 122-123.

[3] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 255-257.