Exceptionalism - The beginning of the twentieth century




The anti-imperialists failed to raise widespread public opposition to the McKinley administration's annexation policy. They could not convince the American public that the policy was contrary to American principles, and consequently the Philippine insurrection was defeated, and Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines were annexed. Despite their inability to prevent the annexations and the suppression of the Philippine insurrection, the anti-imperialists were a useful check against the annexationist fever and contributed to the return to the more usual American sentiment of anticolonialism. While the anti-imperialist movement quickly faded after the failed presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan in 1900, so did the desire for American imperialism. While European powers were partitioning China, the United States called for an open door trade policy and the protection of China's territorial and political independence.

That the American desire for overseas possessions had subsided appeared to be confirmed on 6 December 1904 by one of expansion's greatest advocates. President Theodore Roosevelt reaffirmed the belief that Americans did not seek imperial dominion over other nations. In a speech adding a further corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, he proclaimed: "It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save such that are for their welfare." Roosevelt made clear that he believed the United States had nothing but benign intentions with regard to foreign relations. However, he did stress that the United States felt an obligation to help protect the freedom of peoples in the Americas not only, as Monroe had declared, in the face of foreign aggression but also if their citizens faced internal threats to their freedom.

In his speech, Roosevelt effectively pulled together the two main strands of exceptionalist belief. As a rule, he argued, the United States should stay out of the affairs of other nations and concentrate on forging a more perfect union in the spirit of the Founders, thus providing an ever more appropriate example for the rest of the world to follow. However, when extreme circumstances demanded it, the United States, as the chosen nation, had the "manifest duty" to protect the rights that it promoted if their survival was threatened abroad. Roosevelt's reasoning would help define foreign policy discourse for many years to come, with the tension between these two elements of exceptionalism often at the center of debate.

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