Realist and traditionalist historians have usually judged that the United States entered the colonization business by the back door at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries and could not wait to exit by the same route because being a colonial power was embarrassing and outside the American tradition. For example, in the traditional school, Samuel Flagg Bemis, Thomas A. Bailey, and Julius W. Pratt held such views, while among the realists Norman A. Graebner and George F. Kennan agreed to the extent that colonialism was not and did not become a part of the American tradition. Another group of historians, the New Left, argued that colonialism was a conscious expression of American capitalism, which had always been the determining force in American foreign policy and merely reached a conscious level of expression in colonialism. William Appleman Williams argued that colonialism was merely one phase of American imperialism, which became passé when it was discovered that economic imperialism that penetrated other areas by the force of dollars was superior to the actual possession of the territories that the United States wished to dominate. According to Williams and those of his persuasion, dollar diplomacy became the preeminent source of imperialism because it was easier to maintain, less embarrassing, and made it possible to eliminate the bother of colonial administration. But colonialism itself was merely an extension of the American experience and not an aberration.
One of the most respected historians associated with the New Left, Walter LaFeber, argued that there was no break in tradition. While he emphasized the economic forces behind the new manifest destiny, he recognized that other forces played a part in promoting it. He insisted that colonialism was part and parcel of the American experience, all of which was preparing the way for the surge to overseas colonial possession as a natural extension of the colonial spirit developing from the outset in America. One of the few historians normally classed in the realist tradition, Richard W. Van Alstyne, agreed with at least part of the New Left assessment that there was no break in the American pattern of expansion. According to Van Alstyne, the westward movement itself was an imperial endeavor preparing the way for further imperialism when the continent was filled or occupied.
These examples could be extended to include a number of other prominent diplomatic historians who have sided with the innocent victim-of-circumstances view of American colonial expansion versus the concept of the planned and persistent imperial thrust. Thus, the debate over how and why the United States became a colonial power at the end of the nineteenth century rages on, with definitive answers lying in neither camp.
It seems prudent to assume that like all significant events in the world's development there were many causes for American colonialism. Economic determinists assess greed or material benefits deriving from colonial possession as the determinate cause. This does not explain the correspondence of such advocates of the colonial experiment as Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, who laid stress on the importance of prestige and great-power status for the United States resting on the needs of security, which is or should be the primary consideration underlying the motivation for formulators of foreign policy.
Realist historians tend to examine colonialism as the result of some elements of the psychic crisis, the security motives, the spread of American industry and commerce, emotional appeals to liberal humanitarian objectives, social Darwinism, nationalism, and "egoistic nationalism," a term applied by the political scientist Robert E. Osgood to explain positions taken by Lodge and Beveridge, who flamboyantly expressed American national destiny without carefully examining the consequences. The traditionalists have been more inclined to focus on the idea of the aberration of anticolonial liberal democratic ideals. In some degree they are all correct, but because the realists take into account a multiplicity of factors arguing for colonial expansion and the retreat from colonialism that followed, they would appear to provide the most complete explanation.
Of course, there are also Marxist interpretations carried to the level of prediction by Lenin, who argued that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism, which would lead to the most flagrant exploitation of proletarians and to the ultimate collapse of capitalism as imperial rivalries led to struggles for markets terminating in enervating wars. What Lenin did not foresee was the Soviet Union's entrance into the imperial grouping through such practices as the economic exploitation of the states under its sway. While condemning the United States and other Western powers, historians of the Marxist persuasion first rationalized Soviet behavior and claimed there was not exploitation, or else dropped Russia as the exemplar of communist or Marxist principles and raised Communist China as a new model. Marxists and other economic determinists have also tended to lump together the Western colonial powers in defense of one another's interests and in support of racism, as in the case of American support of France in Algeria and Indochina, and of South Africa and Israel. This ignores Franklin D. Roosevelt's frequently expressed anticolonialism. It also overlooks such changes in position as the Department of State's shift concerning American support of South Africa until the apartheid regime was overthrown and replaced by an electoral process that allowed enfranchisement of blacks, permitting Nelson Mandela to become the first black leader of South Africa.
Ironically, while racism or ethnocentrism has undeniably played a determinant role in both colonialism and imperialism and the powers that practiced them have been justly criticized for the practice, those who were its victims have generally not illustrated a much better record in their treatment of other races or ethnic groups over whom they have been able to establish control. Fostered by the efforts to break free of colonial domination, virulent nationalism has led to extremist attitudes on the part, for example, of Arabs toward Jews, and Jews toward Arabs; of neighboring African tribes struggling to achieve preeminence over other tribes inside the borders of new states; of Chinese toward Tibetans and Indians; and of Indians toward Pakistanis and Pakistanis toward Indians. While this list is incomplete, it is still impressive of the evidence that the power to abuse is confined to no particular race. Perhaps the problem lies not in racism per se so much as in the corrupting influence of absolute power over another people. Some historians have attempted to identify racism as a phenomenon of one socioeconomic group exclusively or to whites versus other races, as though the problem would be eliminated if the world were socialist or the whites lost influence to the other races. They have not met the real challenge, which is that abuse rests with unrestrained power.
Ethnocentric behavior is a form of racism, which has permitted the Japanese to treat others of the yellow race as inferior when they held imperial control of the Chinese and the Koreans, and the Chinese to do the same when they have held similar power over Tibetans. The same phenomenon has permitted various tribal groups in Africa to persecute other tribes and the others to retaliate in kind. Ethnocentrism permitted Great Russians to maintain that their "little Slav brothers" inside and outside Russia's borders have needed special tutelage by their betters. Often ethnic bias is combined with religious bigotry, which accounts in part for the atrocities of the 1990s in Yugoslavia and the continuing contest in Ireland. What made racism identifiable with colonialism and imperialism was the unrestrained power of the colonial and imperial nations to abuse those over whom they held dominance. The decline of colonialism has not eliminated the problem, for the nationalism that grew in a virulent strain in the places formerly under colonial control has bred a similar virus.
Admittedly there are still areas that may be defined as colonial possessions, but generally, at the beginning of the twenty-first century they are headed for either incorporation within the possessing state, autonomous status within some sort of confederation like the British Commonwealth, or independence. For example, in some cases there is the fiction of independence or autonomy, as in the continued possession of Samoa by the United States; French colonial administration of Martinique, St. Pierre, and French Guiana; and British control of such places as the Falkland Islands. There are, however, very few vestiges of colonialism left.
This, however, does not mean the end of imperialism, which has taken many forms. Economic penetration of underdeveloped areas has become a competitive replacement for colonialism and is absorbing the energies of the former colonial powers. Added to this form of exploitation of resources and capital control is a new element—the oil-rich Arab states that have emerged from colonial status and exhibited all the symptoms of nationalism and desires for political power they condemned in their former imperial masters. Colonialism is virtually dead, but imperialism continues as those nations with the economic or military power to perpetuate it have refused to give up the practice.