The National Interest - A democratic empire?



By the end of Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution in America was under full steam. And as the country redefined itself—from rural and agricultural to urban and industrial—it similarly redefined its national interest. Or tried to. Many Americans interpreted the shift from agriculture to industry as indicating that territory per se no longer mattered; America's expansionist impulses—which none denied still existed—should look to markets rather than land. Yet others contended that land still counted. They observed the overseas empires of the other great powers and judged that American greatness would be measured by the same material yardstick. Moreover, enough of the spirit of manifest destiny survived the Civil War (the Union victory did wonders for the self-confidence of the winners) to support a sense that American institutions and values could revivify a weary and corrupted world.

After fighting broke out in Cuba in 1895 between Cuban nationalists and Spanish loyalists, Americans sided with the nationalists: first sentimentally, then politically, and finally militarily. The American war party—led by Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge and journalists Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst—included individuals who dreamed of an American empire akin to the empires of Britain, France, and Germany. But what won William McKinley his war declaration against Spain in April 1898 was a feeling that America had an obligation to prevent atrocities in its own backyard. (It was during the 1890s that the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, asserting American primacy in the Western Hemisphere, achieved the status of an enforceable national interest.) When congressional skeptics of the McKinley administration's motives, led by Henry Teller, attached to the war resolution an amendment forswearing American ownership of Cuba, the amendment sailed through the Senate without debate.

But wars have a way of altering reality, and after American forces captured Manila, the urge to empire took a different tack. McKinley negotiated a treaty with Spain granting Cuba independence but transferring the Philippines to the United States. The president claimed that Providence told him his country had an obligation to uplift and Christianize the Filipinos. (Obviously, it was a Protestant Providence, as most Filipinos were already Christians—but Roman Catholics.)

When McKinley laid the treaty before the Senate for ratification, the country witnessed one of the most distilled debates in American history on the nature of the national interest. The imperialists asserted that annexation of the Philippines would benefit the United States economically (by providing a stepping-stone to the markets of Asia), diplomatically (by anteing America into the imperial sweepstakes that dominated international affairs), and militarily (by providing naval bases and coaling stations for the U.S. fleet). Beyond this, American control of the Philippines would advance the interests of world civilization. "It is elemental," Albert Beveridge told his Senate colleagues. "It is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration…. He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth."

The anti-imperialists construed the national interest quite differently. A radical few denied that God had any special plan for America, but others simply held that American exceptionalism worked better by example than by force. Indeed, to ape the European imperialists would undermine all that made America unique and worth emulating. Carl Schurz, a refugee republican from Prussia after the failed revolution of 1848 there, and a Lincoln Republican in the American Civil War, predicted that annexation would embroil the United States in an imperial conflict like those that ate the blood and treasure of the other imperial powers. "The Filipinos fought against Spain for their freedom and independence, and unless they abandon their recently proclaimed purpose for their freedom and independence, they will fight us," Schurz said. The imperial road would lead his adopted country into dire peril. "The character and future of the Republic and the welfare of its people now living and yet to be born are in unprecedented jeopardy."

The imperialists won the battle but lost the war. Even as the Senate (narrowly) accepted McKinley's treaty, Filipino nationalists launched the war of independence Schurz predicted. The American war in the Philippines was the long, dirty antithesis of the short, clean American war in Cuba. Americans committed (and suffered) atrocities like those they had castigated Spain for committing against Cuba; the whole experience soured the American people on empire. By the time U.S. forces finally suppressed the Philippine insurgency, Americans had discovered that their national interest did not include empire. They needed another four decades to divest themselves of the Philippines (Puerto Rico, which did not want to be divested, remained American), but they were never tempted to repeat the imperial experiment.



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