The Spanish-American War of 1898 was, according to Walter LaFeber, a natural outgrowth of America's revolutionary expansion in prior decades. When Cuban residents revolted in early 1895 against Spanish rule, the government of President Grover Cleveland offered support for the aspirations of the island's citizens. Cleveland did not advocate immediate Cuban independence—he condescendingly believed that the dark-skinned inhabitants of the island were unprepared for self-rule. However, the president pushed the Spanish government to initiate political and economic reforms that would make Cuba more like America. Cuban exiles residing in the United States and labor union leaders—especially Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor—went beyond Cleveland's caution, advocating an immediate revolution against Spanish authority. By 1897 newspaper publishers picked up on these sentiments. They demanded a U.S. war aimed at destroying the Spanish empire.
Simultaneously, an uprising against Madrid's rule in the Philippines attracted American attention. In this case, American interest did not derive from geographical proximity to the United States but instead from the Philippines' location near China. As Britain, France, Germany, and Japan divided up the economic markets of China, businessmen and policymakers in the United States worried that they would be excluded. The United States lacked the imperial springboard that Hong Kong, for example, provided to the British. A revolution in the Philippines promised, in many American eyes, to create a regime both friendly and compatible with the nation's economic interests in China. Secretary of State John Hay expected that a Philippine revolution against Spanish rule would ensure the continued spread of liberty and enterprise in Asia. This was the basic assumption of Hay's famous Open Door Notes (1899–1900), which connected American interests with assured access to the people and markets of foreign societies.
Drawn into the Cuban and Philippine uprisings, the United States went to war with Spain in April 1898 to expand its "new empire" and assure that revolutions overseas followed the American model. This meant the destruction of monarchy and other inherited authorities. U.S. occupation armies replaced traditional institutions with free markets, personal property protections, and promises of democratic self-rule. Racist American fears that nonwhite populations would not properly govern themselves if left to their own devices meant that, in practice, democratic reforms were virtually nonexistent in Cuba and the Philippines after 1898. While the Caribbean island attained nominal independence, the Platt Amendment of 1901 (named for Connecticut senator Orville Platt) guaranteed American military and economic dominance. In the Philippines, the United States did not rely upon informal mechanisms of control. The archipelago became an American colony, where U.S. soldiers fought a bloody four-year war against Filipino rebels. America supported revolution in Cuba and the Philippines, but it also suppressed revolution when it challenged core assumptions about liberty and enterprise.
Washington would not tolerate radicalism that jeopardized markets and assumptions about just government. Americans remained revolutionary thinkers, as they had been since before 1776. Their nation continued to inspire unprecedented social transformations across the globe. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Americans encountered numerous competing revolutionary models. These included the nationalism of many independence fighters (especially the Chinese Boxer rebels of 1900), the anti-industrialism of peasant activists, and the socialism of international-minded thinkers.
None of these forces was new. All three, particularly socialism, gained momentum from the disruption that accompanied heightened rivalries among the European imperial powers and the emergence of the United States as an important international player. Americans could begin to build a truly global empire of liberty and enterprise after 1898, but they quickly became aware of contrary, more radical tendencies throughout the world. For the United States the twentieth century was a struggle to spread the American Revolution and repress alternatives. Cuba and the Philippines were preludes to what lay ahead.