America Becomes a World Power

eagleFor most of the 19th century Americans ignored the rest of the world. True, millions of immigrants came to America during the 19th century, and they no doubt he kept in touch with their families and paid at least passing attention to what was happening in the homelands. But those were personal relationships and had little to do with relations among nations. From the end of the war of 1812, following the treaties achieved with Spain and Great Britain in the years following that conflict, there was little to distract Americans from issues at home. One exception, of course, was the annexation of Texas and the subsequent Mexican-American war. Concerns also arose during the Civil War about possible intervention by Great Britain or other European powers in our domestic conflict. There were also problems with Great Britain regarding the raider ships that were built for the Confederate Navy, but those important issues were resolved before leading to a crisis.

Between the Civil War and 1900 minor issues came up from time to time, but none rose to a level that threatened warfare until issues regarding Cuba arose during the 1890s. The Cuban problem eventually led to the Spanish-American war, which in turn led to America building an empire, as the United States gained the Philippine Islands and Guam. The United States also acquired Hawaii during the 1890s, peacefully, to be sure, but it was one of the seamier events of the late 19th century that still has residual effects in our 50th state. Although no battles broke out, potential military action was threatened. The Hawaiian issue will be discussed in some detail later in this section.

One key factor that caused the United States to become more cognizant of foreign affairs came from industrialzation. Gone were the days when it might take weeks or even months for communications to pass between America and other nations across the seas. A transatlantic cable was laid in midcentury, and with the advent of steam propulsion, transport across the oceans could be made much more rapidly than in the days of sail. Furthermore, industrialization increased the output of commodities like corn, wheat, beef, as well as products like iron and steel, and American farmers and manufacturers began seeking outlets for their produce beyond the nation's shores. At the same time, production of those kinds of commodities and goods by other nations generated international competition, which in turn compelled the country towards further involvement with the rest of the world.

Another aspect that will be dealt with in this chapter is the growing relationships between United States and the Asian nations. Commodore Perry reached Japan and carved out an agreement between the Japanese government and United States in the 1850s. Thousands of Chinese immigrants came to America in the late 19th century to work on the railroads, and that generated considerable interaction between United States and the Chinese government, not all of it a amicable. More and more the United States became obliged to “look outward” as the century progressed.

Between 1895 and 1920 United States went from a relatively isolated nation, separated from most of the rest of the world by two broad oceans, into a nation fully engaged in the affairs of Europe and Asia. The age of imperialism, as it has been called, brought America into the 20th century, and helped to make the hundred years between 1900 and 2000 what has been called the “American century.” It's a story with both positive and negative consequences, and in this section we will look at both sides.


World Power Home | Imperial America | World War I | Updated April 23, 2017