American Involvement in Cuba and Philippines in the 19th and 20th centuries
The years spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries is often referred to as the formal imperial phase of American history. The primary evidence upon which this conclusion is based centers almost entirely on the behavior of the United States towards two main political entities: Cuba and the Philippines. The following pages will discuss the main factors that led to American involvement in these regions and will evaluate their significance within American history.
The primary factor that triggered the events that led the U.S. first into Cuba and then the Philippines, was the Spanish-American war. While many, such as the Anti-Imperialists, had grave reservations as to the motives of the political elites of their time, most Americans agreed that an initial spur of humanitarianism was the prime spiritual mover for declaring war on Spain. Indeed, setting aside the incendiary reporting that came to characterize the "yellow journalism" of that era, Spanish atrocities against Cubans - the reconcentration zones - were well known. The Spanish-American war, as a cause in the eventual occupation of Cuba and the Philippines, is of great significance: it would set a historical precedent by which subsequent American occupations would draw upon, that is through officially declared humanitarian interventions, to achieve foreign-policy objectives.
But while the war may have been a direct cause of the island occupations by U.S. forces, other less tangible and more indirect causes can be identified. One of these can be described as being of a functional nature; factors arising from international political systems and governmental processes. For example, Paterson reviews one school of historical analysis that blames "international anarchy" and the subsequent "insecurity of the great powers," namely the U.S. in our case, as leading to interventionist policies abroad. Paterson also points to the inherent competition in status and power, that make up international rivalry, as a motivation for U.S. policies in Latin America and Asia.
The elite power structure within American society itself is also described as having led the U.S. to war. Historians who examine the roles of individuals, for example, often point to "great" leaders like President McKinley as a prime mover of events. An elite power structure may also include those segments of American society that have disproportionate political influences, such as the press that used exaggerated reports to influence public opinion. We can also talk of business interests as elites who, while were hesitant at first, quickly came to support an expanded occupation of the Philippines.
Another factor leading to the American occupation can be termed Ideological. Humanitarianism, as described earlier and which can be traced in part to the notion of the "City Upon on a Hill," quickly engaged the American spirit. Many historians have also talked of social Darwinism as well as the male ethos as having shaped a cultural context within which an American occupation of foreign peoples could come to fruition. And a final factor, one largely of economics and bred from the Realist school of international affairs, is Imperialism. Briefly explained, fears that free land no longer existed, which was fundamental to the American frontier ethic, for human exploitation increased the necessity of government to turn abroad for more opportunities.
It is worthwhile to mention the "psychic crisis" thesis of Richard Hofstadter. In essence, he argued that a confluence of largely domestic events - the 1890's depression, populist movements, jingoism, humanitarianism and others - resulted in an atmosphere making imperialism and foreign wars more readily acceptable to an American populace, one that had up to now largely shunned unnecessary foreign adventures.
In considering these various factors, we can undoubtedly find merit in all of them, no matter where one considers to be the main source of power to be in national and international politics. But we can also find significance in these factors given that they provide the historian with a window on American life and identity.
For example, the importance of such concepts as duty and destiny combined with a frontier ethic and the humanitarian impulse in greater society all point to a fundamental duality of the American spirit; one that is conservative and rigid, yet progressive and open. Indeed, it is this basic duality that has animated (or split) American society throughout its history. And therefore, we can safely assume that this same pattern will continue to emerge onto the national scene and drive history forward.