U.S. imperialism took a variety of forms in the early 20th century, ranging from colonies in Puerto Rico and the Philippines to protectorates in Cuba, Panama, and other countries in Latin America, and open door policies such as that in China. Formal colonies would be ruled with U.S.-appointed colonial governors and supported by U.S. troops. Protectorates and open door policies promoted business expansion overseas through American oversight of foreign governments and, in the case of threats to economic and strategic interests, the deployment of U.S. marines. In all of these imperial forms, U.S. empire-building both reflected and shaped complex social, cultural, and political histories with ramifications for both foreign nations and America itself.
Military assistance programs have been crucial instruments of American foreign policy since World War II, valued by policymakers for combating internal subversion in the “free world,” deterring aggression, and protecting overseas interests. The 1958 Draper Committee, consisting of eight members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concluded that economic and military assistance were interchangeable; as the committee put it, without internal security and the “feeling of confidence engendered by adequate military forces, there is little hope for economic progress.” Less explicitly, military assistance was also designed to uphold the U.S. global system of military bases established after World War II, ensure access to raw materials, and help recruit intelligence assets while keeping a light American footprint. Police and military aid was often invited and welcomed by government elites in so-called free world nations for enhancing domestic security or enabling the swift repression of political opponents. It sometimes coincided with an influx of economic aid, as under the Marshall Plan and Alliance for Progress. In cases like Vietnam, the programs contributed to stark human rights abuses owing to political circumstances and prioritizing national security over civil liberties.
The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, captured global attention and achieved the initial victory in what would soon become known as the space race. This impressive technological feat and its broader implications for Soviet missile capability rattled the confidence of the American public and challenged the credibility of U.S. leadership abroad. With the U.S.S.R.’s launch of Sputnik, and then later the first human spaceflight in 1961, U.S. policymakers feared that the public and political leaders around the world would view communism as a viable and even more dynamic alternative to capitalism, tilting the global balance of power away from the United States and towards the Soviet Union.
Reactions to Sputnik confirmed what members of the U.S. National Security Council had predicted: the image of scientific and technological superiority had very real, far-reaching geopolitical consequences. By signaling Soviet technological and military prowess, Sputnik solidified the link between space exploration and national prestige, setting a course for nationally funded space exploration for years to come. For over a decade, both the Soviet Union and the United States funneled significant financial and personnel resources into achieving impressive firsts in space, as part of a larger effort to win alliances in the Cold War contest for global influence.
From a U.S. vantage point, the space race culminated in the first Moon landing in July 1969. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed Project Apollo, a lunar exploration program, as a tactic for restoring U.S. prestige in the wake of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. To achieve Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade, the United States mobilized a workforce in the hundreds of thousands. Project Apollo became the most expensive government funded civilian engineering program in U.S. history, at one point stretching to more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The United States’ substantial investment in winning the space race reveals the significant status of soft power in American foreign policy strategy during the Cold War.
Michael E. Donoghue
The United States’ construction and operation of the Panama Canal began as an idea and developed into a reality after prolonged diplomatic machinations to acquire the rights to build the waterway. Once the canal was excavated, a century-long struggle ensued to hold it in the face of Panamanian nationalism. Washington used considerable negotiation and finally gunboat diplomacy to achieve its acquisition of the Canal. The construction of the channel proved a titanic effort with large regional, global, and cultural ramifications. The importance of the Canal as a geostrategic and economic asset was magnified during the two world wars. But rising Panamanian frustration over the U.S. creation of a state-within-a-state via the Canal Zone, one with a discriminatory racial structure, fomented a local movement to wrest control of the Canal from the Americans. The explosion of the 1964 anti-American uprising drove this process forward toward the 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties that established a blueprint for eventual U.S. retreat and transfer of the channel to Panama at the century’s end. But before that historic handover, the Noriega crisis and the 1989 U.S. invasion nearly upended the projected transition of U.S. retreat from the management and control of the Canal.
Early historians emphasized high politics, economics, and military considerations in the U.S. acquisition of the Canal. They concentrated on high-status actors, economic indices, and major political contingencies in establishing the U.S. colonial order on the isthmus. Panamanian scholars brought a legalistic and nationalist critique, stressing that Washington did not create Panama and that local voices in the historical debate have largely been ignored in the grand narrative of the Canal as a great act of progressive civilization. More recent U.S. scholarship has focused on American imperialism in Panama, on the role of race, culture, labor, and gender as major factors that shaped the U.S. presence, the structure of the Canal Zone, as well as Panamanian resistance to its occupation. The role of historical memory, of globalization, representation, and how the Canal fits into notions of U.S. empire have also figured more prominently in recent scholarly examination of this relationship. Contemporary research on the Panama Canal has been supported by numerous archives in the United States and Panama, as well as a variety of newspapers, magazines, novels, and films.
Economic nationalism tended to dominate U.S. foreign trade policy throughout the long 19th century, from the end of the American Revolution to the beginning of World War I, owing to a pervasive American sense of economic and geopolitical insecurity and American fear of hostile powers, especially the British but also the French and Spanish and even the Barbary States. Following the U.S. Civil War, leading U.S. protectionist politicians sought to curtail European trade policies and to create a U.S.-dominated customs union in the Western Hemisphere. American proponents of trade liberalization increasingly found themselves outnumbered in the halls of Congress, as the “American System” of economic nationalism grew in popularity alongside the perceived need for foreign markets. Protectionist advocates in the United States viewed the American System as a panacea that not only promised to provide the federal government with revenue but also to artificially insulate American infant industries from undue foreign-market competition through high protective tariffs and subsidies, and to retaliate against real and perceived threats to U.S. trade.
Throughout this period, the United States itself underwent a great struggle over foreign trade policy. By the late 19th century, the era’s boom-and-bust global economic system led to a growing perception that the United States needed more access to foreign markets as an outlet for the country’s surplus goods and capital. But whether the United States would obtain foreign market access through free trade or through protectionism led to a great debate over the proper course of U.S. foreign trade policy. By the time that the United States acquired a colonial empire from the Spanish in 1898, this same debate over U.S. foreign trade policy had effectively merged into debates over the course of U.S. imperial expansion. The country’s more expansionist-minded economic nationalists came out on top. The overwhelming 1896 victory of William McKinley—the Republican party’s “Napoleon of Protection”—marked the beginning of substantial expansion of U.S. foreign trade through a mixture of protectionism and imperialism in the years leading up to World War I.
Although the League of Nations was the first permanent organization established with the purpose of maintaining international peace, it built on the work of a series of 19th-century intergovernmental institutions. The destructiveness of World War I led American and British statesmen to champion a league as a means of maintaining postwar global order. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson followed his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, in advocating American membership of an international peace league, although Wilson’s vision for reforming global affairs was more radical. In Britain, public opinion had begun to coalesce in favor of a league from the outset of the war, though David Lloyd George and many of his Cabinet colleagues were initially skeptical of its benefits. However, Lloyd George was determined to establish an alliance with the United States and warmed to the league idea when Jan Christian Smuts presented a blueprint for an organization that served that end.
The creation of the League was a predominantly British and American affair. Yet Wilson was unable to convince Americans to commit themselves to membership in the new organization. The Franco-British-dominated League enjoyed some early successes. Its high point was reached when Europe was infused with the “Spirit of Locarno” in the mid-1920s and the United States played an economically crucial, if politically constrained, role in advancing Continental peace. This tenuous basis for international order collapsed as a result of the economic chaos of the early 1930s, as the League proved incapable of containing the ambitions of revisionist powers in Europe and Asia. Despite its ultimate limitations as a peacekeeping body, recent scholarship has emphasized the League’s relative successes in stabilizing new states, safeguarding minorities, managing the evolution of colonies into notionally sovereign states, and policing transnational trafficking; in doing so, it paved the way for the creation of the United Nations.
Kathryn C. Statler
U.S.-French relations are long-standing, complex, and primarily cooperative in nature. Various crises have punctuated long periods of stability in the alliance, but after each conflict the Franco-American friendship emerged stronger than ever. Official U.S.-French relations began during the early stages of the American Revolution, when Louis XVI’s regime came to America’s aid by providing money, arms, and military advisers. French assistance, best symbolized by the Marquis de Lafayette, was essential in the revolution’s success. The subsequent French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power also benefitted the United States when Napoleon’s woes in Europe and the Caribbean forced him to sell the entire Louisiana territory to the United States, in 1803. Franco-American economic and cultural contacts increased throughout the 19th century, as trade between the two countries prospered and as Americans flocked to France to study art, architecture, music, and medicine. The French gift of the Statue of Liberty in the late 19th century solidified Franco-American bonds, which became even more secure during World War I. Indeed, during the war, the United States provided France with trade, loans, military assistance, and millions of soldiers, viewing such aid as repayment for French help during the American Revolution. World War II once again saw the United States fighting in France to liberate the country from Nazi control. The Cold War complicated the Franco-American relationship in new ways as American power waxed and French power waned. Washington and Paris clashed over military conflict in Vietnam, the Suez Crisis, and European security (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, in particular) during the 1950s and 1960s. Ultimately, after French President Charles de Gaulle’s retirement, the Franco-American alliance stabilized by the mid-1970s and has flourished ever since, despite brief moments of crisis, such as the 2003 Second Gulf War in Iraq.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that there were “two great nations in the world.” They had started from different historical points but seemed to be heading in the same direction. As expanding empires, they faced the challenges of defeating nature and constructing a civilization for the modern era. Although they adhered to different governmental systems, “each of them,” de Tocqueville declared, “seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
De Tocqueville’s words were prophetic. In the 19th century, Russian and American intellectuals and diplomats struggled to understand the roles that their countries should play in the new era of globalization and industrialization. Despite their differing understandings of how development should happen, both sides believed in their nation’s vital role in guiding the rest of the world. American adherents of liberal developmentalism often argued that a free flow of enterprise, trade, investment, information, and culture was the key to future growth. They held that the primary obligation of American foreign policy was to defend that freedom by pursuing an “open door” policy and free access to markets. They believed that the American model would work for everyone and that the United States had an obligation to share its system with the old and underdeveloped nations around it.
A similar sense of mission developed in Russia. Russian diplomats had for centuries struggled to establish defensive buffers around the periphery of their empire. They had linked economic development to national security, and they had argued that their geographic expansion represented a “unification” of peoples as opposed to a conquering of them. In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the failed Decembrist Revolution, tsarist policymakers fought to defend autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism from domestic and international critics. As in the United States, Imperial and later Soviet leaders envisioned themselves as the emissaries of the Enlightenment to the backward East and as protectors of tradition and order for the chaotic and revolutionary West.
These visions of order clashed in the 20th century as the Soviet Union and the United States became superpowers. Conflicts began early, with the American intervention in the 1918–1921 Russian civil war. Tensions that had previously been based on differing geographic and strategic interests then assumed an ideological valence, as the fight between East and West became a struggle between the political economies of communism and capitalism. Foreign relations between the two countries experienced boom and bust cycles that took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust and yet maintained a strategic balance that precluded the outbreak of global war for fifty years. This article will examine how that relationship evolved and how it shaped the modern world.
The impact of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) issues on U.S. foreign relations is an understudied area, and only a handful of historians have addressed these issues in articles and books. Encounters with unexpected and condemnable (to European eyes) sexual behaviors and gender comportment arose from the first European forays into North America. As such, subduing heterodox sexual and gender expression has always been part of the colonizing endeavor in the so-called New World, tied in with the mission of civilizing and Christianizing the indigenous peoples that was so central to the forging of the United States and pressing its territorial expansion across the continent. These same impulses accompanied the further U.S. accumulation of territory across the Pacific and the Caribbean in the late 19th century, and they persisted even longer and further afield in its citizens’ missionary endeavors across the globe. During the 20th century, as the state’s foreign policy apparatus grew in size and scope, so too did the notions of homosexuality and transgender identity solidify as widely recognizable identity categories in the United States. Thus, it is during the 20th and 21st centuries, with ever greater intensity as the decades progressed, that one finds important influences of homosexuality and gender diversity on U.S. foreign policy: in immigration policies dating back to the late 19th century, in the Lavender Scare that plagued the State Department during the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, in more contemporary battles between religious conservatives and queer rights activists that have at times been exported to other countries, and in the increasing intersections of LGBTQ rights issues and the War on Terror that has been waged primarily in the Middle East since September 11, 2001.
James F. Siekmeier
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. officials often viewed Bolivia as both a potential “test case” for U.S. economic foreign policy and a place where Washington’s broad visions for Latin America might be implemented relatively easily. After World War II, Washington leaders sought to show both Latin America and the nonindustrialized world that a relatively open economy could produce significant economic wealth for Bolivia’s working and middle classes, thus giving the United States a significant victory in the Cold War. Washington sought a Bolivia widely open to U.S. influence, and Bolivia often seemed an especially pliable country. In order to achieve their goals in Bolivia, U.S. leaders dispensed a large amount of economic assistance to Bolivia in the 1950s—a remarkable development in two senses. First, the U.S. government, generally loath to aid Third World nations, gave this assistance to a revolutionary regime. Second, the U.S. aid program for Bolivia proved to be a precursor to the Alliance for Progress, the massive aid program for Latin America in the 1960s that comprised the largest U.S. economic aid program in the Third World. Although U.S. leaders achieved their goal of a relatively stable, noncommunist Bolivia, the decision in the late 1950s to significantly increase U.S. military assistance to Bolivia’s relatively small military emboldened that military, which staged a coup in 1964, snuffing out democracy for nearly two decades. The country’s long history of dependency in both export markets and public- and private-sector capital investment led Washington leaders to think that dependency would translate into leverage over Bolivian policy. However, the historical record is mixed in this regard. Some Bolivian governments have accommodated U.S. demands; others have successfully resisted them.