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U.S. Foreign Policy 1865-1897

Isolationist or Imperialist: Myth vs Fact


A.  Myth of American Isolationism

1.    Washington’s Farewell Address (1797)- No entangling alliances with European nations.


2. Monroe Doctrine- No American intervention in European affairs.


3. Domestic priorities of economic development and westward  

    expansion following the Civil War.  


B.  Fact of American expansion before the Civil War

1.    Louisiana Purchase (1803)


2. Mexican- American War (1845-1848)


3. 54 40’ or Flight and the Oregon Question (1845)


C.  Sectionalism of the 1850’s and the Civil War

1.    France moved into Mexico with little U.S. response.


2.   Britain aided the Confederacy- trade and ships


D.  Development of an assertive U.S. Foreign Policy 1865-1898

1.    Acquisition of Midway Islands- 1867 (1,000 miles west of Hawaii)


2.    Seward’s Purchase of Alaska from Russia- 1867 ($7.2 million)


3.    Grant’s attempt to annex the Dominican Republic- 1868


4.    Alabama Claims- Britain agreed to pay U.S. $15.5 million (1872)


5.    Reprocity treaty with Hawaii (1875) and Naval Treaty (1887) bound Hawaii to the U.S. . President Cleveland blocked a treaty of annexation in 1893 after an American led revolt had “overthrown” Queen Liliuokalani.


6.    U.S. signed treaty with Samoa to build naval base on Pago Pago Island (1878). Samoa was made a tripartite protectorate of the U.S., Britain, and Germany (1889) and Pago Pago became an American colony in 1899.


E.  U.S. Goes Internationalist Economically and Diplomaically

1.    Expansion of American embassies and consulates


2. Expansion of foreign trade (1865 = $1.5 billion)

a.     Cotton- ½ cotton crop was exported (1873- 1882)

b.     Wheat- 1/3 gross sales from exports (1873- 1882)

c.     Oil- by 1890’s ½ of all U.S. petroleum was exported

d.     Insurance- by mid 1880’s, 1/3 of sales were abroad

e.     Agricultural Machinery- 20% of International Harvesters sales were overseas.

f.      Steel – 15% sold abroad by 1900

g.     Copper- 50% sold abroad by 1900

h.     Sewing machines- 50% of Singer sewing machines were sold abroad in 1897

i.       U.S. businessmen had invested over$700 million in foreign countries by 1897


(Although by the 1880’s exports represented a very small percentage of the gross national product (6-7%), there was an increasing reliance on foreign trade to maintain American economic prosperity.)


F. U.S. Naval Expansion

1.    1883- Congress authorized three steel- hulled, steam-powered cruisers

2.    1884- Naval War College founded


3.    1884- 1889- Thirty more modern naval vessels built including the battleship U.S.S. Maine


4.    1889-1893 – Four more modern battleships were added to the Navy (U.S.S. Oregon, U.S.S. Indiana, U.S.S. Massachusetts, U.S.S. Iowa)


5.    1890- Admiral Alfred Mahan wrote his influential book The Influence of Sea Power upon History. He called for naval bases and fueling stations for an expanded navy.


G.  U.S. Asserts its Power- The “Colossus of the North”

1. The Chilean Incident- 1891. U.S. forced Chile to pay $75,000

              indemnity and to apologize for the death of two American sailors in 

            Chilean port of Valparaiso. “U.S. used a steam hammer to crack a



2.    The Venezuelan Crisis- 1895

a.     Boundary dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela- exacerbated by discovery of gold in 1880’s.

b.   July, 1895- Cleveland’s Secretary of State Richard Olney issued his “twenty-inch gun” message threatening U.S. intervention in the dispute. Stating that the welfare of the U.S. was at stake and that the principles of the Monroe Doctrine were threatened by British expansion, Olney demanded arbitration. He claimed “Today the United States is practically sovereign on the continent, and its interposition.”

c.    Reasons for U.S. involvement in the Venezuelan boundary dispute:

1. Domestic politics and 1896 election

              2. European imperialism in Asia, Middle East and Africa-

                 conquest for empire

            3. American depression of 1893-1897

             4. Cleveland’s character – support for “underdog”

                    5. Enforcement of Monroe Doctrine- reassert Latin America as

                       “American sphere of influence”

d.     Resolution of the Venezuelan boundary dispute:

1. Cleveland sent a special message to Congress demanding 

    Britain submit dispute to arbitration. (Seen by many as an  

    ultimatum with a possibility of war.)

2. Britain agreed to set up a five-person arbitral board to define


              3. October, 1899, compromise solution settled dispute, largely

                in favor of Venezuela.

e.     Significance of Venezuelan Crisis

1. Moved U.S. toward world power status

              2. Stimulated American nationalism and pride (“jingoism”)

     3.Established U.S. supremacy in Western Hemisphere

              4.Stimulated additional naval expansion

                    (Navy act of 1896 authorized three new battleships and ten

                          torpedo boats)

                       5. Fostered Anglo- American cooperation as Britain sought 

               allies to counter growing German power.

              6. Advanced the U.S. farther along the path of expansion and

                imperialism exemplified by the Spanish- American War.