• In what ways did the Progressive presidents promote the expansion of American power overseas?

• How did the United States get involved in World War I?

• How did the United States mobilize resources and public opinion lor the war effort?

• How did the war affect race relations in the United States?

• Why was 1919 such a watershed year for the United States and the world?

In 1902, W. T. Stead published a short volume with the arresting title The Americanization of the World; or, the Trend of the Twentieth Century. Stead was an English editor whose sensational writings included an expose of London prostitution, Maiden Tribute of Modem Babylon.

He would meet his death in 1912 as a passenger on the Titanic, the ocean liner that foundered after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Impressed by Americans’ “exuberant energies,” Stead predicted that the United States would soon emerge as “the greatest of world-powers.” But what was most striking about his work was that Stead located the source of American power less in the realm of military might or territorial acquisition than in the country’s single-minded commitment to the “pursuit of wealth” and the relentless international spread of American culture—art, music, journalism, even ideas about religion and gender relations. He foresaw a future in which the United States promoted its interests and values through an unending involvement in the affairs of other nations. Stead proved to be an accurate prophet.

The Spanish-American War had established the United States as an international empire. Despite the conquest of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, however, the country’s overseas holdings remained tiny compared to those of Britain, France, and Germany. And no more were added, except for a strip of land surrounding the Panama Canal, acquired in 1903, and the Virgin Islands, purchased from Denmark in 1917. In 1900, Great Britain ruled over more than 300 million people in possessions scattered across the globe, and France had nearly 50 million subjects in Asia and Africa. Compared with these, the American presence in the world seemed very small. As Stead suggested, America’s empire differed significantly from those of European countries—it was economic, cultural, and intellectual, rather than territorial.

The world economy at the dawn of the twentieth century was already highly globalized. An ever-increasing stream of goods, investments, and people flowed from country to country. Although Britain still dominated world banking and the British pound remained the major currency of international trade, the United States had become the leading industrial power. By 1914, it produced more than one-third of the world’s manufactured goods. Already, Europeans complained of an “American invasion” of steel, oil, agricultural equipment, and consumer goods. Spearheads of American culture like movies and popular music were not far behind.

Europeans were fascinated by American ingenuity and mass production techniques. Many feared American products and culture would overwhelm their own. “What are the chief new features of London life?” one British writer asked in 1901. “They are the telephone, the portable camera, the phonograph, the electric street car, the automobile,

A Russian advertisement for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, one of the many American companies that marketed their goods worldwide in the early twentieth century. Singer established factories in Russia and also imported machines from the United States. The figure that appears to be the number “3” is actually the letter “Z” in the Cyrillic alphabet, representing the company’s name in Russian, Zinger. European and American ads for sewing machines depicted women in modem dress; here, however, the operator wears the traditional attire of a peasant, part of the company’s strategy of trying to sell sewing machines to Russia’s vast rural population.

the typewriter.... In every one of these the American maker is supreme.” Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Americans traveled abroad each year in the early twentieth century. And American racial and ethnic groups became heavily engaged in overseas politics. Through fraternal, religious, and political organizations based in their ethnic and racial communities, Irish-Americans supported Irish independence, American Jews protested the treatment of their co-religionists in Russia, and black Americans hoped to uplift Africa. American influence was growing throughout the world.

America’s growing connections with the outside world led to increasing military and political involvement. In the two decades after 1900, many of the basic principles that would guide American foreign policy for the rest of the century were formulated. The “open door”—the free flow of trade, investment, information, and culture—emerged as a key principle of American foreign relations. “Since the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market,” wrote Woodrow Wilson, “the flag of his nation must follow him and the doors of nations which are closed against him must be battered down.”

Americans in the twentieth century often discussed foreign policy in the language of freedom. At least in rhetoric, the United States ventured abroad—including intervening militarily in the affairs of other nations— not to pursue strategic goals or to make the world safe for American economic interests, but to promote liberty and democracy. A supreme faith in America’s historic destiny and in the righteousness of its ideals enabled the country’s leaders to think of the United States simultaneously as an emerging great power and as the worldwide embodiment of freedom.

More than any other individual, Woodrow Wilson articulated this vision of America’s relationship to the rest of the world. His foreign policy, called by historians “liberal internationalism,” rested on the conviction that economic and political progress went hand in hand. Thus, greater worldwide freedom would follow inevitably from increased American investment and trade abroad. Frequently during the twentieth century, this conviction would serve as a mask for American power and self-interest. It would also inspire sincere efforts to bring freedom to other peoples. In either case, liberal internationalism represented a shift from the nineteenth-century tradition of promoting freedom primarily by example, to active intervention to remake the world in the American image.

The Greatest Department Store on Earth, a cartoon from Puck, November 29,1899, depicts Uncle Sam selling goods, mostly manufactured products, to the nations of the world. The search for markets overseas would be a recurring theme of twentieth-century American foreign policy.

American involvement in World War I provided the first great test of Wilson’s belief that American power could “make the world safe for democracy.” Most Progressives embraced the country’s participation in the war, believing that the United States could help to spread Progressive values throughout the world. But rather than bringing Progressivism to other peoples, the war destroyed it at home. The government quickly came to view critics of American involvement not simply as citizens with a different set of opinions, but as enemies of the very ideas of democracy and freedom. As a result, the war produced one of the most sweeping repressions of the right to dissent in all of American history.


Just as they expanded the powers of the federal government in domestic affairs, the Progressive presidents were not reluctant to project American power outside the country’s borders. At first, their interventions were confined to the Western Hemisphere, whose affairs the United States had claimed a special right to oversee ever since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Between 1901 and 1920, U.S. marines landed in Caribbean countries more than twenty times. Usually, they were dispatched to create a welcoming economic environment for American companies that wanted stable access to raw materials like bananas and sugar, and for bankers nervous that their loans to local governments might not be repaid.


Like his distinction between good and bad trusts, Theodore Roosevelt divided the world into “civilized” and “uncivilized” nations. The former, he believed, had an obligation to establish order in an unruly world. Roosevelt became far more active in international diplomacy than most of his predecessors, helping, for example, to negotiate a settlement of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, a feat for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Closer to home, his policies were more aggressive. “I have always been fond of the West African proverb,” he wrote, ‘“Speak softly and carry a big stick.’” And although he declared that the United States “has not the slightest desire for territorial aggrandizement at the expense of its southern neighbors,” Roosevelt pursued a policy of intervention in Central America.

Between 1898 and 1934, the United States intervened militarily numerous times in Caribbean countries, generally to protect the economic interests of American banks and investors.

Constructed in the first years of the twentieth century, after Theodore Roosevelt helped engineer Panama’s independence from Colombia, the Panama Canal drastically reduced the time it took for commercial and naval vessels to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.

In his first major action in the region, Roosevelt engineered the separation of Panama from Colombia in order to facilitate the construction of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The idea of a canal across the fifty-one-mile-wide Isthmus of Panama had a long history. In 1879-1881, the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted to construct such a waterway but failed because of inadequate funding and the toll exacted on his workers by yellow fever and malaria. Roosevelt had long been a proponent of American naval development. He was convinced that a canal would facilitate the movement of naval and commercial vessels between the two oceans. In 1903, when Colombia, of which Panama was a part, refused to cede land for the project, Roosevelt helped to set in motion an uprising by conspirators led by Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a representative of the Panama Canal Company. An American gunboat prevented the Colombian army from suppressing the rebellion.

Upon establishing Panama’s independence, Bunau-Varilla signed a treaty giving the United States both the right to construct and operate a canal and sovereignty over the Canal Zone, a ten-milewide strip of land through which the route would run. A remarkable feat of engineering, the canal was the largest construction project in history to that date. Like the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860 and much construction work today, it involved the widespread use of immigrant labor. Most of the 60,000 workers came from the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Jamaica, but others hailed from Europe, Asia, and the United States. In keeping with American segregation policies, the best jobs were reserved for white Americans, who lived in their own communities complete with schools, churches, and libraries. It also required a massive effort to eradicate the mosquitoes that carried the tropical diseases responsible, in part, for the failure of earlier French efforts. When completed in 1914, the canal reduced the sea voyage between the East and West Coasts of the United States by 8,000 miles. “I took the Canal Zone,” Roosevelt exulted. But the manner in which the canal had been initiated, and the continued American rule over the Canal Zone, would long remain a source of tension. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter negotiated treaties that led to turning over the canal’s operation and control of the Canal Zone to Panama in the year 2000 (see Chapter 26).

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