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American Imperialism: 1898–1913

Business of Expansionism

Annexation of Hawaii

Business, military, and political interests led the United States to forcibly annex the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, despite objections from native Hawaiians and anti-imperialists.

The Hawaiian Islands became a target of American expansionism late in the 19th century. White American sugar planters had been on the islands since the mid-18th century. Because the islands were so remote, they had little other value for Americans—until the close of the western frontier. After California and the other territories became states, the United States now had a western border to protect. Having a naval outpost and fueling station in the Pacific Ocean became a priority, especially after the outbreak of the Spanish-American War of 1898. At that point, American political, business, and military interests all set their sights on annexing Hawaii as a U.S. territory.

In 1891 the Hawaiian monarch Queen Liliuokalani was prepared to put into place a new constitution that would eliminate the influence of white settlers in the government and restore the rights of native Hawaiians. In 1893 white sugar planters overthrew the queen in a bloodless coup, with political backing and marines from the United States. The newly formed provisional government of Hawaii was led by lawyer and political leader Sanford Dole, cousin to the founder of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company. Sanford Dole requested that the United States immediately annex, or officially incorporate, Hawaii as an American territory.

The call for annexation, or the formal incorporation of land or territory into another nation or state, failed. This move to expand American boundaries had not been planned or initiated by the American government. Native Hawaiians and many Americans, including President Cleveland, were upset by the ousting of the queen against the will of her people. Four years later, however, President McKinley felt more favorably toward the annexation of Hawaii. He said, "We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California." So despite the objections of native Hawaiians, a treaty was signed in 1897. Soon after the Spanish-American War in 1898 had commenced, Congress moved fast to formally declare Hawaii a territory of the United States. It would not become a state until 1959.
In the "marriage" of Hawaii to Uncle Sam performed by President McKinley reading from a book titled "Annexation Policy," neither party was a willing participant.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-28757

Panama Canal

Despite many obstacles, the United States persevered in building the Panama Canal to gain access to international waters.

After the Spanish-American War, the United States had territories and trading posts in the Caribbean and Pacific to defend. American warships and trading vessels faced an 8,000-mile journey around the South American continent in order to voyage from one ocean to the other. The solution was a canal that cut through the Isthmus of Panama, a slender strip of land in Central America that separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the 1880s the French had tried and failed to build a canal across the isthmus, which was then part of Colombia. President Theodore Roosevelt was determined to build a canal that would allow the United States access to international waters and international trade.

In 1902 the United States decided to pick up where the French had left off, but Colombia refused the terms of the offered treaty. President Roosevelt was furious. Then Philippe Bunau-Varilla, a French engineer who had worked on the failed canal, and William Nelson Cromwell, an American lawyer, convinced Roosevelt to support Panama's independence from Colombia. In response, Roosevelt sent warships to both sides of the isthmus. In truth, there was no independence movement. With the help of 500 Panamanians, Bunau-Varilla staged a revolution in November 1903. Colombian forces surrendered to the American warships, and the Republic of Panama was born. Shortly after, Bunau-Varilla went to Washington, DC, as the Panamanian ambassador. There, he signed a treaty that allowed the United States control over a 10-mile-wide strip of land for building the Panama Canal. For this, Panama was paid $10 million by the United States and guaranteed its independence. In return, Panama granted the United States "in perpetuity the use, occupation and control" of the Canal Zone.

The project, begun in 1904, was a massive undertaking. For 10 years, 44,000 men, including 8,000 Americans, constructed the Panama Canal, a 40-mile-long system of locks and dams that allowed ships to easily navigate between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They excavated tons of dirt by using dynamite and steam shovels. They poured tons of concrete to build a series of gated locks that would raise and lower ships as they traveled through the canal. Around 5,600 workers died of injury or illness. Many became sick from mosquito-borne diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria. When the Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914, it was a testament to American ingenuity and determination. Two weeks earlier, however, World War I had begun. On a global scale, this war would inhibit further expansion by imperialist powers, including the United States.
President Roosevelt, who considered himself the "father" of the Panama Canal, went to oversee parts of its construction in 1906. He is shown here (in a white suit) aboard a steam-powered shovel.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-36194