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American Imperialism: 1898–1913

U.S. Foreign Policy during the Age of Imperialism

Open Door Policy

The United States advanced an open-door policy to promote free and open trade in China.

The Open Door policy was an international trade agreement between the United States and several foreign nations over trade with China. With the annexation of the Philippines in 1898, the United States now had access to a lucrative market in China to sell American-made cotton goods. In the hope of promoting American trade in China, Secretary of State John Hay sent several policy notes to Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan in 1899 and 1900. The purpose of the notes was to outline a new international trade agreement that would promote free and open trade between those nations and China while preventing international disputes and keeping China intact.

At the end of the 19th century, China was in danger of being carved up into spheres of influence, or areas of political control by a foreign power. This was especially true after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, when a group of Chinese nationalists, led by members of a secret society called Boxers, killed hundreds of Westerners. The antiforeign uprising sparked fear that foreign powers would retaliate by seizing their particular spheres of influence. In an attempt to ease tensions, the Open Door policy asked that the European nations refrain in order to "preserve Chinese territorial and administrative integrity." In addition, the policy established equal privileges for trade with these three points:

  • All of the nations would have equal access to China's treaty ports.
  • Only China would have the power to collect taxes on trading nations.
  • None of the nations would be exempted from paying harbor dues or railroad charges.

While the policy was nonbinding, five of the six nations tacitly agreed to it, and it became official U.S. policy for the next 40 years. Only Japan, a country with a long-standing and often hostile relationship toward China, objected. Japan's periodic conflicts with China strengthened the other nations' commitment to the Open Door policy.

Roosevelt Corollary

Under President Roosevelt, the United States became a self-appointed "international police force."

The Roosevelt Corollary is the foreign policy issued by President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–09) in 1904. It is known as the "big stick policy" because it took a tough approach to international relations. He summed up his policy in the phrase "Speak softly and carry a big stick." The notion here was to deal with other nations "softly," in the spirit of nonaggression, while holding in reserve the "big stick" ability to apply force as an incentive for cooperation. The policy stated that the United States reserved the right to intervene in the conflicts between Caribbean or Latin American countries and Europe. Roosevelt thought the policy was necessary because the economic instability of some countries in the region tempted European nations to reassert their power over their former colonies.

The Roosevelt Corollary was a logical extension of the Monroe Doctrine, the cornerstone of American foreign policy for nearly a century. Created in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine prohibited European powers from interfering with their former colonies in the Western Hemisphere or establishing new ones. Any interference would be treated as an act of war against the United States. The purpose of the doctrine was to protect the newly independent United States and its neighboring countries from further colonization by European powers. In amending the Monroe Doctrine, however, the Roosevelt Corollary made clear that the United States was now in charge. As the most powerful nation in the Western Hemisphere, it would be the one to intervene in the affairs of other countries. It would serve as "an international police power."

While the policy projected an image of U.S. military power, it could also be applied "softly." In 1905 the Dominican Republic was unable to repay its debts to European nations. The United States used the Roosevelt Corollary to justify stepping in. Rather than taking military action, the United States made loans to the Dominican Republic. In return, the United States claimed the right to appoint a new leader in charge of customs, the country's main source of revenue. This move allowed the Dominican Republic to address its debts and warded off the threat of military intervention from Europe. This application of the "big stick" policy in the Dominican Republic reflects many instances of U.S interference over the next several decades in the affairs of Latin America.

Great White Fleet

President Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Navy to sail around the globe in an exercise designed to project American military power abroad.

The Great White Fleet was a fleet of battleships that circumnavigated the globe in a show of U.S. military might. President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the fleet, which got its name from the white paint on the warships, on a 14-month tour in 1907. An example of "big stick diplomacy," its purpose was to show the world that the United States had achieved global might.

As the former secretary of the navy, President Roosevelt was a great believer in a strong military. The U.S. Navy had been critical to the Americans' victory in the Spanish-American War. Yet while the Great White Fleet was not entirely a bluff—among the 16 ships were 11 brand-new steel warships—the American navy was at a disadvantage on international waters. Though strong, the American fleet was comparatively small. Across the Atlantic, European nations had been fortifying their navies for years. In the Pacific, Japan's navy posed a serious threat to American interests in China and the Philippines. In addition, Japan was dissatisfied with a treaty Roosevelt had brokered between Japan and Russia in 1905 to end the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt had reason to believe that Japan would seize the Philippines in an effort to save face.

The deployment of the Great White Fleet was an unprecedented gesture and a gamble. No other nation had ever sent its entire navy on a world tour. Critics at home argued that the cruise was a waste of money and could be a source of embarrassment if the ships broke down. Others worried that the fleet would be perceived as an aggressor and invite attack from Japan. In the end, the Great White Fleet was a diplomatic success. World leaders were impressed, including those in Japan.
The Great White Fleet, composed of 16 steam-powered, steel-reinforced battleships and dozens of smaller support ships, set sail in December 1907 and visited 20 ports on its 43,000-mile world tour.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-det-4a15932

Dollar Diplomacy

President Taft's foreign policy exported American business, but this well-intended "dollar diplomacy" became a tool for interfering in the affairs of other nations.

The foreign policy of President William Taft (1909–13) took a less militaristic tack than that of Roosevelt, his predecessor in the White House. A former businessman, Taft hoped to influence other nations and avoid international conflict through economic investment rather than global policing. His policy was inspired by Roosevelt's peaceful intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1905, when Roosevelt sent loans instead of gunships to help a country struggling to repay its debts. In a speech to Congress in 1912, Taft described the new policy as "substituting dollars for bullets." In practice, Taft encouraged U.S. businesses to invest in Caribbean countries and elsewhere in order to provide economic stability. The idea was to export American capital and ideals at the same time.

The flaws in the policy soon became apparent. In order to protect its investments, the United States involved itself in foreign politics. In Nicaragua, the Taft administration supported the overthrow of one political leader and the installation of a new collector of customs. American interference in Nicaragua's politics ultimately led to civil unrest that later required U.S. military intervention. As a result, Taft's policy earned the derisive label dollar diplomacy. On its face, dollar diplomacy involved providing economic aid to areas around the world to encourage economic stability and safeguard American business interests. The policy, however, failed to export American values and instead became a tool for interfering in the governance of other nations.