Prewar Years: United States of America

At the midpoint of the twentieth century, the United States would become unquestionably the most powerful state in the world. As of the beginning of the century, however, this was not the case. Nor was it likely to happen. The USA was still an isolationist country of fairly limited means, with not insignificant territorial disputes and a flagging economic situation. American industry, which had begun to grow in the aftermath of the US Civil War (1861-1865), was capable, but Washington’s policy of isolationism meant that US military modernisation stagnated. By the early 1900s, US servicemen were still armed with weapons that were surplus from the Civil War, for instance, and in any case neither the army nor the navy was particularly large. Furthermore, a renewal of tensions with Mexico over the status of Texas and California as American territories meant that the US Army was often required for extensive border patrols in the south. In 1910, an uprising in Mexico against the US-backed autocrat Porfirio Diaz led to the outbreak of the decade-long Mexican Revolution; American forces would be called upon on numerous occasions within the next ten years, in order to support Diaz, and the US thus became the target of many campaigns by the infamous Mexican rebel commander, Pancho Villa, who would often audaciously strike targets well inside US borders. The United States also suffered strained relations with Great Britain, with which it endured a love-hate relationship that occasionally threatened war. The US’ position viz. other European powers was just as ambiguous, though Washington was generally amenable to Berlin, given the large German migrant population living in the United States.

A page from the Chamber of Commerce's official...

The “Great White Fleet”, celebrated in this Chamber of Commerce pamphlet, was a crowning achievement of Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite these issues, the United States’ position in world affairs was bolstered by some important foreign policy successes. The Spanish-American War of 1898, for instance, had resulted in a decisive victory for the United States, and the acquisition of a number of small, formerly Spanish imperial holdings, such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in the latter years of the nineteenth century gave it access to untapped natural resources, and it also ceded a number of small islands, including the Hawaiian island chain in the Pacific. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the famed “Great White Fleet” – two squadrons of American battleships and battlecruisers, to circumnavigate the globe. Not only did the United States Navy benefit from these manoeuvres, by providing bluewater experience to its crews, the tour also “flew the flag” for the United States in many of the far-flung reaches of the world. The Americans arrived to rapturous welcomes in Sydney, Melbourne, and Yokohama, among others, and their visit to Italy coincided with the terrible Messina earthquake of 1908; the rescue efforts conducted by US seamen did much to improve the American image abroad. Moreover, the American dollar had begun its rise to prominence on foreign markets, become a strong, “safe haven” currency, rivaling the pound or the franc as a “universal” currency. This position of economic surety was bolstered by the lenient regulations governing the stock exchange on Wall Street; with many more amateur investors, Wall Street quickly surpassed London as the stocks and shares capital of the world.

Woodrow Wilson takes the oath of office for hi...

Woodrow Wilson is sworn in as president of the United States in 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many of these reforms came about under the early presidency of Harvard-educated New Jerseyite Woodrow Wilson, who, as an evangelical, saw the United States as having a solemn, heaven-sent duty to guide the world through darkness. Deeply anti-imperialist, Wilson reflected many of the sociopolitical leanings of Americans in general at the time. Nonetheless, Wilson also drew on the examples of his predecessors, who had largely kept America far removed from European affairs. By 1914, therefore, as Europe began its descent into war, no credible diplomat imagined that the United States would involve itself in any way in the crisis. This conception of American isolationism would hold true until 1917.


Further reading

  • Greenberg, Amy S. Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2005.

  • Renda, Mary A. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation & the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940. Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press. 2001.

  • Watt, Donald Cameron. Succeeding John Bull: America in Britain’s Place 1900-1975. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 2008.

  • Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins Press. 1935.

  • Wexler, Laura. Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism. Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press. 2000.

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