The Beginning of the American Empire

Americans are resistant to the very idea of an “American empire.” It’s understandable. Our nation’s birth came through revolution against the British Crown and, by extension, the British empire. World War II and our battles against Nazi Germany’s Third Reich (or empire) and Imperial Japan remain in living memory. We still think of ourselves as the New World, and we associate words like monarch and holy war and empire with the Old World. Despite all of our problems, we still see the United States as the “city on a hill,” the shining example of liberty, virtue, and prosperity for the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, our self-perception rarely matches reality. For more than a century, the United States has followed an imperialist foreign policy. Like all empires, we have overreached, and we now teeter on the brink of national bankruptcy due in part to the significant costs of war. A recent study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies estimated that the costs of war and nation-building in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan would fall between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion. Assuming that it ends up being around $4 trillion, that’s a full quarter of our enormous, backbreaking national debt.

I don’t mean to insinuate that these wars are the sole cause or main driver of our gigantic debt. The exploding cost growth of our massive domestic entitlement programs, particularly Medicare and Medicaid, will soon consume the entire federal budget if not reformed. However, it would be foolish to argue that our spending on war and nation-building hasn’t played a serious role in creating the debt crisis facing us today.

How did we get here? How did a group of 13 former colonies become the world’s sole superpower, with nation-building efforts across the globe and colonies close to home? For answers, we ought to examine the year 1898, and the Spanish-American War.

The Spanish-American War doesn’t get much attention these days in American high schools. Usually, teachers introduce the entertaining character of future President Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the Battle of the San Juan Hill. Teachers with a little more time will discuss the sinking of the USS Maine and the influence of “yellow journalism” in fanning the spark from that mysterious incident into the flames of war. Occasionally, they’ll refer to the war as the “end of the Spanish empire,” and that’s about it.

Considering the war only lasted about four months, it’s hard to blame teachers for devoting so little time to it. However, the reasoning behind the war and its outcome made the conflict a critical turning point in American history.


Let’s look at the reasoning first. Historically, wars were fought for three reasons: fear, honor, and interests. President William McKinley cited all three in his April 11th, 1898 speech to Congress urging a declaration of war against Spain. However, he also added a new, fourth justification for war: benevolence.

…The forcible intervention of the United States as a neutral to stop the war . . . is justifiable on rational grounds . . . [which] may be briefly summarized as follows:

First. In the cause of humanity and to put an end to the barbarities, bloodshed, starvation, and horrible miseries now existing there, and which the parties to the conflict are either unable or unwilling to stop or mitigate. It is no answer to say this is all in another country, belonging to another nation, and is therefore none of our business. It is specially our duty, for it is right at our door.

On primarily these grounds, President McKinley entered the United States into its first benevolent, or “humanitarian war.” Although it was only one of several of McKinley’s justifications for war, President Woodrow Wilson would rely on benevolence alone to justify America’s entry into World War I less than twenty years later in his April 2nd, 1917 speech to Congress requesting a declaration of war against Germany.

…The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperateness of judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.

…Our object now, as then, is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up among the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles.

…We are glad, now that we see the facts with no veil of false pretense about them, to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience.

The world must be made safe for democracy…

In these excerpts from President Wilson’s address, we can see the growth of the seeds sewn by President McKinley. President Wilson argued, truthfully or not, that America would wage war on Germany for “the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples.” In other words, to borrow a phrase from President McKinley, for “the cause of humanity.”

Today, the idea of “humanitarian war,” which was originally associated with progressivism, is embraced by both political parties, but most especially by neoconservatives.


After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the United States “bought” ownership of several former Spanish colonies (Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands) in the Treaty of Paris. Here’s where America’s direction as a nation changed course: We took on colonies with absolutely no intention of letting them become states. We called them territories, and today there is some pro-“statehood” sentiment in Puerto Rico, but at the time, we unapologetically entered the business of imperialism.

Many contemporary Americans applauded our foray into empire, considering it the continuation of our “manifest destiny.” Some believed that our victory over an empire of the Old World marked the beginning of true American “greatness,” or exceptionalism. A few asked if triumph over a dying empire such as Spain was truly a sign of “greatness,” and if we were losing what actually made us exceptional by choosing the path of Europe: imperialism and war.

Every nation believes that it has a certain destiny. When nations turn to empire, they speak of their “civilizing mission” and translate their particular destiny into a global cause. Earlier in our history, as we relentlessly expanded Westward, Americans spoke of “manifest destiny.”

Our powerful expansionist impulse bloomed with the Spanish-American War and our taking of colonies. We did so in service of the “cause of humanity,” and soon we were fighting wars in order to make the world “safe for democracy” like ours. We abandoned the traditional justifications for war in favor of an idea of “benevolent” warfare.

Today, Puerto Rico and Guam remain American territories, as they have been for more than a century, and we have added several more small colonies since then. Our military has bases all over the world. We continue to wage war and build nations in service of our “civilizing mission.”

Personally, I’m conflicted on this. I reject the idea of holding colonies/territories without granting them statehood. I’m also tempted to condemn the concept of “benevolent warfare.” At the same time, I acknowledge the possibility of future atrocities matching or exceeding those of the Nazi Holocaust, and I feel that there may be a moral obligation to intercede in such cases. I don’t have a solution for this problem at the moment, so I won’t presume to suggest one.

I will say this, however: There is an American empire, and we must be honest with ourselves as a people about it. Our empire is groaning under the weight of its debts and commitments, and in order to survive, we ought to consider a return to the Founders’ conception of America’s role in the world.

Note: The lectures of Dr. Richard Gamble of Hillsdale College provided much of the concepts and inspiration for this post.

About Daniel Anderson

I am a 21 year old Michigan native completing the final year of my undergraduate education at Hillsdale College. I tend to categorize my political philosophy as "constitutional conservatism." I also advocate free-market economics.
This entry was posted in Foreign Policy, History, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Beginning of the American Empire

  1. In Niall Ferguson’s “Empire” he talks about how the USA has relcuctantly taken on many of the global roles of the British Empire, and draws parrallels between the B ritish “Gunboat diplomacy” and modern humaintarian interventions, for instance. I know a lot of people don’t like him but I think he’s right on the money in this case. America doesn’t have an empire in a traditional sense but it does operate as such a lot of the time.

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