Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 9: Imperialism or, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps imperialism go down…”

Welcome back to Anti-Social Studies! Last episode we talked about the Gilded Age and it was dark. Like, Dickensian-level darkness: poverty, tiny child labor hands, fat corrupt politicians. But on the other hand, electricity! So it balances out, right?

Today we’re not moving forward in time, but staying in the very end of the Gilded Age: 1898. And we’re looking back at the last few decades of American history through the lens of imperialism. At what point does the U.S. “manifesting our destiny” become full-blown imperialism. Most textbooks say 1898 but I disagree. Ooh… look how edgy – a history teacher taking aim at state-approved textbooks.

Today’s episode is all about Imperialism or, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps imperialism go down…” We’ll look at the OG American Empire: the Great Plains, our attempts to open up Japan which are really going to backfire, especially for another addition we’ll talk about today: Hawaii, and finally the Spanish-American War. This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time…

Act 1: The First Age of American Imperialism (The Indian Wars)

So… the U.S. became an empire – officially – in 1898. We’ll get to that. But I always like to start by asking my students, “Weren’t we already an empire?” Or in my AP teacher voice: “To what extent was the era of U.S. imperialism beginning in 1898 a change from previous time periods.” Ugh, we’re the worst, aren’t we?

Because, like I’ve been mentioning in previous episodes, we’ve been expanding and gaining territory basically from the beginning. We started out as a part of the British Empire in North America. Then we kept pushing westward until we reached the Pacific Ocean. And Americans use euphemisms like “pushed westward,” or “settled the frontier.” But let’s be clear: we conquered the continent. Now, historians don’t technically call this imperialism because we incorporated that conquered land into our nation. So the territories became states and, in theory, people living in the territories became part of the United States. But that’s just semantics. 

“The Wild West”

So before we talk about the era of American Imperialism, we need to finish our conversation about westward expansion. I’ve brought it up a few times in previous episodes, but it’s an important point to make: What has been the role of the frontier in American history? Historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously described the frontier as a “safety valve” for the United States. Basically, as long as we had a frontier, there was somewhere that people could go if they were unsatisfied with their lot back home. Can’t find a job in the south? Head west. Not getting paid enough working in a factory? Head west. Being discriminated against? Head west.

Having “open land” where people could go helped relieve a lot of the pressure of our rapidly growing, changing, and industrializing country throughout the 19th century. From this point of view, we can see the Louisiana Purchase or the Mexican-American War as really politically savvy moves by leaders who wanted to make sure that the “common people” always had the hope that they could “make it,” and maybe they wouldn’t be quite so unhappy that they weren’t “making it” back home. I see what you did there, Polk…

And, this also means that the “West” was way more diverse than most John Wayne movies lead us to believe. In fact, the “cowboy” was really one of the first truly “melting pot” occupations in American history. Mexican vaqueros taught European immigrants, African Americans leaving the Jim Crow South, and other marginalized members of American society (let me put it this way: Brokeback Mountain hit the nail on the head, if you know what I’m saying…. Gay cowboys. There were definitely gay cowboys.) 

Because, for many people, the west was the land of freedom – away from the watchful eyes of law enforcement or from the rapidly changing life back east in the Gilded Age. Women often had more freedom and authority in the west, even if it was as the owner of a brothel. Male partnerships were commonplace enough that historical documents give us a name for them, “bachelor marriages.” Things were happening out west. 

But, of course, things had always been happening “out west” and this is the point. The American narrative of westward expansion is a positive one. We “settled the frontier,” “brought civilization,” and expanded America’s borders to the Pacific. But it would be just as accurate to discuss this development through the lens of imperialism. So that’s what we’re doing today… so throw away your old Oregon Trail floppy disk because it’s going to get dark.

We’ve already talked about how we got the land “out west.” Between buying the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon and then winning the “Mexican Cession” as a result of the Mexican-American War, our continental US came to be just about complete. There were a few other “deals” here and there with… Spain, I think? I don’t know. Honestly they traded around territory so much in the 19th century it was hard to keep track. 

Lewis and Clark

After gaining “legal authority” over the west, our trajectory followed that of European empires pretty closely. First, we surveyed the new land. Lewis and Clark were just our version of “Dr. Livingstone… I presume?” That 1804 expedition was surprisingly peaceful. Only two Native Americans were killed throughout the entire two year trip, and this was done begrudgingly after they had attempted to steal horses and supplies. The only other violent episode was when Meriweather Lewis went on a hunting trip and was accidentally shot in the butt, making him a hilarious 19th century mix of Dick Cheney and Forrest Gump.

Another purpose of this expedition was to establish contact with many new indigenous tribes. They brought goods to barter and presented each tribe’s leader with a Jefferson Indian Peace Medal, a coin engraved with Thomas Jefferson’s image on one side and an image of two hands clasped beneath a tomahawk and a peace pipe on the other, with the inscription “Peace and Friendship.” Hmm… talk about false advertising. But not really at that point. For the first half of the 19th century, our goal really was to just establish contact and survey the land – figure out what we had just bought or won in the war. Because the U.S. didn’t have the technology and military power to do more than establish relatively peaceful contact with western tribes. 

The Conquest of the West (“ConqWest?”)

But by the middle of the century our power was growing and so our approach to the western territories shifted. Whereas before we had dabbled in government expeditions, but mostly left it to independent settlers to ford those rivers and try not to die of dysentery, around 1850 was when we took a more “hands on” approach. In fact, after the Mexican-American War, in the 1850s, was when the US military began asserting its authority out west. We got a little distracted with the Civil War, but after that ended, by around 1870, our full attention could turn to establishing physical dominance over the western territories. In this way we’re still following the European model of imperialism. Establish contact, ports of trade, a few coastal settlements at first. Then, build up your industrial power and go in and fully conquer the place. And, of course, the problem with this is that there were already people living in those places. And they didn’t want to be conquered.

For one, a lot of this territory had – up until very recently – been Mexico. So there were Mexicans living there. Now, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War had guaranteed that Mexicans living in the territory that was being transferred to the US would be guaranteed citizenship and property rights. But… you know. We didn’t fully deliver on that promise.

Like I mentioned before, the West was relatively lawless. So if Mexican-Americans felt like their rights were being violated, they took it to local law enforcement… which was dominated by white Americans. In this way, they were the equivalent of colonial subjects. So even though technically they weren’t part of an American empire, because the land had been annexed and was fully part of the U.S., the experience of people of color in these annexed territories was analogous to that of colonial subjects in Africa, India, or Southeast Asia. Governed and subjugated by a white American government that didn’t recognize them as equal participants in the country.

And, just like we see in those other parts of the world, people resisted conquest. In New Mexico, a secret association of men on horseback, wearing white hoods, rode through the territory wreaking havoc. No, it’s not the KKK. Come on, get your minds out of the gutter. I’m talking about Las Gorras Blancas, the “White Caps.” And, sure, their tactics were inspired by the KKK, but their goal was different. You see, many of the Mexican settlements out west used their land as community land. So it wasn’t owned by anyone in particular, but it was used for grazing and other purposes by everyone. But the uber-capitalistic US Americans didn’t really see it that way. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo had guaranteed individual property rights, but this land – in their mind – was unowned and, thus, free for the taking. After petitioning courts to protect the community land, Las Gorras Blancas took matters in their own hands. They destroyed property and infrastructure that had been built on community land and launched a militant campaign of intimidation against individuals who were encroaching and occupying their land. 

The Story of the Lakota Sioux

But, obviously, the most dramatic example of American conquest in the West relates to our treatment of the Native Americans. And, as a teacher, I’ve struggled with how to approach this topic because it seems so daunting. We can speak in generalities about “all Native Americans,” but that’s problematic because they were each their own entity with their own story to tell. Or we can try to cover as many different tribes as possible, but that starts to feel like a laundry list of names for kids to memorize, and that’s not the way to learn history. So instead, I want to look at just one tribe’s experiences with the federal government in the second half of the 19th century. Hopefully by tracing the experiences of just one group, we can get a decent idea of the policies and the impact of those policies on Native Americans in general. Obviously, there were dozens of tribes I could have chosen that, unfortunately, mostly all have similarly dramatic stories to tell. But I chose the Lakota Sioux.

So, in the 1840s as settlers began moving through the West (think of the Gold Rush in ‘49, for example), the US military began building trails and forts throughout the territories to facilitate settlement. Especially after the Mexican-American War, the government wants to get the land settled as fast as possible – yeah, they’d won it in a war but that didn’t mean that someone else might not come along and want it, too. We’re looking at you Britain… The most famous, of course, is the Oregon Trail where, contrary to popular belief not everyone died of dysentery. Remember that in the game your lifeline was getting to a fort where you could trade for supplies? Yeah, those are military forts and they also became a major point of contention with Native American tribes.

In the modern-day Dakotas, there was the Sioux Nation, of which the Lakota Sioux is one of three regional groupings (Lakota, Western Dakota and Eastern Dakota.) Within the Lakota Sioux are various communities and tribes but for today, let’s oversimplify and just talk about them all as the Lakota. Their first contact with white people, as far as we know, was the Lewis and Clark Expedition. There was a standoff as the Lakota refused to allow the explorers to continue upstream through their territory. In journals detailing the expedition, they predicted a battle but it never came and the group passed through unharmed. 

Almost 50 years went by before the next standoff. The US military built an outpost called Fort Laramie without permission on Lakota land. In classic “ask forgiveness instead of permission” fashion, the US government then stepped in and made a treaty with the Lakota. The 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty was negotiated to give protection to travelers on the Oregon Trail while acknowledging that the Lakota had authority and sovereignty over their land “as long as the river flows and the eagle flies.” Great! So, the Lakota wouldn’t attack white settlers passing through and they would keep their land forever. Except…

The US government did nothing to enforce the treaty. Unauthorized white settlements began almost immediately, blazing the new Bozeman Trail to connect the Oregon Trail and Fort Laramie with newly discovered gold fields further in the native land. The Lakota and other native groups responded by attacking settlers and, eventually, emigrant trains. In one event, a white migrant accused a Lakota man of taking his cow. Typically, all negotiations and mediations with Native Americans were handled by US Indian Agents. In theory, these men were mildly knowledgeable on native customs and had developed better relations with the tribes they worked with. Essentially, they were diplomats, as opposed members of the military. Instead of sending the US Indian Agent to deal with the matter of the stolen cow, a small detachment of soldiers was sent, with a French-Native American interpreter who only spoke broken Dakota – a different dialect than Lakota. Oh yeah, and he also arrived at the encampment drunk. I’m sure this will go well.

So 30 US soldiers walk into an encampment with about 1,200 Lakota warriors. Surprise surprise, the drunk interpreter didn’t do a great job. The chief Conquering Bear tried to ease tensions by offering a horse in exchange for the cow but things got lost in translation. As the argument got heated, both sides anticipated a fight. A nervous US soldier fired his gun and chaos erupted. The Lakota quickly killed Grattan, 11 men, and the drunk interpreter. The other 18 soldiers were cut off and killed by a rising war chief named Red Cloud. In the end, the only native killed was their chief Conquering Bear. 

This event, later named by the US the “Grattan Massacre,” sparked Red Cloud’s War. This was a two year series of raids and small skirmishes between the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho on one side against the US military in Wyoming and Montana. Within the war, atrocities were committed by both sides. For example, to avenge the “Grattan Massacre” over the stolen cow, 700 osldiers marched into a Lakota village in Nebraska and killed 100 men, women and children. But the largest battle was the Fetterman Fight. About 10 native warriors, including a guy named Crazy Horse, lured a detachment of soldiers into an ambush. All 81 US soldiers were killed, making it the worst military disaster ever suffered by the US Army on the Great Plains. Up to that point. **Foreshadowing**

The Lakota won Red Cloud’s War and got a new treaty out of the deal. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie gave them legal control over even more territory than they had before, took down US forts in the territory and permanently closed the Bozeman Trail. This basically created the Great Sioux Reservation and it was a huge win for the natives. Specifically, the treaty protected the sacred Black Hills from white settlement forever. Awesome! So this treaty is stronger and will definitely be respected and no one will ever take Lakota land again!

Except… that four years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills. And the US government didn’t do anything to stop miners and settlers from descending into their sacred land. More fighting erupted and this time it was led on the Lakota side by Chief Crazy Horse and on the US side by General George Armstrong Custer. 11 years after he delivered the orders to General Lee to surrender, Custer was a rising star on the Great Plains in the so-called “Indian Wars.” But he got a little cocky when he attacked an encampment of several tribes. At the Battle of Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse and his men killed 258 soldiers, wiping out the entire Custer battalion.

While this was an enormous victory for the natives, it actually led to the US increasing its resources devoted to ending “hostilities” in the region. The army was expanded by 2,500 men and the reinforcements swept through the region ending the Great Sioux War in 1877. After this war, the Lakota were forced into smaller reservations, prevented from hunting buffalo, and forced to accept government food distribution, beginning a long history of forced dependency, and submission to, the US government.

Although the Lakota were forced onto reservations, their conflicts with the US government continued for the next few decades as they tried to protect their land. For example, the treaty that ended the war in 1877 was disputed because the Lakota people who signed the treaty, giving away the sacred Black Hills, weren’t the official representatives of the tribes. Although, militarily the Lakota would never be able to compete with the US military again, there were other forms of resistance.

In the late 1880s, a new religious movement swept across the Great Plains called the Ghost Dance. According to the teachings of its leader, if natives did the Ghost Dance properly, they would reunite the living with the spirits of the dead, who would be called back to fight on their behalf, making the white colonists leave and bringing peace and unity to native people throughout the region. This was basically the native rebuttal to Manifest Destiny and it inspired many groups, including the Lakota, to resistance US interference and assimilation.

Ultimately, just like Little Bighorn, this movement created more problems for the natives because the US government saw this as a threat. They kept track of various native leaders in the region to ensure that they would not join the movement, giving it legitimacy. One of these was the Lakota chief Sitting Bull. He had predicted the victory at Little Bighorn, then fled north for a few years. After surrendering to US forces at the end of the Great Sioux War he met and became friends with sharpshooter Annie Oakley and worked as a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. He used this platform to make money and as a platform to give speeches about improving education for young Native Americans and improving relations between natives and white people.

But when he returned home to Lakota land, the US Indian Agency grew worried that he might join the Ghost Dance Movement, especially after he allowed the dancers to gather at his camp at Standing Rock. Considering Sitting Bull at this point was a national celebrity, this would have been huge for the movement and a huge threat to the US government’s control in the region. Ultimately, the US Indian Agency set out to arrest Sitting Bull. When he resisted arrest, shots were fired between a Lakota warrior and the US lieutenant. In the end, Sitting Bull was shot and killed. 

This sparked another series of hostilities over the next few weeks which ended in the Wounded Knee Massacre. On the morning of December 29, 1890, a US cavalry regiment came upon a native encampment. They went into the camp to disarm the men but there was confusion. Apparently one of the natives, Black Coyote, refused to give up his rifle. Actually, he was deaf so he didn’t understand the order, but that either wasn’t communicated or wasn’t of concern to the soldiers. Black Coyote’s rifle went off and the soldiers began shooting at the Native Americans.

The Lakota fought back but most had already been disarmed before fighting began. By the end of the day, close to 300 Lakota men, women, and children were killed. Tipi camps full of women and children were fired on by Hotchkiss guns, essentially early machine guns. As the women and children fled, soldiers chased them down on horseback. There were dead Lakota found miles away from the original site. 25 US soldiers died, although most are believed to have been killed by friendly fire in the chaos. 20 of the soldiers present at the Wounded Knee Massacre were awarded the Medal of Honor, although these awards were posthumously rescinded in… 2001. 111 years later.

Wounded Knee would become a symbol for the mistreatment of Native Americans across the country. Later on, during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the American Indian Movement would use the motto “Remember Wounded Knee.” And just to bring a few other things up to date, the sacred Black Hills of the Lakota? Remember – the ones that were supposed to be exempted from white settlement forever? Yeah that’s where Mount Rushmore is. 

Oh yeah! And Sitting Bull’s camp? At Standing Rock? Yeah, that’s the Standing Rock reservation where the oil pipeline cut through sacred land and has already leaked oil into their only water supply. 

So, anyone who says that the US wasn’t an imperial power before 1898… maybe ask the Lakota Sioux what they think about that.

Act 2: Knock Knock. It’s the U.S.

So it’s clear that we had imperialistic tendencies before our official “Age of Imperialism” began. But our desire to expand beyond our borders ramped up during the Industrial Revolution. Like I mentioned last episode, the Civil War led to a boom in manufacturing, especially in the northeast, and throughout the 1870s to the 1890s US industry developed rapidly. As our nation grew in size and in economic strength, we began to flex our muscles internationally to establish ourselves as a desirable trading partner. And when people didn’t want to be our trading partner? Well… let’s just say we were persuasive. 

Beyond the political and military imperialism of the US Indian Wars and reservations, we also began to practice economic imperialism. That is, our government used its growing power to influence countries around us to trade and make decisions that benefited the US economy. 

The U.S. Opens Japan

In the 1850s, at the same time that the first conflicts with the Lakota Sioux were happening on the Great Plains, our eyes turned to Asia. In 1853, President Millard Fillmore sent a naval delegation into Tokyo Bay to try to re-establish trade between Japan and the west. I say “re-establish” because Japan hadn’t traded with westerners in about… oh, 200 years or so?

If you remember from Season 1, while the US was establishing itself, Japan was isolated under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Power was centralized under the military leader, or shogun, with the emperor acting as a symbolic figurehead. Seeing the rise of western powers, Japan closed its doors to the outside world, kicking out Christian missionaries and only trading with the Dutch – who were forced to sleep on their ships or on a separate island off of mainland Japan. So… let’s just say the Japanese were… wary of western governments. And rightly so. 

But in 1853, Fillmore  was like, “Yeah I think we can crack this nut” so he sent over Commodore Matthew Perry with a few ships. And I should note right now that if there was ever a movie about Commodore Matthew Perry, he legitimately could be played by actor Matthew Perry. Like, he looks like an old Chandler Bing in a naval uniform. Look it up.

Why Japan? Well, for one, China was beginning to open itself up to trade (as in, England was beginning to open up China to trade) and we wanted access and needed somewhere safe where we could stop and fuel our new steam ships. We had also just annexed California a few years earlier and so it made geographic sense that we would begin to trade across the Pacific. 

So Chandler Bing, I mean Matthew Perry, went to Japan officially to return shipwrecked Japanese sailors and request that American sailors stranded in Tokugawa Japan be returned to the US. But he also showed up with a letter from the president addressed to the emperor. That’s our first mistake. We clearly know nothing about Japanese politics because the Emperor has zero power. The letter should have been sent to the shogun. It would be like us trying to negotiate a political deal with England and sending a delegation to Kate Middleton instead of the Prime Minister.

This letter is amazing. And by amazing, I mean so passive aggressive and ballsy that it’s insane. It actually might be my favorite historical document of all time. Essentially, the letter explains that the US would love to establish diplomatic relations and negotiate a trading agreement with Japan. And while we understand that Japan has been hesitant to trade in the past, we think it would be a really good idea for them to work with us. Oh yeah… and just in case they decide to deny our request, we’ve sent something that should be useful along with this letter. A white flag.

Literally, the US sent a white flag along with this letter to tell the Japanese, “You’re welcome to refuse to trade with us. But if you do, then you’re going to need this because the U.S. military will destroy you.” And they said all of this with massive gunboats pointing at Tokyo Harbor. This is known as “gunboat diplomacy” and it’s highly effective and wildly unpopular. 

After Chandler delivered his letter, he sailed around Asia showing off the US navy. When he returned the following spring, the shogun had agreed to our demands! Woohoo! The two sides signed the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 giving the US most-favored-nation status and special trading privileges with Japan. It was a huge success! 

… Until 10 years later when the entire Japanese government was overthrown. You see, the Japanese people were not super cool with the idea of the shogun signing a so-called “Unequal Treaty” with the US. So they threw their support behind the emperor and overthrew the shogunate. This so-called Meiji Restoration is going to be the reason why Japan will rise up as an industrial and military power in the Pacific, in possibly the greatest example of the US creating its own enemy. But we’ll come back to Japan in the 1930s. 


Around the same time that we were conspiring to force Japan open, we were also eyeing these beautiful tiny islands in the Pacific called Hawaii. Get ready – I’m about to ruin all of your beautiful beach vacation photos.

Because the only problem was that Hawaii was an independent kingdom. But they were slowly being forced into unequal trading relationships by Britain and France and the US was like, “Oh no you don’t. Not 2,500 miles from our shores!” So we talked to Hawaii and Europe and we made a deal – the US and Hawaii signed a treaty of “friendship” and the US told Europe to stay out. Or, more accurately, we told Europe that no nation should seek “special privileges” or try to colonize the islands of Hawaii.

Then we started seeking special privileges and colonized the islands of Hawaii. Basically, we kept signing more and more trading agreements that gave US businesses special interests on the islands. In exchange, Hawaii had direct access to US markets, which was especially lucrative for the growing sugar trade. By the 1870s, American sugar plantations basically dominated the economy and politics of the kingdom of Hawaii. 

In 1887, as the frontier is ending on the American continent and the Gilded Age and Jim Crow are raging back east, an elite class of white American business owners forced the King of Hawaii to sign the “Bayonet Constitution,” which limited the power of the Hawaiian monarch and gave commercial privileges to the US. This Constitution is also how we got control of Pearl Harbor. 

A few years later, the king died and Queen Liliuokalani took the throne. She had opposed this constitution from the beginning so she was already unpopular with the American sugar planters. She immediately acted to restore her powers as queen and… the US sent in marines to depose her and establish a provisional government. Turns out we’ve been doing that way before the Cold War. Who knew?

A man named Sanford Dole was installed as the president of the provisional government. (Samuel Dole as in the Dole Family and the Dole Food Company. Go to the grocery store and buy a pineapple. You’ll see.) Unfortunately, during that time the US elected a new president, Grover Cleveland, and he was not down with imperialism. By the way, let’s hear it for the Era of Amazing Presidential First Names, right? Millard? Grover? All incredible names for 19th century US presidents or your silly dog. 

So, instead of backing down, Dole established the independent Republic of Hawaii and waited it out. He took the Texas approach. Declare independence, form a republic, and then wait for the US to annex you. And we did! Despite Queen Liliuokalani repeatedly visiting Washington DC and petitioning for her reinstatement as monarch, the US eventually annexed Hawaii in 1898. The final straw was… ugh…  a tariff. Seriously? Why is US History so full of tariffs? Under President McKinley, Congress passed a new tariff that would raise the price of foreign sugar. This would have been catastrophic to the independent republic of Hawaii… which was exactly the point. Americans didn’t want the price of sugar going up and Hawaiians wanted to still have access to US markets. And one way to avoid this tariff was for Hawaii to not be foreign. Oh hey fiscal loopholes! 

Hawaii officially became a US territory in 1900 with Dole as its first governor. It would take almost 60 years for Hawaii to become a state, partly because we were distracted by World Wars and such but also because of racist attitudes that weren’t sure whether the US could handle a predominantly non-white state. This won’t be the last time this comes up… in this episode, actually! Hold on, Puerto Rico, we’re coming for you!

Before we move on, I just want to make an Ode to Queen Liliukalani. Oh, Hawaiian Queen. You were the first woman to rule Hawaii. You were Hawaii’s representative in London at the Crown Jubilee, meeting Emily Blunt, I mean, Queen Victoria herself. During the US coup, you surrendered to prevent bloodshed but you never gave up your push for Hawaiian independence. You and your daughter eloquently asked Congress to respect your sovereignty and were ignored. You were even a musician, writing more than 160 songs and poems in your lifetime. Your most famous song, “Aloha Oe” is now played for tourists drinking cocktails as your descendants dance for them in hula skirts, and for that, I am sorry. 

Act 3: The Spanish-American War

OK. So now we’re finally at the moment in American history where we become an “Empire.” And I, of course, mean that purely for semantics. Because as you’ve seen, we’ve been conquering and influencing other nations for almost a hundred years at this point. But 1898 is the year when we gain our first colonial territories with basically no intention of turning them into states. And we did it in just 10 weeks.

a.k.a. The Cuban War for Independence

So… the Spanish-American War is called the Cuban War for Independence on the island of Cuba. Because Cubans had been rebelling against Spanish rule for a few decades. And we had been paying close attention because the island was just 90 miles from our shores in Florida and we had been developing an economic relationship for a while now. 

Cuban Revolutionary José Martí set up shop after he was exiled in Florida, where there was already a growing Cuban exile community. While he pushed for Cuban independence, he also warned about the dangers of being scooped up by the US in the chaos. Which was pretty smart considering… that’s almost exactly what happened.

Americans were growing increasingly angry as they read reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba. This was around the end of the Gilded Age when news became its own industry. So-called “yellow journalism,” pioneered by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, was sensationalizing stories to drum up readers. After the USS Maine, a battleship anchored in Havana harbor mysteriously exploded, newspapers – and the American public – lost their minds. In hindsight, it most likely was a mechanical failure, but there was no way to know that at the time. Reports circulated that the Spanish had destroyed our ship and killed our sailors and Americans demanded war.

Teddy and the “Rough Riders”

One of those Americans was none other than Theodore Roosevelt. He had moved up from Police Commissioner of New York to Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He was instrumental in pushing us to war and preparing the Navy, much to the chagrin of his boss who felt like Teddy was overstepping. Hey, that’s just what Teddy does. But his boss was more than happy to release him so that he could help organize the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. Under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Leonard Wood, Teddy and Wood sorted through 23,000 applications to form the “Rough Riders.”

Along with the rag-tag group off polo players, hunters, cowboys, Native Americans, and college athletes, Teddy went to Cuba. They made a name for themselves at the Battle of San Juan Heights, mostly thanks to Teddy himself writing reports of his heroics and sending them back to be published in the news. How very Julius Caesar of him. His knack for publicity made him one of the most famous celebrities of the war and the Spanish-American War would propel him into national politics.

Teddy’s publicity to the contrary, the war itself was not much to write home about. It lasted a little over two months, the US never experience a reversal in its positions, and most of the Spanish soldiers died of disease. 

But the outcome of the war was enormously important for US history. At the end of the war, Spain surrendered its last territories, ending its era of Spanish Imperialism, and the US acquired control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

Puerto Rico

So, let’s just run through what happened with each of these territories after the war. First, Puerto Rico. Well, I did an entire episode on Puerto Rico so check out Episode 16 of Season 2 for a deep dive. But, in general, Puerto Rico became a US territory and we never let it go. Over time they developed some rights – today, Puerto Ricans are US citizens who pay some taxes (but not others, which has helped drive US business to the island.) They can vote in the presidential primaries but not the election. They have a representative in Congress but she can’t vote on anything. They’re in this weird limbo and, since the beginning, the question has been, “What to do with Puerto Rico?”

A minority want them to become fully independent, but at this point most people recognize that that would be catastrophic for their economy since they’re so tied to the US. But there is debate over whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state and that debate has become even more relevant in the wake of Hurricane Marie, which devastated the island and highlighted some of the bureaucratic problems with not being a full US state. Anyway, check out that episode for way more detail.


We also got, and still have, Guam. Guam is a Pacific island that’s 210 square miles. For reference, that’s about ⅔ the size of New York City. It became an important stopover for Spanish Manila Galleons, huge ships filled with silver from the New World headed to the Philippines to be traded with Asia.

Similarly, the US has come to value Guam as a station for American merchant and warships, especially into the 20th century as our interests in Asia and the Pacific have increased. As of 1952, those born in Guams are also US citizens even though the island is still listed as one of 17 non-self-governing territories by the UN. Its unofficial motto is “Where America’s Day begins” since it’s the westernmost part of the US territory and the closest to the International Date Line.

The Philippines

The two other territories we gained control over were much more contentious. First, the debate over what to do with the Philippines raged in Congress for years. And the rest of the world was watching to see what we would do. For example, Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “First World Problems,” I mean, “White People Problems,” I mean, “The White Man’s Burden” was written expressly for an American audience. The subtitle for the poem is “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands.” English imperialism superfan, Kipling, wrote the poem to convince the U.S. to “take up the burden” that the English had been carrying in Asia and Africa and help them “civilize” places like the Philippines.

And although at first the Filipinos viewed us as an important ally to help them win their independence from Spain, they quickly realized that we might have ulterior motives. Just one year after the Spanish-American War ended, the Philippine War of Independence began in 1899. 

Similar to Cuba, the Filipinos viewed the Spanish-American War just as the last stage of their own revolution for independence. And they were not happy that the US swooped in at the last minute to control the aftermath. In 1898, Congress determined that the Philippines were far too important as an economic and military base near East Asia to give up. We couldn’t risk another country jumping in, like Japan or Germany – both nations that were starting to increase their influence in the Pacific.

And we also believed that the Filipinos were not advanced or “civilized” enough to rule themselves. Remember that this is the era of scientific racism when western nations believe themselves to be superior to non-white people and, thus, justified in conquering them. Not just justified, but many believed that the conquered nations should be thankful that white men would take on the “burden” of civilizing and saving the souls of people of color around the world. Oof. 

One of my favorite acts of resistance in world history is that of Emilio Aguinaldo. He was the leader of the Filipino Independence movement and he wrote a beautiful “Letter to the American People” pleading with them to sympathize with his cause. It’s a master class in persuasive writing and it’s an amazing document to discuss intended audience with students. Let’s read some parts of it.

“God Almighty knows how unjust is the war which the Imperial arms have provoked and are maintaining against our unfortunate country! If the honest American patriots could understand the sad truth of this declaration, we are sure they would, without the least delay, stop this unspeakable horror.” 

Basically, I know you’re all good Christian people. Once I tell you how terrible this is, I know that you’ll do the right thing and allow us to be independent. 

“… the Spanish government, whose despotic cruelty American Imperialism now imitates, and in some respects surpasses, denied to us many of the liberties which you were already enjoying when, under pretext of oppression, you revolted against British domination.”

Haha! There’s nothing I love more than when people call upon historical irony in a document. Because I’m a nerd. Aguinaldo is saying that not only are we worse than the Spanish who we fought to liberate the Filipinos from, but we’re also treating the Filipinos worse than the Americans were being treating by the British when we rebelled!

And finally,

“Why do the Imperialists wish to subjugate us? What do they intend to do with us? Do they expect us to surrender — to yield our inalienable rights, our homes, our properties, our lives, our future destinies, to the absolute control of the United States? What would you do with our nine millions of people? Would you permit us to take part in your elections? Would you concede to us the privilege of sending Senators and Representatives to your Congress? Would you allow us to erect one or more federal states? Or, would you tax us without representation? Would you change your tariff laws so as to admit our products free of duty and in competition with the products of our own soil?”

And here he makes possibly his strongest argument. Because he’s getting to the heart of the problem with American imperialism: we can’t decide whether we’re OK with it or not. Congress goes back and forth trying to figure out what to do with places like the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico because up until this point, we’ve just annexed our new territory. But this is different. For one, we’ve always been able to portray ourselves as “better than” the European empires. But also, we don’t want all the cost and logistical problems that come with overseas colonies, we just want the benefits! Ugh, if you just traded with us and promised to be loyal to us this would be so much easier for us!

For 15 years the Philippines fought against the US occupation of the island but by the end, they remained a US territory. Beyond over 200,000 Filipino casualties during the war, the Roman Catholic Church was removed as the state religion and English was introduced as the primary language. It wouldn’t be until after World War II and a brutal occupation by Japan that the US finally granted the Philippines independence. 


Finally, Cuba. The island that got us into this war to begin with. So Congress only approved McKinley’s declaration of war as long as the president promised that Cuba would remain independent after the war was over. The US was joining the war to support Cuba’s bid for independence from Spain and nothing more. Except… there was a lot more. Cuba is a perfect case study for more creative types of imperialism. 

Although the government kept its promise, we very firmly guided the Cuban independence process. With our military. Our military stayed on the island until Cuba wrote its new Constitution and we stuck around until they included an attachment on their founding document known as the Platt Amendment. This did a few things:

  1. The Cuban government would not enter into any international treaty with another country that would compromise its independence or allow foreign powers to use the island for military purposes. Well, except for the U.S. because…
  2. The U.S. reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs in order to defend Cuban independence. Wait… but, if we intervened then wouldn’t we be jeopardizing the very independence we claim to protect? Stop overthinking, Emily – this is imperialism! 
  3. Cuba would commit to a government that protected “life, property, and individual liberty.” Notice the order there. U.S. sugar companies are like yeah, it goes “Life. Property. Then rights and freedom and blahblahblah.”
  4. And Cuba would agree to sell or lease territory for coaling and naval stations to the U.S. Yadda yadda yadda…
    Guantanamo Bay!

So, why did Cuba agree to this even though it clearly limited their sovereignty? Well, our military was there. But also, we promised them a trade treaty that would guarantee Cuban sugar exports access to U.S. markets. So even though the Cuban people repeatedly tried to reject or modify the Platt Amendment, in the end, it was ratified in 1901 and our military went home. Ah, democracy.

Our military would go on to reoccupy the island of Cuba twice in the next 20 years, both to protect economic interests during political turmoil. During the second occupation, nicknamed the “Sugar Intervention,” the Marines guarded infrastructure crucial to sugar processing, setting up camps around the countryside for 5 years. This “supervision” or “intimidation,” whichever you want to call it, led to record sugar harvests, mostly exported to the U.S.

Both sides agreed to abolish the Platt Amendment in 1934 – we had a Depression to worry about, after all – but at that point, the Cuban economy was already tied to the U.S. And, let’s be honest, if they had tried to stray out of our shadow and make new allies or develop a government that was in any way left of center. Well, those of you who listened to Season 1 know what happens to Latin American countries that go red. Look out. 

Opposition to Imperialism

So, after 1898 the United States was clearly an empire – no more semantics about “expansion” or “annexation” or “destiny.” And for the most part, Americans were pretty happy about it. Keep in mind that this is at the height of Western imperialism “spreading civilization and Christianity” while complaining about their “White Man’s Burden.” Many believed that the only way to have a competitive industrial economy was to have colonies, much in the same way many had believed that the only way to compete in the cash crop economy was to use slave labor. Not a justification, but an explanation.

However, as we saw with slavery, there were plenty of people at the time who saw the dark side of imperialism. Most prominently in the U.S., the American Anti-Imperialist League formed just a few weeks after the U.S. entered the Spanish-American War, calling the war imperialism camouflaged as a war of liberation. Well… they weren’t wrong.

And if you want to read an amazingly sassy poem, go to my website to see the satirical response to Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. This one is called “The Real White Man’s Burden” and the basic message is, Western civilization isn’t all that great. Why are we forcing the rest of the world to accept a life filled with pollution and poverty, corrupt banks and tricky politicians… you know, classic Gilded Age stuff? It’s really great. Read it with as much sarcasm as you can muster.

But for now, imperialism is the name of the game. And you should notice that at this point we have developed our “playbook” for involving ourself in foreign affairs throughout the 20th century. Push trade agreements! If that doesn’t work, claim the current government isn’t democratic and put pressure on them to accept our pre-written reforms! And if all else fails, send in the Marines.

To be continued…