US Foreign Policy during the Progressive Era and WWI

Lecture Notes, 2015

3 Pages


The Spanish-American War (1898)

1. American early expansionist prospects

America’s interest in territorial expansion could be traced down to the purchase of Alaska which was purchased and annexed in 1867. The purchase was considered as a “magnificent bargain” (591.000 sq miles for 7 million dollars) by the US government of the time but the territory was scoffed at as a worthless “icebox” by the critics of Secretary of State William Seward who cut the deal. By the end of the century, American elites came to consider territorial expansion as part and parcel of America’s its historic role of civilizing the “primitive” peoples around the world. After all, the United States was, by now, a vast country with a history of confrontations (the Civil War) and a potentially powerful navy.

2. The Spanish war (1898)

In 1985, a nationalist rebellion in Cuba was suppressed with atrocity. The suppression called down extensive criticism by the American media. Often exaggerated reports about the horrors of Spanish concentration camps found support among both the elites and the public at large. In 1898, a serious explosion caused the wreck of the American battleship “Maine” in Havana harbor. Despite the absence of any tangible evidence that the explosion was caused by Spanish aggression, the government decide to intervene in Cuba and war with Spain immediately broke out. By the late 19th century, the Spanish Empire was collapsing and its navy was obsolete in comparison with that of the United States. No wonder then that the war was brief and quite unequal.

In May of the same year, the Philippines fell into the hands of the United States. Under the Peace of Paris, it proclaimed its possession of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. But in 1899, the Filipinos started an insurrection and guerrilla warfare against the American Marines continued up to 1902. The rebellion claimed the lives of an undetermined number of Filipino casualties. The horror of the conflict far exceeded that of the Spanish suppression. The Spanish War enhanced the status of the United States as an emerging world power and set up a tradition of activism in policy that was to take shape under President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09). In 1902, he invoked the Monroe Doctrine to convince the European powers to abstain from blockading Venezuela.

3. The “Big Stick” policy and the building of the Panama Canal

By the turn of the century, the United States was aspiring to expand its supremacy in the Pacific as well as the Atlantic Ocean wherefrom the need for a shortcut that guarantees faster navigation between these oceans, specifically the need for a canal that links between the eastern and western coasts. In 1903, Roosevelt’s administration leased a parcel of land from Columbia (later to become the Panama Canal Zone) and undertook the construction of the vital canal in the new province/state of Panama after the US caused a rebellion in a small region of the land to make possible the creation of the new state. The canal was completed in 1914 and cost a great number of human lives. The American navy was by now able to defend American coasts in the event of attacks by the British or the Japanese.

On the grounds of a “police power,” Theodore Roosevelt’s equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine and a policy aimed to presumably protect US citizens in Latin American countries, the US took effective control of Cuba, Panama and Puerto Rico and, in 1905, the Dominican republic. It occupied Nicaragua in 1912. It occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The US got involved in the revolution that broke out in Mexico in 1910.

World War I (or the Great War): 1914-18

1. The Great War: The immediate causes

The assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28. The assassination was considered as a protest against foreign rule since the northern regions of the Balkans were under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Immediately after Germany intervened to help in the sanctions against Serbia, Russia rushed to help Serbia. Soon, France joined Russia and Germany was not late to invade France through Belgium. Britain saw in the German invasion of France as a threat to her own security and soon sided up with France and joined the war.

On the eve of the Great War, the great powers of the world were on either side of two alliances:

a. The Triple Entente consisted of France, Britain and Russia.
b. The Triple Alliance was made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy and was later joined by the Ottoman Empire.

Most of these world powers were involved in colonial enterprise in Asia, Africa and the Pacific and engaged in defending their territorial assets in those regions. By 1918, 33 countries had been involved in the war which cost the death of 15 million people in addition to millions of people who died of hunger and disease.

2. Origins of American involvement in the war

From the outset, the American government announced its position inimical to any involvement in the European War, even though the American public, which was ethnically diverse, was taking sides with one camp or the other. Yet the majority supported the Triple Entente. But very few really advocated involvement in the war. To prevent the Americans from trading arms with the Central Powers, the British started a blockade of the European ports. By the early 20th century , Britain was a major sea power, and Americans accepted the British rule that the United States had to stop selling weapons to the Central powers. By 1916, the United States had sold to the Allied Powers $3.2 billion worth of weapons. The German U-boats (submarines) started sinking ships navigating in the waters around Britain and on May 17, 1915, a German U-boat sank the Lusitania. About 1200 passengers died, 128 among whom were Americans.

According to international law, neutral countries can sell weapons to the belligerents without restrictions but despite the potential profits that the United States could gain from selling weapons to the Central powers, and given the historic ties with France and Britain, and the fear that Germany would one day dominate Europe, encouraged her to exclusively trade weapons wit the Allied Powers. After Germany promised Mexico to help her regain possession of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona (The Zimmerman Note which proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico) and the sinking of other ships where many Americans were injured (the French ship: The Sussex in March, 1916), American involvement in the Great War became eminent. Further, there was a widely-shared belief that America had to protect democracy and fend off the expansionist ambitions of the totalitarian regimes around the world. On February 3, the United States broke diplomatic ties with Germany.

Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916, but the man who kept [Americans] out of war was now trying to convince Congress dominated by isolationist Republicans of the necessity of American intervention to protect its interests, guarantee peace and security in the world and save democracy. On April 2, he officially asked Congress to declare war, arguing that the world must be safe for democracy. Two days later, Congress officially declared war.


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US Foreign Policy during the Progressive Era and WWI
US Cultural Studies
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Sami Nighaoui (Author), 2015, US Foreign Policy during the Progressive Era and WWI, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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