The Objectives of US Foreign Policy from 1890

Chapter two of the AQA book, key events in US foreign policy needed for the exam. 


Objectives of US Foreign Policy from 1890

Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan had major impacts on American foreign policy- Roosevelt (the expansionist) was known for his well publicised actions in the Span-Am war of 1898. Bryan- a pacifist- spent most of his career attacking people like Roosevelt for being immoral and betraying the ideals of the Founding Fathers. 

In 1890, the USA was far from being a world power- its foreign policy was essentially defensive, seeking to keep America out of wars and foreign entanglements. Most Americans were hostile to the ideas of imperialism. However, the events of 1890s pushed USA into rapid naval expansion, Spanish-American war and annexation of territories in the Pacific Ocean- far from the USA.

Men such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt and naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan were influential in promoting expansionism and more forward American foreign policy. 

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Reasons for Expansion/Imperialism


  • Some Americans felt it was the "Manifest Destiny" of the USA to dominate the Northern half (encouraging western expansion beyond Mississippi).
  • Americans felt they were "morally obliged" to rule colonies to Christianise and civillise.
  • Idea of Preclusive Imperialism - to grow an empire before anyone else (to compete with the European powers who were already expanding).
  • Rapid increase in economy proved that the US needed to control new markets.
  • Americas industrial economy (GDP) experienced a downturn after a rapid growth in the 1870s-1880s by 4% annually.
  • Taking over new colonies meant cheaper raw materials would be available and more money would be coming in, this was especially needed with growing industrialisation.
  • Expansion of the Navy/Military meant better protection interests and trade abroad.
  • Americans could joint protectorate to protect smaller colonies.
  • America had to be a major naval power which required the acquistion of colonies to supply bases around the world. 
  • Powerful nations in History had always been strong sea powers.
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Reasons against Expansion/Imperialism

A minority of Americans against Imperialism formed the AIL (Anti-Imperialist League) including people such as Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie and William Jennings Bryan. 

  • Many people had ideals that were more traditionalist and defensive than imperialist.
  • The USA could not even treat its African and Native American minorities well, so how could they look after more? 
  • Expansion could lead to entanglements, possibly war and the USA did not have the man power of expertise to run an Empire like Britain.
  • Acting like the other Great Powers went against the principles of American democracy and was considered deceitful and morally wrong.
  • How could a colony that fought a war for freedom enslave others? 
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Beginnings of Expansion

One such impulse was the Monroe Doctrine and traditional American hostility to European interference. Formulated in 1823 with the presumption that Latin America would be receptive to American influence, it was no surprise when they began to have concerns over the Spanish colony of Cuba, near American mainland.

When the British government fell into a border dispute with Venezuela over British Guiana in 1985- the Americans urged arbitration of the dispute which had settled the matter. Congress had allowed Cleveland to use force if necessary. 

Another key factor was American perception of events on other side of Pacific Ocean- instability in China led to greater American involvement in the Far East, for commercial and strategic reasons. Fast modernisation of Japan in 1868 was seen as a threat.

Hawaii annexed in 1898, granted exclusive use of Pearl Harbour. Due to the duty-free sugar exportation being abolished, Hawaii suffered 40% collapse of prices. 

This is why they decided to adopt a more active foreign policy after 1890, first in Cuba from 1895, then the war against Spain in 1898, then American annexation of Hawaii, Guam and the Phillipines, and finally American participation in the Boxer Rebellion of China in 1900.

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Why did America go to war with Spain in 1898?

SINKING OF THE MAINE: In February 1898 an explosion in Havana Harbour blew up the USS Maine killing 260 American soldiers- the Spanish was excused of doing this.

MONROE DOCTRINE: It was effectively putting the Monroe Doctrine into action. Europe could not interfere with US affairs and America had a duty to help Cuba and defend their principles. Contraversial as going against principles by taking over a land they 'freed'. 

YELLOW PRESS: NY Journal and NY World newspapers competed to tell the most sensational stories that were mostly Anti-Spanish claimingthey were tyrannical dictators.

PUBLIC OPINION: Those who argued the "Manifest Destiny" said that this extended to Cuba. The Yellow Press influenced Americans to feel outrage at the Spanish- fuelled by the sinking of the Maine. When the public wanted war, it made McKinley popular. 

STRATEGIC ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE OF CUBA FOR THE USA: Americans had previously tried to buy Cuba from the Spanish. Cuba controlled the Gulf of Mexico and trade with South America. If the Panama Canal was also built, this would increase the importance of Cuba and also provides more markets and opportunities for Americans. 

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The Spanish American War

Cuban economy was already dependent on American markets for exporting their tobacco and sugar. When Cuban Nationalists, led by Marti, began a revolt against Spanish rule in 1895, they recieved backing from America. The Spanish army crushed the revolt but their harsh methods were strongly criticised in the USA. 

When the USS Maine exploded and was blamed on the Spanish, American decided to go to war, the campaign being encouraged by business interests and Theodore Roosevelt- secretary of the navy. Peace could have easily been negotiated but American forces invaded Cuba and gained a swift victory with minimum casualties. This helped make a hero out of Theodore Roosevelt.

Spain made peace at the Treaty of Paris in July 1898 and Cuba remained under American military rule until 1902, when it became an American protectorate (a state or territory party controlled by a stronger state). The US had acquired the Phillipines, Guam and Puerto Rico.  

The Platt Amendment was signed in 1901- allowing American to establish control in Cuba and relinquish ths when they deemed fit. They could decided what did and did not impare Cuban independence. The Guantanamo Bay naval base was also acquired. 

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McKinley's Foreign Policy 1896-1901- Success or Fa


Gained many lands due to the Spanish American War- Guam, Puerto Rico, Guantanamo Bay. Under Platt Amendment gained control of Cuba. Led to annexation of Phillipines which led to increased American influence and trade in the Far East . USA could take active role in China's "Open Door" Policy. Involvement of McKinley in Boxer Rebellion protected the trade with China and showed they could stand up to European countries regarding its trading rights. 


McKinley was forsaking his own views to stay in power as he was PACIFIST. His views divided the Republican party, as he was going against the views of his party. Some in his party were even anti-imperialist and defied McKinley- a weak party was powerless.

Some Americans argued expansion was immoral and McKinley was not doing enough in DOMESTIC POLICY and more concerned with problems that did not directly affect America- too far to bother about. Against declaration of independence to take over lands when America had once been ruled. 

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Why did the USA build the Panama Canal?

In 1903, Roosevelt began plans to build a Panama Canal- an idea of a canal through Central America, linking the Atlantic and the Pacific (the French had previously tried this in the 1880s but collapsed due to financial problems). When the government of Columbia proved difficult to negotiate with, Roosevelt sponsored an uprising of Panamanians to create independent republic of Panama- in which Roosevelt could negotitate terms with- including domination of American regulation. Completed in 1914- total cost only $10 million.

STRATEGIC/DEFENCE: Wanted to control the area- expansion of the US influence/control. Enabled USA to defend both coasts. 

TO LINK THE ATLANTIC WITH THE PACIFIC:Previously journey could take months - canal shortened journey to just under 5,00 miles.

ECONOMIC TRADE: Made transportation of goods faster and cheaper to do.  New markets in Asia/China 

USA'S WORLD STATUS: Rivalled Britain and France's Suez Canal- the USA's biggest engineering achievement- SHOWED AMERICA WAS A WORLD POWER.

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Theodore Roosevelt and his Foreign Policy 1901-190

Annexation of the Phillipines 1902: Stepping stone to Asian market, and increased trade with China.

Alaska Boundary Dispute 1903: Dispute of Alaskan border with Canada and Britain- Roosevelt arranged a settlement in favour of American rights.

Roosevelt Corollary 1904:Combined with Monroe Doctrine said that the "USA had the right to exercise international police power in Latin America if cases of wrongdoing" Showed that America would protect Latin America and used to justify his interventionist policy. 

Russo-Japanese War 1905:American meditation ended the war- successfully in the Treaty of Portsmouth in October. Ensured Japan would not benefit from military victory. 

"The Great White Fleet" 1907:Damaged relations with Japan strengthened with a PR campaign to show off the economic and militarial power of America.

Root-Takahira Agreement 1908: Preserved status quo in Far East as USA acknowledges Japans new status.

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Was Theodore Roosevelt's Foreign Policy a Success?


  • Had many personal successes- won the Nobel Peace Prize when negotiating in Russo-Japanese war. Public opinion was strongly in favour of Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Was an independent President- did not need to consult Congress and increased his presidential power!
  • Increased US influence in the Far East and showed USA was a force to be reckoned with.
  • Strengthened the US economy with his foreign policy- Panama Canal. 
  • LEGACY: Even after he steps down in 1908 and Taft becomes president he continued to have massive influence on USA- Dollar Diplomacy- using American financial power to secure economic


  • Other countries distrusted the US- like Latin America.
  • Very bloody Guerilla war in the Phillipines, showed they did not want to be ruled by USA.
  • Could argue he had too much power and alienated himself from Congress.
  • Anti-Imperialists like William Jennings Bryan very against his policies.
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Woodrow Wilson and US Foreign Policy

Woodrow Wilson as president in 1912 marked a change in attitudes towards American foreign policy and a peaceful and ethical approach to foreign affairs. Appointed William Jennings Bryan as his secretary of state, the leader of Democratic anti-imperialist opposition to the policies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Argued that almost all wars in history had been wrong and disputes between nations should be settled peacefully- Christian principles were taken seriously by both Wilson and Bryan. 

This new approach showed itself in the Far East in 1913. Wilson's government renounced Taft's Dollar Diplomacy (using financial power of America to buy railways in China to try to block out Japanese and Russian influences) in China and gave its support to the Open Door policy. Wilson gave diplomatic recognition to the new regime in China that gained power after revolution in 1911. This worsened relations with the USA and Japan. 

On the other hand, Wilson was interventionist in Mexican Revolution in 1914, sent marines to occupy the port of Vera Cruz to establish order. To try and overthrow the regime of dictator Victoriano Huerta- although instead it strengthened his position. Wilson attacked by anti-imperialists for interferring and by Roosevelt and Cabot Lodge for not doing enough! In 1916, Wilson intervened again to pursue guerilla leader Pancho Villa who had attacked American travellers in Mexico. Could not find him and had to give up in 1917 as a total failure. 

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Reasons for Neutrality of the USA in WW1

Wilson's first response to outbreak of war in 1914 was to proclaim American neutrality and impartiality. At the time there was no prospect of American involvement in the war in Europe- seen as a faraway conflict for reasons they didn't understand or care about.

  • Traditional attitudes of neutrality going back to George Washington that all 'foreign entanglements' except trade should be avoided.
  • The USA had no tradition of a standing army. The American tradition was for volunteer militias to be called out when there was an emergency. Deep rooted resistance against the idea of a large national army. 
  • Anti-imperialist ideas- AIL. Such people wanted the USA to be peacemaker, and representing higher moral values. 
  • Anti colonial ideas reflecting the origin of the USA in a revolution against British colonial rule. Also, resentment of the British naval blockade, cutting off the USA from Germany by intercepting neutral ships on the high seas which caused financial losses to American enterprises.
  • Dislike of European powers among immigrant communities. Many people from Central Europe had reasons to hate Austria/Hungary and German and Irish immigrants were hostile to Britain. 
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Reasons for US Entry into WW1

  •  When Bryan resigned in 1915, this weakened the anti war elements in the government. Those urging the USA to have more of a role were led by Roosevelt and Cabot Lodge who were influential.
  • Between August 1914 and the final decision to enter the war, American attitudes were influenced by the invasion of Belgium in 1914 that increase anti-German feeling.
  • in 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania en route from New York to Liverpool caused a storm of protest against Germany. Despite these reactions there was no willingness to go to war.
  • In Dec 1916, it was reported Britain was bankrupt and the nation could not carry on if the USA did not help them. It would be a strategic alliance to join the Allies.
  • In Feb 1917, the Russian Revolution and downfall of the Tsar meant that joining the Allies would be a 'fight for democracy'.
  • A key event was the intervention of the Zimmermann Telegram. By the end of 1916, the German economic position was desperate that in hopes to distract the USA with problems at home, German foreign minister Alois Zimmermann secretly proposed an alliance with them and Mexico, promising support for Mexico against USA. Intercepted by British Intelligence and led to USA directly declaring war on Germany in April 1917. 
  • Trade issues brought the USA closer to the Allies, American trade with Britain and France increased 4 times between 1914 and 1916. In contrast American trade with Germany was only 10% of what it had been before the war. This mean't taking sides- it would benefit American economy to join the Allies.
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Post War Settlement & Rejection of the LON

On the 11 November war ended with a victory for the Allies, strongly due to American help. The power and prestige of the USA was enhanced. For this reason, Wilson issued his 14 point plan, based on the principles of self determination (for all colonial powers) and collective security. In this he voiced his hopes for disarmament and naval freedom- bound to infuriate Britain- a major naval power. He also put forward his plans for a League of Nations, to keep the peace. Wilson quickly became bogged down with the complex negotiations with other members of the BIG FOUR- Clemeancea, Lloyd George and Orlando had very different views on how to treat Germany- and wanted to extend their empires with the gains from the war. Problems with the Poles and Czechs over territory of Teschen, the post-revolutionary Russia, and the consequences of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Although the USA signed the peace treaties they were only approved by Congress in 1921. This reflected the growing difficulties Wilson faced at home. The demobilisation of the US army was not carried out smoothly and there was inter-racial violence. There was economic problems like inflation in USA. Many people felt the rewards of war not worth it as 50,000 soldiers had died and more by disease. In 1918-19, this was made worse by the Spanish flu pandemic which took 21 million lives. This turned people against 'Europe's war'. Wilson's expectations were unrealistic and disillusioned..All these reasons therefore led to American opinion being hostile to the idea of a League of Nations. Some of the opposition came from isolationists like the Republican group of the 'Irreconcilables' which had support. Senator Cabot Lodge and his clash with Wilson also influenced the debate. Lodge did not want to see American power merged into a supranational organisation outside national control, and Wilson was incredibly stubborn and unwilling to negotiate. Wilson began to suffer from exhaustion and ultimately suffered a stroke and eventually the LON was rejected in 1920. The Democratic party suffered a catastrophic defeat and Warren Harding assumed office assuring his policy was that of 'normalcy' and isolationism.  

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How Isolationist was the USA after WW1?

INTERVENTIONIST: Washington Naval Conference 1921: Limits set on naval capacity regarding battleships. Ratio set of 5:5:3:1.75 for US, Britain, France, Italy and Japan. US encouraging others to cut their capacity whilst not having to cut their own. Four Power and Nine Power Treaty: Between US, Britain, France and Japan agreeing to consult on matters in the Pacific and agreed to respect territory of China. Allowed the US to cut military sending and would control another war and Japan. Dawes Plan 1924: Rescheduled Germany's repayment of loans after Germany could not pay due to hyperinflation. USA granted $200 million in loans to rebuild. Young Plan 1929: Further cut payments to $9 billion to be paid over 59 yrs.Kellogg Briand Pact 1928: French and US signed an agreement renouncing war and in favour of peace. Signed by 62 countries- although had no mechanism to enforce this. 

ISOLATIONIST: Latin America: US changed its active role. 1922-1925, American troops withdraw from Cuba, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Roosevelt Corollary also repudiated. Immigration/Protectionism: New laws restricting immigration to reduce outside influence. Fordney McCumber Tariff protected own American goods.  

LATER INTERVENTION IN 1930S: Neutrality Acts to prevent WW2: The USA help the Allies in World War 2- Destroyers for Bases Deal- FDR approves selling of American military equipment to the British. Shows USA preparing for war, could no longer claim to be isolationist. Refrained from LON: Did not impose sanctions on Japan in Manchuria or Mussolini. 

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