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9-08-2015, 21:25

THE EMERGENCE OF THE US AS A WORLD POWER

European imperial dominance of much of the globe, of Africa, of India and eastern Asia extending to China reached its zenith in the early twentieth century, but already then was challenged. There were limits to further expansion. Europe was overextended, the US and Japan would counter what they conceived as threats in their own hemispheres and in the process run into conflict with each other. They also followed their own imperial roads. The emergence of the US as a superpower by the mid-twentieth century is one of the most striking changes of modern history. The state of the American economy and America’s decision as to where and in what manner to intervene in any part of the globe have profoundly affected every continent. The US came to wield an influence such as no other single nation has exercised before. What is striking is that this impact on the world has been so recent, scarcely pre-dating the turn of the century. How did it come about and where are the roots of American world power? The growth of the population, and of the industrial and agricultural production of the US, were phenomenal. Their sustained increase through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, overcoming two depressions in the mid-1870s and the mid-1890s as well as the serious depression of the 1930s, is one of the ‘economic wonders’ of modern history. There was a contemporary awareness of America’s good fortune, and ‘growth’ was both expected and regarded as the unique ‘American way’. When we compare the population growth of the US with that of the European great powers, we see clearly how relatively sudden the transformation of the US into the present-day colossus has been. In 1880 the total population of the US was about the same as Germany’s ten years later and only 5 million more than Germany’s at the same time. Thus, in population the US only just ranked in the same league as the largest of the European nations. But, from then on, the US’s rapid outdistancing of previously comparable countries was one fundamental reason for the emergence of the US as a superpower. A crucial factor in this growth of population was another feature of the New World, the largescale emigration from Europe. Driven largely by poverty and the hope of a better life a great mass of humanity flooded into the US, more than 13 million between 1900 and 1914 alone. Most of them were peasants from central and southern Europe. The majority of these ‘new immigrants’ (to distinguish them from the ‘old’ immigrants from Britain, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia) settled in the towns where they preferred to join their countrymen who had kept close together in the cities and found unskilled industrial work. Immigrants contributed significantly to the growth of major cities, reinforced economic expansion and helped to bring about the mass market which is characteristic of twentiethcentury America. Of the 13 million, more than a million were Jews leaving the pogrom-ridden Russian Empire; they helped to make New York into one of the great clothing manufacturing centres of America. The rich cultural variety of the US, the diversity of ethnic groups from the West and the East, as well as the sheer numbers of immigrants, are among the unique features of America’s national growth. America, as one historian put it, was less a ‘melting pot’ – intermarriage and common allegiances did not speedily obliterate national differences of origin – than a ‘salad bowl’. All the same, the fusion of peoples of every national origin and religion and, over a much longer period, the fusion of races black and white, Asian and Hispanic into a national community has proved a more powerful force than national and racial differences and conflict. In the twentieth century the shared experiences of two world wars were powerful influences in making for more toleration and mutual acceptance – one of the most significant aspects of the development of the US for world history. The immigrants added immensely to the vitality of the US. Starting from nothing, they and their descendants acquired new skills and an education. The US was the country where the accident of a father’s social status mattered least in the Western world. As far as the African Americans were concerned, this generalisation did not hold true. As long ago as 1868 some of the framers of the fourteenth amendment of the constitution sought to protect the rights of black people. The amendment declared that Americans enjoyed equal rights and equality before the law, and specifically laid down that no state could ‘deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’. However, as a protection of the civil rights of African Americans, the fourteenth amendment proved worthless because it was not enforced. It was used instead by the rising industrialists and financiers to amass greater fortunes and influence through combinations and mergers. The age distribution of the immigrants and their tendency to have larger families than the American-born kept the increase of population at a much higher level than could otherwise be sustained. America was in reality, and in self-image, a young country constantly renewing itself. At the turn of the century, the US had just recovered from the depression of the mid-1890s, and Americans faced the twentieth century with much optimism believing, rightly as it turned out, that their country was on the threshold of industrial expansion and the accumulation of wealth. Between 1900 and 1914 manufacturing production nearly doubled and overtook agriculture as the main source of national wealth. The traditional America was a nation of farmers, artisans and small businessmen. The America of the twentieth century was predominantly industrial, with the growth of cities, and railways linking the industrial Midwest and the east. Industry was increasingly dominated by the giant corporations such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company or the Trusts of J. Pierpont Morgan, though small businesses also persisted. The absolute growth of population, the opening up of virgin lands in the west, made possible simultaneously a great expansion of agricultural output despite the population movement to the towns. This increasing output was more than enough to feed the growing American population and leave sufficient to export. Meat packing and food canning became important industries. The vast continent of the US was singularly blessed in all its resources – fertile land, forests, coal, iron and oil. Their simultaneous successful development provided the dynamic of American economic growth which no European nation could match, and meant that Americans were less dependent on imports or exports than any other advanced Western nation. In the early twentieth century, American business nevertheless expanded American exports to industrialised Europe, seeing this as a necessary insurance against a glut in the market at home – yet these exports were only a small proportion of America’s total production, which was protected at home by a high tariff. In the early twentieth century the application of electricity as a new energy source provided a further boost, and electrical machinery together with automobiles – Henry Ford alone producing 125,000 cars a year by 1913, half the nation’s total output – were the ‘new industries’ maintaining America’s lead as the world’s first industrial power. America’s explosive growth was not achieved without severe political and social tensions. This was the other side of the optimism expressed at the turn of the century about the future. People began to ask who would control the destinies of the US. Would it be the new breed of immensely successful and wealthy financiers and businessmen? Was not their influence already the main reason for the corruption of government, no longer a government for and by the people but for the good of business? The cleavage between the rich and poor appeared to widen as the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Rockefellers and Harrimans displayed their wealth. The western farmers were exposed to the vagaries of the seasons and also to the increases and falls of world grain prices. A good harvest could drive the prices farther down and the farmers seeking a cause for their misfortunes focused on the high interest they had to pay on the loans they needed – the result, as they saw it, of government dominated by the industrial east. The southern US remained relatively stagnant, unable to diversify when, after the worldwide drop in cotton prices, cotton could no longer yield the same profit as before the civil war. The American workers in the mines and factories also tried to organise to meet the increased power of business. Socialism as a political force had developed in the US as well as in Europe during the nineteenth century, and for a short while after 1872 the headquarters of Marx’s First International was in New York. But the Socialist Labor Party of North America could not establish itself as a serious force in politics. In the early twentieth century, under the charismatic leadership of Eugene V. Debs, the Social Democratic Party attempted to win over the worker from trade union economic bargaining to politics, but was unsuccessful on a national scale, though Debs, when he became a presidential candidate, secured almost 900,000 votes. When labour unions expanded it was under the direction of men like Samuel Gompers who rejected political socialism as utopian and saw themselves as practical men seeking to improve the wages and conditions of labour day by day without ulterior ends in view. In 1886 they organised the American Federation of Labor (AFL) but in the 1890s found that union militancy could not prevail against the employers supported by the federal government. There were some successes to set against the failures, with the gradual introduction of maximum working hours and the ending of the abuse of child labour. Theodore Roosevelt, when president, showed more sympathy for the workers. Strikes of national concern, like the coal strike in Pennsylvania in 1902, were no longer settled by the federal government siding with the employers. President Roosevelt intervened and refused to back the mine owners, who had to concede higher wages. Roosevelt’s action was characteristic of one aspect of a new spirit collectively known as the Progressive Movement. But Roosevelt’s outlook was not shared by all the states, which had retained extensive rights under the constitution. In 1903 and 1904 the governor of the state of Colorado, for instance, had mobilised the militia, jailed the union leaders of the striking copper miners and beaten down the strikes with violence and bloodshed; and in all this he was eventually supported by the Supreme Court. Gompers himself was imprisoned by federal courts after another strike and denounced as a dangerous rabble-rouser subverting the law. Against this onslaught of employers, and with business dominating the courts and the state governments, Roosevelt could do little. Though the AFL expanded from half a million to 2 million members by 1914, it could scarcely hold its own. Only the boom brought about by the Great War and the shortage of labour enabled the more moderate unions to gain acceptance and to negotiate better terms for workers. But the mass of the unskilled and black people remained largely outside the unions. The AFL’s successes were mainly won on behalf of the skilled craft unions and the semi-skilled. After the depressed 1880s and mid-1890s the farmers, who had been a major force behind the rising challenge to eastern business dominance, became quiescent. From 1897 until 1914 they enjoyed a short ‘golden age’ of prosperity, the value of their crops doubling during this period. Looking at the US as a whole, the only safe generalisation is that the problems that forced themselves on the attention of people varied enormously from one region to another, as did the responses of those in power in any particular state. Thus, in contrast to the conduct of Colorado’s government, the governor of Wisconsin, Robert M. La Follette, passed many practical reforms in his state, as did Woodrow Wilson after becoming governor of New Jersey in 1911. ‘Progressive’ became a loose label denoting little more than a recognition of the many varied ills besetting American society and politics during years of rapid change and a desire to remedy whichever of these ills a particular progressive felt to be the most injurious. The ills were well publicised by a new breed of journalists who proudly accepted what was meant to be an insulting description of their work – ‘The Muckrakers’. Their targets were manifold – political corruption, the inequality of wealth, the domination of politics by big business; they investigated most aspects of American life; they attacked the doctrine of freedom which allowed the grasping entrepreneur to develop America at too great a price; they stressed the undermining of democracy; and argued the need for more regulatory government, not less. In domestic politics the president’s powers are limited by the rights of the two Houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives, and by the Supreme Court, the final arbiter of any dispute about constitutional rights. What President Theodore Roosevelt and his successors – the more conservative William Howard Taft, and then the Democrat Woodrow Wilson – actually achieved in legislation was less important than the fact that the presidency gave a reforming lead and so helped to change the climate of American public opinion. The Progressives were successful in the passage of child-labour laws in over forty states, and of laws governing the working conditions of women, but their attempts to clean up politics and smash the power of party machines failed. Lack of supervision to ensure enforcement also weakened much of the social legislation passed. After the Great War was over, in 1919, one reform dear to many Progressives, Prohibition (of alcoholic drinks), was enacted by Congress nationwide. Here, too, a large gap soon became apparent between law and actual observance. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president of the US to play a role as world statesman. As in his domestic policy, where he was inhibited by political constraints, so in his ‘world’ diplomacy he was circumscribed by America’s lack of military power and the unwillingness of American people to make sacrifices to back up a ‘large’ American foreign policy. Superficially Roosevelt succeeded in drawing international attention to the US and to his own role as diplomatist. In this respect his greatest achievement was to act in 1905 as mediator between the Japanese and Russians and to host the peace conference at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, ending the Russo-Japanese War. The US next played a part in the international Moroccan conference at Algeciras in 1906. The following year, in a characteristically ostentatious gesture, Roosevelt sent the newly constructed US navy on a world cruise to show the flag. Roosevelt made America’s presence felt. But what really lay behind these great-power posturings was apprehension that the conditions that had given the US security for the past century were passing away. For this feeling, which actually anticipated dangers that still lay in the future, there were two principal reasons: the likely direction of European imperialism and the consequences of America’s own flirtation with imperialism at the turn of the century. Both can be seen clearly at work during the course of a war just won, the ‘splendid little’ Spanish–American war of 1898. The American response to European imperialism, which had led to the partition of Africa and China, was to try to anticipate a serious challenge to the Monroe Doctrine, with its declaration of US opposition to any further European colonial extension within the western hemisphere. What if the Europeans next sought to extend their influence in the Caribbean and Central America and so surrounded the US with armed bases? Captain A. T. Mahan, in his day the most influential writer and proponent of the importance of sea power, was writing at this time that such a danger did exist since crucial strategic regions of significance in world trade would inevitably become areas of great-power rivalry. One such artery of trade would be the canal (later Panama Canal) which it was planned to construct across the isthmus of Central America. The backward and weak independent Caribbean island states were also easy prey for any intending European imperialist. The island of Cuba, lying close to the mainland of Florida was, then as now, a particularly sensitive spot. Before the war with Spain, Cuba was a Spanish colony, in chronic rebellion and anarchy. The war on the island was barbarous as most guerrilla wars are apt to be, and American opinion, genuinely humanitarian, was inflamed by the popular ‘yellow’ press. But the hidden aspect of the situation as seen by the administration was that a weak Spain as the sovereign power on the island might be replaced by an aggressive Britain or Germany. A group of Americans, including a number of senior naval officers, Theodore Roosevelt (then an up-and-coming politician) and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, discussed ways and means of taking precautionary action before these dangers materialised. They were later seen as ‘imperialists’ or ‘expansionists’ and indeed this was the practical outcome of their ideas, but their motivation was essentially defensive – to preserve American security in the coming conditions of the twentieth century. Imperialism was inextricably bound up with this defensive attitude. The Americans intervened and made themselves the gendarmes of the Caribbean. After the war with Spain in 1898, Cuba, though proclaimed an independent republic, became a virtual protectorate of the US. A US naval base was constructed on the island and the land needed for it was ceded to the US. This American presence was intended to ensure that no European power could take over Cuba or reach the inner naval defences of the US before meeting the US navy in the western Atlantic. The US also imposed conditions on Cuba which allowed the US to intervene in case of internal discord. Another Caribbean island, Puerto Rico, was simply annexed for similar strategic reasons. In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt extended the right of the US to act as a policeman throughout Central and Latin America, invoking the Monroe Doctrine as justification. By helping the Panamanian revolutionaries against Colombia in 1903, Roosevelt established another American protectorate in all but name in the new state of Panama. Nor did the US hesitate to intervene in the independent republics of Dominica and Nicaragua. Although Woodrow Wilson, when he became president, attempted to revert to the earlier spirit of inter-American collaboration, he did not himself hesitate to intervene in Mexico from 1914 to 1916. In contrast to the advanced industrialised and agriculturally developed North American continent, the habitable regions of South America supported a growing population in, for the most part, abject poverty. (For a fuller discussion of Latin America see Part XIV.) The descendants of the Spaniards and Portuguese and the immigrants from Europe who formed the minority of inhabitants enjoyed the wealth and political power of the American ‘republics’. There was much variety in the politics and society of Latin America. Their revolutions, though, had been revolutions from above in the early nineteenth century. The new states remained authoritarian, despite their elaborate constitutions modelled on the French or American, and their professed ideals of democracy, with a few notable exceptions, proved a façade for governments based on force: they were governments of the generals or of dictators who commanded the military forces of the state. Violence was the language of politics. Trade with Europe, especially (in the later nineteenth century) with Britain and Germany, was considerably greater than with the US, to which there was much hostility, on account of its claims to pre-eminence in the Americas. The possibility of ‘Yankee’ interference was the object of particular Latin American suspicion and animosity. In 1900 strategic planners in the US clearly saw the discrepancy between the pretensions of the Monroe Doctrine and the inability of the US to exert any military and naval influence south of the Amazon in Brazil. What if the partition of Africa were followed by European domination of South and Central America? In fact, the conflicts in Europe, the Mediterranean and Near East, in Africa and in Asia absorbed the military resources of the European Western powers. Britain, the major European power with colonies and commercial interests in Latin America and an empire extending from colonies in the Caribbean to the Dominion of Canada in the north, furthermore made clear its intention not to challenge the US’s claim for regional supremacy. At the turn of the twentieth century Britain and the US signed the Hay–Pauncefote Treaty which granted the US the sole right of defence of the future Panama Canal. This was followed by Britain withdrawing its fleet from the Caribbean and settling all outstanding disputes with the US. Britain could not afford to risk the enmity of the US as well when its interests were more endangered at home, first by Russia then by Germany, in the Mediterranean, in Asia and in Europe. And so a war between Britain and the US became increasingly unthinkable as the twentieth century progressed. In this way the conflicts of the European powers in the early years of the twentieth century continued to serve the security of the US in its hemisphere. But in the Pacific and eastern Asia the US became more deeply involved and exposed. US interests in the trade of China date back to the foundations of the American republic itself. Not until the close of the nineteenth century, however, did the US acquire a territorial stake in the Pacific. The annexation of Hawaii in 1898 could still just about be fitted in with the notion that the island was an essential offshore base of defence for the western seaboard of the US. There could be no such claim for the annexation of the Philippines after the Spanish–American War of 1898. An American army crushed the Filipino struggle for independence (1899–1902). This was imperialism. The US staked its claim for a share of the China market whose potential was overestimated. The appearance of the US in eastern Asia as a Western colonial power aroused the alarm of Japan and marks the origins of a new conflict in eastern Asia in the twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt had recognised that the Philippines were indefensible; they were, to use his words, America’s ‘heel of Achilles’. In the military sense, America’s role as a world power was potential rather than actual during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century. The American army was small – adequate to deal with Indians and Mexicans; its warships in the 1880s had been called in Congress a collection of washtubs. How soon the US could turn military potential into reality is illustrated by the amazingly rapid construction of the modern US navy. In the 1890s American naval power was puny, just enough to cope with Spain’s antiquated warships; by 1920, the US navy could match the British. But to exercise world power requires not only the means – and no one could doubt in the early twentieth century America’s capacity – but also the will. Before 1914, it did not seem realistic to suppose that the US would become involved in war over the conflicts of the other Western powers. The American people saw no need for war. The large navy, which could ensure the security of the North American continent and its approaches, and the small professional army, indeed, point to the overwhelmingly defensive attitude of the US. Nevertheless, it was drawn to war in 1917. But it was only with great reluctance that Americans came to accept that the US’s circumstances had fundamentally changed from the times of the Founding Fathers and their advice that the US should not entangle its fortunes in the rivalries of Europe. The war that had begun in Europe three years earlier spread to every continent and turned into the first global war. In eastern Asia Japan emerging as a strong military power took advantage of Europe’s distress. China’s disintegration was Japan’s opportunity. China’s efforts to modernise came too late.

 

 

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