Americans in 1898 followed what Reverend Alexander Blackburn called “the imperialism of righteousness, and Samuel Flagg Bemis “an imperialism against imperialism,” crusading to free an oppressed people while imposing an alien culture upon them. At home, Americans received large doses of what Ernest May referred to as “cascades of imperialist and moralistic oratory,” and New Republic founder Herbert Croly believed that the Spanish War launched the whole Progressive Era by delivering “a tremendous impulse to the work of reform.”
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Crusades to Transplant American Civilization
“So what was new about 1898? Why even call it imperialism, another abused word (like isolationism) with a host of nasty connotations? And above all, why include it among the traditions of US foreign policy? For the decidedly new, problematic feature of the era was not the colonialism that everyone now condemns, but the moral progressivism that most now applaud!
The United States went off the rails, in terms of its honored traditions, when it went to war with Spain in the first place. Imagine: the American people and government allowed themselves to be swept by a hurricane of militant righteousness into a revolutionary foreign war, determined to slay a dragon and free a damsel in distress.
It was precisely the sort of temptation that Washington and Hamilton scorned, Jefferson and Madison felt but resisted, and John Quincy Adams damned with eloquence. Exceptionalism meant Liberty at home, not crusades to change the world. In terms of US traditions, the only thing wrong with the imperialist era was what everyone took for granted was right: the war to end war in Cuba.
Having then vanquished the Spaniards, Americans found themselves in possession of several small colonies. The problem of what to do with them raised a second temptation: not retention of foreign bases – that was sound strategy – but rather the “All-Philippine Movement,” which landed the nation’s moral elites in the muddle Polk had avoided at the time of the All-Mexico Movement.
For not only did Americans charge off on a crusade, they remained in the lands they seized in the belief that they had a mission to transplant American civilization, even though they had no intention of allowing the islanders to graduate to statehood. As one historian shrewdly observed: “The imperialist compromise was to allow the flag to advance but to deny that the Constitution followed the flag.”
What did follow the flag was the same do-gooder impulse that inspired the reforms of the Progressive Era . . . Colonial administrators, economists, teachers, doctors, missionaries, investors, and the Army Corps of engineers descended on Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Panama to whip yellow fever and malaria, build the Panama Canal (which TR dubbed a gift to humanity), develop the economies, and free the people from their Spanish Catholic legacy.
For at bottom, the belief that American power, guided by a secular and religious spirit of service, could remake foreign societies came as easily to the Progressives as trust-busting, prohibition of child labor, and regulation of interstate commerce, meat-packing and drugs. Teddy Roosevelt’s “rhetoric of militant decency” was the voice and spirit of the age. “Our chief usefulness to humanity,” he preached, “rests on our combining power with high purpose.”
(Promised Land, Crusader State, the American Encounter with the World Since 1776, Walter A. McDougall, Houghton-Mifflin, 1997, pp. 118-120)