America’s Empire and the Rise of the Modern World System

The period from 1898 to 2000 is now commonly referred to by a number of American historians as the American Century.  Others more critically narrow it to a shorter time frame from around 1945-2001.  This century encompasses the maturation of the United States as an economic power and global leader but it also comes at the price of a series of major wars and smaller interventions:  the Spanish American War of 1898; the First World War; the Second World War; Korea; Vietnam; Iraq; and a host of direct military interventions and sponsored coups in the Caribbean, Central America, Africa and the Middle East.  What one means by the term American Century is accordingly a subject of considerable debate.  For Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (1990) and Gabriel Kolko, Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society Since 1914 (1995),and other historians on the left, this notion refers to an aggressive interventionist attempt at establishing and maintaining an American Empire through direct occupation and intervention.   For conservative writers like Bradley Thayer American Empire:  A Debate, (2006), who write in the aftermath of the Gulf Wars of 1990 and 2003, the development of empire is a rational American path of exceptionalism, and is upheld as part of a neoconservative program of exporting democracy to uncooperative states.  A number of textbooks and more specialized studies have arisen as in William Chafe, The Rise and Fall of the American Century (2008) to Walter LaFeber et al., The American Century:  A History of the United States since the 1890s. It is customary to begin the study of American expansionism and conquest of Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898  One should also consider by extension the annexation of Hawaii in 1893 and military intervention in Nicaragua to protect American interests as part of this overseas expansion.  Whether one agrees to the attribution of ‘American Century’ may then depend on one’s acceptance or criticism of the ethics of intervention and the exceptionalism or an American mission or destiny.  If one is interested in world history and comparative perspectives, one is more inclined to separate from the exceptionalist model and seek a history that includes non-Western perspectives.

Americans and the World in 1898:  Race and Empire at Home and Abroad

It is customary to begin the study of American expansionism and conquest of Cuba and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898.  One should also consider by extension the annexation of Hawaii in 1893 and military intervention in Nicaragua to protect American interests as part of this overseas expansion.  Whether one agrees to the attribution ‘American Century’ may then depend on one’s acceptance or criticism of the ethics of intervention and the exceptionalism of a nationailst American mission or claimed destiny.  If one is interested in world history and comparative perspectives, one is more in inclined to separate from the exceptionalist model and seek a history that includes non-Western perspectives.  How do we resolve the interventionism of American empire with the inherent moral dilemma of racial judgment and suppression that underscored the War for the Philippines?  An answer may be to research and read primary documents that reflect the racial nature of the intervention.  The documents available online and in the reader I make available to the class are a beginning.  Other texts on the War for the Philippines that will be of considerable interest to students on the West Coast are, The Official Records of the Oregon Volunteers in the Spanish War and Philippine Insurrection (1902) available from the Internet Archive.  Students who review this text and its documentation quickly will become aware of the connection of Oregon to an expanding Ameican involvement in the world.  A close reading of these texts will however show the racial assumptions used to rationalize conquering islands.  What is amiss in these documents is any understanding of the depth of advanced ideas and political development toward democracy that had been put forth by contemporary Philippine nationalists like the novelist and physician, José Rizal, executed in 1898 just prior to the Ameican invasion.  A number of recent works have shed light on this period incuding, Angel Shaw and Luis Francia, Vestiges of War:  The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1899-1999 (2002). On the other hand we find conservative historians attempting to rationalize the American intervention, as in David Silbey’s A War of Frontier and Empire:  The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 (2007) and Bruce Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (2002).  Those with an interest in domestic resistance may still profit from Daniel Shirmer’s Republic or Empire:  American Resistance to the Philippine War (1974)

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