Presidential Policies of the Imperialist Era

Nearly 20 years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, the United States moved into what is now known as the Gilded Age. This period of time began in the 1870s and lasted until the turn of the century, around 1900.

During this time, the United States became isolationist, meaning that as a country, the US isolated itself and tried to avoid engaging in trade, wars, or other affairs with different countries. As the Gilded Age progressed, however, American politicians came to believe that the country was losing ground in a global land-grab in what is known as the Era of Imperialism. 

Imperialism occurs when a powerful country decides to spread its influence, usually through military force or through threats or coercion over a country or region that is likely not as powerful. Today, imperialism is often viewed as morally wrong. At the time however, imperialism seemed necessary for countries to gain natural resources and markets for goods. 

A series of American presidents each had their own views on imperialism and plans for how to best exert America's influence on the world. 

One of the earliest examples of an imperialist policy comes from William McKinley’s presidency. In 1899, President McKinley’s Secretary of State John Hay helped to develop the Open Door Policy, which stated that trade with China should be open to all countries, not just a few. This policy was created to prevent a monopoly over the trade with China: If only one country was able to trade with China, they thought, then only one country would be able to benefit from selling their goods. The United States did not want that to happen and wanted China open for trade.

McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and his Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn into office. Roosevelt is known for being a bit more bullish when it comes to foreign policy, or the ideas and decisions one country makes in dealing with other countries. Roosevelt liked the idea of increasing America’s influence and power in other countries, and he wanted to flex U.S. muscle around the world. His ideas would be summed up as the Big Stick Policy, the idea that the U.S. should “speak softly but carry a big stick.” This meant that while he promoted peace (the “speak softly” part), he also encouraged the U.S. to use force and “police” power to defend what was important to them if necessary. 

President William Howard Taft, who served from 1909-1913, was not as militant as President Roosevelt; Taft believed that good foreign relations between countries meant helping other countries to become stable and strong. If the United States had robust countries to trade with, then that would in turn help the U.S. economically. He developed what is remembered as Dollar Diplomacy, the goal of which was to strengthen the economic power of the United States and to promote trade in Latin America, the Caribbean, West Africa, and East Africa. Healthy relations, in his opinion, could be forged through business.

Continuing the imperialist policies of his predecessors, President Woodrow Wilson added his Moral/Mission Diplomacy to the mix. Serving two terms from 1913 to 1921, Wilson’s policy gave support to countries who shared the same belief system as the United States as well as countries who, like the U.S., had a democratic system of government.


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