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The Emergence of the United States as a World Power

To what extent was the Spanish American War of 1898 a turning point in the emergence of the United States as a world power? Until the 1890s, the USA had a foreign policy of non-involvement. Still, the Spanish-American War of 1898 was the turning point of America’s inward-looking attitudes. It marked its emergence as a world power that would control and influence an empire stretching from the Caribbean Sea to the Far East.

Due to industrialization, America had sufficient raw materials available and did not need imports. The Pacific and the Atlantic oceans were also immense natural barriers. If war occurred in Europe, the strength of the British navy provided a barrier for the USA against dangers. Also, the USA had secure boundaries due to two agreements: the 1818 British-American Convention (fixed the Canadian border) and the 1819 Transcontinental Treaty (confirmed Florida as American territory).

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In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine was announced. It stated that the US policy was to avoid becoming involved in European wars unless American interests were involved, that European powers were not to colonize or interfere with the American Continents and that any attempt by a European nation to interfere/colonize in the Western Hemisphere would be regarded as an act of aggression and the United States would take action. The conflict between the USA and Spain began with the issues in Cuba. According to the Monroe Doctrine, Cuba was in the USA’s sphere of interest, but it was controlled by a foreign power – Spain.

Also, Cuban revolutionaries were demanding independence from the Spanish, and by 1896 there were demands by the American public and Congress for intervention in the war between Spain and Cuba. Still, President Cleveland and his successor, William McKinley, opposed taking part. However, in early February 1898, a letter was captured. The Spanish minister to Washington, Dupuy de L�me, called McKinley “weak and a bidder for the crowd’s admiration,” which increased Spanish-American tensions. Six days later, the battleship Maine, sent from the USA to Cuba to protect America’s interest, was destroyed by a massive explosion.

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Immediately the American press blamed the Spanish for sabotaging the ship. President McKinley tried to avoid a war – he sent a series of demands to the Spanish, including that these would have to pay indemnity for Maine and that negotiations for Cuban independence through US mediation would be held. However, his efforts failed, and the Spanish refused Cuban independence. So, on April 11, McKinley sent his message to the Congress asking for war, on the ground that struggles on the island threatened Cuban lives, US property and tranquillity in the USA.

Congress passed resolutions calling war, which was included the Teller Amendment, declaring that the US had no intention of exercising sovereignty over Cuba. When these resolutions were passed, war was declared. The war was fought on two fronts – in Cuba, where Spanish troops were blockaded in Havana, and in the Philippines, where Spain’s fleet was defeated outside Manila. After seventeen days of fighting the Spanish forces surrendered. The formal peace negotiations took place in Paris, in October 1898 (Treaty of Paris). Here, Spain gave up all claims to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam, and the USA was able to purchase the Philippine Islands for $20 million.

Meanwhile, on the July 4 of 1898 Hawaii, which had been the USA’s interest for a long time because it had a strategic position for the path to China, was annexed through the Newlands Resolution. Following the peace agreement with Spain, the USA began to assert its authority over the Philippines. The US was determined to keep the islands, as they were rich in natural resources and offered a foot in the door to markets in China and Japan. In February 1899 hostilities broke out, when the Filipinos revolted against their new landowners.

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Meanwhile, Cuba had not only been militarily occupied by the US but was also invaded by their commercial and business interests. Along with all this, a media campaign to annex Cuba was in full swing. However, President McKinley did not want to annex Cuba, as this would raise constitutional problems (Teller Amendment). It would also incorporate a multiracial society when white Americans were already having problems dealing with black Americans and millions of newly arrived immigrants. Instead, McKinley asked Secretary of War Elihu Root to define the US position on Cuba.

This resulted in the Platt Amendment, which meant that the US military would leave the island, but Cuba could not make treaties with other powers other than the United States. It could not contract any foreign debt without guarantees that the interest could be served from ordinary revenues after defraying the current expenses of the government. Cuba did not like this but had to accept it, otherwise, the US military would not leave the island. On March 2, 1901, the Platt Amendment was incorporated into Cuba’s constitution. One year later, in 1902, the Philippine-American War came to an end.

However, American interest and involvement in world affairs had just begun. Not long after the acquisition of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, President Theodore Roosevelt believed that a US-controlled canal across Central America was a vital strategic interest to the US, as this canal would become a ‘great highway’ for the world’s traffic, saving shipping up to 6000-mile journeys around Cape Horn. But Panama was part of Colombia, so TR opened negotiations with the Colombians to obtain the necessary rights, but he was unsuccessful.

So, Roosevelt claimed that the US Navy would assist the Panamanian rebels in their fight for independence. So, on November 3, 1903 Panamanians proclaimed their independence and the USS Nashville in local waters made any interference from Colombia almost impossible. The victorious Panamanians returned the favor to Roosevelt by allowing the US to control the Panama Canal Zone, and on November 18, 1903, the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty was signed. The Panama Canal became an essential link in the communications of the US’s empire and also saved many miles of ship journey.

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To conclude, with the acquisition of the Philippines, just off the coast of China, and of Hawaii and Guam, the USA had now stepping stones that gave it an advantageous position to access the Asian market. Also, the USA had control over Cuba which gave it control over the sugar and tobacco industries and most of the Cuban business. Also, having Cuba and Puerto Rico under control asserted some of the USA’s influence and authority in the Caribbean.

Also, the change in the US’s view of world affairs lead to the construction of the Panama Canal which was essential for the USA’s trading because it joined the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and it avoided the long and adventurous route around Cape Horn. Many other conquests and takeovers took place following the Spanish-American War, which asserted the power of the USA all over the world. So, the Spanish-American War of 1898 marked the change in America’s non-involvement policy and interest in world affairs, and, consequently, marked its emergence as a major world power.

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The Emergence of the United States as a World Power. (2021, Sep 26). Retrieved August 15, 2022, from