Justification for Imperialism

How did the United States justify imperialism?

Imperialism, the policy of extending a nation’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force, has been practiced for millennia by empires from ancient Rome to the British Empire. While the United States originated as a colony fighting against imperialism, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it too began to engage in imperialistic ventures. The justifications provided for this expansion can be categorized into economic, strategic, cultural, and ideological reasons.

Economic Motivations

One of the primary justifications for American imperialism was economic expansion. The U.S. underwent rapid industrialization in the latter half of the 19th century. This economic growth led to an increased demand for raw materials, markets for manufactured goods, and new investments. As domestic markets became saturated, U.S. producers sought new consumers overseas.

For instance, the annexation of Hawaii in 1898 served American sugar planters who had already established a foothold on the islands. The Open Door Policy of 1899, which demanded equal trading rights in China for all imperial powers, aimed to ensure that American businesses had access to the vast Chinese market.

Strategic Considerations

Another important rationale for American imperialism was strategic military interests. As the U.S. became a major global power, it sought strategic locations for military and naval bases to protect its interests and sea lanes. This was evident in the acquisition of territories following the Spanish-American War of 1898. The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. These territories, especially the Philippines, were seen as important strategic points in the Pacific.

The construction of the Panama Canal, completed in 1914, further exemplified the U.S.’s strategic interests in controlling important global trade routes.

Cultural Superiority and the “White Man’s Burden”

Many proponents of American imperialism believed in the cultural superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and saw it as their moral duty to civilize “backward” nations. This paternalistic view was influenced by Social Darwinism, which applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to human societies and posited that certain races were more advanced than others.

The poet Rudyard Kipling’s call to the U.S. to “Take up the White Man’s burden” in his poem of the same name captured this sentiment. The idea was that the U.S., as a superior nation, had a responsibility to bring its civilization, Christianity, and way of life to colonized peoples. Such beliefs were not only racially biased but also served to legitimize American control over other nations by presenting it as a benevolent endeavor.

Ideological Commitment to American Exceptionalism

Rooted in its revolutionary origins and democratic ideals, the U.S. cultivated a belief in its exceptional role in the world. Many saw America’s expansion not as imperialism in the traditional sense but as the spread of liberty and democracy. President William McKinley, when explaining his decision to annex the Philippines, stated that it was to “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”

This perspective framed American imperialism as fundamentally different and morally superior to European imperialism. The U.S. was seen not as a conquering force but as a liberator, bringing the benefits of its unique democratic system to the world.


The justifications provided for American imperialism at the turn of the 20th century were multifaceted. While economic and strategic interests were paramount, cultural and ideological beliefs about American superiority and exceptionalism also played a significant role. These justifications, especially the cultural and ideological ones, have been the subject of much criticism and debate among historians.

In retrospect, it’s evident that while some Americans genuinely believed in their mission to uplift and civilize other nations, imperialism also served concrete economic and strategic benefits. As the U.S. has evolved and reflected upon its past, the justifications for imperialism have been increasingly questioned, leading to a more nuanced understanding of America’s role in global history.

More Perspectives

The industrial age spurred created many great changes in America. As production increased American business began to look out at the world as a means to support that growing industry.

In the early 1800 President George Washington had urged America to “steer clear of foreign affairs.” This was about to change as Americans looked to expand overseas.

American imperialism was caused by:

  • Emerging international business. As Americans increased business overseas it became necessary to protect those investments. In order to protect those investments America built the “great white fleet” that had been requested by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. (Last lesson) American policy was now going to based upon intervention and acquisition, not isolation and neutrality.
  • Senator Alfred Beveridge expressed this view as a justification for imperialism:

“Today we are raising more than we can consume. Today we are making more than we can use… Therefore we must find new markets for our produce, new occupation for our capital, new work for our labor… Ah! As our commerce spreads, the flag of liberty will circle the globe and the highway of the ocean -carrying trade to all mankind – will be guarded by the guns of the republic. And as their thunders salute the flag, benighted (ignorant) peoples will know that the voice of liberty is speaking, at last, for them… that civilization is dawning at last, for them.

–Senator Alfred Beveridge, 1898

Americans justified imperialistic behavior by:

  • Claiming that it was their responsibility. Americans and Europeans both claimed that it was their responsibility as superior races to uplift, civilize and Christianize native peoples. This was known as the White Mans Burden and was based upon the ideas of social Darwinism. Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem by the same name:

    Take up the white man’s burden
    Send forth the best ye breed-

    Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives need
    To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild-
    You new-caught sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.
    Take up the white man’s burden,
    And reap his old reward-
    The blame of those ye better
    The hate of those ye guard-
    The cry of those ye humor
    Ah, slowly toward the light:
    “Why brought ye us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian (heathen) night?
      –Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden”
  • Many Americans felt it was not only our responsibility and duty but it was also a mandate by God. One of the leading proponents of imperialism was the Minister Josiah Strong. Minister Strong argued that America was in a race with other nations to dominate the world and acquire the limited resources the world had to offer. Strong claimed that America as the leading nation in the world (arguable at the time!) it was our destiny to acquire new lands. This idea sounds a lot like Manifest Destiny because it is the same idea! In the following passage Strong makes his ideas quite clear. It seems to me that God, with infinite wisdom and skill, is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come in the worlds future. The lands of the earth are limited, and soon will be taken. Then will the world enter upon a new stage in its history- the final competition of the races. Then this race of unequaled energy, with the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it- the representative of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization… will spread itself over the earth.–Minister Josiah Strong, 1885

American policy makers were clear in the course of action. We were to follow an aggressive imperialistic foreign policy.

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