Reasons for Imperialism

Why did America have to become an important sea power in the late 19th century?

As America became an industrial giant she was in many ways still a
small nation. America’s international influence was minimal, in large
part due to precedent set down by Washington and other early
Presidents. In reality, though, America was not a powerful nation
militarily and the level of business conducted internationally by
American concerns was relatively small. The rapid growth of American
industry forced business to look elsewhere and the government was
obliged to help find markets for these products. The influence of
industrialists and social Darwinism is evident in the motivations for
American expansion.

A brief look at the information below provides important
information about why the U.S. began to take on an imperialist
foreign policy.

 U. S. Imports and





$300 Million

$350 Million


$900 Million

$800 Million


$1.22 Billion

$1.0 Billion


$900 Million

$800 Million


$1.2 Billion

$1.42 Billion


1.3 Billion

1.35 Billion


1.7 Billion

1.8 Billion


1.6 Billion

2.8 Billion

A cursory examination of the chart above shows that during the
late 1800’s to early 1900’s American participation in international
trade was inconsistent. There were years of growth and years of
reduction. From 1903 to 1914 however US exports grew dramatically. It
is quite clear that by 1914 American business had recognized the vast
potential of the international marketplace.

As American industrial production had soared the US market became
saturated. Americans could not buy all that our industry produced. As
a result we began to seek out foreign markets.

There was a widely-held belief that the U.S. needed ships, not to
make war, but to protect its rights and prestige (nationalistic
pride). Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) was a naval
strategist, historian, and leading advocate of a powerful U.S. Navy.
He was very influential over his friend and colleague, Teddy
Roosevelt. In his writings and speeches, Mahan stated:

1. Our increasing production demanded we expanded
overseas and gain new markets.

2. We must make sure that no nation owns islands within three
thousand miles of San Francisco. This meant we had to gain control of


3. A powerful navy must be built.

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s writings and America’s need to expand to
markets abroad resulted in two things:

1. The creation of a large and powerful navy to
protect America’s interests overseas.

2. The expansion of US economic interests overseas.

America was embarking on a new journey. In the late 1700’s George
Washington had urged America to “steer clear of foreign affairs.” For

over a hundred years we had more or less followed that advice but now
we would abandon it. America was going to dive head first into
competition with other industrialized countries for markets and
resources…it was to be the age of imperialism.