The December 1890 issue of the Atlantic Monthly contained an article by an obscure American naval officer, Alfred Thayer Mahan. For the previous quarter century, Mahan wrote, America had been dominated by “inwardlookingness”—the need to preserve the home market for domestic industries. Mahan professed to see indications of an approaching change in the perception and policies of Americans. They realized that “all around us now is strife; ‘the struggle for life,’ ‘the race of life.'” America was a commercial republic, whose economic lifelines to the outside world could only be maintained if the link between product and market was secured by a proper navy and naval policy. “The interesting and significant feature of this changing attitude is the turning of the eyes outward, instead of inward only, to seek the welfare of the country.”

Mahan’s article—”The United States Looking Outward”—was an effort to popularize some of the ideas in his newly-published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Mahan had fired one of the first shots in a decade-long political war over the orientation of American foreign policy for the new century, one that saw the United States emerge as a great power and skirt close to outright, traditional imperialism.

Warren Zimmerman, a distinguished American diplomat who was the last U.S. ambassador to the former Yugoslavia, has written an engaging book on this subject. He focuses the narrative on five major figures who were particularly influential in the establishment of America’s global power: Mahan, Elihu Root, John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt. “The United States had been trying for decades to expand overseas,” Zimmerman writes. “Nevertheless, the nature of that expansion, and its consequences right up to today, owes a great deal to the kind of men they were.” They were the founding fathers of modern American imperialism.

Zimmerman’s treatment of these men is the strongest part of the book. He acknowledges that there was no uniformity of background or views among them, not even between the closest, Lodge and Roosevelt. Nevertheless, their individual and collaborative activities during the decade of the 1890s were indeed critical—if not quite as decisive as Zimmerman claims—in bringing about a reorientation of American foreign policy. Zimmerman gets them just about right, although his portraits are occasionally drawn a bit sharply: Hay is too weak, Lodge excessively narrow-minded, Roosevelt overly impetuous. Root in particular comes across as an early-day Warren Christopher—the lawyer seeking the best rationale for the often-weak political case of his client, rather than the statesman exercising independent judgment.

Zimmerman insists on calling this period “the birth of the American empire,” with the Spanish-American War as the central event. Zimmerman adopts Mahan’s definition of imperialism—”the extension of national authority over alien communities”—because this broader definition implies that a country does not have to own the territory in order to exercise imperial authority over it.

Zimmerman’s broad use of the term “imperialism” is unfortunately misleading and imprecise. Every action of a stronger power relative to a weaker one can be deemed “imperialism”—indeed, critics of American foreign policy, on the Right and the Left, have made that accusation repeatedly. In fact, the American political debate over the outcome of the Spanish-American War turned out to be a collective decision that the United States would not become an imperial power. America could not justly acquire foreign territories and govern their peoples permanently without their consent. The Philippines became an aberration, taken in (temporarily, as it turned out) out of a sense of necessity and honor, rather than as the model for future expansion. At the same time, American leaders did come to regard as legitimate a variety of other instruments traditionally employed by great powers—protectorates, spheres of influence, military intervention, covert action, economic pressure, and the like—all of which arguably impinged to a greater or lesser degree upon the sovereignty of other nations and peoples. But these were not imperialism.

As the United States approached the 20th century, Lodge, Roosevelt, and the others appreciated the need for major changes in the conduct of American foreign policy. The United States was well on its way to becoming the world’s leading industrial power. The divided Civil War generation, North and South, was passing from the scene, promising a new sense of national unity and purpose. American leaders could look forward to much greater influence on international affairs if they could develop the requisite tools and political will.

But Americans also felt an acute, countervailing sense of domestic crisis. The Panic of 1893 had been the worst economic slump in American history so far. The United States was in the midst of the painful transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, with all the social dislocations and violence that entailed, complicated by ongoing, large-scale immigration.

On the international scene, politics and technology combined to present great challenges. The European powers were in the midst of a scramble for overseas territories—a “clash of civilizations”—that seemed certain to spill over into the Western Hemisphere and to threaten the United States’ access to present and future overseas markets, especially in Asia. Improved military hardware and communication technology seemed to have made the world much smaller, and more interdependent, challenging America’s traditional sense of political isolation from Europe.

For most of the 1890s, Americans were strongly inclined to respond to this environment by remaining, or becoming, inward-looking. To cure their ills, they preferred to seek domestic reform rather than turn to external activism. When forced to deal with the world, they preferred (rhetorically at least) to rely upon strengthening international law; or upon unilateral actions, such as currency reform. This general view held across much of the political spectrum, from the Mugwumps to liberal Republicans and much of the business community; and from conservative Democrats (Grover Cleveland) to near-radicals (William Jennings Bryan).

Mahan had attacked this inward-looking perspective in “The United States Looking Outward.” Roosevelt and Lodge took up the cause in a series of books and speeches over the decade. They argued that the struggle between peoples was the driving force of history. To struggle and to succeed at great and noble tasks was the highest calling of mankind. Great men and nations welcomed those challenges in order to test and strengthen their character. The American nation had the physical potential for greatness and independence, but this had never been fully realized because of the spiritual resistance of those who rejected that struggle in favor of dependence and material ease. Roosevelt and Lodge sought to overcome America’s materialism and commercialism by an assertive foreign policy that revived the old pre-Civil War expansionist drive. Such expansionist sentiment did not necessarily demand territorial growth, although this was not ruled out (with Canada firmly in mind), but it meant above all an aggressive nationalism, a passion to defend and advance American interests and to assume America’s rightful place among the great powers of the earth.

The American foreign policy debate was not confined to these two schools. There was also an emergent, centrist “McKinleyism,” which remains something of a historical mystery. Never fully developed or articulated, it was more a temperament than a coherent policy. The United States would look outward and play a greater role in world politics, working principally through economic means and cooperation with other great powers, especially with Britain. President William McKinley preferred negotiation to military intervention, but he didn’t rule the latter out. Root and Hay were actually much closer to this moderate, business-oriented activism than to the bellicose nationalism of Roosevelt, Lodge, and Mahan.

Everything came to a head with the war in Spain, John Hay’s “splendid little war.” The causes of the war, nominally related to Spain’s suppression of the rebellion in Cuba, were less important than the results. The quick and decisive American victory across the globe raised forcefully the question of what sort of great power the United States would now become. The United States had open to it the adoption of a European-style imperialism as it deliberated over how to dispose of Spain’s territorial possessions and, separately, whether to acquire Hawaii. Congressional legislation (the Teller Amendment) had already ruled out formal annexation of Cuba, but other lands remained, above all the Philippines. Zimmerman records McKinley’s famous account, confided to a group of Methodist clergymen:

I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France or Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.

Zimmerman notes that McKinley’s decision was not quite that spontaneous or pious. The president had carefully researched and considered all four options. McKinley had another, unstated concern shared by his key advisors: that America’s failure to assume control of the islands would lead to an all-out scramble for Pacific territory by the European colonial powers and Japan. This competition for the Philippines, coupled with the ongoing disputes over China, could lead to a major Pacific war into which the United States might inevitably be drawn.

The U.S. Senate would have the final say through its deliberations on the Treaty of Paris, which agreement with Spain included transfer (through purchase) to the United States of the sovereignty of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The Senate debate was complicated by a growing resistance in the Philippines against provisional American rule. The presidential election of 1900, which William Jennings Bryan attempted to turn into a referendum on imperialism, would later give the public at large a chance to judge the case, but the terms of the argument were set decisively in the Senate during the winter of 1899. Zimmerman’s five key figures had relatively little influence over this debate (Senator Lodge participated but others dominated the floor). The debate turned on whether the United States had the constitutional power to acquire foreign territories without the express purpose of eventually incorporating them fully into the Union; and if the United States had the power, whether it had the moral right to annex such territories.

In some cases, pro-annexationist Senators argued frankly that in the modern interdependent world of hostile powers, the United States must accept the acquisition of European-style colonies and transform itself into an imperial democracy. This required an attack upon, or at least a qualification of, the popular understanding of the original foundations of the American regime. Senator Albert Beveridge was one of the most forceful spokesmen for this view: “The Declaration of Independence does not forbid us to do our part in the regeneration of the world. If it did, the Declaration would be wrong.” Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut asserted that the government derived its just powers from the consent of some of the governed. And Lodge explained how to understand Jefferson’s phrase:

The Declaration of Independence was the announcement of the existence of a new revolutionary government upon American soil. Upon whose consent did it rest? Was it upon that of all the people of the colonies duly expressed? Most assuredly not. In the first place we must throw out all negroes and persons of African descent…. Conforming to the facts the sentence would read something like this: “deriving their just powers from the consent of the white male governed who have the right to vote according to the laws of the various colonies.” …To pull a sentence out of a revolutionary manifesto and deal with it as if it was one of the labored and chiseled clauses of the Constitution shows a sad confusion of thought.

Such assertions were easy rhetorical pickings for the anti-annexationists, such as Lodge’s colleague from Massachusetts, George F. Hoar. “Now, I claim that under the Declaration of Independence you cannot govern a foreign territory, a foreign people, another people than your own; that you cannot subject them and govern them against their will, because you think it is for their good, when they do not; because you think you are going to give them the blessings of liberty. You have no right at the cannon’s mouth to impose on an unwilling people your Declaration of Independence and your Constitution and your notions of freedom and notions of what is good.” To Beveridge’s imperial enthusiasms, Hoar gave this oft-quoted rejoinder: “I have heard much calculated to excite the imagination of youth seeking wealth, or the youth charmed by the dream of empire. But the words Right, Duty, Freedom, were absent.”

The anti-annexationists too easily overlooked the strategic and political realities on the ground, however. (And as Zimmerman notes, many of them were governed as much by Social Darwinism—belief in the superiority of the white race—as were their critics.) Senators such as Henry M. Teller of Colorado worked to articulate a middle ground. The United States, Teller argued, had the constitutional power to acquire territory for reasons of strategic necessity and it could govern the peoples thereby acquired without their formal consent (assuming they could not otherwise govern themselves), but only for the purposes of their moral and physical improvement. Once those peoples were capable of self-government, they should either be granted statehood or other appropriate status as American citizens; or they should be made independent, assuming that either path did not fundamentally jeopardize American security. The theory behind Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” would remain unchanged.

The Senate finally approved the treaty, 57-27, a constitutional supermajority which is generally taken as an endorsement of a new-style American empire. In fact, imperialism was broken as a political force, especially after the unhappy experience of suppressing an armed rebellion in the Philippines. The anti-imperialists lost the vote but triumphed in the moral arena. The annexationists had the better of the argument about circumstances and strategic necessity, but even they acknowledged that U.S. policy toward the new territories must be moderate, conform broadly with the American political tradition, and accept gradations of political status for the new lands.

For his part, theodore roosevelt soon concluded that external expansion was not the best way to regenerate the American character, at least from the standpoint of getting elected. He became focused increasingly on domestic reforms, which eventually separated him from Lodge until World War I revived their collaboration. Roosevelt certainly did not neglect foreign policy while president but his approach—the promotion of great power cooperation and the balance of power with the aim of promoting higher civilization—was arguably a muscular and imaginative application of McKinleyism. Zimmerman’s account assumes that the hypernationalists Lodge, Mahan, and Roosevelt brought the more moderate Root and Hay into their camp. In fact, the process may have worked the other way around.

Roosevelt did remain prickly about American interests in the Western Hemisphere, especially the Caribbean, where the vital and vulnerable Panama Canal would soon be completed. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine justified unilateral American military intervention and temporary governance when Caribbean states behaved unjustly towards their European creditors. Still, as Zimmerman points out, the Corollary limited as well as expanded the American sphere of action. The Corollary was born of a specific need and was hedged with qualifications. When someone suggested annexation of the Dominican Republic as an alternative, Roosevelt responded, “I have about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to.” By 1907, T.R. even had second thoughts about the Philippines. “The Philippines form our heel of Achilles. They are all that makes the present situation with Japan dangerous. . . . Personally I should be glad to see the islands made independent, with perhaps some kind of international guarantee for the preservation of order.”

Americans, then, determined that foreign territories legitimately could be acquired and governed on prudential grounds—in extreme and unusual circumstances—as long as they were governed in the interests of their peoples. But were such noble words mere flapdoodle? Here Zimmerman’s judgment, as an experienced diplomat, is worth noting. He asks, would things have been better for Hawaiians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos if they had never been under American rule? “The answer is certainly no for the Hawaiians and probably no for the others.” In a conclusion that echoes the spirit of McKinley, Zimmerman states:

If Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines remained under the increasingly feckless rule of Spain, their people’s lives would surely have been harder than under the Stars and Stripes. Nor would potential alternative colonists like Germany, Japan, or even Great Britain have seemed more promising. If the Cuban and Philippine revolutions had succeeded even in the absence of American support, as would probably have been the case, two weak independent countries would have emerged as a prey to domestic division and foreign penetration.

Zimmerman’s favorable judgment is actually somewhat surprising. His narrative is dominated by the downside of American colonial rule, particularly the sometimes brutal American suppression of the rebellion in the Philippines. Zimmerman insists however that “America’s constitutional errors as a colonial power lay less in taking control of the islands than in curtailing the sovereignty of an independent Cuba and delaying the independence of the Philippines.” Zimmerman repeats the old objection that Americans were too willing to cooperate with friendly local elites who promised short-term order (Marcos, Diem, and Chiang Kai-shek) instead of realizing that regimes not based on popular consent are usually unstable as well as repressive. But this returns us to square one. Popular consent in much of the world can be unenlightened, brutal, and fundamentally hostile to American security. The need to reform that opinion and to undertake humanitarian actions to relieve brutality, leads to pressures for greater, not less, American intervention—in short, a greater inclination to imperialism. That Americans have so far avoided the imperial temptation is much to their credit, but this has not been without cost.

Still, something must be done about the dangers of modern war, ethnic violence, and terrorism. Woodrow Wilson would soon provide a new answer, one that rejected the great-power nationalism of Roosevelt. Wilson envisioned a progressive internationalism, an anti-imperial imperialism using transnational organizations and norms to civilize mankind. Domestic reform and international activism were to be mutually reinforcing rather than antagonistic. Perhaps Zimmerman will take up that topic, with all its promise and problems, in his next work.