According to American history, Isolationism was a practice in which is an independent country operating without interaction with other countries. America also engaged in expansionism, a strategy whereby a nation expands its territory while exerting economic influence over neighboring nations. American imperialism evolved from Isolationism and continental expansion. Imperialism is the power a stable nation has over weaker nations due to the latter’s control over its military, economic, and cultural aspects. Through imperialism, the stronger nation exerts dominance over the weaker ones and subjugates them by colonizing them. When Mr. J. K. Polk served as president in the 1800s, the Americans started to dominate through imperialism. The 1800s saw the height of American industrialization and an increase in food production. The Americans were forced to hunt for markets for their products abroad due to a rise in food surplus. The 19th century is seen as the beginning of the imperialism policy. Many academics compare America’s territorial growth at the expense of Native Americans to imperialism. America’s transition from Isolationism and continental expansion to imperialism was influenced by several events and goals (Graham, 2021, p. 286).
One of the reasons the United States made the transition to imperialism was economic. The United States experienced a vast industrial revolution during the imperialism years. Industrial machines were being used, which increased the production of goods. As a result of the surplus production, the Americans had to look for a market for their products in other nations. They also needed more industry raw materials (Petras, 2018, p. 15). Apart from finding new markets for their produced goods, the Americans wanted access to new products that could be infused into their trade. The Americans were assured of their new markets and trade partners by expanding their powers across the world. Establishing colonial governments ensured they were close to their new markets, reducing the cost of transporting goods from their “mother” country.
Coastal trade was thriving; hence the Americans wanted to control the markets. The economy was beginning to demand cheap goods and labor; hence the American government wanted to maximize its profits. The high growth rate of development and industrialization in America demanded natural resources such as metals used to make machinery. Land was also a precious commodity due to the production of cash crops such as coffee. Industrial development was enhanced by establishing trading routes, transport networks, warehouses to store their goods, and control posts to ensure the smooth running of their operations. In 1854, Kanagawa’s treaty between Japan and the United States facilitated a treading connection that encouraged Americans to adopt imperialism (Petras, 2018, p. 19).
The urge to explore and tour new territories by citizens from the imperial countries was another motive that led to the shift toward imperialism. However, the need to explore was also accompanied by other motives, such as scientific and medical research, mainly done by American researchers who wanted to expand their knowledge of human existence and origin. Some American citizens traveled to satisfy the spirit of adventure. They wanted to discover new areas, map, and ensure that the territories were occupied before their competitors arrived. These adventurers were used by their home governments to identify new potential territories. The spread of Christianity is an example of an exploratory motive where American citizens discovered new areas (Graham, 2021, p. 298).
Military and political motives also changed from isolation and continental expansion to imperialism. Enlarging imperial governance in the United States and the patriotism of the citizens stimulated the Americans to compete for superiority with other nations. To achieve this, the United States needed to establish a global military command which would assist them in expanding their territory overseas. Their expansion to other nations helped to foster nationalism and patriotism. To the Americans, maintaining and expanding their colonies was a way of showing pride and a show of their military and economic strength. Having colonies across the world was essential for Americans in case they needed to launch an international operation. For instance, during World War II, the United States had a military base in Guam which gave them easy access to military troops in the pacific when they were fighting the Japanese. The Americas were driven by patriotism and imperialism to seek worldwide political, economic, and military supremacy. Therefore, the main motives were prestige, security, superiority, and protecting their citizens in other countries for adventure and scholarly research. For example, after the Hawaii gripping, the United States provided the Hawaiian monarchy security and support (Graham, 2021, p. 304).
Ethnocentric influences are another motivating factor behind the shift of the United States to imperialism. Due to its advancement in political, economic, and social aspects, the United States believed they were far superior to other nations worldwide. They believed that their cultural beliefs and practices were better than others; hence they wanted to spread their values. Their success economically and military superiority was thought to bring them prominence. Additionally, they believed that their language was far better and superior to others hence discriminating against others who did not share their ascent. Their ideas of being superior to other nations made them believe that other nations should be conquered and colonized. They also believed that the world economy and politics should begin with them being on top of the chain. Therefore, the Americans acted on their ethnocentrism which made them believe that their language and race were superior to others. The United States also wanted to extend its cultural practices and lifestyle to the nations it had conquered and colonized (Cleveland, 2022, p. 175).
Furthermore, their shift to imperialism was also housed by their desire to spread humanitarianism by helping other people and countries with funds and military assistance. Social Darwinism contributed to the spread of ethnocentric influence. Social Darwinism holds the nation of survival for the fittest. The Americans were advanced in technology and economy and were perceived to be powerful; therefore, they could conquer as many nations as possible and use up their resources. Due to this, the United States citizens believed that their territory expansion would bring cultural success to other people (Cleveland, 2022, p. 181)
Due to the drastic change from the United States’ first policy of Isolationism, it was continuously reformed, and with time they developed an interest in the politics and economies of other nations. Therefore, they based their assumption on imperialism, believing that they were superior and better than other nations. They had the self-convinced notion that the inferior races needed their help politically, socially, and economically from their oppressors. A good example is the Panama Canal Project which began with the United States helping Panama gain its independence from Colombia. The United States was then granted access to the Panama Canal Zone, executed through the Hay-Bunau-Virilla treaty. This treaty between the United States and the Panama government granted America access to the canal. Furthermore, Panama was given political protection to enable them to build its economy through financial reimbursements. After the Panama Canal was completed, it developed the economy of the United States due to its strategic position (Boukhtache, 2021, p. 178).
Additionally, religious reasons were also motivating factors behind imperialism. During this period, different religious organizations from America set out for conversion ministries and sought to add more members to their religious beliefs and practices. Missionaries from America established churches in different parts of the country and used them to conquer new territories. This helped the Americans spread their beliefs and culture to other regions. Apart from religion, the Americans were also able to spread western education, which they thought was a way of improving civilization in other nations (Cleveland, 2022, p. 175). Through education, they taught their language, English, which facilitated the easy spread of their religion since people could now read the Bible. Some missionaries were instrumental in the slave trade since they deemed it brutal—the fight against slavery and social problems such as impoverishment, distress, and corruption. Although the missionaries played a hand in spreading the American culture, they were also instrumental in the end of colonialism.
Several factors and motives were behind America’s shift from Isolationism and continental expansion to imperialism, such as economic motives, exploration, superiority, religion spreading, and western education. These motives benefited the United States at the expense of other counties whose land and the government were taken over. They were mainly interested in the mining opportunities and the available natural resources in continents such as Africa. These raw materials were shipped back to their “mother” country, which facilitated the production of more products. This could be termed selfish since they did not grow the countries; they colonized economically despite being both economically able. The end of imperialism left the affected countries with economies on their knees with few resources left to exploit and use. The effects of imperialism have been felt in the modern world. However, the colonies might have acquired some benefits from their colonizers, such as education. With the introduction of western education, these colonies’ countries were able to advance their technology and increase their economic growth.
Some cities initially occupied by the Americans grew to become wealthy and a source of revenue for the government. Imperialism was instrumental in building the economy of America hence making it one of the wealthiest superpowers in the world. Since the early 19th century, the United States has been making economic progress, making it the fastest-growing economy in the world. Different parts of the world felt the impacts of American imperialism, which affected political, economic, and social growth. They succeed in their quest to conquer most of the countries and control the markets, boosting their economic development.
Graham, Thomas. “The United States and Eurasia in Historical Perspective.” In The Return of Eurasia, pp. 285–313. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, 2021.
Petras, James, and Henry Veltmeyer. “World development: globalization or imperialism?” In Globalization and Antiglobalization, pp. 11-24. Routledge, 2018.
Cleveland, Mark, and Georgia McCutcheon. “‘Antiglobalscapes’: A cross-national investigation of the nature and precursors of consumers’ apprehensions towards globalization.” Journal of Business Research 138 (2022): 170–184.
Boukhtache, Fatima Zahra Mansour. “US cultural hegemony and the shifting positionality of Frederick Douglass.” American Nineteenth Century History 22, no. 2 (2021): 177-195.