Walter LaFeber,
The New Empire:
An Interpretation of
American Expansion, 1860-1898

(Cornell University Press,
1963; re-issue, 1998)

This book, written more than 40 years ago, offers an important, fact-filled overview of a very important era in American history, one that is largely forgotten today. The New Empire does a more than credible job of filling in the huge gaps in our collective history of 1865-1898, and it turns out that something indeed happened between Reconstruction and the Spanish-American War.

First, Walter LaFeber provides a worthy overview of American expansion in these years. Next, he describes the development of expansionist ideas by examining critical policymakers and pundits such as Fredrick Jackson Turner, Henry Adams and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Finally, he delves into the history of events and policy decisions chronologically.

While his information on the 1870s and 1880s is good, it mostly serves as a springboard for his assessment of expansion and commercial imperialism in the 1890s. The final decade of the 19th century is a crucial time in American history. Wracked with the Panic of 1893 and the terrible depression of the following years, America first stepped out on to the world stage, largely in an effort to protect the very viability of the nation from labor unrest and anarchy. LaFeber describes all of the international issues the U.S. addressed in this era: revolutions in Latin America (and America's steadfast enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine), the strong push by both businesses and/or government for foreign markets, the question of annexation of Hawaii, the Philippines and Cuba, and the fluid relations between America and the European powers. The depression of the 1890s convinced many influential men that America could not survive economically without developing new commercial frontiers in which to unload its surplus agriculture and, in particular, manufactured goods. Anti-annexationist voices were muted by the late 1890s; the only debate was one of annexation vs. the establishment of protectorate status to the likes of Hawaii and the Philippines.

LaFeber contends that economic issues largely explain the development of America's new imperial policy. This is argued most forcefully in his investigation of the origins of the Spanish-American War. The most important economic issues at the time were the Cuban revolution, the dangers of losing access to Chinese markets due to the machinations of countries such as Germany and Russia, the establishment of defensively important outposts in the Far East and the construction of an isthmian canal in Latin America. He does a wonderful job of describing the wavering opinions of policy makers and businessmen in the 1890s and of America's reorganization of political alliances with the European powers, Russia and Japan. He makes a forceful argument for his economic explanation of the war with Spain in 1898. McKinley was not alone in trying to avoid war, but he and many other leaders came to realize that America could not compete economically without establishing foreign markets and that stability and guaranteed access to such markets would require annexation of strategic areas and the development of a strong navy with which to secure and maintain access to foreign ports.

This book is a wonderful source of information on American foreign policy from 1865 to 1898. It is rather easy to point to the Spanish-American War as the herald of America's transformation from isolationism to globalism, but LaFeber proves that the U.S. began to aggressively pursue a policy of commercial imperialism in the mid-1890s. This is not an all-inclusive history, however. It can be argued that LaFeber relies too intently on economics in his description of America's evolving foreign policy. This is true to some extent, but he does not dismiss other factors in choosing to concentrate on economics.

All in all, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly. It is enlightening to penetrate the veil of these forgotten years to see how a progression of events in and outside America set the stage for America's ardent stride into the role of global and commercial superpower. Those who begin their stories of American commercial and diplomatic expansion with the Spanish-American War and the introduction of the Open Door Notes would do well to read The New Empire and follow the true beginnings of the national transformation back into the 1890s.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 16 May 2005

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