The Progressive Movement and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1890-1920s

The Progressive movement was a turn-of-the-century political movement interested in furthering social and political reform, curbing political corruption caused by political machines, and limiting the political influence of large corporations. Although many Progressives saw U.S. power in a foreign arena as an opportunity to enact the Progressive domestic agenda overseas, and to improve foreign societies, others were concerned about the adverse effects of U.S. interventions and colonialism.

The Progressive movement began with a domestic agenda. Progressives were interested in establishing a more transparent and accountable government which would work to improve U.S. society. These reformers favored such policies as civil service reform, food safety laws, and increased political rights for women and U.S. workers. In the 1890s, the Progressive movement also began to question the power of large businesses and monopolies after a series of journalistic exposts that revealed questionable business practices.

Throughout the 1890s, the U.S. Government became increasingly likely to rely on its military and economic power to pursue foreign policy goals. The most prominent action during this period, the Spanish-American War, resulted in U.S. rule of the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, as well as increased influence over Cuba. These territories captured in the Spanish-American war had a varied response toward U.S. occupation. In the Philippines, American forces faced armed insurgency, while in Puerto Rico, working-class and Progressive Puerto Ricans saw the United States as a successful counterweight to local sugar industry elites.

Many Progressives, including U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, saw no conflict between imperialism and reform at home -to them, both were forms of uplift, reform and improvement, and so they saw in these new colonies an opportunity to further the Progressive agenda around the world. However, especially after the violence of the Philippine-American War, other Progressives became increasingly vocal about their opposition to U.S. foreign intervention and imperialism. Still others argued that foreign ventures would detract from much-needed domestic political and social reforms. Under the leadership of U.S. Senator Robert La Follette, Progressive opposition to foreign intervention further increased under the Dollar Diplomacy policies of Republican President William Howard Taft and Secretary of State Philander Knox. However, Progressives remained mostly interested in domestic issues, and Republican Progressives sometimes hesitated to break party lines on foreign policy, hoping to ensure greater influence on domestic matters within the Republican Party. Similarly, after the election of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, Democratic Progressives also tended to follow Wilson’s lead on foreign policy issues, while the partisan reaction against them was led by Republican Progressives. Wilson also faced opposition from John Barrett, Director-General of the Pan-American Union, whom Wilson eventually forced out of office in 1919.

President Wilson may have had greater reservations about U.S. foreign intervention in the Americas than President Theodore Roosevelt, but he was willing to intervene in the Mexican Revolution. Concerns about possible German submarine warfare also caused him to order U.S. military interventions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and also led to the purchase of the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark. The military occupations incorporated elements of the Progressive program, attempting to establish effective local police forces, reform land laws, build public infrastructure, and increase public access to education. However, these programs were hampered by local opposition to U.S. occupation and U.S. policies that inadvertently proved counterproductive. Where Progressive policies threatened to destabilize U.S. authority, U.S. officials in charge of occupying forces opted for stability rather than authentic Progressive changes.

In foreign policy, the Progressive movement also split over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Progressive U.S. Senator William Borah led the campaign against ratification, and he would increasingly become the champion of the isolationist movement until his death in 1940. Other Progressives viewed the treaty more favorably.

In the 1920s, the Progressive movement began to be supplanted by several different movements. In some cases, such as women’s suffrage, Progressive victory caused activists to lose momentum to push for further change. The Progressive wing of the Republican Party was weakened by the party splits of 1912 and 1924, which were attempts to form a third, Progressive party. The Progressive wing of the Democratic Party would eventually be subsumed under the broader New Deal coalition of Franklin Roosevelt. Foreign policy matters would increasingly be focused on the buildup to the Second World War, and Progressive issues took a back seat to the interventionist/isolationist split.


See Also

  • Foreign Policy
  • Foreign Relations
  • Trade Regulation
  • Public Policy
  • International Relations

Hierarchical Display of Imperialism

International Relations > International security > Foreign policy


Concept of Imperialism

See the dictionary definition of Imperialism.

Characteristics of Imperialism

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Translation of Imperialism

Thesaurus of Imperialism

International Relations > International security > Foreign policy > Imperialism

See also

  • Foreign affairs
  • Foreign relations
  • Hegemony






7 responses to “Imperialism”

  1. international

    Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1980, 1989) has developed another interpretation of neo-imperialism, claiming that the world is split into three zones: the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery. Here, the core or centre of power exploits the other zones. This approach has been termed ‘modern world system theory’. The implicit relationships characteristic of overt imperialism and political control still exist in the modern world system and have been embedded into its structure. Thus, overt imperialism is no longer necessary but to all intents and purposes imperialism as an economic (and political) relationship still exists. Regardless of the reality of imperialism in the contemporary world, the term is often used in political discourse as negative. Revisionist leaders (and former leaders), such as Fidel Castro (Cuba), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Iran), often refer to US foreign policy as grand imperial design bent on world domination so as to garner support for their own policies and delegitimize those of the USA. Even in discourse taking place within status quo states such as the United States and Britain, the term imperialism is seen as a form of political and economic organization which has rightly been relegated to the past, even though relationships and policies rooted in the era of European empires remain today. Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1994) offers a good discussion of developments in European imperial discourse and narratives.

  2. international

    The study of imperialism is often focused on by theories dealing with the study of conflict, the spread of capitalism and contemporary development issues.

    Some scholars argue that imperialism was (and potentially still is) necessary in order for the modern world system to emerge out of disintegrated pre-industrial economic systems. In short, imperialism helped to spread the capitalist world system, increase global economic development, encourage technological and industrial progress, and usher in modernity. This is, however, a contested viewpoint, and imperialism has been seen to be far less of a necessary or desired process by Marxists and structuralists. Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) argued that imperialism was the highest form of capitalism, and was the means to preserve the capitalist system. Lenin, and later Marxists, claimed that while the capitalist system was decaying in Europe due to the inherent contradictions found within it, capitalists found new markets to sell their excess goods in, import raw materials from, and exploit labour in. These markets were the non-European realms and once integrated into the capitalist system they allowed some measure of development and economic justice in Europe while maintaining the capitalist system of competition, exploitation and accumulation. In this way, therefore, critical theorists have seen imperialism as a policy initiated by the bourgeoisie with the goal of maintaining their position. Imperialism was thus something to be resisted.

  3. international

    Some scholars argue that imperialism is not a stage of human history that has passed. Others argue that a form of neo-imperialism exists where the same processes of dominance, subjugation, exploitation and control are still present. Prebisch sees the modern world economy as being divided up into zones (which are not necessarily geographically delineated as contiguous territories), and relationships between capitalistic entities and markets for labour, imports and exports. The rich entities can include states, but it is more common to view actors such as MNCs as the real centres of power; and underdeveloped markets and societies as the subjugated peripheries. The relationship between these centres of power and their ‘domains’ is one of dependency where the poor are inescapably reliant on the rich. This form of neo-imperialism has been explored in dependency theory.

  4. international

    In the decade before the First World War, the British spy thriller was a cultural phenomenon drawing large and expectant readerships across all classes and catapulting its authors to prominence as spokesmen for then widely prevalent concerns about imperial strength, national power, and foreign espionage. Three hundred is a conservative estimate of the number of spy novels that went into print between 1901 and 1914.

  5. international

    The U.S. was emerging as a world power. In 1898, Congress approved involvement in Cuba’s rebellion against the Spanish, sparking the Spanish-American War. At the end of the conflict, the U.S. gained control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Meiklejohn, Magoon, and Pershing took an interest in these international affairs. Policies that had been tested on the Midwest, such as the Homestead Act, helped shape how these men believed territory should be organized. With Meiklejohn’s help, they were soon in positions where they could implement those visions.

    Meiklejohn used his power in the War Department liberally. The Secretary of War who was supposed to oversee him, Russell Alger, was frequently sick or absent. When Alger was gone, Meiklejohn became the Acting Secretary of War. On one such occasion, Meiklejohn used his authority as acting secretary to send a directive to himself as assistant secretary, ordering himself to “take charge of all matters relating to customs duties to be levied and collected in Cuba, Porto Rico (sic) and the Philippines.” He willingly accepted the orders from himself, and began to handle all incoming insular matters.

  6. international

    John Pershing preferred field work over administration. More than once he wrote to Meiklejohn requesting particular positions that would allow him to stay abroad with the military, first in Cuba and later in the Philippines. In both places he held influential positions, including military governor of a Philippine province for several years

    Charles Magoon’s role in overseas affairs mirrored his Nebraska law experience, but on a much grander stage. As Bjork writes: “As law officer for the Bureau of Insular Affairs, one of Magoon’s main tasks was to survey the entire body of civil law pertaining to the formerly Spanish colonies to make recommendations as to what should be retained and what adapted.” In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Magoon as the provisional governor of Cuba, charged with maintaining stability and protecting U.S. interests in the aftermath of a fraudulent election.

  7. international

    A petition signed by over 50% of the native Hawaiian population against it becoming a part of the United States.

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