Global Policy Forum

Continuity and Change in Two Turn-of-the-Century Wars


Presented at the Annual Conference of the Association of Asian-American Studies, Boston, MA

By Stephen R. Shalom

Stephen R. Shalom's website
March 27, 2004

Over forty years ago, historian Thomas A. Bailey noted that there were more than a dozen books whose titles or subtitles associated the era of the Spanish American and the Philippine American wars with the United States' emergence -- or eruption -- as a world power.[1] And there have been many titles since with the same theme.

Now, a hundred years after that crucial moment in U.S. history, we are said to be at another watershed. This time, the events of September 11, after which "nothing is the same," and the 2003 U.S.-led war on Iraq, and its doctrinal justification in the 2002 National Security Strategy which called for preemptive war, are said to represent another critical break in US foreign policy, where the traditions of not firing the first shot and acting within an international consensus have been replaced with unprovoked and unilateral attack.

What I would like to do is explore both of these historical moments, a century apart, to consider the degree to which they actually do represent important turning points in U.S. foreign policy.


Let me start with 1898.

Being a world power can mean many things. I will consider four possible renderings of the term. It might mean, first, having global interests. Second, it could mean engaging in foreign interventions. Third, ruling over subject peoples. Fourth, seizing foreign territory.

The United States had global interests long before 1898.

In the early 19th century, US clipper ships were plying the Pacific, selling, among other commodities, opium. Indeed, some of the great commercial families of New England owe their fortunes to the illegal opium trade. One of them is the Forbes family, ancestors of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.[2]

In the 1830s US merchants were so dominant in the world pepper trade, with its ships frequenting the "pepper coast," what is today the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, that the pepper market in Salem Massachusetts set the world price.[3]

In 1844, the United States was the second nation, after Britain, to sign one of the "unequal" treaties with China.[4] In 1850, the US signed a treaty with the Sultan of Brunei giving the US extra-territorial jurisdiction. Ditto with Thailand in 1856.[5]

And in 1867, of course, the United States acquired Alaska, which brought its borders into the heart of the Pacific.

Nor did foreign interventions begin in 1898. Indeed, according to the somewhat arbitrary count of the Library of Congress, there were fully 98 uses of US troops abroad before the Spanish American War -- excluding covert actions or the ubiquitous Indian wars.[6] Of these, more than a quarter of them took place in Asia or the Pacific.[7]

The first US military intervention in Asia took place in 1832. The year before, some Sumatrans temporarily seized an American merchant vessel, looting it and killing three of its sailors.[8] The captain of the vessel has claimed that those responsible were drug addicts attracted to the ship's 12 chests of opium; but historians note that there was strong evidence that the seizure was brought about by US merchants cheating the Indonesians.[9] In any event, Washington dispatched a naval vessel, whose captain, without bothering to find out the facts of the incident, set the town of Kuala Batu on fire after plundering it, and slaughtered somewhere between 60 and upwards of 150 people, including non-combatants.

US trade in the Pacific was not pacific. The US famously "opened" Japan in 1854. But this was done with warships, not by peaceful commerce. Likewise, the 1856 unequal treaty with Thailand was accomplished "under the guns" of a US warship.[10] This entry from the Library of Congress's listing of US intervention gives a flavor of how Washington secured commercial treaties:

"1864 -- Japan -- July 14 to August 3. Naval forces protected the United States Minister to Japan when he visited Yedo to negotiate concerning some American claims against Japan, and to make his negotiations easier by impressing the Japanese with American power."

To take another example of how negotiations were facilitated, in 1874 there was a US naval demonstration in Hawaii to prevent a "Hawaii for the Hawaiians" movement, and the grateful Hawaiian government responded by appointing two Americans with sugar interests as their negotiators with the US on a trade treaty.[11]

Nor was 1898 a watershed when it came to ruling over subject peoples. During the debate on the acquisition of the Philippines, Henry Cabot Lodge spoke in favor of annexation by declaring that if justice requires the consent of the governed, "then our whole past record of expansion is a crime."[12] According to historian Walter Williams:

"there seems to be a mistaken consensus, at least among many diplomatic historians, that the United States did not have a tradition of holding alien peoples as colonial subjects before 1898."

Indeed, "Indians lived under a control as thoroughly colonial as any inhabitants of American overseas territories." Indians were, said the Supreme Court in its Elk v. Wilkins decision, nationals owing allegiance to the United States, but "without those privileges that go only citizenship" -- the same legal status that was conferred upon inhabitants of the U.S.'s island territories after the Spanish American War.[13]

The Indian analogy was common in the remarks of the imperialists. As Senator Albert Beveridge put it on Jan. 9, 1900:

"And you, who say the Declaration applies to all men, how dare you deny its application to the American Indian? And if you deny it to the Indian at home, how dare you grant it to the Malay abroad?"[14]

Many anti-imperialists shared the imperialists' low estimate of Indians, but -- as Daniel Boone Schirmer has long taught us, there was a core minority of anti-imperialists who were principled opponents of empire.[15]Moorfield Storey, the president of the Anti-Imperialist League, and some others, especially in New England, believed in self-government as much for Indians as for Filipinos. "Our treatment of the Indians cannot be dignified and made a precedent or a defense for like policy in foreign lands," proclaimed a League pamphlet in 1899.[16]

What about seizing foreign territory? This too was not new in 1898. To quote Henry Cabot Lodge again:

"the record of American expansion which closed with Alaska has been a long one, and to-day we do but continue the same movement. The same policy runs through them all."[17]

In a similar vein, A. Lawrence Lowell, later to become president of Harvard, wrote in 1899,

"the question is not whether we shall enter upon a career of colonization or not, but whether we shall shift into other channels the colonization which has lasted as long as our national existence."[18]

And Whitelaw Reid declared in 1900,

"Why mourn over our present course as a departure from the policy of the fathers? For a hundred years the uniform policy which they began and their sons continued as been acquisition, expansion.... The precedent was established before we were born."[19]

Historian Thomas Bailey has noted that

"We self-righteously preened ourselves on not becoming an imperialistic power until 1898, when we acquired Spanish real estate in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Yet hundreds of Spanish place names pepper the land from California to Texas, all of which, curiously enough, somehow managed to come under our nonimperialistic flag a half century earlier."[20]

Now it might be argued that the colonies of 1898 were non-contiguous, unlike the expansion on the North American continent. But Alaska was noncontiguous and when California was annexed in 1848 it was more inaccessible and took more time to reach from Washington DC than it took to get to the Philippines 50 years later.[21]

And even overseas territorial acquisitions did not wait on 1898. In 1878, the US acquired Pago Pago in Samoa as a coaling station, and in 1887, the US obtained exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor.[22]

So under all four definitions of being a world power, 1898 was not decisive.


Let me now fast-forward a hundred years.

9-11 is said to have changed everything, and the war in Iraq is said to represent a crucial break with past US practice.

For example, several months before Washington began its attack on Iraq, former president Jimmy Carter criticized President Bush, saying that military action without United Nations approval would be "a radical departure from traditions that have shaped our nation's policy by Democratic and Republican presidents for more than 50 years."[23]

Let me consider two aspects of that US tradition -- acting unilaterally and waging unprovoked war.

There is no doubt that the Bush administration has acted unilaterally, not just in waging its war against Iraq without the consent of the Security Council, but more generally. Consider, for example, General Assembly votes.

In the 57th session of the General Assembly, the 2002-2003 session, 70 resolutions were contested.[24] On 11 of these 70 contested resolutions, the United States voted with the majority -- that is, voted in the affirmative. On the other 59 contested resolutions, 84 percent, the United States either abstained or voted no. Sixteen times the U.S. was joined in its no vote or abstention by at least 10 other countries, but much more often -- 43 times, comprising 61 percent of all the contested resolutions -- Washington's abstention or no vote was part of a small minority. On 29 occasions the United States either cast the lone negative vote or else had as its voting partners only Israel and/or a few tiny Pacific island nations. For example, the United States voted virtually alone against resolutions on its embargo of Cuba, on Israel's treatment of Palestinians, on the right to development, on freedom of travel, and on a nuclear free southern hemisphere.

But now compare this record with that which occurred in the 53rd session, the 1998-99 session during the Clinton administration.[25] In that session there were 61 contested resolutions, and the US voted with the majority 14 times. On 47 resolutions -- more than three quarters of the time -- the US either voted no or abstained. On 13 votes (about 21% of the time), the US was in a minority of at least 10 nations, but on 16 votes the US cast a no vote joined only by Israel, once cast the lone no vote, and once voted no joined only by Israel and Micronesia. For example, the United States voted virtually alone against resolutions on its embargo of Cuba, on Israel's treatment of Palestinians, on the right to development, on freedom of travel, and on a nuclear free southern hemisphere.

So, yes, the US was more isolated under Bush than Clinton, but not by much. And that's because the Clinton administration philosophy was "multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must."[26]

Now even a committed multilateralist would agree that there might be some extreme circumstances where unilateral action was justified, but the Clinton administration rejected the UN over Kosovo in 1999 and its 1998 attacks on Iraq. In addition, in 1997, the Clinton administration refused to sign anti-land mines convention. In 1998, the Clinton administration was in a small minority of nations trying to block the International Criminal Court. In 1997, the Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but only after inserting exemptions that made it toothless. In October 1999 the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, despite entreaties from important allies that doing so would encourage the spread of nuclear weapons. By 1999, both Democrats and Republicans had endorsed goal of a National Missile Defense.[27]

The United States, which under the Bush administration, is the only industrialized democracy not to have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, also failed to ratify that treaty during the Clinton administration. And the United States, which under the Bush administration, is one of only two countries (the other is Somalia) that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, also failed to ratify that treaty during the Clinton administration.

So unilateralism is hardly something invented by George W. Bush. What about unprovoked attacks? Many have claimed that unprovoked attacks are contrary to the US tradition. For example, in August 2002, Rep. Dick Armey declared in opposing war on Iraq: "I don't believe that America will justifiably make an unprovoked attack on another nation." "It would not be consistent with what we have been as a nation or what we should be as a nation." [28] (Parenthetically, we might note this Profile in Courage: Armey voted in favor of the war resolution and was a sponsor of it.[29])

A month later Sen. Diane Feinstein, speaking against war, declared:

"America has never been an aggressor nation unless attacked, as we were at Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, or our interests and our allies were attacked....We have never initiated a major invasion against another nation-state... "[30]

(We should note another Profile in Courage: Feinstein too voted yea.[31])

"We've made it a point through most of American history not to fire the first shot," stated Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer, though there have been, acknowledged Fischer, some exceptions.[32] Indeed, the exceptions include, among the big wars, the war of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, the Philippine American War, the Vietnam War, and among smaller wars there countless Indian wars, Iran in 1953, Guatemala 1954, the Congo in 1960, the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada 1983, Nicaragua through the 1980s, Panama in 1989.

President Kennedy, in an address to Congress on March 28, 1961 stated that: "Our arms will never be used to strike the first blow in any attack. ... It is our national tradition."[33] This was less than three weeks before US forces participated in the US-armed, US-led, and US-organized Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

During the Cuban Missile crisis, Robert Kennedy is famously quoted as opposing a US sneak attack on Cuba because that would be like Pearl Harbor in reverse. But first of all, it wasn't the first-strike aspect of Pearl Harbor that US policymakers were concerned about, but the fact that it was a sneak attack -- and accordingly they spent many hours trying to figure out how they could fire the first shot while giving appropriate warning.[34] And second of all, the same day that he first raised the Pearl Harbor analogy, Robert Kennedy suggested that the United States manufacture some incident at Guatanamo or "sink the Maine again or something" as a way to justify a US attack.[35]

So it's hard to see unilateral or unprovoked attack as anathema to US traditions.


Having shown the continuities in US policy, both in 1898 and a hundred years later, let me now acknowledge some differences.

In 1898, a three-sided political struggle emerged in the United States over imperialism. The imperialists wanted a colonial empire of the sort held by the other great powers. A second group wanted instead to "treat the Philippines like Cuba" -- that is, they were neo-colonialists, rather than colonialists. And a third group, about which Daniel Schirmer has written so eloquently, opposed empire whether of the colonial or the neo-colonial variety. Ultimately, the second group won this struggle, but the third group enunciated a position that continues to inspire us today.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the Bush administration continues the US policy of seeking global hegemony. But with a change. In the past, the policy of world domination was masked with all sorts of platitudes. "Our arms will never be used to strike the first blow," said Kennedy as he ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion. This sort of two-faced policy depended for its success on the ability to manipulate and mislead the public, with Tonkin Gulf incidents and similar deceptions.

But we're a lot smarter today. We've learned from our anti-imperialist predecessors. These deceptions aren't nearly as successful.

In the past, the US has always acted under the cover of legitimacy, so when that cover was exposed, policymakers had to reverse course. But what makes the Bush administration so dangerous is that after they failed in their effort to manipulate world opinion or US opinion to support their war in Iraq, they declared that they were going forward anyway. If they can get away with this, that would be a very dangerous precedent indeed.


1. Thomas A. Bailey, "America's Emergence as a World Power: The Myth and the Verity," Pacific Historical Review 30 (Feb. 1961): 1-16.
2. Jacques M. Downs, "American Merchants and the China Opium Trade, 1800-1840," Business History Review 42 (Winter 1968), no. 4: 418-42.
3. David F. Long, "'Martial Thunder': The First Official American Armed Intervention in Asia," Pacific Historical Review 42 (May 1973): 144.
4. Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: Norton, 1990), 160-61.
5. James W. Gould, "American Imperialism in Southeast Asia before 1898," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 3 (Sept. 1972): 309.
6. Ellen C. Collier, "Instances of Use of United States Forces Abroad, 1798 - 1993," Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Oct. 7, 1993,
7. Ibid.
8. Long, 143-62.
9. Long, 148; Gould, 307.
10. Gould, 309.
11. Barry R. Rigby, "The Origins of American Expansion in Hawaii and Samoa, 1865-1900," International History Review 10 (May 1988): 224-25.
12. Henry Cabot Lodge, AThe Philippine Islands,@ in American Imperialism in 1898, ed. Theodore P. Greene (Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1955), 72.
13. Walter Williams, "US Indian policy and the debate over Philippine annexation: Implications for the origins of American imperialism," Journal of American History 66 (March 1980): 810, 814, 813.
14. Cited in Williams, 819.
15. Daniel B. Schirmer, Republic or Empire? (Boston: Schenkman, 1972).
16. Quoted in Williams, 822.
17. Cited in Williams, 817.
18. Cited in Williams, 817.
19. Cited in Williams, 817.
20. Bailey, 9.
21. Williams, 818.
22. Rigby, 221-37.
23. Andrew Buncombe, Iraq the Threat Of War: Democrats - Gore Ends Silence with Outspoken Attack on Bush," The Independent (London), Sept. 25, 2002, p. 7.
24. For discussion and documentation, see Stephen R. Shalom, "The United States in the General Assembly," April 22, 2003, ZNet,
25. See the listing of resolutions and the votes on them at the UN's website,
26. Quoted in Stephen S. Rosenfeld, "Going It Alone," Washington Post, Mar. 6, 1998, p. A25.
27. Stewart Patrick, "Don't Fence Me In: The Perils of Going It Alone," World Policy Journal, Fall 2001, pp. 3-4.
28. Eric Schmitt, "Iraq Is Defiant as G.O.P. Leader Opposes Attack," NYT, Aug. 9, 2002, p. 6.
29. See Roll Call,;
30. Edward Epstein, "Feinstein blasts Bush's talk of war; Senator says attack on Iraq unwarranted," San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 6, 2002, p. A1.
31. See Roll Call,
32. Keith Epstein, "Bush's 1st Strike Strategy Breaks Tradition," Tampa Tribune (Florida), Mar. 23, 2003, p. 1.
33. Special Message to the Congress on the Defense Budget, March 28, 1961,
34. See, e.g., Roger Hilsman, To Move A Nation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 203-04; Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Bantam, 1965), p. 772; Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 17.
35. ExComm tapes, Oct. 16, 1963, II, p. 27.

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