US Foreign Relations in Late 1800s–Early 1900s

Subject: History
Pages: 3
Words: 849
Reading time:
4 min
Study level: Master

With the end of the Reconstruction period in 1877, the United States entered a period of exceptionally rapid economic growth. Iron production quadrupled, and coal production increased tenfold; its transportation infrastructure also developed rapidly, consolidating its domestic market (Gallman and Rhode, 2019). At this time and in the U.S., new industries emerged, such as electrical, chemical, and the nascent automotive industry. The status of the U.S. in the global economy has changed noticeably – it has come to first place in the world in terms of major economic indicators. American business, which was rapidly strengthening its position, was already cramped within the U.S. domestic market. Its leaders began to pay more attention to new markets located outside U.S. borders. The late 1800’s-Early 1900s saw a surge of interest in the problems of expansion.

At this time, a variety of theories flourished, justifying the value and necessity of expansion for the further progress of American society. Thus, various versions of the doctrine of the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race over all others became widely popular in the United States (Gamber, 2018). At that time, in various scientific works, the authors were proving that the Americans were to occupy the dominant position in the evolution of human civilization (Gamber, 2018). Thus, in the cultural sphere, there was the formation and subsequent promotion of ideas proving the unique path of the United States.

The turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was when the modern United States, a country of giant corporations, cities with a population of millions, and a society dominated by wage labor, was taking shape. But the old rural America, while still strong economically and socially, was gradually giving up. Accordingly, the social structure of the United States increasingly acquired modern features: the share of farming was shrinking while the urban middle class was growing. Bifurcation, the juxtaposition of old and new, and significant differences between members of different classes characterized the United States at this time.

In terms of politics, the U.S. had to decide whether it should and was ready to implement foreign policy expansion fully. Opponents of the expansionists made several principled arguments against basing foreign policy strategy on aggressive behavior on the world stage. First, such a course could lead the country into conflict with the world’s leading powers, and the U.S. was not yet ready for this. Second, to successfully expand its sphere of influence in world politics, America would inevitably have to strengthen its armed forces. This, in turn, would entail an increase in government spending and taxes and would weaken the U.S. financial system.

Moreover, such a foreign-policy strategy ran counter to the teachings of the Founding Fathers and threatened the democratic institutions of American society. This was because it would inevitably entrench the political process of forces hostile to democratic values. The U.S. continued to influence Latin American countries, increasing the latter’s economic dependence (Weyland, 2018). In addition, there was an increase in the country’s interest in the Far East region, including China. U.S. business was interested in opportunities to invest in railroad construction, as this allowed the USA to gain significant leverage over the overall situation in China.

When looking at specific events in U.S. history, it is clear that expansion and rapid economic development have always been the country’s priorities. For example, the U.S. made the leap from a traditional to an advanced industrial society in just a quarter of a century. In addition, throughout its history, the U.S. managed to achieve expansion of the sphere of influence by investing its own capital (Gallman and Rhode, 2019). This can be seen, for example, in the way how U.S.-China relations were arranged in the late 19th century or U.S. policy toward Latin American countries at the same period. U.S. actions in Cuba, which led to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, demonstrate how, through ambiguous diplomatic methods, the country was helped to create an image of the state as a victim of aggression. Such a policy allowed the United States to respond to invaders if necessary, and this principle of responding to the actions of other countries has become a key strategy in the country’s foreign policy.

Therefore, by the end of the 20th century, the U.S. had all the conditions to begin the struggle to join the club of great powers for global engagement during World War I. The country’s strong economic base allowed it to set and solve major foreign policy tasks. A solid ideological foundation had been prepared, based on which the U.S. political elite justified the necessity and desirability of a dramatic increase in foreign expansion. Besides, its main directions were also clearly defined; the stereotype about the inseparable connection and interdependence of expansion and progress was firmly fixed in the mass consciousness of the Americans. However, the peculiarity of the U.S. historical development was that the degree of political readiness to conduct expansion was ahead of the state’s level of preparedness to solve large-scale tasks in this sphere. This, in turn, severely impacted the nature of all U.S. foreign policy in the early twentieth century.


Gallman, Robert E., and Paul Webb Rhode. Capital in the Nineteenth Century. The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Gamber, Sophia Driscoll. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Nation: The Theology of White Supremacy in Liberal White American Christianity. Religious Studies Honors Papers, 2018.

Weyland, Kurt. “Limits of US Influence: The Promotion of Regime Change in Latin America.” Journal of Politics in Latin America 10, 2018, 135–164.