1898: The Bloody Rise of U.S. Imperialism

Revolutionary Worker #938, December 28, 1997

A hundred years ago, something sinister reached out across the blue waters of the Caribbean and the Pacific. In 1898 the United States suddenly "projected power" in a new way outside North America's continental shores. The U.S. government packed thousands of soldiers on its new "iron navy" and landed them in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines--seizing these islands by force to forge a new empire.

This military conquest was only a first step--after occupation by guns came occupation by the Almighty Dollar. The monopolists and bankers who ruled the United States had plans for the exploitation of labor, for the plunder of raw materials, for the making of profit--for the reshaping of whole cultures, economies and societies in their interests. In the dishonest and self-serving style that became their trademark, they portrayed these conquests as "a civilizing mission" that would prepare "unfit" people for a later time of independence and freedom.

The war of 1898 was the birthcry of this major new oppressor arriving upon the world stage--U.S. imperialism.

A Snake from Birth

"We have a record of conquest, colonization and expansion unequalled by any people in the Nineteenth Century. We are not about to be curbed now."

Henry Cabot Lodge,
Senator from Massachusetts, 1895

From its very beginnings expansionism was the hallmark of the United States. Its war of independence was fought, in part, to secure the "freedom" to seize Indian territories west of the Appalachian mountains. After the war of 1812, the U.S. expelled Native peoples from all land up to the Mississippi. And then they carved new slave plantations and family farms out of the forests. In the 1830s and '40s, the peoples and lands of northern Mexico, from Texas to California, were invaded, stolen and annexed by the United States.

The U.S. always had global ambitions--its rulers included merchants and slave traders with interests all over the world. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 had declared that all of Latin America was a U.S. sphere of influence. According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. carried out 103 interventions before 1895, including: Argentina 1852. Japan 1853. Nicaragua 1854. Shanghai, China 1859. Angola, Africa 1860. Nicaragua again in 1894.

But before the 1890s, the energies of the U.S. government were focused on consolidating their continental base--expanding to the Pacific and "pacifying" the peoples they had overrun. After the Civil War of the 1860s, the U.S. government unleashed its battle-hardened army on the Native peoples of the Great Plains and the southern border regions--driving them onto reservations. In 1890, the year of the Wounded Knee massacre, the U.S. government officially declared the close of the internal frontier.

Greedy eyes then started looking across the waters.

"Why do we call them imperialists? Because they exploit and oppress people all over the world. They have developed an empire and they will do anything to try and preserve it. It is the same people robbing and exploiting, degrading and humiliating us every day that are doing that same thing, and want to do more of it, to people all around the world. That's why we call it imperialism, because that's what it is."

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP

A New Kind of Capitalism

After winning their Civil War with the Southern slaveowners, the capitalists of the United States underwent explosive growth and tremendous transformation. Steam power, machines and electricity were being put to work everywhere--in transportation and in mushrooming factory districts. Steel and coal production skyrocketed. And armies of workers, many of them new European immigrants, bent their backs in labor to produce and move a vast stream of new manufactured goods.

As production changed, so did the very structure of ownership. Wealth and ownership became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. An intense dog-eat-dog process gave birth to the modern corporation. A frenzied climate of mergers, buy-outs and large-scale government corruption produced powerful centers of finance capital that now dominated society. Huge monopolies like U.S. Steel, Union Pacific and Standard Oil straddled whole industries. There were new media monopolies, like the Hearst newspaper chain.

These monopoly-capitalists brought a new quality to the aggressive expansionism of the U.S. Southern slaveowners had once dreamed of conquering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Islands and creating a new slave empire to rival Rome's. The wealthy merchants of the earlier U.S. had dreamed of commercial empire--with U.S. gunboats opening the "doors" of distant countries like Japan and China, so that "free trade" could make them rich.

But these monopoly capitalists had a new vision of a colonial empire organized around capitalist production as well as trade--where rich raw materials could be plundered and armies of distant workers exploited. These were modern imperialists --with a capitalist vision of empire.

By the 1890s, these monopoly capitalists were seized with an almost frenzied sense of urgency. Monopoly capitalists in the European powers were rapidly dividing up the world between them--assigning themselves colonies and "spheres of influence." Britain, the world's largest power, could now brag that "the sun never sets on the British Empire." At the Berlin conference of 1884-5, the European powers arrogantly divided Africa and its peoples between them--including huge stretches of the African interior that Europeans had never even seen.

The United States had already imported its own internal oppressed nation to exploit--by kidnaping millions of African people and working them as slaves in a broad belt of farmland from Maryland to the Mississippi Delta.

As the Northern capitalists restructured U.S. society after the Civil War, they also re-established an alliance with the southern slaveowners in 1877. The plantation system was violently re-imposed on Black people in the Deep South. Between 1889 and 1903, two African Americans were lynched, on average, every week--hanged, burned, mutilated.

But still, even after stealing a continent over a century, the rulers of the United States were far from satisfied. Faced with the maneuvers of their rivals in Europe, the capitalist logic of "expand or die" spurred the U.S. imperialists to lay plans for a global empire. Unable to contend in the contest for Africa, the United States aimed at vying with the European powers in Latin America, the Pacific rim and China, as well as scooping up colonies from the crumbling Spanish empire. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge expressed the urgency that gripped his class as the 1890s unfolded: "The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the enhancement of the race. As one of the great nations of the world the United States must not fall out of the line of march."

The U.S. power structure prepared for war. Great oceans had long protected the United States from easy invasion. Now the U.S. built a modern sea-going navy so others would not be so lucky.

The Taste of Empire

"We are face-to-face with a strange destiny. The taste of empire is in the mouth..."

Washington Post 1898

Spain was rapidly losing its grip on the last of its rich colonies. After decades of insurgency, rebels were expanding their influence from the remote mountains of Puerto Rico into lowland areas. In neighboring Cuba, the Spanish faced a powerful three-year-old rebellion. In the Philippines, a secret organization, Katipunan, was arming the people. The U.S. decided to act, before the people of these countries defeated Spain and claimed their independence.

In February 1898, a U.S. battleship, the Maine, blew up in Havana harbor. A war hysteria was manufactured--spearheaded by the Hearst press. The U.S. declared war on Spain. Publicly, the U.S. imperialists swore they had no ambitions beyond helping win Cuban independence.

The U.S. Secretary of State called the U.S. attack on Spain's forces a "splendid little war." Spain's colonial armies and navies were quickly defeated. U.S. troops occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico, portraying themselves as anti-colonialists, anti-monarchists and friends of national independence. After all, they reminded everyone, the U.S. had been created by the first modern revolution waged by colonies against a monarchical power.

Filipino revolutionaries drove the Spanish Colonial Army out of virtually the whole Philippine Island chain. But when the final Spanish surrender came in August 1898, the American commanders refused to allow any Filipinos to participate.

Then, on December 10, 1898, the people of these countries received a shock: Spain and the U.S. signed a treaty giving the U.S. possession of the people of these islands. The U.S. also formally annexed Hawaii, which had once been an independent kingdom.

President McKinley claimed god had personally told him that the Filipino people "are unfit for self government." He added, "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them." On December 21, 1898, McKinley issued his "Proclamation of Benevolent Assimilation," which announced the U.S. would rule the Philippines for their own good.

Historian Howard Zinn notes that the Filipinos did not get the same message from god. In February 1899, they rose in revolt against American rule. The U.S. poured half its armed forces into the Philippines for three years to suppress the rebellion.

From Mark Twain's sharp pen: "We have pacified some thousands of islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining tens of millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket...and hoisted our protecting flag... And so, by these Providences of God --and the phrase is the government's, not mine--we are a World Power."

Then, as now, U.S. imperialism claimed it was ruling these countries for the advancement of democracy and freedom. Senator Albert J. Beveridge explain to the Senate in 1900: "God has...given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man."

U.S. capitalists descended like locusts on the lands they had seized. In Cuba, they soon owned the railroads and mines. And the United Fruit Company soon owned millions of acres of Cuban sugar plantations.

This war of 1898 became a launching pad for U.S. imperialist ambitions to literally dominate the world in a so-called "American Century." With the "Roosevelt Corollary" in 1904, they declared it was the right of the U.S. to dominate and invade any country in Latin America. U.S. intervention in virtually every country of Latin America and the Caribbean followed. And over this century the U.S. fought and stole its way to the top of the imperialist pile of bones and its current status as the main exploiter of the people of the world.

Today, on the 100th anniversary of this U.S. war of aggression, the just struggle for Puerto Rican independence continues against the colonial status that is still imposed on them. In Cuba, the people suffer under a U.S. embargo designed to bring them back under the U.S. thumb. In the Philippines, a people's war challenges U.S. imperialism's century-long grip on the islands. In Mexico armed insurgencies upset the status quo. And in South America, where people in every country are confronted by the complex task of driving U.S. imperialism out, the people's war in Peru is carving a path forward under difficult conditions.


"Imperialism means huge monopolies and financial institutions controlling the economies and the political system--and the lives of people--not just in one country but all over the world. Imperialism means parasitic exploiters who oppress hundreds of millions of people and condemn them to untold misery: parasitic financiers who can cause millions to starve just by pressing a computer key and thereby shifting vast amounts of wealth from one place to another. Imperialism means war--war to put down the resistance and rebellion of the oppressed, and war between rival imperialist states--it means the leaders of these states can condemn humanity to unbelievable devastation, perhaps even total annihilation, with the push of a button. Imperialism is capitalism at the stage where its basic contradictions have been raised to tremendously explosive levels. But imperialism also means that there will be revolution--the oppressed rising up to overthrow their exploiters and tormentors --and that this revolution will be a worldwide struggle to sweep away the global monster, imperialism.

Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP

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