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Ilya Kravchenko: Historical Foundations of Expansionism in the U.S. foreign policy

April 1, 2016

The United States of America was formed on July 4, 1776, with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It happened during the War of Independence, or as it is called the "First American Revolution" (the second was during the Civil War in 1861-1865.). Until 1823, the U.S. government did not have a specific policy regarding the Western Hemisphere. After all, the country was young and there were a lot of problems with the Indians. And there was also constantly going development of new territories. This, of course, did not interfere with establishing trade relations with the Russian settlements as well as with the settlers of Canada. But as one knows, if the state is growing, then its foreign policy becomes more rigid and demanding.


The expansionist ideology was established on December of 1823 when James Monroe declared his presidential message to Congress, which would become known as the ''Monroe Doctrine''. The main purpose of the doctrine was limited to the thesis that the United States, undertaking not to interfere in the internal affairs of European states and their colonies, while recognizing the legitimacy of their governments, and expressing willingness to maintain friendly relations with them, will nevertheless consider an attack on its independence if there is any interference by these States in the internal affairs of the Americas. This intervention, emphasized in the doctrine, would be regarded as an attempt to colonize countries on that continent. In practice, this meant that the United States would not to intervene in the revolutionary war for independence waged by Greece and Turkey, in exchange for the release of the European powers from interfering in the course of the war for independence that was starting in Latin America.


After the adoption of this doctrine, the U.S. claimed the territory that belonged to the European powers in North America have a political and diplomatic support, but not acquired a formal legal status. Individual members of Congress failed to bring the document the nature of the law. However, since 1823 the European states refused to increase their holdings in the New World, moved to Asia and Africa, and took, eventually, a large part of the first and almost the entire territory of the second. The ''Monroe Doctrine'' was the perfect combination of Hamiltonian and Jacksonian traditions of U.S. foreign policy.


In the period from 1823 to 1880 the United States was mostly concentrated on internal problems. The main event was, of course, the Civil War and the further period of Reconstruction, which lasted until 1877. And with the country finally united, the expansionists policy continued its development.


The next step was the Spanish-American War of 1898-1899. The main goal was the expulsion of Spaniards from the Western Hemisphere. The war started because of an incredible intrigue – a pretext for war was the bombing of the American cruiser ''Maine'' in Havana harbor (the circumstances of the explosion are still not clear). The continuing mainly in the sea 100-day war ended in an easy victory over Spain, which resulted in the destruction of Spanish fleet in the Bay of Santiago de Cuba and in Manila Bay in the Philippines. The U.S. also captured the capital of the Philippines Manila, occupied Puerto Rico and annexed the Hawaiian Islands. As a result of the victory in the Spanish-American War the U.S. has established full control over the Caribbean Sea and moved to the coast of Latin American Pacific.


In 1904, Roosevelt "enriched" the theory of inter-American state relations with his own interpretation of the "Monroe Doctrine", which later became known as the "Roosevelt Corollary." The president said that U.S. interference in the internal affairs of Latin America would be justified and legitimate, if these states would be unable to cope with internal problems, or in case of any action on their part that may cause interference in the affairs of European states in the Americas. The president proceeded from the premise that the exclusive right to determine the illegality or danger of any action by Latin American countries could be provided only by the United States.


In his message to Congress on December 6, 1904 Roosevelt declared: "Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power." But there was still one more step needed towards complete transformation of foreign policy from isolationist into expansionist.


It happened right after the World War II. On March 12, 1947 Truman delivered a speech at a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives. Noting first that the seriousness of the situation led him to appear before the general meeting of Congress, he outlined the bleak situation in Greece. "The Greek government, he said, has been operating in an atmosphere of chaos and extremism... The Greek army is small and poorly equipped. It needs supplies and equipment if it is to restore the authority of the government throughout Greek territory." While acknowledging that he proposes to intervene in the internal affairs of others, far from the American States, and that the course which he recommends to take very seriously, Truman tried to justify his policy that the U.S. should intervene in the lives of other people allegedly in order to help the majority against the minority. Stating that "the world is not static, and the status quo is not sacred", Truman made it clear that the U.S. will agree only with such changes in the world, what it believes to be correct. If, he argued further, the U.S. ''fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.'' And Truman asked Congress to appropriate to "help" $ 400 million.


''Truman Doctrine'' was Truman’s apotheosis in U.S. foreign policy. He compared his doctrine to the "Monroe Doctrine". But the "Monroe Doctrine" stated against American intervention in the affairs of other continents. Truman not only expanded the doctrine on the states located in Europe and Asia, but went even further. Monroe opposed the intervention of foreign states in the internal affairs of Latin American countries. Truman took over the defense of the existing system of Turkey and Greece, not only against foreign, but also against internal threats. He did the same as for centuries before him had done "Holy Alliance" of European monarchs, which defended the old reactionary regimes and against which stood Monroe. Thus, between these two doctrines is a significant difference. "Truman Doctrine" came into power on May 22, 1947. Congress authorizing U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of countries in the Middle East, endorsed Washington's support of reactionary forces and regimes around the world, the course is indeed far-reaching consequences.


Throughout the period of 1823-1947 the U.S. foreign policy steadily developed in the direction of worldwide expansion. Starting from securing the Western Hemisphere from internal and external threats, the U.S. went further and finally decided to secure itself by controlling the world. And here one can see the influence of not only ‘’old’’ Hamiltonian tradition, but also of Wilsonian tradition.


Woodrow Wilson considered himself a messiah, who would spread democracy in the world and protect free people from tyranny. That resulted in famous ‘’Fourteenth points’’ among which was the following: “A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.”


‘’Truman Doctrine’’ justified the continuation of worldwide expansion. The Cold War had begun. The battle between isolationists and expansionists was finally over, with the isolationists being completely annihilated.  


Ilya Kravchenko, Ph.D. in political science, Lecturer at the Department of International Security, History and Archives Institute, Russian State University for the Humanities.

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