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The Turning Point in U.S. Foreign Policy

The Turning Point in U.S. Foreign Policy

The period from 1890-1920, known as the Progressive Era, marks a period in U.S. history when the country underwent multiple changes. Population growth, waves of immigrants, advances in industry, and other factors led many Americans to the conclusion that the country’s governmental systems needed to be radically altered in order to better fit the interests of the nation. The country not only amended many of its domestic policies, it also developed a new strategy concerning foreign affairs that differed from the traditional stances of the Founding Era. One such alteration was an increase in the country’s willingness to take military action in foreign conflicts. As such, the Progressive Era marks a time period in which the United States began to practice a foreign policy that was international in its scope and did not focus solely on defending American citizens and their property. The Spanish-American War (1898) epitomized this shift toward global intervention. The United States entered the war for various reasons, but at its heart, the conflict was motivated by the desire to promote the ideals of civilization, democracy, and freedom around the world. The traditional policy the country followed from the founding of the country up until the Progressive Era certainly promoted these principles globally but encouraged neutrality in foreign wars unless U.S. citizens or their property faced duress. Fearing the cost of a large, professional army, as well as the dangers a power-hungry general with a large force behind him might pose to the republic, the Founders favored limiting foreign military involvement. By focusing instead on defending the country, military forces and costs would not need to be so large. Multiple factors, however, including increased military strength, the desire to promote Western civilization, and globalization led to a shift in policy. During the Progressive Era, the United States took a more active role in international affairs by fighting around the world in the name of ideals as opposed to merely the defense of the homeland.

Resources

Activity

  • Explain to your students the two general foreign policy ideologies: the Founding-era’s military isolationism and the Progressive-era military interventionism. First, have them read the “Introduction” paragraph below.

Introduction: The Spanish-American War (1898) epitomized this shift toward global intervention. The United States entered the war for various reasons, but at its heart, the conflict was motivated by the desire to promote the ideals of civilization, democracy, and freedom around the world. The traditional policy the country followed from the founding of the country up until the Progressive Era certainly promoted these principles globally but encouraged neutrality in foreign wars unless U.S. citizens or their property faced duress. Fearing the cost of a large, professional army, as well as the dangers a power-hungry general with a large force behind him might pose to the republic, the Founders favored limiting foreign military involvement. By focusing instead on defending the country, military forces and costs would not need to be so large. Multiple factors, however, including increased military strength, the desire to promote Western civilization, and globalization led to a shift in policy. During the Progressive Era, the United States took a more active role in international affairs by fighting around the world in the name of ideals as opposed to merely the defense of the homeland.

  • Next, have your students read “Excerpts from Washington’s Farewell Address” and “Excerpts from James Monroe’s Seventh Annual Message to Congress.” Have them consider the following questions.
    • Why does Washington warn the country to have as “little political connection as possible” with foreign nations?
    • What is Washington encouraging future generations to do? Is Washington calling for complete isolationism, i.e. cutting all commercial, cultural and social ties with other countries?
    • What role do geography and the location of the United States play in Washington’s advice on foreign policy?
    • What relationship would Monroe like the U.S. and Europe to have? Does he want the two to be closely connected? Why or why not?
    • What similarities/differences exist between Washington’s Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine?
  • Next, give your students a brief background lesson to the lead-up to the Spanish-American War using the “Lead-up to the Spanish-American War” link under Resources. Be sure to explain the Cuban insurrection, yellow journalism, and the destruction of the USS Maine among other things.
  • Have your students read “McKinley’s War Message” and discuss the following questions.
    • What reasons does McKinley give to justify U.S. intervention in Cuba?
    • Does the situation in Cuba justify a U.S. intervention? Is the U.S. becoming involved in a “foreign entanglement”?
  • Have your students read “The March of the Flag” and the “Platform of the Anti-Imperialist League.” Split the class into two groups. Tell your students to imagine themselves to be living in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. One group will argue in favor of continued U.S. expansion and involvement in the world using “The March of the Flag” document and the other will argue against imperialism using “Platform of the Anti-Imperialist League.”
    • Encourage your students to be respectful during the discussion and to use the primary sources to format their arguments. Ask the following questions to promote discussion.
      • What role should the U.S. play around the world? Does the country have a responsibility to “civilize” other peoples who do not have the same values as us? What implications might this policy have?
      • Why do people like Albert Beveridge believe that the U.S. should influence the entire world? Why do the Anti-Imperialists disagree? Which side is more in adherence with the Founders’ foreign policy?
      • What are the long-term consequences, both good and bad, of the U.S. encouraging values like democracy and freedom upon “uncivilized” peoples? What are the long-term consequences, both good and bad, of the U.S. fighting only to defend its own interests?