U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001. They’ve been in Iraq since 2003. And they soon could be in Libya. This is not to mention standing U.S. military bases in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Brazil, Greenland, the Philippines, Cuba, Guam and on and on. How and when did this happen?
The year the United States began its ascendancy as a world power was 1898, beginning with the Spanish-American War, a conflict of dubious progeny fanned into flames by the partisan journalism practiced by William Randolph Hearst. The war marked the beginning of the end of the imperial reign of Spain. The other European imperialist superpowers — Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and France — also would begin losing their grip on other regions of the world.
“That was the year the United States became a world power for the first time,” writer Sarah Vowell said recently of 1898. “Basically, in one summer, [it was] this orgy of imperialism in which we invaded Cuba, the Philippines, took over Guam, Puerto Rico and annexed Hawaii.” Ms. Vowell’s latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” recounts how the U.S. ended up toppling the queen of Hawaii in a bid to liberate its people. Yet to this day, descendants of the island’s early inhabitants still mourn the loss of their independence to the U.S.
The Spanish-American War was fought in several time zones. The liberation of people who arguably had been oppressed by Spain did not lead to the formation of American colonies. But the U.S. developed markets for its products in those states, a principle that guided foreign policy for decades.
Ms. Vowell said the language used by American leaders in 1898 to justify what ended up being those informal U.S. colonies is similar to that used in justifying the invasion of Iraq and the current military action in Libya.
The American self-image does not include a component of imperialistic foreign policy. Yet there is no escaping this chapter of our history, which was rewritten in a different form after World War II — with better reason — and again in the post 9/11 world. What ended the European superpowers’ reign was as much over extension of resources as military defeat.
U.S. leaders must remember this chapter of our history. It should remind them that the role of being a force for change on the world stage has never been held for long by any one nation.