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[Detail] Millions of acres, Iowa and Nebraska, 1872

American Involvement in World Affairs

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States became increasingly involved in world affairs. For years, the United States had observed with alarm Spain's repression of insurgents in Cuba.  In a Fourth of July speech in 1873, Congressman Gerrit Smith outlined the history of Spanish domination of the island and called for U.S. action to support Cuban patriots seeking independence from Spain.

"...From year to year, Spain has, under the terrors and tortures of the lash and under other terrors and tortures, drawn from poor Cuba all that she could possibly be made to yield.  Spanish hunger has never ceased to feed on Cuban fatness.  But it is only in the last five years that the sufferings and sorrows of Cuba have reached their climax....

Now, why is it that our Government has not lived up to the requirements of its own law? Why is it that it has suffered vessels of war to go from our shipyard against the Cubans, and, this too, whilst sparing no pains to shut out all pity and all succor from these oppressed and outraged brethren? I hope it is for some worthier reason than to propitiate a nation by helping her to sacrifice her colony. Nevertheless, what good reason can we plead for helping Spain to prolong slavery in Cuba and to carry on wholesale murder there?"

From "Let Crushed Cuba Arise!"

When the Cubans rebelled in the 1890s and the Spanish reacted with brutal force, Americans were again angered. The explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in the port of Havana in early 1898 provided the impetus for war, which was supported by some leaders motivated by the ideology of imperialism and by Americans looking for a cause that would unite the nation. U. S. expansion following the Spanish-American War of 1898 aroused concern among anti-imperialists.  Read the 1900 broadside entitled "The Monroe Doctrine" circulated by the National Association of Anti-Imperialists Clubs.

  • Why did the author refer to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823?
  • What was the Anti-Imperialist league's position on the annexation of Puerto Rico and the Philippines following the Spanish-American War?

Through the early years of the twentieth century, the United States became increasing involved in world affairs.  However, as war threatened to erupt in Europe, Americans sought refuge in a policy of isolation.  Even before the United States entered World War I, there was a call for a "Moral Substitute for War" through an International Federation of Nations or United Nations of the World.  The proposal pre-dated President Woodrow Wilson's 1918 call for a League of Nations to prevent future wars as part of his "Fourteen Points."

As President Wilson faced the growing possibility of U.S. entry into the war, the nation had to be convinced to abandon an isolationist policy.  Numerous pamphlets and flyers were circulated to enlist popular support for World War I.  Richard H. Edmonds, editor of the Manufacturers Record in Baltimore, produced a series of handbills in 1918 supporting the war effort including "From Vantage Points in America Pro-Germanian Shoots in the Back with Poisoned Bullets Our Boys 'Over There'"  and "This 'Made in Germany' War."   Compare the message in the Edmonds handbills to former president Theodore Roosevelt's 1915 pamphlet on the sinking of the Lusitania, "Murder on the High Seas," and the lyrics to the 1917 song "Death to the Hun."

  • What do all of these documents have in common?
  • How effective do you think the documents were in marshalling support for U.S. entry into the war or for the war effort after 1917?
  • What arguments might those opposed to war have used to counter the points made in these documents?

Anti-German war propaganda encouraged support for U.S. entry into war but also fueled demonstrations against German-Americans, ranging from verbal harassment to tarring and feathering and, in one case, lynching.  President Woodrow Wilson gave an address on July 26, 1918, in which he denounced mob violence.

"...Germany has outlawed herself among the nations because she has disregarded the sacred obligations of law and has made lynchers of her armies. Lynchers emulate her disgraceful example. I, for my part, am anxious to see every community in America rise above that level with pride and a fixed resolution which no man or set of men can afford to despise.

We proudly claim to be the champions of democracy. If we really are, in deed and in truth, let us see to it that we do not discredit our own. I say plainly that every American who takes part in the action of a mob or gives it any sort of countenance is no true son of this great democracy, but its betrayer, and does more to discredit her by that single disloyalty to her standards of law and of right than the words of her statesmen or the sacrifices of her heroic boys in the trenches can do to make suffering peoples believe her to be their savior. How shall we commend democracy to the acceptance of other peoples, if we disgrace our own by proving that it is, after all, no protection to the weak?"

From "July 26, 1918, My Fellow Countrymen"

In 1922, shortly after the end of World War I, the District of Columbia Anti-Lynching Committee circulated a broadside calling attention to the 3,424 lynchings in the United States since the end of Reconstruction.  Read the handbill "A Terrible Blot on American Civilization" on the lynching of African Americans and compare it with Wilson's address:

  • What was the tone of President Wilson's message?
  • Why did he call for an end to mob violence and lynching?
  • Why do you think he made no specific reference to the lynching of African Americans?
  • Did Wilson support anti-lynching legislation?  Why or why not?
  • What was Wilson's position on race relations?
  • What does the handbill mean by "Two victims always of a lynching — a human being and civilization"? Could this statement apply to other crimes as well? Why or why not?

The tension between involvement in world affairs, particularly global conflicts, and isolationism persisted when war again broke out in Europe. President Franklin Roosevelt's State of the Union address to Congress, January 3, 1940, called attention to the administration's domestic and foreign policy achievements and warned of the growing turmoil in Europe.

"I can understand the feelings of those who warn the nation that they will never again consent to the sending of American youth to fight on the soil of Europe....

I can also understand the wishfulness of those who oversimplify the whole situation by repeating that all we have to do is to mind our own business and keep the nation out of war. But there is a vast difference between keeping out of war and pretending that this war is none of our business....

I ask that all of us everywhere think things through with the single aim of how best to serve the future of our own nation. I do not mean merely its future relationship with the outside world. I mean its domestic future as well — the work, the security, the prosperity, the happiness, the life of all the boys and girls of the United States, as they are inevitably affected by such world relationships. For it becomes clearer and clearer that the future world will be a shabby and dangerous place to live in — even for Americans to live in — if it is ruled by force in the hands of a few...."

From "January 3, 1940. [Message] to the Congress of the United States"

Read Roosevelt's entire speech and consider the following questions:

  • What reference did Roosevelt make to the framers of the Constitution? Why do you think he included such a reference?
  • What techniques did Roosevelt use to downplay the views of those who want to "mind our own business and keep the nation out of war"?  Do you think these techniques were effective?
  • What evidence did the speech provide that the United States was preparing for war?
  • What argument did President Roosevelt make about national unity? How might someone who disagreed with the president have countered this argument?

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