Turning Point: The McKinley Years
From Walter Lafaber’s THE AMERICAN AGE: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad, 1994.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE LATE 1890s
As the twentieth century dawned, the United States stepped onto the world stage as a great power. Because of the triumphs scored between 1898 and 1900, it strode confidently now with Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan—nations that possessed immense military strength and had used that strength for conquest. Never had a newly independent nation risen so far so fast as did the United States between 1776 and 1900.
Historians have argued not over whether the United States deserved great-power status by 1900 (all agree that it did), but whether Americans consciously intended to follow the expansionist policies after 1896 that projected them into such distant regions. Historian Ernest May believes that the United States had "greatness thrust upon it." But another scholar, Albert K. Weinberg, concludes that U.S. officials were no more passive at key moments than "is the energetic individual who decides upon, plans, and carries out the robbery of a bank." 1 The years 1896 to 1900 thus become critical for the student of U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century. For if the nation entered the ranks of great world powers at this time, it is of central importance to know how it did so. By accident? Because of a few elite officials who pushed reluctant Americans overseas? Because of the U.S. system's domestic needs that forced that system to assume global responsibilities? The well known saying "Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined" might have meaning for U.S. diplomatic history. The reasons why the United States moved outward so rapidly in the late 1890s help us understand why it grew from these roots (or twig) into a twentieth-century superpower.
MCKINLEY AND McKINLEYISM
Americans living in the late 1890s understood that they were witnessing a historic turn. After the triumph over Spain in 1898 brought the United States new holdings in the Caribbean and the western Pacific, Assistant Secretary of State John Bassett Moore observed that the nation had moved "from a position of comparative freedom from entanglements into the position of what is commonly called a world power.... Where formerly we had only commercial interests, we now have territorial and political interests as well." 2
Moore's boss, President William McKinley, presided over these changes. McKinley won the 1896 election over the highly popular Democrat, William Jennings Bryan. The affection Americans felt for McKinley ranked with the feelings they later had toward the popular Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. A gentle, soft-spoken, highly courteous man, McKinley had long been known for the love and care he had lavished on his wife, an invalid who required much of his attention. Born in Niles, Ohio, in 1843, Major McKinley had been a Civil War hero, then parlayed his reputation and uncanny political instincts into a career in the House of Representatives between 1876 and 1890. By the end of his stay, no one on Capitol Hill better understood the new industrialized America. He dominated debates on the central issues of tariffs and taxes because he had mastered the facts and understood the powerful industrialists who made the country run. Moving on to the governorship of Ohio, he maintained order in an economically depressed state while nearby regions were wracked by riots. He was not reluctant to use state forces to control strikers, but he somehow did so while keeping the good will of the labor leaders. With the help of fellow Ohioan and millionaire steel industrialist Marcus Hanna, who ran a superbly organized campaign, McKinley moved to the White House. The new president named Ohio senator John Sherman as secretary of state and then rewarded Hanna by having him appointed to the empty Senate seat. The United States...
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