The United States before World War I

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A street scene from a bustling American city in the early 1900s

The United States prior to World War I was an economic superpower, its wealth and industrial output rivalling those of the much older imperialist powers of Europe.

The US Civil War

An American superpower had seemed impossible in the middle of the 19th century when the nation was divided and devastated by a bloody civil war (1861-65).

The US Civil War began with 11 southern states seceding (withdrawing) from the United States, chiefly over disputes about states’ rights and the federal government’s authority to limit the spread of slavery.

The 11 dissident states formed the Confederate States of America while the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, committed to maintaining the union through the use of military force.

Its larger population and stronger industrial base meant the Union (northern states) were better equipped for war than the Confederacy (southern states). Nevertheless, the Civil War lasted four painful years and resulted in more than 600,000 deaths.

The decade following became known as Reconstruction, as the nation struggled to heal the wounds of the war and re-integrate the former Confederate states. Slavery was formally abolished nationwide, though assimilating more than three million former slaves created its own problems.

Some of the more detrimental outcomes were the emergence of racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the formation of ‘Jim Crow’ laws to segregate and marginalise African-Americans.

The industrial boom

Despite these social problems, the last quarter of the 1800s became one of the most expansionist and profitable in American history. It is this period that laid the groundwork for America’s modern capitalist economy.

Among the features to emerge in the late 1800s were gigantic corporations, transportation and communications networks, the growth of heavy industries, banking and financial organisations.

The amount of railroad track tripled in the 20 years before 1880, permitting the free movement of people and cargo. Coal mining and steel manufacture boomed, fuelled by new technical developments and production methods. Factories, mines and farms all benefited from mass-produced machinery, which was now cheaper and more readily available.

America during this period was the creative hub of the world, with thousands of new inventions and patents, including the telegraph, the telephone, electric power and lighting. The economic boom also required investment capital, leading to the formation of stock markets and the growth of American banks.

Leading this growth – and benefitting directly from it – were a new class of ultra-wealthy business tycoons. Among their number were men like John D. Rockefeller, John Jacob Astor, JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

Benefits and improvements

The opportunities available in America fed a resurgence in immigration in the late 1800s. Millions crossed the seas from Europe and Asia, seeking work opportunities as well as political and religious freedom.

Industrial growth also transformed American society. New transport infrastructure made travel and relocation easier; and some American cities – particularly New York, Chicago and Philadelphia – swelled with newcomers.

The ‘Gilded Age’

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A cartoon depicting the American ‘robber-barons’ of the Gilded Age

Mark Twain later called the late 1800s America’s ‘Gilded Age’. It was a carefully chosen phrase because inside America’s golden veneer, there were significant social and political problems.

During this period, the United States endured a number of mediocre presidents and congressmen. Many were in the pocket of big business, some unashamedly. The political arena was filled with frequent allegations of ‘kickbacks’ and corruption and quite a few scandals.

Unsurprisingly, laws of the age were drawn up to protect corporate interests but overlooked social problems and the interests of workers. The lack of protections led to growing discontent about inequalities of wealth, wage levels, the treatment of labour.

Inequalities and unionism

From the 1870s, unions began to form, grow and organise industrial action, such as the 1877 strike that paralysed America’s railways for six weeks. There were numerous incidents where striking workers were shot and killed or brutalised by police or thugs hired by corporate interests.

Women and children endured even worse conditions in the workplace because they could be hired for much lower wages than men. Several groups emerged to pressure for female voting rights, led by individuals like Susan B. Anthony. Women’s suffrage would not be achieved until 1920.

Many progressive journalists criticised government corruption and business tycoons, labelling them ‘robber barons’ whose profits were enhanced by bribery, tax evasion, law-dodging and the exploitation of workers.

The common perception was that money and business had replaced democracy and justice as core American values. There were calls for the ‘purification’ of American politics, heralding the beginning of the so-called Progressive Era, starting in the 1890s.

American imperialism

As the United States economy grew, Americans looked to expand their nation. During the 19th century, this expansion was chiefly focused on taking control of the North American continent, a process driven by the concept of “manifest destiny”.

Americans also began to seek expansion further abroad, initially through trade and Christian missionaries. Americans engineered the Christianisation of Hawaii (1840), forced Japan to open up to foreign trade (1853) and purchased Alaska from the Russians (1867).

Debates over American expansion abroad intensified during the Gilded Age. Men like President Grover Cleveland, industrialist Andrew Carnegie and writer Mark Twain argued that imperialism violated American political principles. Others believed the US should expand its political power and commercial interests abroad.

As the end of the 1800s neared, American imperialists gained the upper hand. They pursued an expansionist agenda, particularly in the Caribbean, Central and South America and the Pacific region.

The Spanish-American War

Conflict with Spain was the best example of this resurgent imperialism. Many Americans wanted to purge Spanish influence from the American hemisphere. By the late 1800s, Spain still controlled Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Caribbean, as well as Guam and the Philippines in the Asia-Pacific.

Several American newspapers responded by whipping up fears about Spanish intentions and atrocities in the region. Many of these reports were exaggerated and some of them outright false.

In 1898, an American naval vessel, the USS Maine, exploded in mysterious circumstances while harboured in Spanish-controlled Cuba. This provided a pretext for the Spanish-American War. It lasted less than four months and allowed the United States to seize control of many of Spain’s colonial possessions.

‘No entangling alliances’

While engaging in undeclared imperialism elsewhere, America maintained an isolationist policy with regard to Europe, preferring to keep clear of European tensions or politics.

This approach, which dated back to Thomas Jefferson in 1801, was dubbed the Washington Doctrine. Its core premise was to avoid signing “entangling alliances” that would draw the United States or its foreign policy into European rivalries.

In summary, the United States engaged in expansion and imperialism in its own spheres but avoided imperial competition with the major European powers, Spain notwithstanding. Washington also remained aloof from the European network of military alliances that evolved between 1880 and 1914.

A historian’s view:
“The United States was the unacknowledged spectre hovering over the courts and chancelleries of Europe during the fateful summer of 1914… To be sure, American diplomats and military leaders had played no role in the establishment of the alliance system that had dominated European affairs, and it was equally true that the minuscule American army 3,000 miles away could not affect the balance of military power. But it quickly became apparent that modern war was as much an economic contest as it was a diplomatic or military affair. Thus the United States, hitherto on the periphery of European diplomatic life, soon moved to the centre.”
Robert H. Zieger

united states before world war i

1. In the 1870s the United States began reconstructing and modernising after a divisive and deadly civil war.

2. The last decades of the 1800s were marked by rapid industrial growth, the rise of tycoons and a series of mediocre politicians and governments.

3. This period was dubbed the ‘Gilded Age’, as its economic prosperity was superficial and did not apply to all Americans.

4. By the early 1900s, the US was a burgeoning superpower, one of the world’s largest economies and a military strength.

5. While American leaders sought to extend their control over areas like Cuba and the Philippines, the US generally adopted an isolationist foreign policy, remaining aloof from the disputes and tensions of Europe.

Title: “The United States before World War I”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 10, 2017
Date accessed: July 28, 2021
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