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Why did America have to become an important sea power in the late 19th century?

As America became an industrial giant she was in many ways still a small nation. America's international influence was minimal, in large part due to precedent set down by Washington and other early Presidents. In reality, though, America was not a powerful nation militarily and the level of business conducted internationally by American concerns was relatively small. The rapid growth of American industry forced business to look elsewhere and the government was obliged to help find markets for these products. The influence of industrialists and social Darwinism is evident in the motivations for American expansion.

A brief look at the information below provides important information about why the U.S. began to take on an imperialist foreign policy.

 U. S. Imports and Exports

Year

Imports

Exports

1870

$300 Million

$350 Million

1875

$900 Million

$800 Million

1880

$1.22 Billion

$1.0 Billion

1889

$900 Million

$800 Million

1892

$1.2 Billion

$1.42 Billion

1899

1.3 Billion

1.35 Billion

1903

1.7 Billion

1.8 Billion

1914

1.6 Billion

2.8 Billion

A cursory examination of the chart above shows that during the late 1800's to early 1900's American participation in international trade was inconsistent. There were years of growth and years of reduction. From 1903 to 1914 however US exports grew dramatically. It is quite clear that by 1914 American business had recognized the vast potential of the international marketplace.

As American industrial production had soared the US market became saturated. Americans could not buy all that our industry produced. As a result we began to seek out foreign markets.

There was a widely-held belief that the U.S. needed ships, not to make war, but to protect its rights and prestige (nationalistic pride). Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) was a naval strategist, historian, and leading advocate of a powerful U.S. Navy. He was very influential over his friend and colleague, Teddy Roosevelt. In his writings and speeches, Mahan stated:

1. Our increasing production demanded we expanded overseas and gain new markets.

2. We must make sure that no nation owns islands within three thousand miles of San Francisco. This meant we had to gain control of Hawaii.

3. A powerful navy must be built.

Alfred Thayer Mahan's writings and America's need to expand to markets abroad resulted in two things:

1. The creation of a large and powerful navy to protect America's interests overseas.

2. The expansion of US economic interests overseas.

America was embarking on a new journey. In the late 1700's George Washington had urged America to "steer clear of foreign affairs." For over a hundred years we had more or less followed that advice but now we would abandon it. America was going to dive head first into competition with other industrialized countries for markets and resources...it was to be the age of imperialism.


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