American interventions in the Mexico, China, and the Middle East reflected a new eagerness of the United States to intervene in foreign governments to protect American economic interests abroad.
The United States had long been involved in Pacific commerce. American ships had been travelling to China, for instance, since 1784. As a percentage of total American foreign trade, the Asian trade remained comparatively small, and yet the idea that Asian markets were vital to American commerce affected American policy and, when those markets were threatened, prompted interventions. In 1899, Secretary of State John Hay articulated the “Open Door Policy,” which called for all western powers to have equal access to Chinese markets. Hay feared that other imperial powers—Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia—planned to carve China into spheres of influence. It was in the economic interest of American business to maintain China for free trade. The following year, in 1900, American troops intervened to prevent the closing of trade. American troops helped to put down the Boxer Rebellion, a movement opposed to foreign businesses and missionaries operating in China. President McKinley sent the U.S. Army into China without consulting Congress, setting a precedent for U.S. presidents to order American troops to action around the world under their executive powers.
The United States was not only ready to intervene in foreign affairs to preserve foreign markets, it was willing to take territory. The United States acquired its first Pacific territories with the Guano Islands Act of 1856. Guano—collected bird excrement—was a popular fertilizer integral to industrial farming. The Act authorized and encouraged Americans to venture into the seas and claim islands with guano deposits for the United States. These acquisitions were the first insular, unincorporated territories of the United States: they were neither part of a state nor a federal district, and they were not on the path to ever attain such a status. The Act, though little known, offered a precedent for future American acquisitions.
Merchants, of course, weren’t the only American travelers in the Pacific. Christian missionaries soon followed explorers and traders. The first American missionaries arrived in Hawai’i in 1820 and China in 1830, for instance. Missionaries, though, often worked alongside business interests, and American missionaries in Hawai’I, for instance, obtained large tracts of land and started lucrative sugar plantations. During the nineteenth century, Hawai’i was ruled by an oligarchy based on the sugar companies, together known as the “Big Five.” This white American “haole” elite was extremely powerful, but they still operated outside for the formal expression of American state power.
As many Americans looked for empire across the Pacific, others looked to Latin America. The United States, long a participant an increasingly complex network of economic, social, and cultural interactions in Latin America, entered the late-nineteenth century with a new aggressive and interventionist attitude toward its southern neighbors.
American capitalists invested enormous sums of money in Mexico during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, during the long reign of the corrupt yet stable regime of the modernization-hungry president Porfirio Diaz. But in 1910 the Mexican people revolted against Díaz, ending his authoritarian regime but also his friendliness toward the business interests of the United States. In the midst of the terrible destruction wrought by the fighting, Americans with investment interests plead for governmental help but the United States government tried to control events and politics that could not be controlled. More and more American businessmen called for military intervention. When the brutal strongman Victoriano Huerta executed the revolutionary, democratically elected president Francisco Madero in 1913, newly inaugurated American President Woodrow Wilson put pressure on Mexico’s new regime. Wilson refused to recognize the new government and demanded Huerta step aside and allow free elections take place. Huerta refused.
When Mexican forces mistakenly arrested American sailors in the port city of Tampico in April 1914, Wilson saw the opportunity to apply additional pressure on Huerta. Huerta refused to make amends, and Wilson therefore asked Congress for authority to use force against Mexico. But even before Congress could respond, Wilson invaded and took the port city of Veracruz to prevent, he said, a German shipment of arms from reaching Huerta’s forces. The Huerta government fell in July 1914, and the American occupation lasted until November, when Venustiano Carranza, a rival of Huerta, took power. When Wilson threw American support behind Carranza, and not his more radical and now-rival Pancho Villa, Villa and several hundred supporters attacked American interests and raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916, and killed over a dozen soldiers and civilians. Wilson ordered a punitive expedition of several thousand soldiers led by General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing to enter Northern Mexico and capture Villa. But Villa eluded Pershing for nearly a year and, in 1917, with war in Europe looming and great injury done to U.S.-Mexican relations, Pershing left Mexico.
The United States’ actions during the Mexican Revolution reflected longstanding American policy that justified interventionist actions in Latin American politics because of their potential bearing on the United States: on citizens, on shared territorial borders, and perhaps most significantly, on economic investments. This particular example highlights the role of geography, or perhaps proximity, in the pursuit of imperial outcomes. But American interactions in more distant locations, in the Middle East, for instance, look quite different.
In 1867, Mark Twain traveled to the Middle East as part of a large tour group of Americans. In his satire The Innocents Abroad, he reflected on his experience, writing, “the people [of the Middle East] stared at us everywhere, and we [Americans] stared at them. We generally made them feel rather small, too, before we got done with them, because we bore down on them with America’s greatness until we crushed them.” American notions of superiority, then, were long-standing as Americans intervened in the Middle East.
The U.S. government had traditionally had little contact with the Middle East. Trade was limited, too limited for an economic relationship to be deemed vital to the national interest, but treaties were nevertheless signed between the U.S. and powers in the Middle East. Still, the majority of American involvement in the Middle East prior to World War I came not in the form of trade, but in education, science, and humanitarian aid. American missionaries led the way. The first Protestant missionaries had arrived in 1819. Soon the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the boards of missions of the Reformed Church of America became dominant in missionary enterprises. Missions were established in almost every country of the Middle East, and even though their efforts resulted in relatively few converts, missionaries helped to establish hospitals and schools and their work laid the foundation for the establishment of universities, such as Robert College in Istanbul, Turkey (1863), the American University of Beirut (1866), and the American University of Cairo (1919). The American University of Beirut was long the most modern and Western university in the Middle East.