By Steve Wiegand

At the end of the 19th century, the American government suddenly had a lot more territory to take care of. There was Hawaii, which was formally annexed in 1898, and also Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, which were all won from Spain. Cuba was technically free, but because of restrictive treaties, it was in reality an American fiefdom.

On February 6, 1899, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty with Spain that gave the U.S. Guam and Puerto Rico. The Spanish threw in the Philippines, too, after American negotiators offered $20 million for the islands.

The Senate vote on the treaty was 57 to 27 — only two more than the two-thirds needed. The close vote mirrored a sharp division of opinion about whether it was a good idea for America to have colonies.

Arguing about American imperialism

Imperialism is a political idea that sounds something like this: “We can run your country better than you can because we have a better system of government.” In practical terms, imperialists also view occupied territory as a sort of automatic teller machine for withdrawals of natural resources, or as a great place for strategically located military bases.

In June 1898, opponents to the idea of American colonies formed the Anti-Imperialist League, a group of strange bedfellows that included author Mark Twain, steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, and labor leader Samuel Gompers.

The folks who opposed imperialism all had different reasons for their opposition. Some believed it was un-American to impose American culture or government on other people. Others were afraid of “mingling” with “inferior” races. Laborers feared competition from poorly paid workers in other countries, and conservative business leaders feared foreign entanglements would divert capital.

Proponents, led by Theodore Roosevelt, who was then the governor of New York, argued that annexation would open the Orient for U.S. business. He said it would also prevent other nations from seizing the former Spanish colonies, and better position the United States as a world military power.

Pres. William McKinley opined it was America’s duty to “educate the Filipinos and uplift and civilize and Christianize them,” conveniently ignoring the fact that most Filipinos were already Roman Catholic. Such attitudes sparked a war with the newly liberated Filipinos. The war took several years and thousands of casualties on both sides before the United States prevailed.

Keeping a high profile in international affairs

To a large extent, the nasty fight in the Philippines soured the American appetite for imperialism. But protecting U.S. business interests overseas remained a priority, and a strong feeling still existed that the country needed to maintain a high profile in international affairs.

No one felt that way more strongly than McKinley’s new vice president, Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley’s original vice president, Garret Hobart, had died in late 1899, and Republican Party leaders added the headstrong Roosevelt to McKinley’s ticket in 1900 mainly as a way to shut him up in the obscurity of the vice presidency.

But on September 6, 1901, while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, McKinley was shot by a self-proclaimed anarchist. The president died a week later, and Roosevelt moved into the spotlight.

“Now look!” cried GOP political boss Mark Hanna of McKinley’s death and Roosevelt’s succession to the presidency. “That damned cowboy is President of the United States!”