8 Examples of American Imperialism (Throughout History)

When people think of imperialism, they often think of European powers such as Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal. Many think the United States never formed an empire or had colonies. In fact, this is incorrect.

Throughout history there many examples of American imperialism. Some are America taking colonies and essentially creating an empire, others are America violating the sovereignty of other nations for its own economic and strategic gains. Read on and we’ll take you through some of the more, and less, well known instances of American imperialism…

1. Liberia

A first example of American imperialism is Liberia.

Liberia is a nation on the west coast of Africa. In 1822, it was established by Americans as a colony for freed slave. Between its founding and the American Civil War in 1861, 15,000 freed African Americans migrated to Liberia from the United States.

The nation of Liberia was initially established by the American Colonisation Society. This private group advocated for black people in America who were freed from slavery to move to Africa as they felt they would have better chances at freedom and prosperity.

With large numbers of African Americans moving to Liberia in the first half of the 19th Century, a distinct Liberian American identity began to form. The American’s installed themselves in positions of power over the indigenous African population. In 1847, Liberia declared itself an independent Republic.

Liberia can be seen as a prime example of American imperialism in Africa in the 19th Century. Although not officially supported by the American state, the influx of people from the US and the subsequent colonisation of Liberia by them is a strong example of imperialism. Liberia was never a formal colony of the US, however its creation did install Americans as the rulers of the country and local African’s were oppressed for decades following.

2. Philippines

A second example of American imperialism is the Philippines.

The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 until 1946. It was one of the only major overseas territories the US took as a colony.

Spain conquered the Philippines in 1565 and the country was a Spanish colony for over 300 years. In 1898, the Spanish-American War broke-out. The main reason for the war was Cuban independence, with the US backing rebels on the island fighting against Spanish colonial rule. However, tensions between Spain and the US had been rising for two decades previously and America wished to reduce Spanish influence in the Caribbean and Pacific regions.

Although the majority of the fighting during the Spanish-American War focused on the Caribbean, several key battles were fought in the Pacific theatre. On 1st May 1898, Spanish and American fleets collided in Manila Bay. Following the defeat of the Spanish Navy, America landed ground forces and captured the Filipino capital of Manila on 13th August 1898.

With the Spanish removed the power, Emilio Aguinaldo, the de facto leader of the Philippines independence movement, declared an end to colonial rule and the founding of an independent Philippines Republic. However, as part of the Treaty of Paris – signed between the US and Spain to end hostilities, America was granted colonial rule over the Philippines.

America fought a war from 1898 to 1902 against Filipino fighters who rejected America’s imperialist takeover. The Philippines remained an American colony for over 40 years. The US rule of the Philippines is the largest example of American imperialism during the height of Western colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th Century.

3. Hawaii

Hawaii is now an American state. However, before being conquered by the United States it was an independent kingdom. The American takeover of Hawaii is an example of American imperialism.

The islands of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean had been a sovereign nation for much of its history. The Hawaiians first contact with Westerners was in 1778 when the British surveyed the islands. By the early 19th Century, American missionaries had a substantial presence in Hawaii. They succeeded in converting most of the population to Christianity. When the child king Kamehameha III inherited the throne at only twelve years old, his Western advisors pressured him to officially incorporate Christianity into the island’s governance structures.

As the Western presence in Hawaii grew throughout the 19th Century, so did America’s influence over the island. In 1887, King Kalakaua was forced to sign a new constitution by Western powers that removed much of his authority. By the end of the 19th Century, Hawaii had a large white elite that controlled most of the island’s economy.

In 1893, a small group of American soldiers stationed in Hawaii overthrew the royal family and declared the independent Republic of Hawaii. They installed members of Hawaii’s white elite in power. Following the formation of the Republic of Hawaii, pressure grew on America to annex the republic, which it did in 1898.

In 1959, Hawaii became a state within the US.

Although Hawaii is today seen as an integral part of the United States, the American acquisition of the islands is a major example of American imperialism. The US overthrew the legitimate rulers of Hawaii and, after installing a government of their choice against the will of the Hawaiian people, annexed the islands. Therefore it is a prime example of American colonialism.

4. Vietnam

The Vietnam War can be seen as another example of American imperialism.

Vietnam was colonised by the French in 1877. Following the Second World War, a serious insurgency grew in the country against French rule. Following the defeat of French forces at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, France pulled out of French Indochina and the nation states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were formed.

The main rebel group fighting against the French in Vietnam were the Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh. In the Geneva Accords, signed by France at the end of the war and marking the end of colonial rule, Vietnam was partitioned. The Viet Minh were given control of North Vietnam but instructed to pull-out of the south of the country. Democratic elections were promised for 1956 which aimed to reunite North and South Vietnam.

The Viet Minh were seen as a major threat by the United States who saw them as allies of the Soviet Union. America was worried that elections – either through a democratic mandate or fraud, would hand control of the whole county the Communists. America insisted that the United Nations oversee any election, but this was vetoed by the Viet Minh and Soviet Union.

Unable to reunite the country by democratic means, by the early 1960s the Viet Minh stepped-up a guerrilla campaign in South Vietnam. In response, America began supplying arms and providing training to South Vietnamese forces. In 1965, the US first deployed combat troops to Vietnam and began direct clashes with the forces of North Vietnam.

The Vietnam War cost the lives of over two million Vietnamese and over 58,000 American’s. Many people, inside Vietnam and the US, as well as around the world, saw the Vietnam War as American imperialism. The war was, and still is, thought of as a prevention of Vietnams self-determination and an attempt to prop-up the pro-Western capitalist dictatorship in the South.

Although the US never colonized Vietnam, many people believe the unjust war fought in Vietnam is a strong example of American imperialism.

5. Iraq

The 2003 invasion of Iraq can be seen as further example of American imperialism.

In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States led a coalition to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces from the country. By February 1991, Iraq had been defeated and Kuwait liberated. However, the American-led coalition did not remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.

Over the next decade, hostility in the US grew against the Saddam regime. America intervened in the north of Iraq to protective the Kurdish minority from Saddam reprisals.

America long believed Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Following the First Gulf War, America committed to the disarmament of Iraq. By the year 2000, believing that Iraq was in violation of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraqi Disarmament, the United States invaded Iraq.

Although the official reason for the invasion was the removal of the Saddam regime and the seizure of weapons of mass destruction, many believe the US invasion of Iraq to be an example of American imperialism. America occupied Iraq and installed a new system of government more in favour to the US.

Shortly after the invasion, Iraq fell into civil war. Conflict has continued in the country for two decades. The rise of Islamic State in Iraq from 2014 onwards further fuelled the feeling that America had failed in it’s promise to build a peaceful and democratic Iraq. Many believe control of Iraq’s vast oil reserves was the real motivation for the US invasion. This further adds to the feeling that the invasion was an act of American imperialism.

6. Panama

American involvement in Panama is often cited as an example of American imperialism.

In the 16h Century, Spain colonised Panama. When the country gained its independence from Spain in 1821 it formed a union with Colombia.

America had long been interested in building a canal in Panama. The area is the narrowest point in Central America and a canal in Panama would allow the US to move its fleet between ports in the east to west of the country, as well as improve trade between America’s coasts. US domination of a canal in Panama would also give it a major strategic asset in the region.

In 1885, the US directly supported Panama’s break from Colombia and the formation of an independent state. The newly independent Panama came quickly under American influence. In 1904, work on the Panama Canal began and construction was complete by 1914. The canals construction was financed and overseen by the American’s.

Although Panama was an independent country, the canal remained in American ownership until 1999.

The US has long been accused of being an imperialist power in Panama. America has dominated the Panamanian economy and often controlled its politics. The US has been accused of orchestrating coups in Panama to ensure it retains its control. In 1989. America invaded Panama to remove the regime of General Manuel Noriega.

For over a century, America has essentially had a colonial hold on Panama. US actions in the country throughout its history are a key example of American imperialism.  

7. Samoa

The American colonization of Samoa is another example of American imperialism.

Samoa is a series of islands in south Pacific. The indigenous people of Samoa first came into contact with Westerners in the early 18th Century. By 1830, missionary work had begun on the islands, led mainly by the British. The late 19th century saw Samoa established as a port and refuelling station, used mainly by American, German, French and British ships.

By the early 20th century, European colonial powers, and America, began vying for control of Samoa. The British, Germans and Americans all laid claims to the islands. In 1904, after Britain relinquished its claim after agreeing a deal with Germany, America and Germany divided the islands between them. America took the smaller eastern islands with the Germans taking the larger islands in the west.

The eastern islands of Samoa became American Samoa and have been a key US naval base since the early 20th Century. American Samoa is not a state but is an unincorporated territory of the US.

America’s colonisation of Samoa is a key example of US imperialism. The United States colonised part of Samoa in the late 19th Century, and it has remained a US territory ever since.

8. Puerto Rico

The US seizure of Puerto Rico is key example of American imperialism.

Puerto Rico was part of the Spanish Empire from the 1500s. In 1898, the Spanish-American war broke-out. The majority of the conflict was fought in the Caribbean with the reduction of Spanish influence in the region a key reason for America fighting the war.

In July 1898, America landed forces in Puerto Rico and seized the island from Spain. At the end of the Spanish-American War, Spain signed the Treaty of Paris. The Treaty forced Spain to relinquish much of its territory in the Caribbean to the US, including Puerto Rico.

From the early 20th Century, Puerto Rico acted as a de facto colony of the US. American businesses owned much of the island’s resources and US citizens from the mainland formed an elite on the island.

In 1914, the Puerto Rico House of Representatives voted unanimously for independence from the US. This was rejected by the government in Washington.

America’s seizure of Puerto Rico, as well as its rejection of its independence and its exploitative economic practices on the islands, make it a prime example of American imperialism.

Global Affairs Explained

Global Affairs Explained is an ongoing project aiming to provide concise guides to world events. Focusing on international relations, history, and geo-politics, Global Affairs Explained uses original research and data to answer questions often not covered by traditional media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts