The United States became an imperial power in 1898 to become more of an economic power in the world. The United States was looking to the Pacific and specifically China as a place with the potential for great economic growth. Therefore, the country established itself as an imperial power with its own foreign policy initiative and hoped to avoid having China divided up among colonial powers. The United States set up an Open Door policy so that all nations had equal access to China. The country also went to war with Spain over who had more power in the Pacific. Compared to previous U.S. foreign relations, this was a big change. Prior to 1898 the country was fairly isolated. Being a new nation, the United States did not have much imperial power and remained isolated for a long time prior to this change in 1898.
After 1898, the United States started acquiring properties around the world, places like Guam and the Philippines. This increased the sphere of influence of the United States. After 1898, U.S. relations with the rest of the world became more combative. The United States fought wards in places like the Philippines where they wanted to establish colonies. The United States turned from an isolationist country to an interventionist country with an iron fist throughout the world. The United States started threatening other nations with force if they got in the way of U.S. foreign policy aims. This more aggressive policy put the country in conflict with other powers in the world, especially in Europe. The dominant policy became one of intervention.
At first, the United States saw World War I as a European problem that had no interest for America. However, even after declaring neutrality, most Americans sympathized with Britain and France. Later, Britain tested America’s neutrality by blockading Germany. Then the Lusitania, a British passenger liner, was torpedoed by the British. When the Germans also sank five American vessels, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war.
The war served as an agent of reform in that it awoke the progressive movement in America. The government had to create agencies for the purpose of managing the war effort. These agencies enacted progressive reforms like the eight-hour workday, a living minimum wage, and collective bargaining rights. Also, the war got more women into the workplace, as many men had left to go to the war. Women also served in the war as nurses, ambulance drivers, canteen managers, and war correspondents. Women used the war as well to protest for suffrage. It was in 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women’s suffrage, was finally passed.
After the war the country still faced several problems that put its democracy at risk. For one thing, millions of soldiers were returning home from the war but had no jobs back home. They desperately needed a way to get back into the economy. At the same time, workers at home had grown accustomed to the new progressive provisions they had gained during the war. After the war, they wanted to hold on to these new protections. This led to massive strikes across the country. There was even violence as workers protested to keep their new protections and rights. At the same time, the “Red Scare” arose. This was the fear that communists were infesting the country. Americans became terrified that their democracy was under attack by Communists, who they saw as dangerous and violent. Racial tensions also continued, with blacks and Mexicans migrating away from the South, but not finding as much opportunity and democracy as they’d hoped for in the North. Racial tensions stalled democracy and called into question capitalist practices that actually oppressed certain people. Some pushed for a “return to normalcy.” it was a call that resonated with Americans who were afraid their democracy was at risk in the turmoil after the war.
In the 1920s the American public saw the government and capitalism as a bigger player in the world. Americans saw their government in the “New Era” as a business government. President Calvin Coolidge said “The business of America is business” and the public agreed. Capitalism became not just the way things were at home, but a doctrine to spread abroad. People saw business as the thing that made America great. While this heightened the sense of individualism in the country, America did not adopt an isolationist policy. The country spread its influence out into the world and the people were behind that. They saw the role of the federal government as promoting prosperity and peace both at home and abroad through capitalism. The attitude toward capitalism shifted to one that was overwhelmingly favorable.
In the 1920s American popular culture got less idealistic. Before World War I, American popular culture was more likely to be full of artists who wanted to be part of progressive reform movements. However, afterward artists spent more time criticizing American culture. Ernest Hemingway became popular for his ability to write about the world stripped of all pretense and illusion. Likewise, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the disillusionment of a generation and William Faulkner tackling the ongoing heritage of class and race in the South. American identity got more realistic and introspective, with fewer comforting illusions found in popular culture.
While Eugene V. Debs sees socialists and socialist ideas as heroic, Mitchell Palmer sees them as signs of treason. Debs loathed members of the upper classes, who he saw as unfairly controlling the rest of the country. Debs believed socialists were fighting for equality and freedom, not the freedom promised by the republic but true freedom for the people. He saw socialism as an idea on the rise among the working class, who would rise up and spread the truth of socialism. Debs saw socialism as a path to true peace in the world, as long as the working class was willing to rise up to overthrow the prevailing social system. In contrast, Palmer believed socialism put the entire country in jeopardy. He saw socialists as unpatriotic and prone to stealing, murdering and lying. Palmer believed socialists were nothing but a small band of outcasts and even wanted to deport them. Overall, Palmer believed that socialists were trying to rob from the upper class and lure in the working class to their radical ideas. While Debs saw socialists as freedom fighters and true Americans, Palmer believed they were rebels who should be deported.