Imperialism is a word with different meanings for different people. The word refers to a stronger nation’s gaining control of a weaker one. But the term is also used to describe the spread of power or authority without the actual taking over of any land. Historian C. Vann Woodward has called imperialism an “elastic term,” a word with evil meanings. He says this freely used word is a “convenient form of verbal shorthand” to tell of the gulf between nations “who took and have” and those “who lack and want.” Nations are labeled “imperialist” when, to protect or extend their own interests, they try to influence the people of other nations. Among the world’s unsolved problems are the questions of how much influence is proper, and what forms of influence are acceptable.
Colonial imperialism has historically meant the actual occupation and rule of a territory or colony by a foreign nation. Political imperialism means the use of either diplomacy or military force to influence the internal affairs of a weaker nation. Economic imperialism means controlling key aspects of a less powerful nation’s economy. Social-cultural imperialism includes the impact one culture has on another, especially if that impact is uninvited. In the social-cultural sense of the word, for example, the Coca-Cola signs around the world have been labeled as a form of American imperialism.
In the colonial sense of the term, the United States acted as an imperialist power in 1898, when it won a war against Spain and acquired several colonies. The events of 1898 are worth studying because of their long-term effect on the American dream. When the United States acquired colonies, many people saw a basic contradiction. Less than 125 years earlier, Americans had fought and won a war for independence from foreign rule. How could Americans now justify their rule over other peoples? This unit looks at some of the reasons why the United States acquired an overseas empire.