How Roosevelt Made America an Imperialistic Power Essay

How Roosevelt Made America an Imperialistic Power


President (Theodore) Roosevelt’s tenure was central to the rise of America as a dominant world power in the 20th century. Through a combination of military ambition, diplomatic tact and occupation – at times colonialism, the President moved the U.S from an ordinary global power at the turn of the century into a formidable force in geopolitics by the time he left office. This paper explores the dynamics behind America’s rise under Roosevelt.


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At the turn of the 20th century, America was a minor power militarily. In fact, the American-Mexican war at the close of the 19th century was fought with the aid of volunteers and a number of National Guard troops. As of 1890, America’s Federal standing army was merely 39000-man strong, a puny number when compared with other powers such as France whose Army was upwards of half a million.

Roosevelt gave Elihu Root, his Secretary of war, a free hand to build up a strong army. Root instilled discipline into the forces by establishing the U.S Army War College, where soldiers could be highly trained. He also introduced the concept of a European style General Staff position for the head of the military. He expanded the size of the army considerably.

The navy before Roosevelt was as weak as the army was, and this unsettled the President somewhat, given that the country would be at a disadvantage should they fall into conflict in the Pacific Ocean with Japan, which had been building up its military and was a global power by that time. In a show of might, Roosevelt commanded the expansion of “The Great White Fleet” and sent it on a world cruise, notably making a profound stop in Japan, apparently as a sign of intimidation. The navy grew steadily, from obscurity growing to become the fifth largest on the seas by 1904, and further to become the second largest by 1907.


One sign of imperialism is evident when a country acts like a big uncle to another, bailing them out when they are in trouble and telling them how to govern – or even governing them indirectly or directly for a while. Roosevelt was certainly a big uncle from the start, in 1904 signing the Roosevelt Corollary. In this pact, America guaranteed all the debts of the Central American and Caribbean nations such that if ever they defaulted, the U.S would pay a debt on their behalf. The debts at the time were a major threat to nations in the Americas, as was evident in the Venezuela default when Germany, seeking to recover its debt, attempted to take over Venezuelan ports and custom houses. The intervention of the U.S. ensured that they were the sole remaining power in the Americas, aided largely by their economic might. This improved their stature internationally.


Beside protection, Roosevelt also imposed his power on nations in order to realize or safeguard America’s interests. In this manner, American imperialism was most evident. The classic example was the Panama Canal issue, where Colombia had declined to allow the U.S use of its land to create a sea route through the Isthmus of Panama. To get its way, America financed an uprising in Panama and backed it up with its navy. Colombia offered little resistance, and Panama seceded, upon which they sold America the requisite strip for $10 million. The Panama Canal was built and completed in 1914. It greatly boosted American defensive positioning and opened up what became a vital trade and transit route.

Other forms of imposition were evident in Haiti and in the Philippines. In the Philippines, they helped end the Aquilano insurrection and effectively occupied the country. They replaced the Catholic Friars that ruled and placed their preferred leadership. They went ahead to build infrastructure, improve healthcare, and modernize the country economically. In Haiti, Roosevelt started a long history of intervention, including occupation, dictation of a constitution that forced the country open for trade and exploitation of raw materials, etc. All countries in the Americas would eventually operate independently but under the watch of the U.S, with the clear warning that unwelcome forms of governance would not be tolerated.


Despite military expansion and other forms of brute expansionism, Roosevelt also raised America’s stature through diplomatic antics. In 1905, he negotiated a ceasefire between Russia and Japan at the Treaty of Portsmouth, ending a war and becoming the de facto neutral power amidst a sea of rival European powers. In 1906, he diffused a potential conflict between Germany on the one side and France and Britain on the other at the Algeciras Conference. France had approached the Sultan of Morocco to sign a treaty which Germany saw as a means to denying it access to its territories and from gaining more of the same in North Africa. At the bequest of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Roosevelt convened a conference between the three great powers where an agreement was reached to maintain the status quo as well as the sovereignty of the Sultan. All these greatly boosted America’s imperialistic might.


Cooper, J.M. (1983), The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Harvard, 448pp.

McDonnald, F. (1995), The American Presidency: An Intellectual History, Univ. of Kansas, 516pp.

Kaplan, A. (1993), Cultures of United States Imperialism, Duke, 672pp.