American Imperialism: An Origin Story

The roots of American imperialism can be traced back to the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, when the United States suddenly gained territorial holdings overseas.


| May 2014



American flag

The origin of American Imperialism stems from territorial acquisitions gained through the Spanish-American War.

Photo by Fotolia/Markjay

Drawing on an impressive array of archival evidence to provide historical context, Islands of Empire (University of Texas Press, 2014) reveals the role of popular culture in creating and maintaining American imperialism. Author Camilla Fojas explores a broad range of popular culture media—film, television, journalism, advertisements, and literature—with an eye toward how the United States as an empire imagined its own military and economic projects. Excerpted from the Introduction, this selection gives American imperialism an origin story, a tale told through military conquest and media proliferation.

The story of U.S. empire emerges out of the successful military campaign against Spain in 1898. The association of military prowess, colonial acquisition, and political benevolence made the war a powerful icon and origin story of global power in the national imagination. The war is often elided with the era and the date of its occurrence, 1898, when expansion beyond the continent was afoot not just in the former Spanish imperial holdings but also in the former sovereign kingdom of Hawai'i—a key player in the military campaigns of that year. The rumblings of empire demanded a story that was to be conveyed partly in the emerging technology of cinema as well as in the popular press. The Spanish-American War was the first to be captured in moving images, and the development of cinema coincided with the expansion of U.S. influence and power abroad. Many of the images appeared in short newsreels and pithy takes on a battle or scene, while the full drama of empire and its possible futures was played out in another fanciful genre, travel writing. In these narratives, the imperial fantasy and its engineering gaze cast various island locations as interchangeable sites on a leisure tour of possible capital ventures for the enterprising imperialist. The diverse and geographically distinct locations of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawai'i, and, only tangentially, Guam, were insular parts of an imperial whole. The period after 1898 saw mass enthusiasm and a desire to know about these places and about the new status of the nation as a major world power. The Spanish-American War is an overdetermined and overarching symbol used to celebrate the benevolent form of U.S. empire; it signaled liberation from European imperial cruelties and alignment with U.S. democracy, freedom, and progress. Moreover, the Spanish-American war, also called the Spanish-Cuban-American War, constituted the roots of U.S. militarism, not just as the seed for establishing military bases in the Pacific and the Caribbean (and Latin America) but also as the origin of the modern organizational structure and strategic planning and coordination of the military.

Islands of Empire is about the aftermath and popular-culture afterlife of U.S. empire in the current, former, or protocolonies of Hawai'i, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Cuba. Each place had its "moment in the sun" of intense yet transitory visibility in popular culture, to borrow the title of John Sayles's novel set during the first epoch of U.S. imperial overreach.  Sayles gives a rich account of characters and locations brought together by tensions brewing on the continent and in the Caribbean and the Pacific. I explore popular depictions of each place at different moments following the dizzying turn of events after the Spanish-American War. The war set the national mood and attitude of global superiority. We live in the afterlife of that imperial moment. While the popular and trade press depicted the sites of empire as interchangeable, Washington treated each place differently as a result of the Insular Cases (1901–1922), a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that sanctioned colonization of the islands ceded by Spain. Each place matured politically and culturally to disrupt the homogenization of the imperial optic. The story of empire is full of paradoxes: the colonized suffered under the forces of indifference along with those of historical change. While representational similarities among these islands persist, contemporary popular culture accords each a unique role in the overall career of U.S. empire. And the epoch of formal empire is the symbolic origin of the informal imperial career of the United States.

This book is but a small part of a popular-culture archive that draws together places that persist in their dynamic relation to the United States as neocolonies, enemies, component parts, or client states. All of them contain U.S. military installations as part of an interconnected matrix of bases. Some are tourist destinations. The story lines of Hollywood films are fundamental to the structure of feeling of empire, in which an imperial sensibility is dramatized and displayed across tropical landscapes. For this reason, major films about each location are the primary coordinates of discussion; texts and ephemera of popular culture--postcards, documentaries, short stories, novels, tourist manuals, and promotional brochures--contribute pieces of the overall portrait.

The New Frontier of American Imperialism

After the Mexican War, in 1848, the imagined frontier of the United States moved south, challenging the supremacy of its mythic western orientation; that is, U.S. industrialists became more attentive to the possibilities for capitalist expansion in Latin America, and in Mexico more specifically. The frontier, the national boundary and border, carried a different significance as a line securing an embattled territory that once belonged to Mexico. The expanding U.S. boundaries seemed to have found natural limits in the Rio Grande in the South and at the end of the landmass in the West. Yet the sense of the borders shifted again just fifty years after the Mexican conflict. As a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States satisfied its ambition to exert more influence in the Americas and the Pacific. It gained control over several island nations, some just beyond the physical boundaries of the United States and others farther afield: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. In the same year, but through different means, the United States added the territory of Hawai'i to its coffers, and a year later eastern Samoa was acquired. By 1902, Cuba had returned to sovereignty, but remained within the orbit of U.S. influence as a protocolony, through the Platt Amendment, and as a tourist paradise made by and for the colossus of the North. The United States was no longer contained within a single continental mass, reaching beyond the mainland and into the Pacific and Caribbean. The new island frontier was the first global sign of the expanding circumference of the U.S. empire in the Americas and beyond. It remained for the U.S. to project its supremacy throughout the world and to expand the circumference of its imperial drama. In this way, the United States is both an actual empire in the formal sense and an agent of imperialism or of the logics and strategies for the expansion and assertion of global power.

Media creations that feature the U.S. insular empire, such as Miami Vice, are key players in the North American imperial drama. A major locus of the action is Havana, where Sonny engages in an affair with the Cuban-Chinese Isabella, a business partner of the kingpin of the contraband-trafficking operation. Their intimate relationship enables him to broker a deal that will lead to a major drug-ring bust in which Havana is a significant point of reference. The former tourist paradise signals the expansion of North American police networks in the Caribbean while it tacitly points to a lost piece of the U.S. empire, to a place long coveted and now off-limits. Miami Vice draws our attention to how the formal U.S. insular empire appears in popular culture in oblique and tacit ways, often, for example, as the backdrop to the wanderings of the U.S.-based protagonists. The popular-culture framing of these island locations exposes the ideological moorings of U.S. global power. Often, the formal U.S. empire is less visible against more recent military and political campaigns for global dominance. Yet as many critics have argued, the latter is a symptom of the former. In this work, I argue that both are significant, that there is a symbolic assertion of U.S. hegemony, often without reference to its insular empire, and that there is a distinct and significant origin of U.S. empire in 1898. Empire is both actual and symbolic at once.