Uncle Sam’s Burden

B.L. Singley, Keystone View Company, The Philippines, Porto Rico, and Cuba—Uncle Sam’s Burden, 1899

Introduced during the President’s State of the Union address in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine states that

the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

The doctrine has been in place ever since, establishing de facto United States hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. One of the United States’ first foreign policy declarations, it is also perhaps the most enduring, invoked most recently by John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

At the turn of the 20th century, the meaning of the doctrine was very much up for debate. Having recently gained colonial control over Porto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines after the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War (and the Spanish Empire) the United States suddenly found itself an imperial power. The Anti-Imperialist League argued that the United States had “flagrantly and unjustifiably violated both the letter and spirit of this [the Monroe] doctrine in establishing a colonial government in Porto Rico.”

On the other side, propagandists for American imperial power portrayed the United States as the saviour and protector of the “dark races.” Rudyard Kipling, writing in England, published his famous poem “The White Man’s Burden” in response to the United States’ takeover of the Philippines. The poem begins:

Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

The stereoscope above takes its title and theme from Kipling’s poem (even citing him in the lower right corner). The image of the three black children representing the three colonial holdings was a common trope from political cartoons in the penny press, and echoes Kipling’s depiction of non-white peoples as “half-children.”

The other force promoting imperialism was, of course, United States business interests. In Cuba, where the economy had been decimated by the war, the weakened local government was forced to sign treaties highly favorable to the United States, opening the island to economic domination by some of the same American firms that had advocated for war in the first place.

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One Response to Uncle Sam’s Burden

  1. ishmael says:

    The United States is still an imperial power across the globe, they just dress it up better. The CIA runs the governments of the vast majority of third-world countries, the Philippines included. Power never gives up power willingly. That is a constant. So when it looks like it is, it’s a scam.

    Though a completely separate concept, cultural imperialism is the most relevant form of imperialism today, as in order to form a global government, you need people to all be thinking exactly the same.

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