Modern Imperialism and its Impact

Political Cartoon Lampoons Robber Barons

Imperialism played a big part in the economies of large, industrial or militarily-powerful nations and even in the world economy in the last two centuries.

In the 19th century, several countries in Europe, including Britain, Germany, France and others, created colonies in Africa, Asia and its islands in order to have control over the resources there. They accomplished this by using their military, politicking and businesses investments. Britain was the greatest European “empire” of the 19th century. It included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several colonies in Africa and Asia. India rebelled against the British in 1857, like American colonists did in 1775. The British crushed the rebellion in India, unlike in America. The British built railroads, telegraphs, canals, harbors and had improved farming there. France, Germany and other European powers learned from this and “jumped on the bandwagon”, gaining colonies – mostly in Africa.

American Imperialism

Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States saw the opportunity to gain colonies from the islands it conquered from Spain in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, including Cuba, Puerto Rico,Guam and the Philippines. Many people in these “empires” believed they could truly be a world power only by gaining colonies around the world.

Why Did the U.S. Try to Gain Colonies Overseas?

One of the reasons why the U.S. was willing to seek colonies aboard in the last few years of the 19th century was the closing of the American West and seeking new markets. The frontiers of the world were sought by the government and businesses. By 1890, the U.S. was making more than it could use. Therefore, it was important to look overseas to find new markets for U.S. produce, new occupations for capital and new jobs for workers. Most Americans agreed and feared that if the U.S. did not act, then the other world powers would gather more colonies and the U.S. would be largely left out of the world economy. American scholars defended imperialism as a justification of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” philosophy. Stronger nations, in their view, would dominate weaker nations or territories in order to help those stronger nations gain wealth, health and to pass along that wealth and health to the weaker nations/territories it dominates. Others believed that the Anglo-Saxon race, especially in America, should spread its ideas of liberty and Christianity to primitive people in under-developed lands. Another reason that imperialism appealed to Americans was the control of the sea. It makes for a productive economy, foreign commerce, a navy to defend its trade routes and colonies, which have the resources and markets.

The Impact of Imperialism

Imperialism has benefited the citizens of the imperial nations, including the U.S., by expanding foreign commerce and thereby helping the domestic economies of each nation. By having control over lands overseas, a nation can have more output for itself and foreign trade. It exports would be greater than its imports, thereby increasing its wealth. They would have less to buy from other nations or territories and profit from them, seeking what those nations/territories have. It has also benefited the land the nation has control of, by improving or building roads, schools, sewers, health, education and other things. At the same time, it provides the natives with work in their native land. For example, the British created schools in India for Indian children so that they would be loyal to the British. They did this for other thier colonies.

But for many imperial nations, control over a land meant more than domination. It meant repression and brutality as in the case with Britain, even the United States, particularly in The Philippines. Most Filipinos resented American rule, despite their gratitude for them freeing the Filipinos from Spanish rule. They viewed the Americans as liberators then as occupiers. So, they rebelled and the U.S. retaliated for four years, killing guerrillas responsible for attacks on American soldiers. Some of that retaliation resulted in entire communities being forced to evacuate and sent to concentration camps, while U.S. soldiers burned their communities and resources so that the rebels wouldn’t be able to use them. Many suspected rebels were killed by Americans without proof of their loyalties and deeds. The U.S. controlled the islands with a civilian governor until 1946, when it granted independence.

Modern American Imperialism

Imperialism has played a large part, politically, in recent U.S. history by setting up democratic governments in West Germany, Japan (after WW II), South Korea, (after WW II and the Korean War), Vietnam (after the Indo-China War), and most recently, Afghanistan (after its 2001-2002 war), and Iraq (after its 2003 war). In Iraq, America’s first priority was to stop the looting of Saddam’s palaces and government buildings by Iraqi citizens, by maintaining law and order. U.S. forces were to set up elections to ensure democracy there as U.S. did in Germany, Japan and the Far East. Soon U.S. forces got bogged down there, responding to terrorist attacks. In the end, there were democratic elections resulting in a democratic government. But U.S. forces are still there in a policy that appears to be over-reaching “political imperialism”, unlike in post-war Germany, Japan and South Korea, but much like in the Philippines in the early to mid 20th century. As for commerce, only Japan and South Korea have benefited from U.S. influence to a great degree; so much that they have been America’s greatest competition throughout the 1980s and ‘90s until China took over the world market.


  1. Brinkley, Alan. Current, Richard. Freidel, Frank. Williams, T. Harry. American History, A Survey, Seventh Edition, Volume II: Since 1865, pages 575-592. 1987.
  2. Harper, Andrew. Interpretations of American History II class notes. 2005.