150 Years Of The Atlantic July/August 2006

Idealism & Practicality

This is the sixth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
The Growth of Our Foreign Policy
March 1900
By Richard Olney

Two years after the Spanish-American War left the United States for the first time in command of overseas territories (including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines), former Secretary of State Richard Olney hailed the country’s emergence as a world power, but warned against ill-considered expansion or excessive missionary zeal.

Though historians will probably assign the abandonment of the isolation policy of the United States to the time when this country and Spain went to war over Cuba, and though the abandonment may have been precipitated by that contest, the change was inevitable, had been long preparing, and could not have been long delayed. The American people were fast opening their eyes to the fact that they were one of the foremost Powers of the earth and should play a commensurately great part in its affairs. Recognizing force to be the final arbiter between states as between individuals, and merit however conspicuous and well-founded in international law to be of small avail unless supported by adequate force, they were growing dissatisfied with an unreadiness for the use of their strength which made our representatives abroad less regarded than those of many a second or third class state, and left American lives and property in foreign countries comparatively defenseless ...;

The United States has come out of its shell and ceased to be a hermit among the nations, naturally and properly. What was not necessary and is certainly of the most doubtful expediency is that it should at the same time become a colonizing Power on an immense scale ...

[No great power] can afford not to attend strictly to its own business and not to make the welfare of its own people its primary object—none can afford to regard itself as a sort of missionary nation charged with the rectification of errors and the redress of wrongs the world over. Were the United States to enter upon its new international role with the serious purpose of carrying out any such theory, it would not merely be laughed at but voted a nuisance by all other nations—and treated accordingly.

Volume 85, No. 509, pp. 289–301

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