Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The U.S. Enters the World Stage: Shift in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1890-1920

In an earlier post, about how to start off second semester, I mentioned that there is a "story line" to looking at U.S. policy in the 20th century. Today I want to make good on that, starting with a look back at the nineteenth century.

If mentioning the phrase, "foreign policy in the nineteenth century" leaves you with a feeling of "huh?" you are not alone. I am NOT talking about the Barbary wars, or the War of 1812 or the South's efforts to court Britain and France during the Civil War. I am not even talking about the Spanish American War. Not yet.

But I am talking about Mexico. And I'm talking about American Expansionism.

And I think we need to review this with students as a way to set up the dramatic change that occurs in the late 19th century when the U.S. goes to war with Spain and ends up as a colonial power with control over the Philippines.

So I am including this link to a Google Presentation you can modify to use with your own students. I used it--unapologetically-- as a major lecture. I have only used this with high school students. But I have created an adaptation for use with middle school students. It is shorter, and the language is a little easier. I think a brief lecture is a useful way to introduce the major problems/questions surrounding foreign policy to this age group. Remember, I am using this to set up--not just a unit on the late 19th century/World War I, but also to set up our upcoming units on foreign policy:

  • World War II
  • The Cold War
  • Vietnam
  • The Middle East, September 11 and Current Problems in Foreign Policy

Most of the content for the lecture/presentation I linked to above is based on a chapter from Henry Kissinger's 1995 book, Diplomacy. It is a 900 plus page book that you will likely be able to find it on the shelf of your local public library. (No, I haven't read the whole book.) The chapter I used is chapter 2--"The Hinge: Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson," and it is only 28 pages and will give you a solid background. The chapter goes back to back to the early days of the United States, through Jefferson, Madison and the expansion in the 1840s. Before he goes on to discuss the contrasting policies of Roosevelt and Wilson, Kissinger makes this astute observation:

America's desire for expansion and its belief that it was a more pure and principled country than any in Europe never clashed. Since it did not regard its expansion as foreign policy, the United States could use its power to prevail--over the Indians, over Mexico, in Teas--and to do so in good conscience. In a nutshell, the foreign policy of the United States was not to have a foreign policy.

You will see the points described above in the Google presentation. Then Kissinger goes on to describe the tremendous growth of the U.S. after the Civil War and how that growth led to an interest in overseas markets. You will learn some interesting points about that which I have put in the Google presentation, too. (e.g. U.S. coal production went up 800%! Even as we still had a dinky army that comes in below Bulgaria's!)

So then comes the 1890s and the Spanish American War. But I don't go into the Spanish American War here. Here is where I just set up the rest of the semester with this Essential Question:

 On what basis, or for what reasons, does the a nation intervene in the affairs of others?

Or its variation,

When does a country look to isolationism, and when towards intervention?

These questions will come up every time a question about a foreign "event" comes up: the explosion of The Maine, the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand which will lead Europe into World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Syria, we could go on and on.... And don't forget Mexico, about which Porfirio Diaz may or may not have said, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

So it is worthwhile to examine the question with students before delving in.

One thing you can do to help students visualize is to draw something like the following on the board (an old-fashioned black or white board) after you have gone through the lecture:

The curves above the line represent time periods that are marked by an increase in intervention in world affairs and the curves below are those in which isolationism prevails. Note, however, that the first period of isolationism is really only in regards to Europe; the U.S. was quite busy during this time involving itself in Mexico and Nicaragua.

I like to go through this by adding the boxes and explaining BRIEFLY as we go. And then I conclude by explaining that ever since World War II, the U.S. has been a major world power and, therefore, has been rather involved in foreign affairs.

There is one last part of this lesson you can use either as the introduction or as the conclusion. Or depending on your time, you can use at the start of your next day's lesson when you get into the Spanish American War. And that is a discussion about what are the criteria for when a nation intervenes or not. This can be a short or longer discussion, depending on what interventionist crises the U.S. is engaged in at the moment and the extent to which you want to tie in present-day problems. But no matter how little historic or current affairs background they have, most students will be able to at least dream up answers like the following:

And then you can build on those...e.g. Oil, good. What other important resources might lead a country into an interventionist policy? What about Russia throughout its history? (i.e. warm water port). Or does anyone remember what was so significant about the Battle of Vicksburg? (i.e. access to the Mississippi River). What about World War II--even though we haven't studied it yet, most of you probably know that we fought against Nazi Germany even though Germany wasn't the nation that first attacked the United States (Japan was). Why might we have fought against Germany, too? Here's where a student might say something about the Holocaust, which you would correct them on, as that was not the primary motivation. But then you can bring up totalitarian and fascism. Or just make it simpler and talk about Hitler and his dictatorship as a threat to democracy. The point you are trying to get to is that part of what we fought for was AN IDEA.

And now you get to the crux of realism vs. idealism--two competing, and sometimes complementary ways of reflecting on foreign policy that we see over and over again throughout America's past. 

But because it is already March and this post is already long, I'm going to develop that more in the next post. . . .

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