U.S. Foreign Relations

In the 1890s, citizens of the United States were beginning to look outward to world affairs. Some old issues continued to find expression, for example, resentment of Great Britain's financial and naval power, and efforts to win Irish-American votes by denouncing British imperialism. Other issues were new. Many Americans were shocked, in 1896, by the massacre of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In the face of the European powers' inaction, should the United States act for humanitarian ends? If so, how?

Some Americans argued that the country, as an emerging industrial power, needed to secure raw materials and consumer markets overseas. Others denounced such strategies as benefiting only a few, and tending toward a European-style "empire." Debates over U.S. expansionism were thus tangled up with currency policy, the tariff, and other economic questions. In the following four years the country would annex Hawaii and undertake wars in Cuba and the Philippines. In 1900, the electoral rematch between Bryan and McKinley would hinge largely on foreign policy, with Republican expansionists winning a crushing victory over Bryan's anti-imperialism. For more on the development of these issues after 1896, see the Ohio State University website on theMcKinley Era.

Spain & Cuba
In 1896, there continued to be an on-going debate about what action the United States would take with respect to Cuba, the Spanish territory off the coast of Florida. Many expansionists felt that this territory could be advantageous to the United States. Cuba was in a state of both political and economic upheaval. Having rebelled against Spanish colonizers, Cubans were in the middle of a bloody civil war. Also, in 1894 the United States had passed the Wilson-Gorman Tariff, which effectively ended Cuba's near-monopoly on the United States sugar market. Cuban merchants could no longer count on favorable prices, thus plunging Cuba into a serious economic crisis. Expansionists saw Cuba as ripe for American intervention, and advocated stepping in on the side of the Cuban rebels, hoping to gain their favor. This debate around Cuba was just one of many times that imperialists and anti-imperialists in Congress were to clash, the two sides fundamentally disagreeing about the role of territorial expansion in economic policy.

Throughout 1896, expansionists gained influence. On February 28 Congress passed a resolution affirming U.S. support to the Cuban rebels, and offering to help Spain negotiate a peace settlement for the island--an offer Spain rejected. One month later, on March 24, Congress approved $50,000 to send to Cuba to aid victims of the civil war. This policy culminated on December 21, after McKinley's victory and the election of a strongly Republican Congress, when the Senate foreign relations committee approved a resolution in which the United States officially recognized the independence of the Republic of Cuba. The war with Spain, beginning in 1898, signaled that the imperialists in Congress had triumphed.

Cubans have made up their minds to either be free or die. Our fathers in 1776 were not more unitedly determined for freedom than are the Cuban people. They have undoubtedly won the right of recognition and fair play. The threats of Spain should count as nothing. The Cuban people are suffering for medicines and supplies and they should be allowed to get them, just as Spain does.
--Inter Ocean, 2 November 1896

It is impossible to see why any citizen of this republic of any religion, party, or faction, should undertake to object to the government which gives the oppressed Cuban patriots the rights of belligerents--a fighting chance for their lives and their liberties. All that such recognition means is that the Cubans shall be treated as prisoners of war when they are captured instead of suffering the death of traitors, felons, and malefactors; and that they shall have the same rights in American waters or on American land that the Spaniards enjoy.
--Atlanta Constitution, in Public Opinion, 5 March 1896

As for a war with Spain, that would be a holiday campaign and nothing more. We outnumber the Spaniards four to one. The United States Congress will do its duty, no matter what the outcome may be.
--New York Recorder, in Public Opinion 5 March 96

[Cuban Sugar]
A Cuban Sugar Plantation
Scientific American, 11 April, 1896

To Annex Hawaii?
The United States' involvement in Hawaii began in 1875 when Hawaiian King Kalakaua signed a treaty with the United States permitting access to American markets for Hawaiian sugarcane, the islands' largest agricultural product. Kalakua's successor, Queen Liliuokalani, was deposed in 1893, and in 1894 a republic of Hawaii was founded by Sanford B. Dole, a Hawaiian-born American. By 1896, U.S. business interests controlled the affairs of the islands and were seeking annexation, placing Hawaii in the center of an emerging debate over U.S. acquisition of "possessions" overseas. The U.S. formally annexed the islands during McKinley's first administration, on August 12, 1898.

The thoughtful people of the United States, after the experience they have had and are having of the trouble they have brought on the country by trying to oblige the silver interest, are by no means eager to plunge into more trouble to oblige the sugar interest by annexing Hawaii. . . . About the addition of some 28,000 Japanese and Chinese; 9,000 Portugese and 42,000 natives to the voting or non-voting population of the United States, they feel very much like the Arkansas man who said, "God knows I've had trouble enough without putting water in my whiskey."
--The Nation, 9 February 1893

The annexation of Hawaii will benefit none but the sugar king of that island, and his benefits will be bought and presented to him by the American people. Let Hawaii remain an independent republic. The United States should not begin the policy of reaching across the waves to grasp new territory.
--Omaha World Herald in Public Opinion, 24 June 1897

Cartoons on Foreign Relations

(see also immigration and the Morgan bonds)

6 August, Sound Money
29 August, Labor Advocate
9 September, Rocky Mountain News
20 September, L'Abeille de Nouvelle Orleans
20 September, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
26 September, Harper's Weekly
15 October, Sound Money
December, Overland Monthly

[Armenian Grave]

"A Horrible Spectacle in an Armenian Cemetery After A Massacre."
--from Great Leaders and Issues of 1896

Turkey & Armenia
By 1896, the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the dependent nation of Armenia was full blown. For years, Armenians had suffering under the rule of Sultan Abdul-Hamed II: subjected to unfair trials, corrupt government officials, murder, and robbery with no official path of recourse, Armenians resisted. By the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, the nations of Europe agreed to "secure Christian subjects their full liberty of religious worship and belief," and this included Armenians, most of whom were Christians in a predominantly Muslim empire. During 1896 the Sultan ordered large-scale massacres of Armenian citizens, in order to quell resistance. European nations discussed intervening with plans for reforms, but despite much moralistic verbiage about the evils of the Turks, little was done.

Halfway around the world, the United States had an interest in "the Armenia question." Since 1820, American Protestant missionaries had established a large network of schools and congregations throughout Armenia. Their initial intention was to convert Muslims and Jews, but after little success, the missionaries decided to "reform" the Christianity of the Armenians by teaching them the "true" meanings of the gospel. By 1896 there were hundred of schools and congregations in the region, most led by Americans. As the situation worsened, these missionaries began to speak out about the plight of the Armenians and brought the situation to the attention of the American public.

Women's organizations were particularly active in publicizing the Armenian cause. The Woman's Journal of Boston devoted a great deal of space to describing the atrocities. The most famous U.S. prohibitionist leader, Frances Willard of the WCTU, was living in England in 1896; she raised funds for Armenian refugees in Britain and America. The United States, through resolutions, eventually decided to work indirectly with other nations to secure the rights of not only the Christian Armenians, but also the safety of American lives and property overseas.

Protestant missionaries provided generally accurate reports of human rights abuses against Armenians. They and the American press, however, often stereotyped the "cruel and heathen Turks," implying that they were racially or religiously predisposed to torture and murder. In cartoons from the presidential campaign, depictions of Turks reflected and reinforced such prejudices.

This affair is the business of the whole Christian world, and of the powers directly responsible for the good behavior of the Sultan do not perform their duty, the rest of good Christendom has the right to call them into account.
--Boston Post, in Public Opinion, 6 February 1896

The fact that Turkey owes the snug little sum of $750,000,000 to various Christian nations may somewhat account for the lethargy that has been going along with Turkish outrages.
--Boston Globe, 3 Septemer 1896

The protection of the rights of American citizens in foreign lands and the demand for reparation when those rights are violated belong to the executive department of the Government. There is no serious complaint that the government is neglecting this duty, although it has not acted upon the jingo demand that it shall send a fleet to the Bosphorous to blow the Turk out of his capital. The fleets of England, Russia, and France, would be very likely to to put in a caveat against such a proceeding in behalf of the Berlin treaty. But those governments will hardly treat with seriousness the Senate's gratuitous resolutions of advice concerning their international rights and obligations.
--Philadelphia Record in Public Opinion, 6 February 1896

...The testimony of missionaries, in private letters... [indicates] that the Armenians are not wholly blameless for these troubles; that they are anxious to be free and often provoke attacks that would not otherwise be forced upon them, and do so for the sake of arousing sentiment in Europe against the Turks.
--Minneapolis Journal in Public Opinion, 30 January, 1896

The present position in the levant is literally too shameful for words. The Armenians are still being murdered and starved and outraged as freely as though they were inhabitants of remote Polynesian cannibal islands, instead of next-door neighbors of Christian Europe. The Cretans are up in arms fighting desperately for their freedom against the abominations and criminal stupidity of Turkish misrule.
--Saturday Review, in Public Opinion 27 August, 1896

The attack of the Turks on the Christian inhabitants, with the customary and incidental atrocities, the revolt of the Christians, their gallant fight for life and the saftey of their families, are all typical of the struggles of Christian populations against the horrors of Mahometan supremacy. ...The whole subject of Turkish anarchy and murder is an appalling demonstration of the heartlessness and falsity of European diplomacy. It is a demonstration that the United States has not sunk to a similar sway of selfish and cowardly motives that we urge intervention by our government in the corresponding case of Cuba.
--Pittsburgh Dispatch, from Public Opinion, 16 July, 1896

[Cuban Patriots]

"Daring Attack by the Patriots of Cuba upon a Fort Near Vueltas."

--from Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College