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The Progressive Movement and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1890-1920s

The Progressive movement was a turn-of-the-century political movement interested in furthering social and political reform, curbing political corruption caused by political machines, and limiting the political influence of large corporations. Although many Progressives saw U.S. power in a foreign arena as an opportunity to enact the Progressive domestic agenda overseas, and to improve foreign societies, others were concerned about the adverse effects of U.S. interventions and colonialism.

The Progressive movement began with a domestic agenda. Progressives were interested in establishing a more transparent and accountable government which would work to improve U.S. society. These reformers favored such policies as civil service reform, food safety laws, and increased political rights for women and U.S. workers. In the 1890s, the Progressive movement also began to question the power of large businesses and monopolies after a series of journalistic exposÚs that revealed questionable business practices.

Throughout the 1890s, the U.S. Government became increasingly likely to rely on its military and economic power to pursue foreign policy goals. The most prominent action during this period, the Spanish-American War, resulted in U.S. rule of the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, as well as increased influence over Cuba. These territories captured in the Spanish-American war had a varied response toward U.S. occupation. In the Philippines, American forces faced armed insurgency, while in Puerto Rico, working-class and Progressive Puerto Ricans saw the United States as a successful counterweight to local sugar industry elites.

Many Progressives, including U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, saw no conflict between imperialism and reform at home -to them, both were forms of uplift, reform and improvement, and so they saw in these new colonies an opportunity to further the Progressive agenda around the world. However, especially after the violence of the Philippine-American War, other Progressives became increasingly vocal about their opposition to U.S. foreign intervention and imperialism. Still others argued that foreign ventures would detract from much-needed domestic political and social reforms. Under the leadership of U.S. Senator Robert La Follette, Progressive opposition to foreign intervention further increased under the Dollar Diplomacy policies of Republican President William Howard Taft and Secretary of State Philander Knox. However, Progressives remained mostly interested in domestic issues, and Republican Progressives sometimes hesitated to break party lines on foreign policy, hoping to ensure greater influence on domestic matters within the Republican Party. Similarly, after the election of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, Democratic Progressives also tended to follow Wilson's lead on foreign policy issues, while the partisan reaction against them was led by Republican Progressives. Wilson also faced opposition from John Barrett, Director-General of the Pan-American Union, whom Wilson eventually forced out of office in 1919.

President Wilson may have had greater reservations about U.S. foreign intervention in the Americas than President Theodore Roosevelt, but he was willing to intervene in the Mexican Revolution. Concerns about possible German submarine warfare also caused him to order U.S. military interventions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and also led to the purchase of the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark. The military occupations incorporated elements of the Progressive program, attempting to establish effective local police forces, reform land laws, build public infrastructure, and increase public access to education. However, these programs were hampered by local opposition to U.S. occupation and U.S. policies that inadvertently proved counterproductive. Where Progressive policies threatened to destabilize U.S. authority, U.S. officials in charge of occupying forces opted for stability rather than authentic Progressive changes.

In foreign policy, the Progressive movement also split over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Progressive U.S. Senator William Borah led the campaign against ratification, and he would increasingly become the champion of the isolationist movement until his death in 1940. Other Progressives viewed the treaty more favorably.

In the 1920s, the Progressive movement began to be supplanted by several different movements. In some cases, such as women's suffrage, Progressive victory caused activists to lose momentum to push for further change. The Progressive wing of the Republican Party was weakened by the party splits of 1912 and 1924, which were attempts to form a third, Progressive party. The Progressive wing of the Democratic Party would eventually be subsumed under the broader New Deal coalition of Franklin Roosevelt. Foreign policy matters would increasingly be focused on the buildup to the Second World War, and Progressive issues took a back seat to the interventionist/isolationist split.


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