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Unit Overview

As the United States approached the twentieth century, the nation began experiencing a shift from an isolated nation to one more cosmopolitan. This shift was accomplished partially through the demographic changes that large waves of immigration from Europe had created. The transition of the United States from an isolationist nation with limited ambitions outside the Western Hemisphere to a nation on its way to becoming a global superpower happened rather quickly. First, Americans looked to expand their influence and dominance internationally. Then, the United States expanded territorially outside the North American continent. America’s participation in international affairs eventually led to its participation in the Great War.

The United States also experienced changes domestically, influenced by new ideas from European society. New movements rose that demanded that American society progress from the “enlightened” small, divided government principles of the Founding Fathers to a more “scientific” approach of a larger government run by “experts.” They believed that educated humans could plan a more perfect society and a more perfect world. Centralized planning and social engineering replaced laissez-faire economics and the concept of a divided, limited government.

Growing Internationalism

As the United States developed as a multi-ethnic industrial power, some Americans became interested in doing business beyond their national borders. Though the United States had actively traded with Asia and Latin America during the 1800s, America generally had avoided entanglements or confrontations with European powers. By 1898 that was changing. The circumstances in Cuba, where Americans already had a financial interest, lent themselves to a change in American foreign policy. Sympathizing with Cubans rebelling against oppressive Spanish colonial policies, Americans sent a battleship to Havana to protect American interests. When the ship exploded, Americans quickly blamed the Spanish (which turned out to be wrong). America soon went to war against Spain and invaded Cuba and the Spanish colonies in the Philippines. While victory against Spain was quick, war continued in the Philippines against Filipino insurgents who resisted exchanging Spanish rulers for American rulers. President McKinley reasoned that if the United States did not stay in the Philippines, the Germans, French or another European power would quickly fill the vacuum left by the Spanish surrender. As a result, America took on a colonial role as a world power. Some said this was America’s manifest destiny. Others condemned such actions as denials of America’s revolutionary roots.

The Great War

For centuries, European nations had been divided by international rivalries. These tensions were intensified by the growth of industrialization, colonization in Africa and Asia, competition in building the most lethal military forces, and the power of nationalism. By 1914 they had reached a breaking point. A Serbian nationalist assassinated Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, and catapulted the world into World War I, called the “Great War” at the time. 

The great powers, made roughly equal through alliances, soon settled into a murderous stalemate along two long fronts. Both sides repeatedly attacked the other, at great cost and with little effect. The United States, following the advice of the Founding Fathers, avoided “entangling alliances” with either side and stayed neutral. The British had eagerly tried to create an alliance with the United States prior to the war. Nevertheless, due in part to the Irish demand for Home Rule or full independence from the United Kingdom, as well as the large Irish American voting bloc’s support for Irish nationalism, no American administration could get Congressional support for such an alliance. The reluctance for military alliances, however, did not prevent Americans from trading with the warring countries. European countries needed weapons and supplies. Since the British navy controlled Atlantic shipping routes, it was easier to get things through to the British and their allies. As a result, though officially neutral, in practical terms the United States indirectly supported the British. Since the United States was a former British colony and France was America’s first ally during the American Revolution, many Americans favored the Allied Powers. Due to these natural relationships, as well as German violations of American neutrality, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1917. Still, many Americans did not support America’s military involvement, particularly the large German American and Irish American populations in the United States.

The United States contributed to the victory of the Allies over the Central Powers. In the process, they suffered much lower casualties than European nations, and emerged from the war as a major power.  President Woodrow Wilson was active in the peace negotiations, and he supported the creation of a League of Nations to prevent future wars. The United States, however, refused to join Wilson’s League. Republicans believed that the League would obligate the United States to defend empires from independence movements and colonial rebellions; thus, they fought against its ratification.


As the United States began to look outward toward a global empire at the turn of the century, many of the old American elite also began to look to restructure American government and society. The history of the United States can be seen as a long process of a people trying to get their society closer to an ideal. The Puritans sought to reform the Church of England, which they believed had become corrupt. They referred to their colony as a “city upon a hill,” set apart from others by their virtue. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, believed in equality. They were the first of many American Christian groups to seek to abolish slavery. There were numerous social reform movements and religious revivals during the mid-to-late 1800s, such as anti-slavery, women’s rights, prison reform, public education, and anti-alcohol.

During the twentieth century a bold, new reform movement appeared – the progressive movement. The progressives believed that a new era had arrived that would improve upon the type of liberal democracy or republican ideology of the American founding period. Rooted firmly in Rousseauian thought, the Hegelian dialectic, and the Darwin scientific theory, progressives believed society had moved from the Newtonian mechanical paradigm of the Enlightenment to a new Darwinian evolutionary understanding of society. Progressives, such as Woodrow Wilson, believed that the state was a natural, organic, and spiritual expression of the people themselves. The state was not a Newtonian machine – rather it was a Darwinian, evolving organism. Wilson advanced that the state leader “. . . supplies the power; others supply only the materials upon which the power operates. . . It is the power which dictates, dominates: the materials yield. Men are a clay in the hands of the commutate leader.” Most progressives looked to a society controlled by “experts, engineers, and scientists” that would be superior to a society run by average people.

There was also a strong religious element to the Progressive Movement, known as the Social Gospel movement. Those who advanced the Social Gospel believed the state could advance social justice and, in fact, the state had an obligation to use government institutions to promote the common good. This was a change from the Protestantism that believed individuals had to experience personal conversions and establish a personal relationship with their Lord.  Many traditional Protestant evangelists, such as Dwight Moody, claimed that concentrating on social aid made people dependent on charity and distracted them from the life saving message of the Gospel.

The post-Civil War period had experienced a major expansion of the economy, including an increase in the number and size of cities, an influx of immigrants, an explosion of slums, and widespread political corruption. Many of the native urban elite strongly resented that the cities were often controlled by Irish and other Catholics. The progressives were mostly members of the middle class from the Northeast and the upper Midwest. Some were writers and journalists who publicized problems and called for action. Others were wealthy members of the upper class, people from “old money” families in the Northeast. They were the children and grandchildren of the founders of their families’ fortunes, no longer involved in the daily business operations. They believed that newer, wealthier corporate leaders, the current producers, were pushing them aside and dominating the economy. Progressives also were concerned about the social changes resulting from new waves of Catholic and Jewish immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. The progressives tended to be well-educated with a sense of duty to society that motivated them, a motivation they often alleged that many of the so-called “robber barons” lacked. Many progressives found their calling in reform politics.


One of most well-known progressives was Theodore Roosevelt. A sickly boy from an elite family tracing its roots to New York’s Dutch colonial period, he applied his strong determination, as well as his family’s wealth and connections to overcome his health problems and almost everything else he set out to accomplish. As President of the United States, Roosevelt established the federal government in the role of activist watchdog, protecting the interests of the public from abuses of the newly powerful corporations. He pioneered laws protecting the consumer from impure meats and dangerous medications, recognized the right of workers to organize as unions, and took the first steps to set aside irreplaceable natural resources from shortsighted exploitation. President Roosevelt believed that Americans deserved a “square deal,” a term derived from poker, meaning that the deal of the cards is fair. Like many other progressives, Roosevelt was also a committed imperialist who looked to spread American influence and dominance throughout Latin America and Asia.


While lesser-known today, a prevailing theme of the progressive movement at the time was the strong advocacy of using scientific theory to justify the racial and ethnic prejudices common at the time. Eugenicists used Darwinian teachings and Gregor Mendel’s new theory of heredity to reason that if experts could create better strains of wheat or peas, and breed superior types of horses and dogs, then they could breed a better type of human.

State governments passed laws to sterilize criminals, the “feeble minded,” and even those with congenital poor eyesight. As Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson had signed sterilization laws in the Garden State. In the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” when he ruled it was constitutional for the Commonwealth of Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck. Even Roosevelt had written that “Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce,” and “I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding.” Over fifty thousand Americans were sterilized to help breed a superior race of Americans as part of this “settled science.” 

Progressive scholars such as Madison Grant illustrated how progressive ideas often coincided seamlessly with Eugenics. Grant, a good friend of Roosevelt, is credited with helping to save the American bison and the giant redwoods of California. This same man also used anthropology and Darwinian evolution to conclude that “Nordic” white people of northwestern Europe were superior to Celts, southern and eastern Europeans, and Africans. He wrote the Passing of the Great Race, a book Adolf Hitler called his Bible. Grant’s efforts to plan and control bison and redwood populations were consistent with his desire to control and plan human reproduction and evolution. His ideas were consistent with the overall progressive belief that they could control and plan all aspects of human society, and even nature itself. Progressives believed that “experts” could create a better society, a better government, a better-planned economy, better breeds of animals, and even a better breed of humans. There was no limit to human knowledge. Unfortunately, these ideas fed into the racism then common in the United States and even influenced the racist ideology of the Nazi movement in Germany a generation later.

  • non-interventionism; a policy which a nation seeks to avoid alliances with other nations in order to avoid unnecessary wars
  • a reform movement between 1900 and 1920 which occurred because progressives felt the rich were corrupting public and private life. The movement called for trust busting, regulation of businesses, the election of senators directly by the people and a graduated income tax.
  • War between American colonists and Great Britain in which the colonists gained their independence.
  • a world organization created in 1920 to promote international peace and cooperation which was replaced by the United Nations in 1946
  • A philosophical movement that included the rejection of traditional ideals in favor of new ideas based on rational thought and reason.
  • a policy of economic and political cooperation between nations for the benefit of all
  • A belief in the 19th century that it was the destiny of the United States to expand its territory across the North American continent.
  • all of the activities involved in running any type of organization (such as a school or a company); the group of people responsible for running an organization
  • the alliance of Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungry and their other allied nations against the Allied Powers during World War I
  • the diplomatic policies of a nation reguarding interactions with other nations
  • all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, France, and Russia) to defeat the Central Powers during World War I; all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II
  • having to do with the affairs, cultures or citizens of two or more nations
  • wealthy 19th century businessmen who acquired their wealth through unethical means such as exploiting labor, engaging in questionable stock market exchanges, creating monopolies and acquiring high levels of government influence
  • an independent community founded for the common good
  • common to the whole world; familiar with many countries; worldwide influence
  • freedom from the control, influence, or support of another person or group
  • to give formal approval; confirm; to establish as law
  • opposed to the practice of slavery
  • something that is beneficial to all
  • a contest between businesses to win the most customers or earn the most money
  • a portion of the population; a statistic used to determine population density
  • loyalty and strong identification to an individual's country of birth and the promotion of its values and customs
  • progress; moving forward
  • impairment of moral principal by unlawful means
  • the average interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring; a group of individuals born and living around the same period of time
  • the system which governs or exercises influence over a state or community
  • one half of the globe
  • having to do with factories, the goods made in factories, or factory workers
  • providing a reason to act a certain way in order to accomplish a desired result
  • a member of one of the Christian groups that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century
  • a person who favors a republic as the best form of government; a member of the Republican Party
  • a sudden and drastic change; the often violent attempt to end the rule of one government and replace it with a completely new government
  • a war between the northern United States (known as the Union) and southern slave states (known as the Confederate States of America) over the issue of slavery which was fought from 1861 - 1865
  • any of the Earth's seven largest bodies of land
  • a government run by the majority where the people hold the power and have equal rights and privlidges
  • a scientific theory that the genetic makeup of all living things has and continues to change over a very long period of time due to processes such as genetic mutation and natural selection.
  • dealing with matters of money, capital, or credit
  • a list of goods or passengers carried by a ship or plane, made for the use of customs agents and other officials
  • chief executive; the highest position of office in a Republican state
  • the materials available that can be drawn upon when needed; supply
  • to agree to stop fighting or hiding because it has become clear that you can not win or succeed
  • two or more people, parties, or nations that agree to help one another achieve a common goal
  • a person who buys goods and services for his or her own personal use
  • the theory that the overall genetic makeup of human populations can be improved scientifically, usually by controlling reproduction.
  • a governing official who exercises influence over an organized body; a person who governs
  • a state of concern or attention; curiosity
  • not favoring any side during a dispute; not aligned with
  • to ban by law or otherwise prohibit some existing practice or custom
  • a period of one hundred years
  • willing to do something dishonest to gain money, power, or some other reward
  • the way people use what they have in order to get what they need or want
  • coming from or related to a place outside of one's own country
  • a judge; to bring in accordance with the law
  • favoring reform, new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behaviors of others
  • the legal ownership of one person by another; the condition of a person who is legally owned by another
  • all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, France, and Russia) to defeat the Central Powers during World War I; all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II
  • a place that is ruled by a far away country; a group of people sent by their country to build settlements in such a place
  • a change, event, or condition that is produced by a cause; a result
  • one very large area or many separate areas under the control of one person or government
  • relating to or affecting the entire world
  • relating to Scandinavian people, languages or cultures
  • the belief that human beings are divided into different races, that certain races are naturally better than others, and that the better races have a right to rule over the others
  • to improve; to change, especially for the better; to modify
  • character or behavior that is considered morally good
  • the amount of a good or service that is available for purchase
  • the amount of a particular good or service that people want and have the ability to buy
  • a principle of entitlement; fundamental rules
  • to give permission
  • the main subject represented in a work of art or discussed in a piece of writing
  • from, in, or like the city
  • a combination of countries or other parties united for a common purpose
  • moral obligation; a required task
  • something that is greater in excellence (better) or higher in quality; favorable
  • an often customary method of achieving an end
  • a period of time marked by a specific characteristic or event that serves as a basis for chronological time