History Lessons: Five Myths about America’s Rise

History Lessons: Five Myths about America’s Rise

Beijing assumes that America’s rise in its hemisphere was assured, and uses such as model to claim dominance over East Asia. It ignores the complicated history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Chinese officials are increasingly invoking examples from American history to justify their efforts to dominate the South China Sea and establish a broader sphere of influence throughout the Indo-Pacific theater. Beijing, they contend, is merely following America’s model as it rose to power in the nineteenth century. There is little difference, Chinese leaders argue, between China’s assertion of the nine-dash line and the President James Monroe's proclamation of his eponymous doctrine which in 1823 warned Europe not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere, with some American scholars in agreement, warning that the rejection of a similar Chinese sphere of influence by the United States could be considered hypocritical. 

These assertions, shared by both Chinese and Americans are based, however, on a series of historical myths that have long misrepresented the impact of the Monroe Doctrine on the creation of an independent Latin America, the nature of American power and influence in the Western Hemisphere, the ambitions of its national objectives throughout the nineteenth century, and most important of all, its relationship with Great Britain. Their acceptance has allowed China to ignore the truly salient lessons it should take from America’s experience facing Great Britain, namely that rising powers must walk a dangerous tightrope as they ascend in a world already dominated by a great power.


Myth No.1: The United States Was the Rising Power in the Nineteenth Century

To most Americans, the rise of the United States had to have been the central story of the nineteenth century. However, this belief is incorrect. While the rise of the United States was obviously important, it played a secondary role in the emergence of Great Britain with its expanding commercial empire laying the foundations for the global economic system until World War II. 

In 1815 the Duke of Wellington led an allied army to victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, ending 125 years of warfare between Britain and France. The new era of peace enabled Great Britain to become the first global superpower. Over the next hundred years, Britain would use its vast naval power to establish the world’s first global economy and a worldwide system of bases and “choke points” to control international trade. During the 1840s Britain began its experiment in free trade with the repeal of the “corn laws”—a series of tariffs designed to protect British agricultural production—unlocking enormous economic benefits to the British economy and allowing British commerce to dominate the world.

Britain would soon develop a global commercial and financial network that brought both Latin America and East Asia into its “informal empire.” The switch from sail to steam power in the mid nineteenth century further enhanced Britain’s global dominance as the great maritime powers became dependent on Welsh anthracite, the highest-grade coal for maritime use in the world. Britain sparked the first global telecommunications revolution by connecting the world with a network of undersea telegraph cables encased in a rubbery, waterproof substance called gutta percha, which Britain held the monopoly.

Far from a state in decline as many argue, Great Britain at the turn of the twentieth century would remain the world’s leading power with the Royal Navy and the city of London its most powerful instruments. British bankers financed 75 percent of the world’s investments, 50 percent of the world’s trade flowed on British ships, and 80 percent of its global communications on British cables. It would take two world wars to shake the foundation of British power and open the door for the United States. 

Myth No. 2: The Atlantic Ocean Protected a Young United States from Europe’s Great Powers

One of the most enduring—and peculiar—myths in American history is that the “United States is the luckiest great power in history” with a geographical location that has enabled it to remain secure throughout much of its history. This argument is often supported by a quote from Jean-Jules Jusserand, France’s ambassador to the United States from 1902–1924, who enviously explained, “on the north, she has a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east fish, and the west fish.” In fact, the ambassador’s history was astonishingly wrong, an artifact of early twentieth-century European insecurities regarding America’s emergence as a great power and an effort to dismiss America’s rise as a consequence of providence.

Instead, a young United States faced hostile European powers eager to limit the nation’s expansion.  British North America (later known as Canada) bordered it to the north and the Spanish Empire to its west and south. Along with France, both nations maintained naval bases only a few hundred miles from America’s shoreline with the easy ability to blockade American commerce and attack U.S. coastal cities. The Royal Navy’s powerful North American squadron operated out of Halifax, Bermuda, and Jamaica, the French maintained naval stations on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the Spanish kept bases in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

America’s strategic predicament only worsened as the century progressed. A U.S. military delegation observing the Crimean War (1853–1855) warned that British and French militaries had become so advanced that they could devastate American coastal defenses with floating “ironclad” batteries armed with massive guns, blockade the United States with powerful fleets, and land tens of thousands of troops at strategic points along the East coast, which the United States would be unable to repel. It would not be until the early twentieth century before President Theodore Roosevelt would build a navy that could credibly protect America’s shoreline from possible attack.

Myth No. 3: The Monroe Doctrine Established American Dominance over the Western Hemisphere in the Early Nineteenth Century

On December 2, 1823, President James Monroe transmitted his annual message to Congress, including four paragraphs warning European powers not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere.  Monroe offered a deal; the United States would leave Europe to the Europeans if Europe did not intervene against the newly established republics in the Western Hemisphere. He warned that the United States would consider any European effort to restore Spanish power or claim new colonies in the Western Hemisphere “a hostile act against the United States.” The Monroe Doctrine quickly secured its place in American lore as the moment the United States declared the “New World” its sphere of influence ending centuries of European dominance.

The story of the origins of the Monroe Doctrine, is just that, the story of how John Quincy Adams convinced President Monroe to include his famous warning to the European powers in his address to Congress. It is not, however, the story of how Spanish America became independent of Spain and how America established itself as the dominant power (or regional hegemon) over the Western Hemisphere. That tale begins and ends with Great Britain’s role in defining the future of Spanish America following the rebellions sparked by Napoleon’s overthrow of Spain’s King Ferdinand VII in 1808 and his replacement with Napoleon’s brother, Joseph. 

Following Napoleon’s catastrophic retreat from Moscow in 1812 Britain’s foreign minister, the Viscount Castlereagh, laid out Britain’s strategy to its European partners: Europe’s powers would not intervene if Spain failed to regain control over its empire in the Americas, nor would they seek colonies of their own. Castlereagh achieved his objective by the 1818 conference at Aix la Chapel when he convinced Russia, Austria, France, and Prussia to reject a Spanish appeal for military assistance following a string of military defeats in the New World. Castlereagh implored Ferdinand VII to emulate Britain’s example following its defeat at Yorktown in 1781 and accept the loss of its colonies. 

As only France had the naval power to assist Spain in retaking its lost empire Paris became the focus of Britain’s attention. Following Castlereagh’s death, the new Foreign Minister George Canning summoned the French Ambassador to London, Prince Jules de Polignac, for a series of “interviews” during which he convinced the Ambassador to accept a policy of non-intervention. In October of 1823 Canning and the Prince signed a memorandum of understanding known as the Polignac Memorandum where France declared that it would not intervene to restore Spanish power in the Western Hemisphere. This agreement freed Britain to begin recognition of the new countries; following the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine two months later, Canning ordered lithographic copies of the memorandum distributed throughout Latin America to demonstrate Britain’s critical role in their independence. 

With Latin America independent, British, French, and even German influence in the New World expanded by leaps and bounds.  Both London and Paris had lusted after Spanish America’s wealth since the first galleons laden with gold and silver returned to Spain in the sixteenth century. Soon, the two capitols competed for influence among the new nations of South America building lucrative trade and investment ties throughout the region. 

Britain and France quickly replaced Spain to become Latin America’s chief political and economic partner—all at the expense of America’s standing in the hemisphere. France appealed to a common “Latin” social, religious, linguistic, and cultural history while Britain used its vast financial and commercial power to tie the new states into its global economic system. During the 1820s alone the City of London approved massive investments in the region totaling twenty million pounds—resulting in Latin America’s first major debt crisis.