The Long Shadow of White Supremacy in U.S. Foreign Policy

Alex Langer (Ph.D., CU Boulder, 2020) examines the long legacy of white supremacy in US foreign policy.

School Begins

Louis Dalrymple’s “School Begins” (1899).

Last month on Erstwhile, Sarah Luginbill examined the long history of misinformation, bad history, and blatant lies that have led racists and white supremacists to embrace the Middle Ages as an Anglo-Saxon utopia. This week, I want to examine the long legacy of white supremacy in United States foreign policy. This cannot be a comprehensive account: if it were, it would be a dissertation, and a depressing one at that. The founding of the American colonies, the reliance on enslaved labor, the conquest of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, Manifest Destiny, the Mexican-American War, and the 370 signed and broken treaties between the US government and Native American nations all have their roots in the belief that white Americans deserved to own the North American continent and that non-white inhabitants were racially incapable of utilizing the land properly.[1] But this (literally) toxic belief system would also include foreign policy as well. This week, I want to provide a brief history of the ways white supremacy and belief in Anglo-Saxonism have animated US foreign policy, beginning with the wars of 1898 and the long legacy of a sudden American empire. This will show that race is central to US foreign policy. Race shaped our nation’s borders and shaped who was worthy of treatment as an equal.

One of the first foreign policy initiatives undertaken by the infant nation was the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 which guided the admission of new states to the union. It held that territory purchased, conquered, or absorbed by the U.S. would be organized into new territories which could then petition the Congress for statehood.[2] The Ordinance, which seemed on the face of things to preclude the U.S. from turning into a colonial empire like that of various European states, did not survive rapid territorial expansion following the Spanish-American War (1898). Instead, the country would amend the legal status of people under the jurisdiction of the United States to create a new class of subjects, defined along racial lines.

Take the Spanish-American war and late nineteenth-century US interventions in Cuba. There are many reasons that the United States intervened in the ongoing Cuban War of Independence against Spain in 1898, first as attempted mediator, and later as co-belligerent to the Cuban revolutionaries. For example, American planters had significant financial stake in a stable and productive Cuba (a recurring theme in U.S.-Latin American relations in the years to come), and many Americans were genuinely horrified by the brutal anti-insurrectionist tactics of General Valeriano Weylar, who, in 1896, ordered all Cuban civilians to travel to fortified towns and camps held by his troops. These are widely considered some of the first concentration camps in modern history.[3] Americans saw in the Cuban insurrectionists the heroes of their own revolution, and many called for the United States to support the revolutionaries. But when the USS Maine sank in Havana harbor and the United States emerged victorious against Spain, business and military interests intersected with white supremacy to ensure that neither the Cubans nor the Filipinos saw true independence for another half-century.

But the cancer of white supremacy would not be limited to Cuba. There is a persistent rumor that President McKinley, when told of the victory of the Pacific Fleet at Manila Bay, could not find the Philippines on a map. This fiction is part of a long trend that seeks to cast the Philippine-American War as an accidental empire, as if the United States, fighting for Cuban freedom, tripped and fell into imperial status. This fiction is the result of decades of work to hide the American empire, work that continues to this day. America did not want an empire, the fiction goes. America accidentally gained an empire and quickly worked to guide its territory to independence, the fiction goes. The truth is that US foreign policymakers had been looking west since they reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean. American businessmen wanted access to the ports of the Far East. Hawaii, with its Pearl Harbor, and the Philippines, a final stop on the trade routes to China, were part of those steps of realizing the not-an-empire, an empire that white America would not allow to integrate with the continental United States.[4]

Within months of the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States acquired from Spain the colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, and Wake Island, and annexed the islands of Hawaii. The Cubans had their freedom, though an amendment to their constitution, the Platt Amendment, required the government of Cuba to consent to the right of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs for “the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the Government of Cuba.”[5] What that meant, in practice, was the intervention of American troops to defend the rights of (white) American planters.

The American decision to hold on to the various islands and their indigenous populations, and to fight a brutal war against Filipino independence, stemmed from the belief that “peoples of primitive or retarded [sic] cultures…may need guardians.”[6] The most famous example of this thinking is the poem by Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book, called “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands” ( This poem urged Americans to recognize the cost of empire but to accept that cost as part of America’s maturation into a force in international politics. One image from the Philippine-American War, shown below, of the rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, recognized today as the First President of the Philippines, shows just what Americans thought of the leader.


Imperialists and anti-imperialists in the United States agreed that Filipinos were racially and culturally incapable of self-rule and required effective guardianship before they could earn independence. American empire, they argued, would be different than those European empires focused only on exploiting “lesser” races. American empire would be a natural outgrowth of American values of freedom and liberty. The reality of fighting a brutal counter-revolution set in quickly. Historian Stuart Creighton Miller argues that “amnesia over the horrors of the war of conquest set in early, during the summer of 1902.”[7] The American public worked to hide the evidence of their empire, an empire that is still willfully hidden today.

These wars have two long legacies for us to understand. The first is how to hide an empire.[8] Both anti-imperialists and pro-imperialists in the early twentieth century held that these new holdings were fundamentally different in character than the continental territory conquered by the United States and arranged into territories on the path to statehood. The islands’ populations “were so different…in political institutions and habits, and even in language, that their assimilation into the American state system was impossible.”[9] Anti-imperialists worried that putting the Philippines on a path to statehood would circumvent the growing list of Asian exclusion acts and flood the West Coast with more Asian immigrants.[10] The anti-imperialists would find their white supremacist anxieties assuaged with the Insular cases.

The Insular Cases were a series of legal cases before the Supreme Court that decided the status of American colonies with respect to the precedent of the Northwest Ordinance. The Insular Cases held that these new colonies were domestic in a foreign sense and foreign in a domestic sense. This meant that, for the purposes of foreign policy, they were considered part of the United States, but for the purposes of domestic policy, they were considered unincorporated territory, not eligible for statehood and not fully protected by the Constitution. Unincorporated American territory was “inhabited by alien races,” so governing them “according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible.” These islands, then, were “foreign in a domestic sense.”[11] Classic white supremacist rhetoric. These territories, now safely prevented from incorporation into the American state, were promptly forgotten. “The word colony must not be used to express the relationship between our government and its dependent peoples,” one official admonished in 1914. By then, the empire was hidden and with it, white supremacy’s role in the empire. The internal image of the United States never shifted with the new American empire. Think for a second of a map of the United States. How often is Puerto Rico on that map? How often is Guam, or American Samoa (the only American territory where birth does not automatically confer citizenship) shown on that map? In 1941, on the eve of a series of attacks on American imperial holdings (Pearl Harbor on Oahu, the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Islands), a true map of the greater United States would look like this:


US territorial holdings on the eve of WWII.

Nearly 19 million people lived in the colonies, meaning that more than one eighth of the people under the authority of the US government lived outside the continental boundaries of North America.“For perspective, historian Daniel Immerwahr notes, at the time one out of every twelve people under the authority of the U.S. government was African American: “If you lived in the US on the eve of the Second World War, you were more likely to be colonized than black.”[12] This is not to compare the hardship faced by African Americans and colonized Americans, but to illustrate the vast numbers of non-white, second-class Americans rendered invisible by the power of white supremacy, by the willing erasure of non-white American lands. Race is more central to U.S. history and US foreign policy than we usually think. Race has shaped our nation’s borders—shaped who counted as American and who did not.

White supremacy’s second foreign policy legacy lies in the stories Americans tell themselves about their imperial past. One insidious one was that, unlike European empires, America came to uplift the Philippines and to ensure Cuban independence. That fiction provided the basis of twentieth-century US Foreign Policy. The Platt Amendment fueled the rhetoric behind every police action, secret intervention, and coup by US forces in the Cold War and beyond. Benevolent intervention is predicated on the belief that America knows what is best for other nations. That sentiment alone rests on a sense of (white) American supremacy, and a cursory list of American interventions shows a distinction between interventions in European politics and in the domestic politics of non-white nations.

This story of benevolent or paternalistic interventionism would repeat—and continues to repeat itself, albeit in different iterations. For example, in 1948, the newly formed CIA sought to sway the first election of the Italian Republic. There was a good chance that a popular front of socialists and communists might win the majority of votes. The CIA donated money to the Church, fronted non-communist politicians, and distributed pamphlets. In 1953, the CIA backed a violent coup against a leftist president in Guatemala, setting off a thirty-six-year civil war that killed up to 200,000 people and whose legacy is still felt in the migrant and refugee crises at America’s southern border. US forces either invaded or supported coups in nearly every nation in Latin America in the Cold War, continuing the legacy of our imperial “civilizing mission.”[13]


A map of US military interventions in the Caribbean.

The white supremacist legacy of the wars of 1898 and the Northwest Ordinance remains to this day. The United States treated Latin America as a colony, regardless of whether it claimed individual nations as such. Intervention after intervention toppled democratically elected regimes due to a deeply held belief that the United States knew better than these non-white nations. The U.S. extended a courtesy to European nations, even at the height of the Cold War, that though their political systems were wrong, their people were worthy of respect and capable of democratic governance and self-determination.

That courtesy has rarely been extended to Latin Americans, Middle Easterners, or Asians. Think of how many times officials warned, as the Arab Spring turned violent, that Middle Easterners were not ready for democracy, and you cannot help but hear echoes of those that claimed Puerto Ricans were racially incapable of assimilation into the American system. Think of how quickly criticism of China’s response to the coronavirus turns to racist jokes about bats and wet markets. The long legacy of American supremacy shapes which nations earn the benefit of the doubt, which nations can be dealt with diplomatically, and which remain on a list for whatever war the American military machine chooses to engage in next.


[1] If you’re interested in this history, a good place to start would be Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Year’s War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (Vintage, 2000); Pekka Hamalainen, The Comanche Empire, (Yale UP, 2008) and Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power (Yale UP, 2019); Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War (Yale UP, 2008); and Robert Walter Johannsen, Manifest Destiny and Empire: American Antebellum Expansionism, (Texas A&M UP, 1998).

[2] Denis P. Duffey, “The Northwest Ordinance as a Constitutional Document,” Columbia Law Review 95, No. 4 (May 1995): 929-968.


[4] The best recent book on this is the Daniel Immerwahr’s exceptional How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019). For more reading on the Spanish-American War, see Michael H. Hunt and Steven Levine, Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (UNC Press, 2012); Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (Yale UP, 2000); and Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (UNC Press, 2006).

[5] Platt Amendment (1903)

[6] Julius W. Pratt, America’s Colonial Experiment: How the United States Gained, Governed, and in Part Gave Away an Empire (Prentice Hall, 1950), 2.

[7] Stuart Creighton Miller, Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903 (Yale UP, 1982), 253.

[8] Again, see Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, a fantastic book that informs much of this piece.

[9] Pratt, America’s Colonial Experiment, 2.

[10] See Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton UP, 2004) for more on the ways Americans sought to shape the racial makeup of the nation.



[13] For a short but extremely depressing overview of U.S. activities in Latin America, see Stephen G. Rabe’s The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (OUP, 2012).


One thought on “The Long Shadow of White Supremacy in U.S. Foreign Policy

  1. Thanks Alex. This is such a great post. Adding Immerwahr’s book to my reading list.

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