American Manifest Destiny and Modern Foreign Policy

"American Progress" by John Gast depicting an angel guiding travelers to the West.
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The term "Manifest Destiny," which American writer John L. O'Sullivan coined in 1845, describes what most 19th-Century Americans believed was their God-given mission to expand westward, occupy a continental nation, and extend U.S. constitutional government to unenlightened peoples. While the term sounds like it is strictly historical, it also more subtly applies to the tendency of U.S. foreign policy to push democratic nation-building around the globe.

Historical Background

O'Sullivan first used the term to support the expansionist agenda of President James K. Polk, who took office in March 1845. Polk ran on only one platform—westward expansion. He wanted to officially claim the southern part of Oregon Territory; annex the whole of the American Southwest from Mexico; and annex Texas. (Texas had declared independence from Mexico in 1836, but Mexico did not acknowledge it. Since then, Texas had survived—barely—as an independent nation; only U.S. congressional arguments over the system of enslavement had prevented it from becoming a state.)

Polk's policies would undoubtedly cause war with Mexico. O'Sullivan's Manifest Destiny thesis helped drum up support for that war.

Basic Elements of Manifest Destiny

Historian Albert K. Weinberg, in his 1935 book "Manifest Destiny," first codified the elements of American Manifest Destiny. While others have debated and reinterpreted those elements, they remain a good foundation for explaining the idea. They include:

  • Security: Simply, the first generations of Americans saw their unique position on the eastern edge of a new continent as an opportunity to create a nation without the "Balkanization" of European countries. That is, they wanted a continent-sized nation, not many small nations on a continent. That obviously would give the United States few borders to worry about and enable it to conduct a cohesive foreign policy.
  • Virtuous Government: Americans saw their Constitution as the ultimate, virtuous expression of enlightened governmental thought. Using the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and others, Americans had created a new government without the hobbles of European monarchies—one based on the will of the governed, not the government.
  • National Mission/Divine Ordination: Americans believed that God, by geographically separating the U.S. from Europe, had given them the chance to create the ultimate government. It stood to reason, then, that He also wanted them to spread that government to unenlightened people. Immediately, that applied to Indigenous peoples.

Modern Foreign Policy Implications

The term Manifest Destiny fell out of use after the U.S. Civil War, in part to racist overtones of the concept, but it returned again in the 1890s to justify American intervention in the Cuban rebellion against Spain. That intervention resulted in the Spanish-American War, 1898.

That war added more modern implications to the concept of Manifest Destiny. While the U.S. did not fight the war for true expansion, it did fight it to develop a rudimentary empire. After quickly beating Spain, the U.S. found itself in control of both Cuba and the Philippines.

American officials, including President William McKinley, were hesitant to let nationals in either place run their own affairs, for fear that they would fail and allow other foreign nations to step into a power vacuum. Simply, many Americans believed that they need to take Manifest Destiny beyond American shores, not for land acquisition but to spread American democracy. The arrogance in that belief was racist itself.

Wilson and Democracy

Woodrow Wilson, president from 1913 to 1921, became a leading practitioner of modern Manifest Destiny. Wanting to rid Mexico of its dictator president Victoriano Huerta in 1914, Wilson commented that he would "teach them to elect good men." His comment was fraught with the notion that only Americans could provide such governmental education, which was a hallmark of Manifest Destiny. Wilson ordered the U.S. Navy to conduct "sabre-rattling" exercises along the Mexican coastline, which in turn resulted in a minor battle in the town of Veracruz.

In 1917, trying to justify America's entry into World War I, Wilson remarked that the U.S. would "make the world safe for democracy." Few statements have so clearly typified the modern implications of Manifest Destiny.

The Bush Era

It would be hard to classify American involvement in World War II as an extension of Manifest Destiny. You could make a greater case for its policies during the Cold War.

The policies of George W. Bush toward Iraq, however, fit modern Manifest Destiny almost exactly. Bush, who said in a 2000 debate against Al Gore that he had no interest in "nation-building," proceeded to do exactly that in Iraq.

When Bush began the war in March 2003, his overt reason was to find "weapons of mass destruction." In reality, he was bent on deposing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and installing in his place a system of American democracy. The ensuing insurrection against American occupiers proved how difficult it would be for the United States to continue pushing its brand of Manifest Destiny.

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Jones, Steve. "American Manifest Destiny and Modern Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Jones, Steve. (2023, April 5). American Manifest Destiny and Modern Foreign Policy. Retrieved from Jones, Steve. "American Manifest Destiny and Modern Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).