The United States of America was a latecomer to colonialism, but grew into a major colonial power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The American colonial empire can be said to have started with the founding of Liberia in 1822, and in a sense still exists today in the form of U.S. overseas territories. Many parts of the modern United States are former colonies that were later granted statehood, an example of "internal colonization" similar to Russia. Large parts of the Old West were part of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Mexico, all were populated by indigenous peoples, and they were sparsely settled by white people until well into the 19th century. The "frontier myth" of the settlement of these lands by white people is part of the foundational national narratives of the U.S.
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In 1776, white colonists in thirteen British colonies in North America declared independence as the United States of America, starting the American War of Independence. The war continued until 1783, when the British recognized American independence in the Treaty of Paris. The country began to grow in size shortly thereafter, and eventually took on its current boundaries when Hawaii was granted statehood in 1959. Throughout the course of its history, the country also acquired numerous overseas colonial possessions, which is what this article will focus on.
The American Colonization Society founded the colony of Liberia in West Africa in 1822 for freed African-American slaves to settle. Liberia declared independence in 1847, with the United States formally recognizing its independence in 1862.
In the Opium Wars, the U.S., along with several European countries, obtained "concessions" in major Chinese port cities. The U.S. had two concessions, in Shanghai and Tianjin; in these areas U.S. citizens had extraterritorial rights and were not subject to Chinese law. The Tianjin concession was handed to the British in 1902, though the United States would continue to maintain a military garrison there until it was conquered by the Japanese in 1941 during World War II. Both concessions were returned to China following the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II in 1945.
The United States fought and won the Spanish-American War in 1898, seizing the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam and defeating independence fighters in the former Spanish colony of the Philippines. Cuba was granted independence in 1902, and the Philippines was granted independence in 1946, while Puerto Rico and Guam remain U.S. territories. Cuban domestic politics remained strongly influenced by the U.S. until the 1959 Cuban Revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power, overthrowing the U.S.-aligned Fulgencio Batista. Despite numerous attempts, the U.S. has failed to reassert its former dominance over the island.
The U.S. Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark in 1916 after they became unprofitable as a Danish colony. The United States then entered World War I on the side of the Allies in 1917 and helped to bring it to a speedy end. Following the defeat of Germany and the other Central Powers in 1918, the German colony of Samoa was split between the British and Americans; the British-controlled western half gained independence as Western Samoa in 1962, before being re-named "Samoa" in 1997, while the American-controlled eastern half is today American Samoa.
The United States gained more colonies from the defeated Japan following World War II, with Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Northern Mariana Islands having been conquered during the course of the war in 1944. The Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia were granted independence in 1986, while Palau was granted independence in 1994. All of these relatively small Pacific island nations are in various states of de facto or de jure association with the U.S., with the U.S. maintaining the dominant role in those relationships. The Americans also conquered the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima in 1945, from which they were able to launch attacks on the Japanese mainland, eventually leading to its final defeat. Iwo Jima was returned to Japan in 1968, and Okinawa in 1972, though the Americans continue to maintain a strong military presence in the latter.
One of the more obscure aspects of U.S. imperialism is the "Guano Islands Act", technically still in force, which allows any U.S. citizen to claim an island where guano (phosphate-rich bird excrement used for fertilizer and explosives) is to be found which has not already been claimed by another nation. Nowadays there are no islands left to which the Guano Islands Act could be applied, but the U.S. continues to claim and administer many islands first acquired under this law. In general they're nature preserves that can't be visited without a good reason: Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Navassa Island.... Midway Atoll has occasional guided tours, though.
The following independent countries are former American colonies:
- Liberia — created as a place to settle free African-Americans and dominated by a small elite of "Americo-Liberians" until 1980. Many Americo-Liberian houses were built in a style reminiscent of plantation houses in the American South.
- Cuba — never annexed but under U.S. military occupation from 1898-1902 and heavy U.S. influence from 1902-1959. Although a U.S.-friendly government was overthrown in the 1959 revolution, resulting in U.S. economic sanctions that have persisted since then, the U.S. continues to maintain a naval base at Guantánamo Bay. Many 1950s-era American cars continue to ply Cuban roads to this day.
- The Dominican Republic was a protectorate of the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was invaded and occupied by the U.S. twice: from 1916–1924 and 1965-66. An attempt during the Grant administration (1869-1877) to have it annexed to the U.S. failed.
- Haiti — occupied by the U.S. from 1915-34
- Philippines — after the Spanish were ousted from the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops fought off Filipino independence fighters and occupied the land until 1946. The Philippines and its English-speaking people remain greatly influenced by the United States. The capital, Manila, is home to the Manila Central Post Office, an impressive Neoclassical building that was built under American colonial rule, as well as numerous Art Deco theaters dating back to the same period.
- Marshall Islands
- Federated States of Micronesia
The following are former American colonies that are now part of another country:
- American Concession in Shanghai — occupied in 1848, merged with the British Concession to form the jointly-administered Shanghai International Settlement in 1861, conquered by Japan in 1941 during World War II, and finally returned to China in 1945 following the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II. Today, tourists can visit The Bund, an area by the bank of the Huangpu River lined with mostly British and American early 20th-century buildings, including the former American Club.
- American Concession in Tianjin — occupied in 1869, merged into the British Concession in 1902, though the Americans continued to maintain a garrison there until it was conquered by the Japanese in 1941 during World War II. The concession was returned to China in 1945 following the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II
- Okinawa — occupied in 1945 during World War II and returned to Japan in 1972, though a strong U.S. military presence remains to this day. As a result of the long period of American occupation, spam features more prominently in Okinawan cuisine than in other Japanese cuisines.
- Iwo Jima — occupied in 1945 during World War II and returned to Japan in 1968. Only accessible on an annual guided tour that is only open to U.S. citizens.
- The Panama Canal Zone was a U.S. territory from 1903-1979, when it was ceded to Panama. Panama has long been influenced by the U.S., which helped it to secede from Colombia in 1903 and invaded in 1989, seizing its president, Manuel Noriega and convicting and sentencing him to prison for drug trafficking
The following are current American overseas territories:
- American Samoa has a unique relationship to the United States, in that its residents are U.S. nationals but not automatically U.S. citizens. Most land in American Samoa is collectively owned under a system of traditional land ownership, and non-Samoans cannot own land in the territory; however, Samoans have the right to live and work in the United States unless they're convicted of a felony, and many Samoans now live in Hawaii and California. If you would like to experience Samoan choral singing, which is very pretty, consider attending a Sunday service at a Samoan church.
- The U.S. Virgin Islands are English-speaking and most of its inhabitants are of African descent, a legacy of their ancestors' enslavement in the sugar cane plantations.
- Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands have a common Polynesian Chamorro culture, though their history is different because Guam was captured by the U.S. in the Spanish-American War and recaptured after a brutal Japanese occupation, whereas the Northern Marianas were captured during World War II after they had been ruled by Japan since 1919.
- Midway Islands, a strategic atoll in the mid-Pacific that was occupied by the U.S. in 1867 and defended from Japan in tough naval warfare during World War II, had no native inhabitants in the 19th century and is populated only by official U.S. government personnel and contractors. Visits are possible only for business reasons, or through the occasional guided tour.
- Puerto Rico, by far the most populous U.S. territory today, was captured from Spain in the Spanish-American War, remains a Spanish-speaking territory though many residents are bilingual in English, and it has its own Olympic team. Numerous Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland.
- Wake Island is a strategic atoll in the mid-Pacific that had no inhabitants prior to U.S. occupation in 1899. It was an important refuelling stop for trans-Pacific flights from the 1930s to 1970s, with a hotel and some facilities built to house passengers on those flights during the stopovers. Since the advent of newer long-range aircraft capable of crossing the Pacific nonstop, commercial flights to Wake Island have ceased, and the hotel and other tourist facilities are now in ruins. It now only houses temporary residents and normally cannot be visited, with the exception of the occasional guided tour.
The U.S. also maintains many military bases and intelligence centers around the world.