The Contribution of the Spanish American War and World War I to the American National Identity

Last Updated: 25 Apr 2023
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America is a nation rooted in democracy, steeped in liberty, and founded in the freedom it is a nation that truly believes in its own greatness. These ideals are quintessential pieces of the American identity. Many events in history played a part in shaping these bits of national identity, The Spanish American War and World War I contributed to the American national identity by making Americans ask questions about their role in world politics, and about America’s image that it put forth to the world. They were forced to apply their American exceptionalism to every corner of the globe, and also to, to quote President Wilson, “make the world safe for democracy”. As America added new territories to its empire, acquired following the Spanish American War, such as the Philippines and Puerto Rico, they used their “holier than thou" mentality to excuse their conquest.

This was an American ideal of the day, that America had a responsibility to the rest of the world to civilize and educate the people who did not know better, because they, as Americans, did know better. Later, when World War I hit Europe, Americans had to ask themselves what responsibility they had to intervene, on a democratic level. They had to ponder whether or not it was any of their business how democratic the rest of the world was. These questions helped shape America’s understanding of its own place in the world, and determined how Americans would deal with foreign powers in the future American identity is very identifiable, and has some key qualities that distinguish it from any other country.

For one, Americans have always viewed themselves as being superior to others and felt that it was their duty to spread their culture elsewhere. Even since its founding in colonial times, America was built be a ‘city on a hill’, as John Winthrop called it. It was intended to be a country that all other countries could look to as an example of what it meant to be a great nation. Another aspect of America’s identity was discovered during World War I, when America fully abandoned its separation from the issues of Europe America took up the role of protector of democracy, as the guard which protects freedom around the world. This was when America took up its mantle as the ‘world’s police‘. It was decided that America would step in and protect democracy elsewhere as a part of its duty as a democratic nation to do so. During the Spanish American War, America acquired several of Spain’s old colonies, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines.

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These new pieces of territory brought up many questions about what America would do with them. In particular, the Philippines became an interesting case. The United States won them from Spain, and then, under the Treaty of Paris, officially purchased them from Spain, meaning that they belonged to the United States, The US, did not want any other European powers waltzing in and seizing control, and they felt that the Filipino people were not civilized enough to rule themselves, so America took control. President McKinley pledged, “to educate the Filipinos, and to uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” This shows America’s opinion of itself as being better than other countries, and that America felt obligated to spread its ways to people it viewed as savage. America decided that the Filipinos were uncivilized, and savage, and therefore, sought to teach them the proper way to be civilized.

This echoes American history, harkening back to the Carlisle School, which attempted, in a similar way, to Christianize and civilize the Native Americans. Thus, American identity as an exceptional nation was reaffirmed by their response to the issue of the Philippines. When World War I began, America wanted to stay out of it The nation felt that it was none of their concern if Europe was at war, However, as their ships and trade began to suffer as a result of the war, they grew increasingly interested in joining the war effort. When President Wilson finally made the move to enter the war, he justified the war to the people by telling them that it was their job to “make the world safe for democracy.” He was playing on America’s need to police the rest of the world.

It became a part of America’s identity that they were the defenders of democracy and that it was their responsibility to see it thrive in the world Since World War I featured the Empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the democratic nations of France and Britain, it was clear that the Americans would side with Britain and France. They did, but only after autocratic Russia had left the war, and the Allies side. The United States entered, and the war ended soon after, with a decisive Allied victory. Therefore, the goal was met, and the world was safe for democracy. America had lived up to its identity as guardian of democracy in the world American identity is defined by our exceptionalism and our defense of democracy around the world.

America’s exceptionalism was demonstrated by how it dealt with the Philippines, and how it decided that it needed to civilize the people of the Philippines. The US ideal of protecting democracy was clearly shown with the American involvement in World War It The shift in American identity caused by World War I was echoed further down the road, when the United States got involved in Korea, North Korea, under a Communist regime, tried to overrule the democratic government in South Korea. Since the US identified with the obligation to “make the world safe for democracy,” they stepped in to defend South Korea. The American ideal of protecting democracy led directly to the Korean War, American identity, as shaped at the turn of the 20th Century, affected America’s national identity for years to come.

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The Contribution of the Spanish American War and World War I to the American National Identity. (2023, Apr 25). Retrieved from

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