Sample History Research Paper on American Foreign Policy From 1865 To Present

American Foreign Policy From 1865 To Present

U.S. foreign policy can be defined as what the United States does or is involved in outside its borders. Over the years, some of the things the U.S. is involved in outside its boundaries include setting new rules or controlling governments of foreign countries as well as setting standards of interaction for foreign countries’ organizations and corporations. Unfortunately, U.S. activities in foreign countries often result in conflicts or uprisings in these countries. U.S. foreign policy has also received criticism as it causes political, social, economic, and religious instability around the world. Many countries are often at loggerheads because of such policies. According to the Foreign Policy Agenda of the Department of States, there are specific goals of America’s foreign policy. One of the key goals of U.S. foreign policy is to build and sustain a world that is democratic, secure, and prosperous to benefit not only American people but the entire international community.

According to the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. foreign policy is aimed at exporting controls. These controls include emphasizing the non-proliferation of nuclear in the form of technology and hardware, fostering commercial interactions with foreign countries with a focus on safeguarding American businesses outside its borders, forming international commodity agreement, promoting international education, and protecting citizens of America living abroad. U.S. foreign policy alongside U.S. provision of foreign aid has been debated over the years with these receiving praise and criticism in equal measure at the domestic and global contexts. A figure with a voice and significant influence when it comes to the implementation of American foreign policy is the U.S. president who is tasked with directing America’s war-waging, treaties, and diplomatic relations with other countries. This paper discusses American foreign policy from 1865 to the present. It includes an overview of American foreign policy and its relevance to American society, a historical context examining how American foreign policy has been addressed over the years, American history including examples of foreign policy, and an overview of how U.S. foreign policy has changed or not changed over time.

An Overview of American Foreign Policy and Its Relevance to American Society

After the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the U.S. more than doubled its land mass. It achieved this by purchasing land from other nations, annexing, and getting involved in territorial wars. In the beginning, American foreign policy was predominantly isolationist whereby the country distanced itself and abstained from economic and political relations with other global nations. One of the minds behind the isolationist stand was General Washington who upheld and encouraged isolationist principles by warning the U.S. to avoid alliances with other countries. One of the reasons given for this was that the U.S. was a new nation at the time and did not have the resources to sustain its involvement in international issues. However, this changed with time as the U.S. gained economic, political, and military power. The nation later expanded into foreign markets for various reasons from gaining territorial advantage to enjoying economic benefits. At the turn of the 19th century, isolationism initially embraced and implemented by the U.S. took a backseat and paved the way for expansionism. From 1865 to 1914 and beyond, America’s foreign policy was majorly pushed by the principle of expansionism. The success of the U.S foreign policy after 1865 was as a result of the strong foundation laid by isolationism and the numerous policies enacted after that. One of these policies was the Monroe Doctrine whereby a declaration was made to Congress on December 2, 1823, by President James Munroe that the continents of America would be closed to colonization by European powers and that the U.S., on its part, would not be involved or interfere with European affairs.[1] Although the U.S. did not have the firepower or authority to back these policies, there were close to four decades of compulsory U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. This, however, changed after the Civil War when the nation resorted to its initial Isolationist practices.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the U.S. focused on building and expanding internally following the massive destructions and damage witnessed during the war. There was the need to reunite and rebuild a nation that had been torn by the Civil War. President Grover Cleveland came up with promises that the U.S. would avoid forming alliances with other countries and opposed initial plans to acquire new land. In the real sense, the U.S. lack of involvement in foreign affairs was because of the post-Civil War climate.[2] The war had weakened the U.S. Navy and resources were scarce prompting the government to neglect diplomatic relations with other nations. Attention was given to internal development and expansion. The bottom line is that Americans had little interest or reason to look elsewhere other than their territory. In the post-Civil War era, Americans disdain for Europe was at a high level although those who had been educated there, particularly wealthy Americans, still had respect for European cultures and values. The geographic isolation of the U.S. between two oceans gave them a sense of invulnerability, and they remained indifferent and isolated from world affairs until late in the 19th century. The isolationism that had worked for the U.S. for several years changed in the late 19th century because of various factors. One of these factors was the industrial revolution that resulted in many economic challenges triggering the need for a reassessment of economic conduct and policies of different nations.[3] Another reason for the change from isolationism in the late 19th century was the general expansive nature of capitalism that entailed the production of more significant quantities of goods as well as the need for additional raw materials for their industries and greater foreign markets. These factors called for America to look outward again paving the way for its foreign policy.

Historic Context Examining How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Been Addressed Throughout

Regarding the history of U.S. foreign policy, the primary trend is the change from non-interventionism before WWI and after WWI to its significant growth as a force to reckon with during and after WW11and at the end of the Cold War in the late 20th century. A notable characteristic of U.S. foreign policy is that since the nineteenth century, it has shifted from the realist to the Wilsonian or idealistic school of international relations. U.S. foreign policy can be traced back to the 19th century in a farewell address by George Washington. In his speech, General Washington stressed the need to observe good faith and show justice to all other nations. Also, he stressed the need to foster peace and harmony with all countries although he emphasized that the U.S. had to steer clear of permanent alliances with the foreign world. He further advocated for America’s trade with all nations. Over the years, several themes, stances, key goals, and attitudes have been showcased through Presidential doctrines. Although these doctrines were uncommon initially, they have become common and have been made by most U.S. presidents. In addition to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, there was the Bush Doctrine, which was President George W. Bush’s foreign policy principle wherein the U.S. would launch the war on terrorism.[4] The Bush Doctrine has since been defined as a collection of principles, practical policy decision, as well as ideas that influence and guide U.S. foreign policy. The two main pillars of the Bush Doctrine were promoting a democratic change of regimes and pre-emptive strikes against nations that were considered potential enemies. The main points and goals of the Bush Doctrine were military primacy, pre-emption, new multilateralism, and the spread of democracy around the world. The Truman Doctrine also sought to address issues related to U.S. foreign policy. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman came up with a program that announced the provision of aid to European countries, specifically Turkey and Greece, which faced the threat of communism.[5]

U.S. foreign policy has further been addressed over the years through the formulation of policies such as the dollar diplomacy, liberal internationalism, moral imperialism, Roosevelt Corollary, and a recent one known as the “War on terrorism.” Dollar Diplomacy was a foreign policy initiative formulated under President William Howard Taft. This policy focused on promoting the spread of American influence to foreign nations through loans and economic investments made by American banks.[6] This policy was used to further the aims of the U.S. specifically in East Asia and Latin America with loans being guaranteed to nations in these regions. According to historian Thomas A. Bailey, the dollar diplomacy’s design was in such a way that it would lead to the prosperity of people in foreign nations as well as American investors. Liberal internationalism was Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy theory that was based on the idea that economic and political freedom went hand in hand, and it encouraged America’s involvement in international affairs with a focus on securing these freedoms around the world. Moral imperialism was more of a belief that America’s foreign policy was better off if morality guided it and that it was to teach other people about democracy. Wilson later used this belief as a justification for frequent military interventions in Latin America. The Roosevelt Corollary was an announcement made by President Theodore Roosevelt that the U.S. could intervene through military attacks to prevent any interference by European powers in the Western Hemisphere.

American History Including Examples of Foreign Policy

Several events or incidences highlight U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, which was a between the free Northern states and the Southern slave states, the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia (then the Soviet Union). It also developed commercial interests in the Pacific and Caribbean in nations such as Hawaii, Samoa, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Virgin Islands. One of the sources of the impetus for expansion by the U.S. into these nations was a naval officer known as Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. Captain Mahan called for the U.S. to develop its strength based on sea power that he found to be a decisive force when it comes to making nations great and long-lasting. Another event that showcased America’s involvement in the affairs of foreign lands was the Spanish American War that happened between April 25, 1898, and August 12, 1898. This was a conflict between Spain and the United States and was primarily over involvement in Cuba. Trouble in Cuba began in 1895 following a move by Spain to dispatch 50,000 troops to Cuba and an incident where a Spanish gunboat fired on a U.S. steamer.[7] The attack by the Spanish brought fear to several American businesses that had invested heavily in mining and sugar operations on the Cuban island. America’s involvement in Cuba was through its decision to assist Cuban rebels in their fight for independence from Spain.

The Spanish-American War renewed America’s interest in building the Panama Canal, a project that had been contemplated by the U.S. and other nations for almost half a century. One of the reasons the U.S. created the Panama Canal was to facilitate trade in the region. Several incidences and events led to the building of the Canal. In 1850, there was an agreement facilitated by the Clayton Bulwer Treaty between the United States and Great Britain to build a canal unilaterally. However, in its first step to creating the canal, the U.S. got rid of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and replaced it with the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty that allowed the U.S. to construct and manage a Central American Canal. The U.S. would then be tasked with guaranteeing the neutrality of the canal, opening the canal to all nations, and charging fair and equal rates for countries that used it. With the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, the U.S. was also involved in World War I that occurred between 1914 and 1918. WWI was the first global war that was triggered by a complex system of alliances. Before involvement in World War I, the U.S. adopted a policy of neutrality and isolation.[8] However, it was involved in trade with all the nations involved in the war including Great Britain and Germany. The decision by the Germans to introduce an unrestricted submarine triggered U.S. involvement in the war. President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany on April 2, 1917, but on the side of the Allies. It can be seen that U.S. involvement in this war was because of global interests since Germany had introduced a submarine that was unrestricted.

The U.S. also took part in the Treaty of Versailles that took place on June 28, 1919. This was a peace treaty aimed at ending World War One and blamed Germany for the entire war. This was followed by U.S. involvement in World War II that occurred between 1939 and 1945. The battle involved the first use of nuclear weapons and had significant amounts of civilian casualties. The United States adopted an isolationist approach as was witnessed during World War One but later joined the war following the bombing of the American Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. U.S. foreign policy was evident during the war when President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to repeal the existing arms embargo provisions of the neutrality law to allow the sake if arms to Britain and France. After France had fallen in the spring of June 1940, Roosevelt further pushed for a military build-up and provided aid in the form of Lend-Lease to Britain.[9] Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has been evident in its involvement in the creation of the United Nations Charter, the Cold War that occurred between 1947 and 1981, the Berlin Blockade, The Marshall Plan of April 1948, the formation of NATO in 1949, the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1959-1975), the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), Bosnian War, the Afghanistan War that is still ongoing, and the Iraq War that started in 2003 and is still underway.

An Overview of How U.S. Foreign Policy Has Changed Over Time

U.S. foreign policy has changed over time due to the influence of technological, political, and economic changes. A common denominator in U.S. foreign policy of the 19th and 21st centuries is that they both emphasize globalization. From the 19th toward the 20th century, U.S. foreign policy championed for global integration, which was crucial in the way nations around the world worked together. The globalization idea is also evident in the 21st century where U.S. foreign policy stresses growth and expansion of global market forces. The difference in U.S. foreign policy in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries highlights how it has changed over time. From the 19th to the 20th century, despite the influence of U.S. foreign policy around the world, a significant percentage of the global population lived in poverty.[10] This, however, has changed in the 21st century where U.S. foreign policy and foreign aid have focused on alleviating poverty in various parts of the world. It should also be noted that in the late 19th century and the start of the 20th century, the open global economy was less convincing as a result of U.S. foreign policy. The reason for this is that tariff rates were high in all developed nations except Britain. Today, U.S. foreign policy has stressed the interaction and peaceful coexistence of countries that have boosted or promoted economic interactions among states.[11] This has led to a decrease in tariff rates by a significant percentage thus paving the way for economic development.

U.S. foreign policy is one of the most debated and discussed issues in the world today. It refers to the involvement of the U.S. in international affairs by setting new rules or controlling governments of foreign nations and setting standards of interaction for foreign countries’ organizations and corporations. U.S. foreign policy started immediately after the Declaration of Independence when the U.S. sought to expand its landmass. Isolationism and expansionism are the two primary principles in U.S. foreign policy. Isolationism is whereby the U.S. avoided involvement in foreign affairs whereas expansionism is whereby the U.S. expanded into international markets for economic benefits in particular. Key events highlighting U.S. foreign policy from 1865 to present include the purchase of Alaska from Russia, Spanish-American War, building of the Panama Canal, signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War, the Bosnian War, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, and others.


Donaldson, Gary A. “American Foreign Policy: The Twentieth Century in Documents.” New York and London: Longman278286, 2003.,

Foner, Eric. Give me liberty!: An American history. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.,

Viotti, Paul. American foreign policy. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity, 2010.,

[1] Foner, Eric. Give me liberty!: An American history. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

[2] Viotti, PaulAmerican foreign policy. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity, 2010.

[10] Donaldson, Gary A. “American Foreign Policy: The Twentieth Century in Documents.” New York and London: Longman278286, 2003.

[11] Donaldson, Gary A.