This year, 2017, marks the sesquicentennial of the American acquisition of … Midway Island, halfway across the Pacific between Asia and America. It may be surprising that in the same year the U.S. purchased Alaska, the U.S. also took possession of Midway, but it's consistent with American imperial expansion of the time, a big part of the reason William Seward pushed for the Alaska purchase.
The notion of American expansion toward Asia goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson. His motivation for sending Lewis and Clark across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains was not just to learn what there was to know about the mountain West; it was also to find a water route through the continent over which entrepreneurs could take American goods to Pacific ports for export to the Orient. In one of the more poignant sections of Lewis and Clark's journals, the explorers record their growing depression as they confront mountains that dwarf the Appalachians, extend many hundreds of miles farther than they imagined, and are seemingly impenetrable.
The dream of American trade with the Orient revived with acquisition of the Oregon Country and the conquest of Mexico in the late 1840s, providing for the long-hoped-for ports on the west coast. The quest for new markets for American goods preoccupied commercial planners throughout the 19th century. When he had the chance, William Seward acted on that premise.
The story of America's interest in Midway is … odiferous. In the 1840s there was a guano craze in the industrializing world. Guano was used for fertilizer, and for saltpeter for making gunpowder. In 1856 the U.S. Congress passed a Guano Islands Act, which authorized U.S. citizens to take possession of any unclaimed islands containing guano deposits. The deposits, left by seabirds, seals and other sea mammals could be scores, even hundreds of feet deep. The act authorized the president to dispatch the U.S. military, should that be necessary to support American claims.
In July 1859 an American sealing ship plying the mid-Pacific sighted the unoccupied island. The captain, N.C. Middlebrook, claimed it, and named it for himself. There is no record, though, of his having undertaken any guano mining there, nor anyone else. But in August 1867, the U.S. Navy took possession of the island, and the U.S. annexed it as the Unincorporated Territory of Midway Island, actions over which American Secretary of State Seward had full purview. The U.S. Navy administered the island; it was ideal for a coaling station for its ships transiting between Asia and America. Over the years there were some attempts to develop the island, to support the trans-Pacific communications cable, and as a stop on Pan American Airways' trans-Pacific flights, beginning in 1935. In 1940 the Navy upgraded the port and the airfield. The great naval battle over the island in June 1942 is thought by many military historians to be the beginning of the end of Japan's war in the Pacific.
Seward would have approved of all of this. During his career he spoke often of the Pacific as the new focus for America, replacing old Europe. Acquiring Alaska and Midway were parts of his and others' long-range plans to keep the American economy healthy and to protect its western shores as the world grew more populated and complex. Commercial competition, he believed, would be the battlefield on which primacy in the world would be fought. "The commerce of the word is the empire of the world." New acquisitions would protect American commerce and extend its reach.
The "American empire" would have "a great continental base," he wrote. He expected the United States to acquire the "excellent British states" being consolidated in Canada, and he theorized that Mexico City would eventually become the United States capital as the nation expanded southward.
Historians have noted Seward's far-reaching impact. Walter LaFeber wrote that Seward's vision of empire dominated American policy for a century. For William Appleman Williams he was the "prophet" of American expansion. Ernest Paolino thought he anticipated McKinley, Roosevelt and the expansionists of 1898.
For us, U.S. acquisition of Midway helps put the Alaska purchase in fuller perspective, a chapter in American imperial expansion.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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