A special article by Senior Fellow, Christopher J. Schaefer, M.A.


           Today, January 29, we commemorate the one hundred and seventy-seventh birthday of a conservative luminary and forgotten American president, William McKinley. For some, McKinley brings to mind establishing the protective tariff. Others point to his inaugurating the modern presidential campaign by soliciting votes on his own behalf and hiring a professional campaign manager, fellow Ohioan Mark Hanna. Still, others may refer to his role in spring boarding then New York governor Theodore Roosevelt to national prominence by selecting him as his vice-presidential running mate. However, a strong case could be that McKinley’s foremost accomplishments are his role in bringing American foreign policy in to the twenty-first century and remaking international order.

           Throughout the remainder of this tribute to America’s twenty-fifth president, the author provides an epigrammatic summation of what he refers to as the McKinley Doctrine, and the ways in which the diminutive Ohioan’s policies served as benchmarks for future conservative administrations. 

           What is a national security doctrine and why is it important? Doctrine comes from the Latin word “doctrina” which connotes teaching and instruction. More specifically, a national security doctrine is a declaration of principles by which a national will undertake its endeavors abroad. Crabb and Cowdrey (1982) posited that national security doctrines establish a strategic vision and are often backed by forced, sanctions, or tariffs. Nearly every presidential administration has possessed a national security doctrine, or vision for world affairs. The most prominent, of course, are the Monroe Doctrine (a warning to European states that America would no longer tolerate European aggrandizement); the Polk Doctrine (occupation and annexation); the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (American intervention in Latin America and Europe is warranted to enforce legitimate claims of European powers); and the Bush Doctrine (preemption, prevention, primacy, and democracy promotion).

           Presidential and diplomatic historians have overlooked the McKinley Doctrine, considering it inconsequential and unworthy of scholarly analysis. The McKinley Doctrine was a profound reorientation of conservative thought and national security grand strategy. Unlike many of his predecessors, particularly James Madison, who opposed imperialism and the creation of a modern American empire, McKinley endorsed protectionism, overseas expansionism, and the guarding of independence and sovereignty. 

           During the most recent conservative administration, the McKinley Doctrine witnessed a rebirth, as trade protectionism, and the repudiation of empire-building have been the loadstars of American foreign policy. McKinley’s Doctrine was wholly embraced by the most recent presidential administration, resulting in a reorientation of American grand strategy away from hard power and realism. Perhaps the foremost deviation was American primacy. The McKinley Administration used American force to expand its empire abroad and bring peace and security to oppressed countries. This type of overseas expansionism was repudiated by the most recent administration and blamed by “America First” adherents for the demise of America’s reputation abroad (Powaski, 2019). 

                                                                                   McKinley Doctrine Tripartite

           The remainder of this tribute elucidates the loadstars of the McKinley Doctrine in relation to contemporary American national security and foreign policy. The doctrine consists of protective tariffs, overseas expansion, and the safeguarding of national independence. McKinley’s Doctrine combined economic noninterventionism with military expansion, an anomaly among national security doctrines.

Tariffs and protectionism

           With the exception of the previous occupant of the White House, no American president was more skeptical of or averse to international commerce than William McKinley. In fact, Skowronek (1993) referred to McKinley as “an arch-protectionist” (p. 238). McKinley was undoubtedly the nation’s foremost champion of protective tariffs, believing the purpose was not to raise revenues but rather to provide American companies with greater price advantages over foreign competitors, in domestic markets. It is for this reason, Leech (1959) argued that McKinley’s hometown of Canton, Ohio became the epicenter of farm equipment manufacturing. 

           In 1890, Congress passed the Tariff Act of 1890, also known as the McKinley Tariff, which increased the average duties on imported goods by more than fifty percent. The purpose of the McKinley Tariff, quite simply, was to protect American manufacturers and goods from foreign competition. Continuing with his penchant for trade protectionism, McKinley, shortly after being inaugurated, signed the Dingley Act of 1897, legislation imposing duties on sugar (tax rates were doubled, due to the demand), linens, wool, silk, etc. The Dingley Tariff, in effect for twelve years, resulting it being the longest-running tariff in American history, precipitated a tariff rate increase of more than forty-percent. 

           For the entirety of his political career, McKinley championed protectionism and high tariffs. Following the Spanish-American War, however, McKinley became more sympathetic to American merchants who were hamstrung by the exorbitant tariff rates and beholden almost exclusively to American commerce, by advocating for reciprocity agreements with counties deemed friendly to American interests. McKinley’s untimely death in 1901 coupled with Theodore Roosevelt’s reorientation of American foreign policy to internationalism—a direct result of emerging technology, victory in the Spanish-American War, and divergent views about America’s role in the world—resulted in the demise of protectionism. It was not until the most recent Republican administration that these core tenets of the McKinley Doctrine witnessed a rebirth. 

Safeguarding of national independence

           Unorthodox among twentieth-century Republican presidents in relation to his support for high tariffs and protectionism, McKinley’s views on overseas expansionism and respect for the sovereignty of independent nation-states were more conventional. Kagan (2006) concurred with the author’s supposition that when it came to foreign policy, McKinley was a mainstream Republican who supported the party’s foreign policy goals: annexation of Hawaii; construction of what would later become the Panama Canal; continuation of Cleveland’s naval buildup; and global expansionism. According to Kagan (2006), “If McKinley was the very model of mainstream Republican, however, this meant that in foreign policy he stood for a significantly greater degree of activism than Cleveland and the conservative Democrats” (p. 387). This should come as little surprise, considering that Cleveland was an avowed noninterventionist. In fact, that author considers Cleveland to be the nation’s first libertarian president (Schaefer, 2016). The author deviates from Kagan’s analysis of McKinley’s foreign policy with regard to the existence of a grand strategy.

           While Kagan is correct that McKinley was unorthodox among Republican presidents and devoid of a plan for remaking American national security—McKinley, like most former members of Congress, was interested in domestic policy issues—he is misguided in believing that McKinley was devoid of a grand strategy. During his tenure in Congress, McKinley never served on any committees with an international relations focus. According to Kagan (2006), “McKinley’s goals in foreign policy were those of his party. He had no grand design and had never proposed a special global program or strategy. But he shared with many Republicans a belief that the United States should play a larger role in the world as defined by the issues of the day” (pp. 387-388). Kagan’s supposition that McKinley’s foreign policy views were those of his party is erroneous. Instead, the combination of protectionism, high tariffs, and global aggrandizement was unique to William McKinley. Both his predecessor, Benjamin Harrison, and successor, Theodore Roosevelt, rejected key aspects of the McKinley Doctrine, chiefly trade protectionism (Harrison and Roosevelt) and the defense of state sovereignty (Harrison). 

            The Cuban crisis could not have occurred at a more perilous time for the United States or the new administration. The  economic depression of the likes that America would not witness again until the 1930s coupled with a transition of political power following McKinley’s victory over William Jennings Bryan, set the stage for the nascent administration’s most significant foreign policy challenge. War with Spain was distant on the minds of Americans in 1896, as unemployment, starvation, homelessness, and foreclosure were ubiquitous. Americans believed a foreign policy imbroglio would serve as an impediment to economic growth, albeit nominal, that was occurring under the auspices of McKinley’s presidency. Hostilities between the United States and Spain, mainly as it related to Cuba’s sovereignty, had been lingering for some time. President Cleveland warned his successor that War over Cuban independence was all but assured. McKinley, during his campaign and first two years in office, pledged to avoid War at all costs, believing that diplomacy could prevail. Kagan (2006), in his description of McKinley’s diplomatic goals, wrote, “If he could press Spain to end the reconcentration policy, relieve the suffering of the reconcentrados, broker an agreement for Cuban autonomy, and then press for an armistice on the island that would give time for a new Cuban government to gain legitimacy and authority, McKinley believed the eventual outcome would be Cuba’s independence…” (p. 396). 

           American diplomatic efforts proved futile as Spain indicated that absent War, it would never concede Cuban independence and was wholly committed to empire building. Two events ultimately led to McKinley’s decision to declare War: publication of the De Lome letter (the Spanish minister to the United States sent a letter to American newspapers claiming McKinley was feckless, foreboding and beholden to the jingoists in his party; the letter also posited that attempted reconciliation between the two countries was at a stalemate); and the bombing and sinking of the USS Maine, killing two-hundred-sixty-six Americans. Responsibility for the bombing and sinking was not immediately known. McKinley requested that the Court of Inquiry determine whether the explosion was premeditated or the result of an attack by one of America’s adversaries, particularly Spain. Throughout the inquiry process, McKinley continued to negotiate incessantly for Cuban independence. Ultimately, on April 20, 1898, Congress declared War against Spain with a caveat (The Teller Amendment): The United States could not annex Cuba; rather, it had to respect state sovereignty and leave control of the island to its inhabitants.

           Passage of the Teller Amendment made it easier for McKinley and the United States to achieve one of its seminal foreign policy priorities: the independence and sovereignty of Cuba. By not annexing the island just ninety miles off the coast of modern-day Florida, the United States helped Cuba achieve its sovereignty and removed its troops. Jordan, Taylor, and Mazarr (1999) wrote of McKinley’s decision to use force against Spain to protect Cuban sovereignty, “Outraged by the sinking of the Maine, the United States went to war in 1898 for retaliation but also for the stated purpose of liberating Cuba from Spanish tyranny, annexing the Philippines in the process” (p. 59). Respect for state sovereignty would serve as the guidepost for American foreign policy during much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, only to be rejected by George W. Bush and the neoconservatives. Their penchant for nation-building and occupation took precedent over state sovereignty. Realists, notably Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and to a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan, were state-centric in their thinking of the world. Akin to McKinley, the aforementioned presidents viewed sovereign nation-states as the only legitimate actors over the use of force. The balance of power embraced by William McKinley would dominate American grand strategy for the next one-hundred years.

           For the sake of brevity, the author intends to forgo an exhaustive analysis of the Spanish-American War. Instead, he discusses the impacts and long-term implications McKinley’s decisions and diplomacy had on American national security. Early American victories, precipitated by Commodore George Dewey’s large-scale naval victory in Manilla Bay, resulted in a systematic shift in America’s approach to the conflict. Rather than focus solely on Cuban liberation, the McKinley administration, recognizing its naval prowess, set its sights on the disruption of Spain’s colonial interests abroad. McKinley recognized that due to Spain’s weakened state, he could use these colonial interests as bargaining chips at the conclusion of armed hostilities.

           Ceasefire occurred in 1898, resulting in the Treaty of Paris. Yes, the diplomatic agreement ending the First World War bore the same name. The Treaty of Paris signed by President McKinley in 1898 resulted in the United States’ acquisition of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Moreover, Spain relinquished control of Cuba, giving the island its independence, and received $20 million in payment from the United States. Paterson et al. (2010) and Merry (2017) referred to the treaty as one of the most consequential events in the history of American foreign policy and the crowning achievement of William McKinley’s presidency. Today, Puerto Rico and Guam remain United States territories, with the latter on the verge of statehood, and American relations with Cuba stronger than at any time in recent memory, due to the emergence of a new generation of leadership.

           The previous section devoted copious time to McKinley’s penchant for protecting the sovereignty of independent nation-states. While there are countless other foreign policy events during the McKinley presidency this author could address, such as the naval buildup or Venezuelan crisis, the author intends to mention one additional event related to this theme of sovereignty: the annexation of Hawaii. Much like his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley championed the annexation of Hawaii during his presidential campaign. Hawaii had gained its independence from the Queen in 1893 when a group of industrialists launched a coup d’état. Support for annexation among the American electorate was strong, especially following the American naval victory at Manila Bay. Gould (1981) posited the need for other American naval bases in the Pacific Ocean precipitated widespread American support for Hawaiian annexation. Despite widespread support for annexation among the electorate, McKinley feared a treaty would fail to generate the necessary two-thirds vote in the senate. He endorsed and ultimately signed a joint resolution initiated by members in both houses of Congress. The Newlands Resolution, as it is referred to, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses and was signed into law by McKinley on July 8, 1898. According to Herring (2008), “McKinley used the exigencies of the War to fulfill the old aim of annexing Hawaii. Upon taking office, he had declared annexation but a matter of time—not a new departure, he correctly affirmed, but a ‘consummation” (p. 317; Quoted also in Gould, 1981, p. 49). 

           Morgan (2003) was correct in asserting that “McKinley was the guiding spirit behind the annexation of Hawaii, showing a firmness in pursuing it” (p. 223). President McKinley, in stressing the importance of Hawaii from a commerce and maritime standpoint, said to George Cortelyou, “We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we needed California. It is manifest destiny” (Quoted in Herring, 2008, p. 317). Hawaii would ultimately become the fiftieth state and afford the United States Navy with a more robust presence in the Pacific Ocean. McKinley’s annexation of Hawaii, which did not cost the United States any money, rivaled William Seward’s acquisition of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Overseas expansion

           An analysis of William McKinley’s foreign policy would be remiss without a discussion of trade negotiations with Asia and the “Open Door Policy.” McKinley embraced the latter, which established a robust system of global trade with China, despite his reticence towards international commerce. The Open Door Policy was the result of United States Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door Note of September 1896. Hay’s note proposed opening China trade with countries equally and prohibited interference in Chinese ports. Herring (2008) wrote of this letter, “This second Open Door note made clear the United States’ intention to protect the lives and the property of its citizens in China, its commitment to lifting the siege of Beijing, and its determination to protect all legitimate interests. It expressed concerns about the virtual anarchy in Beijing and hoped that it would not spread elsewhere” (p. 333). 

           America’s open door with China would close shortly thereafter, only to reopen and result in a strong commercial relationship between the two countries. At this writing, China is America’s largest trade partner, despite a $26.4 billion trade deficit (Gingrich, 2019). As noted, trade with China was ceased by President McKinley during the Boxer Rebellion, an anti-imperialist, anti-Christian, anti-foreign uprising between 1899 and 1901. American troops were sent to Peking in June of 1900 as part of the Chinese Relief Expedition to release hostages taken during the rebellion. Kissinger (2012) wrote of McKinley’s decision and the adverse effects it had on China’s economy from 1899-1901, “An Eight Power allied expeditionary force—consisting of France, Britain, the United States, Japan, Russia Austria-Hungary, and Italy—arrived in Beijing [Peking] in August 1900 to relieve the embassies. After suppressing the Boxers and allied Qing troops (and laying waste to much of the capital in the process), they dictated another ‘unequal treaty’ imposing a cash indemnity and granting further occupation rights to the foreign powers” (pp. 86-87). By sending troops into Peking, McKinley established a precedent that would later be embraced by nearly all of his successors: sending American troops abroad without a congressional declaration of War. In fact, Congress has not officially declared War since 1941. 

            Perhaps the crowning achievement of William McKinley’s foreign policy was the reopening of trade with China following the Boxer Rebellion. McKinley’s reopening of China for American commerce is akin to Millard Fillmore’s sending Commodore Perry to Japan for the purposes of opening export opportunities. These two decisions profoundly impacted American foreign policy, as China and Japan are two of America’s biggest trading partners and economic competitors. William McKinley will forever be remembered as the president who brought U.S.-Sino relations to the forefront of American foreign policy.


           Despite being relatively unknown and ranked by presidential historians as an “above-average” president, William McKinley’s legacy merits a resurgence. The national security doctrine that bears his name is more relevant in 2021 than at any time in American history. For the past four years, trade protectionism and tariffs dominated American foreign policy for the first time since McKinley’s presidency. Moreover, the election of Joe Biden reorients American foreign policy toward the expansionist, imperialist worldview of McKinley and many of his contemporaries. While America under Biden’s auspices is not likely to engage in colonization, it will undoubtedly partake in overseas meddling and protect the sovereignty of allies threatened by foreign aggrandizement. 

           Perhaps more importantly, Puerto Rico and Guam are on the verge of becoming states, and China is within striking distance of surpassing the United States as the world’s largest economy. Who would have thought that 2021 would bring about a resurgence of the McKinley Doctrine or interest in the diminutive president who bears its name? McKinley, had he not been assassinated by Leon Czolgosz in 1901, would have been regarded as one of the nation’s greatest presidents. Whether it was his creation of the modern presidential campaign or ravenous fight for Cuban independence, William McKinley will be regarded as an impactful and essential conservative leader. And so, today, please join me in wishing our twenty-fifth president a Happy Birthday.


Crabb, Jr., C.V. & Cowdrey, A.E. (1982). The doctrines of American foreign policy: Their meaning, role, and future. Baton                         Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

Gingrich, N. (2019). Trump vs. China: Facing America’s greatest threat. New York, NY: Center Street Publishing. 

Gould, L. (1981). The presidency of William McKinley. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. 

Herring, G.C. (2008). From colony to superpower: U.S. foreign relations since 1776. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Jordan, A.A., Taylor, Jr., W.J., Mazarr, M.J. (1999). American national security (5th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins                           University Press. 

Kagan, R. (2006). Dangerous nation: America’s place in the world, from its earliest days to the dawn of the 20th century. New                 York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf Publishing. 

Kissinger, H. (2012). On China. New York, NY: Penguin Books. 

Leech, M. (1959). In the days of William McKinley. New York, NY: Harper Brothers Publishing.

Merry, R.W. (2017). William McKinley: Architect of the American century. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.  

Morgan, H.W. (2003). William McKinley and his America (2nd ed.). Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. 

Paterson, T., Clifford, J.G. Maddock, S.J., Kistasky, D., & Hagan, K. (2010). American foreign policy: A history, volume 2: Since                  1895 (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing. 

Powaski, R.E. (2019). Ideals, interests, and U.S. foreign policy from George H.W. Bush to Donald Trump. Boston, MA: Palgrave-              MacMillan. 

Schaefer, C.J. (2016). Project mastodon: Building a twenty-first century republican party (Vol. 2). Morrisville, NC: Lulu                              Publishing.

Skowronek. S. (1993). The politics presidents make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Cambridge, MA: Harvard                 University Press.