On December 2, 1823, President James Monroe used his annual message to Congress for a bold assertion: ‘The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.’ Along with such other statements as George Washington’s Farewell Address and John Hay’s Open Door notes regarding China, this ‘Monroe Doctrine’ became a cornerstone of American foreign policy. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had played the most important role in developing the wording of the declaration, and he also influenced the doctrine’s overall shape.
Two things had been uppermost in the minds of Adams and Monroe. In 1821 the Russian czar had proclaimed that all the area north of the fifty-first parallel and extending one hundred miles into the Pacific would be off-limits to non-Russians. Adams had refused to accept this claim, and he told the Russian minister that the United States would defend the principle that the ‘American continents are no longer subjects of any new European colonial establishments.’
More worrisome, however, was the situation in Central and South America. Revolutions against Spanish rule had been under way for some time, but it seemed possible that Spain and France might seek to reassert European rule in those regions. The British, meanwhile, were interested in ensuring the demise of Spanish colonialism, with all the trade restrictions that Spanish rule involved. British foreign secretary George Canning formally proposed, therefore, that London and Washington unite on a joint warning against intervention in Latin America. When the Monroe cabinet debated the idea, Adams opposed it, arguing that British interests dictated such a policy in any event, and that Canning’s proposal also called upon the two powers to renounce any intention of annexing such areas as Cuba and Texas. Why should the United States, he asked, appear as a cockboat trailing in the wake of a British man-of-war?
In the decades following Monroe’s announcement, American policymakers did not invoke the doctrine against European powers despite their occasional military ‘interventions’ in Latin America. Monroe’s principal concern had been to make sure that European mercantilism not be reimposed on an area of increasing importance economically and ideologically to the United States. When, however, President John Tyler used the doctrine in 1842 to justify seizing Texas, a Venezuelan newspaper responded with what would become an increasingly bitter theme throughout Latin America: ‘Beware, brothers, the wolf approaches the lambs.’
Secretary of State William H. Seward attempted a bizarre use of the doctrine in 1861 in hopes of avoiding the Civil War. The United States, said Seward, in order to divert attention from the impending crisis, should challenge supposed European interventions in the Western Hemisphere by launching a drive to liberate Cuba and end the last vestiges of colonialism in the Americas. President Lincoln turned down the idea.
In the 1890s, the United States, once again by unilateral action, extended the doctrine to include the right to decide how a dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain over the boundaries of British Guiana should be settled. Secretary of State Richard Olney told the British, ‘Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition…. its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers.’ The British, troubled by the rise of Germany and Japan, could only acquiesce in American pretensions. But Latin American nations protested the way in which Washington had chosen to ‘defend’ Venezuelan interests.
The greatest extension of the doctrine’s purview came with Theodore Roosevelt’s famous corollary. He announced that henceforth European nations would not be allowed to use force to collect debts owed to them by Latin American countries. In Roosevelt’s mind, however, the biggest problem he faced was not European intervention but the need to establish governments in Latin America that would maintain ‘order within their boundaries and behave with a just regard for their obligations toward outsiders.’ But the Roosevelt Corollary soon became the justification for interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, and the creation of a series of semiprotectorates on the order of the American-imposed Platt Amendment to the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903. The United States had gone to war against Spain in 1898, ostensibly to free Cuba from colonial rule. With the Platt Amendment, however, Washington placed restrictions on Cuban freedom that lasted down to the Castro revolution of 1959.
Roosevelt’s ‘Big Stick’ Latin American policy became synonymous with the Monroe Doctrine, much to the chagrin of later American policymakers, who sought in various ways to change the image of the Monroe Doctrine. Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his intention to replace the Big Stick with the Good Neighbor. At his direction, for example, the United States renounced the right to intervene in Cuban affairs under the Platt Amendment. But it did not give up its naval base in Guantenamo Bay.
A variety of treaties signed in World War II and after attempted to turn the Monroe Doctrine into a multilateral undertaking, renamed the Inter-American System. When the United States dealt with the problem of Castro’s Cuba, for example, or intervened in the Dominican Republic in 1965, Washington was always careful to declare that it was acting with, and even at the behest of, the Organization of American States.
This careful tiptoeing around the interventionist legacy of the Monroe Doctrine came to an end in the administration of Ronald Reagan. Taking advantage of the backlash of the Vietnam War, and determined to affect the outcome of guerrilla wars and revolutions in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Reagan referred to the doctrine early in his first term. And Congress passed a resolution in 1982 declaring that arms should be used to prevent the spread of Marxism-Leninism in the Americas. In 1984, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger redefined the principles of the doctrine as meaning ‘that there should be no interference, no sponsorship of any kind of military activity in this hemisphere by countries in other hemispheres.’ Weinberger’s pronouncement had an ironic tinge, however, for in the 1982 Falklands War, when Argentina attempted to ‘reclaim’ the nearby islands it called the Malvinas, Reagan threw his support behind successful British military efforts to retain its colonial foothold in the hemisphere.
George Bush did not invoke the Monroe Doctrine in 1989 in order to justify his intervention in Panama and the hunting down of the dictator Manuel Noriega, but the groundwork had been laid by Reagan. Instead of European colonization, or even the spread of Marxism-Leninism, the doctrine now covered, by implication, almost anything that Washington felt should be removed from the hemisphere, or at least from Central America. Perhaps the territorial coverage had shrunk to that area. But what had begun in 1823 as a prohibition on European colonization-in practice, never used or needed-became in the twentieth century a fully generalized rationalization for American unilateralism.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.