The Monroe Doctrine

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Podcast Transcript

When the United States became independent in the late 18th century, it didn’t have much of a foreign policy. Their primary concern was creating the framework of a country that hadn’t existed before. 

However, after a few decades, the United States grew in confidence and eventually asserted its own unique foreign policy objectives. 

The objectives eventually coalesced during the administration of President James Monroe, and many of the objectives of this early foreign policy still remain in place today.

Learn more about the Monroe Doctrine, how it was created, and how it has been implemented on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In the republic’s early days, the United States’ foreign policy was pretty simple. In those early years, everything revolved around a few European countries: primarily Britain, France, and Spain, but also the Netherlands, Russia, and Portugal as well. 

Despite being located far from Europe, everything around them was controlled by those countries. 

In the following years, they fought an undeclared war called the Quasi-War with France. They fought another war with Great Britain in 1812, and the country eventually grew in size, strength, and confidence. 

One of the unofficial standing policies of the United States was to support independence for any European colony in the Americas. Of course, when this finally happened, the first country other than the United States to become independent was Haiti, but that wasn’t what the Americans were really thinking of.

The story of the Haitian Revolution and its subsequent snub by the United States is for another episode. 

However, over time, other European colonies did become independent, and the United States quickly recognized them. In 1822, the US recognized the new republics of Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. 

Not only were there new independent republics in the Americas, but it looked like there would soon be other ones in the near future. 

Despite the optimism of the era and the progress that was being made, there were worries that the various European powers were not going to let this stand. 

Russia had begun to claim territory in the Pacific Northwest under Tzar Alexander I, who banned ships from approaching the coast. There was also a growing concern that Spain would try and reassert itself in the region, possibly recolonizing several of the newly independent countries. 

The British also shared these concerns, although their interest in the region was different than that of the Americans. The British were playing great power politics and didn’t want to see their rivals regain any of the territory they had lost. 

Nonetheless, the British and Americans did have a confluence of interests at this time on this topic. Neither country wanted to see continued European meddling in the Americans.

The US president at this time was James Monroe. Originally elected in 1816, he was reelected in 1820 and ran unopposed. The Federalist Party had collapsed, and his Democratic-Republican Party was the only party to put up a national candidate. Monroe won the electoral vote in every state, and the only reason he didn’t win unanimously in the Electoral College was due to a handful of electors who voted for random people. 

It was known as the Era of Good Feelings, but in reality, it was a short-lived era of one-party rule. 

The dominance of the Democratic-Republicans gave Monroe a great deal of leeway in setting policy. 

He and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, considered issuing a joint resolution with the British against the establishment of any new colonies in the Americas but eventually decided against it because they weren’t entirely sure of British intentions in the region. 

Just as a side note, you might recognize the name John Quincy Adams as that of the 6th president of the United States and the son of President John Adams. By his own admission, he was a pretty lackluster president. However, many historians rank him as the greatest secretary of state in American history. 

One of the reasons why he was considered so successful as a Secretary of State was because of the events outlined in this episode. 

Monroe and Adams eventually decided to make a unilateral statement regarding the United States’ policy for the western hemisphere. 

In his address to congress on December 2, 1823, President Monroe outlined the new doctrine in US Foreign Policy, which became known as the Monroe Doctrine, although it was largely written and developed by Secretary of State Adams.

The original Monroe Doctrine had several major parts:

First, the United States would not interfere with existing European colonies in the Americas, but European powers were warned against establishing any new colonies in the Western Hemisphere.

Second, the United States would not interfere in the internal affairs of European nations, and in return, European powers were expected to refrain from interfering in the affairs of independent nations in the Americas.

Third, the United States asserted the right to defend its interests and ensure the security of the Western Hemisphere against external threats.

Basically, President Monore said that the western hemisphere was a separate sphere of influence and that Europe should stick to Europe.

When the Monroe Doctrine was announced, the United States had very little ability to enforce it. Compared to the major European powers, they didn’t have the navy or the army to back it up. 

However, the British did. The British supported it simply because it hurt their enemies. As countries became independent in the Americas, they could establish their own trade policies with the British rather than being stuck in a colonial mercantile system. 

The rest of Europe was rather irritated at the doctrine but didn’t think much of it because the Americans couldn’t enforce it.

The other newly independent countries in Latin America were generally supportive of the idea of Europeans keeping out of the affairs of countries in the New World but were also someone suspicious of the intentions of the United States. 

While it was effectively US policy, the United did nothing when the British took over the Falkland Islands in 1833. From 1838 to 1850, the French and British imposed a naval blockade on Argentina, and the United States did nothing. 

However, as the United States got larger and more powerful, they began to do more to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, and they expanded the scope of the doctrine. In 1845, President James Polk reaffirmed the Monroe Doctrine and also expanded it to include European interference with American expansion, aka Manifest Destiny.

When France invaded Mexico and installed Maximillian I as emperor, the United States didn’t do anything overt to prevent it, mainly because they were in the middle of the Civil War. 

However, once the war ended, they funneled money and weapons to Benito Juarez to provide more active support against Maximilian and France. 

Also, during the Civil War, the independent Dominican Republic reverted back to becoming a colony of Spain, and there wasn’t much the US could do about it.

After the Civil War, the United States was in a totally different position. They had raised a large army that was battle-tested and now had a reasonably sized navy. 

Beginning in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant and his Secretary of State Hamilton Fish began to enforce the Monroe Doctrine more actively. They attempted to annex the Dominican Republic and used the Monroe Doctrine as their justification.

In 1895, Venezuela and Britain had a clash about the border of Venezuela and Guyana. The US threatened Britain into arbitration with Venezuela. The Secretary of State under President Grover Cleveland, Richard Olney, sent a message to the British saying, “The United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” 

In 1898, for the first time, the United States used military force against a European power in the brief Spanish-American War.

Entering the 20th century, the US didn’t abandon the Monore Doctrine. In fact, they doubled down on it. 

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt announced an extension of the Monroe Doctrine, which became known as the Roosevelt Corollary.

The first part of the Roosevelt Corollary held that the United States could prevent European creditors who threatened to use the military to collect debts in Latin America. 

Moreover, Roosevelt went further and stated that the United States could interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries in the hemisphere in order to prevent European powers from doing so. 

As he stated before Congress that year, “In the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”

This became known as the Big Stick policy. 

The United States began military interventions in several Latin American countries over the next several decades, including Cuba, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

Many of these interventions went on for years. For example, the US presence in Haiti lasted from 1915 to 1935. 

Franklin Roosevelt modified Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick policy and decided to take a less aggressive position called the Good Neighbor policy. 

During the Second World War, the United States unilaterally extended protection from invasion by the Axis powers to the entirety of the Western Hemisphere, although there was no immediate threat of invasion. 

After the war, the United States changed its strategy, not abandoning the Monroe Doctrine but willing to show a more multilateral approach. 

The Organization of American States was founded in 1948 under the auspices of the United States. The OAS was intended to be a “multilateral, regional body focused on human rights, electoral oversight, social and economic development, and security in the Western Hemisphere.”

Not surprisingly, the headquarters of the OAS is located in Washington, DC. 

After the war, with the rise of the Cold War, the focus of the Monroe Doctrine shifted from preventing further European colonization to preventing the spread of communism. 

As in the early 20th century, once again, the United States implemented the Monroe Doctrine often times through direct military intervention. 

The biggest failure of the Monroe Doctrine during this period was the communist revolution, which took place in Cuba in 1959. Soviet-supported revolutionaries overthrew the government of the American-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. 

The Monroe Doctrine was a large part of what was behind the US response to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To ensure the Cuban revolution didn’t repeat itself, the US was behind anticommunist efforts all over the Western Hemisphere. 

This included sending troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965, supporting a coup in Chile in 1973, supporting resistance fighters in Nicaragua in the early 80s, and an invasion of the tiny country of Grenada in 1983. 

In 1971, when Richard Nixon announced the war on drugs, the Monroe Doctrine was invoked in the fight against drugs and narcotics, even though it had nothing to do with European or even foreign involvement in the Americas, which was the original premise of the Monroe Doctrine. 

This resulted in American involvement in fighting drug cartels in countries such as Colombia and, eventually, a full-blown invasion and regime change in Panama. 

By the 21st century, the United States had declared that the Monroe Doctrine was officially dead. The concerns of European meddling in the 19th century, or even during the Cold War, no longer existed. 

Many of the interventions in the 20th century ended up backfiring against the United States, which ended up causing even greater problems for US foreign policy.

The interesting thing is that for almost 200 years, one of the foundational elements of American Foreign Policy was made by the 5th US president and his Secretary of State, who would later replace him. 

Despite the policy evolving and morphing over time, eventually turning into something quite different than what it was originally designed to do, American foreign policy going well into the late 20th century began in an attempt to stop Spain from trying to recolonize the Americas.