|Imagine a foreign policy so popular that they put it on cigar boxes. Must have been Havanas.|
On December 2, 1823 President James Monroe sent his seventh State of the Union report to be read before Congress—Presidents in those days did not personally deliver the required report in the form of a speech. Like most such reports it was dull reading, mostly an account of the very meager business that the Federal Government then did, some boasts of policy success, and some hopes for future Congressional action. It was assured of positive reception. It was the height of the so-called Era of Good Feeling with the near disappearance of the Federalist Party to an insignificant New England rump, the country was going through its only period of virtual one-party rule under the Democratic-Republican Party.
In the otherwise routine message, however was a sharp new declaration of American foreign policy. This is what it said:
…We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those [European] powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States. In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgment of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.
Recognize this? If you dust off your High School American history, you may recognize what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. In a nut shell, it staked out the Americas as U.S. home turf and warned European powers circling over the corpse of the Spanish Empire away. The proclamation contained two other important, but largely forgotten provisions. First that the U.S. would continue its policy of observing absolute neutrality in the affairs of the European powers as long as they did not try to extend themselves to the New World, and second that it was the policy of the United States “to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us.” The latter simply meant the U.S. would deal with who ever was in actual power in a country despite any contrary claims of legitimacy.
In diplomatic terms the new doctrine outlined a sphere of influence beyond national boundaries. Such claims can ordinarily be asserted successfully only by the most dominant of military powers. What made the Monroe Doctrine so daring was the absolute lack of such military power by the United States, whose tiny standing Army had its hands full protecting the frontier from Native American uprisings and whose Navy consisted of a handful of aging War of 1812 vintage frigates and sloops of war.
Today, the Monroe Doctrine as modified by later corollaries and understandings officially remains the “bed rock of American foreign policy” and is still invoked in various international disputes. Here is the story of how it came about and evolved.
The immediate cause of the declaration was the sudden assertion by Russia in the Ukase of 1821 of rights to virtually the entire Pacific Coast at least as far as San Francisco Bay and possibly all the way to Baja California and forbidding non-Russian ships from approaching the coast.
The claims were based on their existing and acknowledged possession of Alaska, the right of discovery based on the voyages of Vitus Bering and others in the employment of the Tsar, and the establishment of a string of fur trading posts down the coast. Mexico had won it independence from Spain in 1821, but had a very tenuous hold on Alta California which seemed ripe for the taking. The British Hudson Bay Company had also established trading posts, most importantly Ft. Vancouver and lay claim to the region by virtue of earlier overland expeditions to the coast by Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and Simon Fraser. And, of course the United States had its claims based on the Lewis and Clark expedition and fortified by the establishment of Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1810 as a post of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company.
Not only were the Russians threatening American and British interests in the Pacific Northwest, but Czar Alexander I and the Austrian diplomat Prince Klemens von Metternich had created the Holy Alliance of Russia, Austria, and Prussia after the final fall of Napoleon in 1815. This alliance not only swore to defend traditional monarchy in Europe, it swore to restore the Bourbon monarchy in Spain and recover that nation’s lost colonies under the royalist banner. If successful, the Holy Alliance could either re-impose Spanish rule on its lost colonies or perhaps try to parcel them out to themselves and other European powers should Spain be too weekend to re-assert control.
All of this very much alarmed not only the United States, but Britain. With the collapse of the Spanish Empire, mercantile Britain had been able to sweep in and become the chief trading partner of the newly independent Latin American republics. It did not need to go to the bother of establishing colonial control to reap enormous profits.
Alarmed with threats on two fronts, the British government’s Foreign Minister George Canning proposed to the United States that the two nations mutually declare and enforce a policy of separating the new world from the old.
The proposal found a friendly, but cautious, reception by the American Secretary of State. John Quincy Adams, son of the second President and last Federalist to hold that office, was, like most New Englanders, an Anglophile by inclination. But one of the by-products of the War of 1812 when New England flirted with secession in protest to the war with Britain was the destruction of the pro-British Federalist Party. The younger Adams was now himself a Democratic-Republican and by tradition the likely nominee of that party for President in 1824 and a shoe-in for election. But the majority of his new party was virulently anti-British. Adams knew that not only would any such public joint action between the two countries be rejected by Congress, it would end his chances to occupy his father’s old house.
Adams was not only Secretary of State, he was also the country’s most experienced diplomat and one of the few men in the country to think in global terms. The president he served also had wide diplomatic experience, but the last of the Virginia Dynasty was not the intellectual match of Washington, Jefferson, or Madison. He was a quite un-imaginative plodder, up to being the Chief Clerk of a skeletal Federal government, but not much more. He was smart enough, however to realize his limitations and the superior talents of his Secretary of State. So it was Adams, not the President, who drafted the foreign policy part of the President’s 1823 message.
In England, Canning was altogether pleased. In fact he probably had expected no other result. He let it be known the His Majesty’s Government would abide by the unilateral American declaration. In real terms that meant that by tacit understanding the mighty Royal Navy, unchallengeable by any other power, would be the real enforcers of the Monroe Doctrine well into the 1880s.
The Russians were unprepared to challenge the Royal Navy and abandoned trying to enforce their claims by naval power, if not the claims themselves. Likewise the otherwise land locked members of the Holy Alliance were denied any practical way to restore Bourbon rule in the New World even when they succeeded in restoring the dynasty to the Spanish throne.
In Latin America, where Simón Bolivar was just finishing up the last of his victories over the Spanish and where Santander in Colombia, Rivadavia in Argentina, Victoria in Mexico were already heading new republics, the Monroe Doctrine was greeted with enthusiasm and gratitude. But even these leaders realized that the United States could not enforce it. They, too, looked to the Royal Navy.
Perhaps an indication of how indebted the U.S. was to the British came in 1831 when Commander Silas Duncan in the frigate USS Lexington attacked and destroyed the colony at Puerto Luis on the Malvinas, which had been considered a sovereign part of Argentina since that country’s independence, and allowed the British to re-take their whaling station on what they called the Faulklands. This obviously undermined the basic premise of the Doctrine, although it was in the best interest of both nations as the British agreed to extend their facilities to the use of American whalers as well as their own.
The British themselves did feel the mild barbs of the Doctrine occasionally. The U.S. objected to an alliance between the fledgling Republic of Texas and the British in 1836 on the basis of the doctrine. Both the U.S. and Britain continued to have conflicting claims on the Oregon Territory, when President James K. Polk announced that the Doctrine would be carried west and enforced as part of his Manifest Destiny policy. Despite some beating of the war drums for a boundary of “Fifty-four Forty or Fight,” the dispute ended amicably when the two nations split the differences of their claim by essentially extending the border along the 49th Parallel. And in 1846 President John Tyler extended the Doctrine to cover the Kingdom of Hawaii, where the British had long standing interests. Despite these blips in the road, both nations remained satisfied by their generally mutually beneficial enforcement of the Doctrine.
The first real test of the Monroe Doctrine came in 1863 when the U.S. in the midst of the Civil War, was powerless to enforce it. Emperor Louis Napoleon, citing unpaid debts by the Republic of Mexico, sent French troops to make Austrian Arch Duke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph puppet Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Secretary of State William Seward explicitly warned the French about the violation of what he officially called for the first time not just American policy but the Monroe Doctrine. When the war ended, at Seward’s insistence, President Andrew Johnson sent a large force of combat hardened veterans under General Philip Sheridan to the Mexican border as a show of force. Sheridan’s troops allowed a brisk but technically illegal arms trade to supply the Juaristas fighting to expel the French. They even allowed tons of U.S. arms and ammunition to be “stolen” from arsenals along the border while restricting any flow of surplus arms—and most volunteers—from the defeated South to the French who had made promises generous land grants to former Confederates. Although U.S. troops never actually intervened, their presence played a role in the fall of the Emperor and the restoration of the Republic.
Shortly after the fall of Maximilian, President Ulysses S Grant toughened the terms of the Doctrine by explicitly declaring that “no territory on this continent shall be regarded as subject to transfer to a European power.” This was part of a general push by the rapidly industrializing United States to assert itself in the expansion of markets to the South. The country was beginning to challenge traditional British trade supremacy in the region causing the self interest in the two countries in enforcing the Monroe Doctrine to fade.
Thing came to a head in the so-called Venezuela Crisis of 1895 when the U.S. was called upon to support the Latin American country in a land dispute with Britain over territory in the drainage of the Esequba River claimed by the colony of British Guyana. President Grover Cleveland’s administration demanded that Britain submit the question to binding international arbitration, which the British first refused to do. When they objected to the United States even making such a demand, the State Department asserted a new, broad interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine which held that American interests extended in any matter within the hemisphere. Although the British disputed this claim, they eventually acceded to the demanded arbitration—which turned out to be actually quiet favorable to them. But by doing so they tacitly agreed to American hegemony in the Hemisphere and set the plate for an era of unprecedented U.S. interference in Latin American affairs.
The Spanish American War ended forever the vestiges of the Spanish Empire and left the U.S. in possession of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Rather than object to the U.S.’s first ever extension of its authority outside of the New World in Pacific—itself a violation of the original declaration of intent not to intervene outside of the Americas--Europe acknowledged the emergence of the country as a true world power and welcomed it to the club colonial empires.
At the turn of the 20th Century several Latin American nations, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean, were heavily in debt to various European nations and banks. The creditors were clamoring for payments and governments were threatening to send troops to intervene in the defaulting nations. Latin American leaders led by Argentina’s Foreign Minister Luis María Drago asked that the Monroe Doctrine be extended to prevent any such intervention. President Theodore Roosevelt at first refused saying “We do not guarantee any state against punishment if it misconducts itself.” But in 1902 he issued the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe doctrine, the most sweeping declaration of regional power yet. The Corollary held that the United States itself could intervene in cases of “…flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation.” Roosevelt argued that American intervention to solve claims of international debt was preferable to action by foreign power.
The Roosevelt Corollary paved the way for decades of armed intervention in Latin America. Soon U.S. Marines were on the ground in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and in Central America. In practice they were squelching popular local rebellions against big landowners and the interests of American companies like United Fruit.
In the Cold War the Monroe Doctrine was used to justify intervention in Guatemala in 1954, and in action against Cuba following the Revolution there and Fidel Castro’s moves to alliance with the Soviet Union. Of course it was invoked in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. It continued to be invoked in U.S. support for the Contras who were waging war against the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua and in involvement in the vicious Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980’s which decimated the rural Indio/peasant population.
More recently moves by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to align his nation with Cuba and declared U.S. enemies like Iran and North Korea have renewed calls by the American political right for action against that country under the Monroe Doctrine.
Needless to say after its use for nearly a hundred years not so much to protect Latin America from foreign intervention as to be an excuse for American neo-colonial domination, the Monroe Doctrine is no longer popular with its supposed beneficiaries. But it is a truism of diplomacy and international power politics that it can remain in effect as long as the United States has the power and the will to enforce if.