Last week marked the anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine. Today marks the anniversary of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Although presented at the time as an extension of what Monroe had proposed 81 years earlier, Theodore Roosevelt’s December 6, 1904 message to Congress actually stood the Monroe Doctrine on its head.
The background to the Roosevelt Corollary was fiscal instability in the Caribbean. Various Latin countries had borrowed more from European creditors than they could afford. When they defaulted, the creditors turned to their home governments to protect their investments. These were the days of gunboat diplomacy, as Europeans dispatched their navies to collect on debts. In 1902, the British and German warships seized Venezuela’s dilapidated “navy,” blockaded its ports, and even bombarded one of its towns when Caracas refused to pay up.
What steps Roosevelt took to try to dissuade the British and Germans are a matter of debate. But the prospect of further European military activity in the Caribbean worried the hero of the Battle of San Juan Hill. He had visions of European powers establishing naval bases in the Caribbean, threatening his dream of a canal across Panama as well as diminishing American influence in the region. So when the Dominican Republic stopped payment on its foreign debt in 1904, he asserted that the United States had both a right and duty to intervene in Latin America to preserve order and prevent European intervention.
Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and 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…. We would interfere with them only in the last resort, and then only if it became evident that their inability or unwillingness to do justice at home and abroad had violated the rights of the United States or had invited foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations. It is a mere truism to say that every nation, whether in America or anywhere else, which desires to maintain its freedom, its independence, must ultimately realize that the right of such independence can not be separated from the responsibility of making good use of it.
In staking out a new role for Washington as the policeman of the Americas, Roosevelt denied that “the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere.” Motive aside, Roosevelt had transformed Monroe’s original principles, which had sought to protect Latin America from intervention abroad, into an argument justifying American intervention in Latin America.
The interventions would come. Roosevelt directed U.S. officials to take over the job of collecting customs duties for the Dominican Republic and paying off its debts. (For most countries at the time the taxes paid on imported goods were the major source of government revenue.) Roosevelt would later quip that “The Constitution did not explicitly give me the power to bring about the necessary agreement with Santo Domingo. But the Constitution did not forbid me.”
Roosevelt’s successors would play the policeman’s role even more vigorously. Over the next three decades, the United States would send eight expeditionary forces to Latin America, take over customs collections twice, and conduct five military occupations—three of which (Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Haiti) lasted more than a decade. Most Americans don’t recall these interventions; many in Latin America cannot forget them.
Addendum: In 2003, U.S. News & World Report selected Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine as one of the one hundred documents that shaped America.