The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 guided United States foreign policy in the Americas for nearly a century. The purpose of the Roosevelt Corollary was to expand the US role and presence in Central and South America.
Throughout the 19th century the United States largely dealt with issues within its own future borders on the American mainland. Populating the continent via westward expansion following the Mexican Cession and Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, negotiating and fighting with Native Americans like the significant 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and the question over slavery leading to the Civil War dominated the politics of the century.
By the turn of the 20th century the United States was beginning to emerge on the world stage. The dominant victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and yellow journalism tactics of newspapers showed the world the US was expanding its influence in world politics.
The addition of overseas territories from Spain forced the US to examine its status as a newfound imperial power. Drastic changes were needed to ensure its future ability to compete with other world powers and defend its strategic and economic interests.
In the early 20th century many of the newly-formed nations around the world were wracked with foreign-owned debt and had difficulty paying these debts. In order to protect their investors European powers increasingly used their militaries to enforce payment of these debts.
The United States became increasingly alarmed as these hostile European actions occurred in Central and South America, or their “sphere of influence” outlined in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. The outcome of the Venezuelan debt crisis of 1902-1903 further solidified US fears of European imperialism in the region.
In order to ward off the European powers, in 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt issued what is now known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.
What was the Purpose of the Roosevelt Corollary?
The purpose of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was to call for the United States to take a more active role in influencing the political events in the Western hemisphere.
This meant that the US would effectively take on the role of regional “policeman” to provide peace and stability as well as ensure Central and South American countries met their financial obligations to foreign nations.1
Historians largely view the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 as a passive policy declared against European colonization and intervention in the Americas. Most European nations scoffed at the policy and largely ignored its contents.
The United States was too weak or preoccupied with other concerns throughout the 19th century to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. European intervention in the Americas occurred several times, including in Mexico, Venezuela, Santo Domingo. and Argentina. The US was powerless to stop the encroachment.
By the late 19th/early 20th century, the US began to ponder its role on the world stage. A shift in foreign policy acknowledged that the US would be left behind should it not keep up economically and militarily with the imperialistic European nations.
In the Venezuelan debt crisis of 1902-1903, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy formed a blockade of the country until it met its debt obligations. The intervention alarmed the United States, which feared further European meddling and encroachment into the Americas.
Germany in particular was eager for any excuse to acquire new colonies as they were “late” to the imperialism frenzy.2
The United States issued the Roosevelt Corollary in response, the purpose of which aimed to quell European ambitions in the Americas. By taking on responsibility and policing the region, Europeans would not need to concern themselves and meddle into the affairs of Central and South American nations.
The Definition of the Roosevelt Corollary
The Roosevelt Corollary by definition opened the United States to intervene in the affairs of Central and South American nations. The Roosevelt Corollary was rolled out in President Theodore Roosevelt’s December 6, 1904 Fourth Annual Message to Congress.
“If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. 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.”President Roosevelt’s Fourth Annual message to Congress
In the message, Roosevelt “reluctantly” claims that the US had a responsibility to the world to carry out its police power in response to flagrant violations and “chronic wrongdoing.” This rhetoric was the basis for future declarations of US responsibility to ensure worldwide democracy like the Truman Doctrine.
The Roosevelt Corollary also claimed that intervention would occur only as a last resort and in order to prevent any hostile actions from foreign nations.
“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.”President Roosevelt’s Fourth Annual message to Congress
From the United States’ standpoint, promoting peace and stability in the region was best for its own interests.
How Did the Roosevelt Corollary Affect the Role of the United States in the World?
The Roosevelt Corollary affected the role of the United States in the world by becoming one of the first policies to serve its growing imperialistic ambitions. The addition of new US territories via the Spanish-American war of 1898 led to a dramatic shift in US policy.
The United States had new strategic interests that it needed to account for. Defense of the new territories as well as rapidly-expanding economic interests called for an increased US presence among its neighbors to the south.
US plans to build the Panama Canal required a strong naval force to defend the key strategic route. The “police” protection provided by the US also favored American businesses and helped open new markets. The later influence of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala is an example of this.
The United States ultimately decided to preemptively intervene within the region in a quest to ward off European interference in the Western hemisphere. This marked the era of “big stick” policy where the US directly intervened in the affairs of several southern neighbors.
The first test of the policy was in the Dominican Republic in 1905. The nation was under threat of invasion from Great Britain due to its many unsettled debts to European nations.
Instead, the United States followed through on its new policy and preemptively invaded the island. The US seized control of its custom houses and used military force to rule over the island nation until the situation stabilized.
The European response was exactly as Roosevelt had hoped. The direct intervention warded off any latent European ambitions and satisfied them to the extent that they soon would defer to United States authority in the region.
Direct intervention across the Western hemisphere would be costly. It was thus so that the US strived to influence peace and stability in the region. While this policy worked in the short run, in the long run it would prove disastrous.
The Significance of the Roosevelt Corollary
The Roosevelt Corollary holds great historical significance as it drastically altered US foreign policy in the Western hemisphere and help dawn a new era of US economic and political imperialism.
It marked a significant moment in US history as the time when European powers were forced to concede that the US had grown powerful enough to finally enforce the Monroe Doctrine. The absence of a European threat allowed American businesses to thrive in the region and the US to effectively control the Caribbean.
Evidence shows that the United States indeed maintained its goal of promoting peace and stability in the region, for a time at least. The average sovereign debt prices within the US “sphere of influence” rose by over 74% in response to the corollary.3
Bond market speculators were eager to bid up prices once the US proved willing to follow through with its commitments. Investors greatly valued the stability which served to bolster the economies of many nations of the western hemisphere.
The relatively newfound US naval strength helped to enforce Roosevelt Corollary. This naval strength was proudly shown off with the Great White Fleet that set sail around the world in 1907.
The United States utilized the Roosevelt Corollary on and off as a policy instrument throughout the 20th century. Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, effectively ended the policy with his “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1934.
However, interventionism resumed during the Cold War when the US freely intervened in several Central and South American nations. The intervention of the US on behalf of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala was notable, as well as interventions in Cuba, Chile, and Nicaragua, among others.
United States-led interventions as a result of the Roosevelt Corollary are a significant reason for much of the instability Central America faces today.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Gilderhus, Mark T. “The Monroe Doctrine: Meanings and Implications.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1, 2006, pp. 5–16, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552742.
2) Ricard, Serge. “The Roosevelt Corollary.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1, 2006, pp. 17–26, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552743.
3) Mitchener, Kris James, and Marc Weidenmier. “Empire, Public Goods, and the Roosevelt Corollary.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 65, no. 3, 2005, pp. 658–92, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3875013.