The Definition of the Roosevelt Corollary

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 guided US foreign policy in the Americas for nearly a century. By 1904 the Roosevelt Corollary by definition had expanded 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, dealing with Native Americans, and the leadup to the Civil War dominated the politics of the century

However, 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 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 Monroe Doctrine. The outcome of the Venzuelan 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 Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine?

The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine called 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.

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was largely seen as a passive policy declared against European colonization and intervention in the Americas. European nations scoffed at the policy and largely ignored its contents.

Cartoon depicting the Monroe Doctrine

Throughout the 19th century the United States was too weak or preoccupied with other concerns to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. European intervention in the Americas occurred many 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.

In response, the United States issued the Roosevelt Corollary, 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 much more 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 democracy around the world such as via 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.

United States Imperialism

In reality the Roosevelt Corollary was among the first policies to serve the United States’ growing imperialistic ambitions. The addition of new US territories via the Spanish-American war of 1898 led to a 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 and commercial 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 would also favor US businesses with their investments in the region and open new markets.

In the United States’ quest to ward off European intervention in the Western hemisphere, they instead would preventatively intervene within the region. This shift marked the era of the “big stick” policy upon which the US directly intervened in the affairs of several southern neighbors.

Cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick” policy

The first test of the policy was in the Dominican Republic in 1905. As a nation with unsettled debts to European nations, it was under threat of invasion by Great Britain.

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 had great significance in shaping the future of US imperialism as well as the political and economic landscape of the Western hemisphere.

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 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

This is shown in that the average sovereign debt prices within the US “sphere of influence” rose by over 74% in response to the Roosevelt Corollary.

Bond market speculators were eager to bid up the prices once the United States proved willing to follow through with its commitments. The stability brought by the US was greatly valued and 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 ships of the Great White Fleet that set sail around the world in 1907.

Roosevelt Corollary US Warship Tonnage 1880-1914 chart

The Roosevelt Corollary was used on and off for US policy 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 big reason for much of the instability Central America faces today.

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