200 Years of the Monroe Doctrine Is 200 Too Many

Yves here. Some useful background on the Monroe Doctrine. Even early on, US ambitions exceeded its reach, and its view became more expansionist over time.

By John Raby, a retired history teacher and conscientious objector who is currently co-chair of Peace Action Maine. From 2014 to 2021, when he lived in New Hampshire, he was active with New Hampshire Peace Action and wrote the clean energy policy for New London, New Hampshire. He centers his activism around war and peace, environmental, and social justice issues. Originally published at Common Dreams

If the United States is serious about liberty and justice for all, respect for international law, and a rules based order that treats everyone fairly and even-handedly, it’s time to ditch the doctrine and its corollaries.

When those of us of a certain age were in school, we learned that the Monroe Doctrine committed the United States to protect the independence of Latin American nations, which had just freed themselves from Spanish and Portuguese rule. While it granted European nations the right to keep whatever colonies they still had in the Western Hemisphere, it declared that any attempt on Europe’s part to expand those colonies would be considered an unfriendly act against the United States. It looked like a brave and noble act, and a step forward for the U.S. on the world stage.

As the doctrine approaches its 200th anniversary December 2, we know it ain’t necessarily so.

At first, the U.S. couldn’t enforce it because its navy was too small to keep European powers out. However, the British navy was quite willing to do the job now that Latin markets were open to British trade. In that vein, British Foreign Secretary Lord George Canning suggested the U.S. and Britain issue a joint statement in defense of Latin independence. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams rejected the idea, arguing that it would make the U.S. “a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

Instead, Adams drafted his own statement, which became the Monroe Doctrine, since president James Monroe approved the draft and could take credit for it. And so, the U.S. got the glory while the British did the work, which they were content to do for the sake of their own economic advantage.

There was more tricky business involved. The U.S. wouldn’t recognize Haitian independence from France until 1862, since Haiti rose from a brutal slave revolt. Nor did it have any quarrel with France’s demand that Haiti repay it for the loss of its slaves, an insistence which plunged Haiti deeply into debt and made it what it still is—the poorest, least stable nation in the Western Hemisphere. It was a nasty thing to do, since the Haitian revolution made the Louisiana Purchase possible.

Ever since then, there has been more and more tricky business. When Texas detached itself from Mexico in 1836, the U.S. immediately recognized it, along with its territorial claims out to the Rio Grande, which then included parts of New Mexico and Colorado. Mexico disputed those claims. Matters got worse when Texas became a U.S. state in 1845, the evident objective all along, and there was still the question of disputed territory. When President James K. Polk sent troops to Corpus Christi, which was just inside the disputed area, the Mexicans saw it as an invasion. War with Mexico followed, and in 1848, Mexico surrendered half its territory in return for a $15,000,000 payment.

During the mid-1850s, a Tennessee soldier of fortune named William Walker set off a series of coups in Central America, whereby he attempted to unite it into one slaveholding country and offer it to the U.S., either for annexation or as a client state. In 1853 and 1854, he had already tried to do something similar in northwestern Mexico. Though President Franklin Pierce recognized his short-lived regime in Nicaragua, the United States had too many problems at home to follow through with the idea. By 1860, both the offer and the daring Mr. Walker’s own life were finished.

Nonetheless, the U.S. did covet Cuba, and considered buying the island from Spain in the 1850s and 1870s. Spain wasn’t interested, but by the 1890s, the Cuban revolution was well enough along for the United States to see an opportunity and take it. When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, the U.S. blamed Spain and the Spanish-American War followed. And so we helped Cuba oust Spain, but with a catch. In 1902, the U.S. insisted on fastening the Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution, which gave the U.S. the right to supervise Cuban foreign policy. In effect, the island was a U.S. protectorate until Fidel Castro took over in 1959.

Now let’s backtrack a bit. In 1895, there was a border dispute between Venezuela and British Guyana. By that point, U.S. Secretary of State Richard Olney felt confident enough to issue a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that the U.S. had the right to mediate all such disputes, which the U.S. did in this instance, without objection from either side.

In 1901, Britain and America reached a further understanding in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty. Britain recognized America’s predominance in the Western Hemisphere, while America did the same for Britain in the East. And so the English-speaking nations went halfsies on the entire planet.

By the early 1900s, the United States was getting used to rearranging Latin America to its liking. When Colombia insisted on more money from the United States than the U.S. was willing to pay to dig the Panama Canal, President Theodore Roosevelt purchased a Panamanian revolt which let him have his way. He openly boasted, “I took Panama!” He was right, since he created the country. In 1989, when Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega became inconvenient to U.S. interests there, the U.S. removed him. The operation featured the bombardment of Panama City.

In 1905, Roosevelt added a corollary of his own to the Monroe Doctrine, announcing that whenever the United States thought a Latin American nation was unable to protect foreign lives or property, or pay debts to foreign lenders, the U.S. had the right to intervene and put its affairs in order. During the first half of the 1900s, military interventions and occupations followed in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Mexico. Marine General Smedley Butler, who took part in several such actions, confessed that he had become a bag man for U.S. corporations, and concluded that “war is a racket.”

The interventions continued during the Cold War. In 1954, after Guatemala’s democratically elected government nationalized United Fruit Company’s idle holdings there, intending to turn them over to small farmers, the CIA moved in and installed a dictatorship, in part because Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA boss Allen Dulles were major stockholders in United Fruit and were annoyed. Then there was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, followed by economic sanctions which continue to this day. In 1964, when the Dominican Republic’s democratically elected government decided to pursue a friendlier policy toward Cuba than the Johnson administration liked, the Marines moved in and set up a dictatorship there. The next year, the U.S. backed a military coup in Brazil.

The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s saw no essential change, with ethnic massacres, interventions, overthrows, and assassinations in Guatemala, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, and the previously mentioned one in Panama. Quite often, Latin troops and officers trained in the U.S. took part. Nor did our government bat an eye when a Salvadoran death squad murdered archbishop Oscar Romero, who had protested against what the death squads were doing across that suffering country. In 1999, as part of the U.S. drug war, President Bill Clinton initiated Plan Colombia, which included aerial bombardment in that country.

The most glaring example was against Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. By 1973, Allende had nationalized International Telephone and Telegraph’s holdings in Chile. ITT head Harold Geneen was furious about what he thought was inadequate compensation. He complained to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who had been working to destabilize the Allende government, and who were ready to arrange Allende’s overthrow and murder. A 17-year dictatorship under the more agreeable Augusto Pinochet followed, and Geneen cleaned up when he got back his business in Chile.

Economic sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela have continued in this century. And in 2009, the U.S. shrugged its shoulders when a military coup overthrew the democratically elected Zelaya government in Honduras. The unlucky President Manuel Zelaya had supported Indigenous objections to U.S. investments there that were doing environmental damage. In that same country, the fate of Berta Cáceres was worse. She had successfully blocked the building of a dam that would have flooded her Indigenous homeland and fouled its waters. Her murder in 2011 was the price she paid for that success. No condolences or protests came from our government.

Readers of this column quite likely know about all these things and more. After all, there is extensive literature and broadcast reporting on the subject. The essential point of this modest offering is a simple one. If the United States is serious about liberty and justice for all, respect for international law, and a rules based order that treats everyone fairly and even-handedly, it’s time to ditch the Monroe Doctrine and its corollaries. Adios, Olney. Adios, Roosevelt. Adios, Adams. Adios, Monroe.

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  1. Bill Malcolm

    A concise yet very detailed summary that was also easy to read. I know a lot more now about the Monroe Doctrine and its consequences.

    We high-schoolers in a rural Canadian province were first introduced to the Monroe Doctrine in History class in Grade 11. That was in 1962 for me. The kids were astounded at the sheer effrontery of the doctrine, couldn’t believe it could possibly be true. That is my strongest remembrance. It went against all the pro-US guff we had been taught during the 1950s. Good America, benevolent America, America against the damnable Russian and Chinese commies. Surely the Monroe Doctrine couldn’t be true!?

    But it was And is.

    1. eg

      We were taught much the same “pro-US guff” in suburban Ontario in the late ‘70s, Bill. I don’t imagine that current curriculum offerings are significantly different in this regard.

      Canada — Remora of Empires …

    2. Carolinian

      You’re welcome for all the US propaganda. We wouldn’t want the Great White North to go off the reservation.

      Of course we USians got it too and back then were told that practically every thing our government did was about “freedom.” Now freedom is treated as something vaguely sinister that Nikki Haley wants to keep under control.

      Perhaps the worst thing about the Monroe Doctrine is that it served as precedent for the Bush doctrine and the Carter doctrine and all those other doctrines that claimed they hate us for that theoretical freedom or that world commerce depends on our rules based protection. If Israel has “the most moral army in the world” then America has the most moral foreign policy in the world. Or else..

  2. ciroc

    It is a miracle that AMLO is still alive. He should have been ousted in a coup or died a mysterious death.

  3. flora

    China is making big alliances and business connections in Latin and South America. Carter ‘sold’ the Panama Canal to Panama back in the 1970s. China now has a lot of control over the Canal’s management and expansion. The Monroe doctrine is effectively over now, though there’s still plenty of US meddling, but the US isn’t the only bigfoot in Latin and S. America now.

  4. eg

    “If the United States is serious about liberty and justice for all, respect for international law, and a rules based order that treats everyone fairly and even-handedly, it’s time to ditch the Monroe Doctrine and its corollaries.”

    Except America Inc isn’t serious about any of these things.

    1. JonnyJames

      Exactly, I wrote this just before I saw your comment:

      Sorry for the twisted humor, but the opening of this made me laugh:
      “If the United States is serious about liberty and justice for all, respect for international law, and a rules based order that treats everyone fairly…”

      To be brutally honest: There is no rule of law in international politics, no justice, no human rights, it is the Law of the Jungle: the pursuit of power and interests, the rule of brute violence.

      “rules based order” is a great NewSpeak term: it really means do what we say or get saddled with massive debt, get strangled with siege warfare and/or bombed into the Stone Age.

      After all, US presidents have said the US is the “indispensable, exceptional nation”, “the “most powerful country in the history of the world” (might as well say Amerika Ueber Alles!)

      The US mass murders innocents, murders journalists, persecutes whistleblowers, protects the largest financial crimes in history, tortures folks… I don’t see much respect for the law, human rights, or free speech. We can ask Julian Assange and others about that.

      But with that said, the grip of the US on Latin America and the rest of the world (except hardcore vassals like the EU/NATO countries/Japan and Anglosphere) is weakening.

  5. David J.

    The joke is on Raby. It is precisely because US foreign policy wandered away from the Monroe Doctrine that we have had all the evil aberrations he lists. By lumping them all in one basket, he prevents any real understanding of the Doctrine and why it was promulgated. This despite his citation of one of the great quotes of US foreign policy history (the cock-boat…). So close and yet so far.

    It would be worth the effort for those who find this topic interesting, to compare and contrast Adams/Monroe v Polk. And to consider who was who during the Spot Resolution concerning the Mexican War. As well as to consider why it took until 1862 to recognize Haiti. Hint: what faction was no longer in Congress?

    Raby is right when he denounces all the evils which American foreign policy has wrought. He is flat out wrong to attribute it’s source as the original Monroe Doctrine. His missive completely ignores internal contention with respect to the nature of US foreign policy over the decades and centuries, in favor of a broadside which amounts to “America Bad.”

    Better to make the effort to understand why and how foreign policy has morphed, both philosophically and practically, over the past couple of hundred years. (And more, if you account for President Washington’s form of isolationism.)

    1. Joe Well

      Agreed 100%.

      Also the obsession with the Monroe Doctrine is anachronistic in the present. It ignores that Latin America is the most independent region in the world today. There are far fewer US military bases in Latin America today than any other region. And Latin American countries are far more likely to take on the US in the UN than European countries.

      The US has repeatedly failed in military invasions in Latin America post-WWII: Cuba (Bay of Pigs), Dominican Republic (US Navy ships turned away before they could even land soldiers), Venezuela (attempts to create an exile army never even got off the ground).

      It is soothing to the national egos of middle class Americans especially of a certain age to think that “we” are the puppetmasters of the Western Hemisphere. But looking objectively, the US has a lot more influence than power and that influence is very limited.

    2. Carolinian

      So you don’t think there might be some consideration to whether the Doctrine had a few different motives than the ones it was said to be about? After all Monroe was one of those Southerners you are hinting at. And many in the South did covet Latin America for more slave states just as Finance America covets more financial serfs.

      I think the article’s point has more to do with analogy than whether the Monroe Doctrine itself still exists.

      1. juno mas

        Yes, the Monroe Doctrine is just an anchor point. US foreign policy has morphed into: Watch what we do, not what we Say.

      2. David J.

        That’s a good question. Any and all policies are interpreted in many ways according to the interpreter’s outlook. It’s one reason why this doctrine was “modified” over the years to the extent that it has, the which include some aspects of foreign policy which are far from the intent of Adams and Monroe (and their fellow thinkers.)

        It is worth reading the actual document. It’s the last part of Monroe’s address to Congress on Dec 2, 1823. In fact, the entire message is worth reading because you’ll get a sense of what Monroe deemed important enough to speak about at that time, including aspects of internal improvements, which also was a cause for division in US politics then.

        And, no, Monroe was not the kind of southerner who was into filibusters, etc… His outlook was closer to the republican ideals of the American Revolution than to what came later, when republicanism became less important to newer generations. Indeed, when Adams/Monroe refer to the “system” in the document, it is the philosophy of republicanism to which they refer.

    3. flora

      You want context? When US history or any history is barely taught in the US, the ‘young nation’? It seems like US history is whatever the latest woke thing says it is, like the NYTimes 1619 project. / ;)

      I agree with your comment, btw. Thanks.

  6. Detroit Dan

    And this article doesn’t even mention Operation Condor:

    Operation Condor was a United States-backed campaign of political repression and state terrorism, involving intelligence operations, CIA-backed coups, as well as assassinations of left-wing leaders in South America which formally existed from 1975 to 1983. Operation Condor was officially and formally implemented in November 1975 by the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone of South America. Due to its clandestine nature, the precise number of deaths directly attributable to Operation Condor is highly disputed. Some estimates are that at least 60,000 deaths can be attributed to Condor, with up to 30,000 of these in Argentina. The Archives of Terror list 50,000 killed, 30,000 disappeared and 400,000 imprisoned.

    I appreciate the efforts of David J and Joe Well to provide some mitigating context, but their protestations merely show that good intentions are often overwhelmed by power politics.

    1. David J.

      Not my intent to mitigate at all. Nor to make any protestation. Raby is simply mistaken in his interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine as some font of evil for US foreign policy. It’s the kind of mistake that many people make when it comes to policy in general; a simplistic connect-the-dots approach will not suffice for understanding the nature of the policy/problem, nor lead one to any kind of real solutions. And this includes systems underlying policy orientations.

      And thanks for mentioning Condor, which bears no resemblance to the intent of the Monroe Doctrine whatsoever. One of my childhood friends (mid-to-late 60s) was from Buenos Aires. He returned to Argentina in the early 70s. I’ve spent many hours over the past decades praying that he and his sister were not caught up and disappeared. I’ve even tried to find him, but his name is so common, it’s like trying to find John Smith here in the US.

  7. JonnyJames

    “…And in 2009, the U.S. shrugged its shoulders when a military coup overthrew the democratically elected Zelaya government in Honduras…” Say what?!

    I’m sorry but this sounds very naive. (or intentionally dodges criticizing the D faction of the D/R dictatorship)

    Shrugged shoulders? The coup just happened? Was it not our beloved D party favorites, HRC and Obama who supported it? and the CIA orchestrated it? The so-called “liberals” support the most far-right, bloodthirsty polices, just like their duopoly buddies with an R after their name.



  8. Wukchumni

    A couple of asides…

    There was a commemorative silver coin issued in 1923 for the centennial of the Monroe Doctrine, and a lot of times these USA commemorative coins were really a stretch in terms of commemoration, as Los Angeles had nothing to do with the Monroe Doctrine, but figures prominently on the reverse of the coin, which is pretty interesting in that a couple of really limber females represent North & South America in the design.

    These were sold for a buck and as is pretty common with commemorative halves issued before the Great Depression, most of em’ seemed to get spent, and as they were issued in LA, every little old lady who came into a coin store to sell their wares, all seemed to have a few, they were a definite drug on the market back in the day.


    Walker starring the always enjoyable Ed Harris came out in 1987 and was directed by Alex Cox, who also directed Repo Man, and it starts off as a period piece set in the 1850’s in Nicaragua and then slowly but surely modern things show up in said set period piece, like a big Mercedes Benz passing by a horse drawn cart, or Commodore Vanderbilt having a computer on his table, that sort of thing.

    I won’t say any more, but you have to see this effort, its wildly different than anything before on film, or I daresay since.

  9. Gulag

    A major problem with the Raby historic analysis of the creation of theMonroe doctrine is that it does not go deep enough into the question of why any nation-state behaves as it does (as alluded to in many of the above comments).

    The realist theoretical perspective (see for example books/article/interviews of John Mearsheimer) argues that simply successfully existing in an anarchic international system motivates every nation-state to strive to be as powerful as possible (whether it is the U.S., China or Russia.)

    Population size, wealth and military power make survival more likely.

    It is the architectural structure (the anarchy of the international system) that motivates all nation-states to try to develop Monroe Doctrines in their immediate sphere of geographic interest whether Latin America for the U.S. or Asian for China.

    Each nation-state has no choice but to behave aggressively– and the U.S. historically has been extremely aggressive (moving from 13 colonies on the Atlantic seaboard to one of a few semi-hegemonic powers today.

  10. Jeff W

    “…we learned that the Monroe Doctrine committed the United States to protect the independence of Latin American nations…”

    Learning about the Monroe Doctrine in junior high and high school in New York in the mid-to-late 1970s, I don’t recall even hearing that rationale. The Monroe Doctrine was more a proclamation of US hegemony in the Western hemisphere, that Latin America was the US’s “backyard,” and that European powers should back off. It wasn’t taught as a historically-contingent policy choice by one president. It was more like—as more explicitly conveyed by Manifest Destiny—the way things were “destined to be.” It was, to say the least, a very non-critical perspective.

  11. Not Moses

    Funny how no one mentions Neoliberalism as the newest form of wealth appropriation. As managed by the IMF, it causes instability as a controlling mechanism in the eternal, divine Manifest Destiny mission, I.e. Argentina

    1. JonnyJames

      Seek and ye shall find: Check out the Steve Keen/Michael Hudson thread from a couple days ago. Finance Capitalism ruined the world.

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