Monroe Doctrine: An Overview

In 1823, 5th president of the United States James Monroe outlined the Monroe Doctrine, which “stated that further efforts by European countries to colonize land or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention … The doctrine put forward that the New World and the Old World were to remain distinctly separate spheres of influence, for they were composed of entirely separate and independent nations.”

In 1823 the US drew this line in the sand. Most countries didn’t care because the US was a young country with no power. But later the Monroe Doctrine would shape regional history.

The countries of Latin America were just gaining their independence, so revolutionary leaders including Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander embraced Monroe Doctrine with open arms as a key endorsement of their legitimacy.

From Monroe’s speech:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those 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 1861 France, Spain, and England sent forces into Mexico because the country had suspended debt payments due to bankruptcy. Spain and England quickly left, but France stayed to bring down the government and install a monarchy.  The United States was in the heart of its civil war. But as soon as the Civil War ended, President Andrew Johnson sent 50,000 American troops to the Mexican border. “In 1866, the US demanded the French withdraw their forces from Mexico, moved soldiers to positions along the Rio Grande, and set up a naval blockade to prevent French reinforcements from landing” (American perspective). The Mexicans retook their capital and executed the French-appointed emperor. There’s a comment or two on My Ugly American Rant implying that Mexico’s independence from France is partly due to American help. I’m not going to argue either way.

Towards the end of the 19th century, American politicians cited the Monroe Doctrine in arguing for war against Spain to liberate Cuba and Puerto Rico. In the ensuing Spanish-American War, the Americans thumped the Spaniards and gained the respect of the world as a military power. The US also gained Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. In my American history classes, I remember the Spanish-American War for (1) the use of “yellow journalism” to incite public outrage and (2) Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders storming San Juan Hill.

Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most interesting US presidents in history, would later take the Monroe Doctrine in a new direction. In response to the Venezuela Crisis of 1902-1903, in which England, Germany, and Italy blockaded Venezuela over its refusal to pay its debts, Roosevelt added to Monroe Doctrine the Roosevelt Corollary.

This cartoon is actually misleading as to what the Roosevelt Corollary meant. The cartoon depicts Spain (or any European power) trying to muscle in on the Dominican Republic to pay its debt, and Roosevelt not having it. But that’s what the Monroe Doctrine was about before the Roosevelt Corollary.

Roosevelt aimed to preempt having to deal with the Europeans. His amendment to the Monroe Doctrine allowed the US to intervene in mismanaged or incompetent Latin American countries to prevent Europe from coming over in the first place. So this was the first time public policy officially justified intervening in Latin American countries without a European presence being necessary.

This is an astonishingly insulting argument now. But even today many Latin American governments are still corrupt, inefficient, and incompetent. Back then they ran the risk of losing independence for it and Teddy didn’t want to see that.

A recent biography on Teddy Roosevelt discloses his idea for a Japanese Monroe Doctrine for Asia.

Just a few decades later the Roosevelt Corollary was effectively repealed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. In FDR’s own words:

The American republics to the south of us have been ready always to cooperate with the United States on a basis of equality and mutual respect, but before we inaugurated the good-neighbor policy there was among them resentment and fear because certain administrations in Washington had slighted their national pride and their sovereign rights.

In pursuance of the good-neighbor policy, and because in my younger days I had learned many lessons in the hard school of experience, I state that the United States was opposed definitely to armed intervention.

Read FDR’s whole speech.

The Good Neighbor policy of non-intervention ended with the Cold War. The US conducted covert and non-covert operations in attempts to defeat Soviet-backed or organic socialist movements. The ugliest of these were Iran-Contra and the Guatemala coup.

Recent analysis of Monroe Doctrine isn’t wholly negative. Some criticize the US for moving away from Monroe Doctrine, implying the US doesn’t care about Latin America since the War on Terror and economic emergence of China. Hence the title Forgotten Continent in Michael Reid’s book.

The future of US influence in the region is best summed up by selections from this 2009 The New Republic (the best liberal pub) article, Adios, Monroe Doctrine:

The ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has provided Latin America with a revelatory moment. Beginning with the Monroe Doctrine–and extending through countless invasions, occupations, and covert operations–Washington has considered the region its backyard. So where was this superpower these past few months, as Honduras hung in the balance? More or less sitting on its hands … For the first time in centuries, the United States doesn’t seem to care much what happens in Latin America.

It has grown increasingly difficult for certain regimes to blame Washington for their failures. From Venezuela to Argentina to Bolivia, populist governments have pursued economic and social policies, as well as geopolitical alliances, that can scarcely help their people. When these policies inevitably fail, these governments won’t be able to replicate the rhetorical trickery of the Cubans or the Sandinistas. They cannot hold Washington responsible for their setbacks. At best, they can argue that the peasants in the Andes are still hungry because of the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but that is not an easy sell.

This U.S. stance is also a positive development for symbolic reasons. Too much is made about the imperative for U.S. atonement or humility; they are both overrated. Nonetheless, the United States does carry baggage in the region, and the history of its engagement with Latin America is not a proud one. Breaking with that past, at least by not repeating it, is a good idea and wins points in most quarters of the hemisphere.

While the region has reason to cheer this turn in U.S. policy, it simply can’t afford for the United States to disappear. On matters such as immigration, free trade, and the battle against corruption, almost nothing can be done without U.S. cooperation or leadership.

Economic development in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America is hardly conceivable, let alone possible, without a significant U.S. contribution, both monetary and conceptual. Building up infrastructure, stabilizing currencies, and establishing effective and transparent antitrust institutions are tasks that countries cannot carry out alone, given their integration with the U.S. economy.

Many of the region’s traditionally anti-interventionist nations–Mexico, Brazil, Argentina–are coming to understand the need to anchor Latin America’s democracy in a strong, intrusive, and detailed legal framework, the same way that free-trade agreements, as well as World Bank and IMF programs, have solidified economic policies that are finally yielding results. The United States must be part of this framework, to coax these countries along and to bestow credibility upon whatever is built.

The end of the era of intervention should be hailed by the region. Washington’s less intrusive presence will broaden the leeway certain governments have and force others to assume their responsibilities. But world events do not seem likely to permit an indefinite U.S. disengagement from the region, nor would that be desirable.



  1. Monroe doctrine is just an excuse for US imperialism in Latin America. The US has never truly acted in the interest of development or democracy in its relations with the countries of Latin America. Its history is solely exploitative.


  2. @ Darin – that is a very narrow and one sided view, but what can we expect from either A) Leftist from South American – go ‘Che’ eh?! or B) A Lefty from the USA who just laps up all the stuff he was sold by other Lefties in academia here in the good ole US.

    The point is that the USA is not always innocent. Of course we act in our own interest in many cases, that is what most powerful countries do. It’s what real life people do, who grow economy and build wealth. You create wealth for you and yours (now that USA is not longer an “us or we” this is ending) and in the meantime you might help some others when it benefits you.

    On the flip side, when we do actually save someone’s ass somewhere on the globe, there is always going to be someone who doesn’t like it. There are always 2 sides to every story and sometimes after hearing all the BS from both sides, you just go forward. We are hated when we help and hated when we don’t so at some point you just say fuck it.


  3. Darin, I agree with you because what you say is true, but also with Colin’s (deftly-pitched) article and Rawley’s answer to your comments.

    In a way, it is simply a meaningless truth to say that the US is imperialist and exploitative. In what context? All other powerful nations through history have been dedicated to altruistically helping their rivals? Colombians are always worried about how they can help people from poorer nations? …from their own nation, come to that?

    Every nation-state in history has, given the chance, been imperialist and exploitative. In fairness, the nations to the south of Europe (where I’m from) fare rather worse than the nations to the south of USA, and differences in arm-dealing policies would play a part. Every nation exploits as it can.

    The truth is, you are right (but meaninglessly so): as the world’s most influential country, the USA is, by definition, imperialist and exploitative. It makes a lot of mistakes. My point is it’s the best most-influential-country the world has yet known. Government critics in the US haven’t had to leave the country. Michael Moore, a vociferous and charismatic government critic came under death threats, yet received well-trained bodyguards…paid for, trained by the same government he was criticising!!

    At any time in history, all of us will be living under an exploitative influence. I think it’s good that we are living under one that believes so genuinely in free speech. Criticise it constructively and we’ll benefit – blame it and we’ll lose.


  4. I personally could give a rat’s ass if they end Plan Colombia. I don’t think it does anything at street level. It’s just a bunch of expensive political pork.

    I don’t like governments in general, I’m not wild about ANY of them. I just try to avoid them as best they can and keep them out of my hair and out of my sex life 😉

    N.B. Colin you mentioned how great PR and Panama are but both of us CHOOSE to live in Colombia. I think PR is a shithole and Panama I have never been to but from what I hear it’s another PR. No thanx. Not to mention, if Panama are such great US allies, why were they INVADED by US troops then?


  5. As an American, I am ashamed and surprised to say that the United States is quite hypocritical. Americans like to say that they love freedom and justice, but here are some examples of where American actions conflict with American standards:

    1. The US inspected a Soviet Union fighter jet that landed in Japan in 1976, but protested that China should not search an American plane that landed in China in 2001.

    2. The Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights clearly states that people should not be subject to the same offense twice, but sex offenders can be convicted of crimes and then later be required to register as sex offenders and be held for life under indefinite civil commitment laws even after they complete their original sentences. “John TV” shows that embarrass and punish people arrested on prostitution charges also violate the Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process rights.

    3. The Sixth Amendment guaranteeing the right to speedy trials is violated by holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without charge. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments and is violated by torturing Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Whether the prisoners are foreigners or not makes no difference because it violates the intent of the Constitution and sends the message to other nations that human rights violations are acceptable. Taking the moral high ground is difficult when you are immoral yourself. If you want to prevent terrorism, give terrorists a trial, improve airline security, and don’t give out visas easily. Torturing suspected terrorists only recruits more terrorists. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

    4. The Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches is violated by the Patriot Act that allows secret warrants.

    5. The Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches and seizures, the Fifth amendment that allows due process, and the Eighth Amendment that forbids excessive bail, fines, and cruel and unusual punishment are all violated by DUI checkpoints and asset forfeiture laws.

    6. The Fourth Amendment protection against illegal searches and the Fourteenth Amendment that guarantees equal protection of the law is violated by Arizona’s immigration law that requires police to question people who look like illegal immigrants. Illegal immigration would be better stopped by having a strong border and fining employers of illegal immigrants, not by profiling Americans who look like foreigners.

    7. The United States criticizes Iran and North Korea for developing nuclear power, but the US helps the United Arab Emirates, India, and Vietnam develop nuclear technology.

    8. The USA supports democracy, but has overthrown democratically elected leaders in Iran and Chile. The US also supports countries that do not have religious freedom and democracy like Saudi Arabia and has supported dictators like Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines, Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, Suharto in Indonesia, and Saddam Hussein from Iraq .

    9. The US opposes terrorism, but has supported Osama bin Laden and freed the accused Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles suspected of blowing up a plane in 1976.

    10. The United States says that it supports free trade, but foreign companies can currently only own 25% of an airline in the US, while American companies can buy 49% of an airline in Europe.

    11. The United States criticizes Airbus for receiving European government subsidies while ignoring the fact that Boeing accepted government tax breaks.

    Maybe it is just human nature, but Americans have always looked for an enemy to blame from witches to blacks to Communists. Today people are aghast that the US had Japanese concentration camps and once allowed slavery and segregation. How will people look back on the treatment of sex offenders, Muslims, and illegal immigrants in the USA 60 years from now?

    Criminals should be punished, but only in a way that doesn’t violate the Constitution. Even innocent people can be arrested and wrongly convicted.

    If you care about your freedom, write your elected officials. Governments would love to take away all your freedom if they could. Our freedoms are diminishing, not growing. Stand up, fight for your rights, and protect our freedom now!


    First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, but there was no one left to speak for me.

    If only one person is not free, then no one is free.

    They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.


  6. I’d love to address the many deficiencies in Anonymous’ post…but there’s so many if them it’d be tiring…so I’ll stick to just one…

    Show me one source where the US has been opposed to Iran and North Korea nuclear “power generation” and I’ll show you ten that show that it’s only been opposed to nuclear weapons (and in fact has offered along with other nations to gladly help in nuclear power generation). By the way..lIf you think that a nuclear armed Iran (or the cats already outta the bag NK) makes the world “better” in any way…please give me a hit of whatever you’re smokin Mr. Anon cuz I wanna get lost far from reality too…


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