The Monroe Doctrine: A Failed Promise of US-Latin American Affinity

With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers.[1] Through the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, President James Monroe accentuated the interconnectedness of the United States with Latin America by virtue of proximity. In return for U.S. neutrality on internal European matters, the Doctrine proscribed colonization and interference of European states in the New World, exempting existing colonies that had not yet declared independence. While the Doctrine aimed to insure American sovereignty, it also served to conserve U.S. demesne in the Western Hemisphere, one endangered by European encroachment.[2] The 1823 national policy, moreover, arrived at the peak of New World independence movements and at a time when these principles of governmental authority required protection.[3] Mimicking Latin American sentiments prevalent at the time of its conception, the Monroe Doctrine prior to 1898 symbolized a Pan-American unification to protect state sovereignty from imperial Europe. However, despite several U.S.-Latin American successes to uphold the Doctrine, the United States’ own increasingly imperialist role in the Americas altered the U.S.’s relationship with Latin America from one of protectionism to one of expansionism.

The Monroe Doctrine allied the United States ideologically with the interests of the newly independent Latin American republic, thereby transforming the policy to one applicable to a truly inter-American system. Following several wars of independence in the 18th and 19th centuries, Latin American states continued to fear for their continued liberation from European countries that sought to re-declare “legitimate sovereigns, who had been dethroned by popular uprising.”[4] Spain, which had lost much of its American influence by this time, became a particular threat when Ferdinand VII attempted to reassert control over the Spanish colonies.[5] By matters of proclamation, the Monroe Doctrine legitimized Latin American states’ rights to independence and warned Europe against colonization. The clause of nonintervention in American affairs also addressed concerns that European powers would try to undermine and threaten Latin American politics.[6] As a result, the 1823 Doctrine created a mutually constructive platform for U.S. and Latin American solidarity on the consensus of eliminating the European threat.

Latin American leaders of independence movements adduced the Doctrine as a legitimate confirmation of their actions. Under the leadership of Venezuelan military and political leader Simón Bolívar and in the hopes of establishing a cooperative policy against Spain and the European Holy Alliance, the 1826 Congress of Panama joined the United States and Latin American states to recognize the Monroe Doctrine as a defending force against European authority.[7] Although U.S. participation in the Congress raised tensions regarding U.S. neutrality in international affairs, President John Quincy Adams affirmed the necessity of U.S. involvement “against the establishment of any future European colony within its [American] border.”[8] Adams’ dedication to respecting Monroe Doctrine tenets in U.S. relations with Latin America fortified the initial faith placed into the then two-year-old policy, including those of preserving America for Americans and occluding European influence. Although other economic and political motives may have fueled the U.S. decision to participate in the meeting, its attendance demonstrated at least a veneer of unity between the hemispheric north and south.

Still, Latin American states’ distrust of U.S. intentions by the mid-nineteenth century had stained the nature of U.S. participation in future Pan-American conferences, such as the 1848 meeting in Lima or later the Santiago convention, to which the U.S. did not receive invitation.[9] This apprehension towards the United States in part stemmed from U.S. expansion into northern Latin American territory after the Mexican-American War and in part from a U.S.-Britain commercial rivalry in the Caribbean and Central America.[10] However, by 1898 a Pan-American Union formed a continental alliance between the U.S. and Latin American states to ensure political and economic prosperity. The unification of northern and southern America formulated atop the groundwork of the Monroe Doctrine and the later-developed 1947 Rio Treaty, which essentially proclaimed a hemispheric defense—to attack one American republic is to attack all.[11]

Although best internationally known, the Monroe Doctrine embodied ideas not entirely original to the United States. Prior to President Monroe’s seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress, several Latin American leaders had argued for the same principles. Bolívar, who led many Latin American states to liberation, stated of the Spanish American revolution in 1819 that “[A republican government’s] principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery, and the abolition of monarchy and privileges.”[12] Even in Central America, liberation leaders like Salvadoran José Matías Delgado expressed similar sentiments about ethics and basics of sovereignty since days of university in the late 18th century.[13] Spanish scholar John Tate Lanning writes of the Latin American students at the time of Delgado’s enrollment, “There is no question that at times questions must have been asked about the basis of sovereignty.”[14] Delgado’s commitment to questioning the very foundation of independence in the face of European domination in Latin America at the time supplements Bolívar’s work into the next century and the virtues of the Monroe Doctrine thereafter.

Nevertheless, save specific cases in the latter half of the century, the Monroe Doctrine operated sparsely in defense of Latin American states prior to 1898 and instead bolstered United States’ economic and political interests. While the Doctrine allowed European powers to maintain dominion over existing territories, the policy specifically banned colony establishments in regions of declared independence. However, the United States failed to invoke the Doctrine during its first major violation in 1933 when the British forcibly recaptured their lost Argentinian territory—the Malvinas Islands.[15] Rather than confronting Great Britain, which had backed the Monroe Doctrine’s decree, the U.S. quarreled over legitimacies of territorial jurisdiction and deterred responsibility to support Argentina’s regional sovereignty.[16] This failure attests to U.S. selective application of the Doctrine for its own state specifically, even at the risk of its southern neighbors.

Focusing on U.S. relations over inter-American ones, the U.S.’s reluctance to follow through on its declared policies opened doors for a series of European missions in the Americas, including the 1837 French intervention into Mexico and the British and French blockade of Argentina the following year. Although the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 1838 Monroe Doctrine-based resolution of Caleb Cushing to combat the French-Mexican situation, no formal invocation of the Doctrine occurred.[17] In the later Argentinian conflict, the United States challenged the European powers in lieu of the Doctrine but, once again, took no further action. A similar feat of U.S. reactions, or failure thereof, occurred when France exercised force against Santo Domingo and between 1869 and 1877 when four major European powers—including Great Britain and Spain—continuously meddled in Haitian affairs.[18] Over a dozen instances of European intrusion in the New World transpired without U.S. interference. These circumstances certainly question the importance of the Monroe Doctrine; if the U.S. could conveniently choose in which Euro-American cases to intervene, then the Doctrine itself served as but a feeble emblem of isolationist American independence and not one that Latin American states could truly rely upon for sovereign rights protection.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Monroe Doctrine became a tool of national policy that “was not meant to be, and was never intended to be a charter for concerted hemispheric action.”[19] As tensions rose in the 1840’s between the United States and Great Britain over control of the intermediary Republic of Texas, President Tyler invoked the Doctrine to dissuade British mercantilism and political control in the region. In fact, President Polk later broadened the Doctrine to hinder any form of European intervention in the Western Hemisphere.[20] While this interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine seemed to inherently extend the policy’s pre-existing ideas of nonintervention, Polk’s use of the Doctrine simply shrouded an attempt to expand U.S. slavery with the 1845 annexation of Texas.[21] Essentially the U.S. used the Monroe Doctrine to eliminate European competitors in the Americas in order to buttress its own economic interests.

In the same decade, Great Britain’s capture of the Mosquito Coast for the creation of a Central American canal only seized U.S. interest at the peak of its expansionism and post-California annexation when the nation realized new economic campaigns, nearly six years after British occupation. The resulting 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain did not apply the Monroe Doctrine though it denied rights of Central American colonization and absolute regional control to either country. While underlining the Doctrine’s shaping of U.S.-European relations, these events served as a reminder that Latin American interests—such as noncolonization—primarily took an equalizing role the economic foreground of the U.S. and Great Britain rather than one solidifying Latin American state security. As mentioned in the 1854 State of the Union, the treaty did not even oblige Great Britain to abandon its rights to Central American territory nor to “the protection which she has for centuries past afforded, and still affords, to the Mosquito territory.”[22] The onset of the Civil War during that time further disengaged the U.S. from European encroachment like in 1861 when Spain reclaimed control of the Dominican Republic.

The Spanish reclamation of the Peruvian islands in 1864, under Spain’s rationale of never having recognized regional independence, presented a novel use of the Monroe Doctrine wherein Latin America unified to enforce the Doctrine. Invoking the policy, Chile banded with Peru against the Spanish in 1865.[23] The Doctrine accordingly entered an evolutionary state from defining solely U.S.-Latin American relations to impacting alliances between Latin American states themselves. The flexibility of the Doctrine to apply itself in inter-Latin American relations may have been an aftereffect of growing apprehension towards the policy.[24] Though they could not majorly alter the United States’ use of the Monroe Doctrine, the Latin American states could themselves adapt it to advance domestic security in face of European threats. The Doctrine hence became a political tool to invoke Latin American solidarity in the face of foreign intrusion. Likewise, the Doctrine’s existence itself did act to deter European ventures several times, including in 1884 when the French conceded as the U.S. militated against the Haitian sale of a naval base to evade the potential enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, to which the French affirmed, “You shall not have, at least at this time, an occasion to apply [the Doctrine] against us.”[25] As in this case, the U.S. dearth of any palpable actions did not inhibit the Doctrine from becoming an tenable proclamation that on certain occasions actually hindered European interference in the Caribbean and, more generally, the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. failed to provide tangible measures of protection for Latin America yet its strong political standing forestalled European nations with imperialistic predilections.

Amongst several failures, two major instances of concrete invocation of the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America exist prior to 1898: the French invasion of Mexico under Maximilian and the British Venezuelan boundary dispute. Under the pretext of debt collection, France and Britain deployed troops to Mexico in 1861 in what became known as the Maximilian Affair.[26] Although the U.S. had limited resources due to the Civil War during the first years of French occupancy in Mexico, American resentment towards the French possession in Mexico continued to increase.[27] The New York Times expressed public interest in restoring autonomy to the Mexican government, stating, “But so long as the French troops remain in Mexico we must hold ourselves at liberty to regard this point as doubtful…[and] to see Mexico governed by Republican rather than by Imperial institutions.”[28] Following suit, the U.S. House of Representatives devised a unanimous resolution that invoked the Monroe Doctrine and cautioned France against a Franco-American War, encouraging French retirement from Mexican territo [29] Given the political stature of the U.S. among international political powers, the mere threat of action proved enough to deter foreign countries. The Doctrine’s words alone could avert European encroachment if applied with a tangible measure of power, in this case militant. Debatably, then, the Monroe Doctrine itself had a lesser importance to U.S.-Latin American relations than it did to the willingness of the U.S. to exert its state resources, under the pretext of the policy, in defense of New World states. The Doctrine became a powerful tool because of the power of the U.S. state.

Similarly, the Venezuelan Boundary Dispute in 1895 portrayed how the Monroe Doctrine played into the imbalance of American success. United States’ concern over the Anglo-Venezuelan conflict incremented as British violation of the Monroe Doctrine undermined U.S. jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere. After a series of adverse messages to the British government, which already faced complications in its South African territories, British Prime Minister Salisbury ceded in name of the Doctrine.[30] The United States gained a tremendous amount from this Euro-Latin American intervention, namely that Britain now accepted the U.S. as prevalent power and therefore fortified U.S. inter-American influence. The U.S. also increased the Doctrine’s interpretive scope as a policy regulating transfer of American territory between European states themselves and Latin American states. Unfortunately, Venezuela still did not acquire as much as it had intended from the outcome of the war and from final negotiations with Great Britain.[31] The hierarchy of power showcased the disparity in different levels of success—the United States received a power boost while Venezuela earned a victory in name only.

While Latin American states accepted the Monroe Doctrine’s ideas of nonintervention and noncolonization, the proclamation of a Pan-American independence came alongside a policy of U.S. intervention in the Western Hemisphere that aroused fear within Latin American states and, by 1898, served as testament to the United States’ hypocrisy via imperialist and hegemonic acquisitions. Latin American states’ rejection of U.S. expansionist policy portrayed an evolving doctrine that did not fully represent the fundamentals of America as a whole, but rather of U.S. interests. Although condemning European imperialism in the New World with the Monroe Doctrine, the United States pursued its own expansionist interests under the narrative of “Manifest Destiny.”[32] In just over two decades, the U.S. President John Tyler waived the Doctrine and annexed the state of Texas, ergo prompting the Mexican-American War. The United States’ failure to practice its own policy led a prominent Venezuelan newspaper to caution Latin America against the “fatherly tutelage of Washington.”[33] Subsequently, two years of war led to the 1848 U.S.-supervised Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which forced Mexico to cede half of its national territory, including California and Texas. Not only did the United States appropriate Mexican territory, it also faulted on Treaty articles that granted citizenship and full associated rights to all Mexicans living in the region.[34] Similar to Spain’s use of a racial caste system in the Americas, the United States based civilian rights on the premise of race. The U.S. government stripped political rights from non-white Mexicans and altogether denied citizenship to Native Americans.[35] Whereas the United States pledged assurance of American states’ sovereignty with the Monroe Doctrine in the wake of European threats, it failed to realize its own exploits in the Southern Hemisphere, beginning with the U.S.’s closest southern neighbor, Mexico. Consequently, the Monroe Doctrine failed to fully protect America for all Americans and instead simply insured the U.S. a clearer path its boundless “destiny.”

If the outcomes of the Mexican-American War did not kindle fear in the Southern Hemisphere, U.S. filibustering and diplomatic southern expeditions enflamed Latin American antagonism towards the United States and led to a unification against American filibusters like usurper William Walker, who yearned to establish a slave-holding empire in Latin America. The amalgamation of Central American forces that successfully engendered the end of Walker’s short reign dawned a sense of national pride within Central America in 1865.[36] Walker’s failed filibustering attempt supported the rise of the term “Latin America” as anti-imperial and anti-U.S. legacy and further urged Latin American states to exclude the U.S. from subsequent continental conferences.[37] This pan-Hispanic consolidation against the United States authenticated Latin America’s greater concern over U.S. interference in domestic affairs than that of Europe. In this sense, the Monroe Doctrine ensured no security to Latin American states in face of their greatest northern threat.

By 1898, United States expansionism deepened during the final months of Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain, which escalated to become the Spanish-American War.[38] With Monroe Doctrine-backed rationale of fighting European autocracy in the Americas, the U.S. successfully deployed forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines against Spain.[39] As such, the Spanish-American War became the first instance after the Monroe Doctrine’s invocation that United States officially declared war on a European country for interfering in the Western Hemisphere and the most significant time since 1823 that the U.S. strayed from its European isolationism to defend American sovereignty. Under U.S. leadership, the 1898 Treaty of Paris solidified the terms of peace with Spain’s recognition of Cuba’s independence and its relinquishment of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and—temporarily—Cuba to the United States.[40] Despite an American victory over the Spaniards, the outcome of the war with the Treaty illustrated more a victory of U.S. imperialism than of Latin American states’ rights to independence. Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines turned from Spanish colonies to U.S. territories and the U.S. acquired the “right” to heavily interfere in Cuban domestic affairs. The United States’ hypocrisy in Cuba personified itself in the exclusion of Cubans from the Treaty of Paris signing, in the barring of Cuban independence forces from holding the crucial cities post-war, and in the raising of the U.S. flag rather than the Cuban flag once negotiations with Spain had been settled and Cuba had officially attained autonomy.[41]

At a time when the United States had its first chance to assert militant power as a protectorate of the Americas, it instead became the heir of Spain’s regional oppression. The U.S., seeking hegemony, therefore relinquished its potential to become a balancer of the Americas and instead fell into Mearsheimer’s idea offensive realism, wherein the state maximizes security and aims to secure itself as the hemisphere’s omnipotent government.[42] While the United States had already largely positioned itself as a hegemonic state in the Americas by its assumption of responsibility over other American states, now it veiled imperialism with declared principles of security for the New World. Thus, the United States undermined its own efforts up until 1898 to wholly uphold the Monroe Doctrine by conflating it with the idea of Manifest Destiny—as in the Mexican-American War—and need for dominion.[43] The U.S. resultantly forfeited its protectorate relationship with Latin America and instead inched towards becoming an imperialist state though still trying maintaining distinction from previous colonizers.[44]

From 1823 to 1898, the Monroe Doctrine’s role in U.S.-Latin American relations continually fluctuated. At the time of its delivery, this policy of U.S. foreign diplomacy echoed prevailing Latin American perceptions on democracy, freedom, and anti-colonial autonomy and thence became a Pan-American symbol of political ideals against Old World threats. The nature of the Doctrine, however, evolved by the turn of the century with U.S. expansionism in instances like the Mexican-American War and Cuban War of Independence. The Doctrine essentially became not a proclamation of Pan-American solidarity but rather a declaration of a singular U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. This transition only heightened in the twentieth century with the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary, which proclaimed the United States as the ‘American police,’ and later with the World Wars and Cold War, all of which matured into today’s still-developing state of American consanguinity.

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[1] Monroe, James. The Monroe Doctrine, December 2, 1823. Boston, 1895.

[2] Morison, S. E. “The Origin of the Monroe Doctrine, 1775-1823.” Economica, no. 10, 1924, pp. 27–51. JSTOR.

[3] Renehan, Edward. The Monroe Doctrine: The Cornerstone of American Foreign Policy. Chelsea House, 2007, pp. 71.

[4] Alvarez, Alejandro. The Monroe Doctrine from the Latin American Point of View. Vol. 2, Washington University Law School, 1917, pp. 136.

[5] Robertson, William Spence. “The Recognition of the Spanish Colonies by the Motherland.” The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1918, pp. 70–91. JSTOR.

[6] Alvarez, pp. 136.

[7] Johnson, John J., and Doris Ladd. Simón Bolívar and Spanish American Independence: 1783-1830. Van Nostrand, 1968, pp. 71.

[8] Adams, John Quincy. “Special Message to the Senate of the United States, 26 December 1825”, in Richardson, ed., Messages and Papers, pp. 318–20.

[9] Basadre, Jorge. Historia De La República Del Perú. Ediciones “Historia”, 1963.

[10] Loveman, Brian. “U.S. Foreign Policy toward Latin America in the 19th Century.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, Oxford UP, 2017.

[11] “B-29: Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty)”, Organization of American States, 1947.

[12] Bolívar, Simón. “Angostura Address.” Congress of Angostura, 1819, Angostura.

[13] T., Mauricio Domínguez. “El Obispado De San Salvador: Foco De Desavenencia Político—Religiosa.” Anuario De Estudios Centroamericanos, no. 1, 1974, pp. 87–133. JSTOR.

[14] Lanning, John Tate. The Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment in the University of San Carlos De Guatemala. Cornell University Press, 1956, pp. 354.

[15] Rush, Cynthia. “The Thatcher Government Assaults Monroe Doctrine.” Executive Intelligence Review, vol. 9, no. 15, 1982, pp. 38–39.

[16] Reisman, Michael W. “The Struggle for The Falklands.” Yale Law Journal, Faculty Scholarship Series, 1983, pp. 302.

[17] Sonnenblick, Mark. “When the U.S. Invoked the Monroe Doctrine.” Executive Intelligence Review, vol. 9, no. 18, 1982, pp. 32–33.

[18]  Crow, John Armstrong. The Epic of Latin America. University of California Press, 1992, pp. 681.

[19] Ibid, pp. 676.

[20] Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Oxford University Press, 2008.

[21] Fotouhi, David. “Expansionism, Slavery, and Sectionalism.” Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal, vol. 2, 2006.

[22] The Library of Congress. State of the Union. Taylor & Maury, 1855.

[23] Alvarez, pp. 139.

[24] Bingham, Hiram, et al. “The Latin American Attitude Toward the Monroe Doctrine.” Proceedings of the American Society of International Law at Its Annual Meeting, vol. 8, 1914, pp. 180–201. JSTOR.

[25] Perkins, Dexter. The Monroe Doctrine, 1867-1907. P. Smith, 1966, pp. 33.

[26] Hoskins, Halford L. “French Views of the Monroe Doctrine and the Mexican Expedition.” The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 4, no. 4, 1921, pp. 687. JSTOR.

[27] Manning, William R., et al. “[Statements, Interpretations, and Applications of the Monroe Doctrine and of More or Less Allied Doctrines].” Proceedings of the American Society of International Law at Its Annual Meeting (1907-1917), vol. 8, 1914, pp. 87. JSTOR.

[28] “France, Mexico, and the Monroe Doctrine.” The New York Times, 1865.

[29] Salla, Michael E. “The Return to International Society (1867-1875)—Reasserting the Monroe Doctrine.” The Hero’s Journey Toward a Second American Century, Praeger, 2002, pp. 105.

[30] Crow, pp. 684.

[31] Leonard, Thomas M. “Venezuela-British Guiana Boundary Dispute, 1890s.” Encyclopedia of U.S.-Latin American Relations, SAGE/CQ Press, 2012, pp. 939–941.

[32] Pratt, Julius W. “The Origin of ‘Manifest Destiny.’” The American Historical Review, vol. 32, no. 4, 1927, pp. 796. JSTOR.

[33] Harris, Nigel. Of Bread and Guns: The World Economy in Crisis. Penguin Books, 1983, pp. 38.

[34] Lopez, Lalo. “Legacy of a Land Grab.” Hispanic Mag., 1997.

[35] Menchaca, Martha. “The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Racialization of the Mexican Population.” Recovering History, Constructing Race, University of Texas Press, 2001, pp. 215–276. JSTOR.

[36] Scroggs, William O. “William Walker’s Designs on Cuba.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 1, no. 2, 1914, pp. 198–211. JSTOR.

[37] Gobat, Michel. “The Invention of Latin America.” The American Historical Review, vol. 118, no. 5, 2013, pp. 1345–1375; Inman, Samuel Guy. Inter-American Conferences, 1826–1954. Washington, D.C., 1965.

[38] Pérez, Louis A. “All This We Prefer.” The Structure of Cuban History, University of North Carolina Press, 2013, pp. 21–30. JSTOR.

[39] Hershey, Amos S. “Intervention and the Recognition of Cuban Independence.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 11, 1898, pp. 73. JSTOR.

[40] A Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899.

[41] Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 10.

[42] Mearsheimer, John. 2001. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power.” Excerpts from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton, pp. 29-54.

[43] Pratt, The American Historical Review, pp. 798.

[44] Jones, Shannon. “Lessons of the Spanish-American War.” World Socialist Web Site, International Committee of the Fourth International, 1999.

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