The Monroe Doctrine

by Walter Mow

As early as 1783 elements of the Monroe Doctrine began to surface in George Washington’s cabinet as the administration crafted a policy of Neutrality that included isolation and non-intervention in the affairs of the European states. In a broadening of the policy, Jefferson’s Secretary of State, James Madison informed the Spanish Ambassador the United States opposed further colonization of the Americas by the European powers.
Portugal and Spain held a large portion of the Americas, mired as they were in colonial dependent economies; Portugal without the necessary manpower to hold such a large territory and Spain squandered its New World treasures in the squabbles of the European powers. The United States continued to be Britain’s biggest trading partner in the Americas after both the Revolution and the War of 1812 as a booming British economy fueled by the Industrial Revolution began the transition from mercantilism to a laissez-faire free trade system.

A change in Spanish policy designed to reinforce its mercantilist economy would spur Independence movements in the New World colonies. Other European colonial powers in the Caribbean openly traded with the colonies of Spain and Portugal. The British dominated this coveted trade, plus being visibly protected by an ever present British Navy.
This change in policy and the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula further fueled the dreams of independence as many of the colonies realized the mother country could not prevent an invasion of its territory, nor quash the drive to independence that began in earnest in 1808.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) would be the impetus for the increasingly strong colonies of Central and South America to declare their independence. Napoleons invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1807 was followed in 1810 with declarations of independence by Argentina, Chile and Venezuela; the trickle of declarations overwhelmed the European home countries eventually ending all colonial holdings in Central and South America by 1829 with the exception of the Spanish held islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

By the end of the 17th century most nations accepted Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius legal treatise “Mare Liberum” a Latin phrase that translates as “freedom of the seas”. It allowed the free navigation of the globe’s oceans by all nations thereby reducing the barriers to trade. Beginning in 1814 the British Royal Navy assumed the role of international peace keeper under a policy called “Pax Britannica” (Latin for British Peace). This spurred trade forcing some nations to resort to making payment in goods rather than specie (gold and silver) to reduce the drain on the national treasury.

From the middle of the 17th century, many of the European nations with large colonial holdings resorted to mercantilism whereby the colony was restricted to trading with the mother country. This of course resulted in smuggling, clandestinely encouraged by the British it would flourish throughout the colonies. Efforts by the Spanish crown to curtail this illicit trade further fueled the drive for independent statehood.

The formation of the “Holy Alliance” in 1815 to reinstall the “Divine Right of Kings” and “Christian Values” back to governments posed a peripheral threat to the United States. President James Madison pushed aside this issue to pursue the return of Astoria to the United States demanding return of the territory under “status quo ante bellum” after the conclusion of hostilities. The demand went unanswered until the administration of James Monroe took a more direct approach in early 1817; first informing the British they will retake Astoria by force if necessary. Again the demand went unanswered until October 1817 when President Monroe ordered the sloop-of-war Ontario to sail round Cape Horn to forcefully retake Astoria. The British hurriedly sent instructions overland to surrender the fort to the Americans.

The Monroe administration had shown its mettle, the Treaty of 1818 and the Conference of 1819 would be the administrations next political coup. The treaty and the following conference settled a number of long standing claims; the crowning achievement was making the 49th parallel the boundary from The Lake of the Woods to the summit of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1821 the Russian government issued a “Ukase”, a claim that encompassed much of the west coast of North America and closed waters along the coast to all foreign vessels. Push back by the Americans and the British convinced the Russians to modify their claim, establishing latitude 54’40” north as the southern boundary of the Russian claim by the end of 1824.

In a move to protect the trade they had developed with the newly independent nations, British Foreign Secretary, George Canning approached United States Minister Richard Bush with a joint proposal to prevent action by the European monarchs. President Monroe was open to the idea but Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was opposed and quipped, “I don’t want my country to come in as a cock boat in the wake of a British Man of War”.

Adam’s argument prevailed and the President announced the unilateral policy that became to be known as “The Monroe Doctrine” in his 7th annual address to congress, December 2, 1823. The speech written by Adams was long and couched in diplomatic terms contained the elements of the doctrine.

… as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers…

In the wars of the European powers in relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense.

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 governments who have declared their independence and maintained 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 manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as a manifestation of an un-friendly disposition towards the United States.

It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference.

The United States was totally unprepared to back up the policy, but as it meshed with British aims in the Americas the British Royal Navy would be the enforcer again under “Pax Britannica”. The British would violate the doctrine in 1833 when they asserted sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, there was little to no response, under succeeding administrations that would change.

1842; President John Tyler invoked the doctrine as part of recognizing Hawaii’s independence.

1845; President James Polk expanded the doctrine to protect “Manifest Destiny”

1862; President Abraham Lincoln warned the French they violated the doctrine by invading Mexico. A military presence on the border after the war convinced the French

1870; President Ulysses Grant’s proclamation concerning Central and South America, …“hereafter no territory on this continent shall be regarded as subject to transfer to a European power”. He invoked the doctrine in a failed attempt to annex the Dominican Republic in 1870.

1895; President Grover Cleveland’s administration would formulate the “Olney Correlation” in response to Britain’s failure to mediate an ongoing dispute with Venezuela. “The United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition”. This marked America’s recognition as a world power.

1898; President William McKinley intervened militarily in Cuba’s bid for liberation from Spain.

1904; Theodore Roosevelt would add the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the doctrine asserting a right to intervene in cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation”.

1912; William Taft’s administration would pass the “Lodge Resolution” an effort to stop agents of foreign nations from purchasing and or controlling assets in Baja California, Mexico.

1928; Calvin Coolidge’s administration redefined the Roosevelt Corollary with the Clark Memorandum asserting the United States had a right to intervene in disputes of its Latin neighbors as a fellow American state but not within the confines of the Monroe Doctrine purpose of opposing European colonization but did not release the memorandum.

1930; Herbert Hoover’s administration would release the Clark Memorandum.

1933; Franklin Roosevelt initiated a “Good Neighbor” policy to the doctrine by asserting a non-intervention clause. The policy would end in 1945 with the beginning of the Cold War.

1948; the Monroe Doctrine would undergo some modifications as its operations began to be directed by The Organization of American States.

1954; Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles invoked the doctrine at a meeting of the Pan-American Conference to denounce Soviet intervention in Guatemala.

1962; John F. Kennedy’s news conference of August 29th contained this message: “The Monroe Doctrine means what it has meant since president Monroe and john Quincy Adams enunciated it, and that is that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere, and that is why we oppose what is happening in Cuba today. That is why we have cut off our trade. That is why we worked in the OAS and in other ways to isolate the Communist menace in Cuba. That is why we will continue to give a good deal of our attention to it”. Kennedy would invoke the Monroe Doctrine in response to the detection of missiles being installed in Cuba, a naval blockade aided in breaking the 13 day stalemate (Oct. 16–28, 1962).

1984; Ronald Reagan’s administration would apparently use the doctrine outside its authorized limits in the Iran-Contra affair. CIA director Robert Gates argued that foregoing intervention in Nicaragua would be “Totally to abandon the Monroe Doctrine”.

2013; President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry said the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over” in a November meeting of the Organization of American States.

2017; President Donald Trump implied the doctrine might be used as military action might be necessary in Venezuela to counter Iranian and Russian backed groups.

2018; Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed the Monroe Doctrine “clearly a success”.

Epilogue: The Monroe Doctrine’s 195 year history exhibits both durability and purpose. The standards to which Secretary of State John Quincy Adams ascribed are to be commended. His ability to broach strong language, couched as they were in diplomatic terminology was gauged to soothe rather than inflame passions. Admirably done sir!!

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