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Monroe Doctrine

Application and Extension

The doctrine was not ratified by any congressional legislation; it did not obtain a place in international law, and the term Monroe Doctrine did not come into general circulation until the 1850s. Yet the doctrine became important in American policy, particularly when President Polk reasserted its ideas in 1845 and 1848 with respect to British claims in Oregon, British and French intrigues to prevent the U.S. annexation of Texas, and the aspirations of European nations in Yucatán.

The strained relations with Great Britain concerning its sovereignty over several areas in Central America in the 1850s renewed U.S. interest in the doctrine; Great Britain specifically denied its validity. During the Civil War, the doctrine was invoked unsuccessfully after Spain's reacquisition of the Dominican Republic (formerly Santo Domingo). It was also used, somewhat more effectively, to bring pressure on the French government to withdraw support from Maximilian, who had established an empire in Mexico under French auspices.

Under President Grant and his successors the doctrine was expanded. The principle that no territory in the Western Hemisphere could be transferred from one European power to another became part of the Monroe Doctrine. As U.S. imperialistic tendencies grew, the Monroe Doctrine came to be associated not only with the exclusion of European (now extended to mean all non-American) powers from the Americas, but also with the possible extension of U.S. hegemony in the area. This condition explains why the Monroe Doctrine, although it was not formally used to justify American intervention, was viewed with suspicion and dislike by Latin American nations.

In 1895, President Cleveland, in a new extension of the Monroe Doctrine, demanded that Great Britain submit to arbitration a boundary dispute between British Guiana (now Guyana) and Venezuela (see Venezuela Boundary Dispute). Following the Venezuela Claims question, Theodore Roosevelt expounded (1904) what came to be known as the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine; he stated that continued misconduct or disturbance in a Latin American country might force the United States to intervene in order to prevent European intervention. This frankly imperialistic interpretation met much resistance in Latin America but was used extensively during the administrations of Presidents Taft and Wilson to justify intervention in the Caribbean area.

The Monroe Doctrine was so deeply embedded in U.S. foreign policy by the end of World War I that Woodrow Wilson asked for a special exception for it in the Covenant of the League of Nations in 1919. By the end of the next decade the doctrine had become much less important, and its imperialistic aspects were being played down in an effort to foster better relations with Latin America. In the Clark memorandum of Dec., 1928, the U.S. State Department repudiated the Roosevelt corollary.

Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the doctrine was redefined as a multilateral undertaking to be applied by all the nations of the hemisphere acting together, and emphasis was placed on Pan-Americanism. Nevertheless, in the 1950s and 60s the specter of unilateral intervention in Latin America was again raised, especially by the involvement of the United States with developments in Guatemala, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. For the most part, however, the United States has continued to support hemispheric cooperation within the framework of the Organization of American States.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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