Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine, expressed in 1823, proclaimed the Americas should be free from future European colonization and free from European interference in sovereign countries' affairs. It further stated United States's intention to stay neutral in European wars and wars between European powers and their colonies but to consider any new colonies or interference with independent countries in the Americas as hostile acts toward the United States. It was issued by President James Monroe during his seventh annual address to Congress.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 Cold War relevance
3 Further reading
4 Reference
5 External link


The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 marked the breakup of the Spanish empire in the New World. Between 1815 and 1822 Jose de San Martin led Argentina to independence, while Bernardo O'Higgins in Chile and Simon Bolivar in Venezuela guided their countries out of colonialism. The new republics sought -- and expected -- recognition by the United States, and many Americans endorsed that idea.

But President James Monroe and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, were not willing to risk war for nations they did not know would survive. From their point of view, as long as the other European powers did not intervene, the government of the United States could just let Spain and her rebellious colonies fight it out.

Great Britain was torn between monarchical principle and a desire for new markets; South America as a whole constituted, at the time, a much larger market for English goods than the United States. When Russia and France proposed that England join in helping Spain regain her New World colonies, Great Britain vetoed the idea.

The United States was also negotiating with Spain to purchase Florida, and once that treaty was ratified, the Monroe administration began to extend recognition to the new Latin American republics -- Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico were all recognized in 1822.

In 1823, France invited Spain to restore the Bourbon power, and there was talk of France and Spain warring upon the new republics with the backing of the Holy Alliance (Russia, Prussia and Austria). This news appalled the British government -- all the work of Wolfe, Chatham and other eighteenth-century British statesmen to get France out of the New World would be undone, and France would again be a power in the Americas.

George Canning, the British foreign minister, proposed that the United States and Great Britain join to warn off France and Spain from intervention. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison urged Monroe to accept the offer, but John Quincy Adams was more suspicious. Adams also was quite concerned about Russia's efforts to extend its influence down the Pacific coast from Alaska south to California, then owned by Mexico.

At the Cabinet meeting of November 7, 1823, Adams argued against Canning's offer, and declared, "It would be more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war."

He argued and finally won over the Cabinet to an independent policy. In Monroe's message to Congress on December 2, 1823, he delivered what we have always called the Monroe Doctrine, although in truth it should have been called the Adams Doctrine. Essentially, the United States was informing the powers of the Old World that the American continents were no longer open to European colonization, and that any effort to extend European political influence into the New World would be considered by the United States "as dangerous to our peace and safety." The United States would not interfere in European wars or internal affairs, and expected Europe to stay out of American affairs.

This explicitly stated intent was contradicted by co-operation with European powers in the repeated re-occupation of various territories of the island ofHispaniola, regions of which were in this period variously known as Santo Domingo and Haiti. Both France and Spain were interested in re-claiming their territories in Hispaniola, or re-exerting their influence, although Spain was more successful in the 19th century. In practice, the Monroe Doctrine sided with whatever side of Caribbean conflicts favoured America's short-term economic interests, rather than definitively drawing a barrier against European interventionism. Another illustrative example was America's encouragement of a muscular British policy in their southern Caribbean colonies such as Guyana.

Although it would take decades to coalesce into an identifiable policy, John Quincy Adams did raise a standard of an independent American foreign policy so strongly that future administrations could not ignore it. One should note, however, that the policy succeeded because it met British interests as well as American, and for the next 100 years was secured by the backing of the British fleet.

On December 2, 1845 US President James Polk announced to Congress that the Monroe Doctrine should be strictly enforced and that the United States should aggressively expand into the West (see Manifest Destiny).

Cold War relevance

During the Cold War, the Monroe doctrine was once again applied, or at least invoked, by U.S. foreign policy makers. After a coup in Cuba established a Communist regime with ties to the Soviet Union, it was argued that the spirit of the Monroe doctrine should be again evoked, this time to prevent the further spreading of Soviet-backed Communism in Latin America. During the Cold War the United States thus often provided intelligence and military aid to Latin and South American governments that claimed or appeared to be threatened by Communist subversion. This in turn led to some domestic controversy within the United States, especially among some members of the political left who argued that the Communist threat and Soviet influence in Latin America was greatly exaggerated.

The debate over this new spirit of the Monroe Doctrine came to a head in 1984, as part of the Iran Contra Scandal. Among other things, it was revealed that the American Central Intelligence Agency had been covertly training "Contra" guerilla soldiers in Nicaragua in an attempt to overthrow the Marxist regime of President Daniel Ortega. Critics alleged that the Contras were commiting widescale human rights abuses, and prolonging a bitter civil war. Some also claimed that Ortega was a popular leader, and American had no right to remove him.

CIA director Robert Gates vigourusly defended the Contra scheme, arguing that that avoiding US intervention in Nicaragua would be "totally to abandon the Monroe doctrine". The Ortega government was eventually voted out of power, around the same time the Soviet Union collapsed. The Monroe Doctrine has thus largely ceased to be used for now.

Further reading


External link