United States Foreign Policy in Latin America (1890-1945)

This is essentially a summary of all of the Latin America related information that is there on US foreign policy from 1898 to 1945.

Info by Adi, Shota, Montana

Table of Contents

Ch. 27 Empire and Expansionism (1890-1909)

After the Civil War, America became isolationist (They were too busy with Reconstruction to do anything with the rest of the world). However, by the late part of the century, the US set out to make an empire of its own.

America Turns Outward

There were many reasons for the United States' turn to the outside world:

  1. Farmers and Factory owners looking for markets
  2. "the United States had to expand or explode"
  3. "robust growth in population, wealth, and productive capacity"
  4. "Yellow Journalism" (Hearst and Pulitzer "described foreign exploits as manly adventures")
  5. Missionary sentiments to better the rest of the world
  6. Anglo-Saxon Supremacy
  7. "If America was to survive in the competition of modern nation-states, perhaps it, too, would have to become an imperial power"
  8. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 A Strong Country needs a Strong Navy. A Strong Navy needs overseas possessions.

This new interest in Foreign policy showed itself in a few ways that we care about:

  1. James G. Blaine pushes the "Big Sister" system (The US should lead all of the other American Nations.) This met with some small support, and Blaine headed the Pan - American Conference in 1889.
  2. America made demands form [wikipedia:Chili's Chile] over the deaths of 2 US sailors in Valparaiso in 1892. The Us feared the Chilean Navy, until it was settled by the Chilean's decision to simply pay an indemnity.
  3. When Britain interfered with Venezuela (seeking gold in disputed border territory) President [wikipedia: grover Grover] Cleveland sent his Secretary of State (Richard Olney) to tell the British what was what. Olney restated the Monroe Doctrine, and told the Brits to stay out of the Americas.

Cubans Rise in Revolt

In 1895, the Cubans rose up against their Spanish oppressors. (The poor economic conditions were also partially caused by the US's having raised the tariff in 1894). The US supported the Cubans (and went to war on their side) because they wanted to:

  1. Retain their economic investment in the island.
  2. Continue to control the island to prepare for a canal in Panama, control the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
  3. Right the moral wrongs being committed by the Spanish (Particularly General Weyler)
  4. Revenge the sinking of the Maine (1989)

Thus, the United States fully joins the national stage by deciding to attack the Spaniard on the isle of Cuba. Eventually succeeding, the US gains control of Cuba, the Phillipines, and Puerto Rico.

The Confused Invasion of Cuba

The US army and navy put forth in force to attack the island. They blockaded the Spanish fleet in Santiago, and then invaded from the rear of the island. The regular army was not well equipped to deal with the tropical conditions (previous battles having been with the Indians). A large amount of fighting went to the "Rough Riders" under the command of Theodore Roosevelt. The US army suffered 300+ casualties from the Spanish, 5000 casualties to bacteria and other causes. The Spanish gave up and signed an Armistice by August 12 1898.

Perplexities in Puerto Rico and Cuba

Puerto Rico was weird:

  • Neither a state nor a territory
  • The Foraker Act (1900) gave limited self-government, but outlawed cockfighting.
  • Puerto Ricans assumed that because they were being ruled by Americans they would receive American rights. In 1901, the Supreme Court said in the Insular Cases that that was not quite the case.
  • In 1917, the Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship, but withheld self-rule.
  • Despite improvements, some Puerto Ricans hankered for independence.
  • Large numbers of Puerto Ricans moved to the US.

Cuba was a headache

  • An American military government set up after the war reformed education, finance, agriculture, and public health.
  • The yellow fever was largely eradicated.
  • The US withdrew (following the auspices of the Teller Amendment)
  • But then they inserted the Platt Amendment, which the Cubans hated.

TR: Brandisher of the Big Stick

McKinley was shot, so Teddy Roosevelt took a train from his campsite to take the oath of office. He felt that Presidential prerogative as more important than petty "checks and balances" the President should do everything not explicitly forbidden to him in the Constitution.

Building the Panama Canal

Roosevelt turned his force of personality onto foreign policy issues; in 1901 he got the British to concede that the Americans should have the exclusive rights to an isthmian canal with the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty. congress then decided in 1902 to build in Panama (a province of Colombia). However, the Colombians rejected the offer of a $10,000,000 down payment, and an annual payment of $250,000 for the canal zone. ($250,000,000 and $6,000,000 in 2008 dollars). Roosevelt railed against the "dagoes" who were ruining his plans. Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, a Frenchman representing French business interests in Panama, and a lot of Panamanians, who worried that the Colombian refusal would make the US pull out and stick it in the Venezuelans instead, raised a rebellion on November 3 1901. US navy forces prevented the Colombian fleet from putting the rebellion down. Marking the start of US domination in Latin America, the Panama Canal's construction started in 1904, cost $400,000,000 and ended in 1914. Basically we gave Panama their freedom just so we could build a waterway through their country this waterway is now known as the Panama canal.

TR's Perversion of Monroe's Doctrine

Latin American creditors [Europe] came to Latin America to collect the money that was owed to them. This angered Teddy Roosevelt, because he wanted Latin America to himself, and thought that if the others arrived then they would take it away from him. Thus, he issued a preemptive strike against Europe and said that the US would assume the debt of any indebted Latin American nation and take over their tariff collection agencies. Teddy did this repeatedly, first in the Dominican Republic in 1905, and then in various other Latin American countries.

William Howard Taft and dollar diplomacy

Taft was the 27th president of the united states by winning the presidential election of 1908. Taft continued all of Roosevelt's big stick policy in Latin America and added his own new policy termed dollar diplomacy. This policy called for investors in the United States to invest in other (less developed) countries of the world in order to help them develop and in the process make those countries more dependent on the United States. Taft was able to encourage investments by guaranteeing loans made to foreign countries. The effect of Dollar Diplomacy was that it allowed the United States to maintain its grip on Latin America and denied Europe the ability to benefit from Latin American countries while the United States benefited from these countries. Dollar Diplomacy also did help less developed countries become more developed because for the first time countries were able to have the capital to develop themselves. However, in the process they just became more dependent on the U.S.

Big Stick "Diplomacy"
Roosevelt's approach : Batter them down with firepower or the threat thereof. Termed from Roosevelts quote "Speak softly and carry a big stick". This was Roosevelts way of saying peacefully negotiate with a country but at the same time have a big weapon behind you so that the negotiating country understands that if they dont agree to the negotiations you can kill them.
Dollar Diplomacy
Taft's approach : Invest in other countries to make them amenable to US policies.

Taft’s dollar diplomacy also worked to keep other countries’ influence out of places where American business interests had developed. So where the US did invest in Latin American countries, Taft wanted to make sure that the US would have complete control.

Honduras had been broke forever and as a result, had taken on a number of loans from England. Due to domestic turmoil, it was not able to pay off any of them and ended up defaulting. Taft had US banks pay off Honduras’ debts to England with hope that it would lead to political stability. This did not really work and ended up making the politically troubled (and unprofitable) country the US’ responsibility. Things progressed along the same lines, and Wilson ended up sending troops into Honduras five times.

In addition to protecting existing business interests, the 1912 occupation of Nicaragua allowed Taft to make sure only loans from American banks were extended to economically tie the country to the US. Prior to the revolution, Nicaragua was not in as bad shape as Honduras had been, economically or politically, so it seemed more likely that investing there would be profitable. The trouble that forced the US to intervene did not appear to be part of a trend, but it turned out to be otherwise, and a counter-revolution in 1914 ended up keeping American troops there until 1934.

While dollar diplomacy was meant to make money for the US while establishing stability in the invested countries, it did not really work out that way. While most of the money invested was in the form of loans, the US would not want these loans paid off, because that would lead to economic independence for the countries that were supposed to make money. But since the US was consequently the principal moneylender, that also meant that they were responsible for taking care of any trouble in Latin America. And since the region proved more troublesome than originally thought, America’s goals were not achieved. Through the credit they provided, the US ended up paying for the revolutions which it was then forced to deal with.

Ch. 32 The Politics of Boom and Bust (1920-1932)

Foreign-Policy Flounderings

The US continued in intervene in Latin America even though it stayed out of the rest of the world.

  • American troops were withdrawn after 8 years in Dominican Republic (1924)
  • They remained in Haiti from 1914-1934
  • In 1925 Coolidge removed troops from Nicaragua but returned them 1926 and kept them until 1933.
  • He threatened the Mexican government to relinquish its hold on the oil fields on its territory

Hoover Pioneers the Good Neighbor Policy

Because of the global depression, the US was more lenient toward Latin American countries' indebtedness. Also, the lack of loose money made dollar diplomacy less and less attractive. Hoover also pulled out of Haiti and Nicaragua, laying the foundations of the Good Neighbor for FDR to build upon.

Ch. 34 Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Shadow of War (1933-1941)

Becoming a Good Neighbor

FDR "would dedicate this nation to the policy of the Good Neighbor" Tired of the negative feelings that welled up from the Latin American nations due to the United states' interventionary policies, FDR decided to stop the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and dollar diplomacy, and in late 1933 he formally endorsed non-intervention at the Seventh Pan-American Conference. US troops left Cuba in 1934, and the Platt Amendment was repealed after Batista came to power. In 1936, the US relaxed its iron grip on Panama. In 1938, when Mexico nationalized various oil fields and US oil companies were pushing for armed intervention to take back their business investments, FDR allowed a settlement negotiated by 1941.

Secretary Hull's Reciprocal Trade Agreements

In addition to "Good Neighborism", the US lowered its tariffs and opened up trade to the world (to stimulate the flagging economy). The edits to the tariffs allowed Roosevelt to lower them by 50% provided that the other countries were ready to reciprocate. Secretary Hull was able to negotiate deals with 21 countries by 1939.

The reciprocal tariff act was a response to the not-very-well-thought-out Smoot Hawley Tariff, which raised tariffs on everything. It’s main goal was to extort as much money from everyone as possible, but it went too far. It ended up cutting both American imports and exports by half by the 1933 (it was passed in 1930). Economists created a petition against it and its removal was a big point in FDR’s 32 platform. Since America was such a big client of Latin America’s, this ended up further straining their economy and caused more problems which FDR would later confront…

FDR’s secretary of state Cordell Hull went about drafting an improvement to the Smoot tariff, and came up with the reciprocal tariff act, which worked out to be a better deal with everyone. The provisions of the reciprocal tariff act were also reused in the development of the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, which stayed effective until 1994, when it was succeeded by rules dictated by the newly formed World Trade Organization.

Sadia and Sarah's info on the Good Neighbor Policy+

“The main aim of Franklin Roosevelt’s policy towards Latin America (1933-45) was to improve relations between the two regions.” Assess the validity of this statement.

Thesis: There is enough information to argue both sides of the argument. One could say that yes, the Good Neighbor policy aimed to improve relations between US and LA.
You could also argue that :

  • It was mainly meant to resuscitate economic relations and trade between LA and US
  • Or that America was worried about the fascist threat and wanted to create a cohesive western bloc with Latin America in order to properly defend its border (or interests) (you could argue that the policy may have started out as altruistic, but morphed as an alliance with LA became more necessary for US security)

Good Neighbor policy (background info) :

  • Coined by Herbert Hoover during his 1928 election campaign
  • He wanted to mend relations with Latin American and to intervene less in Latin American affairs to gain their support and to undo wrongs of past administrations
  • Enacted Clark memorandum of 1930 to retract T. Roosevelt's Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

Franklin Roosevelt 1933-1945

  • Implemented policy
  • FDR expressed that he wanted the US to renounce armed intervention and rely more on negotiations with LA countries
  • He wanted Latin America to line up with the US in case they ever had to defend the western hemisphere from hungry european aggressors (fear of fascism spreading west)
  • Roosevelt helped improve relations with Latin America by assigning Secretary of State Cordell Hull who worked diligently with Latin American leaders to open the lines of communication between the America and Latin America
  • Low tariffs improved economy of Latin American countries that had been hurt by previous high tarrifs — this was especially true in Cuba since the high tarrifs on sugar made it impossible to the US
  • 1933 Pan American conference in Uruguay committed America to policy of non-intervention
  • —-1934 freed Cuba from Platt Amendment restrictions on debt and relations with foreign powers but America still kept military presence in Guantanamo

—-to back up non-intervention talks, FDR also pulled out marines from haiti in 1934

  • As WW2 inched closer Roosevelt sought to secure Latin America cooperation in war effort by maintaining the flow of petroleum and other raw materials.
  • The Mexican government siezed American oil in 1938 and American Investors wanted war but Roosevelt managed to broker a settlement without resorting to armed intervention (less costly to negotiate than to commit troops to Mexico)
  • Renegotiated Panama Canal in 1938 in order to make it favorable to Columbia
  • 1936: Conference for maintenance of peace: Buenes Aires, both LA and US agreed to mutual consultation if there was a security threat to either nation.
  • Sec of State Hull insisted on united front against aggression (even though most LA countries were led by military dictatorships which could easily have lined up with european fascists instead)
  • Postwar policies toward LA undid the progress of the Good Neighbor policy as the Marshal Plan and Truman Doctrine directed monetary aid towards industrializing Europe and largely ignored LA. -Sadizzlach Hassan

Sadia and Sarah's info on American expansionism:

**US wanted to expand, so as to rival European territory in colonial world at the turn of the century. **

  1. military strength
  2. cultural superiority
  3. new markets

Latin America wanted to be rid of Spain, so US would help —> Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine —> states that US can interfere, in order to get Spain out.

Yellow Journalism
Wanted to heighten already aggressive sentiments towards Spain.

Major Examples:

DeLome Letter
Spanish minister to the US criticized McKinley in a letter. Letter was intercepted and publicized, raising tensions between Spain and US.
U.S.S Maine
ship which spontaneously blew up in the Harvana harbor. Americans suspected that the Spanish had sabotaged the ship, causing it to explode.

Platt Amendment results:- US stays in LA America after Spanish-American war to protect business interests.
Military- they acquired Guantanamo Bay as a military base

US intervened to acquire Panama Canal, forcing Colombia to give Panama its independence (another CIA operation). Panama Canal afforded the US economic and military strength.

Pres. Roosevelt's foreign policy: "Speak softly, and carry a Big Stick" - first exhaust diplomatic negotiations, and then be willing to resort to military strength.

Taft's foreign policy: Dollar Diplomacy - appealing to business interests in LA and Europe, to win negotiations because America had a strong economy: "US government guarantee of loans made to foreign countries by American business people".

Wilson's presidency: Mexican Revolution - 1911

  • intervened in mexico to overthrow Huerta's gov't.
  • This policy called "Watchful Waiting".
  • Wilson installed national leader Venustiano Carranza, who would support American business interests in Mexico. Sarah Corrigan

Previous “US Foreign Policy in Latin America, 1895 to 1945” questions

For what reasons, and with what results, did the United States intervene in Latin America in the period 1898 to 1932?

To what extent was the United States foreign policy toward Latin America, in the period 1890 to1914, ‘principally guided by economic motives’? Support your views with specific examples.

Tyler here. Not sure how this site works, so this will probably turn out badly formatted and hard to follow. Please bear with me.

I don't know why some of these things are in bold.

A little background:

  • After the ordeals of industrialization, civil war and reconstruction, many Americans felt they were ready to challenge the long-standing European empires in the colonial market.
  • With the ideals of Manifest Destiny in mind, American policymakers looked to the Pacific, Caribbean, and Central America for territories.
  • A debate raged between various politicians, many of whom were worried of becoming embroiled in colonial entanglements in the Americas, as had the Europeans before them.

Possible thesis:

Although US intervention in LA during the first part of the twentieth century was justified by Roosevelt's popular Corollary, which echoed the rhetoric of colonial empires of centuries past (as quoted on Burns pg. 175: "Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in the general loosening of the ties of civilized society…may force the United States, however reluctantly…to the exercise of international police power"), many American activities in Latin America were also motivated by economic motives, due to the very large (and very threatened) American presence in the sugar, tobacco, mining, and utility industries of other nations in the hemisphere. Additionally, American businesses hungered for virgin markets for an abundance of new goods, overshadowing the noble aims of democratization and personal liberty.


Between 1898 and 1934: US engages militarily in Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.


  • US gunships force Colombia to grant independence to Panama, so that TR can build his canal (independence in 1903; canal deal finalized in 1904; construction finished by 1914)
  • US obviously motivated by economic advantages of canal—Frisco to Cuba takes 67 days around Cape Horn, but only three weeks through the canal.
  • A prime example of "Gunboat Diplomacy," or using the threat of military action to achieve bloodless revolution in a foreign country.
  • Military action in Cuba motivates Roosevelt to go through with the canal; the Navy must be able to move freely from ocean to ocean.
  • An example of US foreign policy motivated by reasons other than the spread of democracy and lifting of oppressive regimes; foreshadows the policies of future American leaders.


  • US supports Cuba in war with Spain, partially to protect American business interests on the island (Sp.Am. War)
  • Yellow journalism + USS Maine explosion+ brutal Spanish regime + millions of Gringo dollars in sugarcane and tobacco = war
  • After Spanish ejected, US sets up conservative puppet government that would govern until Fidel; very friendly to Americans and very unfriendly to los Cubanos.
  • Platt Amendment replaces the Teller Amendment in 1903 and ensured American involvement in Cuban affairs by allowing the United States to intervene in Cuba "whenever the US deemed necessary;" author of amendment calls the rider "an attempt to make Cuba a self-governing colony." Platt Amendment repealed in 1934.
  • Cuba would become, in the coming decades, a playground for decadent Americans and an agrarian isle of poverty for the Cubans; Fidel Castro would cite this act of "American imperialism" in his 1959 speech outlining the causes of his successful revolution.


  • US sends troops twice to Mexico during their revolution, both for political and economic reasons
  • Despite US opposition, Gen. Victoriano Huerta comes to power in Mexico in February 1913
  • Huerta considers nationalizing oil fields, very bad for US businesses
  • Thus, US sends troops to the port of Veracruz to prevent arms from entering Mexico and do a little bombing as well; US occupied for seven months.
  • Also: US skirmishes with Pancho Villa, more because he was a revolutionary pest than economic threat.
  • Eventually Huerta's gobierno falls, because of both internal and external forces, and in March 1914 a new dictator is installed (Venustiano Carranza, who had a crazy beard, becomes president in 1914, and is much friendlier to US oil.)
  • IN CONTRAST, when a similar nationalization of oil occurs under FDR's administration, he chooses to maintain peaceful relations with Mexico, rather than press the issue with force…there's the Good Neighbor policy for you.

"Banana Wars"

The other military actions are known collectively as the Banana Wars. These were primarily economic in nature, but smaller in scale and visibility than the above issues. For instance, the United States occupied Nicaragua almost continuously between 1912 and 1934, to protect American fruit companies from having their land seized and given to poverty-stricken highlanders, and to prevent the construction of a canal by any other nation. The occupation finally ended when US troops were attacked by the forces of Augusto Sandino, a revolutionary who would inspire another coup in 1979, when the Sandinistas overthrew the American-backed Somoza regime to set up a socialist government.


US intervention in Latin America was often motivated not by an obligation to liberate the people of the oppressive regimes of the gachupines, but by a desire to protect American business interests, expand colonial holdings for new markets, and ensure national security by preventing European empires from re-entering the region, which would have been very possible due to the economic instability of the Caribbean and Central America. Examples include "gunboat diplomacy" in Panama, war in Cuba, and government subversion in Mexico, not to mention countless other military and political acts in numerous other smaller nations.
It's late and you probably don't need to know anything about them to write an essay. But interesting nonetheless. This is the end of Tyler's contribution.

Evaluate the changes in the United States policy towards Latin America from 1898 to 1941.

With reference to two countries in the region analyze the reasons for, and the effects of, the Good Neighbor Policy of the United States.

Analyze the key developments of United States policy in Latin America in the period 1898 to 1936.

"The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a turning point in relations between the United States and Latin America." To what extent do you agree with this statement?

“The main aim of Franklin Roosevelt’s policy towards Latin America (1933-45) was to improve relations between the two regions.” Assess the validity of this statement.

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