At the most recent Democratic debate, Senator Bernie Sanders made mention of the “Monroe Doctrine” briefly, and I wanted to expand upon that, for those who don’t know what the Monroe Doctrine was, and how it’s affected the history of our country, and helped form our foreign policy, and shape our relationship with the rest of the world.
The “Monroe Doctrine” is a phrase that wasn’t coined until 1850, some 37 years after the doctrine itself was made by President James Monroe, as part of his 7th annual State of the Union address. At this time, there was a great deal of transition going on in Central and South American governments, who were working to gain independence from Spanish or Portugese rule, while the Spanish, Portugese, British, and French continued trying to grow their influence in the new world, and prevent their counterparts’ influence from growing simultaneously. In response to this political turmoil in the region, on December 2nd of 1823, Monroe issued the following statement: “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” This statement would become a cornerstone of our foreign policy and make the defense of these lands American duty.
Over the following years, we’d see a great deal of foreign military action on our part. In 1853 Marines would land in Argentina for the first time, and also in Nicaragua, and in 1855 Uruguay. By 1881, the Monroe Doctrine would become the basis of the Roosevelt Corollary, which made it America’s sworn duty to “protect Latin America from European involvement” and also gave us the responsibility of patrolling the region, enforcing adherence to our way of life in the region to the best of our ability under the guise of building the Nicaraguan Canal. By this time, the idea of “Manifest Destiny” had also taken deep root throughout our nation, justifying our westward expansion as essentially the will of the Christian god. These three proclamations or philosophies are essentially the entire basis of our foreign policy, and our international actions over the past 200+ years.
Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in the 1890’s wrote that the island of Cuba would become a necessity, saying “The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race. As one of the great nations of the world, the United States must not fall out of the line of march.”
As it relates to Cuba (the context in which Senator Sanders mentioned the Monroe Doctrine), what the combination of all these ideas lead to something called “The Platt Amendment”. By the end of the 19th century, The United States’ interests were firmly rooted throughout Central and South America. The Panama Canal was in progress, and the US would take over it’s construction in 1904, but had laid the groundwork for it with the aforementioned Roosevelt Corollary in 1881. In 1895, Cuba began the Cuban War of Independence, their third struggle to get out from under Spanish rule. By 1898, the US became involved, beginning the Spanish-American war, a ten week battle in which a combined US-Cuban-Philippine force came out on top. Their victory lead to the Treaty of Paris in 1898.
The Treaty of Paris was an agreement by which the United States would gain control of Cuba temporarily, under the auspices of helping them transition out from under the thumb of the Spanish. The US would also gain Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillippines as part of this agreement. The defeat would shock and humiliate the Spanish so badly, it effectively ended their attempts to colonize anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. So in 1898 through the Treaty of Paris the US began it’s military occupation of Cuba.
Senator Knute Nelson at the time opined: “Providence has given the United States the duty of extending Christian civilization. We come as ministering angels, not despots.”
By 1901 Cubans were ready to be rid of all outside military occupation, and the US drafted the Platt Amendment to outline the terms of it’s military withdrawal from the island nation. The US required that the Platt Amendment be included in Cuba’s new constitution, and that Cuba sign a treaty agreeing to the seven stipulations outlined in the Amendment, essentially withdrawing from Cuba but maintaining control over the island politically. The Cuban government would be restricted in how it could conduct trade, in it’s foreign affairs, and would allow the US to determine what was best for it’s continued independence, and enforce that. Cuba would also be forced to lease or sell certain lands to the United States for as long as the US deemed them “necessary for the protection of Cuba” such as the infamous Guantanamo Bay naval base (“leased” for $2,000 per year until 1934 and about $4,000 per year since).
Agreements like the Platt Amendment, or the Spooner Amendment (An amendment to a 1901 appropriations bill that gave control of the Phillippines to the executive branch. A similar Spooner Bill had been shot down by Congress soundly earlier, the amendment was passed because at a time of war, it was unthinkable to not pass an appropriations bill, and the amendment was merely an attachment.) are perfect examples of the low points in American foreign policy. Where we enter a country under false pretenses, justifying our presence with the most honorable of intentions, and then exploit that country for our own commercial and political gain. These interactions laid the groundwork for the tenuous and strained relations we currently have with the rest of the world.