The Monroe Doctrine: An Overview of 19th Century American Foreign Policy


The Monroe Doctrine began as tough talk that could not be enforced. By the next century it became a driving force in American foreign policy thanks to Teddy Roosevelt.


In 1823, American President James Monroe issued a warning to European powers. His statement was intended to keep the foreign monarchs from interfering in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, but in reality Monroe had little power to enforce it. With virtually no Navy to speak of, and no international clout, he was roundly laughed at by the officials to whom the Doctrine was directed. According to author Walter McDougall, Otto von Bismarck would later remark that the Doctrine was “a species of arrogance peculiarly American and inexcusable.”

To backtrack slightly, the end of the French Revolution had sparked several republican revolutions across the world, and challenges to aristocratic rule were posing serious threats. A series of European alliances between monarchs would follow, including the Holy Alliance, the Quadrule Alliance, and the Quintuple Alliance. The leaders of these empires agreed to protect each other by squashing the seeds of revolution at every turn. Their efforts were put to the test in Italy and Spain in the early 1820s, where they brutally suppressed democratic revolutions and intended to turn their collective attention on the new republics sprouting up in the Americas. Great Britain broke ranks over the violence used in putting down the revolts as well as over fears that Spain would close off prosperous Latin American markets.

The Monroe Doctrine

The Americans openly sided with revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar and San Martin, supporting their right to free and open societies. Though the fear of a European invasion of South America did exist in 1823, clear-minded officials like John Quincey Adams knew that Great Britain’s Navy stood between the Powers and the American Continents, and promoted the idea that Monroe should issue a statement warning off the Europeans, knowing that it would be backed in principle by the British.

In the past, historians and conventional wisdom have preached that the Monroe Doctrine stated the U.S. would intervene on the behalf of victim American nations, but in reality this was not so. Monroe even went so far as to warn that the U.S. would not be able to help in the event of a full-scale invasion without the help of Britain. The Monroe Doctrine, therefore, was not aimed at protecting all American nations, but in protecting vital United States’ interests.

The Roosevelt Corollary

When the Spanish-American war broke out, certain Americans saw an opportunity to establish the United States as the pre-eminent power in the West. Moving quickly American forces were able to neutralize the Spanish in the Caribbean and Asia, with the Philippines swiftly falling to the U.S. Navy. Thanks to the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt after the war, America’s interests were vitally interwoven with the destinies of Latin America.

Roosevelt interpreted the Monroe Doctrine to mean that America would intervene anywhere and at any time in an effort to stabilize Latin American nations, because widespread prosperity and stability would secure the safety of the Panama Canal, and therefore, the ability of the United States to protect both the East and West Coasts more easily. This so-called Roosevelt Corollary would usher in thirty years of “gunboat diplomacy” that would entangle the U.S. in many small conflicts and civil wars all over the hemisphere.

In the end, the Roosevelt Corollary was a perversion of the Monroe Doctrine, which essentially only warned that the United States would look unkindly on any military intervention in Latin American on the part of greedy, despotic European monarchs. Until Roosevelt, only the implied threat of intervention by Great Britain gave the Monroe Doctrine any teeth.


  1. McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1997.