Woodrow Wilson and Foreign Policy


Wilson’s limited foreign policy experience would undergo a series of complicated challenges not just in Eurasia, but in the Western Hemisphere as well.

Woodrow Wilson entered his first term as president with the ideology of a nationalist. Though he would have preferred to concentrate on domestic issues, the majority or his two terms would be concentrated on dealing with foreign policy issues – from in-fighting and civil unrest in Latin American and Caribbean countries, to World War I.

Deliberately shifting away from the foreign policies of his predecessors – Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” policy and Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy” – Wilson attempted to apply a sort of “moral policy” to how he conducted foreign affairs. That along with his deeply held belief in the Monroe Doctrine would lead to the United States’ intervention and military presence in Mexico in 1914 and 1916, Haiti in 1915, The Dominican Republic in 1916, Cuba in 1917, and Nicaragua.

The Tampico Affair: U.S. Invades Mexico

One instance of United States intervention in Mexico took place in April of 1914. During this time, Mexico was in the midst of its revolution which started four years earlier and would end in 1920. Using the excuse of the arrest of several U.S. Marines in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Wilson ordered the invasion of Mexico via the port city of Veracruz. The arrests were a mistake and the soldiers were released after roughly an hour and a half of detention, but that didn’t satiate the need for intervention.

Both Wilson and the Navy wanted a show of respect from the Mexican government. Even though an apology for the misunderstanding was in fact issued, it wasn’t enough. In his book Gods, Gachupines and Gringos: A People’s History of Mexico, Richard Grabman writes of how in addition to a formal apology, the ship’s captain demanded that the Mexican Navy give them a 21 gun salute. “The Mexicans,” Grabman writes, “politely as possible, apologized for the sailors’ inconvenience, but refused the salute”. The insufficient apology ultimately was seen as a snub and insult not just to the U.S. Navy, but to the United States as a whole. The occupation of Veracruz in 1914 lasted until November of the same year when Argentina, Brazil, and Chile intervened to help mediate a resolution between the two countries.

The Occupation of Haiti

Woodrow Wilson sent marines to invade Haiti in July 1915 following the assassination of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, President of Haiti. According to the Department of State, the Marines were sent to the island nation “to restore order and maintain political and economic stability in the Caribbean…this occupation continued until 1934.” In the five years leading up to the invasion, seven presidents of Haiti were either assassinated or forced into exile. Policy maker’s in the U.S. grew fearful as the unrest and turmoil began attracting German interests. In 1914, the United States assumed control of Haiti’s bank when half a million dollars were removed from the Haitian National Bank and moved to New York “for safe keeping” upon order from President Wilson. This occupation ended under FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy.

The Occupation of The Dominican Republic

In 1916, the U.S. occupied Haiti’s neighbor, The Dominican Republic, after that nation underwent years of dictatorship and revolution. In 1914, Wilson gave the Dominicans an ultimatum to either democratically elect a leader or the U.S. would appoint one. After choosing Ramón Báez Machado as their provisional president in August 1914, in October of the same year, Dominicans elected former president Juan Isidro Jimenez Pereyra. May of 1916 saw The Dominican Republic’s Minister of War, Desiderio Arias, stage a coupe which presented a pretext for the United States to occupy the Dominican Republic and take a more hands-on role, instead of remaining in the role of mediator. The United States would remain as an occupying force eight years.

U.S. Forces in Nicaragua and Cuba

In Nicaragua, Wilson’s attempt to help the rebels and bring about the end to its civil war eventually led to him taking the country by force in 1914. American forces would remain throughout his presidency and many pro-American Nicaraguan policies would be enacted during that time.

Attempting to quell the mounting revolutionary upheaval being stirred up in Cuba by the Russian Revolution and in order to protect U.S. interests, Wilson ordered the occupation of Cuba in 1917. It lasted until 1923.

…Paved With Good Intentions

Not long after taking office, Wilson issued a statement that asserted his hope that the United States would “cultivate the friendship” with Latin America. Though Wilson was a firm believer that the U.S. was the most politically enlightened nation, he also believed that all peoples had the right to chose their own government.

Wilson did have some successes regarding his foreign policy in Latin America – repealing the Panama Canal Act and signing a treaty with Colombia – but his interventions, especially in countries like Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua, likely led to the dictatorships that would very soon follow or at the very least, stirred up nationalistic feelings within those countries that would skew their views and feelings towards the United States for years to come.


  1. Clements, Kendrick. “Woodrow Wilson Foreign Affairs” Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
  2. Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia 2002
  3. Grabman, Richard. Gods, Gachupines, and Gringos: A People’s History of Mexico Editorial Mazatlán, 2008
  4. Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me.Touchtone. New York. 1995
  5. U.S. Department of State “Time Line of Diplomatic History: 1914-1920”