Latin America and the Roosevelt Corollary

Portsmouth Peace Treaty

Postcard celebrating the signing of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty. Pictured: Czar Nicholas II, President Roosevelt, The Mikado. (1905) 

Theodore Roosevelt is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and effective presidents in United States history. This is clearly demonstrated when surveying his actions in Foreign Policy. He gained infamy and a Nobel Peace Prize for his negotiation of peace in the Russo-Japanese war. Yet, the office of the President garnered more executive power with the precedent of two lesser known actions: the acquisition of the Panama Canal land and the brokering of the San Domingo Treaty. To understand these actions one must first understand the Monroe Doctrine which opposed European intervention in the Western hemisphere and viewed any intervention as a possibly hostile act towards the United States. Roosevelt had a particular fondness for this doctrine and it often drove his foreign policy decisions. He even added his own interpretation, known as the ‘Roosevelt Corollary’. The corollary was a far more broad interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine and justified many forthcoming military actions in the Carribean and Central America.

Roosevelt at Panama Canal

President Theodore Roosevelt (top right, all white) at the Panama Canal construction site

The idea for a canal cutting through Latin America had been on the minds of many for centuries. The issue was that the two most feasible locations for a canal, Panama (a province of Colombia at the time) and Nicaragua, did not have the financial resources to build one on their own. The United States under Roosevelt ratified the Hay-Herrán Treaty which gave the United States a 100 year renewable lease on the land but a problem arose when Jose Marroquin, Colombia’s dictator at the time, rejected the terms of the deal and proposed alternatives that heavily favored Colombia. Roosevelt was outraged and admonished the actions of Colombia in a letter to a friend saying: “the Colombia people proved absolutely impossible to deal with… they are governmentally utterly incompetent.”2 In response, Roosevelt decided to throw all political and military support behind Panama revolutionists. When revolution broke out in Panama, Roosevelt ordered the USS Nashville to Colon, Panama with the purpose of securing the railroad with Marines and to prohibit Colombian troops from landing. The use of military force unsanctioned by Congress is, and has always been, controversial. Roosevelt remarked that, “again there was much accusation about my having acted in an ‘unconstitutional manner,’” and that, “at different stages of the affair… believers in a do-nothing policy denounced me as having ‘usurped authority’–which meant, that when nobody else could or would exercise efficient authority, I exercised it.”3 This change in policy signified a larger and broader role for the United States in foreign affairs and consequently the expansion of presidential powers. Critics have claimed that Roosevelt’s unconventional acquisition of the Panama Canal land set off an unfortunate pattern of interventionist policies in Latin America.4 Roosevelt’s actions in the isthmus were but a precursor to his addition of the ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ to the Monroe Doctrine.

The Worlds Constable

Political cartoon by Louis Dalrymple depicting Theodore Roosevelt as 'The World's Constable,' standing between Europe and Latin America with a truncheon labeled 'The New Diplomacy.'

In 1903 Santo Domingo was in the midst of a revolution after being rid of a dictatorship who threw their finances into chaos. Because of this, Santo Domingo was bankrupt and could not pay back any of their debt. France, Germany, and Italy were amongst the countries who threatened to step in to protect their financial interests. Under the Roosevelt Corollary, Roosevelt believed that the United States was responsible to intervene, as described in his corollary, as “an international police power.”5 Recognizing the importance of Dominican stability in the Caribbean, Roosevelt fervently pushed an agreement with Santo Domingo establishing an American financial protectorate over the Dominican Republic. This treaty was sent to the United States Senate in order to be ratified but the Senate failed to vote on it. Roosevelt then went above the heads of the Senate by establishing the protectorate as an executive agreement. This drew the ire of the Senate and it wasn’t until two years later that the Senate gave in and ratified Roosevelt’s treaty. Roosevelt had applied his Stewardship theory to all facets of the presidency and foreign policy was not an exception. Writing retrospectively in his autobiography, Roosevelt expressed no regrets: “the Constitution did not explicitly give me power to bring about the necessary agreement with Santo Domingo. But the Constitution did not forbid my doing what I did. I put the agreement into effect, and I continued its execution for two years before the Senate acted; and I would have continued it until the end of my term, if necessary, without any action by congress.”6

Roosevelt continuously took unprecedented action throughout his administration that drew the ire of strict constructionist opponents. His stewardship theory of the presidency established precedent that the long line of modern presidents following in his footsteps have enjoyed. Roosevelt believed that he must do everything in his power to fulfill the will of his constituents, the American public. He was but a steward and the Monroe Doctrine and the ensuing Roosevelt Corollary were the means by which he fulfilled the will of the American people and their interests in Latin America. Roosevelt exemplified this belief when he explained that many people insisted that Santo Domingo must be protected and that they also insisted that the Panama canal should be dug. But it was the very same people who “insisted even more strongly that neither feat should be accomplished in the only way in which it was possible to accomplish at all.”7


Theodore Roosevelt, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Cecil Spring Rice. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

3 Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography (Scribners, 1926) 512

4 William Goldsmith, The Growth of Presidential Power (Chelsea House Publishers, 1974) 2:1233

5 Theodore Roosevelt's Annual Message to Congress for 1904, House Records HR 58A-K2. National Archives.

6 Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography (Scribners, 1926) 510

7 Roosevelt 510