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National Review
National Review
2 Dec 2023
Dan McLaughlin

NextImg:The Monroe Doctrine at 200

{O} n December 2, 1823, president James Monroe sent to Congress his annual State of the Union message, which at that time was typically delivered in written form. It contained what would prove the most lasting legacy of Monroe’s popular eight-year presidency: a statement of American policy opposing European influence or control in the Western Hemisphere. By the 1850s, this was commonly described as the “Monroe Doctrine.” On this, its 200th anniversary, the doctrine may be far from its original roots, but maybe less far than we think — and it remains a vital part of American strategic thinking.

The Southern Republics

The impetus for the Monroe Doctrine grew out of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. The single largest long-term victim of the Napoleonic Wars was Spain. The country’s agrarian economy depended heavily on cotton exports and the mineral wealth of its vast colonial empire, second only to the British empire in 1792. Before independence, Mexico produced 80 percent of the world’s silver and gold; its silver mines alone represented more than 20 percent of Spanish revenue. The British blockades of the Napoleonic era wrecked Spain’s cotton exports, which were supplanted by the American South and its cotton gin after 1793. The Spanish navy was destroyed at Trafalgar, the country laid waste by guerilla war from 1808 to 1813, in which Wellington’s British army invaded to fight the French. The Peninsular War was the bloodiest in modern Spanish history.

Protracted economic separation from the mother country drove the colonies to rebel against Spain and enter the trading orbit of Britain. In 1808, when Napoléon invaded Spain to depose its monarchy, the United States and Haiti were the only two independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. The rest of the hemisphere was ruled by European powers, and by far the largest empire was Spain’s, which included not only Mexico but also nearly all of Central and South America outside of Brazil and the Guianas.

That changed rapidly: Between 1809 and 1821, 15 new nations declared independence from Spain, almost all of which had accomplished separation by the end of that period: Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia (including Panama), Mexico, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Florida was stripped by the United States in 1819, leaving the Spanish empire in the Americas down to Uruguay, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Uruguay would follow the path of independence in 1825.

The United States, a late entrant into the global wars of that era, emerged from the War of 1812 (which it effectively fought to a draw with Britain) newly confident in its capacity to stand on its own and assert itself within the Western Hemisphere. Monroe, elected in 1816 after serving in dual roles as secretary of state and secretary of war under James Madison during the war, presided over a country less politically divided than ever before or since (although the eruption of the slavery issue in 1820 presaged the divisions to come). With the collapse of the Federalist Party, Monroe had as his own secretary of state John Quincy Adams, and as his secretary of war John C. Calhoun. The new assertiveness of America under Monroe was illustrated by the administration’s ratifying General Andrew Jackson’s invasion and conquest of Florida, which was wrung from Spain in the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819.

With the status of Florida settled, the concern of Monroe, Adams, and Calhoun in 1821–23 was that the great powers of Europe would decide to either back Spain in reconquering its colonies, or perhaps that some of them might decide to recolonize them on their own. This was not an idle concern, as the French and Russians had been discussing intervention in Latin America.

Americans, having declared their principles in 1776, were sympathetic to the sudden emergence of many other republican states in their hemisphere and felt a certain paternal sentiment toward their self-governance. But this was balanced by a disinclination to get involved. Adams, in his own July Fourth address in 1821, summarized that emotion:

America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, equal justice, and equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings. . . . Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Monroe extended formal recognition to the new Latin American republics in 1822 and began thinking more broadly about what came next. Opportunity knocked in the fall of 1823 when George Canning, then the British foreign secretary, reached out to Richard Rush, the American minister to England, requesting that the Americans join in a statement publicly condemning any European effort to retake colonies in the Western Hemisphere. The British preferred at the time to keep the new republics formally independent, calculating that they could thus be economically dominated by British trade and shipping.

Monroe, who had tried to get the British to join him in recognizing some of those states earlier, was interested in the concept, but while Calhoun (the most hawkish of Monroe’s advisers) urged them to go along in order to forestall a French or Russian move, both the president and Adams were unwilling to be seen as an appendage of British policy, or for that matter to state a policy in terms that might restrain America’s own designs on Cuba.

Monroe sought the advice of his retired mentors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison thought the British were going to act anyway, so we may as well join them. The 80-year-old Jefferson was emphatic on a more independent course, writing to Monroe that “our first and fundamental maxim should be never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe, and our second never to suffer Europe to intermeddle with Cis-Atlantic affairs. America, North and South has a state set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her own. She should therefore have a system of her own, separate and apart from that of Europe.”

Having settled upon making a separate American statement, Monroe hit a hitch: Canning’s proposal was confidential, and in the diplomatic setting of the 1820s, it would be considered improper to discuss it in public. It was the Russians who gave him the opening: The tsar, Alexander I, had refused to recognize the new republics of Latin America, and Baron de Tuyll, the Russian minister, acknowledged to Adams that a statement by Alexander I pledging Russian policy to put down revolution included a desire to see Spanish authority restored in its erstwhile colonies.

The stage was set.

The Doctrine

The actual language incorporated in Monroe’s message was drafted by Adams, for which reason he is sometimes credited with the concept. But it was really Monroe’s policy as much as it was Adams’s, and Jefferson’s advice carried much weight with Monroe.

Perhaps anticipating that Canning would be irked by Monroe’s taking the matter public (even without reference to Canning’s proposal), Monroe opened the address with an ode to the importance of informing the American public: “The people being with us exclusively the sovereign, it is indispensable that full information be laid before them on all important subjects, to enable them to exercise that high power with complete effect. . . . A precise knowledge of our relations with foreign powers as respects our negotiations and transactions with each is thought to be particularly necessary.” Early on, he addressed ongoing negotiations with Russia over the Pacific coast (Russia had established Fort Ross, its southernmost outpost, near modern San Francisco in 1812), and he dropped into the midst of that discussion these lines:

In the discussions . . . the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

Toward the conclusion of the message, Monroe addressed “the heroic struggle of the Greeks” for independence from the Ottoman Empire, which was the same sort of popular liberal cause in 1823 that Ukraine was in 2022. He extended his best wishes “that Greece will become again an independent nation” but pointedly declined to extend recognition to the breakaway Greek government (which an earlier draft of the message had proposed). Then, turning to the former Spanish colonies, he warmed to the real point:

In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy so to do.

It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. . . .

The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments; and to the defense of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted.

The “two systems” language reflected Jefferson’s influence. Monroe then drew the conclusion:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere, but with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

He disclaimed any prior American interest in the Latin American struggle for independence from Spain or any variance from American recognition of de facto governments and contrasted this with ongoing European interventions in Spain itself:

In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgment of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.

The late events in Spain and Portugal shew that Europe is still unsettled. Of this important fact no stronger proof can be adduced than that the allied powers should have thought it proper, on any principle satisfactory to themselves, to have interposed by force in the internal concerns of Spain. . . .

Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.

A new line, however, would be drawn if European meddling turned to re-subjugating Latin America’s republics:

But in regard to those continents [North and South America] circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different. It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference. If we look to the comparative strength and resources of Spain and those new Governments, and their distance from each other, it must be obvious that she can never subdue them. It is still the true policy of the United States to leave the parties to themselves, in the hope that other powers will pursue the same course.

This was intended, and received, as a major statement of American policy at the time.

Doctrine in Action

Monroe may have made his point in declaring a foreign policy independent from Britain’s, but for much of the first half of the 19th century, the Monroe Doctrine was enforced mainly by the British navy rather than by the United States. It was Britain that guaranteed the independence of Uruguay. But Americans sometimes made themselves felt. When Britain and France blockaded Buenos Aires for nearly a decade during Argentina’s war to subdue Uruguay, the U.S. warned against landing European troops to support the Uruguayans. David Farragut led an American naval visit to Buenos Aires in 1842 to drive home the point.

The Civil War illustrated what could happen without the Monroe Doctrine. With America occupied, France attempted to install a European puppet (the brother of the Habsburg emperor of Austria) as emperor of Mexico. For a time, the Mexican government was driven far into the hinterlands. When the Civil War ended, the U.S. Army sent 50,000 men to the border, and the French got the message and went home, abandoning the emperor to his ultimate fate before a Mexican firing squad. The last Spanish effort to reassert control over the old colonies, the Chincha Islands War of 1865–66, ended with a Spanish whimper before the United States felt it necessary to abandon its posture of neutrality, but a squadron of American warships was off the coast of Valparaiso alongside the British when Spain bombarded the city in 1866, and both governments lodged a protest with Spain.

It was the era between 1898 and 1941 that gave the Monroe Doctrine a bad reputation in Latin America, as it became associated more with direct American meddling in the internal affairs of its southern neighbors. It found new life and justification during the Cold War, as U.S. policy engaged across the region in combating the influence of the Soviet empire, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to our aid to the Nicaraguan contras.

The doctrine, properly understood, can still inform our thinking. The new “great game” is Chinese influence. Moreover, threats by the new axis to trade with the Old World make it all the more important to remember that geography still matters and that America should remain the guardian of the Western Hemisphere to keep it independent of the Eastern.