Roosevelt's Imperialism: The Venezuelan Crisis, the Panama Canal, and the Origins of the Roosevelt Corollary
Roosevelt did not refute his earlier claim that it was within the right of a great power to intervene in the sovereignty of another nation in order to redress economic or commercial grievances, as evidenced when he declared in 1905 that “this country would certainly decline to go to war to prevent a foreign government from collecting a just debt.”33 Rather, he shifted his argument by declaring his opposition to even temporary European intervention in the western hemisphere not because intervention itself was morally wrong, but because “such temporary occupation might turn into permanent occupation.”34 Therefore, in order to avoid creating a legitimate pretext for European intervention, the United States must act pre-emptily to ensure its fellow American republics “keep order and pay its obligations.”35 America would enforce “sound economic principles” on Latin American nations, and as a measure of last resort would be justified in intervening military to ensure compliance of financial or treaty obligations with the United States or another European power.36 The United States, through an activist military policy in the western hemisphere, would act as Europe’s policeman within its declared sphere of influence.
The emergence of a formal and informal American Empire in the western hemisphere was one of the seminal events of the early 20th century. The Roosevelt Corollary, as outlined in Theodore Roosevelt’s State of the Union addresses in 1904 and 1905, is significant in this sense as it provided a rationale, and more importantly a justification, for American imperialism in Latin and South America. Though framed as an amendment to the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary outlined a new vision for America’s foreign policy; rather than acting as a republican bulwark against European imperialism, the United States would appropriate the role of an imperial power itself in lieu of the European great powers.
Yet, Roosevelt’s doctrine for American imperialism emerged slowly and in response to real or perceived threats to the United States strategic interests. The first, the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-03, was significant in that it highlighted the threat posed to American hegemony in Latin America by even limited European intervention, in that such actions could ultimately result in the securing of a permanent colonial foothold. These fears were most evidently directed against Germany, who was perceived by Roosevelt to have the means and the ambition to establish a colonial empire in the America’s. The crisis was also significant in that it marked the moment when Europe effectively acknowledged the supremacy of the Monroe Doctrine as well as the moment that the United States could effectively enforce it.
The second event was the acquisition of the Canal Zone in Panama for the purposes of building a canal across its isthmus. This provided the actual catalyst for the formulation of the Roosevelt Corollary, as the canal became both a major strategic asset and liability which the United States had to defend. Isolated from the United States, the canal could only be defended by the navy, and this in turn rested on the assumption that foreign navies would not have access to naval bases in the Caribbean. To prevent imperialist intervention whereby foreign powers might acquire such bases, as seemed likely during the Venezuelan Crisis, the United States would assume the responsibility of policing the western hemisphere and restoring order to wayward states. Thus, Roosevelt hoped to eliminate any pretext for European intervention by transferring these responsibilities to the United States. In this way, he hoped to legitimize American imperial interventions and, by extension, the existence of America’s formal and informal empire in the region.
Forbes, Ian L.D. 1978, “The German Participation in the Allied Coercion of Venezuela 1902–1903,” Australian Journal of Politics & History, Volume 24, (3): 317–331.
Kaplan, Edward S. 1998. U.S. Imperialism in Latin America: Bryan's Challenges and Contributions, 1900-1920. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
Kennedy, Paul. 1987. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House.
Livermore, Seward W. 1946, “Theodore Roosevelt, the American Navy, and the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902–1903,” The American Historical Review, Volume 51 (3): 452–471.
Maurer, Noel, and Carlos Yu. 2011. The Big Ditch: How America Took, Built, Ran, and Ultimately Gave Away the Panama Canal. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Maass, Matthias. 2009, “Catalyst for the Roosevelt Corollary: Arbitrating the 1902–1903 Venezuela Crisis and Its Impact on the Development of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine,” Diplomacy & Statecraft, Volume 20 (3): 383 – 402.
Mitchell, Nancy. 1996, “The Height of the German Challenge: The Venezuela Blockade, 1902-03,” Diplomatic History. 20 (2): 185-210.
Morris, Edmund. 2002, “‘A matter of extreme urgency’: Theodore Roosevelt, Wilhelm II, and the Venezuela Crisis of 1902,” Naval War College Review. Volume 55 (2): 73-85.
Ricard, Serge. 2012. A Companion to Theodore Roosevelt. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Ricard, Serge. 2006. “The Roosevelt Corollary,” Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume 36 (1): 17-26.
Theodore Roosevelt State of the Union Addresses: Accessed from the Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt Website.