Thomas C. Field Jr.
The Cold War in Latin America had marked consequences for the region’s political and economic evolution. From the origins of US fears of Latin American Communism in the early 20th century to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, regional actors played central roles in the drama. Seeking to maximize economic benefit while maintaining independence with regard to foreign policy, Latin Americans employed an eclectic combination of liberal and anti-imperialist discourses, balancing frequent calls for anti-Communist hemispheric unity with periodic diplomatic entreaties to the Soviet bloc and the nonaligned Third World. Meanwhile, US Cold War policies toward the region ranged from progressive developmentalism to outright military invasions, and from psychological warfare to covert paramilitary action. Above all, the United States sought to shore up its allies and maintain the Western Hemisphere as a united front against extra-hemispheric ideologies and influence. The Cold War was a bloody, violent period for Latin America, but it was also one marked by heady idealism, courageous political action, and fresh narratives about Latin America’s role in the world, all of which continue to inform regional politics to this day.
U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America in the 19th century initially focused on excluding or limiting the military and economic influence of European powers, territorial expansion, and encouraging American commerce. These objectives were expressed in the No Transfer Principle (1811) and the Monroe Doctrine (1823). American policy was unilateralist (not isolationist); it gradually became more aggressive and interventionist as the idea of Manifest Destiny contributed to wars and military conflicts against indigenous peoples, France, Britain, Spain, and Mexico in the Western Hemisphere. Expansionist sentiments and U.S. domestic politics inspired annexationist impulses and filibuster expeditions to Mexico, Cuba, and parts of Central America. Civil war in the United States put a temporary halt to interventionism and imperial dreams in Latin America. From the 1870s until the end of the century, U.S. policy intensified efforts to establish political and military hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, including periodic naval interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, reaching even to Brazil in the 1890s. By the end of the century Secretary of State Richard Olney added the Olney Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (“Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition . . .”), and President Theodore Roosevelt contributed his own corollary in 1904 (“in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence, to exercise an international police power”). American policy toward Latin America, at the turn of the century, explicitly justified unilateral intervention, military occupation, and transformation of sovereign states into political and economic protectorates in order to defend U.S. economic interests and an expanding concept of national security.