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date: 16 June 2024

US Foreign Policy toward Latin America in the 19th Centuryfree

US Foreign Policy toward Latin America in the 19th Centuryfree

  • Brian LovemanBrian LovemanProfessor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, San Diego State University


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.


  • History of the Caribbean
  • History of Central America
  • History of Mexico
  • History of Latin America and the Oceanic World
  • Diplomatic History
  • Colonialism and Imperialism

U.S. Policy in the Western Hemisphere Before Spanish American and Brazilian Independence

The American colonies’ war for independence from Britain (1776–1783) was part of a major conflict among European powers that stretched from India and the Mediterranean into the West Indies and North America. French and Spanish arms, money, naval assets, and troops made possible the colonials’ victory after a war lasting seven years. When the Treaty of Paris (1783) confirmed the independence of the colonies from England, the newly created United States was a fragile confederal republic encircled by territorial possessions of the major European powers and numerous Native American nations and tribal groupings.

What came to be “U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America” originated in global geopolitics, especially in commercial, territorial, and military rivalry with Britain, France, Spain, and Russia. American policymakers sought to defend the new republic from European meddling in its internal politics, to expand national territory, open markets for American exports, guarantee the rights of neutral shipping, and fight piracy. Foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere focused on strategic denial, that is, to exclude or limit the political, military, and economic influence of European competitors in the region. These policy objectives made European colonial possessions in North America and the Caribbean a primary concern and framed American foreign policy in the Hemisphere from the 1780s until the late 1820s.

There would be no independent Latin American nations until Haiti liberated itself from France (1804), the wars of independence in Spanish America (ca. 1810–1826), and Brazil broke from Portugal (1821–1822). Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson worried (in 1786) that Spain might be too weak to hold onto to its colonies “till our population [was] sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece [sic].”1 America’s first president, George Washington, well understood that the new nation’s survival and prosperity depended on its strategic insertion into the international system and its defense against European powers in the hemisphere.

The country’s first presidents—Washington, John Adams, and Jefferson—cautioned against “entangling alliances” but operated in foreign policy according to the assumptions of power politics. Foreign policy was rooted in concerns for national security, commercial advantage, territorial expansion, and an assertive nationalism. Washington warned congress that “If we deserve to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity; it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”2 Six years later Alexander Hamilton advised: “Beside eventual security against invasions, we ought certainly to look to the possession of the Floridas and Louisiana, and we ought to squint at South America.”3

Avoiding “entanglement” in formal alliances, the founders of the American republic resorted to aggressive, if sometimes covert, unilateralism and deployment of military force to achieve foreign policy objectives. Adopting policies that, in George Washington’s words, would allow America to “command its own fortunes,” the country fought an undeclared (quasi-war) against France (1798–1800) in the Caribbean and West Indies, acquired the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon (1803), illegally annexed Spanish West Florida (1810–1811) and invaded Canada in the War of 1812 against Britain. As Spain was losing its American empire to colonial rebels, the United States invaded East Florida (1817–1818), ostensibly to protect itself against Seminole Indian raids, and negotiated the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819), forcing Spain to formally relinquish East and West Florida (1819–1821). American foreign policy in the hemisphere resorted to armed force recurrently in the nation’s first half century, and unilateralism would survive as America’s basic foreign policy principle in Latin America and elsewhere.

Spanish American Independence: The Beginnings of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America

After 1810, how to respond to dissolution of the Iberian empires in the hemisphere presented American policymakers with difficult decisions. Two key issues involved neutrality during the independence wars against Spain and the eventual recognition of the new Spanish American nations and Brazil. In January 1811, Congress issued a seminal policy doctrine toward the Western Hemisphere, the so-called No Transfer Resolution: the United States defined any transfer of territory in the hemisphere from one European power to another as a threat or potential threat to its security and national interests.4 This principle, focused initially on Cuba and the Floridas, would become a precedent for the better-known Monroe Doctrine, to which American policymakers would repeatedly appeal from 1823 until World War II. Meanwhile, the United States sent “agents for seamen and commerce” to the region, beginning with Venezuela and South America in 1810. A first instance of “foreign assistance” occurred when Congress appropriated $50,000 to aid earthquake victims in Caracas in May 1810. During the next decade, debates in Congress over recognition of Spanish American independence continued, informed by American diplomatic agents from Mexico to Chile.

Just prior to the War of 1812 against Britain, Congress reached out to Spain’s colonies in a resolution inviting them to gain their independence—though without directly confronting Spain and Britain. The resolution declared that [Congress] “behold[s] with friendly interest the establishment of independent sovereignties by the Spanish provinces in America . . .5 From 1815 until the mid-1820s the United States maintained official neutrality in the wars of Spanish and Portuguese colonials against the Iberian empires, though American merchants, mercenaries, missionaries, financiers, and freebooters all played a role in the Latin American independence movements.

Ongoing negotiations over the Floridas and desire to avoid war with Spain and its allies led presidents Madison and Monroe to enforce, half-heartedly, the Neutrality Acts (1817, 1818) against privateers, filibusters, and others who would aid the Spanish American rebels. Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson enlarged his military campaign (1818) against the Seminoles in Florida, temporarily seizing Spanish forts at Pensacola and St. Marks and making evident Spain’s inability to defend its territory. Political debates in the United States over recognition of the emergent Spanish American republics complicated Spanish ratification of the Adams-Onís Treaty. Only in 1821 did Spain’s government definitively ratify the treaty that established the boundary of U.S. territory and claims from Florida, north through the Rocky Mountains and west to the Pacific Ocean. Opponents of the treaty in the United States lamented Spain’s retention of Texas.

In his second inaugural address (1821) President Monroe summarized the connection between the Florida Treaty and the central objectives of U.S. foreign policy in the Hemisphere:

. . . to the acquisition of Florida too much importance cannot be attached. It secures to the United States a territory important in itself, and whose importance is much increased by its bearing on many of the highest interests of the Union. It opens to several of the neighboring States a free passage to the ocean, through the Province ceded, by several rivers, having their sources high up within their limits . . . It gives us several excellent harbors in the Gulf of Mexico for ships of war of the largest size. It covers by its position in the Gulf the Mississippi and other great waters within our extended limits, and thereby enables the United States to afford complete protection to the vast and very valuable productions of our whole Western country, which find a market through those streams.

In short, the Adams-Onís Treaty accomplished many of the immediate strategic, territorial, commercial, and domestic political objectives of the American government in the Western Hemisphere. Table 1 summarizes American armed interventions in the Western Hemisphere from 1798 to 1825.

Table 1 Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces in Western Hemisphere, 1798–1825


Undeclared naval war with France. This contest included land actions, such as that in the Dominican Republic, city of Puerto Plata, where marines captured a French privateer under the guns of the forts.


Mexico (Spanish territory). Capt. Z. M. Pike, with a platoon of troops, invaded Spanish territory at the headwaters of the Rio Grande on orders from Gen. James Wilkinson. He was made prisoner without resistance at a fort he constructed in present-day Colorado, taken to Mexico, and later released after seizure of his papers.


Gulf of Mexico. American gunboats operated from New Orleans against Spanish and French privateers off the Mississippi Delta, chiefly under Capt. John Shaw and Master Commandant David Porter.


West Florida (Spanish territory). Governor Claiborne of Louisiana, on orders of the president, occupied with troops territory in dispute east of Mississippi as far as the Pearl River, later the eastern boundary of Louisiana. He was authorized to seize as far east as the Perdido River.


Amelia Island and other parts of East Florida, then under Spain. Temporary possession was authorized by President Madison and by Congress to prevent occupation by any other power, but possession was obtained by Gen. George Matthews in so irregular a manner that his measures were disavowed by the president.


War of 1812. On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war between the United States and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Among the issues leading to the war were British interception of neutral ships and blockades of the United States during British hostilities with France.


West Florida (Spanish territory). On authority given by Congress, General Wilkinson seized Mobile Bay in April with 600 soldiers. A small Spanish garrison gave way. Thus the United States advanced into disputed territory to the Perdido River, as projected in 1810.


Spanish Florida. General Andrew Jackson took Pensacola and drove out the British with whom the United States was at war.


Caribbean. Engagements between pirates and American ships or squadrons took place repeatedly, especially ashore and offshore about Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Yucatan. Three thousand pirate attacks on merchantmen were reported between 1815 and 1823. In 1822 Commodore James Biddle employed a squadron of two frigates, four sloops of war, two brigs, four schooners, and two gunboats in the West Indies.


Spanish Florida. U.S. forces destroyed Nicholls Fort, called also Negro Fort, which harbored raiders making forays into United States territory.


Spanish Florida—First Seminole War. The Seminole Indians, whose area was a resort for escaped slaves and border ruffians, were attacked by troops under Generals Jackson and Gaines and pursued into northern Florida. Spanish posts were attacked and occupied, British citizens executed. In 1819 the Floridas were ceded to the United States.


Amelia Island (Spanish territory off Florida). Under orders of President Monroe, U.S. forces landed and expelled a group of smugglers, adventurers, and freebooters.


Oregon. The USS Ontario dispatched from Washington, landed at the Columbia River, and in August took possession of Oregon territory. Britain had conceded sovereignty, but Russia and Spain asserted claims to the area.


Cuba. U.S. naval forces suppressing piracy landed on the northwest coast of Cuba and burned a pirate station.


Cuba. Brief landings in pursuit of pirates occurred April 8 near Escondido; April 16 near Cayo Blanco; July 11 at Siquapa Bay; July 21 at Cape Cruz; and October 23 at Camrioca.


Cuba. In October the USS Porpoise landed bluejackets near Matanzas in pursuit of pirates. This was during the cruise authorized in 1822.


Puerto Rico (Spanish territory). Commodore David Porter with a landing party attacked the town of Fajardo which had sheltered pirates and insulted American naval officers. He landed with 200 men in November and forced an apology. Commodore Porter was later court-martialed for overstepping his powers.


Cuba. In March cooperating American and British forces landed at Sagua La Grande to capture pirates.

Source: Adapted from Ellen C. Collier, “Instances of the Use of Force by United States’ Forces Abroad, 1783–1993,” Congressional Research Service, October 7, 1993.

In 1822 the United States became the first nation to recognize the independent governments of Mexico and Colombia. Recognition followed for Argentina (Buenos Ayres) in 1823; Chile, 1823; Brazil, 1824; the Central American Federation, 1824; and Peru in 1826. Even as it recognized independent Latin American republics, the United States maintained the fiction of neutrality in the ongoing civil wars in some parts of the Spanish American empire. President Monroe told Congress: “When we regard . . . the present condition of the parties, and the utter inability of Spain to produce any change in it, we are compelled to conclude that its fate is settled, and that the provinces which have declared their independence, and are in the enjoyment of it, ought to be recognized.”6 In 1824, the United States entered into a General Convention of Peace, Amity, Navigation, and Commerce with Gran Colombia (modern-day Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador), its first bilateral treaty with a Latin American nation.

The Monroe Doctrine

America’s most well-known foreign policy declaration regarding the Western Hemisphere—the Monroe Doctrine (1823)—responded to domestic political contingencies, events in Europe, in North America, and the threat of reconquest of former Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere by various European monarchies joined in the Holy Alliance. Speculation existed that France and Russia might assist Spain’s efforts at reconquest, and also that Spain might transfer Cuba to Britain. On the Pacific coast, Russian settlements inched south toward San Francisco (Mexican territory), provoking concern by President Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.

Adams reiterated the No Transfer Resolution to the American minister in Spain: “you will not conceal from the Spanish government the repugnance of the United States to the transfer of the island of Cuba by Spain to any other power . . . that the condition of Cuba cannot be changed without affecting in an eminent degree the welfare of the Union, and consequently the good understanding between us and Spain.” Adams added that if such an effort to transfer Cuba to another power occurred, the inhabitants of Cuba would be justified in asserting their independence, as most of Spanish America had already done, and that “the United States will be full justified in supporting them to carry it into effect.”7 In short, in furtherance of strategic denial the United States threatened support for “regime change” (decolonization) in Cuba if Spain ceded the island to England or another European power.

Both Mexico and Colombia conjured up plans for invading Cuba to rid the hemisphere of Spanish colonialism and eliminate the main military bases still used by Spain to launch expeditions of reconquest into the Andean region and Mexico. Such Spanish American schemes worried southern legislators in the United States and the Monroe cabinet lest insurgency in Cuba provoke “race war” (as had Haitian independence in 1804) and then slave rebellion in the American South. And, should Spain depart, leaving a weak Colombian or Mexican tutelage over Cuba, Britain or France might be tempted to intervene. U.S. unilateralism inhibited a military treaty-alliance with the new Spanish American republics; similarly, the United States evaded a treaty with Brazil in 1825 to guarantee its independence should Portugal with the assistance of other powers seek to reconquer its former colony by suggesting that no such Portuguese initiative was likely.

In this context Monroe delivered his 1823 message to Congress in which he sought to establish the United States as a presumptive regional arbiter. His unilateral declaration purported to impose new rules on European powers for their activities in the Western Hemisphere. Monroe’s 1823 speech had messages for various European powers. To the Russians (with whom a treaty would be concluded in 1824 defining Alaska’s southern boundary at latitude 54'40"), Monroe declared: “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 . . .” To the Spanish and French, Monroe proclaimed “we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them [the Spanish Americans], 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.” For European monarchists more generally, the president warned: “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.”

The American president had “forbidden” not only further European colonization but also the export of monarchical dynasties and institutions to the Western Hemisphere—a prohibition that would be violated during the American Civil War (1861–1865) in Mexico and Santo Domingo. Monroe also promised the Europeans that “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 . . .” Monroe lied when he proclaimed “with the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere.” Agents of the U.S. government had been stirring the pot of rebellion from Mexico to Chile since at least 1811.

The United States had no fleet capable of enforcing exclusion of European influence in the hemisphere and no army capable of defending Spanish American republics against European intervention. Monroe believed it would not be necessary inasmuch as the predominance of British commerce and naval power, along with French reluctance to engage in a recolonizing mission, made illusory the threat to which Monroe addressed his message.8 By the 1840s, however, an expanded Monroe Doctrine became the bedrock of American foreign policy and also a bipartisan pillar of jingoism in American politics. From 1823 on it was applied arbitrarily and erratically in Latin America by American policymakers as dictated by domestic politics and international circumstances during the rest of the 19th century. It did not prevent British commercial domination in the hemisphere, occupation of the Falkland Islands and the Bay Islands of Honduras (1833), seizure of the mouth of the San Juan River (Nicaragua, 1841), French intervention in Mexico (Veracruz, 1838), Anglo-French intervention in the Rio de la Plata (1845–1850), and an Anglo-British blockade of La Guaira (Venezuela, 1858).

The First War on Terror: Pirates of the Caribbean

American regional policy had to confront the diplomatic and security threats engendered by dissolution of the Spanish American empire. Disruption of the Spanish empire also brought threats from nonstate actors. Among these threats were pirates, smugglers, slave traders, gunrunners, and privateers—a world of organized and disorganized crime and rebellion that challenged U.S. security and economic interests.

The Spanish American independence wars spawned a wave of piracy and privateering in the West Indies. Rebel governments in Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela issued commissions to intercept Spanish vessels and other “enemy shipping.” In turn, Spanish efforts to blockade trade with the insurgents upped the risk for American and British merchants, gunrunners, and mercenaries in service to the rebel navies and armies.

In 1819 James Monroe signed into law “An Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy.” Renewed in 1820, and then again without time limit in January 1823, this legislation raised numerous legal and practical issues for the country’s small navy. President Monroe and Congress created the West Indian Squadron in 1822. In the debates on the proposed legislation, Senator James Barbour justified a doctrine of hot pursuit and unilateral interventionism, which eventually became U.S. policy: “Where a neutral power permits the enemy of an established Government to enter its territory, it instantly creates a right on the part of the opposing power, to pursue, because in giving them refuge, they abandon their neutrality . . . [pirates] are the common enemies of the human race, towards whom there can be no neutrals; therefore, it is perfectly lawful to pursue them into any territory in which they may have taken refuge . . .”9

With the end of the Spanish American independence movements, and with the sometimes-collaboration of the British navy and Spanish authorities in the West Indies, piracy in the Caribbean was largely suppressed. John Quincy Adams reported in his last message to Congress (December 2, 1828) that “the repression of piracy in the West Indian and in the Grecian seas has been effectually maintained, with scarcely any exception.” In this first “war on enemies of humanity” the U.S. Congress confirmed the right of hot pursuit, accepted invasion of foreign soil to capture and render (back to the United States) international criminals for punishment, and began to define, for itself, the broad authority and discretion of the president to deploy military force to protect American commerce, citizens, and security.

Manifest Destiny and the War with Mexico

In 1811, John Quincy Adams prophesied that “the whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation . . .”10 From the late 1830s, journalist John O’Sullivan wrote of America’s “manifest destiny” as the country debated annexation of Texas and taking the Oregon territory from Britain. O’Sullivan’s most oft-cited version of this claim, in 1845, proclaimed “the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”11

There existed, however, no one-time definition of the territorial limits of Manifest Destiny. Americans differed on the political, geographical, and racial limits for inclusion in the Union. At each juncture, potential expansion into new territory occasioned congressional debates: the Louisiana Purchase/Orleans Territory; the Floridas; Texas; the Southwest; the Oregon Territory; California; Cuba; Alaska, Santo Domingo, and then extra-hemispheric territories, such as Hawaii and Wake Island, all were subject of extensive controversy and political contention. In Latin America, U.S. policy influenced by the idea of Manifest Destiny focused most, but not exclusively, on Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Central American isthmus. Policies toward South America were less generalizable, involving much diluted versions of the Monroe Doctrine, and focused more on commercial relations, private business interests, and idiosyncratic diplomatic “incidents” requiring closer analysis of bilateral relations than possible in the present article.

By the 1840s, Manifest Destiny was associated with a racialist and racist nationalism that preferred to incorporate into the union “unsettled” and “empty” lands—such as those taken from Native American peoples and, soon thereafter, approximately half of Mexico, after invading that country and occupying its capital (1846–1848). Debates on annexing all of Mexico, Cuba, Panama, or the Yucatán peninsula turned on two crucial issues: the possible extension of slavery and the undesirability of accepting “inferior peoples” as citizens. Even recognizing the sovereign government of Haiti (in 1804, Haiti became the first independent republic in the Western Hemisphere after the United States) threatened to give that country, in the words of Mississippi Senator Thomas Reed, an unacceptable “equal rank with communities of men composed of the descendants of the Saxons, the Franks, and ancient Germans.”12

More importantly, the Haitian independence movement had defeated an army sent by Napoleon to reassert colonial control. It violently destroyed the Caribbean’s wealthiest slavocracy. Although the bloodshed in Haiti contributed to Napoleon’s decision in 1803 to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States, a nation of free blacks and people of color threatened American economic interests, politico-cultural premises, and national unity. Only in 1862, after representatives of the secessionist Confederate states left the U.S. Congress, did the Union government finally recognize Haiti as an independent and sovereign nation. Thus, racism inspired and justified American territorial expansion and Manifest Destiny but also limited its reach due precisely to the indisposition of many Americans to incorporate into the Union, as equals and citizens, “inferior peoples.”

The 1840s–1850s marked a high point of Manifest Destiny’s influence, justifying annexation of Texas (1845) war with Mexico (1845–1848), followed by occupation and annexation (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848) of the conquered territories from the Rio Grande into California and north to Colorado, and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory from England after threatening war with the provocative slogan “[parallel] 54°40’ or fight”—referring to the southern boundary of Russian Alaska (1846). President James Polk (1845–1849) was elected on a pro-expansionist, nationalist platform. He reaffirmed and expanded the Monroe Doctrine:

The rapid extension of our settlements over our territories heretofore unoccupied, the addition of new States to our Confederacy, the expansion of free principles, and our rising greatness as a nation are attracting the attention of the powers of Europe, and lately the doctrine has been broached in some of them of a ‘balance of power’ on this continent to check our advancement. The United States . . . cannot in silence permit any European interference on the North American continent, and should any such interference be attempted will be ready to resist it at any and all hazards.13

Expansionist sentiments also inspired annexationist impulses and filibuster expeditions to Cuba, parts of Central America, and Hawaii. President John Tyler, Polk’s predecessor (1841–1845) had extended, in 1842, the No Transfer Resolution and Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii.14 U.S. naval units exercised a sort of oversight over Hawaii from the 1850s and routinely patrolled off the coasts of Hispaniola (Santo Domingo and Haiti) and in the rest of the Caribbean. The British minister to the United States complained in 1852 that “with regards to these Islands [Hawaii], you will recollect that the United States has held to us exactly the same language as with regards to Cuba, viz. That they will not allow us to become possessed of them, declining to make any renunciation of them on their own part.”15

Policy in the Caribbean and Central America

In March 1835 the Senate passed a resolution urging that “the President of the United States be respectfully requested to consider the expediency of opening negotiations with the governments of other nations, and particularly with the Governments of Central America and New Granada, for the purpose of effectually protecting, by suitable treaty stipulations with them, such individuals or companies as may undertake to open a communication between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by the construction of a ship canal across the isthmus . . .” In 1839 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution authorizing the president to enter into negotiations with other nations for the purpose of protecting by treaty entrepreneurs who might open up communications and transport between Atlantic and Pacific across the Central American isthmus. To encourage communication between the East coast and the Pacific, Congress passed legislation in March 1845 providing subsidies for steamship mail service to Oregon via transshipment overland through Panama. Two years later the U.S. Mail Steamship Company acquired the contract that allowed it to carry the U.S. mails from New York, with stops in New Orleans and Havana, to the Isthmus of Panama for transshipment and delivery in California. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company acquired the right to transport mail under contract from the U.S. government from the Isthmus of Panama to California. U.S. policy encouraged development of transportation routes across the isthmus, supporting the efforts of American entrepreneurs and occasionally using naval interventions to influence political developments in British Honduras, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia (Panama). The California gold rush (1848–1855) made control over isthmian transportation routes (in competition still with Britain) of ever-greater concern.

On August 26, 1849, the Nicaraguan government signed a contract with the American businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt. It granted his Accessory Transit Company the exclusive right to construct a waterway within twelve years and gave the same company sole administration of a temporary trade route in which the overland crossing through the isthmus of Rivas was done by train and stagecoach. The temporary route operated successfully until interrupted by the filibuster of William Walker (see below), then Vanderbilt’s closure of the route in exchange for payoffs in 1857–1858 from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and U.S. Mail Steamship Company. Meanwhile, in 1855, William Henry Aspinwall completed the Panama Railway, providing rail service across the isthmus and cutting to three weeks the transport time for the mails, passengers, and goods to California. This remained an important route until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

In April 1848 President Polk communicated to Congress that leaders of the Republic of Yucatán, faced with an insurrection by indigenous peoples “waging a war of extermination against the white race,” had offered “dominion and sovereignty of the peninsula” to the United States. Should the United States refuse, they would turn to Spain or Great Britain. Polk proclaimed that the United States “could not consent to a transfer of this ‘dominion and sovereignty’ either to Spain, Great Britain, or any other European power.”16 Yucatán shortly thereafter was reincorporated into Mexico. Five years later the United States “perfected” the outcome of the Mexican War with the Gadsden Purchase Treaty (1853), acquiring southern Arizona (including Tucson and Yuma) and southwestern New Mexico for the possible development of a southern continental railroad. The treaty also conceded to the United States transit rights (including military) over the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and established a semi-protectorate (Art. VIII: “the United States may extend its protection as it shall judge wise to it [the isthmus] when it may feel sanctioned and warranted by the public or international law”).

Tensions persisted between Great Britain and the United States over British territory in the Caribbean and Central America, potential isthmian canal routes, and American filibusters in Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Cuba. To avoid direct conflict, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850) stipulated that neither Britain nor the United States would obtain or maintain any exclusive control or unequal advantage in use of a future canal through the isthmus. Nevertheless, British–U.S. rivalry continued in the region, exacerbated by recurrent filibuster expeditions to Cuba and the brief presidency of American adventurer William Walker in Nicaragua (1853). Walker reestablished slavery in Nicaragua (1856–1857) and hinted at annexation by the United States as a new slave state. His government was officially recognized in 1856 by President Franklin Pierce (1853–1857), marking a particularly poignant convergence of U.S. visions of Manifest Destiny, the debates over slavery, and Latin America’s growing distrust of U.S. imperial ambitions.

Mexico had lost half its territory to Manifest Destiny and Latin Americans had seen repeated U.S. incursions and filibuster expeditions in the Caribbean and the Central American isthmus. Walker had mounted an expedition to Baja California in 1853, seeking to establish a new “Republic of Sonora” with himself at its head. Failing in Mexico, he targeted Nicaragua (1855–1860). Captured by a commander of the British navy and delivered to Honduran authorities in Trujillo, Walker’s ambitions ended before a Honduran firing squad in 1860. Yet for many Central Americans—and the British—the Walker episode epitomized American ambitions and aggressive policies in the Caribbean basin and Central America.

Before the Walker episode in Nicaragua, President Millard Fillmore (1850–1853) had focused attention on possible annexation of Cuba in his message to Congress in 1852, calling it a “very hazardous measure” as it would bring into the Confederacy “a population of different national stock, speaking a different language, and not likely to harmonize with other members.” Abolitionists and slaveholders had, for different reasons, reservations about acquiring Cuba. Illustratively, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Tribune wrote in 1853 that the United States did not want a territory “filled with black, mixed, degraded, and ignorant or inferior races.”17 Others saw acquisition of Cuba as critical to America’s regional security and global strategic and economic interests. American diplomats in Europe issued the Ostend Manifesto in 1854: “from the peculiarity of its geographical position . . . Cuba is as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present members, . . . it belongs naturally to that great family of States of which the Union is the providential nursery. The Union can never enjoy repose, nor possess reliable security, as long as Cuba is not embraced within its boundaries.” Policy toward Cuba remained controversial until the outbreak of civil war in the United States put further territorial expansion on the back burner.

The Exception from Unilateralism: The Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty, 1846

Since the 1830s American policymakers expressed interest in securing rights of transit for roads, railroads, or a canal over the Central American isthmus. By the mid-1840s American territorial pretensions, geostrategic vision, and military capabilities had increased, giving the Monroe Doctrine an enlarged and elastic significance. So, too, did the quest for an isthmian transit route. This provided the context for the first breach in American unilateralism in the 19th century, the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty with Colombia (1846).

President Polk sent the treaty to the Senate five months after General Zachary Taylor’s troops captured Monterrey, Mexico. Polk argued that the treaty was necessary for construction of a railroad or a canal across the Panama isthmus, despite the possibility that it violated the basic American principle of no entangling alliances. In his message Polk assured the Senate that “the treaty does not propose to guarantee a territory to a foreign nation in which the United States will have no common interest with that nation. On the contrary, we are more deeply and directly interested in the subject of this guaranty than New Granada herself or any other country. The guaranty does not extend to the territories of New Granada generally, but is confined to the single Province of the Isthmus of Panama, where we shall acquire by the treaty a common and coextensive right of passage.” Polk claimed that the treaty guaranteed U.S. rights, allowed intervention when necessary, but created no “obligation” to defend Colombian sovereignty against British or European powers except as regards to Panama.18 The treaty, ratified in mid-1848, nevertheless committed the United States to a defensive military alliance for the protection of Colombian sovereignty over Panama. It was the first such treaty entered into by the United States and would provide the legal rationale for recurrent U.S. interventions in Panama from the 1850s until Panamanian independence in 1903.

When James Buchanan, Polk’s secretary of state, occupied the presidential office (1856–1860), he repeatedly, without success, sought congressional authorization to establish additional military protectorates to advance American regional hegemony through new treaties modeled on the 1846 agreement with Colombia. Buchanan sought such agreements with Mexico to treat threats to domestic tranquility in Mexico as an attack on itself (1859) and a separate treaty providing transit rights and semi-protectorate status over the Tehuantepec isthmus, Nicaragua (1859), and Honduras (1860). He also sought congressional authorization to employ naval forces, at will, to protect the lives and property of Americans in Central America. Buchanan even sent a naval expedition to South America in 1858 to obtain reparations from Paraguay and negotiate an imposed commercial treaty (the so-called Water Witch affair). In general, Congress resisted expansion of unilateral presidential authority to intervene militarily in Latin America and rejected treaties seeking to establish more protectorates. Table 2 summarizes American armed interventions in the Western Hemisphere from 1831 to 1866.

Table 2 U.S. Armed Interventions in Latin America, 1831–1866


Falkland Islands. Captain Duncan of the USS Lexington investigated the capture of three American sealing vessels and sought to protect American interests.


Argentina—October 31 to November 15. A force was sent ashore at Buenos Aires to protect the interests of the United States and other countries during an insurrection.


Peru—December 10, 1835, to January 24, 1836, and August 31 to December 7, 1836. Marines protected American interests in Callao and Lima during an attempted revolution.


Mexico. General Gaines occupied Nacogdoches (Texas), disputed territory, from July to December during the Texan war for independence, under orders to cross the “imaginary boundary line” if an Indian outbreak threatened.


Mexico. Commodore T. A. C. Jones, in command of a squadron long cruising off California, occupied Monterey, California, on October 19, believing war had come. He discovered peace, withdrew, and saluted. A similar incident occurred a week later at San Diego.


Mexico. President Tyler deployed U.S. forces to protect Texas against Mexico, pending Senate approval of a treaty of annexation. (Later rejected.) He defended his action against a Senate resolution of inquiry.


Mexican War. On May 13, 1846, the United States recognized the existence of a state of war with Mexico. After the annexation of Texas in 1845, the United States and Mexico failed to resolve a boundary dispute, and President Polk said that it was necessary to deploy forces in Mexico to meet a threatened invasion.


Argentina—February 3–12, 1852; September 17, 1852, to April 1853. Marines were landed and maintained in Buenos Aires to protect American interests during a revolution.


Nicaragua—March 11–13. U.S. forces landed to protect American lives and interests during political disturbances.


Nicaragua—July 9–15. Naval forces bombarded and burned San Juan del Norte (Greytown) to avenge an insult to the American minister to Nicaragua.


Uruguay—November 25–29. U.S. and European naval forces landed to protect American interests during an attempted revolution in Montevideo.


Panama, Republic of New Granada—September 19–22. U.S. forces landed to protect American interests during an insurrection.


Nicaragua—April to May, November to December. In May Commander C. H. Davis of the U.S. Navy, with some marines, received the surrender of William Walker, who had been attempting to get control of the country, and protected his men from the retaliation of native allies who had been fighting Walker. In November and December of the same year, U.S. vessels Saratoga, Wabash, and Fulton opposed another attempt of William Walker on Nicaragua. Commodore Hiram Paulding’s act of landing marines and compelling the removal of Walker to the United States was tacitly disavowed by Secretary of State Lewis Cass, and Paulding was forced into retirement.


Uruguay—January 2–27. Forces from two U.S. warships landed to protect American property during a revolution in Montevideo.


Paraguay. Congress authorized a naval squadron to seek redress for an attack on a naval vessel in the Paraná River during 1855.


Mexico. Two hundred United States soldiers crossed the Rio Grande in pursuit of the Mexican bandit Cortina.


Colombia, Bay of Panama—September 27 to October 8. Naval forces landed to protect American interests during a revolution.


Panama—March 9 and 10. U.S. forces protected the lives and property of American residents during a revolution.


Mexico. To protect American residents, General Sedgwick and 100 men in November obtained surrender of Matamoras. After 3 days he was ordered by U.S. government to withdraw. His act was repudiated by the president.

Source: Adapted from Ellen C. Collier, “Instances of the Use of Force by United States’ Forces Abroad, 1783–1993,” Congressional Research Service, October 7, 1993.

Post–Civil War U.S. Policy in Latin America

Civil war in the United States put a temporary halt to interventionism and imperial dreams in Latin America. President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to establish colonies for liberated slaves in Panama and off the coast of Haiti failed disastrously. During the war Lincoln was forced to tolerate temporary Spanish reoccupation of Santo Domingo and establishment of a French empire in Mexico under Maximillian of Habsburg (1863–1867), both clear violations of the Monroe Doctrine. At war’s end, Spain withdrew from Santo Domingo. American policymakers made clear their objection to continuation of the French presence in Mexico. Fifty thousand troops sent to the border and “surplus” weaponry and ammunition supplied to Mexican armies fighting the occupation contributed to the overthrow and death of Maximillian at the hands of a Mexican firing squad in 1867.

After the U.S. Civil War the urge to expand the realm of Manifest Destiny had not entirely disappeared, nor did opposition to the Clayton-Bulmer Treaty—though the Panama Railroad and completion of the transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Coast in 1869 lessened somewhat the importance of potential Central American canal routes. Nevertheless, concern for the strategic importance of the Caribbean basin persisted.

Secretary of State William Seward negotiated treaties to acquire the Danish West Indies, naval bases in Samaná Bay (Santo Domingo), and, ultimately, the Grant administration (1869–1877) signed a treaty to annex Santo Domingo, which was rejected by the Senate. Grant saw the Santo Domingo annexation scheme as part of grand strategy; the country needed coaling stations and naval deployments to defend the Central American isthmus transit routes. Seward also considered purchasing Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. Both foreign and domestic constraints (especially resistance to inclusion of people of color in the Union) impeded completion of these projects, but they anticipated an ever-more ambitious and interventionist role for the U.S. in the Hemisphere from the 1880s until the end of the century.

Seward was able to negotiate a commercial treaty (Dickinson-Ayón, 1867) with Nicaragua for fifteen years that included transit rights across the isthmus and American protection of the neutrality and “innocent use” of same (but not Nicaraguan sovereignty, as in the 1846 treaty with Colombia regarding Panama). A treaty to provide the United States sole rights to control a canal across Panama, modifying the 1846 agreement, was also negotiated in 1867 but rejected by the Senate in 1869. All of this diplomatic activity and congressional debate was indicative of the importance given to transit routes and a potential canal across the isthmus in the years following the Civil War. Less typically, President Andrew Johnson in his final message to Congress urged consideration of “acquisition and incorporation into our Federal Union” of “several adjacent insular and continental communities as speedily as it can be done.” This overreach of Manifest Destiny never became U.S. policy.

Insurrection against Spain in Cuba (the Ten Years’ War, 1868–1878) made annexation of the island, or its independence, once again a subject of debate, but American racism prevailed, buttressed by relations between American entrepreneurs and the Spanish government. Even so, ongoing focus on Caribbean naval stations and transport across the Central American isthmus engaged American policymakers. President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881) proclaimed in a message to Congress in 1880: “The policy of this country is a canal under American control. The United States cannot consent to the surrender of this control to any European power or any combination of European powers . . .”

Hayes’s declaration conflicted with commitments made in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850) with Britain. He told Congress on March 8, 1880, that a canal “would be the great ocean thoroughfare between our Atlantic and our Pacific shores, and virtually a part of the coast line of the United States. Our merely commercial interest in it is greater than that of all other countries, while its relations to our power and prosperity as a nation, to our means of defense, our unity, peace, and safety, are matters of paramount concern to the people of the United States.” According to President Hayes, Northern Colombia (Panama) had become “virtually a part of the coast line of the United States.”19 He asked Congress for approval to obtain coaling stations in Central America. When Congress refused to act, Hayes announced that under the authority of the 1846 treaty with Colombia the secretary of the Navy would establish coal depots on the eastern and western coasts of Panama.

Hayes’s successor, James Garfield (March 1881–September 1881) appointed James Blaine as his secretary of state. Blaine had an agenda of expanding American commerce in the Western Hemisphere and enlarging the U.S. role as “arbiter” of inter-American relations. He unsuccessfully sought British agreement to modify the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty; unsuccessfully sought to mediate an ongoing boundary dispute between Mexico and Guatemala over Chiapas; and involved two inept American diplomats, both former civil war generals, in trying to negotiate an end to the War of the Pacific (1879–1883) between Chile and Peru/Bolivia. All parties were left resentful at American meddling.

Blaine also planned a “Pan American Conference” in Washington, but this idea came to naught when his successor, Frederick Frelinghuysen, withdrew invitations to the conference, at the instance of President Chester A. Arthur, who succeeded Garfield on his assassination in 1881. Blaine explained his policy initiatives in Latin America, years later (after his third unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1884): “What we want, then, are the markets of these neighbors of ours that lie to the south of us. We want the $400,000,000 annually which to-day go to England, France, Germany and other countries.”20

President Arthur returned to the importance of an interoceanic canal in his first message to Congress; he sought renegotiation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, viewed as incompatible with the Monroe Doctrine, and emphasized the need to reaffirm the American protectorate over Panama (the 1846 treaty). Anticipating the coming naval arms race of the 1880s and 1890s, Arthur authorized construction of the first steel ships (1882) as part of his push to expand American commerce and project power in the hemisphere. He also signed a treaty with Nicaragua (Frelinghuysen-Zavala Treaty,1884), never ratified by Congress, authorizing the construction by the United States of a canal, railway, and telegraph line across the Nicaraguan territory and affording Nicaragua guarantees of American protection of its sovereignty. Once again, Congress objected to replication of the 1846 treaty with Colombia which had departed from America’s commitment to unilateralism as a basic policy principle and potentially involved the United States in boundary disputes between Nicaragua and its neighbors.

American policy in Latin America became an issue in the presidential elections of 1884, mostly because Republican candidate James Blaine’s failed initiatives as secretary of state came into play. A long pamphlet titled Meddling and Muddling: Mr. Blaine’s Foreign Policy contributed to Grover Cleveland’s (1885–1889) victory. In his inaugural address Cleveland reaffirmed the U.S. policy of unilateralism, which he called a policy of “independence.” As the first Democrat elected since the Civil War, Cleveland rejected further expansionism; he withdrew from Senate consideration pending treaties with Nicaragua, Santo Domingo, and Spain. His attacks on protective tariffs and elimination of tonnage duties benefited Central American and West Indian exporters. Otherwise, Cleveland took no significant initiatives in policy toward Latin America, though Congress authorized him (May 1888) to call a conference inviting Latin American delegates to Washington to discuss peace, trade, and communications. Ironically, this First International American Conference, first proposed by Blaine years before, would not take place until he returned as secretary of state to newly elected president Benjamin Harrison (1889–1893). While serving as the beginnings of what would become the Pan American Union, the immediate results of the conference were disappointing.

President Harrison reversed Cleveland’s tariff policy, adopting the McKinley Tariff (the highest import duties in American history to that time), but during his administration concluded eight reciprocity treaties with Latin American nations. In response to a civil war in Chile (1891), Blaine’s ambassador supported the losing presidential faction and gave refuge to defeated politicians. An incident involving American efforts to impede arms shipments to the eventually victorious rebels on the Itata also caused resentment. In October, shore leave for the crew from the American warship Baltimore turned into a barroom brawl—and eventually into a diplomatic conflict that bordered on war. President Harrison warned the Chileans in his December 1891 message and ordered the new navy readied for deployment to defend American honor. The secretary of the British legation in Washington, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, wrote: “The President [Harrison] and the Secretary of the Navy wish for war; one to get re-elected, and the other to see his new ships fight and get votes for more [ships].”21 Chile ultimately succumbed to American bullying: threats of broken diplomatic relations and even war. This so-called Baltimore affair anticipated an increasingly bellicose American policy in the hemisphere in the last decade of the 19th century. Increasing diplomatic, military, and economic intervention in Latin America would be part of the recipe by naval strategists, nationalists, imperialists, and industrialists who formulated American foreign policy.

When Grover Cleveland returned to the presidency after defeating Harrison in 1892, he told Congress that “there have been revolutions calling for vessels to protect American interests in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Argentina and Brazil, while the condition of affairs in Honolulu has required the constant presence of one or more ships.”22 In 1893–1894, Secretary of State Walter Gresham recommended keeping a gunboat permanently deployed close to the Panamanian isthmus and sent a significant portion of the navy to intervene in a naval revolt in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although he rejected annexation of Hawaii, Cleveland broadened further the interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine to include relations between European powers and Latin American nations. In 1895 he intervened in a boundary dispute between Britain (British Guyana) and Venezuela. Secretary of State Richard Olney added his own addendum to the Monroe Doctrine (Olney Corollary): “Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition . . . its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers.” In the end the British agreed to American arbitration of the dispute with Venezuela, resulting in an award of approximately 90 percent of the territory they claimed.

Olney’s proclamation synthesized the stretch from the 1811 No Transfer Resolution and the original version of the Monroe Doctrine (1823) to a growing imperial vision of United States’ foreign policy and its exercise of hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. In 1890 Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660–1783. According to Mahan, economic prosperity and national security could not be separated. The key would be a powerful navy deployed around the world, operating from the bastion of a Western Hemisphere over which the United States exercised “practical sovereignty.” Control of the Caribbean and Central America was the starting point for American grand strategy. For the next decade a naval construction program would put Mahan’s ideas into practice; in 1898 Mahan affirmed: “Our interest and our dignity require that our rights should depend upon the will of no other state, but upon our own power to enforce them.”

War with Spain, 1898

The first American foreign policy doctrine in the Western Hemisphere—the No Transfer Resolution—focused on the Floridas and Cuba in 1811. Spain’s control over Cuba and the possibility of American annexation was periodically a topic of political debate. As the 19th century ended, Cuba—and Cuban independence—again took center stage. By the time of the 1896 presidential election, Cuban rebels once again battled for independence from Spain. Precipitated in part by the Wilson-Gorman Tariff (1894) passed by the Cleveland administration, which had eliminated preferential access to U.S. markets for Cuban sugar and exacerbated economic recession on the island, the calls for Cuba Libre threatened both separation from Spain and a social revolution on the island. Such an outcome would be inimical to American investors in Cuban agriculture and business, as well as to trade with the island. Secretary of State Olney had close connections with American sugar and banking interests in Cuba. He warned Spain that if the insurrection was not controlled, U.S. intervention might be required to protect American lives and property.

To greater or lesser extent Mahan’s project to largely militarize foreign policy had been absorbed by both Democrats and Republicans. Elected in 1896, Republican President William McKinley (1897–1901) resisted calls for intervention and annexation of Cuba until the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor in 1898. Spain denied culpability, and the Spanish navy sought to rescue survivors. Nevertheless, the loss of the Maine provided the U.S. government a pretext for “forcible intervention . . . as a neutral to stop the war.” Congress called for recognition of Cuban independence and for Spain to relinquish control of the island. It directed the President “to use the land and naval forces of the United States to carry these resolutions into effect.” Spain rejected these resolutions.

On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war on Spain. First taking the Spanish Philippines by naval assault and occupation, the United States then, six weeks later, destroyed the pathetic Spanish fleet in the Caribbean and invaded Cuba. This plan had been considered by the Navy in 1896; it made Commodore George Dewey a national hero, thwarted Philippine independence, and, at war’s end, forced Spain also to cede, in the Treaty of Paris, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam. U.S. military occupation of Cuba followed (1899–1902), followed by a protectorate regime under the Platt Amendment (1901) to Cuba’s constitution. The same year Britain signed a new treaty with the United States (Hay-Pauncefote Treaty), abrogating the Clayton–Bulwer agreement of 1850 and recognizing the right of the United States to exclusive, fortified control over a future isthmian canal.

In the first decade of the 20th century aggressive American gunboat “diplomacy” was applied toward Britain and Germany in Venezuela (1902). A U.S.-supported insurrection separated Panama from Colombia (1903), followed by an American protectorate regime in the country, along with a treaty (Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, 1903) that provided the United States with perpetual control of a canal zone across the new country—culmination of the long-held dream of exclusive control over an isthmian route. Protection of Caribbean nations against debt collection by European naval blockades sent the navy and marines to Santo Domingo (1904–1905). President Theodore Roosevelt then added the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine: “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.”23 Thus American policy in Latin America, at the beginning of the 20th century, explicitly justified unilateral intervention, military occupation, and transformation of sovereign states into political and economic protectorates in order to defend them against European interventions that might threaten U.S. national interests and security.

Discussion of the Literature

American academic focus on U.S. foreign policy in what became Latin America evolved, in part, from the work of historians studying the borderlands. This concept derived from historian Herbert Bolton’s school of the Spanish borderlands (The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest, 1921), the Spanish colonies north of central Mexico, with weak imperial power, and neighboring French and English colonies. Usually cited as the first books dedicated specifically to the topic of U.S. foreign policy toward independent Latin America are John H. Latané’s The Diplomatic Relations of the United States and Spanish America, a compilation of the first series of Albert Shaw Lectures on Diplomatic History (1899), and the same author’s The United States and Latin America.24 These were followed by Graham H. Stuart’s textbook organized by topics and country relations (Latin America and the United States, 1922—revised edition 1928, three more editions through 1955, updated and published in 6th edition with James L. Tigner, 1975) and William Spence Robertson’s (the first instructor of Latin American history at the University of Illinois) Hispanic American Relations with the United States (1923). Robertson’s book included chapters on the Monroe Doctrine, diplomacy (including arbitration and mediation), and U.S. political influence in the region. Before World War II, the highly nationalistic volume, mostly uncritical of U.S. policy, by Samuel Flagg Bemis (The Latin American Policy of the United States: An Historical Interpretation, 1943, reprinted, 1971) became a widely used text.

Writing in the mid-1960s, J. Lloyd Mecham commented that “a bibliographical listing of titles dealing with United States-Latin American relations would reveal the very interesting fact that, among the almost innumerable books that have been published, few could qualify as general surveys of relations. Virtually all are restricted to aspects of Latin American relations, being confined to individual countries or to selected topics.”25 Mecham’s book combined treatment of policies and the gradual creation of the Inter-American system with consideration of U.S. policies toward the Caribbean, Central America, and bilateral relations with Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. Federico Gil’s short but highly readable survey, Latin American–United States Relations (1971), also became a widely used textbook. British historian Gordon Connell-Smith (The United States and Latin America: An Historical Analysis of Inter-American Relations, 1974) offered a more critical view of U.S. policy in Latin America. More recent edited volumes with policy history and focus on bilateral relations are Schurbutt (1991), Thomas (1999), and Langley (2010).

Scholarship on U.S. policy toward Latin America is also included in more general histories of U.S. foreign policy. Among the most important critical views of U.S. policy are William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American diplomacy (1959); Walter Lafeber, The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad, 1750 to Present (2d ed., 1994); and, on expansion and Manifest Destiny, Walter Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion (2008).

Primary Sources

Indispensable collections of primary sources on U.S. policy toward Latin America in the 19th century are William R. Manning, Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States Concerning the Independence of Latin America and Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States: Inter-American Affairs, 1831–1860.26 James W. Gantenbein, The Evolution of Our Latin American Policy: A Documentary Record, includes selected documents from Washington’s farewell address to the Bogotá conference in 1948.27 Robert H. Holden and Eric Zolov, Latin America and the United States; A Documentary History, provides a “‘representative sample’ of the sources upon which historians of U.S.–Latin American relations base their interpretations.”28

Some key sources are available as digital archives, beginning with: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation. U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates 1774‐1875. The American Presidency Project includes The Messages and Papers of the Presidents from 17891913. Brian Loveman, No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere (2010, 2012), features a documentary supplement online with links to hundreds of digital sources, including selected 19th-century documents related to Latin American policy and the major policy doctrines toward Latin America from the No Transfer Resolution (1811) to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1904).

There exist many valuable bibliographical works on U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America and U.S. foreign policy more generally. An extensive (but dated) bibliography of U.S.–Latin American relations is David Trask, Michael C. Meyer, and Roger Trask, A Bibliography of United States–Latin American Relations Since 1810 (1968), supplemented in 1979 by a volume by Michael Meyer as compiler and editor. These two volumes offer a chronological survey of general literature on U.S.–Latin American relations from independence until the late 1970s, followed by country-by-country references and topical works (for example, acquisition of the Floridas, Adams-Onís Treaty, Monroe Doctrine). For an extensive bibliography of work on these topics for the period 1830–1930, the chapter “The International Relations of Latin America Since Independence” in Leslie Bethell, The Cambridge History of Latin America, XI, Bibliographical Essays (1995) is a valuable source.29

Further Reading

  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. The Latin American Policy of the United States: An Historical Interpretation. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1943.
  • LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansionism, 1860–1898. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1963.
  • Langley, Lester D. America and the Americas: The United States in the Western Hemisphere, 2d ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
  • Leonard, Thomas M., ed. United States-Latin American Relations 1850—1903: Establishing a Relationship. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
  • Lewis, James E., Jr. The American Union and the Problem of Neighborhood: The United States and the Collapse of the Spanish Empire 1783–1829. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Loveman, Brian. No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere since 1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010, 2012.
  • McPherson, Alan. “Forget the Maine! The Legacy of The United States and the Americas.” Diplomatic History 35.4 (2011): 709–728.
  • McPherson, Alan, ed. Encyclopedia of U.S. Military Interventions in Latin America. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.
  • Nugent, Walter. Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion, New York: Knopf, 2008.
  • O’Brien, Thomas F. Making the Americas: The United States and Latin America from the Age of Revolution to the Era of Globalization. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007.
  • Schoultz, Lars. Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy toward Latin America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Schurbutt, T. Ray, ed. United States—Latin American Relations, 1800–1850: The Formative Generations. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
  • Smith, Peter. Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World, 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.


  • 1. Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, Paris, January 25, 1786. American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond.

  • 2. George Washington, Fifth Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1793.

  • 3. Hamilton to McHenry, New York, June 27, 1799. Founders Online.

  • 4. No Transfer Resolution. U.S. Congress, January 15, 1811.

  • 5. Annals, House of Representatives, 12th Cong., 1st sess. December 11, 428.

  • 6. James Monroe message to the Senate. Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789–1873, Monday, March 11, 1822. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875.

  • 7. John Quincy Adams to Thomas Randall, special agent of the United States in Cuba, Washington, DC, April 29, 1823.

  • 8. This was made clear in British Foreign Secretary George Canning’s “Polignac Memorandum” (October 1823 to the French Ambassador to Great Britain, Prince Jules de Polignac). The French agreed to noninterference in South America; Canning persuaded the Cabinet in 1824 to recommend to the king that Britain negotiate a commercial treaty with Buenos Aires. On December 31, 1824, Canning authorized British diplomats in Mexico and Colombia to negotiate commercial treaties, essentially recognition of independence.

  • 9. Annals, Register of Debates, Senate, 18th Cong., 22nd sess., 158–161.

  • 10. Cited in Samuel Flagg Bemis, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy (New York: Knopf, 1959), 182.

  • 11. New York Morning News, December 27, 1845.

  • 12. 19th Cong., 1st sess. March, 14, 1826: 342.

  • 13. James K. Polk, First Annual Message, December 2, 1845.

  • 14. John Tyler, Special Message to Congress December 30, 1842.

  • 15. John T. Crampton to Lord Clarendon, November 20, 1852.

  • 16. James K. Polk, To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States, April 29, 1848.

  • 17. New York Tribune, January 10, 1853, cited in in James Shepherd Pike, First Blows of the Civil War: The Ten Years of Preliminary Conflict in the United States, from 1850 to 1860 (New York: American News Company, 1879), 163.

  • 18. President Polk’s message to the Senate on the Bidlack-Mallarino Treaty, 1846,

  • 19. Rutherford B. Hayes, Special Message to the U.S. Senate, March 8, 1880.

  • 20. Cited in Edward Crapol, James G. Blaine: Architect of Empire (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 2000), 166–167.

  • 21. Cited in Kenneth J. Hagan, This People’s Navy: The Making of American Sea Power (New York: Free Press, 1991), 199.

  • 22. Grover Cleveland, State of the Union Address, December 4, 1893.

  • 23. Theodore Roosevelt, Fourth Annual Message to Congress, December 6, 1904.

  • 24. John H. Latané, The Diplomatic Relations of the United States and Spanish America (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1900); and Latané, The United States and Latin America (New York: Doubleday, 1920 [1900]).

  • 25. J. Lloyd Mecham, A Survey of United States–Latin American Relations (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), vii.

  • 26. William R. Manning, ed., Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States Concerning the Independence of Latin America, 3 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1925–1926); and Manning, Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States: Inter-American Affairs, 1831–1860, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1932–1939).

  • 27. James W. Gantenbein, ed., The Evolution of Our Latin American Policy: A Documentary Record (New York: Octagon Books, 1971).

  • 28. Robert H. Holden and Eric Zolov, eds., Latin America and the United States; A Documentary History, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), xv.

  • 29. Other useful bibliographical resources include: J. Ruhl Bartlett, ed. The Record of American Diplomacy, 4th ed. (New York: Knopf, 1964); K. Jack Bauer, The New American State Papers. Naval Affairs (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1981); Robert L. Beisner, American Foreign Relations Since 1600: A Guide to the Literature, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003); Samuel F. Bemis and G. C. Griffin, eds., Guide to the Diplomatic History of the United States, 1775–1921 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1935); C. I. Bevans, ed., Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776–1949, 13 vols (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1968–1976; and Diplomatic Instructions of the Department of State, 1801–1906. Series M77 (College Park, MD: U.S. Department of State Papers. United States National Archives). Lars Schoultz’s (1998) list of General Records of the Department of State, personal papers and manuscript collections, in addition to sources at the National Archives and Library of Congress, is a valuable reference for all research on U.S. policy toward Latin America.