Monroe Doctrine

Monroe Doctrine, principle of American foreign policy enunciated in President James Monroe's message to Congress, Dec. 2, 1823. It initially called for an end to European intervention in the Americas, but it was later extended to justify U.S. imperialism in the Western Hemisphere.

Origins and Pronouncement

The doctrine grew out of two diplomatic problems. The first was the minor clash with Russia concerning the northwest coast of North America. In this quarrel, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams expressed the principle that the American continents were no longer to be considered as a field for colonization by European powers. That principle was incorporated verbatim in the presidential message. The other and more important part of the doctrine grew out of the fear that the group of reactionary European governments commonly called the Holy Alliance would seek to reduce again to colonial status the Latin American states that had recently gained independence from Spain.

Great Britain, which wished to maintain open commerce with the newly formed states, supported Latin American independence. The United States had just recognized the independence of these states, and in Aug., 1823, the British foreign minister, George Canning, proposed to the United States that a joint note be sent by the two governments protesting intervention in the New World by the Holy Alliance. President Monroe consulted with two of his predecessors, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who recommended that Canning's proposal be accepted. Secretary of State Adams dissented. He feared, with some justification, that the British would try to exact a pledge from the United States not to attempt to acquire any territory in Spanish America.

Meanwhile, Canning had secured an agreement with France (which had earlier made the proposal that the Holy Alliance intervene in Latin America), by which France renounced any intention of intervention, thus obviating the need for a joint U.S.-British protest. However, Adams had by then proposed a unilateral action to President Monroe, who finally agreed to this course. The presidential message, therefore, announced that the United States would not interfere in European affairs but would view with displeasure any attempt by the European powers to subject the nations of the New World to their political systems. Thus in a sense the Monroe Doctrine as a dual principle of foreign policy (no colonization and no intervention by European states in the Americas) complemented the policy expressed by George Washington of noninterference in European affairs.

Application and Extension

The doctrine was not ratified by any congressional legislation; it did not obtain a place in international law, and the term Monroe Doctrine did not come into general circulation until the 1850s. Yet the doctrine became important in American policy, particularly when President Polk reasserted its ideas in 1845 and 1848 with respect to British claims in Oregon, British and French intrigues to prevent the U.S. annexation of Texas, and the aspirations of European nations in Yucatán.

The strained relations with Great Britain concerning its sovereignty over several areas in Central America in the 1850s renewed U.S. interest in the doctrine; Great Britain specifically denied its validity. During the Civil War, the doctrine was invoked unsuccessfully after Spain's reacquisition of the Dominican Republic (formerly Santo Domingo). It was also used, somewhat more effectively, to bring pressure on the French government to withdraw support from Maximilian, who had established an empire in Mexico under French auspices.

Under President Grant and his successors the doctrine was expanded. The principle that no territory in the Western Hemisphere could be transferred from one European power to another became part of the Monroe Doctrine. As U.S. imperialistic tendencies grew, the Monroe Doctrine came to be associated not only with the exclusion of European (now extended to mean all non-American) powers from the Americas, but also with the possible extension of U.S. hegemony in the area. This condition explains why the Monroe Doctrine, although it was not formally used to justify American intervention, was viewed with suspicion and dislike by Latin American nations.

In 1895, President Cleveland, in a new extension of the Monroe Doctrine, demanded that Great Britain submit to arbitration a boundary dispute between British Guiana (now Guyana) and Venezuela (see Venezuela Boundary Dispute). Following the Venezuela Claims question, Theodore Roosevelt expounded (1904) what came to be known as the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine; he stated that continued misconduct or disturbance in a Latin American country might force the United States to intervene in order to prevent European intervention. This frankly imperialistic interpretation met much resistance in Latin America but was used extensively during the administrations of Presidents Taft and Wilson to justify intervention in the Caribbean area.

The Monroe Doctrine was so deeply embedded in U.S. foreign policy by the end of World War I that Woodrow Wilson asked for a special exception for it in the Covenant of the League of Nations in 1919. By the end of the next decade the doctrine had become much less important, and its imperialistic aspects were being played down in an effort to foster better relations with Latin America. In the Clark memorandum of Dec., 1928, the U.S. State Department repudiated the Roosevelt corollary.

Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the doctrine was redefined as a multilateral undertaking to be applied by all the nations of the hemisphere acting together, and emphasis was placed on Pan-Americanism. Nevertheless, in the 1950s and 60s the specter of unilateral intervention in Latin America was again raised, especially by the involvement of the United States with developments in Guatemala, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. For the most part, however, the United States has continued to support hemispheric cooperation within the framework of the Organization of American States.


See A. Alvarez, The Monroe Doctrine (1924); P. Bradley, A Bibliography of the Monroe Doctrine (1929); D. Perkins, A History of the Monroe Doctrine (rev. ed. 1963); F. Merk, The Monroe Doctrine and American Expansionism (1966); C. M. Wilson, The Monroe Doctrine; an American Frame of Mind (1971); G. Smith, The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine, 1945–1993 (1994); J. Sexton, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (2011).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Monroe Doctrine: Selected full-text books and articles

Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century By John E. Findling; Frank W. Thackeray Greenwood Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The Monroe Doctrine, 1823"
FREE! The Monroe Doctrine: Also, Jefferson's Letter to Monroe By James Monroe; Thomas Jefferson Veterans of the Foreign Wars of the U.S., 1920
The American Past: Conflicting Interpretations of the Great Issues By Sidney Fine; Gerald S. Brown Macmillan, vol.1, 1961
Librarian's tip: Chap. XI "The Ideas of the Monroe Doctrine: Jeffersonian, Adamsonian, or Monrovian?"
America/Americas: Myth in the Making of U.S. Policy toward Latin America By Eldon Kenworthy Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "Monroe's 'Positive' Legacy" and Chap. 2 "The America/Americas Myth"
A History of American Foreign Policy By Alexander DeConde Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963
Librarian's tip: Chap. Six "The Evolution of the Monroe Doctrine"
Memorandum on the Monroe Doctrine By J. Reuben Clark U. S. Government Printing Office, 1930
The Monroe Doctrine and the Growth of Western Hemisphere Solidarity By Lyman S. Judson; Richard K. Showman The H.W. Wilson Company, 1941
U.S.-Latin American Relations By Michael J. Kryzanek Praeger, 1996 (3rd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "The Monroe Doctrine and the Emergence of U.S. Power" begins on p. 25
The Confederation of Europe: A Study of the European Alliance, 1813-1823, as an Experiment in the International Organization of Peace By Walter Alison Phillips Longmans Green and Co., 1920 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: "The Genesis of the Monroe Doctrine" begins on p. 281
United States-Latin American Relations, 1850-1903: Establishing a Relationship By Thomas M. Leonard University of Alabama Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Venezuela: Wars, Claims, and the Cry for a Stronger Monroe Doctrine"
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