The Venezuelan Claims Controversy at the Hague, 1903

By Anderson, Kevin M. | The Historian, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

The Venezuelan Claims Controversy at the Hague, 1903


Anderson, Kevin M., The Historian


Former Secretary of State John W. Foster, in his 1906 book, The Practice of Diplomacy, gave President Theodore Roosevelt credit for submitting the Venezuelan claims dispute to the Court of Arbitration at the Hague. Foster's contentions were challenged by a reviewer for the Independent. In a subsequent issue, Foster reiterated that Roosevelt had been instrumental in referring the Venezuelan crisis to the Hague Tribunal and cited documents published in Foreign Relations to support his argument. In the same issue, the former U.S. minister to Venezuela and son of the founder of the Independent, Herbert W. Bowen, replied to Foster's contention by pointing out that Foreign Relations did not contain all of the correspondence. Bowen argued that the only question that had been referred to the Hague Tribunal was that of preferential treatment of the claims of Germany, Great Britain, and Italy. Bowen also contended that Roosevelt had bowed to pressure from the U.S. press and Congress to permit the claim to be submitted to the Hague rather than arbitrate it himself. Therefore Venezuela should receive the credit, not Roosevelt.(1)

The Venezuelan debt crisis of 1902-3 is historically significant because it contributed to the promulgation of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and gave rise to the Drago Doctrine. With Latin American independence from Spain and the rise of European investment in Central and South America, blockades or the threatened blockading of ports forced the collection of debts and reparations. The Roosevelt Corollary, having asserted that the United States was the main policeman, appears to have eclipsed British, French, and especially German imperialism in Latin America. The Drago Doctrine denounced the use of force to collect debts as a blow to national sovereignty and, conceivably, a pretext for conquest.(2)

The United States supported arbitration to resolve the Venezuelan affair. Its preference for arbitration derived from the Jay Treaty of 1794, which stipulated arbitration to settle pre-Revolutionary debts, maritime claims, and the Maine boundary dispute with Great Britain. The founding fathers feared standing armies as a threat to liberty and saw the necessity of international relations being based on the "law of nations." As a legal means of resolving international controversies, arbitration reduced the need for maintaining a large army.(3)

Since the European powers relied on their armies, advances in military technology provoked an international arms race by the turn of the twentieth century. Russia's tsar called for an international conference to discuss limitations on armaments, the rules of war, and arbitration. Secretary of State John Hay favored discussing only arbitration. His instructions to the U.S. delegation to the 1899 Hague Conference dearly stated that since U.S. armed forces were significantly smaller than the other powers and since the restriction on new weapons and more powerful explosives was unrealistic, he refused to support "such uncertain projects." Hay, seeing the conference as an unparalleled opportunity to promote arbitration to an international tribunal, instructed the U.S. delegates to present the plan prepared by the State Department.(4)

When the U.S. delegates arrived at the conference, they found that other delegations also had plans for arbitration tribunals. The Germans were initially opposed to a permanent tribunal but were persuaded to make arbitration strictly voluntary. The U.S. delegates' foremost concern was the preservation of the traditional U.S. policy of non-entanglement. As Hay had anticipated, discussions on arms limitation and the rules of war accomplished little. The most significant achievement of the conference was the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.(5)

The ratification of the Arbitration Convention generated considerable excitement in the U.S. peace movement. Edward Everett Hale, a well-known clergyman, along with the former secretary to the U. …

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