American History
The Big Stick

*Having taken over Spain’s former colonies, the United States needed to decide what to do with them.  Cuba was given its independence, but with a US-written constitution that contained the Platt Amendment, allowing the US to intervene in Cuba whenever we felt it was necessary.  The US also held a permanent lease on Guantanamo Bay to use as a naval base.  Puerto Rico was simply kept as a US possession.

*The Foraker Act created a government for Puerto Rico.  The US would appoint the governor (and did so until 1948) and some of the legislature, while the rest of the legislators would be chosen by the Puerto Ricans.  Later, the Jones-Shafroth Act gave them more rights and more control over their legislature, but not equal rights with other Americans.  They could be taxed and drafted, but could not vote in US elections, have their own members of Congress, or enjoy some other rights.

*This inequality was because of a series of Supreme Court decisions in the Insular Cases.  These cases declared that the Constitution did not follow the flag—people in America’s overseas territories were not guaranteed the same rights as Americans living in the states.

*Under Theodore Roosevelt, America became more active in the Caribbean world.  This was often known as Big Stick diplomacy, as he was always willing to use force if necessary (as were subsequent presidents).

*Roosevelt saw himself as Latin America’s policeman.  This was not entirely a new idea—previous presidents had used the Monroe Doctrine to justify getting involved in the affairs of Latin American countries, usually to protect them from European powers.  Roosevelt took this further, in what was called the Roosevelt Corollary (a mathematical term for a statement which follows readily from a previous statement) to the Monroe Doctrine:  if any Latin American country had problems, America had a duty to step in and help them out—by physical force, if necessary.  Latin Americans needed this, said Roosevelt, because they could not take care of themselves and needed to be uplifted by a more civilised nation.

*One of the first places American force was needed was in Panama, a region in Panama where a French company had been working for years to build a canal (another possible site was Nicaragua, but volcanic activity in the area scared off American investors).  America bought that company, but still needed permission from the Columbian government to work on the canal. 

*When Columbia’s government refused, Roosevelt sent warships to support a Panamanian revolution.  The new government of Panama gave America a ten-mile-wide canal zone for $10 million plus $250,000 a year in rent.  The United States controlled the Canal Zone from 1903 to 1979.

*The biggest problem facing workers was disease, particularly malaria and yellow fever.  Eventually the US Army found ways to prevent infection by these diseases, particularly by draining swamps and wetlands to reduce mosquito breeding grounds.

*Soon America was involved in many other Latin American countries.  Look at the map on page 272.  What countries did the US intervene in during the early 20th century? (Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Virgin Islands, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Columbia)

*After Roosevelt left office, Taft put the big stick away, or at least held it in reserve.  He preferred to speak softly through what he called Dollar Diplomacy:  encouraging American companies to invest in Latin American businesses (like oil in Mexico and Venezuela and sugar and banana plantation in the Caribbean Islands and Central America).  If these businesses had problems, though, the Taft was willing to pull the big stick back out.

*Some businesses even took care of themselves.  When one of the fore-runners of the United Fruit Company had problems with the government of Honduras, they hired thugs in New Orleans to go to Honduras, overthrow the government, and put in a more banana-friendly administration.  The next president gave United Fruit a 25-year waiver from paying any taxes.  Many other Latin American companies ended up under the domination of United Fruit as well, earning them the name ‘banana republics.’

*When Woodrow Wilson became president, he planned to use Moral Diplomacy to convince Latin American countries to live up to American standards.  Read Wilson’s quote on page 273.

*In fact, Wilson used military force fairly often as well.  When he was worried that France or Germany might invade Haiti (because both of whom had economic interests there), he sent US Marines in first. 

*In Mexico in 1913, Victoriano Huerta overthrew the old government and set himself up as president after executing the last one.  He promised to protect American investments, but Wilson felt it was immoral to murder presidents, so he invaded Mexico to punish Huerta.  In 1914 the US Marine Corps occupied Vera Cruz.

*At first Wilson worked with a revolutionary leader named Pancho Villa who controlled much of northern Mexico to fight against Huerta, but later changed his mind when a new president who Wilson liked named Caranza, turned against the Revolutionaries who had helped him come to power.  Pancho Villa then raided the US, killing 24 Americans (18 of them civilians) in three different attacks.

*10,000 US troops under Black Jack Pershing were sent into northern Mexico in the Punitive Expedition.  He never captured Pancho Villa, who was assassinated in 1923 by enemies in Mexico.

*In 1917 the US government pulled troops out of Mexico, largely in order to prepare for the US entry into World War I.

*In the same year, the United States bought some of the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million (partly out of fear that Germany might buy them or just take them over).





This page last updated 12 September, 2009.