John Liang

“Hands Off” Except For –

(Spring 1957)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.2, Spring 1957, pp.68-70.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A History of the Monroe Doctrine
by Dexter Perkins
Little, Brown and Co., Boston 1955, 462 pp. $5.

Diplomacy is more than a game of ambassadors. It represents the interplay of material interests as reflected in the rivalry of national states. Back of the gentlemen in striped pants lurk the greed and the ambitions of propertied classes. Therefore the history of the Monroe Doctrine, a major pronouncement of US foreign policy and a hinge of American diplomacy for about a century, can be an exceedingly valuable political study.

Professor Perkins’ book was first published in 1941 under the title Hands Off: A History of the Monroe Doctrine. Its revision fourteen years later appears to have been occasioned as much by the author’s desire to parade his anti-Communism as by the need to bring the narrative up to date, for he speaks darkly in his forward of “the appearance of a new philosophy, perhaps a conquering philosophy, alien to the thought and interests of the New World,” as the prelude to a more explicit anti-Soviet stand in the obviously revamped closing chapters of the book.

The pronouncement that came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine was contained in a message to Congress by President James Monroe on December 2, 1823, less than fifty years after the American colonies had asserted their independence from Great Britain. Its heart was the assertion “that the American continent, 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.” Here was a distinct and unequivocal “Hands Off” edict. Yet viewed in historical retrospect, as Professor Perkins shows, the interdiction had no reference to any real threat to the New World by the Old, even if President Monroe believed such a threat existed, as appeared to be the case. To be sure, there were the machinations of the Holy Alliance. This notwithstanding, none of the European powers seemed to possess the ability, or the inclination, to reconquer former colonies or stake out new ones in the Western world.

Portugal, having lost its place in the Americas when Brazil asserted its independence, showed no disposition to attempt the reclamation of that country. Spain exercised a precarious tenure in Cuba and retained Puerto Rico. Mexico had freed itself from Spanish domination. The questionable glories of the days of the Spanish Main were over and the government in Madrid seemed to be aware of it. France and Holland, together with Great Britain, held on to their Latin American and Caribbean colonies but did not appear bent on adding- to them. The Germanic states had not yet coalesced into the Empire, nor had Italy won her independence, so these countries certainly posed no threat to the New World. Czarist Russia, not a maritime power, was busy with expansionist projects on the periphery of the Muscovite empire.

Of all the countries mentioned, Great Britain alone possessed the ability to pursue the course of empire in the Americas in defiance of the Monroe Doctrine. Britain had, however, after the War of Independence, developed close and profitable commercial ties with her former American colonies and large capital investments were beginning to bring in lucrative returns. In the circumstances, Britain was content, more or less, with the status quo. Certainly there was no compelling urge to upset it by any challenge to Monroe’s hands-off doctrine. Still another factor must be considered. As the nineteenth century advanced, the European powers found themselves largely occupied with the carving-up of virgin Africa and the seizure of colonies in the Far East This left the New World relatively free of pressures from the Old.

The enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine by no means passed unnoticed, however. On the contrary, the Yankee pretensions that it embodied evoked resentment and derision. Lord Clarendon, the British Foreign Secretary, declared icily that Monroe’s pronouncement “could be viewed only, as the dictum of the distinguished personage who announced it, and not as an international axiom which ought to regulate the conduct of European states.” This theme was soon chorused by chancelleries on the continent. A unilateral doctrine such as Monroe’s, they held, found no sanction in international law and could not be enforced.

Dissent is one thing, however. Action is something else. The only substantial challenges to the Monroe Doctrine came forty years after its promulgation. These were the brief and costly Spanish reoccupation of Santo Domingo and the tragic-comic though more important episode of the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. France under Louis Napoleon sought to establish a European-type monarchy upon the ancient throne of the Aztec’s and the hapless Hapsburg Prince Maximilian became the chosen instrument of this ridiculous adventure.

The Mexican people had not battled for their freedom from imperial Spain in order to surrender it to monarchical France. Popular resurgence soon demonstrated the hopelessness of the enterprise. The thousands of French bayonets supporting the puppet monarch were withdrawn and Maximilian abandoned to his fate before a firing squad. Both the Spanish incursion into Santo Domingo and the French adventure in Mexico were watched with anxiety in Washington, but there were no moves toward counter-intervention – probably because the United States at that time was in the throes of the Civil War.

If, as the record shows, there was no European threat to the New World, no clear and present danger, at the time the Monroe Doctrine was formulated, how is one to assess the Doctrine’s significance? A reasonable appraisal can be made only in the light of further history. In this broader context, the Doctrine seems to anticipate, as it were, the road the US was destined to travel. President Monroe seemed to be giving due notice, so to speak, that this country was on the march toward the goal of hegemony in the West and would brook no interference in reaching it.

This is not the view of Professor Perkins. He seems to prefer a much narrower interpretation of the historic motive for the Doctrine, regarding it as little more than a warning against largely illusory dangers and conditioned upon the right of self-defense. This is hardly surprising in view of the fact that the author rejects any consistent view of the United States as an imperialist power.

Monroe’s dictum was reiterated by President Polk in his annual message of December 2, 1845, twenty-two years after its original enunciation, and by President Theodore Roosevelt in his annual message of 1901. To Roosevelt, however, belongs the distinction of authoring a noteworthy development or amplification of the dogma, as the Monroe Doctrine came to be known. It was the year 1905. Chaos reigned in the affairs of the Latin American and Caribbean countries, especially in fiscal matters. Here was a situation which appeared to invite active intervention by European creditor states. Wherefore, declared the Rough-Rider Roosevelt:

“On the one hand, this country would certainly decline to go to war to prevent a foreign government from collecting a just debt; on the other hand, it is very inadvisable to permit any foreign power to take possession, even temporarily, of the custom houses of an American republic in order to enforce the payment of its obligations; for such temporary occupation might turn into permanent occupation. The only escape from these alternatives may at any time be that we must ourselves undertake to bring about some arrangement by which so much as possible of a just obligation shall be paid. It is far better that this country should put through such an arrangement, rather than allow any foreign country to undertake it. To do so insures the defaulting republic from having to pay debt of an improper character under duress, while it also insures honest creditors of the republic from being passed by in the interest of dishonest or grasping creditors. Moreover, for the United States to take such a position offers the only possible way of insuring us against a clash with some foreign power.”

This remarkable pronouncement came to be known as the “Roosevelt corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. It marked a new stage in American history. As Professor Perkins says,

“one of the most extraordinary and interesting objects of study must be the evolution of a theorem intended for the protection of the Latin American states by the United States into one that justified and even sanctified American interference in and control of the affairs of the independent republics of this continent.”

The Roosevelt corollary set the diplomatic stage for the veritable orgy of interventionist actions that followed. For the next three decades, the Latin American countries and the island republics of the Caribbean felt the iron heel of the Yankee “Colossus of the North.” Already at the time of the war with Spain, armed forces of the United States had intervened in Cuba and snatched Puerto Rico. Now came the turn of such Countries as Haiti, Santo Domingo, Nicaragua and Mexico. Back of the Marines and soldiers stood the Wall Street bankers, the big oil interests – and, lest we forget, the United Fruit Company. Monroe-ism with its Roosevelt corollary had become a synonym for dollar diplomacy and Yankee domination. The drawn-out character of this chapter in the story of U.S. imperialism is indicated by the fact that it was not until 1934, during the first administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that U.S. troops were pulled out of Haiti to end an occupation that had lasted nineteen years.

The growing hatred of the Latin American and Caribbean countries for Yankee imperialism finally caused it to dawn on the policy-makers in Washington that the method of outright domination by brute force had reached the limits of its usefulness. During the Hoover administration, the Monroe Doctrine was laid aside. Pan-Americanism and the “Good Neighbor” policy took its place. Subversion and intrigue, carried forward in league with reactionary native groups willing to serve Wail Street’s interests, became the order of the day.

The most graphic example of the new technique was the Guatemala affair of 1954. The people of this small Central American country had placed in office the government of Jacobo Arbenz, which proceeded to lay hands on holdings of the United Fruit Company in order to carry through a program of land reform. This was not at all to the liking of the powerful U.S. corporation and its State Department representatives. Backing in money and weapons was given to the puppet Armas. With this aid he was able to assemble a nondescript army and overthrow the Arbenz regime. Thus the Yankee imperialists, without sending in a soldier or firing a shot, were able to shore up the threatened interests of American big business in this Central American republic.

In the Guatemala affair, rather surprisingly, the Monroe Doctrine was brought out and dusted off by Secretary of State Dulles. He declared the activities of the Arbenz regime to be “a direct challenge to the Monroe Doctrine.” His reasoning, apparently, was that since the Arbenz regime was (allegedly) under Communist influence, and the Communists under the direction of the Kremlin, the mere existence of the Arbenz regime constituted intervention by a European power in the affairs of this hemisphere.

It is the opinion of Professor Perkins that Dulles’ allusion to the Monroe Doctrine was “unfortunate.” For was not Monroe-ism, with its corollaries of dollar diplomacy and military intervention, supposed to have been superseded by the policy of the Good Neighbor? Yet here it was, coming once again to the fore. In truth, however, the professor’s lament over what he regards as a “slip” by Dulles is rather pointless. Long and painful experience has enabled the Latin American peoples to recognize Yankee imperialism either in the undisguised form of Monroe-ism or when wearing the mask of the Good Neighbor.

It is perhaps worth while to note that the Monroe Doctrine was not the only “Hands Off” warning that signified America’s march to its imperialist destiny. There was also the “Open Door” doctrine enunciated by Secretary of State John Hay at the turn of the century. Professor Perkins mentions it in passing and without elaboration. The new doctrine, in reality the Asian counterpart of the old, was embodied in notes which Hay addressed to the governments of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan in September 1899, less than eight months after the Philippines had been transferred to the United States by a defeated Spain. The grab of the Philippines, following shortly after the annexation of Hawaii, signalized the entry of American imperialism into a new sphere of activity in the Far East.

In one important respect, however, the situation looked anything but promising. The ancient Chinese Empire, suffering the last stages of decay, was staggering to its doom in the revolution of 1911. In the chaos attendant upon the impending collapse of a corrupt and impotent monarchy it began to look as if the European powers and Japan might seize the opportunity to partition China into spheres of interest from which American competition would be virtually excluded. Thus on the very morrow of America’s entry into the Far East there seemed to loom the possibility that the new imperialists would be shut off from the lush prospects of vast China. By means of the Open Door notes, demanding respect for the territorial and administrative integrity of China, Yankee imperialism interposed an unequivocal veto of any moves toward the gobbling-up of that country by the European powers or Japan.

The doctrine of the Open Door served developing American interests in the Far East, just as the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt corollary had served them in the West – but with an interesting difference. Where Monroe sought to exclude the European powers from the Western hemisphere, John Hay, in the doctrine of the Open Door, served notice on these same powers, and on Japan, that the United States would not tolerate any move that might tend to exclude it from participation in the exploitation of China. Also interesting is the alacrity with which the recipients of the Hay notes concurred in the Open Door doctrine. Within six months Secretary Hay was able to announce that satisfactory replies had been received from all six powers. Where the Monroe Doctrine had been greeted with dissent, the Hay doctrine won quick compliance. The explanation for this is simple. In the intervening seventy-seven years the United States had grown to the stature of a world power whose voice could be disregarded only at the risk of serious consequences.

In summation, it should be said that Professor Perkins’ book is valuable only as a record of the facts relating to the history of the Monroe Doctrine. Where the author essays interpretations he frequently fall’s into error and even writes patent absurdities. This may be attributed to the fact that he is not of the school of historical materialism. He does, indeed, make perfunctory and occasional acknowledgment of the potency of material factors as historical determinants, but this proves only his eclecticism. In place of political logic the reader all too often encounters idealistic claptrap – for example, the nonsensical assertion that “the Pan-American spirit is the spirit of equality and friendly understanding.”

The professor speaks more than once of the desirability of detachment in the historian. Yet his own class bias leaps from almost every chapter of his book. He writes with condescension of the Marxists and seems to identify their views with those of the narrow school of economic determinism. He believes that while the United States did occasionally lapse into some of the sins of imperialism, it is not an imperialist power. US occupation of backward countries, he also believes, was not without its blessings, for American military forces in such countries as Haiti and Cuba did carry through public health and sanitation measures. They built roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. Professor Perkins appears to be unaware that these incidental benefits of imperialist freebooting improved very little the lives of the masses. What’s more, they were entirely canceled out by American bolstering of backward economic and social forms (particularly the plantation system) of which reactionary native ruling classes were, and are, the beneficiaries and which condemn the people to abysmal poverty without end.

This seems to be beyond the comprehension of the author. But then one should not expect too much of a bourgeois professor.


Last updated on 30.3.2005