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Theodore Roosevelt: Foreign Affairs

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Theodore Roosevelt inherited an empire-in-the-making when he assumed office in 1901. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States. In addition, the United States established a protectorate over Cuba and annexed Hawaii. For the first time in its history, the United States had acquired an overseas empire. As President, Roosevelt wanted to increase the influence and prestige of the United States on the world stage and make the country a global power. He also believed that the exportation of American values and ideals would have an ennobling effect on the world. TR's diplomatic maxim was to "speak softly and carry a big stick," and he maintained that a chief executive must be willing to use force when necessary while practicing the art of persuasion. He therefore sought to assemble a powerful and reliable defense for the United States to avoid conflicts with enemies who might prey on weakness. Roosevelt followed McKinley in ending the relative isolationism that had dominated the country since the mid-1800s, acting aggressively in foreign affairs, often without the support or consent of Congress.

Philippines

One of the situations that Roosevelt inherited upon taking office was governance of the Philippines, an island nation in Asia. During the Spanish-American War, the United States had taken control of the archipelago from Spain. When Roosevelt appointed William Howard Taft as the first civilian governor of the islands in 1901, Taft recommended the creation of a civil government with an elected legislative assembly. The Taft administration was able to negotiate with Congress for a bill that included a governor general, an independent judiciary, and the legislative assembly.

Panama Canal

The most spectacular of Roosevelt's foreign policy initiatives was the establishment of the Panama Canal. For years, U.S. naval leaders had dreamed of building a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Central America. During the war with Spain, American ships in the Pacific had to steam around the tip of South America in two-month voyages to join the U.S. fleet off the coast of Cuba. In 1901, the United States negotiated with Britain for the support of an American-controlled canal that would be constructed either in Nicaragua or through a strip of land—Panama—owned by Colombia. In a flourish of closed-door maneuvers, the Senate approved a route through Panama, contingent upon Colombian approval. When Colombia balked at the terms of the agreement, the United States supported a Panamanian revolution with money and a naval blockade, the latter of which prevented Colombian troops from landing in Panama. In 1903, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama gave the United States perpetual control of the canal for a price of $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000.

When he visited Panama in 1906 to observe the building of the canal, Roosevelt became the first U.S. President to leave the country during his term of office. He wanted to see the spectacle, which became known as one of the world's greatest engineering feats. Nearly 30,000 workers labored ten-hour days for ten years to build the $400-million canal, during which time American officials were able to counteract the scourge of Yellow Fever that had ravaged large numbers of canal workers. The Panama Canal was finally completed in 1914; by 1925, more than 5,000 merchant ships had traversed the forty miles of locks each year. Once operational, it shortened the voyage from San Francisco to New York by more than 8,000 miles. The process of building the canal generated advances in U.S. technology and engineering skills. This project also converted the Panama Canal Zone into a major staging area for American military forces, making the United States the dominant military power in Central America.

Roosevelt Corollary

Latin America consumed a fair amount of Roosevelt's time and energy during his first term as President. Venezuela became a focus of his attention in 1902 when Germany and Britain sent ships to blockade that country's coastline. The European nations had given loans to Venezuela that the Venezuelan dictator refused to repay. Although both Germany and Britain assured the Americans that they did not have any territorial designs on Venezuela, Roosevelt felt aggrieved by their actions and demanded that they agree to arbitration to resolve the dispute. Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) also encountered problems with European countries. Again, European investors had appealed to their governments to collect money from a debt-ridden nation Latin American nation. After the Dominican government appealed to the United States, Roosevelt ordered an American collector to assume control of the customs houses and collect duties to avoid possible European military action.

During the Santo Domingo crisis, Roosevelt formulated what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine, issued in 1823, stated that the United States would not accept European intervention in the Americas. Roosevelt realized that if nations in the Western Hemisphere continued to have chronic problems, such as the inability to repay foreign debt, they would become targets of European invention. To preempt such action and to maintain regional stability, the President drafted his corollary: the United States would intervene in any Latin American country that manifested serious economic problems. The corollary announced that the United States would serve as the "policeman" of the Western Hemisphere, a policy which eventually created much resentment in Latin America.

Peacemaker

Though often recognized for the aggressiveness of his foreign policy, Roosevelt was also a peacemaker. His most successful effort at bringing belligerent powers to the negotiating table involved a crisis that had broken out in East Asia. Fighting had erupted between Russia and Japan in 1904, following Japan's attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. As the Russo-Japanese War raged on with many Japanese victories, Roosevelt approached both nations about mediating peace negotiations. The President longed for a world in which countries would turn to arbitration instead of war to settle international disputes, and he offered his services to this end. Although Russia and Japan initially refused his offer, they eventually accepted his "good offices" to help negotiate a peace, meeting with Roosevelt in 1905 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. For his role as mediator, Roosevelt won the Nobel Prize for Peace, the first U.S. President to do so. Roosevelt also arbitrated a dispute between France and Germany over the division of Morocco. Britain had recognized French control over Morocco in return for French recognition of British control in Egypt. Germany felt excluded by this agreement and challenged France's role in Morocco. Although the French had a weak claim to Morocco, the United States could not reject it without rejecting Britain's claim as well. The settlement in 1906 reached at Algeciras, Spain, saved face for Germany but gave France undisputed control over Morocco; it also paved the way for British control over Egypt. Some historians think that Roosevelt's intervention in these two hot spots averted fighting that might have engulfed all of Europe and Asia in a world war. In any case, Roosevelt's actions greatly strengthened Anglo-French ties with the United States.

Great White Fleet

Roosevelt believed that a large and powerful Navy was an essential component of national defense because it served as a strong deterrent to America's enemies. During his tenure as President, he built the U.S. Navy into one of the largest in the world, by convincing Congress to add battleships to the fleet and increasing its number of enlisted men. In 1907, he proposed sending the fleet out on a world tour. His reasons were many: to show off the "Great White Fleet" and impress other countries around the world with U.S. naval power; to allow the Navy to gain the experience of worldwide travel; and to drum up domestic support for his naval program. In December 1907, a fleet of sixteen battleships left Hampton Roads, Virginia, and traveled around the world, returning home fourteen months later in February 1909.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Sidney Milkis

Professor Milkis is the White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. His writings include:

American Government: Balancing Democracy and Rights (Co-authored with Marc Landy, McGraw-Hill, 2004)

Presidential Greatness (Co-authored with Marc Landy, University Press of Kansas, 2000)

Progressivism and the New Democracy (Co-edited with Jerome Mileur, University of Massachusetts Press, 1999)

The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776–1990 (Co-authored with Michael Nelson, CQ Press, 1990)