The Roosevelt Corollary: 119 years of U.S. imperialist domination

It was 119 years ago today when, in his State of the Union address, President Theodore Roosevelt announced his infamous addition to the Monroe Doctrine known as the “Roosevelt Corollary.” For organizers against war, imperialism, and racism, it’s important to reflect on the U.S.’s history of imperial ambitions and violence, and the Roosevelt Corollary is particularly useful to study because its intentions are unclouded with “humanitarian” rhetoric and because it is still the guiding doctrine of the U.S. today.

What is the Monroe Doctrine?

The Monroe Doctrine, which President James Monroe implemented 200 years ago, on December 2, 1823, indirectly threatened European powers if they continued intervening in what Monroe and the nascent capitalist and colonialist class he represented saw as “their” property: the Americas. In essence, the Monroe Doctrine passively told the Spanish, French, and British colonial powers that their occupation of Latin America “threatened” U.S. security. In other words, they had to recognize the Americas as the United States’ colonial backyard.

 In 1904, Roosevelt declared more specifically and directly that the U.S. had “international police power” in Latin America and the Caribbean, specifically to “stabilize” countries as it saw fit and where it determined there was “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation.” This corollary also asserted that this was intended to stop European military involvement—which of course threatened the then unrealized imperial U.S.

The justification for the corollary

The Roosevelt Corollary was invoked after the fact to justify the United State’s seizure of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898. The U.S. immediately established itself as the colonial overlord of these territories, installing U.S. military “governments” in all four areas. That Guam and the Philippines are outside the area covered by the Corollary is just one obvious sign of the larger ambitions behind the policy, which Roosevelt articulated in under 10 minutes.

In the treaty with Spain, Cuba was granted independence, but again, this did not align with the U.S.’s real interests. Despite passing the Teller Amendment in 1898 promising Cuba that the U.S. had no plan to annex its southern neighbor, the U.S. then passed the Platt Amendment, granting itself the right to “militarily stabilize” Cuba against external and internal forces. Additionally, the U.S. forced the “independent republic” to agree that the U.S. had the legal right to intervene in Cuba to protect “life, property, and individual liberty”—except, apparently, the individual liberties to have an actually independent homeland or the freedom from being invaded by a foreign country.

A century of imperialism

The U.S. empire continued to interfere, organize, and sponsor coups, and directly invade; they raided and robbed nearly every country in Latin America. The U.S. used “dollar diplomacy” to exert economic control, and then used what Roosevelt called the “big stick”—brutal military invasion spearheaded by the U.S. Navy—to punish the continent.

As is always the case with empires, the U.S. specifically targeted countries connected to their rivals, namely the colonies of their European competitors, and oppressed nations who dared stand up for themselves. For example, 110 years after the Haitian slave revolution, one of the most remarkable accomplishments in modern history, the U.S. used its naval forces to seize all of Haiti’s gold reserves. They brought Haiti’s gold back to the U.S. to First National City Bank, now called Citibank.

The U.S. also occupied Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, manipulated Panama and Colombia into fighting a war, and intervened on behalf of and against multiple successive leaders in the Mexican Revolution (sometimes simultaneously backing the President and active rebels). The U.S. invaded Honduras seven times in 22 years to protect the interests of fruit companies.

To this day, our task is to overthrow the Monroe Doctrine

That is the real legacy of the Monroe Doctrine: generations of theft without compensation, murder without punishment, naked imperialism, and the subjugation of a continent. Successive administrations, Democrat and Republican, have sought to impose U.S. hegemony in Latin America.

Anti-war organizers should study and remember this history so we are not misled when the media calls this or that member of the U.S. government a hawk or a dove. This history shows us that “isolationists” like Woodrow Wilson are just as willing as overt colonizers like Theodore Roosevelt, Biden just as much as Trump or Obama, to invoke the U.S.’s self-appointed role as “police.” It is no accident that this is the language they use. Like IMPD, they grant themselves undemocratic power and unleash violence and force on oppressed people who have the temerity to resist.

In Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s 2020 speech on yet another U.S. blockade against the country, he likened it to the “darkest times of the Monroe Doctrine.” The U.S. empire still refuses to tolerate any nation that dares to break free from colonialism and imperialism. Yet 119 years later, the resistance continues and, soon, it will prevail.

Featured photo: A protester holds a sign during an April 25, 2021 protest in solidarity with Cuba in downtown Indianapolis organized by PSL Indianapolis, Indy10 Black Lives Matter, ANSWER Indiana, Cosecha Indiana, and YDSA of IUPUI. Credit: Indianapolis Liberator.