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American Imperialism in Latin America & the Caribbean

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  • 0:07 Recap of American Imperialism
  • 1:59 The Platt Amendment
  • 2:41 The Roosevelt Corollary
  • 4:03 Dollar Diplomacy and…
  • 5:53 The Panama Canal
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the United States entered a period of non-colonial imperial expansion throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Learn about the short-term and long-term effects of some of these policies in this video lesson.

Recap of American Imperialism

Back in 1823, President James Monroe had told the world that the United States was now the official protector and defender of the Western hemisphere, and European colonies were no longer welcome. But in reality, the U.S. was too concerned with its own expansion across the North American continent, and then with the Civil War, to actually enforce the Monroe Doctrine or take much of an interest in foreign affairs.

Meanwhile, European powers, especially Britain, were busily acquiring new empires in other parts of the world. Then suddenly, just before the turn of the 20th century, the United States industrialized and entered the race for empire, making the abrupt transition from isolationism to world superpower, and introducing what has been called the 'American Century.'

America's first new territory beyond the contiguous United States was the purchase of Alaska, followed by the annexation of Hawaii. There were diplomatic, military and economic inroads into Asia. Then came the Spanish-American War, after which the US acquired the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Cuba gained its independence from Spain, but was in the perfect position from which the United States could launch a new imperialist strategy.

Many nations in the Caribbean and Latin America seemed to be in constant political turmoil and poverty. The U.S. attempted to protect American interests and stabilize the region through non-colonial imperial expansion. This meant the United States would intervene in foreign affairs without actually taking control of any countries.

The Platt Amendment

In 1901, this began in Cuba. The island had gained its independence, but the U.S. was worried that European empires might consider Cuba an easy target once troops were removed. Congress passed the Platt Amendment, inserting provisions into Cuba's constitution that would prevent European intervention in the future, such as restrictions on their treaties and national debt. The Platt Amendment granted the United States permission to reoccupy the island if any of its provisions were violated. Additionally, it included a lease on Guantanamo Bay as an American naval base.

The Roosevelt Corollary

The Platt Amendment served as a precedent for President Theodore Roosevelt, who was looking for a way to assert U.S. authority in the Western hemisphere. For three quarters of a century, the Monroe Doctrine had warned European nations not to intervene in the Americas, but around the turn of the century, America was worried about them coming to collect their debts from struggling nations.

In his 1904 address to Congress, Roosevelt declared that the Monroe Doctrine compelled the U.S. to be an international police force. Basically, the United States would use its military to keep the Europeans out, and keep the rest of the Americas in line. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine dramatically shaped U.S. diplomatic policy.

Whereas the Monroe Doctrine had been mere words, the Roosevelt Corollary was backed by the might of a new and improved U.S. Navy. It was responsible for the deployment of American troops at least 35 times throughout the 20th century to preserve national interests throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It was truly the embodiment of President Roosevelt's philosophy, 'Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Stick.'

Dollar Diplomacy and Missionary Diplomacy

In addition to this expanded sphere of political and military influence, the Roosevelt Corollary helped to guarantee the foreign economic investments of many American citizens as well. President William Taft, elected in 1908, believed in using American economic power as much as its military might to expand U.S. influence. Taft encouraged American banks and investors to put money into emerging nations.

Called 'Dollar Diplomacy' by its detractors, Taft believed his policy would improve diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the nations whose infrastructures benefited from the investment, that it would stabilize shaky governments and prevent other imperialist nations from gaining influence. But continued political turmoil in the region meant that the U.S. had to invoke the Roosevelt Corollary on several occasions and use the military to protect American investments. For example, Dollar Diplomacy resulted in the American occupation of Nicaragua for 13 years and Haiti for 19 years.

President Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912, attempted to reverse the policies of his predecessors. In what some historians call 'Missionary Diplomacy,' Wilson claimed that the only good use of American power was not to gain political or economic dominance, but to convince oppressive regimes to adopt democratic governments. This policy has prompted many American actions even in the modern day, and in Wilson's time, left the United States on the brink of war with a Mexican dictator more than once.

The Panama Canal

The combined legacy of military, economic and diplomatic might is embodied in the construction of the Panama Canal. Before 1914, a boat trip from New York to San Francisco covered 12,000 miles; a canal could cut off more than half that distance. The United States had been considering such a project since the mid-19th century, but President Roosevelt was determined to finally make it happen. 'If we are to hold our own in the struggle for supremacy,' Roosevelt insisted, 'we must build the canal.'

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