Good Neighbor Policy: Definition & Summary

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

Initiated in 1933, the Good Neighbor Policy committed the U.S. to a noninterventionist foreign policy in Latin America, reversing a decades-long trend. Learn about the policy and its effects, and check your understanding with a quiz.


As leader of the free world, the United States admittedly has its ups and downs with other countries. In the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. reversed its aggressive foreign policy towards Latin America and forged a new economic and diplomatic relationship on gentler terms. This shift in twentieth-century U.S. policy towards Latin America began with the Good Neighbor Policy.

From the late nineteenth century to the 1920s, the United States had a rocky relationship with Latin America. In the 1840s, the U.S. invaded Mexico under dubious circumstances and ended up seizing half of that country. In the 1890s, the U.S. went to war with Spain and eventually came to control several of Spain's former Caribbean colonies, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft made it U.S. policy to militarily intervene in various Latin American countries in order to provide favorable conditions for the operation of American businesses. This type of interventionist foreign policy was considered by many Latin Americans to constitute neocolonialism, basically a strong country bullying a weaker nation for its own benefit. This term suggested that U.S. economic and military involvement in Latin American affairs was simply another manifestation of the older type of colonialism spearheaded by Spain and Portugal from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

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Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy

In 1933, the U.S. abandoned an aggressive and militaristic foreign policy approach to Latin America. In President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural speech in March of that year, he spoke of 'the policy of the good neighbor' in international relations. In practical terms, the Good Neighbor Policy meant the U.S. would pursue a noninterventionist approach towards Latin America, no longer utilizing military force to exercise influence in the region.

President Roosevelt had two main reasons for pursuing the Good Neighbor Policy. The first reason was motivated by economics. By 1933, the world was in the depths of the worst economic depression in history, known as the Great Depression. The Good Neighbor Policy allowed the U.S. to revise trade relations with major Latin American nations. Such reciprocal trade agreements were aimed at bolstering the sagging U.S. economy. Under this economic element of the Good Neighbor Policy, U.S. exports to Latin America doubled by 1940. The Good Neighbor Policy would not only help the U.S. replace its dwindling Axis-Power economic trade with that of the largest and wealthiest Latin American countries, like Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, but it would also bring those countries into a military alliance with the United States.

Thus, FDR's second rationale for issuing the Good Neighbor Policy was to counter the growing threat of the Axis Powers to the Western Hemisphere. With Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan pursuing a belligerent and militarized foreign policy by the mid- to late-1930s, U.S. officials looked to protect North and South America from a potential invasion.

When World War II began in 1939, Roosevelt and other U.S. leaders believed any potential invasion of the U.S. from the Axis Powers would occur through Latin America, whose countries were militarily and economically weaker than the U.S. Brazil and Argentina in particular had strong trade relationships with Nazi Germany, and Argentina harbored anti-American sentiment and fascist/Nazi sympathies. So the Good Neighbor Policy aimed to wean those countries away from their economic and diplomatic links with the Axis Powers and bring them into the orbit of the U.S. and the Allied Powers during World War II.

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