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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.
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.
Economically, the policy paid off, ultimately helping the U.S. recover from the Great Depression. The Good Neighbor Policy lowered tariff walls between the U.S. and Latin America and resulted in freer trade. U.S. exports to Latin America increased, and U.S. investment in the region rose.
Militarily, the Good Neighbor Policy eventually brought all of Latin America over to the side of the Allies during World War II. Mexico became a staunch U.S. ally, and it was the only Latin American nation to send troops into combat. Brazil remained neutral until a spate of German submarine attacks killed more than one thousand Brazilians, and the country declared war on Germany in August 1942. Among Latin American countries, Argentina remained stubbornly neutral for the longest duration during World War II. Anti-American sentiment and pro-Nazi military leaders kept Argentina from officially supporting the Allies until the very end of the conflict. U.S. and international pressure eventually pushed Argentine leaders to declare war on Germany and Japan in March 1945, just a few months before World War II ended.
Despite the success of the Good Neighbor Policy between 1933 and 1945, U.S.-Latin America relations quickly turned sour as the Cold War began. In an effort to stop communist influence in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. once again pursued an interventionist and militarized foreign policy towards Latin America between the 1950s and the 1980s. This sordid legacy overshadowed the amicable relations under the Good Neighbor Policy and remains an issue today between the United States and several Latin American countries.
The Good Neighbor Policy, issued in 1933, reversed the U.S. approach of military intervention in Latin American affairs that had taken shape during the mid-nineteenth century. The new policy had two rationales. First, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. needed new economic relationships with major Latin American countries. Second, the U.S. sought to solidify alliances with Latin America to counter the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the 1930s and during World War II.
The Good Neighbor Policy succeeded on both of these counts. It resulted in freer trade between the U.S. and Latin America and brought Latin American countries over to the side of the Allies during World War II. With the dawning of the Cold War in the late 1940s, however, the U.S. renounced the principles of the Good Neighbor Policy and ushered in long period of contentious relations with Latin America, which lasted through the 1980s.
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