Roosevelt's Big Stick Diplomacy: Definition & Policy

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Hill

Matthew Hill received Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Psychology from Columbia International University. Hill also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University. He has over 10 years of teaching experience as a professor and online instructor for courses like American History, Western Civilization, Religious History of the United States, and more.

Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States of America, was well known for his 'big stick' politics - meaning that he believed in balancing diplomacy with power. This lesson defines 'big stick' diplomacy and examines how it influenced national and international politics via the Roosevelt Corollary. Updated: 11/24/2021

Roots of Big Stick Diplomacy

The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt marked a shift in American foreign relations. More than any president before him, Roosevelt wanted to project American power around the globe. He put his money where his mouth was. He served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and fought in the Spanish-American War in the Battle of San Juan Hill. He then served as Vice-President under William McKinley. It was in this role that he first used the analogy of the 'big stick' in a public address. In a speech at the Minnesota State Fair on 2 September 1901 he stated: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick - you will go far.' Historians point out that he had actually used that phrase in a private letter to Henry W. Sprague two years earlier.

Roosevelt attributed the phrase to a West African proverb, but scholars have not found this phrase in any African literature to date. Either way, his intended meaning, more than its origin, is more important. On the surface it sounds as if he was advocating a power-based policy, but its intent was more nuanced. His point was that diplomacy and goodwill was preferable, but ineffective unless backed up by strength. We'll look at several examples of Roosevelt's balancing diplomacy with power during his presidency.

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Crisis in Venezuela

The Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-1903 occurred when Venezuela defaulted on loans it owed to Germany and Great Britain. In response, the two European countries blockaded Venezuela's coastline as a show of force. Roosevelt, livid at this show of force, responded with naval exercises in the Caribbean. In time, a payment plan was worked out through arbitration. A similar issue occurred when the Dominican Republic defaulted on its foreign loans. In this case, the U.S. took direct control of Santo Domingo's custom houses in order to put its financial affairs in order.

Roosevelt Corollary

The Roosevelt Corollary is rooted in the Monroe Doctrine. In response to the liberation movements that occurred when Latin America became independent from Spain and Portugal, President James Monroe warned Europeans that the hemisphere was now off limits to future colonization. When events in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic looked like they would lead to European meddling, Roosevelt issued the Roosevelt Corollary, which stated that the U.S. had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of a Latin American nation to manage its finances to avoid destabilization. This policy was somewhat contradictory and self-serving, however, as it warned Europeans not to intervene, but it gave the U.S. permission to intervene to avoid the intervention of others (such as Europeans).

Anthracite Coal Strike

The anthracite coal strike of 1902 is a domestic example of how Roosevelt wed diplomacy with force. The strike began in May in eastern Pennsylvania when coal miners, led by United Mine Workers president John Mitchell, demanded higher wages and better working conditions. The owners refused, and the price of coal skyrocketed. In October, Roosevelt met with Mitchell and the company owners in the White House to hash out an agreement. Both sides dragged their feet, and Roosevelt threatened to send in the military to operate the mines until a settlement was reached. Roosevelt had no legal standing in this, but he felt the situation warranted it given how much it negatively impacted the local economies.

A deal was reached that gave the miners shorter work hours and a ten percent raise. With this event, Roosevelt became the first president to directly intervene in a labor dispute. He also set a new pattern: the federal government, which historically sided with management over labor issues, sided this time with labor.

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