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.
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.
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.
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.
The Panama Canal Treaty, or more formally the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty of 1903, was Roosevelt's proudest accomplishment in office, but also his most controversial. Panama, a longtime colony of Columbia, revolted in a drive for independence. The U.S. had long wanted to build a canal through Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. During the revolt, Roosevelt situated a destroyer between Columbian naval forces and Panama to prevent Columbian forces from landing in Panama.
Meanwhile, the U.S. went ahead with negotiations on the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty without Panama. The treaty was signed between U.S. representatives and the Frenchman, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, the chief engineer who had worked for the French construction company that had previously tried, but failed, to build a canal.
Not surprisingly, this time the 'big stick' worked against cordial relations, as the Panamanians were not present for these talks, and they did not like the treaty terms. It was also implied that the U.S. would remove its military protection from Panama if Panama did not comply with the terms of the treaty. Naturally, this soured U.S.-Panamanian relations for many decades to come.
The Great White Fleet
During his presidency, Roosevelt had sixteen new battleships built. Departing from Hampton Roads, Virginia on December 16, 1907 and returning to Hampton Roads on February 22, 1909, this fourteen-month voyage of the Great White Fleet made port-of-calls on every continent except Antarctica. It was designed to showcase America's naval strength, make diplomatic contact, establish goodwill, and to perform humanitarian roles where possible. This expedition was a great example of Roosevelt's big stick diplomacy: it allowed him to symbolically project American power without actually having to use force. It was a stunningly successful public relations move.
Theodore Roosevelt's big stick diplomacy was rooted in a philosophy that goodwill and diplomacy could best be achieved if it were backed by strength. These can be seen in several policies of his. First, Roosevelt flexed his naval muscles during the Venezuela Crisis to ward off European aggressors. Second, he followed this up with the Roosevelt Corollary, which gave the U.S. the right in intervene in the internal affairs of another nation if its economic instability invited unwanted aggression. Third, he imposed himself in the Anthracite Coal Strike even though he had no legal standing because he felt the economic fallout warranted it. Fourth, the manner in which the U.S. excluded Panamanian participation in negotiating their own treaty terms demonstrates how power could sometimes override diplomacy. Lastly, the voyage of the Great White Fleet illustrated in dramatic fashion how diplomacy and power could coexist together.
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Roosevelt's Big Stick Diplomacy: Definition & Policy Quiz
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Why did Roosevelt intervene in the anthracite coal labor dispute?
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