Monroe Doctrine – A Brief History and Overview

by Glenn R. Swift

James Monroe


Monroe Doctrine, statement of United States policy on the activities and rights of European powers in the western hemisphere. It was made by President James Monroe in his seventh annual address to Congress on December 2, 1823; it eventually became one of the foundations of U.S. policy in Latin America. Because it was not supported by congressional legislation or affirmed in international law, Monroe’s statement initially remained only a declaration of policy; its increasing use and popularity elevated it to a principle, specifically termed the Monroe Doctrine after the mid-1840s.


The Monroe Doctrine was developed because the United States and Britain were concerned over the possibility of European colonial expansion in the Americas. Britain feared that Spain would attempt to reclaim its former colonies, which had recently gained independence. This would have caused Britain’s trade with these new nations to decline. The United States wanted to ensure that no European nations would attempt further colonialization in the western hemisphere. The British foreign minister George Canning suggested a joint venture with the United States to preserve the interests of both nations. However, John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State, convinced President Monroe that the United States should develop its own policy which would safeguard U.S. interests independent of Britain. Why, Adams asked, should the United States appear “as a cockboat in the wake of a British man-of-war?”

The Original Statement

In his two most notable pronouncements, Monroe asserted that European powers could no longer colonize the American continents and that they should not interfere with the newly independent Spanish American republics. He specifically warned Europeans against attempting to impose monarchy on independent American nations but added that the United States would not interfere in existing European colonies or in Europe itself. The last point reaffirmed George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, in which he urged the United States to avoid entangling alliances; however, the Monroe Doctrine did not represent an isolationist policy.

By thus separating Europe from America, Monroe emphasized the existence of distinct American, and specifically U.S., interests. He rejected the European political system of monarchy, believing that no American nation would adopt it and that its presence anywhere in the western hemisphere endangered the peace and safety of the young United States. He also implied that the United States alone should complete the remaining settlement of North America.

Despite the boldness of his assertions, Monroe provided no means to ensure the enforcement of his ideas. The United States alone would not have been able to uphold this policy, but Monroe knew that Britain, with its powerful navy, also opposed European intervention in Spain’s struggle to restore its colonies.

Further Development in the 19th Century

As far as the United States was concerned, the Monroe Doctrine meant little until the 1840s, when presidents John Tyler and then James Polk used it to justify U.S. expansion. In 1845 Polk invoked the doctrine against British threats in California and Oregon, as Tyler had done in 1842 against French and British efforts to prevent the U.S. annexation of Texas. In 1848 Polk warned that European involvement in the Yucatán could cause the United States to take control of the region. Despite Polk’s use of the doctrine and its increasing popularity in the 1850s, the American Civil War greatly reduced its effectiveness during the 1860s; hence, Spain’s reacquisition of the Dominican Republic (1861) and France’s intervention in Mexico (1862-1867) went largely unopposed.

During the 1870s and 1880s the Monroe Doctrine took on new meaning. The United States began to interpret it both as prohibiting the transfer of American territory from one European power to another, and as granting the United States exclusive control over any canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Central America. The latter claim was recognized by Britain in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty in 1901. The United States continued to expand the meaning of the doctrine when President Grover Cleveland successfully pressured Britain in 1895 to submit its boundary dispute with Venezuela to arbitration.

The Monroe Doctrine in the 20th Century

In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt claimed, in what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary, that the United States could intervene in any Latin American nation guilty of internal or external misconduct. Roosevelt’s statement was precipitated by Germany, Britain, and Italy, which were trying to force Venezuela to repay debts to those countries. Roosevelt involved the United States in settling the matter. The corollary was part of President Roosevelt’s address to Congress that year. Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine set a precedent and therefore justified subsequent U.S. intervention in Caribbean states during the administrations of Presidents William Taft and Woodrow Wilson. By the 1920s Latin American countries were protesting U.S. involvement.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, the United States reduced the doctrine’s scope by favoring action in concert with the other American republics. The Platt Amendment, which was part of the U.S. treaty with Cuba in 1903 and which provided for U.S. involvement in the rule of Cuba, was revoked in 1934. This emphasis on acting with other nations, or Pan-Americanism, continued during and after World War II with the Act of Chapultepec (1945) and the Rio Pact (1947), which declared that an attack on one American nation was an attack on all. The formation of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948 was designed to achieve the aims of the Monroe Doctrine through Pan-Americanism. Subsequently, however, fear of Communism in Latin America prompted the United States to return to unilateral actions against Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1961), and the Dominican Republic (1965), without consulting its Latin American allies.

The administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) openly espoused the Monroe Doctrine once again as it resisted Communism in the Americas. This reaffirmed the original intent of the Monroe Doctrine to prevent European expansion in the Americas. Despite this position, Reagan supported Britain’s claim to the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina in 1982.


As a component of foreign policy, the Monroe Doctrine has had considerable effect and has had strong support in the United States, in part because it has promoted U.S. interests. The doctrine has served other American nations, too, particularly because it asserts their right to independence. Because the doctrine as originally formulated made no clear distinction between the interests of the United States and those of its neighbors, however, the United States has used it to justify intervention in the internal affairs of other American nations. Given growing U.S. anxiety about the unstable politics of Latin American countries, intervention has been especially prevalent and controversial in the 20th century.

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