The Monroe Doctrine Shaped North America

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, January 29, 2023

David Swanson is the author of the new book The Monroe Doctrine at 200 and What to Replace It With.

We’re often taught that the Monroe Doctrine wasn’t acted on until decades after its articulation, or that it wasn’t acted on as a license for imperialism until it was altered or reinterpreted by later generations. This is not false, but it is overstated. One of the reasons that it is overstated is the same reason that we’re sometimes taught that U.S. imperialism didn’t begin until 1898, and the same reason that the war on Vietnam, and later the war on Afghanistan, were referred to as “the longest lasting U.S. war.” The reason is that Native Americans are still not treated as being and having been real people, with real nations, with the wars against them being real wars. The portion of North America that ended up in the United States is treated as having been gained through non-imperial expansion, or even as not having involved expansion at all, even though the actual conquest was extremely deadly, and even though some of those behind this massive imperial expansion intended it to include all of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. The conquest of much (but not all) of North America was the most dramatic implementation of the Monroe Doctrine, even if rarely thought of as being related to it at all. The first sentence of the Doctrine itself was opposing Russian colonialism in North America. The U.S. conquest of (much of) North America, while it was being done, was frequently justified as opposition to European colonialism.

Much of the credit or blame for drafting the Monroe Doctrine is given to President James Monroe’s Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. But there is hardly any particular personal artistry to the phrasing. The question of what policy to articulate was debated by Adams, Monroe, and others, with the ultimate decision, as well as the selection of Adams to be secretary of state, falling to Monroe. He and his fellow “founding fathers” had created a single presidency precisely in order to be able to place responsibility on someone.

James Monroe was the fifth U.S. president, and the last founding father president, following in the path of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, his friends and neighbors in what’s now called Central Virginia, and of course following the only other person to run unopposed for a second term, fellow Virginian from the part of Virginia where Monroe grew up, George Washington. Monroe also generally falls in those others’ shadows. Here in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live, and where Monroe and Jefferson lived, a statue of Monroe, once found in the middle of the grounds of the University of Virginia, was long ago replaced by a statue of the Greek poet Homer. The biggest tourist attraction here is Jefferson’s house, with Monroe’s house receiving a tiny fraction of the attention. In the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton,” James Monroe is not transformed into an African-American opponent of slavery and lover of freedom and show tunes because he isn’t included at all.

But Monroe is a significant figure in the creation of the United States as we know it today, or at least he should be. Monroe was a great believer in wars and militaries, and probably the greatest advocate in the early decades of the United States for military spending and the establishment of a far-flung standing army — something opposed by Monroe’s mentors Jefferson and Madison. It would not be a stretch to name Monroe the founding father of the military industrial complex (to use the phrase Eisenhower had edited down from “military industrial congressional complex” or, as peace activists have begun denominating it following the variation — one among many — used by my friend Ray McGovern, the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think Tank complex, or MICIMATT).

Two centuries of ever increasing militarism and secrecy is a massive topic. Even limiting the topic to the Western Hemisphere, provide in my recent book only the highlights, plus some themes, some examples, some lists and numbers, to hint at the full picture as far as I can make it out. It’s a saga of military actions, including coups, and threats thereof, but also economic measures.

In 1829 Simón Bolívar wrote that the United States “seem destined to plague America to misery in the name of liberty.” Any widespread view of the United States as a potential protector in Latin America was very short-lived. According to a biographer of Bolívar, “There was a universal feeling in South America that this first-born republic, which ought to have helped the younger ones, was, on the contrary, only trying to encourage discord and to foment difficulties so as to intervene at the appropriate moment.”

What strikes me in looking at the early decades of the Monroe Doctrine, and even much later, is how many times governments in Latin America asked the United States to uphold the Monroe Doctrine and intervene, and the United States refused. When the U.S. government did decide to act on the Monroe Doctrine outside of North America, it was also outside of the Western Hemisphere. In 1842, Secretary of State Daniel Webster warned Britain and France away from Hawaii. In other words, the Monroe Doctrine was not upheld by defending Latin American nations, but it would be frequently employed to sabotage them.

David Swanson is the author of the new book The Monroe Doctrine at 200 and What to Replace It With.

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