Big Stick Diplomacy

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"Speak softly and carry a big stickyou will go far." With these words President Theodore Roosevelt (19011909) described his approach to foreign policy. The press characterized Roosevelt as a menacing ogre brandishing a club as his aggressive policies bullied smaller nations into conforming to U.S. desires. Indeed, the "big stick" was a sizable naval force (the "white fleet") sent on a world tour by Roosevelt to display the controlled might of the United States. One important consideration of U.S. policy makers was the sugar market. At the time Europe was the global leader in sugar production. The United States saw an opportunity to promote American economic interests in this market through Cuba's sugar production.

A second issue involved Venezuela and Santo Domingo (now known as the Dominican Republic). These two countries had incurred debts to several European countriesdebts that they could not pay. In December 1902, British and German ships blockaded Venezuelan ports in an effort to force payment. Known as the Venezuela Affair, this action violated the cornerstone document of U.S. foreign policythe Monroe Doctrine. Promulgated in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay clear of further involvement in the affairs of smaller nations in the Western Hemisphere. Though Roosevelt stepped in and settled the dispute without bloodshed, he realized that something more needed to be done to prevent such actions by Europe in the future. This led to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

The Roosevelt Corollary was published on December 6, 1904 as an amendment to the Monroe Doctrine. It stated that the United States may be forced "in flagrant cases of . . . wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power" in the Caribbean, Central America, or South America. Roosevelt clearly had the power at his command. In 1902 he had obtained congressional approval to strengthen the U.S. Navy with 10 new battleships and four cruisers. He reasoned that the expanded fleet would gain the United States greater clout in international affairs.

To maximize this clout, the fleet needed to be readily available in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Roosevelt opened negotiations with the Republic of Columbia to secure the right to build a canal across Panama. This canal could be used not only as a military passage, but also for commercial shipping, an important point to U.S. farmers, manufacturers, and shippers looking to expand their markets. However, the Colombian Senate rejected a treaty giving the U.S. a 99-year lease on a canal corridor across the Isthmus of Panama. Roosevelt defied the U.S. Congress and bent the rules of international law by backing a revolution in Panama. Panama seceded from Colombia, becoming the Republic of Panama. Within two weeks the United States had recognized the new "nation of Panama" and Panama had signed a treaty with the U.S. and a lease that allowed the construction of the Panama Canal.

Contemporary critics of Roosevelt's somewhat muscular policies denounced them as imperialist. Roosevelt did not flinch from the term. He rather reveled in the idea of an American empire. But, like the "dollar diplomacy" of his successor, William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt was not anxious to administer a traditional European-style empire. Administering the Philippinesa task left over from the Spanish-American Warwas more than enough trouble. For Roosevelt, it was a matter that the small nations of the Western Hemisphere engaged in international trade should pay their bills so that the U.S. might avoid going to war with a European creditor nation over violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt's own words seem to confirm this: "No independent nation in [Latin] America need have fear of aggression from the United States. It behooves each one to maintain order within its own borders. When this is done, they can rest assured that, they have nothing to dread from outside interference." And in his own, less formal style Roosevelt had this to say about U.S. interest in the Dominican Republic: "I have about as much desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to."

Big Stick Diplomacy continued to be a dominant aspect of U.S. foreign policy through the 1980s. From President Woodrow Wilson's (19131921) intervention in the Mexican Revolution to the U.S. funding of the anti-Communist Contra guerillas in Nicaragua, the United States continues to employ impressive military strength and covert action in its Caribbean sphere of influence.

See also: Dollar Diplomacy, Imperialism, Monroe Doctrine, Panama Canal Treaty


Grant, George E. Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1997.

Collin, Richard H. "Symbiosis versus Hegemony: New Directions in the Foreign Relations Historiography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft." Diplomatic History, vol. 19, Number 3, 1995.

"Big Stick Diplomacy Can Work," [cited March 12, 1999] available from the World Wide Web @

"Teddy-the bear in the bully pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt Could Be Brash and Outrageous, But He Shaped the Modern Presidency," [cited March 12, 1999] available from the World Wide Web @

The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Incorporated, 1998, s.v. "Roosevelt, Theodore."