GUNBOAT DIPLOMACY can be defined in a general way as any aggressive diplomatic activity carried out with the implicit or explicit use of military (usually naval) power. However, the term is most often associated with the activities of the Great Powers in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. In this period, the construction of steel-hulled vessels of relatively shallow draught (gunboats) that were heavily armed provided new opportunities for the projection of power on the part of rival imperial powers. In the case of the United States, gunboat diplomacy is probably most closely associated with Washington's diplomatic and military interventions in the Caribbean during the early decades of the twentieth century.
With the promulgation of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the use of naval power as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean and Latin America was explicitly foregrounded. Roosevelt, who had fought in the Spanish-American War (1898), wanted to make the United States the dominant power in the circum-Caribbean and across the Pacific. The U.S. Navy grew in size by ten battleships and four cruisers during Roosevelt's presidency. Under his stewardship the United States played a key role in Panama's break with Colombia and the building of the Panama Canal. He also presided over direct naval intervention in the Dominican Republic. Between 1905 and 1907, gunboat diplomacy ensured U.S. financial supervision and control in that nation while avoiding, at least initially, both the costs and the enmity that went with the establishment of a formal colony. The use of gunboat diplomacy, including the deployment of marines, in support of direct U.S. control over government finances was also central to Washington's involvement in Nicaragua between 1916 and 1933. Meanwhile, the United States intervened in Haiti in 1915, ostensibly out of concern that Germany was planning to establish submarine bases there; U.S. Marines remained in Haiti until 1934.
The high period of gunboat diplomacy can be said to have ended in 1933 with the adoption of the Good Neighbor Policy by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945). In the years prior to and immediately after World War II, the United States generally sought to exert its influence in Latin America and other parts of the world without resorting to the explicit use of military force that had characterized gunboat diplomacy.
With the onset of the Cold War, however, Washington turned increasingly to overt and covert forms of naval and military intervention in the Caribbean, Latin America, and beyond. Although Cold War conflict was governed by new imperatives, a number of Washington's post-1945 interventions are still regarded by some observers as updated forms of gunboat diplomacy.
Cable, James. Gunboat Diplomacy, 1919–1991: Political Applications of Limited Naval Force. 3d ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Challener, Richard D. Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 1898–1914. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Healy, David. Drive to Hegemony: The United States in the Caribbean, 1898–1917. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Langley, Lester D. The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898–1934. Rev. ed. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.