Wilsonian Missionary Diplomacy

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Wilsonian Missionary Diplomacy

Roger R. Trask

"Missionary diplomacy" is a descriptive label often applied to the policies and practices of the United States in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson (19131921). According to Arthur S. Link in Wilson: The New Freedom (p. 278), "[Secretary of State William Jennings] Bryan and Wilson were both fundamentally missionaries of democracy, driven by inner compulsions to give other peoples the blessings of democracy and inspired by the confidence that they knew better how to promote the peace and well-being of other countries than did the leaders of those countries themselves." Wilson related both missionary diplomacy and the New Freedom, his domestic program, to his concepts of morality and democratic government. Despite Wilson's admirable ideas and objectives, missionary diplomacy was a disaster. Perhaps some of the historians who have placed Wilson high in the presidential pantheon have not given enough consideration to the failure of missionary diplomacy.


Woodrow Wilson came to the presidency with little knowledge of or interest in foreign affairs. His well-known remark to a Princeton friend, "It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs," seemed to emphasize his concentration on domestic questions. But from the start of his term, Wilson saw close relationships between domestic and foreign policies. The New Freedom envisaged a return to free competition in the United States. The monopolistic interests had to be destroyed at home and their influence in foreign policy dispelled, and thus Wilson's initial rejection of "dollar diplomacy." Although he was not unqualifiedly hostile to business interests, he believed that their activities ought to serve, rather than dominate, the public interest.

Wilson's ethical and religious beliefs also profoundly influenced his foreign policy. Nations, like individuals, should adhere to high ethical and moral standards. Democracy, Wilson thought, was the most Christian of governmental systems, suitable for all peoples. The democratic United States thus had a moral mandate for world leadership. At the end of World War I, the president saw the League of Nations as an instrument for the application of Wilsonian democracy on an international scale.


When Wilson took office in March 1913, the immediate problems he faced in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean gave him opportunities to apply these concepts to Latin American policy. He promptly presented a draft Latin American policy statement to his cabinet. Most of the cabinet thought Wilson's proposal hasty and radical; it had not been discussed with Bryan or other advisers, or with Latin American diplomats in Washington. D.C. Wilson held firm, arguing that the change in administration in Washington could not be the occasion for a wave of irresponsible revolutions in Latin America. His statement appeared in the press on 12 March 1913.

Wilson said that his administration desired the "most cordial understanding and cooperation" with Latin America. "As friends we shall prefer those who act in the interest of peace and honor, who protect private rights, and respect the restraints of constitutional provision." Wilson concluded by extending "the hand of genuine disinterested friendship." The statement was a curious mixture of Wilson's commitment to democracy and constitutionalism, a profession of neighborly friendship, and a threat against revolutionists. He put forward a significant change in United States recognition policy: de facto governments would have to be constitutionally legitimate in order to gain recognition. Otherwise, Wilson's statement did not really change Latin American policy.

Wilson's address to the Southern Commercial Congress at Mobile, Alabama, on 27 October 1913 presumably did. He predicted improved and closer relations between the United States and its southern neighbors. The United States would seek a "spiritual union" with Latin America and the freeing of those nations from the exploitative nature of foreign concessions. Referring to the Panama Canal, then under construction, he noted, "While we physically cut two continents asunder, we spiritually unite them. It is a spiritual union which we seek." The canal would "open the world to a commerce of intelligence, of thought and sympathy between north and south." Wilson deplored the exploitative nature of foreign concessions in Latin American nations. "I rejoice in nothing so much as in the prospect that they will now be emancipated from these conditions, and we ought to be the first to take part in assisting that emancipation." In conclusion, Wilson emphasized his commitment to "constitutional liberty."

As Wilson's first term progressed, the promise of the Mobile address disintegrated. United States intervention in Latin America escalated to heights perhaps beyond the comprehension of earlier practitioners of "big stick" and dollar diplomacy. Missionary diplomacy created seemingly permanent hostility between the United States and Latin America. This was especially true in Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, which experienced Wilsonian interventionism in its most virulent forms.


Wilson first tested his Latin American policy in Mexico. In February 1913, Mexico entered a new stage in the epic revolution that had begun in 1910 against the dictator Porfirio Díaz. Francisco Madero, the leader of the rebels, was a moderate revolutionist who eventually aroused the ire of radicals like Emiliano Zapata, who demanded redistribution of land to peasants, as well as Francisco (Pancho) Villa, Pascual Orozco, and Felix Díaz, nephew of the deposed dictator.

President William Howard Taft, although unenthusiastic, had recognized Madero as president of Mexico in November 1911. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, concerned about threats to U.S. business interests in Mexico, maintained cool relations with the Madero government. In the "Pact of the Embassy" (19 February 1913), Ambassador Wilson joined with Victoriano Huerta, Madero's top general, and Felix Díaz in a plan to replace Madero: Huerta as provisional president, and Díaz as a candidate in a later presidential election. Huerta assumed the presidency after pressuring Madero and Vice President José Maria Pino Suárez to resign. Apparently some of Huerta's men assassinated Madero and Pino Suárez, although they had been assured of safe conduct on 22 February. Taft left the problem of recognizing Huerta to the incoming Wilson administration. Wilson believed that Huerta had gained power by undemocratic and unconstitutional means, and the MaderoPino Suárez murders shocked him. Furthermore, the president had deep suspicions about Ambassador Wilson, who flooded Washington with dispatches lauding Huerta and asserting that the new Mexican leader would cooperate with United States interests. President Wilson, however, applied the tough tests of constitutional legitimacy to the Mexican regime.

The president sent a friend, the journalist William Bayard Hale, to Mexico in June 1913 to get firsthand information. Hale was unenthusiastic about Huerta, describing him as "an ape-like old man" who "may almost be said to subsist on alcohol." With Hale's views in mind, President Wilson continued to shun the new Mexican government, even though Ambassador Wilson virtually insisted that Huerta be recognized. Acting on the president's orders, Bryan recalled Wilson and accepted his resignation.

In August 1913, Wilson sent another personal representative, John Lind, to Mexico. Previously both a representative and governor of Minnesota, Lind had no diplomatic experience. His instructions put forth terms for a Mexican settlement: an immediate cease-fire, an early and free election, a promise from Huerta not to be a candidate, and pledges that all Mexican factions would respect the election results. Huerta flatly rejected these proposals, as well as a subsequent offer of a large private loan if he would agree to an election in which he was not a candidate. On 27 August, Wilson told a joint session of Congress that the United States would wait patiently until the Mexican civil strife had run its course, meanwhile embargoing arms sales to all sides. Unfortunately, Wilson did not consistently adhere to this policy of "watchful waiting."

In the fall of 1913, Venustiano Carranza, Huerta's main opponent, announced that his Constitutionalist Party would boycott the presidential election scheduled for 26 October. When Huerta arrested more than 100 opposition deputies in the Mexican congress, Wilson announced that the United States would ignore the election results. After an inconclusive election, Mexico's congress reappointed Huerta provisional president until balloting scheduled for July 1914. Wilson now abandoned "watchful waiting." As Secretary Bryan wrote to United States diplomats in Latin America, President Wilson considered that "it is his immediate duty to require Huerta's retirement," and that the United States would "proceed to employ such means as may be necessary to secure this result." At this point, Wilson sympathized with the Carranza group. The president's struggle with Huerta had become personal as well as national.

Wilson, feeling that Great Britain's role was crucial, put special pressure on London to repudiate Huerta. Although the British fleet depended somewhat on Mexican oil, Britain's problems in Europe dictated rapprochement with the United States. Britain withdrew recognition of Huerta in mid-1914, after negotiations with the United States that included a satisfactory settlement of the controversy over a U.S. law providing discriminatory tolls on the Panama Canal.

In February 1914, in a further attempt to strengthen Carranza and the Constitutionalists, Wilson lifted the embargo on arms to Mexico, but Huerta continued to hold out. A new crisis developed on 9 April 1914, when Mexican authorities mistakenly arrested eight U.S. sailors at Tampico. Within an hour, Huerta's commanding general in the port released the men and apologized to Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, the commander of the U.S. squadron at Tampico. Mayo gave Huerta twenty-four hours to make a more formal apology, punish the arresting officer, and fire a twenty-one-gun salute. Wilson backed Mayo and ordered an increase in U.S. forces in Mexican waters. Congress gave him permission to take punitive action against Mexico. These acts presumably were on behalf of constitutionality and democracy.

Before these plans could be implemented, the United States consul at Veracruz reported the imminent arrival of the German steamer Ypiranga with a cargo of guns and ammunition for Huerta's forces. Wilson decided to seize the customhouse at Veracruz and impound the cargo. When this occurred on 21 April, the Mexicans resisted, precipitating a battle in which 126 Mexicans were killed and 200 were wounded. Huerta severed diplomatic relations after U.S. forces occupied the city.

The bloodshed appalled President Wilson, who had not expected Mexican resistance. Thus, he welcomed the offer of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to mediate; and Huerta also accepted. Wilson intended to use the mediation conference, which began in Niagara Falls, Canada, on 20 May 1914, to get rid of Huerta and bring the Constitutionalists to power. But Carranza, who had denounced the U.S. aggression at Veracruz, instructed his delegation, which never really participated in the conference, to refuse a cease-fire and to deny the right of the mediators to discuss the Mexican situation. The conference adjourned on 2 July without positive results. But the United States intervention and heightened conflict with his enemies forced Huerta to resign on 15 July. Venustiano Carranza soon entered Mexico City. Although earlier an advocate of Carranza, Wilson now rejected him and initiated negotiations with his chief rival in northern Mexico, Pancho Villa, who then had a favorable image in the United States. Carranza, who retained the support of Alvaro Obregón and other leading generals, refused to give in to Villa. As the months passed, Wilson's policy became more threatening; but Carranza insisted that he would fight until victory over his opponents.

At this juncture, Wilson proposed a meeting of the United States and six Latin American nations (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Guatemala), anticipating joint intervention to remove Carranza; but by the time the conference convened at Washington in August 1915, Wilson had changed his mind. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, worried about German activity in the hemisphere, thought it necessary to improve relations with Mexico in the face of this external threat. Although the conferees offered to act as mediators in Mexico, Wilson ignored them and extended de facto recognition to Carranza on 19 October 1915.

Even if Wilson wished to concentrate on problems other than Mexico, Pancho Villa was unwilling to let him. Unable to defeat Carranza with his army, Villa apparently decided to provoke U.S. intervention as an alternative way to achieve his goal. On 10 January 1916, Villa forces murdered sixteen U.S. mining engineers and technicians in Chihuahua. On 7 March, the U.S. Congress responded with a resolution advocating armed intervention. Two days later, Villa raided the border town of Columbus, New Mexico, killing seventeen Americans. Wilson immediately ordered troops into Mexico. General John J. Pershing's force never caught Villa but clashed with Carranza's army. Unsuccessful in his efforts to extort concessions from Carranza, and embroiled in a serious crisis with Germany, Wilson withdrew the troops from Mexico in February 1917.

Mexican-American relations followed a less spectacular course for the rest of Wilson's presidency. The Mexican constitution of 1917 contained several provisions threatening to foreign concessionaires, but Wilson extended de jure recognition to Carranza in August 1917, after assurances that such interests would be respected. A potentially serious dispute developed in 1918, after Mexico decreed taxes on oil property, rents, royalties, and production based on contracts effective before 1 May 1917. United States oil companies refused to register their land titles, arguing that to do so would be recognition of Mexican claims to subsurface deposits. Carranza ignored State Department protests, but he did not enforce the decrees until June 1919, when Mexican troops moved into the oil fields to halt unapproved drilling operations. Secretary of State Lansing, backed by the Association for the Protection of American Rights in Mexico, urged Wilson to be more aggressive. But in January 1920, Wilson wisely rejected Lansing's recommendations, and the oil producers arranged a satisfactory modus vivendi with Carranza. After Obregón ousted Carranza in May 1920, a Senate subcommittee recommended that the United States delay recognition until U.S. citizens gained exemption from certain articles of the Mexican constitution. Wilson and Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby favored this approach, but negotiations failed and the United States did not recognize Obregón until 1923.


When Wilson used missionary diplomacy elsewhere, it led to the same legacy of failure and ill will as in Mexico. In Nicaragua, Wilson inherited from the Taft administration a military intervention and an extensive effort at dollar diplomacy. Taft broke relations in 1909 with Nicaraguan President José Zelaya and encouraged the latter's enemies to revolt when he menaced the nearby Central American nations, threatened the ouster of United States financial interests, and mortgaged his country to European interests. When his successor, Adolfo Díaz, faced a revolt in 1912, Taft sent in U.S. marines, who were still there when Wilson became president. In 1911 the two countries signed the Knox-Castrillo Convention, providing for a large loan from United States bankers to re-fund the Nicaraguan debt and U.S. administration of the customs services. The U.S. Senate rejected this plan, but a new treaty signed early in 1913 gave the United States an option on a canal route, naval base rights on the Gulf of Fonseca, and leases on the Corn Islands in the Caribbean, in return for a payment of $3 million. Bryan favored this glaring example of dollar diplomacy and persuaded President Wilson to accept it.

The Senate demurred, partly because of an amendment (patterned after the 1901 Platt Amendment for Cuba) allowing the United States to intervene to maintain internal order. Bryan then suggested to Wilson that the United States should be a "modern example of the Good Samaritan"the government should make direct loans to Latin American nations by issuing bonds at 3 percent and lending the proceeds at 4.5 percent, with the profit used for debt retirement. Wilson rejected the proposal, leaving private loans as the only alternative. In October 1913, the U.S. firms of Brown Brothers and J. and W. Seligman, by buying stock in the Pacific Railroad and the National Bank of Nicaragua, purchasing Treasury bills, and lending money to the railroad, provided Nicaragua with more than $2.5 million. Bryan consulted Wilson before approving this formal act of dollar diplomacy.

In August 1914, the United States and Nicaragua signed the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, a restatement of the 1913 proposals without Platt Amendment provisions. Because of questions about the role of U.S. business interests in Nicaragua, charges that the United States was dealing with a puppet regime, and protests from several Central American countries, the Senate delayed approval of the treaty until February 1916. El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica, by raising critical questions about U.S. motives, exposed the bankruptcy of missionary diplomacy. Costa Rica argued that the canal concession violated its rights in the area; El Salvador and Honduras claimed that establishment of a naval base would violate their equal rights in the Gulf of Fonseca. In 1916, Costa Rica and El Salvador brought charges against Nicaragua in the Central American Court of Justice. Both the United States and Nicaragua argued that the court had no jurisdiction and refused to accept its decisions in favor of Costa Rica and El Salvador. This reaction made it clear that the court, which the United States had helped to establish in 1907, was useful only when it did not tread on the toes of the United States. Impotent to enforce its decisions, the court soon ceased to exist.

After ratification of the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, the United States moved to control Nicaraguan politics and finance. Political and economic pressures and a naval demonstration helped to ensure the election of the conservative Emiliano Chamorro as president in 1916. The United States also dictated the disbursement of the $3 million Bryan-Chamorro fund, handed over after adoption of the Financial Plan of 1917. The plan limited the monthly budget of Nicaragua, provided for a high commission dominated by U.S. citizens to monitor government spending, and established a schedule for payment of the Nicaraguan debt to British bondholders and U.S. bankers. Another financial plan in 1920 increased the government's monthly allowance, but the presence of U.S. marines and continued financial and political control tainted this progress.


As in Nicaragua, the Wilson administration inherited a difficult situation in the Dominican Republic. Political instability and nonpayment of debts threatened U.S. business interests and invited European intervention in the country as early as 1904. These problems influenced President Theodore Roosevelt to announce a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that assumed a unilateral right for the United States to intervene in Latin America. After the Taft administration intervened in a civil war in the Dominican Republic in 1912, Archbishop Adolfo A. Nouel became president; he resigned in late March 1913, however, giving up the almost impossible task of pacifying the various political factions.

The Dominican situation demanded astute action by the Wilson administration; but Secretary of State Bryan replaced a competent minister, William W. Russell, with James M. Sullivan. Sullivan was associated with New York financiers who controlled the National Bank of Santo Domingo, an institution hoping to become the depository of funds collected by the receiver general of Dominican customs. Sullivan later resigned after a State Department investigation disclosed his deficiencies. Another bad appointment was that of Walter C. Vick as receiver general. Bryan's choices inevitably led to inaccurate, biased reports from the Dominican Republic.

In September 1913, when a new revolt broke out against the provisional government in Santo Domingo, Bryan announced that the United States would not recognize any revolutionary regime, thus invoking Wilsonian constitutional legitimacy. After an armistice, the United States supervised elections in December 1913 for a constituent assembly, even though the Dominican government resented the outside pressure. With less than gentle prodding by Minister Sullivan, President José Bordas Valdés agreed to the appointment, in June 1914, of Charles W. Johnston as financial expert, with power to control Dominican expenditures. Following a U.S. electoral plan, the Dominicans held a presidential election in late 1914. The candidates, Juan Isidro Jiménez and Horacio Vásquez, represented the two strongest political factions in the country. Jiménez won and took office on 5 December 1914; the United States immediately pressed for more financial control and intervention privileges. Jiménez resisted these demands, but he could not overcome the continued opposition of his rivals, including Desiderio Arias, whom he dismissed as minister of war in May 1916. After Arias's forces took the city of Santo Domingo and Jiménez resigned, the United States intervened. Admiral William B. Caperton demanded that Arias withdraw and occupied the city. Fearing that Arias would come to power, President Wilson proclaimed full military occupation of the Dominican Republic on 26 November 1916. He cited political and fiscal disorder and the Dominican government's refusal to reform as reasons for the intervention. Undoubtedly, another factor was State Department concern about possible war with Germany and the influence of pro-German elements in the Dominican Republic.

Until 1924 a U.S. military government ruled the Dominican Republic. Although there were noticeable improvementshighway construction, establishment of the constabulary, expansion of the schools, and a better internal revenue collection systemthe opposition to U.S. domination steadily increased. When the troops finally left late in 1924, a new treaty continued U.S. financial control.


Events in Haiti followed a familiar path. When Wilson became president, political and economic instability and threats of foreign intervention existed there. United States citizens owned perhaps 40 percent of the stock in the National Bank of Haiti, half the stock in the national railroad, and a smaller portion of the German-dominated Central Railroad. Loans from foreign sources contributed to the financial crisis and increased the threat of intervention. By 1915, Haiti's public debt stood at $32 million.

In January 1914 a revolution brought Oreste Zamor to power. The United States recognized him as president on 1 March 1914, even though he declined to accept a customs receivership and to pledge that no foreign power other than the United States would secure a naval station at Môle St. Nicholas. President Zamor later rejected a similar proposal, strengthened perhaps by German and French demands to share in the customs receivership; President Wilson objected, in effect invoking the Monroe Doctrine.

In October 1914, when Davilmar Theodore ousted Zamor, Secretary of State Bryan notified him that recognition would be extended only after agreement on a customs convention, settlement of disputes between the government and the railroads and the national bank, and guarantees against leases of coaling or naval stations to any European country. Theodore rejected these demands. Domestically, he became involved in a serious controversy with the national bank. His government printed a large quantity of paper currency and seized $65,000 of the bank's gold supply. To prevent further raids, the bank transferred $500,000 in gold to New York aboard the USS Machias. Although Bryan denied Haitian claims that armed intervention on behalf of U.S. business interests had taken place, U.S. investment in the national bank was extensive.

Theodore resigned in February 1915, and General Vilbrun Guillaume Sam assumed the presidency. Wilson sent a special agent to Haiti to press a treaty upon Sam's government as a condition for recognition. Failing to achieve his mission, the agent suggested that U.S. marines be used to impose a settlement. Although the State Department did not overtly accept this recommendation, the revolutionary situation in Haiti made its implementation possible. President Sam apparently ordered the murder of 167 political opponents at the prison in Port-au-Prince on 27 July. Although he took asylum in the French legation, he was dragged out by a mob that dismembered him in the streets. As these events occurred, the USS Washington, under Admiral Caperton, landed forces in Port-au-Prince. Caperton occupied the major coastal towns and took charge of customs collections.

After some confusion, the Haitian congress designated Caperton's choice, Sudre Dartiguenave, as the new president. The State Department soon presented Dartiguenave with a draft treaty providing for United States control of Haiti's finances, creation of a U.S.-officered constabulary, appointment of U.S. engineers to supervise sanitation and public improvement, a pledge not to transfer territory to any power other than the United States, and an article giving the United States the right to intervene to enforce the treaty and preserve Haitian independence. Dartiguenave's government signed the treaty after the United States refused to discuss substantive changes and threatened to establish a full military government. To implement the pact, the signatories set up five treaty servicesa customs receivership, the financial adviser, the public works service, the public health service, and the constabulary. Although each except customs was subordinate to the Haitian government, the president of the United States nominated the top officials, who at first were all naval officers.

Late in 1917, the State Department proposed a draft constitution for Haiti (this was the document that Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt later claimed he had written). The Haitian congress resisted, but President Dartiguenave proclaimed it after a plebiscite (with a low vote and opponents abstaining) endorsed it. The constitution incorporated the 1915 treaty and validated acts of the military government. As in the Dominican Republic, there were improvements in Haiti under U.S. occupation. The constabulary, a well-trained force, maintained peace in the country; prisons improved; and the road-building program greatly extended the internal transportation and communications system. The courts and public schools did not receive the attention they needed, however, and Haiti's financial problems remained unsolved. When President Wilson left office, resentment against continued military occupation and the financial adviser's complete control of government expenditures was high.


This account of missionary diplomacy suggests that there was no significant change from earlier (18981913) United States policy in Latin America. If anything, missionary diplomacy meant "missionaries" (U.S. diplomats, military and naval officers, and businessmen) sometimes working in distasteful and ill-conceived ways, certainly not destined to ensure the voluntary "conversion" of the flock. Woodrow Wilson's objectives for Latin America, emphasizing democracy and constitutionalism, were admirable in the abstract; but they did not accord with reality in the nations affected. Furthermore, Wilson's methods were paradoxical: he did not use democratic and constitutional means to achieve his objectives. As on other occasions during his service in higher education and government, personal combat consumed Wilson; his struggles with Huerta, Carranza, and Villa ultimately became tests of personal strength and honor. On such occasions he lost his sense of perspective and the ability to see varieties of opinion and alternative approaches.

Missionary diplomacy was not devoid of positive effects. The negotiation of a treaty with Colombia in 1914 to resolve the deep resentment over that nation's loss of Panama in 1903 is an example. In the treaty, the United States expressed "sincere regret that anything should have occurred to interrupt or to mar the relations of cordial friendship that had so long subsisted between the two nations" and proposed to pay Colombia $25 million. Partly because of opposition from Theodore Roosevelt, the Senate ignored the treaty while Wilson was president but approved it in 1921 after removing the expression of regret. Wilson's support for the settlement appears to have been based on a conviction that U.S. actions in 1903 were wrong, that the whole affair had contributed substantially to Yankeephobia, and that an apology and reparations were long overdue. But Wilson could take this stand because the Colombian treaty did not interfere with his basic objectives for Latin America.

Some historians, especially Mark T. Gilderhus, have pointed to Wilson's support for a "Pan American pact" beginning in 1914 as another effort to put United StatesLatin American relations on the basis of "equality and honor," as promised in the Mobile address. The draft pact was a multilateral agreement to guarantee territorial integrity, political independence, republican government, arbitration of disputes, and arms control. Presumably, the United States would forgo the unilateral right of intervention in Latin America. Edward M. House, who did much of the planning for the proposal, saw it as a way to promote hemispheric peace, just as Wilson later envisaged the world role of the League of Nations. Efforts to secure agreement on the pact failed. Some of the larger countries, such as Chile, rejected the idea of guaranteeing territorial integrity before the settlement of existing boundary disputes; and, given the contemporary United States interventions, it was difficult to see the pact as anything other than a cloak for established policy. In fact, neither Wilson nor his advisers were willing to renounce the practice of intervention.


Recent works by scholars demonstrate the varying views they hold about Wilsonian missionary diplomacy in Latin America. Many of these scholars are more critical of Wilson's diplomacy in their books and articles than earlier historians. Walter LaFeber in The American Age (p. 261) observes that Wilson, "Determined to help other peoples become democratic and orderly, himself became the greatest military interventionist in U.S. history." The works of Frederick S. Calhoun strongly back this point of view. "More than any other president," Calhoun writes in Power and Principle (p. ix), "Woodrow Wilson defined the various ways armed interventions could support foreign policy." In another work, Uses of Force and Wilsonian Foreign Policy (p. 9), Calhoun defines five categories for the use of force, all of which he argues Wilson used in Latin America: "force for protection," to defend specific national interests; "force for retribution," military action against a government that has violated international law; "force for solution," to oppose a nation's policies in a third nation; "force for introduction," military intimidation to persuade a government to enter negotiations to settle a dispute; and "force for association," military action in accordance with alliance regulations.

Lester D. Langley writes in America in the Americas (p. 111) that "the record of Woodrow Wilson, who condemned the interventionism of his predecessor [Taft] and chastised the economic imperialists," was "among the ironies of the Latin American policy of the United States." He added, "Three-quarters of a century later, the United States has yet to shake off the cultural paternalism he grafted onto the Pan-American tissue."

In an astute analysis, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (pp. 1718), Michael H. Hunt identifies three enduring components of the U.S. worldview in place early in the twentieth century:

The capstone idea defined the American future in terms of an active quest for national greatness closely coupled to the promotion of liberty. A second element defined attitudes toward other peoples in terms of a racial hierarchy. The third element defined the limits of acceptable political and social change overseas in keeping with the settled conviction that revolutions, though they might be a force for good, could as easily develop in a dangerous direction.

Hunt applies these elements in his account of Wilson's policy in Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, as well as elsewhere in the world.

Walter A. McDougall in Promised Land, Crusader State (p. 129) contends that Wilson intensified the so-called progressive imperialism that had become prominent in U.S. foreign policy by the turn of the twentieth century. Wilson made clear, according to McDougall, that the United States (the "Crusader State") would cooperate with its Latin American neighbors, but only "when supported at every turn by the orderly processes of just government based on law." When order collapsed, the United States would use "influence of every kind" to reestablish it. He discusses "Wilsonianism, or liberal internationalism (so called)" in reference to U.S. policy in Mexico, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

Jules R. Benjamin's revisionist interpretation of Wilson's policy in the article "The Framework of U.S. Relations with Latin America in the Twentieth Century" (p. 99) emphasizes his uses of military intervention as well as the promotion of U.S. economic interests. As Benjamin puts it, "Although Wilson protested that neither Mars nor Mammon would be a part of his liberal hemisphere, he found no way to improve Latin America that did not include entrepreneurs and policemen. [H]is principal legacy was to add to the older punishment of sins against order the punishment of sins against progress."

In the article "'An Irony of Fate': Woodrow Wilson's PreWorld War I Diplomacy," based mainly on The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, volumes 2730, John Milton Cooper Jr. takes a more favorable view of Wilson's diplomacy in Latin America, especially in Mexico. He rejects the argument that Wilson aimed to promote U.S. economic interests in Mexico, and argues that "Mexico provides the clearest application of Wilson's political ideals to a diplomatic solution and offers the best test of the effects of his ideals on his diplomacy" (p. 434). Wilson's use of military force in Veracruz was a "blunder," according to Cooper, the result of his "interventionist impulses" temporarily determining his course of action. Cooper also argues that the "irony of fate" viewpoint associated with Wilsonian diplomacy has little relevance. Wilson, he says, "embarked on leadership in foreign affairs willingly and confidently" (p. 429) and clearly led his administration in foreign policy.

Kendrick A. Clements's article "Woodrow Wilson's Mexican Policy, 191315" reaches similar conclusions. After Veracruz, "Wilson's policy was to support the [Mexican] revolution, avoid intervention, and attempt to influence the rebel leaders into the path of justice and moderation by means of diplomatic influence" (p. 135). Neither Cooper nor Clements mentions Pershing's 1916 punitive expedition into Mexico; this event needs to be considered in evaluating their views on Wilson's policy.


How, in the final analysis, can missionary diplomacy be explained? What were Wilson's motives and objectives? No single explanation will suffice, although there were unquestionably occasions when one consideration carried more weight than others. First, Wilson's concern about democracy and constitutionalism was genuine, and this was probably the main component of his Latin American policy when his administration began. What makes acceptance of this point difficult is that from the beginning, Wilson apparently assumed that the United States might have to use a heavy hand, to act undemocratically to install democracy. It was hard to see his commitment to constitutionalism in the midst of the bombardment of Veracruz or the U.S. marines' occupation of Santo Domingo, but it was there. Revolutions were unconstitutional and had to be prevented; illegitimate governments could not be recognized.

There is a second explanation for Wilson's policy that became clearer as World War I progressedconcern about the security of the hemisphere. Potential enemies, such as Germany, became of increasing concern. State Department documents illustrate the point clearly. What more startling example than the 1917 Zimmerman telegram, in which the German foreign minister invited Mexico to ally with Germany against the United States in the event of a German-American war? Security considerations were not always the primary explanation for missionary diplomacy, but they were constant concerns for Wilson, the State Department, and diplomats in the field. With a world war being fought during most of the Wilson presidency, and with the United States a belligerent by 1917, the situation was understandable.

There are also economic explanations for missionary diplomacy. As had long been the case, American entrepreneurs hoped to increase trade, find new markets and raw materials, and expand investment fields. Clearly these goals were applicable to Latin America during the Wilson administration. The available evidence does not prove conclusively that Wilson's central objective, as some scholars insist, was to advance U.S. economic interests. But facilitating the work of these interests, and giving them diplomatic protection, was important to Wilson and the State Department. Some diplomats, such as Henry Lane Wilson in Mexico and James Sullivan in the Dominican Republic, were dominated by their personal economic interests.

Missionary diplomacy contributed enormously to the Yankeephobia that had been building steadily in Latin America since the late nineteenth century. The task of the interwar presidents and the State Department was to dispel this aura of hostility. Considerable progress came with what came to be known as the Good Neighbor Policy, which reached its peak in the late 1930s. Whether the Good Neighbor Policy represented substantive change or merely a shift in rhetoric and tactics is debatable. Whatever the case, Woodrow Wilson, the practitioner of missionary diplomacy, made the Good Neighbor Policy, or something similar, a necessity.


Benjamin, Jules R. "The Framework of U.S. Relations with Latin America in the Twentieth Century: An Interpretive Essay." Diplomatic History 11 (1987): 91112.

Calder, Bruce J. The Impact of Intervention: The Dominican Republic During the U.S. Occupation of 19161924. Austin, Tex., 1984.

Calhoun, Frederick S. Power and Principle: Armed Intervention in Wilsonian Foreign Policy. Kent, Ohio, 1986.

. Uses of Force and Wilsonian Foreign Policy. Kent, Ohio, 1993.

Calvert, Peter. The Mexican Revolution, 19101914: The Diplomacy of Anglo-American Conflict. London and New York, 1968. Emphasizes England's role in the U.S.Mexican conflict.

Clements, Kendrick A. "Woodrow Wilson's Mexican Policy, 191315." Diplomatic History 4 (1980): 113136.

Cooper, John Milton, Jr. "An Irony of Fate: Woodrow Wilson's PreWorld War I Diplomacy." Diplomatic History 3 (1979): 425437.

Gilderhus, Mark T. Pan American Visions: Woodrow Wilson in the Western Hemisphere, 19131921. Tucson, Ariz., 1986.

. "Wilson, Carranza, and the Monroe Doctrine: A Question in Regional Organization." Diplomatic History 7 (1983): 103115.

Healy, David. Drive to Hegemony: The United States in the Caribbean, 18981917. Madison, Wis., 1988. Covers Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Hunt, Michael Hy. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn., 1987. A valuable study that applies three elements helping shape the U.S. vision of the world to Wilson's policies and actions in Latin America and elsewhere.

Katz, Friedrich. The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution. Chicago, 1981. A detailed volume suggesting that Wilson's policy was designed to promote U.S. capital interests.

LaFeber, Walter. The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750. New York and London, 1989.

Langley, Lester D. America in the Americas: The United States in the Western Hemisphere. Athens, Ga., 1989. An interpretive survey of the history of U.S.Latin American relations.

Levin, N. Gordon, Jr. Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution. New York, 1968. Emphasizes economic motives in Wilson's foreign policy.

Link, Arthur S. Wilson: The New Freedom; Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 19141915; Wilson: Confusion and Crises, 19151916; Wilson: Campaign for Progressivism and Peace, 19161917. Princeton, N.J., 19561965. Volumes 25 in Link's monumental biography. Traces in detail the story of missionary diplomacy, of which Link is critical.

Link, Arthur S., et al., eds. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. 69 vols. Princeton, N.J., 19661993. Vols. 2730 present documents on Wilson's diplomacy in Latin America.

McDougall, Walter A. Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776. Boston and New York, 1997. A thoughtful survey and interpretive history of U.S. foreign policy.

Schmidt, Hans. The United States Occupation of Haiti, 19151934. New Brunswick, N.J., 1971. Argues that Wilson's policy was ill conceived and economically motivated.

Trask, David F., Michael C. Meyer, and Roger R. Trask, eds. A Bibliography of United StatesLatin American Relations Since 1810: A Selected List of Eleven Thousand Published References. Lincoln, Neb., 1968. Meyer, Michael C., ed. Supplement to A Bibliography of United StatesLatin American Relations Since 1810. Lincoln, Neb., 1979. These two volumes present an exhaustive list of books, articles, and documents.

Ulloa, Berta. La revolución intervenida: Relaciones diplomáticas entre México y los Estados Unidos (19101914). Mexico City, 1971.

See also Dollar Diplomacy; Intervention and Nonintervention; Oil; Wilsonianism.


"The future is going to be very different for this hemisphere from the past. These States lying to the south of us, which have always been our neighbors, will now be drawn closer to us by innumerable ties, and, I hope, chief of all, by the tie of a common understanding of each other. Interest does not tie nations together; it sometimes separates them. But sympathy and understanding does [sic ] unite them, and I believe that by the new route that is just about to be opened, while we physically cut two continents asunder, we spiritually unite them. It is a spiritual union which we seek.

"What these States are going to see, therefore, is an emancipation from the subordination, which has been inevitable, to foreign enterprise and an assertion of the splendid character which, in spite of these difficulties, they have again and again been able to demonstrate. The dignity, the courage, the self-possession, the self-respect of the Latin American States, their achievements in the face of all these adverse circumstances, deserve nothing but the admiration and applause of the world.

"We must prove ourselves their friends, and champions upon terms of equality and honor. You cannot be friends upon any other terms than upon the terms of equality. You cannot be friends at all except upon the terms of honor. We must show ourselves friends by comprehending their interest whether it squares with our own interest or not.

"I want to take this occasion to say that the United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest. She will devote herself to showing that she knows how to make honorable and fruitful use of the territory she has, and she must regard it as one of the duties of friendship to see that from no quarter are material interests made superior to human liberty and national opportunity."