Did You Know? Imperialist Aggression and Exploitation: The History of U.S. – Latin American Relations

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The History of U.S. – Latin American Relations: An Overview
Nicholas F. Dupree

The history of U.S.-Latin American relations is a long and bloody one checkered by imperialist aggression and exploitation. The United States had a head start building its democratic institutions because it spawned from Britain, a constitutional monarchy whose fledgling parliamentary democracy was far ahead of most of the world at the time, and the U.S. built on that with a constitution and a government based on a revolutionary ideology. American revolutionaries, like the French revolutionaries that followed, were driven to spread their pro-freedom, anti-monarchist ideology, but unlike France’s First Republic, America’s first republic was not only more moderate, it could quickly stabilize amid its isolation and relative lack of competitors for the continent. Surprisingly rapidly, the United States was moving aggressively west and south to spread their revolutionary state and colonize land held by loosely organized indigenous tribes and a Spanish Empire spread thin and in relative decline.

Early on, America’s founding generation had their eyes (and territorial ambitions) pointed South. Presidents Jefferson and John Adams saw Cuba and Puerto Rico as “natural appendages” of North America that should break away from Spanish influence and join the United States. John Quincy Adams thought Cuba an “apple” fallen from the North American tree and that it should end its “unnatural connection” with Spain and rejoin its source, America. (Smith, 2007, p. 25) Thomas Jefferson had an impressive collection of Iberian writers in his library at Monticello, and actively promoted learning of the Spanish language.

“Spanish,” he wrote in a note accompanying a Spanish-language dictionary that he gifted to Peter Carr in 1787; “Bestow great attention on this, & endeavor to acquire an accurate knowledge of it. Our future connections with Spain & Spanish America will render that language a valuable acquisition. The antient [sic] history of a great part of America, too, is written in that language” (Works V: 322).1

But alongside the founding generation’s interest in Latin America, loomed skepticism. The prevailing views of the time included deep doubts about the ability of newly independent Latino populations to adopt republican values and effectively govern themselves, given racial and cultural differences and the dark legacy of oppression and violence from Spanish colonization. “I fear the degrading ignorance into which their priests and kings have sunk them, has disqualified them from the maintenance or even knowledge of their rights, and that much blood may be shed for little improvement in their condition. Should their new rulers honestly lay their shoulders to remove the great obstacles of ignorance, and press the remedies of education and information, they will still be in jeopardy until another generation comes into place, and what may happen in the interval cannot be predicted, nor shall you or I live to see it,” Thomas Jefferson wrote (Smith, p. 46) in an 1811 letter to Dupont de Nemours.2

John Quincy Adams echoed Jefferson’s views (p. 46), and as the United States became a power on the world stage competing for land and resources, it sought to seize them without seizing the diverse populations that lived there. “By the late 1830s, the idea of manifest destiny signified a racist nationalism that preferred to incorporate into the Union ‘unsettled’ and ’empty’ lands—such as those taken from Native American peoples and, soon thereafter, Mexico.” (Loveman, 2010, p. 57) After the “Mexican Cession” of 1848, in which Mexico “ceded” 55% of its territory to the United States, the limits of Manifest Destiny were undecided, and the question of further annexation was fiercely debated among the varying factions in Congress, especially in the Senate. Seizing “Mexico proper,” including the entirety of the Yucatan peninsula, and Cuba, were both the subject of heated debates, but ultimately they were just too different for Congress and the public to support annexing. Cuba was too black (Smith, p. 26) and Mexico was too Indian: as the New York World wrote, “Mexicans are Indian, aboriginal Indian, and they must share in the destiny of the Indian.” (p. 49) Neither Mexico nor Cuba were incorporated into the United States, despite an unprecedented surge in U.S. imperialism in the 1890s and early 20th century that brought U.S. borders to their greatest territorial extent after Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and more were brought under U.S. control. American militarism and expansion were led by William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt at the helm of a newly modernized and powerful army and navy, and like-minded Republicans like Albert Beveridge and Orville H. Platt at the helm in the Congress. These American imperialists believed, in the words of Senator Beveridge, that “God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation. No. …He has made us adept at government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples.” (p. 51) This view would have driven even more aggressive expansion had their not been deep anxieties among the people and their Congress over “inferior peoples” becoming U.S. citizens. “Racism cut at least three ways. It inspired and justified American territorial expansion, but it also limited its reach due precisely to the indisposition of many Americans to incorporate into the Union “inferior peoples” as equals and citizens. It also underlay the slave/free divide in American domestic politics.” (Loveman, 2010, p. 57)

Once the United States had emerged as a 20th century world power after McKinley and Roosevelt’s wars of expansion, it was ready to put the Monroe Doctrine’s shaky record keeping European powers out of the Hemisphere throughout the 19th century behind it and enforce a U.S. sphere of influence in the Americas in earnest. The U.S. positioned itself to defend its gains in the new global race for land, resources, arms, military bases, trading-posts and colonies, called the “Great Game” in Britain, and the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was designed do just that: no opportunistic Europeans would bring their game into the U.S.’ backyard. Roosevelt’s Corollary insisted that the United States could intervene in any Latin American republic where instability reigned; the U.S. would send troops anywhere in the Americas where European powers could possibly see an opening due to unpaid debt or revolutionary turmoil. And send troops they did: TR sent troops to seize the “Isthmian Canal” in Panama and took over the customs collections of the Dominican Republic until debt to the U.S. and other great powers (Netherlands and France) were paid in full. (Smith, pp. 56-57) A similar scheme of occupation and repayment was imposed in Haiti with much less success. (p. 60) The customs repayment scheme actually led to war in Nicaragua, where the Americans’ fears of the “Bolshevist” revolutionary government of Mexico establishing its own “sphere of influence” and “primacy” over Central America (p. 67) collided with the Nicaraguan people’s anger and aspirations to be free from the yoke of crushing debt, and a guerrilla insurgency erupted (p. 59). President Coolidge only withdrew the Marines from Nicaragua in 1924 after imposing a fraudulent election that ousted disobedient liberals in favor of pliant “conservatives” led by Adolfo Diaz, who would focus on debt repayment. The Marines came back five months later amid rumblings of possible rebellion against Diaz and further unrest. U.S. efforts to “break kneecaps” in Central American and Caribbean states for payment due didn’t end until the Great Depression and looming threat of World War II necessitated it.

The last Marines withdrew from Nicaragua in 1933, and the Marines’ nineteen-year occupation of Haiti ended in 1934. The Great Depression made such foreign entanglements financially untenable, and Americans looked to the prospects of increased inter-hemispheric trade to aid recovery (p. 74) Soon, the U.S. would concern itself with an even more dire task, countering Axis attempts for world domination; with German and Italian fascists competing to influence fledgling republics in Latin America, Washington could ill-afford its previous “Big Stick” foreign policy. Brazilian trade with Germany was at an all time high, and the Ação Integralista Brasileira (AIB) “formed in 1932 as a deliberate imitation of the Fascist parties of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Salazar in Portugal,” (Leonard, 2007, p. 145) had taken over Brazil’s government, given themselves unlimited “emergency powers,” and decreed the Estado Novo, “the new state,” along the lines of Portugal’s integralist Estado Novo. Brazil was obviously part of Hitler’s empire-building strategy; in Congress, a young Fiorello LaGuardia ranted against Brazilian collaboration with Nazi Germany (Smith, p. 76). Chile remained neutral at this time, having strong ties with the German military and an active German-Chilean minority, and still embittered over the Americans’ siding against them in the 1879-83 War of the Pacific and the U.S. adoption of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which had hurt Chile economically. (Leonard, p. 162-165) And Argentina, despite being a “closet ally” who supplied the Allies with crucial food during the war, (p. 184) was bogged down in a power struggle with its Nazi-sympathizing military, who were devoted to ultra-conservative, virulently anti-Semitic Argentine Catholicism (p. 188). Ultimately, Argentina didn’t end diplomatic ties with Germany until January 1944 (pp. 162-163).

But Mexico, so important to U.S. national security for its bountiful oil reserves and immediate proximity along the U.S. border with the American Southwest, was Washington’s most pressing concern in the lead-up to World War II. The Cårdenas administration (1934-1940) was just stabilizing and consolidating control over a Mexican polity that for decades had been in revolutionary flux (p. 17). Mexicans were beginning to interpret the European battle between the communists and fascists, especially the Spanish Civil War, through their unique revolutionary lens, and whether Mexico would side with the United States was unclear during Lázaro Cárdenas’ rule as he remained neutral. “Capitalists, businessmen, Catholics, and middle-class Mexicans who opposed many of the reforms implemented by the revolutionary government sided with the Spanish Falange” (p. 18) i.e., the fascist movement, and Nazi propagandist Arthur Dietrich and his team of agents in Mexico successfully manipulated editorials and coverage of Europe by paying hefty subsidies to Mexican newspapers, including the widely-read dailies Excelsior and El Universal (pp. 18-19).

The situation became even more worrisome for the Allies when the major oil companies boycotted Mexican oil following Lázaro Cárdenas’ nationalization of the oil industry and expropriation of all corporate oil properties in 1938, (p. 19) which severed Mexico’s access to its traditional markets and led Mexico to sell its oil to Germany and Italy (Smith, p. 79). In Mexico and throughout Latin America, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” was necessary at such a delicate time, and in the case of the Mexicans, ultimately led to the Douglas-Weichers Agreement in June 1941 that secured Mexican oil only for the United States, (Leonard, p. 21) and the Global Settlement in November 1941, a rare example of the U.S. putting national security concerns over fairness for American oil companies (p. 22-23).

But such “Good Neighbor” agreements and “soft power” influence were self-interested in the end, accomplishing the abrupt end of German Fifth Column activities in Mexico, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, all nine Central American and Caribbean republics declared war on the Axis nearly in unison in a show of seldom-seen Hemispheric solidarity (Smith, p. 86). Unfortunately for Latin America, the United States’ inter-American strategy would drastically shift as soon as their interests did.

The post-war world, with Russia and the United States locked in a Cold War that threatened to involve, if not destroy, every state on the planet, was not kind to the republics of the Americas. Washington soon divided Latin America simplistically along “with us or against us” red lines, and fear of communist infiltration, both real and used as a political football, was rampant. During the 1952 U.S. Presidential Election, Republican nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower accused the incumbent Democratic party of pushing Latin Americans into the arms of wily Communist agents waiting to exploit local misery and capitalize on any opening to communize the Americas (Smith, p. 127). From that point on, the “Big Stick” foreign policy came back to Latin America in various forms and guises until the ’90s, with the U.S. consistently backing the same type of elite-led fascist regimes they were trying to undercut during WWII.

Up to the time of Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal that embarrassed the United States on the world stage, U.S. foreign policy supporting fascist local elites as long as they were suitably pliant and reliably anti-communist was commonplace. One would hope that the current non-interventionist tack toward Latin America under the Obama administration is due to assessment of tough historic lessons learned and not mere economic constraints. Future repeats of the George W. Bush approach to the Americas, with “second acts” for several notorious Iran-Contra figures (see Observers Warn of U.S. Manipulation in Nicaragua) and the CIA’s Venezuelan Coup Attempt of 2002, is certainly cause for concern. The future of U.S.-Latin American relations I’d like to see, is one where Simon Bolivar’s famous statement “the United States seems destined by Providence to bring misery to the Americas in the name of liberty”4 seems something solely relevant for historical background, instead of something that’s directly related to current events and threatens to crop up again in U.S. Foreign policy at any moment.

Works Cited

Leonard, T. M., Bratzel, J. F., Rankin, M., Smith, J. & Scheinin, D. (2007). Latin america during world war ii. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Loveman, B. (2010). No higher law: american foreign policy and the western hemisphere since 1776. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: The University of North Carolina Press.

Smith, P. H. (2007). Talons of the eagle: dynamics of u.s. – latin american relations (RFB&D Daisy Audiobook),


1: Bauer, Ralph. (2009). Thomas Jefferson, the hispanic enlightenment, and the birth of hemispheric american studies Dieciocho: Hispanic Enlightenment, 32(1), Retrieved from http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-11917558/Thomas-Jefferson-the-Hispanic-enlightenment.html

2: Ibid.

3: Garcia-Navarro, L. (2006, November 2). Observers warn of u.s. manipulation in nicaragua. NPR, Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6423982

4: LaRosa, M., & Mora, F. O. (2009). Neighborly adversaries: readings in u.s.-latin american relations [2nd Edition]. (RFB&D Daisy Audiobook),