How New Is the Good Neighbor Policy?

There have always been some individuals and government officials in the United States who were deeply concerned for the welfare of the people of Latin America. When an earthquake devastated Caracas in 1811, a cargo of flour was speedily sent to Venezuela, the first of many such friendly gestures. Such wise and farseeing statesmen as Elihu Root recognized the need for a policy permitting the fullest development of the Latin-American nations, without dictation or oppression from any quarter. And such presidents as Woodrow Wilson strove mightily to convince their peoples of our honest purposes. In his March 1913 “Declaration of Policy with Regard to Latin America” Wilson stated:

“The United States has nothing to seek in Central or South America except the lasting interests of the people of the two continents, the security of governments intended for the people and for no special group or interest, and the development of personal and trade relationships between the two continents which shall redound to the advantage of both and interfere with the rights and liberties of neither.”

Later that year President Wilson explicitly declared that the “United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest”—a policy which Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had previously declared in principle.

In 1914 Wilson proposed to all the Latin-American nations a project for a Pan-American liberty pact. The outbreak of the first World War, however, began a difficult period during which Wilson intervened in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

Despite these interventions, Wilson’s idealism roused great sympathy throughout the Latin-American countries. On the whole they trusted him. When the great test of Wilson’s policy came in 1917, they did not support Germany. Mexico remained cold to the notorious Zimmermann Proposal of January 1917 for an alliance with Germany and Japan to reconquer the “lost provinces” from the United States.

A step in the right direction was taken when President Coolidge sent Dwight Morrow to Mexico in 1927 as our ambassador. He represented the interests of the United States, but he also considered Mexicans as human beings and approached them in a friendly, sympathetic spirit. He was not guilty of the attitude, a mixture of ignorance and arrogance, that an American writer on Mexico satirized thus:

“There are some things which every American knows about all Mexicans: Mexicans are bandits, they carry guns, they make love by moonlight, they eat food which is too hot, and drink which is too strong. They are lazy, they are Communists, they are Atheists, they live in mud houses and play the guitar all day. And there is one more thing which every American knows: That he is superior to every Mexican. Aside from these items the atmosphere between Mexico and the United States is mild and friendly.”

The next step toward the Good Neighbor policy was taken by President Hoover, who made a special trip around South America before his inauguration. And when, in 1932, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic defaulted on their debts, there was no landing of Marines, no waving of the “Big Stick.” But Latin Americans were not entirely reassured even then, because our high tariff laws made it difficult to sell their products to us. Some of their editorial writers, who resented the great power of our banana companies, mining and oil corporations, and shipping firms in Latin America, quoted against us the famous saying of Mister Dooley: “Hands acrost th’ sea an’ into somewan’s pockets.”

But a definite beginning had been made to improve our political relations with Latin America. The stage was set for President Roosevelt’s statement of the Good Neighbor policy in 1933. These words were followed by acts. In 1934 the Platt Amendment was abolished, the last Marines were removed from Caribbean ports, and at the Buenos Aires Pan-American Conference in 1936 Secretary of State Cordell Hull accepted for the United States the ban on intervention by one state in the affairs of another, “directly or indirectly, and for whatever reason.”

The nonintervention policy was agreed to by all the American nations, though it is usually considered a “signing of the temperance pledge” by the United States alone. It is true that we had been the principal sinner, but we had not been the only black sheep in the inter-American fold. Mexico had a long history of fishing in the troubled Central American waters. Argentina has always had a strong and vocal group which considers that her manifest destiny requires supervision, if not political and economic absorption, of her weaker neighbors, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. But the United States, because of its very size and vigor, had been considered the real menace by the Latin Americans.