What Is the Good Neighbor Policy?

Before we try to see whether the Good Neighbor policy is a success or not, we should know what it is. President Roosevelt gave the policy its name in March 1933, when he stated in his first inaugural address:

“In the field of world policy, I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others—the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of agreements in and with a world of neighbors. We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take, but must give as well.”

This policy rests, then, on the simple principles that nations should not intervene in the affairs of other nations and that their relations should be to the benefit of both. To understand how revolutionary this policy is, we must turn to the not-so-distant past. Only a few years ago the United States was not considered a good neighbor by Latin America. Instead, it was called the “Yankee Colossus of the North,” the bad boy of the Western World, who grabbed territory from its weaker neighbors and followed a policy of “dollar diplomacy.”

Our Latin-American policy in the 19th century

During most of the nineteenth century the United States paid little attention to Latin America. We were busy expanding westward, fighting a Civil War, and in general becoming a nation. Of course, there was the Monroe Doctrine, announced in 1823. In this declaration President Monroe made it clear to all the world that the United States would oppose any attempts by non-American powers to colonize any part of the Americas. It was a “hands-off” policy dictated by our fear of European aggression. But it did not lead to closer relations with the Latin-American nations. They looked to Europe, as did we, for commerce and culture. As the century wore on, they came to fear aggression from us rather than from Europe.

A few of our farseeing statesmen, like Thomas Jefferson, advocated close and friendly relations with Latin America. He firmly believed in the essential unity of the Americas and foretold with prophetic insight some present-day events. In 1820 Jefferson wrote to a friend, “I should rejoice to see the fleets of Brazil and the United States riding together as brethren of the same family and pursuing the same object.” Today Brazilian and American naval forces hunt German submarines together in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Henry Clay, the fiery statesman from Kentucky, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Congress to help the Latin-American patriots in their revolts against Spain during the years 1810–26. He wanted to see an American system of politics and economy built in the New World, and he believed that the new nations would be “animated by an American feeling, and guided by an American policy. They would obey the laws of the system of the New World, of which they would compose a part, in contradistinction to that of Europe.” But Congress acted cautiously when Clay advocated a “human freedom league” from Hudson Bay to Cape Horn.

Many individual Americans, such as Alexander Macauley of Virginia, fought for the revolutionists in Colombia. The South Carolinian Joel Roberts Poinsett helped the Chileans, who were struggling to throw off the Spanish yoke. But lest Spain take offense, the United States did not recognize the new governments until it was clearly established that they were in fact independent. Then we did recognize them promptly. Our action, some diplomatic historians believe, was the greatest assistance rendered by any foreign power to the independence of Latin America.

After Jefferson and Clay there was James G. Blaine, who as secretary of state in the 1880’s supported an active Latin-American policy. Blaine managed to call the first International Conference of American States, which met in Washington in 1889. But it did not really accomplish much because the American nations were not ready for continental action.

Blaine was following in the footsteps of Simón Bolívar, “the Liberator” (1783–1830), who advocated one great confederation of united nations in the New World. Bolívar fought some two hundred battles in tropical jungle and on snow-clad Andean peaks, freed from Spain half a dozen nations stretching from Venezuela to Bolivia, personally drafted their political constitutions, and traced the broad lines of their international policy—a policy that today we call Pan-Americanism. He organized the first Pan-American Congress at Panama, in 1826, but all kinds of difficulties appeared to hinder the movement, just as many obstacles rose to obstruct unity at the Pan-American Conference called by Blaine sixty years later.

Until the end of the nineteenth century there was, for the average citizen of the United States, only one important contact with Latin America. This was our war against Mexico in 1846–48 as a result of which we took half its territory as spoils. We forgot the war quickly, but Mexico didn’t.

Toward the end of the century the United States began to feel its oats. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney, in warning Britain away from Venezuela, announced that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent.”

The “Yankee Colossus of the North”

The Spanish-American War, though, brought Latin America forcibly to the attention of the people of the United States. In this war Spain was finally expelled from the, New World it had discovered and had colonized for over three centuries. By the same conflict, the United States won prestige and territory: the Philippine Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Some people began to talk of expansion and our duties as a world power. To our Latin-American neighbors this meant we were sharpening our ax for them.

And intervene we did. Sometimes our interventions were designed to obtain strategic areas such as the Panama Canal Zone. We got that, after negotiation failed, by backing a revolt on the Isthmus of Panama in 1903. The revolt succeeded in detaching an important area from the republic of Colombia and setting it up as the independent state of Panama—which immediately concluded a canal treaty with our government.

Our troops did not leave Cuba after the Spanish-American War until the new Cuban government wrote into its constitution an appendix, drawn up by Senator Platt and generally known as the “Platt Amendment.” By it Cuba bound itself not to make any treaties with foreign powers which might threaten its independence. It agreed not to contract debts which it could not pay back out of ordinary income. It undertook to consent to American intervention if peace and orderly government were threatened. And it promised to lease or sell lands to the United States for naval bases and coaling stations. The Platt Amendment established a virtual United States protectorate over Cuba.

At various times in the first quarter of the twentieth century Marines were dispatched to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. We said we were trying to forestall foreign intervention in the affairs of these small Caribbean countries by assuring them “orderly government,” by supervising their elections and finances, or by preventing bloodshed.

Latin Americans naturally resented these interventions by their rich and powerful neighbor. Even the more distant South Americans whose affairs had not been directly affected by our interventions in the Caribbean area became suspicious of us. There was much talk all over Latin America of a solid block of nations to combat the “growing menace of North American imperialism.”

“Yankeephobia”

The Spanish-American War had stimulated a strong current of pro-Spanish sentiment. As one Spanish American writer put it: “We saw in the triumph of Yankeeland the victory of the strong over the weak, of the lusty barbarian over the delicate and exquisite being.”

A wave of Yankeephobia swept over the whole region from Mexico City to Santiago and Buenos Aires. It was always easy in those interventionist days for Latin-American poets, politicians, and preachers to rouse bitter feeling against the “Colossus of the North.” Traveling apostles, such as Manuel Ugarte, spread this doctrine tirelessly and skillfully.

Some Europeans, who also feared the growing power and influence of the United States in Latin America, ostentatiously offered sympathy and helped to keep the resentment in Latin America alive. During these days it was quite the thing among Latin-American writers to consider the Yankee as “rude and obtuse Calibans swollen with brutal appetites, the enemies of all idealisms, furiously enamored of the dollar, insatiable gulpers of whiskey and sausages—swift, overwhelming, fierce, clownish.”

This campaign had its political fruits. At the 1928 Pan-American Conference, held in Havana, Cuba, a direct and determined attack on our interventionist policy was led by Argentina. Then, as now, Argentina was eager to play a leading role on the Latin-American stage and fearful lest the United States should prevent it.

No matter how grave the provocation, or how pure our motives, the policy of intervention in the affairs of our neighbors had undoubtedly made us more enemies than friends.