Carrie Chapman Catt

The Monroe Doctrine - January 1924

Carrie Chapman Catt
January 01, 1924
Print friendly

Monroe Doctrine 1924

THE CHAIRMAN: It would be in a measure without any excuse to undertake to introduce Mrs. Catt to this audience, but I merely want to say to you that she has spent a large part of last year in Latin America, and she will speak to you, I believe, of the Monroe Doctrine from an American point of view, but perhaps an American point of view which will reflect what our Latin American friends think about it. Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt (applause).

MRS. CATT: Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. In times of old it was said that when a thing was believed “everywhere and by all”, that it was true; that is, it was true whether or not it was true. In modern times enlightenment has taught us that not always does the beaten path unerringly lead to the truth. Nevertheless, it requires considerable temerity to rise to express a skepticism concerning a thing so universally believed in this country as is the Monroe Doctrine. With much perturbation of mind and spirit, I venture to declare, however, that the Monroe Doctrine, though all the world be for it, is false in theory and pernicious in its application. It is false in its theory because there is no logic; there is no justice; there is no ethics which can possible make justifiable the right of any nation, by its own assumption of authority, to assume direction over any other nation without that nation’s consent (applause).

It is pernicious in its application, for, in the words of Secretary Hughes himself, (in his speech at Montreal), “The policy of the Monroe Doctrine does not infringe upon the sovereignty of other American states. Misconception upon this point is the only disturbing influence upon our relations with Latin America.” He himself points out wherein the theory is pernicious. Yet it is believed everywhere. All Americans automatically believe in the Monroe Doctrine; they are born to it as they are born Republicans or Democrats or Presbyterians. They cannot help it. Both political parties endorse it with equal fervor, and they do so because neither of them originated it. They inherited it and both of them have a little bent toward antiques (laughter and applause).

I have recently been in Texas, and whenever I go into the South I always make it a point to collect stories about the negroes, stories which the people I meet have experienced. One of them is applicable. A negro mother had a pair of twins, and, following the custom of her people of liking to name her children something religious or spiritual, she name them the Monroe Doctrine and Savin’ Grace (laughter). She was quite unconscious that she had confused the politics and religion of her country (laughter). No one will ever discover her mistake, because the little boy who did not grow quite so fast as his sister, was called Little Docky for short, and the sister Say, which sounds like our patriotic and classical national air.

You New Yorkers have missed something quite American if you have not in the Middle West been privileged to attend the congressional political rally. There is no congressional or senatorial candidate or oratorical sponsor for a president, who when wishing to evade an issue or having run short of ammunition, does not call upon one of two subjects in order to arouse his audience to loyalty to the party he represents by throwing dust in the eyes of his audience. One is the constitution. This is always in danger in every campaign. The other is the Monroe Doctrine. Both are perfectly safe. Such asides never lose a vote.

Being a Middle Westerner myself, I have seen and heard at these rallies many an orator walk up and down the platform and pound the table in defense of this immortal doctrine while receiving the plaudits of their audiences; when neither the orator nor the audience had the slightest idea of what the Monroe Doctrine really was.

I have adopted the habit in times past when a question has become controversial – and I like to find out what people are thinking – of asking the first ten, dozen or twenty-five people that I meet about this question. Following my custom, when I learned that I was to speak here I began to make inquiries to see how many people knew what the Monroe Doctrine is. Up to this point I have asked one hundred intelligent people. I have not found one yet, including General Sherrill (laughter) who really knows.

Someone told me the other day that our talented president, Mr. McDonald, had issued what deserves to be an “immortelle”, and that was that, “isolation is a predicament and not a policy”. I want to ask Mr. McDonald to permit me to use that expression for a moment, for it is the best definition of the Monroe Doctrine I have ever heard (laughter). I will ask you to put yourselves in the place of Secretary Hughes at the centenary of the Monroe Doctrine. Will you then ask yourselves what you would do in his place? If you were Mr. Hughes you would of course know what the Monroe Doctrine is. Suppose you wanted to modernize it. Suppose you wanted to amend it. How could you do it? If it were the constitution, the constitution might be amended. That is a painful process, but it has been done (laughter). If it were a law passed by Congress, Congress might repeal it. If it were a decision of the Supreme Court, that distinguished body might follow some of its distinguished precedents and reverse its ruling. If it were the basis of treaties with other nations, a new series might be formulated and ratified to bring in the necessary changes. But it is none of these things. Then, what could you do if you were the Secretary of State and it was your job to pronounce upon that doctrine, which seems to be a traditional predicament handed down from Secretary to Secretary of State. If it was your business to pronounce upon it and you wanted to change it, you would not dare to suggest it, because, whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, you could depend upon it that the party of the “outs” would be after your scalp and your party would be thrown on the defensive. I can perceive the orators of the opposing party out gathering up blocs of indignant American voters for the support of the Monroe Doctrine at the next election (laughter). No Secretary of State will ever dare say that he is opposed to that doctrine or that he wants to modify it. The only thing that a Secretary of State can do is to interpret it, and that is what Mr. Hughes has been doing. He has done it in three different speeches. It was all he could do.

Well, if Mr. Hughes stood alone as the interpreter for this country, of this doctrine, that might be well. For I agree with General Sherrill that no man is safer; no man has a clearer brain; no man has a more analytical mind than Mr. Hughes. But, unfortunately, the Secretaries of State have been engaged in interpreting it for the next hundred years; and, therefore, Mr. Hughes has no final authority for a pronouncement upon that doctrine. He is only a temporary interpreter of it. The doctrine is what the sum total of the interpretations have made it. It is clear we must keep the Monroe Doctrine, whether we want it or not. It is like an umbrella. You can’t throw an umbrella away. “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes” doesn’t apply to umbrellas and the Monroe Doctrine (laughter).

The Monroe Doctrine began to change in 1845. Perhaps you will remember that in the year 1845 and 946 we had a difficulty about Texas with Mexico. It is a subject upon which our people like to be silent, because there is no one left among the writers of history who justifies that war. It seems to have been the turning point of the Monroe Doctrine and that is why it is an important situation in our history. We waged this war, and, as a result of the outcome, we acquired Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California, etc. The total was about 900,000 square miles, or nearly one-third of our entire territory. It is equal to all of Great Britain, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, the present Austria, Hungary, Portugal and half of Holland. It was quite a sweep for amateur imperialism and for a nation that was protecting the western continents by spreading her wings over them (laughter). The original Monroe Doctrine was a pronouncement that hereafter European nations were not to colonize on the western continent; that all the Spanish American countries who had interpreted the Monroe Doctrine to mean that a great altruistic nation, a little bigger, a little stronger than they, was always going to protect them from violence at the hands of these wicked European colonizers who might come to seize their lands, became suspicious at that moment and the Monroe Doctrine was never the same to them again. They never have forgotten that war with Mexico in Latin America.

When a little later we had a war with Spain and took a lot more territory and began to administer it they took due notice of that and the suspicion grew. In the famous Venezuela dispute – it was the Cleveland administration – Secretary Olney, one the Secretaries of State who was interpreting the Monroe Doctrine, said: “The United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fist is law upon the subject to which it applies its interpretation”. Secretary Hughes has just assured the world that this is not the meaning of the Monroe Doctrine, but in South America that sentence of Secretary Olney’s is on file in every newspaper morgue and in every statesman’s library and in every public and university library. They have never forgotten it,

Later, President Roosevelt found such a state of irritation throughout Spanish America that he set forth in the same thoroughgoing fashion that he always approached everything, an interpretation of that doctrine so that nobody there-after would be in doubt about it. This is a small part of what he said – President Roosevelt in 1904: “It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger,” (No wonder; it had gotten a mouthful in the Mexican War.) “or entertains any project with regard to other nations of the Western hemisphere, save such as are wilful. All this country desires is to see the neighboring countries prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act within reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters; if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need not fear from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society may, in America as elsewhere ultimately require intervention by some other civilized nation, and in the Western hemisphere the Monroe Doctrine may force the use, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence of the exercise of an international police power.”

Now suppose you were to move into a neighborhood and were living in a little house, and the man in the big house opposite should send you a letter and say: “So long as you keep your children quiet and don’t let your victrola run after nine o’clock and only have a jazz dance once a week and close at twelve, we will permit you to live undisturbed, but if you do otherwise you may as well know that we are going to take a hand in your family affairs.” What do you think of it?

I once lived in a neighborhood for a short time where the inhabitants were all of a pretty good variety, except one man who was drunk most of the time and used to thrash his wife. The men in the neighborhood became so exercised over it that they put their heads together and said that when it next occurred they would go in a body and thrash the man and protect the women. The time soon came and they went, but when they arrived this quarreling pair stopped for a moment to gaze upon the intruders and then to the amazement of the neighbors, the woman turned upon them and said angrily: “If my husband wants to thrash me, he has a right to do so.” And that is the attitude which South America takes when we undertake to give one of her countries a stable government. It may be good from our point of view, but not from theirs.

The urbane and unmilitary Mr. Taft, who certainly never intended to say or do anything in all his life to stir anybody the wrong way, in 1906, when he was a member of Mr. Roosevelt’s cabinet, said in a forgetful moment: “The frontiers of the United States virtually extend to Tierra del Fuego.” And it is remembered in all the libraries of South America.

Twice, the United States – once in the case of Chile and once in the case of Brazil – has definitely seemed to take sides in a civil war, and in both cases the losing combination believed its failure to succeed was directly due to the intervention of the United States. We have several times sent naval ships to the different ports of a little state, thus announcing that we were ready to interfere. We certainly assisted in the establishment of the republic of Panama and took control of the Canal Zone, on the theory that we had to build the Panama Canal. By assisting the rebellion of Panama, we alienated the republic of Colombia, and by taking the Canal Zone we have created a large amount of resentment in Panama. We have intervened for the collection of money in three republics, at least, and we have several times landed troops or sent naval ships to indicate our wishes concerning collections. Mr. Roosevelt more frankly than any other person analyzed this situation. He said that when nations loaned money to impecunious Southern republics and the latter failed to pay that money, it would be the next step, naturally, for these countries to expect their creditors to go into their land and take over their customs houses in order to get money with which to pay themselves. But, he said, we must make our minds up whether we are willing to do that or whether we must ourselves intervene and stand between the foreign creditor and a South American or Central American country, the debtor. He believed that we must stand between the creditor and debtor.

At this time new opportunities for wealth are being revealed in surprising placed, and I need not tell you that Americans are searching all continents to find opportunities for making millions. You know that in Spanish countries they sometimes are able to get concessions, not because they have paid for them with good money in honest ways as they should, but because those nations often have officials who accept bribes. The next step may be our entanglement as a nation in the predicament when a Spanish American nation is unwilling to stand by its concession – and we are forced to stand by our nationals. Indeed, there are more entangling alliances hidden in the possibilities of the Monroe Doctrine as now interpreted than George Washington ever dreamed of.

I did not find a country in South America that could not give a long list of offenses against its dignity and its sovereignty which had been committed by our own country.

When, in 1823, President Monroe pronounced his doctrine, we were a nation of 9,600,000 people. At this time we are still assuring South America that we alone will interpret the Doctrine; we alone will apply it when and how we choose, and among the nations over which we assume this tutelage is Brazil, which has a larger territory than we have and whose population is now more than three times what ours was when the Monroe Doctrine was pronounced. It assumes a tutelage over Argentina, with nearly half the territorial size of our own country and with a populace nearly as large as that of the United States in 1820.

A new alliance has been formed in South America, and it is charged that the chief motive is a defense against our own land. It is called the “ABC” and represents 43,000,000 of population and a territory of 1,700,000 square miles larger than our own. This combination already possesses some of the greatest war ships in the world, cruisers, torpedo boats, submarines, airplanes and all the rest of the awful paraphernalia which modern civilization has devised for the taking of human life. There are men who can be found in South America who will say that they agree with the Monroe Doctrine, but I believe they are generally like an ambassador of one of the ABC nations to another one of these countries who, in introducing his conversation with me, referred to the Monroe Doctrine. His face shone with a marvelous light as if this was some wonderful thing we had in common, and when he had spoken of it in rather a flattering sort of way, I said, “I don’t approve of the Monroe Doctrine”. Then he ejaculated, “Don’t you? Neither do I.”

Said a South American: “The United States has made up its mind to acquire South America. Washington aspires to be the capital of an enormous empire, which, with the exception of Canada, would embrace the whole of the American continent. 80,000,000 Yankees want to annex not only forty million of South Americans, but they want our agricultural riches, richer than can be found anywhere else on the face of the earth.” Said an Argentinian: “The Monroe Doctrine is simply a petulant and insatiable imperialism and its development is a superb, audacious and mortifying notification to the Latin peoples of your strenuous desire to eventually absorb the small republics or become the supreme arbiter of their destiny.”

Said an Argentinian judge: “It is necessary that we should declare to the United States in dignified language that we are not disposed to concede her right of tutelage. It is too imperialistic and too degrading to ourselves and our neighbors who are worthy of being respected for themselves.”

Said an eminent Peruvian: “To set ourselves free from Yankee imperialism the South American republics may yet be forced to an alliance with Europe.”

Said a Chilean poet: “Two things unite all Spanish America: a common language and a common hatred of the United States.” One of the mildest comments is, “since there are no rain clouds coming from the east, why should a friend, however well-intentioned, insist on holding an umbrella over us.” (laughter) All over South America one hears these things said, and, men and women of America, if you were a South American and had a drop of red blood in your veins, you would say the things that they say and you would feel the things that they feel.

To say today that the Monroe Doctrine is right and true because all North Americans believe in it may be countered by another statement that it is wrong because all Spanish Americans do not believe in it. There is a minority here – perhaps I am the only one – who believe that the Monroe Doctrine is false in theory and pernicious in practice. There are those down there – perhaps a similar minority – who think the doctrine is right. These minorities offset each other, leaving the great majority in conflict.

This policy is outworn. It now is a defense of commerce and of big business. There are no colonies of monarchies to come to South and Central America. The kings are gone. Colonists will come, but they will come through immigration, in new ways, not in the old ways. The old Doctrine has not been applicable since the Great war. The new interpretation of slowly growing through fifty years has become interference and breeds hostility. Every nation that hates us is a potential enemy. In the future who can tell what great population or what circumstances may drive us to ignominously or war to uphold the meaning being put into it. At this centenary it would have been wise to have stated to the world frankly that the Doctrine has served its century. Let the century be as glorious as you care to make it. If there are those who declare that the Doctrine has been a blessing to all Spanish America, do not forget that none of them appears to know it. Then let an end be made of it.

Long, long ago a Man came into the world who brought a new rule of conduct. He introduced to mankind, in an endeavor to solve the problems of the world. It is called the Golden Rule. It is still as untarnished as in the beginning, for it has hardly been worn at all. It might be well to use it now with the twenty republics of South and Central America. “We will do unto you as we would have you do unto us.” I would also like to follow General Sherrill’s example and bound the United States. I would bound it on the north by that line between Canada and the United States, which has no fort upon it (applause) nor any kind of defense on the East by “Forgive thine enemies”; on the South by the Golden Rule, and on the West by “Love thy enemy as thyself”. (continued applause)

PDF version