Carrie Chapman Catt

What is the Monroe Doctrine? (Fourth Conference on the Cause and Cure of War) - January 18, 1929

Carrie Chapman Catt
January 18, 1929— Washington, D.C.
Fourth Conference on the Cause and Cure of War
Print friendly

Reprinted from the Woman’s Journal, March, 1929.


We Have Had the Monroe Doctrine for More Than a Century. We know Its Effect, But Who Knows What It Is? This Article Explains Why an Understanding Is Necessary to the World’s Peace

Address By

Carrie Chapman Catt

Fourth Conference on Cause and Cure of War, Washington, D.C., January 1929

The psychology produced in the Western Hemisphere by the Monroe Doctrine, as it is accepted, unquestionably stirs ill instead of good will. In a visit to Latin America I was astounded at the character and extent of the resentment expressed toward the Monroe Doctrine. Every boy in Latin America learns its meaning and significance in the schools, but certainly what is taught there is not what is taught our own boys. The boys on these two continents grow up and take their places in the administration of the their respective governments and each comes to his duty with preconceived, fixed, but opposing ideas of the Monroe Doctrine, a condition calculated to create misunderstanding.

The Monroe Doctrine is certainly a military threat, and the psychology of a threat is always to create enemies instead of friends, suspicion instead of trust. Curiously, the threat of the Doctrine was aimed at European nations and was pronounced in the interest and protection of Latin-American colonies. Yet Europe appears undisturbed by it now, while Latin America is much perturbed. Here is a mystery worth detecting.

Our own statesmen have agreed that the Monroe Doctrine is merely a policy of self-defense, but Latin-American statesmen pronounce its application a policy of military offense. The Monroe Doctrine has been interpreted by our own orators to include every dream of international idealism, every altruistic neighborly purpose, every noble aspiration for the world’s welfare, and these are the impressions left in the minds of many North Americans. But the policies which the world links with the Monroe Doctrine are those in defense of commerce, big business, economic exploitation and financial overlordship. It is this aspect of our relations to Latin-American countries which has so filled their citizens with dread of unhappy possibilities. North and South agree fairly well upon two points: (1) That the definition and authority of the Doctrine are obscure; (2) that its power is dependent upon the strength and skill of the army and navy. In the words of Professor James Milford Garner in his “American Foreign Policies”: “If Monroe were alive today he would be quite unable to recognize the policy which bears his honored name but which is not, in fact, his offspring.”

When President Monroe, on December 2, 1823, over one hundred and five years ago, in a message to Congress issued the famed pronouncement, there was certain cause for anxiety from the possible aggression of powerful European nations. The monarchs of Austria, Prussia, and Russia had united in what was called “The Holy Alliance,” agreeing to rule according to “the principles which the Divine Savior had taught to mankind.” The principles of the Divine Savior, as they conceived them, were to suppress any attempts at representative government and to make the world safe and comfortable for kings. They secured the alliance of France and made connection with England. They looked with aspirations upon the vast rich territory of the Western Hemisphere with its small population and weak governments. Had there been less distrust among themselves, the rising democratic governments in the West might have been overturned before they had fairly begun.

The rumors of the plans of the kings continued to reach the United States; the leaders of our government became alarmed and were not willing to wait supinely to be attacked. Something must be done! The Republic therefore spoke and did it in the form of a President’s message. Many heads and hands took part in its preparation and edited it thoroughly, which is probably the reason why it is so difficult to understand. In making the commas and prepositions satisfactory to all they dropped out some of its verbs. President Monroe, who, it is said, did not write it and had little to do with its preparation, then presented it to Congress.

The message, thoroughly abridged, is in effect this: If any of you dare to bring your armies over to this hemisphere and take land for colonization, or attempt to foist a king where no king now is, we shall fight. Beware!

To be sure, no diplomat or lawyer ever wrote a state paper in language so crude, nor so understandable. The language was far more elegant, but much more confused and clumsy. The difficulty of understanding the Monroe Doctrine is chiefly due to the fact that after the threat was issued to the big kings of Europe, interpretations were added as to when it would and when it would not apply. I do not know when the habit of making reservations began in the United States, but certainly there are plenty of good examples in the Monroe Doctrine. If the President and his associated had said exactly what they meant, it would have been equivalent to an invitation to declare war, and they were ill prepared to meet such an engagement. They therefore buried the threat in a bouquet of words where the kings would not fail to find it, but could “save their faces” by pretending not to have seen or heard of it.

False Hopes Aroused

The message was hailed with joy throughout Latin-American countries, for in each a revolution had successfully been conducted, or an uprising against the mother country, Spain or Portugal, was in progress or anticipated. All of the Latin-American countries were weak and in need of allies and they read more into the Monroe Doctrine than was intended. In Spanish America many an aspiring hero saw himself in tassel and spur, sword and buckler, riding away on a noble charger in a famous joust with the vexing kings of Europe, while the United States furnished most of the men and money and looked after the wounded. The revolutions went on, but the United States never rendered military assistance, and this, I found, had been an abiding cause of resentment since 1823. The prompt recognition of independence when achieved, always heralded here as a liberal and noble deed, is regarded by our Southern neighbors as a cheap gesture when compared with the bold and grandiloquent Monroe threat as they had understood it. The first Latin ardor for the Monroe Doctrine cooled and irritation set in a century ago.

In our day statesmen have put in clearer terms than the original what they understand that Mr. Monroe meant to say. Mr. Hughes, for example, says the Doctrine today is quite unchanged and means that this nation will regard as unfriendly (1) “any non-American action encroaching upon the political independence of American states under any guise” and (2) “the acquisition in any manner of the control of additional territory in this hemisphere by any non-American power.” One cannot read this clear and simple statement without wishing that Mr. Hughes had been president when the famous message was written. It might have saved a century of irritated nerves. A second thought makes one wonder whether Mr. Hughes with his calm, scholarly mind, had he been president in 1823, would have written so plain a challenge as his interpretation to that galaxy of kings with real armies at their backs, each threatening to descend upon his struggling little republic. It must be easier to define the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 in simple phrases now that kings are so long dead, their thrones so dusty with non-use, and none of the Fathers of the Republic present to contradict.

The absence of authority for the Monroe Doctrine is curious. The American Monroe Doctrine, it is called. It was not Monroe’s production; he merely presented it to Congress; and a glance at a dictionary will convince anyone that it is not a doctrine. There is no validity in a presidential message to Congress unless Congress responds by taking action. Congress did not take action. Shortly after President Monroe presented his message to Congress, Henry Clay attempted to have Congress adopt the Doctrine in the form of a resolution, but he did not secure the necessary cooperation and no successful attempt has been made since to give it the mandate of Congressional approval. The message was designed for Europe and especially for the kings and their representatives, and not for Congress. The Doctrine has been often endorsed by party platforms, as it was by those of 1928, but no party attempts to enlighten the public as what it understands the Doctrine to mean. It has also been endorsed without definition by Congress. Mr. Hoover and Mr. Smith endorsed it in interviews and speeches, but neither defined it. Whenever a treaty is under consideration, a number of Senators are on their feet either demanding that the Monroe Doctrine be protected by a reservation or asking solicitously whether any of its prerogatives will be disturbed by the treaty. The responses indicate a unanimity of senatorial anxiety to protest a policy which they appear to regard as sacred, but they never define it.

In my amateurish efforts to understand why Latin-America is so resentful toward the so-called Doctrine, I have wondered why Congress, so united in support of it, has not adopted it in some legalized form, in order to quiet the criticism. I now know. All Congressmen and Senators believe in the Monroe Doctrine, but there is wide difference of opinion among them as to what they believe. I am confirmed in this view – which is not in the least cynical – by Mr. Hughes’ recent comment concerning objections to the Monroe Doctrine. Said he (page 15, Relations to the Nations of the Western Hemisphere): “If we sought to abandon it, we might have as much trouble in showing what we had abandoned as we have in dealing with the Doctrine itself.”

An Out-of-Date Policy

PLEASE NOTE: We have something, we do not quite know what. One hundred and five years have passed since we came by it. There is no possibility of any European government in this Western Hemisphere and setting up a king; indeed, most of those nations have themselves adopted our form of government. There is a small chance of the seizure of territory for colonization. No nation is colonizing in the old way now. The causes which brought forth the Monroe Doctrine have gone forever and the tables have been completely turned. The pert little republic thumbing its nose at big crowned kings a century ago is now, in the words of South America, “the Colossus of the North.”

It contains more millionaires than any other nation ever had, and the richest Croesus of all history was a poor beggar compared with several unboastful Americans. Its trade penetrates every port and it furnished the world’s best market. The most powerful king in the world today is money, and the thing the world fears most is the aggression of our money power. Under these circumstances it is odd that there must be a reservation in every treaty and that a bigger navy is always needed to protect the Monroe Doctrine.

The Panama Canal, of which Mr. Monroe never dreamed, has much aggravated home pride and foreign suspicion. When the Canal was in the process of building, the undertaking was pictured as a noble, altruistic enterprise, conducted as a charitable assistance to every nation but ourselves, who expected to have difficulty with the home taxpayers in raising the money to pay its running expenses, The Panama Canal, instead of being a financial liability, became an enormous asset, and at once Congress, the parties, and the patriots recognized it as an intriguing military temptation. It must have forts and more forts to keep the designing enemy from taking it away from us; it must have cruisers, plenty of them, to drive the foe from our long coast line. The flotilla of our warships, big and little; our submarines; our airplanes, go there for manoeuvers, and after an imaginary war with an imaginary foe that always overcomes the loyal Canal defenders and takes the Canal, there is a fresh appeal for more preparedness to defend it. No psychology could produce suspicion more certainly than the orations about the Canal, the attempted legislation for fortifications, and the military manoeuvers undertaken in its neighborhood.

So some have said “Let us lay aside the Doctrine since it has served it uses and is now obsolete,” but Mr. Hughes says we cannot discard a thing in legal terms unless we can define in legal terms what we are giving up.

The Doctrine and the League

A chance incident throws light on the character of the Monroe Doctrine. President Wilson returned to the United States while the Covenant of the League of Nations was still incomplete, and hearing the rumors of hostility to the document whose provisions were sill unknown, asked Mr. Taft, then the president of the League to Enforce Peace, to draft a paragraph that might be inserted in the Covenant and that would tend to satisfy the rising opposition. It was prepared, and upon the supposition that this would help to ensure senatorial ratification, it was included in the Covenant as Article XXI. It reads: “Nothing in this Covenant shall be deemed to affect the validity of international engagements such as treaties of arbitration or regional understandings like the Monroe Doctrine for securing the maintenance of peace.”

This is the nearest approach ever made to the recognition of the Monroe Doctrine in a document of authority, unless we except treaties and the foundation of the Hague Tribunal. In after years it is likely to be pronounced the most amusing sentence ever written. It reminds one of the definition of a crab in a French dictionary – a red fish that crawls backward. Cuvier, the French naturalist, declared the definition quite correct with the exception that a crab is not a fish, nor is it red, nor does it crawl backward. So the Monroe Doctrine has no validity, is not an international entanglement, nor a regional understanding – either of which requires two parties; nor has it ever claimed to be an instrument for the maintenance of peace, nor does it bear any resemblance to a treaty of arbitration.

International Bewilderment

Distrait Mr. Taft, distracted Mr. Wilson, bewildered League of Nations – together they wrought a world poser. Sooner or later a wise joker or serious statesman would certainly challenge Article XXI. The opportunity was seized by Costa Rica, which inquired of the League Council a few months ago the meaning and significance of Article XXI. The press reported the Council to be greatly perturbed by the question, but after locking itself behind closed doors for a long time the members issued forth smilingly and sent the only possible answer – We do not understand Article XXI. The parties to regional understandings are the only ones who know what is meant by such compacts. The Monroe Doctrine is not an agreement, and over and over American statesmen have assured South America that there never will be more than one party to it. It should be clear that if any one ever knows what that Doctrine is the United States must singly and alone pronounce the definition. Congress has the authority to define it, but obviously it will not. The next election might return another Congress that would redefine it, to the utter mortification and confusion of all concerned.

In the period when there was a controversy as to whether the earth was round or flat, those who believed it flat said: “That which is believed everywhere and by all comes from God.” With similar faith nearly all citizens of the United States believe in the Monroe Doctrine because everyone else does. One man writes in the New York Times: “When the honorable gentleman says I am opposed to the Monroe Doctrine he lies in his throat. I said that I do not know what the Monroe Doctrine is, but I am in favor of it and am prepared to defend it with the last drop of my blood.”

The Monroe Doctrine is something to which one hundred per cent patriotic Americans give allegiance. In Latin America, one hundred per cent patriots give unequivocal opposition and condemnation to it. The editor of the most important paper in South America, commenting upon the thirty interventions of the United States in the Latin-American countries, writes: “The Doctrine of Monroe is the shield and buckler of United States aggression; it is a sword suspended by a hair over the Latin continents.” “John Hay once coupled the Monroe Doctrine with the Golden Rule as cardinal elements in our foreign policy.” (Pamphlet, The Monroe Doctrine – World Peace, by Kirby Page.) Such wide difference of interpretation as a sword hung by a hair and the Golden Rule can only breed mischief, and the possible incapacity of the United States to set the matter right is a curious factor in the situation.

The century of growth, expansion, and prosperity which has been the lot of the United States since Mr. Monroe’s day has developed an extensive and a varied foreign policy. That policy differs very little from that of other great powers. It is imperialistic in its nature and militaristic in its spirit. That policy would, undoubtedly, have been ours had the Monroe Doctrine never been written. It would have been a highly noble thing if, on the centenary of the Monroe Doctrine, the statesmen of this country had defined that Doctrine, given it an authentic history, and discharged it as a policy whose honorable work was done. Since they did not do so, each Secretary of State interprets it anew. Our Secretaries of State have been great men, but the custom of leaving the interpretation of a crucial policy to one man or a few men, with cruisers and marines to follow their order, without action by Congress and no chance of information for the people, seems a dangerously old-fashioned one.

An Obstacle to Peace

The Monroe Doctrine, undefined and unauthorized, is an obstacle to peace and good will. At this time, when the nations are attempting to find a way to live together, amicably, it is obviously important that all questions which have a disturbing influence upon good relations should be talked through to general understanding. The citizens of our own country, as well as those of the entire Western world, are entitled to know what the Doctrine is, where it came from, what it meant when it came, and where it is now leading. To this end I entreat you to read, study, reflect, discuss, debate, and investigate the Monroe Doctrine. A considerable library of new literature on the subject, by no means in agreement, invites your attention. In a recent discussion on the Monroe Doctrine it was desired to secure one speaker who would represent our Government’s point of view and twenty-four notable persons were invited and declined. The twenty-fifth, a military man, accepted. Ten years ago the first man invited would have accepted. The time to move concerning the Monroe Doctrine apparently has come. What the nation thinks about it today it will not think twenty-five years hence.

PDF version