Theodore Roosevelt: The Monroe Doctrine and the National Honor

Theodore Roosevelt: The Monroe Doctrine and the National Honor

▪ Primary Source

      A dispute between England and Venezuela over the boundary of British Guiana (now Guyana) became the concern of the United States in 1895 when the Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S. requested its intervention. Recalling the memory of the "immortal Monroe," the ambassador argued that the United States had a traditional duty and a legitimate right to arbitrate the dispute. On December 17, 1895, President Grover Cleveland asked Congress for funds to defray the costs of an investigation into the matter. Theodore Roosevelt, who had impatiently urged American intervention for a long time, applauded Cleveland's action in the following indignant letter to the Harvard Crimson, written January 2, 1896.

      I have seen a newspaper statement that various professors and students of Harvard have urged, through your columns, the Harvard graduates and undergraduates to bring such pressure as they could upon senators and congressmen in order to prevent their upholding the honor and dignity of the United States by supporting the President and the secretary of state in their entirely proper attitude on the Venezuelan question. I do not believe that any considerable number either of senators or congressmen would consent to betray the American cause, the cause not only of national honor but in reality of international peace, by abandoning our position in the peace, by abandoning our position in the Venezuelan matter; but I earnestly hope that Harvard will be saved from the discredit of advising such a course.

      The Monroe Doctrine had for its first exponent Washington. In its present shape, it was in reality formulated by a Harvard man, afterward President of the United States, John Quincy Adams. John Quincy Adams did much to earn the gratitude of all Americans. Not the least of his services was his positive refusal to side with the majority of the cultivated people of New England and the Northeast in the period just before the War of 1812, when these cultivated people advised the same spiritless submission to improper English demands that some of their intellectual descendants are now advising.

      The Monroe Doctrine forbids us to acquiesce in any territorial aggrandizement by a European power on American soil at the expense of an American state. If people wish to reject the Monroe Doctrine in its entirety, their attitude, though discreditable to their farsighted patriotism, is illogical; but let no one pretend that the present Venezuelan case does not come within the strictest view of the Monroe Doctrine. If we permit a European nation in each case itself to decide whether or not the territory which it wishes to seize is its own, then the Monroe Doctrine has no real existence; and if the European power refuses to submit the question to proper arbitration, then all we can do is to find the facts for ourselves and act accordingly. England's pretentions in this case are wholly inadmissible and the President and secretary of state and the Senate and House deserve the highest honor for the course they have followed.

      Nothing will tend more to preserve peace on this continent than the resolute assertion of the Monroe Doctrine; let us make this present case serve as an object lesson, once for all. Nothing will more certainly in the end produce war than to invite European aggressions on American states by abject surrender of our principles. By a combination of indifference on the part of most of our people, a spirit of eager servility toward England in another smaller portion, and a base desire to avoid the slightest financial loss even at the cost of the loss of national honor by yet another portion, we may be led into a course of action which will for the moment avoid trouble by the simple process of tame submission to wrong.

      If this is done, it will surely invite a repetition of the wrong; and in the end the American people are certain to resent this. Make no mistake. When our people, as a whole, finally understand the question, they will insist on a course of conduct which will uphold the honor of the American flag; and we can in no way more effectively invite ultimate war than by deceiving foreign powers into taking a position which will make us certain to clash with them once our people have been fully aroused.

      The stock-jobbing timidity, the Baboo kind of statesmanship which is clamored for at this moment by the men who put monetary gain before national honor, or who are still intellectually in a state of colonial dependence on England, would in the end most assuredly invite war. A temperate but resolute insistence upon our rights is the surest way to secure peace. If Harvard men wish peace with honor they will heartily support the national executive and national legislature in the Venezuela matter; will demand that our representatives insist upon the strictest application of the Monroe Doctrine; and will farther demand that immediate preparation be made to build a really first-class navy.

Source: The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Elting E. Morison, ed., 1951, pp. 504-505.

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