Big Stick Diplomacy

Roosevelt, not one to shy away from responsibility or wait around for the action to start, immediately set to work. Unlike his predecessor, Roosevelt believed that the United States should always be prepared to fight. He applied his favorite proverb to the country: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far,” and bolstered the U.S. Army and Navy. Roosevelt’s so-called Big Stick Diplomacy soon became synonymous with imperialism and aggressiveness, as his policy often took advantage of smaller and weaker nations.

The Panama Canal

One of Roosevelt’s first goals was to construct a canal through the narrow Central American isthmus and link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In Colombia’s northernmost province, Panama, Roosevelt struck a deal with rebels who were dissatisfied with Colombian rule, offering them independence and American protection in exchange for land to build the canal.

The rebels quickly consented and, in 1903, overtook the provincial capital while U.S. Navy ships prevented Colombian troops from marching into Panama. Roosevelt immediately recognized Panama’s independence and sent Secretary of State John Hay to sign the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which relinquished ownership of the canal lands to the United States. Construction on the Panama Canal began the following year and was completed in 1914.

The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

The Panama Canal was only the first step in Roosevelt’s Big Stick diplomacy. Roosevelt further angered Latin Americans by adding his own interpretation to the Monroe Doctrine (the famous 1823 U.S. policy statement that warned European powers to stay out of Western Hemisphere affairs). Roosevelt’s action was prompted when Venezuela and the Dominican Republic both defaulted on loans and several European nations sent warships to collect the debts by force.

Roosevelt, afraid that the European aggressors would use the outstanding debt as an excuse to reassert colonial influence in Latin America, did not want to take any chances. In 1904, he announced his own Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the United States would collect and distribute the debts owed to European powers—in effect stating that only the United States could intervene in Latin American affairs. Roosevelt then sent troops to the Dominican Republic to enforce debt repayment and to Cuba to suppress revolutionary forces in 1906.

Relations with Japan

Relations between the United States and Japan soured during the Roosevelt years. In 1905, Roosevelt mediated a dispute between the Russians and the Japanese to end the Russo-Japanese War. Although these efforts won Roosevelt the Nobel Prize for Peace, both powers left the negotiating table unhappy and blamed Roosevelt for their losses. Ties to Japan were strained further when the San Francisco Board of Education banned Japanese students from enrolling in the city’s public schools, giving in to popular anti-Japanese sentiments. Japanese diplomats in Washington, D.C., loudly protested the move, which led Roosevelt to make a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” in 1907 stating that the San Francisco Board of Education would retract the ban as long as Japan reduced the number of immigrants to the United States.

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