At the conclusion of his presidency, George Washington warned his countrymen to avoid entanglements with foreign nations. He feared that the new nation might be overwhelmed by other countries’ problems. A little less than 100 years later the United States was a very different place. No longer a fledgling nation, the nation had grown to be an economic powerhouse fed by waves of immigrants that successfully spread from sea to shining sea.

Many Americans felt that Washington’s ideas no longer applied. They felt confident to project power in distant lands, especially after success in the Spanish-American War.

But, how should the country spread its influence? Three presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson all offered different answers to that question. One was based on the threat of force, one based on the use of money, and the last on an appeal to morality.

What do you think? How should America project its power around the world?


Since the journeys of Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, many Westerners have dreamt of making their fortunes in China. With the defeat of the Spanish and the addition of the Philippines as a base for American ports and coaling stations, American businesses were ready to make that myth a reality. Although China originally accounted for only a small percentage of American foreign trade, captains of American industry dreamed of a vast market of Asian customers desperate for manufactured goods they could not yet produce in large quantities for themselves.

American businesses were not alone in seeing the opportunities. Other countries, including Japan, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany also hoped to make inroads in China. Earlier treaties between Great Britain and China in 1842 and 1844 when the British Empire coerced the Chinese to accept the import of Indian opium in exchange for its tea, had forced China to give all foreign nations free and equal access to Chinese ports.

This was at a time when Great Britain maintained the strongest economic relationship with China. However, other western nations used the new arrangement to send Christian missionaries who began to work across inland China. In 1895, Japan successfully defeated Chinese troops on the battlefield and China lost its claims to Korea. By 1897, Germany had obtained exclusive mining rights in northern coastal China as reparations for the murder of two German missionaries. In 1898, Russia obtained permission to build a railroad across northeastern Manchuria. One by one, each country carved out their own sphere of influence, where they could control markets through tariffs and transportation, and thus ensure their share of the Chinese market.


Alarmed by the pace at which foreign powers were dividing China into pseudo-territories, and worried that they had no significant piece for themselves, the United States government intervened. In contrast to European nations, however, American businesses wanted the whole market, not just a share of it. They wanted to do business in China with no artificially constructed spheres or boundaries to limit the extent of their trade.

In 1899, Secretary of State John Hay made a bold move to acquire China’s vast markets for American access by introducing the Open Door Policy. His policy, if agreed to by the other five nations maintaining spheres of influences in China, would erase all spheres and essentially open all doors to free trade, with no special tariffs or transportation controls that might give unfair advantages to one country over another.

While on paper, the Open Door Policy would offer equal access to all, the reality was that it greatly favored the United States. Free trade in China would give American businesses the ultimate advantage, as American companies were producing higher-quality goods than other countries, and were doing so more efficiently and less expensively. The United States could flood the Chinese market with American goods, virtually squeezing other countries out of the market.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

Uncle Sam holds the Open Door Policy as he dictates to the European powers who hold scissors ready to divide up China into spheres of influence.

Although the foreign ministers of the other five nations sent half-hearted replies on behalf of their respective governments, with some outright denying the viability of the policy, Hay proclaimed it the new official policy on China, and American goods were unleashed throughout the nation. China was quite welcoming of the American policy, as they also stressed the United States commitment to preserving the Chinese government and territorial integrity.

The policy was invoked barely a year later, when a group of Chinese insurgents, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, known better in the West as the Boxer Rebellion, fought to expel all western nations and their influences from China. The United States, along with Great Britain and Germany, sent 2,000 troops to withstand the rebellion. The troops signified American commitment to the territorial integrity of China, albeit one flooded with American products. Despite subsequent efforts, by Japan in particular, to undermine Chinese authority in 1915 and again during the Manchurian crisis of 1931, the United States remained resolute in defense of the open door principles.

Only when China turned to communism in 1949, following an intense civil war, did the Open Door Policy become relatively meaningless. However, for nearly half a century, United States military involvement and a continued relationship with the Chinese government cemented their roles as preferred trading partners, illustrating how the country used economic power, as well as military might, to grow its empire.

Primary Source: Photograph

International troops stand in the square in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion.


While President McKinley ushered in the era of the American empire through military strength and economic coercion, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, established a new foreign policy approach, allegedly based on a favorite African proverb, “speak softly, and carry a big stick, and you will go far.” At the crux of his foreign policy was a coercion by threat. Roosevelt believed that in light of the country’s recent military successes, it was unnecessary to use force to achieve foreign policy goals, so long as the military could threaten force. In other words, the United States could get its way so long as foreigners were afraid of what might happen if they refused.

Roosevelt believed that while the coercive power wielded by the United States could be harmful in the wrong hands, the Western Hemisphere’s best interests were also the best interests of the United States. He felt, in short, that the United States had the right and the obligation to be the policeman in North and South America.

To demonstrate the nation’s military might – the big stick – President Roosevelt sent the navy on a round-the-world voyage between 1907 and 1909. Officially a cruise of friendship, the ships’ hulls were painted white to show America’s peaceful intent. However, the message of the Great White Fleet was clear. America was a powerful nation with the ability to project its military power anywhere on earth. The 16 battleships and various escorts made Roosevelt’s point better than any speech ever could.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

President Theodore Roosevelt carries his big stick as he stomps around the Caribbean Sea, pulling his navy behind him.


One of the great impediments to world trade had always been the fact that North and South America are connected, thus preventing ships from easily passing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This narrow strip of land, the isthmus of Central America was the subject of various schemes. After gold was discovered in California in 1858, the Panama Railway was established to carry 49ers across the isthmus. The French attempted to construct a canal. Begun in 1881, their project failed due to a combination of financial crises and health hazards, including malaria and yellow fever, which led to the deaths of thousands of French workers. Upon becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt was determined to succeed where others had failed. He resolved to build what the world now calls the Panama Canal.

The best point for the construction of a canal was across the 50-mile-wide isthmus of Panama, which, at the turn of the century, was part of the nation of Colombia. Roosevelt negotiated with the government of Colombia, sometimes threatening to take the project away and build through Nicaragua, until Colombia agreed to a treaty that would grant the United States a lease on the land across Panama in exchange for a payment of $10 million and an additional $250,000 annual rental fee. The matter was far from settled, however. The Colombian people were outraged over the loss of their land to the United States, and saw the payment as far too low. Influenced by the public outcry, the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty and informed Roosevelt there would be no canal.

Primary Source: Photograph

The massive effort to dig the Panama Canal is evident in this photograph showing rail lines carrying millions of tons of dirt and rock out of the man-made canyons that would eventually be flooded to form the canal.

Undaunted, Roosevelt chose to wield the big stick. In comments to journalists, he made it clear that the United States would strongly support the Panamanian people should they choose to revolt against Colombia and form their own nation. In November 1903, he sent American battleships to the coast of Colombia, ostensibly for practice maneuvers, as Panamanian business leaders who stood to benefit from the American canal effort led a revolution against Columbian rule.

The warships effectively blocked Colombia from moving additional troops into the region to quell the growing Panamanian uprising. Within a week, Roosevelt recognized the new country of Panama, welcoming them to the world community and offering them the same terms he had previously offered Colombia. It was a clear, and successful, wielding of the big stick. Roosevelt never fired a shot but got his way because American battleships made it clear what would happen if the Columbians resisted.

Construction on the canal began in 1904. For the first year of operations, the United States worked primarily to build adequate housing, cafeterias, warehouses, machine shops, and other elements of infrastructure that previous French efforts had failed to consider. Most importantly, the lives of workers were protected with the introduction of fumigation systems and mosquito nets following Dr. Walter Reed’s discovery of the role of mosquitoes in the spread of malaria and yellow fever.

At the same time, a new wave of American engineers planned for the construction of the canal. Even though they decided to build a lock-system rather than a sea-level canal, workers still had to excavate over 170 million cubic yards of earth with the use of over one hundred new rail-mounted steam shovels. Excited by the work, Roosevelt became the first sitting United States president to leave the country while in office when he traveled to Panama where he visited the construction site, taking a turn at the steam shovel and removing dirt. The canal opened in 1914, permanently changing world trade and military defense patterns.

Primary Source: Photograph

Never one to miss a photo opportunity, President Roosevelt took the controls at a steam shovel while touring the Panama Canal during its construction.


With the construction of the canal underway, Roosevelt wanted to send a clear message to the rest of the world, and in particular to his European counterparts, that the colonization of the Western Hemisphere had ended, and their interference in the countries there would no longer be tolerated.

At the same time, he sent a message to his counterparts in Central and South America, should the United States see problems erupt in the region, that it would intervene in order to maintain peace and stability throughout the hemisphere.

Roosevelt articulated this seeming double standard in a 1904 address before Congress, in a speech that became known as the Roosevelt Corollary. The Roosevelt Corollary was based on the original Monroe Doctrine, which warned European nations to stay out of the business of the nations of the Americas. In this addition, Roosevelt states that the United States would use military force “as an international police power” to correct any “chronic wrongdoing” by any Latin American nation that might threaten stability in the region. Unlike the Monroe Doctrine, which proclaimed an American policy of noninterference with its neighbors’ affairs, the Roosevelt Corollary loudly proclaimed the right and obligation of the United States to involve itself whenever necessary.

Roosevelt put the new corollary to work in Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Colombia. Later presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt, softened American rhetoric regarding United States domination of the Western Hemisphere, proclaiming a new Good Neighbor Policy that renounced American intervention in other nations’ affairs. However, subsequent presidents would continue to reference aspects of the Roosevelt Corollary to justify American involvement in Haiti, Nicaragua, and other nations.

Latin Americans have long resented what they perceive as American arrogance and unfair and unwanted interference in their affairs. In the eyes of many of America’s southern neighbors, a powerful military does not give the United States the right to meddle.


Although he supported the Open Door Policy as an excellent economic policy in China, Roosevelt lamented the fact that the United States had no strong military presence in the region to enforce it. Clearly, without a military presence there, he could not as easily use his big stick threat credibly to achieve his foreign policy goals. As a result, when conflicts did arise on the other side of the Pacific, Roosevelt adopted a policy of maintaining a balance of power among the nations there. This was particularly evident when the Russo-Japanese War erupted in 1904.

In 1904, angered by the massing of Russian troops along the Manchurian border in China, and the threat it represented to the region, Japan launched a surprise naval attack on the Russian fleet. Initially, Roosevelt supported the Japanese position. However, when the Japanese fleet quickly achieved victory after victory, Roosevelt grew concerned over the growth of Japanese influence in the region and the continued threat that it represented to China and American access to those markets. It was better for America to have Russia and Japan as equals balancing each other out.

Wishing to maintain a balance of power, Roosevelt arranged for diplomats from both nations to attend a secret peace conference. The negotiations secured peace in the region, with Japan gaining control over Korea, several former Russian bases in Manchuria, and the southern half of Sakhalin Island. For his role in resolving the conflict, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American to receive the award.


When William Howard Taft became president in 1909, he chose to adapt Roosevelt’s foreign policy philosophy to one that reflected American economic power at the time. In what became known as Dollar Diplomacy, Taft announced his decision to “substitute dollars for bullets” in an effort to use foreign policy to secure markets and opportunities for American businessmen. Not unlike Roosevelt’s threat of force, Taft used the threat of American economic clout to coerce countries into agreements to benefit the United States.

Of key interest to Taft was the debt that several Central American nations still owed to countries in Europe. Fearing that the Europeans might use the debts as leverage to use military intervention in the Western Hemisphere, Taft paid off the debts with American dollars. Of course, this move made the Central American countries indebted to the United States instead of the Europeans.

When a Central American nation resisted this arrangement, Taft responded with military force to achieve the objective. This occurred in Nicaragua when the country refused to accept American loans to pay off its debt to Great Britain. Taft sent a warship with marines to the region to convince the government to agree. Similarly, when Mexico considered the idea of allowing a Japanese corporation to gain significant land and economic advantages in its country, Taft urged Congress to pass the Lodge Corollary, an addendum to the Roosevelt Corollary, stating that no foreign corporation, other than American ones, could obtain strategic lands in the Western Hemisphere.

Taft’s policies, although not as reliant on military aggression as Roosevelt’s Big Stick Diplomacy, did create difficulties for the United States, both at the time and in the future. Central America’s indebtedness would create economic problems for decades, as well as foster nationalist movements in countries resentful of America’s interference. In Asia, Taft’s efforts to mediate between China and Japan served only to heighten tensions between Japan and the United States.


Out of Taft’s Dollar Diplomacy grew the idea of a Banana Republic. The name was coined by British author O. Henry and it described a nation so dependent on foreign trade that the leaders of foreign corporations effectively ruled. In the early 1900s, the two best examples were the Central American nations of Honduras and Guatemala.

In 1912, for the Cuyamel Fruit Company, the American mercenary “General” Lee Christmas overthrew the civil government of Honduras to install a military government friendly to foreign business.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

This cartoon depicts Uncle Sam with long, greedy fingers interfering in the affairs of Latin America.

In Honduras an American businessman, Sam Zemurra, entered the banana-export business by buying overripe bananas from the United Fruit Company to sell in New Orleans. In 1910, Zemurray bought 23 square miles of banana producing land along the Caribbean coast of Honduras for exploitation by the Cuyamel Fruit Company and conspired with Manuel Bonilla, an ex-president of Honduras to overthrow the civil government and install a military government friendly to foreign businessmen. Zemurra hired a private, mercenary army and the resulting coup d’état installed Bonilla as the new president.

Back home, the United States ignored the deposition of the elected government of Honduras by a private army. The political instability resulting from the coup d’état stalled the Honduran economy. With a struggling economy, the Honduran government could not pay back its debt to the United States, which in turn perpetuated economic stagnation and the image of Honduras as failed nation. Such a historical, inherited foreign debt undermined the Honduran government, which allowed foreign corporations to manage the country and become sole employers of the Honduran people. The American fruit companies built and controlled the roads, railroads, ports, and telephones in Honduras. If the elected government ever threatened the power of the American businesses, they simply threatened to fire workers or shut down critical infrastructure. In the end, although the people of Honduras voted for their presidents, it was American businessmen who ran the nations through the power of the dollar.

A similar story played out in Guatemala. Dependent on exports of bananas, coffee, and sugar cane, inequitable land distribution became an important cause of national poverty and frustration. During the 1950s, the American-owned United Fruit Company was frustrated that the popular, elected leaders of Guatemala were seizing their land to give to poor Guatemalans. They convinced Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower that the Guatemalans were secretly communist. Eisenhower ordered a coup d’état in which the Central Intelligence Agency deposed the democratically elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. Once again, when American dollars were at stake, American military might was not far behind, and Dollar Diplomacy worked to build and preserve American economic might. The United Fruit Company is still thriving today, although its name changed in 1984. Today we know it as Chiquita Banana.

It could be argued that American support for the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in Hawaii, although it occurred long before Taft’s presidency, is another example of Dollar Diplomacy at work and that the Kingdom and subsequent Republic of Hawaii were both stereotypical banana republics.


When Woodrow Wilson took over the White House in 1913, he promised a less expansionist approach to American foreign policy. Wilson did share the commonly held view that American values were superior to those of the rest of the world, that democracy was the best system to promote peace and stability, and that the United States should continue to actively pursue economic markets abroad. Instead, he proposed an idealistic foreign policy based on morality, rather than American self-interest. His Moral Diplomacy emphasized the encouragement of self-rule and independence rather than what he believed were selfish American interests.

Wilson appointed former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a noted anti-imperialist and proponent of world peace, as his Secretary of State. Bryan undertook his new assignment with great vigor, encouraging nations around the world to sign treaties in which they agreed to resolve international disputes through talks, not war. Bryan negotiated friendly relations with Colombia, including a $25 million apology for Roosevelt’s actions during the Panamanian Revolution. Even with Bryan’s support, however, Wilson found that it was much harder than he anticipated to keep the United States out of world affairs.

Furthering his goal of reducing overseas intervention, Wilson promised not to rely on the Roosevelt Corollary, Theodore Roosevelt’s explicit policy that the United States could involve itself in Latin American politics whenever it felt that the countries in the Western Hemisphere needed policing. Once president, however, Wilson again found it was more difficult to avoid American interventionism in practice than in rhetoric. Indeed, Wilson intervened more in Western Hemisphere affairs than either Taft or Roosevelt. In 1915, when a revolution in Haiti resulted in the murder of the Haitian president and threatened the safety of New York banking interests, Wilson sent over 300 marines to establish order. The United States assumed control over the island’s foreign policy as well as its financial administration. One year later, in 1916, Wilson sent marines the Dominican Republic to ensure prompt payment of a debt that nation owed, and in 1917, Wilson sent troops to Cuba to protect American-owned sugar plantations from attacks by Cuban rebels.

Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon

“I’ve had about enough of this,” cries a frustrated Uncle Sam as he jumps the border to chase Pancho Villa into Mexico. As it turned out, Latin Americans had about enough of American incursions as well.

Wilson’s most noted foreign policy foray prior to World War I focused on Mexico, where a civil war had broken out. Wilson chose to make an example of Mexico and demanded that the waring parties hold democratic elections and establish laws based on his moral principles. Officially however, Wilson supported Venustiano Carranza, who opposed Victoriano Huerta’s military control of the country. When American intelligence learned that a German ship was allegedly preparing to deliver weapons to Huerta’s forces, Wilson ordered the navy to land forces at Veracruz to stop the shipment.

On April 22, 1914, a fight erupted between the American and Mexican troops, resulting in nearly 150 deaths, 19 of them American. Although Carranza’s faction managed to overthrow Huerta in the summer of 1914, most Mexicans, including Carranza, had come to resent American intervention in their affairs.

When another Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa led 1,500 of his followers across the border into New Mexico and attacked and burned the American town of Columbus, Wilson responded by sending General John Pershing into Mexico to capture Villa and return him to the United States for trial. With over 11,000 at his disposal, Pershing marched three hundred miles into Mexico but failed to capture Villa. He did, however, manage to infuriate the Mexicans who saw it as yet another betrayal of Wilson’s promises.


After success in the Spanish-American War and struggling to establish control over the Philippines, the nation’s leaders offered differing visions of American power in the world.

First, Theodore Roosevelt argued that a powerful military was the key to achieving the nation’s goals, although with the right touch it would not be necessary to ever call the military into action.

President Taft took a less belligerent tone, but was no less assertive. His use of the power of American business and willingness to swoop in with the military to protect economic interests differed little from Roosevelt’s administration in the final outcome.

The Democrat Wilson spoke out on the campaign trail for a different, more humane and moral approach, but ended up looking more like Roosevelt than Roosevelt himself.

Which approach was right, or were they all misguided? What do you think? How should America project its power in the world?



BIG IDEA: Americans wanted access to markets in China and influence in Latin America.  Leaders were willing to use overt military power and economic influence to get their way.

European powers had been interested in having control in China for many years. There were important markets with lots of customers in China. Instead of taking full control and making China a colony, Europeans carved up China into zones. These spheres of influence were places where only businesses from one country could operate. The British controlled Shanghai, for example.

The United States did not like this arrangement. American leaders declared an Open Door Policy. They said that Europeans had to let American companies do business anywhere they wanted.

Some leaders in China objected to the control Europeans and Americans had in their country. In one case, a group called the Boxers launched a rebellion and the Europeans and American had to send 2,000 soldiers to defeat them.

During the early 1900s, three American presidents dealt with issues related to imperialism. The first was Theodore Roosevelt. His approach was nicknamed the Big Stick. He believed that he could use American military power (usually the navy) to intimidate less powerful nations. One example was when he sent the navy to Panama to support the Panamanian Revolution and secure the right to build the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal was a major undertaking that was initiated by Theodore Roosevelt. The canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and allows the United States to quickly shift its warships from one ocean to the other. It also serves as an important trade route.

Roosevelt expanded the Monroe Doctrine. President Monroe had declared that the Western Hemisphere was off limits to European nations. Roosevelt added his own Corollary in which he declared that the United States would intervene in Latin American nations when there were problems. The United States has done this multiple times. This American policy has not been particularly popular south of the border.

Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

President Taft followed Dollar Diplomacy. He wanted to use American economic power to influence other nations. This led to the development of the so-called banana republics. One notable example was Honduras where the American United Fruit Company manipulated the government in order to pay lower taxes.

President Wilson believed in Moral Diplomacy. He wanted people to decide on their own government. However, his idealism did not extend to American territories. When Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa attacked an American town, Wilson sent the army into Mexico to try to catch him.



John Hay: American Secretary of State who introduced the Open Door Policy.

Dr. Walter Reed: Army doctor who led the effort to eradicate mosquitos in Panama and make the area safe for the workers who built the Panama Canal.

Pancho Villa: Mexican revolutionary who led a raid on the town of Columbus in New Mexico leading to President Wilson launching an invasion of Mexico in an unsuccessful attempt to capture him.


Spheres of Influence: Nickname for the regions of China that were controlled by the various European nations. Within these zones, only one European power was permitted to carry out trade.

Banana Republic: A small nation dominated by foreign businesses. This nickname was used especially for Central American nations dominated by fruit growers based in the United States.


United Fruit Company: American company that dominated the economies of Central American nations leading to their being nicknamed Banana Republics. It is now called Chiquita Banana.


Panama Canal: Canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was an important success of President Theodore Roosevelt.


Boxer Rebellion: 1899-1901 conflict between Chinese nationalists and Europeans, Japanese and Americans over control of China.

Russo-Japanese War: 1904 conflict between Russian and Japan. Theodore Roosevelt helped negotiate a peace treaty and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Great White Fleet: American fleet of battleships that sailed around the world between 1907 and 1909 to demonstrate American military might.


Open Door Policy: American policy at the turn of the century that stated that all of China would be open to trade, essentially ignoring the European spheres of influence.

Big Stick Diplomacy: Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy. He emphasized the threat of military force as a way to force other nations to accept American positions.

Roosevelt Corollary: Theodore Roosevelt’s addition to the Monroe Doctrine in which he stated that the United States would act as policeman for the Americas.

Good Neighbor Policy: Policy promoted by Franklin Roosevelt and other presidents that contradicted the Roosevelt Corollary. It stated that the United States would respect the independence of Latin American nations.

Dollar Diplomacy: President Taft’s approach to foreign policy. He emphasized the use of American financial power rather than the threat of military force.

Moral Diplomacy: President Wilson’s approach to foreign policy. He emphasized the use of American power to promote democracy and self-rule.

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