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Progressivism and Reform, Foreign Affairs

Victoriano Huerta, Progressive presidents, Nicaraguan president, dollar diplomacy, Roosevelt Corollary

Progressive presidents sought to impose order on the world, and especially to find markets for American products. For example, Roosevelt believed that a world power such as the United States was obliged to maintain global peace. He brought Russia and Japan together to sign a treaty in 1905 that ended the Russo-Japanese War and gave Japan rights in Korea. Roosevelt also supported expansion of U.S. influence abroad.

Roosevelt intervened in Latin America to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; the canal would link U.S. East Coast ports with East Asia. The United States negotiated a treaty with Colombia for rights to build a canal in Panama, at that time controlled by Colombia. When the Colombian Congress rejected the treaty, Roosevelt encouraged Panamanian desire for independence from Colombia. This tactic succeeded, and a revolution occurred. The United States promptly recognized the new government of Panama and negotiated a treaty that enabled Americans to build the Panama Canal.

Latin Americans questioned Roosevelt’s high-handed maneuver. They also objected to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine, announced in 1823, declared that the United States had the right to exclude foreign powers from expanding in the western hemisphere. It had protected weak 19th-century Latin American nations from powerful European nations. The Roosevelt Corollary, in contrast, stated that “chronic” wrongdoing on the part of Latin American nations entitled the United States to intervene in the affairs of those nations. Most Latin Americans saw Roosevelt’s policy as a form of imperialism.

Roosevelt applied his corollary first to the Dominican Republic, which had trouble paying its debts to other nations. Roosevelt feared that a European power might occupy the country to force repayment of debts. The United States therefore ran the Dominican Republic’s custom service for two years and used money collected there to pay the nation’s debts.

Relations with Japan also became an issue during Roosevelt’s administration. A conflict erupted in 1906 over Japanese immigration to the United States. Prejudice against Japanese immigrants caused a crisis when San Francisco forced Asian children into a separate school. The Japanese government protested. In a “gentlemen’s agreement” in 1907, both nations agreed to discourage immigration from Japan. In the Root-Takahira agreement of 1908, Japan and the United States agreed to respect the territorial integrity of China and the Open Door Policy.

Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, adopted a policy that critics called dollar diplomacy; he encouraged U.S. bankers and industrialists to invest abroad, especially in Latin America. He hoped they would replace European lenders and build American influence in the area. The policy, however, led the United States into unpopular military ventures. For instance, the nation became involved in a civil war in Nicaragua, where the United States in 1909 supported the overthrow of the country’s leader and sustained a reactionary regime.

Woodrow Wilson, an idealist and humanitarian, disliked imperialism and rejected dollar diplomacy. He hoped to establish benevolent relations with other nations and wanted the United States to serve as a force for good in the world. However, in 1913, the United States landed marines in Nicaragua to ensure that its choice for Nicaraguan president would remain in power. The Wilson administration then drew up a treaty with Nicaragua that reduced the country to virtual dependency. In addition, U.S. troops occupied Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916. American business interests continued to prevail in Latin America.

Finally, Wilson came close to involving the United States in a war with Mexico. In 1913, two years after the Mexican Revolution, Mexico’s new president was assassinated, and a reactionary general, Victoriano Huerta, took control. Wilson refused to recognize Huerta’s unjust regime. Many Mexicans who disliked Huerta, however, also resented Wilson’s intervention in Mexican affairs. Both sides were poised to fight in 1914, when a confrontation between American sailors and Huerta’s forces broke out at Veracruz. Wilson accepted the mediation of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, but then supported Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a bandit, until Villa crossed the border and massacred Americans. Wilson sent U.S. troops to pursue Villa in 1916. The United States withdrew in 1917, which ended American involvement but left a legacy of distrust in Mexico and Latin America.

Historians debate the impact of progressivism at home and abroad. Some criticize the progressives’ desire for order and control, their reluctance to criticize capitalism, and progressivism’s coercive or restrictive side. Big business, critics contend, eluded progressive regulations. Other historians applaud progressive initiatives and find in them precedents for New Deal measures of the 1930s. According to more favorable interpretations, progressivism expanded democracy, challenged the close alliance of government and business, considered the public interest, and protected some of the more vulnerable Americans.

Above all, progressivism changed American attitudes toward the power of government. In 1917 Americans turned their attention from domestic concerns to foreign affairs as the United States became involved in World War I.

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