In The Monroe Doctrine author Jay Sexton (Oxford University) provides a detailed analysis of how the doctrine was developed and its subsequent impact on American policy. In the process, he addresses three issues that were prominent in the early years of the American republic: (1) Consolidation of American independence from Britain, (2) The forging of the new nation, and (3) The emergence of the American Empire. Perhaps his status as British historian who specializes in American history gives him an unusually objective view of the subject. Perhaps his knowledge of Britain's role in world affairs adds depth to his analysis. In any case, he has produced an unusually insightful text. I found interesting and useful insights on almost every page. I'll try to summarize the highlights of his book below, but please don't take my review as a substitute for reading the book. It is well worth the effort.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the union of the United States was exceedingly weak. One of the concerns of the founding fathers was that this weakness was likely to draw European powers that would seek to aid one state in its disputes with another, thereby further weakening the union and establishing a foreign influence on the client state. While the primary response to this threat was the creation of a stronger union under the Constitution, a foreign policy based on avoiding foreign entanglements was another necessary response.
Another fear was that foreign control of strategic territory on the periphery of the original territory of the United States would provide bases for British, French and Spanish incursions and occupation of US territory. In fact, the British occupied nine forts on US territory and had proposed that the area between the Ohio River, Mississippi River, and Great Lakes be declared a neutral buffer zone between the US and British Canada. Simultaneously, the Spanish claimed essentially all the territory between the Alleghany Mountains, the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. These disputes were only settled in 1795 under Jay's Treaty with Britain and Pinckney's Treaty with Spain. (See Samuel Flagg Bemis' books on those treaties.) Even after these treaties were in place, Spain continued to control Florida, New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory were controlled alternately by Spain and France, and Britain remained in control of Canada. These perceived threats contributed to the American drive to expand, immediately by the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and East and West Florida.
As early as 1818, Monroe and his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had inched toward diplomatic recognition of the Latin American nations that had declared their independence from Spain. They backed away so as not to derail Adams' negotiations with the Spanish Minister Luis de Onis on the transfer of Florida from Spain to the US and Spanish recognition of the US claim to the Oregon Territory. Monroe and Adams also hesitated to recognize the former Spanish colonies unless Britain did so as well, providing some shelter for the Americans from the inevitable Spanish wrath. Britain rejected this overture, and the US delayed recognition until 1822 when the Adams-Onis treaty had been signed and new international issues had arisen.
The immediate motivation for the Monroe Doctrine was the formation in 1823 of the Holy Alliance of absolutist monarchies: Austria, Russia, and Prussia. The Alliance backed France in its intervention in Spain to restore Ferdinand VII to the throne. This move raised fears in both Washington and London that France and Spain, backed by the Holy Alliance, would seek to restore Spain's rule over its former Latin American colonies. British Foreign Secretary George Canning approached the American minister in London, Richard Rush, with a proposal for a joint Anglo-American declaration of opposition to new European colonization in the Americas. The US, following Secretary of State Adams strategy, neither accepted nor rejected the British proposal. Adams strategy was motivated in part by a British condition that both countries pledge not to annex any formerly Spanish territories in the Americas, including Texas and Cuba, which were both American targets for future expansion. Adams convinced Monroe issue a unilateral American declaration in his annual address to congress that the establishment of new European colonies (implicitly including any sought by Britain) would be viewed as an unfriendly act by the US. To avoid provoking the Europeans more than necessary, Monroe did not specify any actions that the US would take in response to a European attempt to control new territory in the Americas and also declared that the US would avoid interfering in European affairs. Since the declaration was made in an address to the US Congress, not to the European states, the latter were under no pressure to respond. The Monroe Doctrine was, thus, a simple statement of American desires.
The strategic motivation for the Doctrine was fear that European powers, including or backed by the Holy Alliance, would establish bases in the Americas that could be gradually expanded to threaten the US. In a sense, it foreshadowed the 20th Century Policy of Containment and Domino Theory.
In the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine, Adams was a key strategic thinker. Secretary of War John C Calhoun probably overreacted to the potential threat posed by the Holy Alliance when he proposed accepting Canning's terms, including the ban on annexation of Texas and Cuba. The first draft, written by Monroe and Calhoun, was bellicose, specifically condemning France's interference in Spain. Adams advised moderation, pointing out that perhaps the greatest threat was that the strong US response might prompt the Holy alliance into action. And, as Adams anticipated, following the more moderate declaration of the Monroe Doctrine, the Holy Alliance did nothing.
The Monroe Doctrine was partially forgotten during the administration of Andrew Jackson whose only interest in the new nations of Latin America was the creation of additional diplomatic posts to reward political supporters. Unfortunately, this resulted in the assignment of political hacks with no knowledge of diplomacy or the Spanish language as US ministers to Latin countries, thereby lowering those countries esteem for the US.
The Monroe Doctrine resurfaced during the administration of James K Polk (1845-49). The Doctrine was used by three factions in government to support their conflicting views. Polk used it to support the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the War with Mexico on the basis that (1) Mexico's weak control of its northern territories (California and New Mexico) and (2) the overtures that the independent Republic of Texas had made to Britain for support invited European intervention. Calhoun cautioned that the Monroe Doctrine needed to be used more selectively, preferably to support slavery, which was under increasing attack by the northern states, by Britain, and in many of the new Latin American nations. Finally, the Whigs opposed any territorial acquisitions for fear of reopening the issue of slavery that they hoped had been resolved by the Missouri Compromise in 1820.
The Civil War saw the nightmare scenario that prompted Monroe's original declaration in 1823: Internal strife coupled with foreign intervention. The French installed a puppet emperor in Mexico while the Confederacy sought British support in their war for independence. I believe the French intervention in Mexico (while the US was too preoccupied with its Civil War to take any overt action) was the first really significant occupation of a major Latin American country since Monroe's declaration. This suggests that the Doctrine may have had some restraining effect of European powers over the preceding 40 years despite its lack of any specified American response.
In 1895, President Grover Cleveland and Secretary of State Richard Olney invoked the Monroe Doctrine by insisting that the US arbitrate a dispute between Britain and Venezuela regarding the latter's border with British Guiana. Olney's note to his British counterpart contained the inflammatory declaration that "Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent [referring to North and South America together] and its fiat is law." Ironically, Olney and Cleveland used this dramatic rhetoric not to increase the scope of the Monroe Doctrine but as a preemptive verbal attack in hopes that it would reduce the likelihood that the US would need to intervene actively in this or future situations. Surprisingly, after much harrumphing, Britain accepted US arbitration, the first tacit acceptance of the Monroe Doctrine by a European power.
Despite the success of Olney's "twenty- inch gun" in the 1895 Venezuelan border dispute, the tactic failed to preclude future US active involvement in hemispheric disputes. The Spanish-American War led to US annexation of Puerto Rico and Guam and occupation of Cuba and the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt's "Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine essentially changed it from a declaration of US opposition to new European colonization in the Americas (with no specified US response to violations) to an imperialist doctrine that the US would intervene anywhere it saw its interest at stake. After the War with Spain, "imperialism" came to take the somewhat softer forms of protectorates and economic imperialism, rather than outright colonialism.
Interestingly, Britain applauded the Roosevelt Corollary, signaling its acceptance of the US as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, and freeing up ships of the Royal Navy to be redeployed in other theaters of higher priority to London in light of the increasing British rivalry with Germany.