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Beyond Big Stick: Elihu Root’s visit to Rio de Janeiro (1906)

The Palácio Monroe was a monumental hall in the Centro neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Palácio Monroe was a monumental hall in the Centro neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It is on account of the desire of the American people to exhibit their friendship for brazilians that I am here. On such occasion, when eighty million republicans greet twenty million brothers, it is appropriate that we should remember the great man who promulgated the grand thought of protecting the American republics. I drink to the memory of James Monroe.” (Elihu Root, 1906)

The Big Stick policy is commonly represented in historiography as the moment when the United States political and military interventions in Latin America experienced unprecedented growth.  This perception is not inaccurate, but much is lost when scholars observe the period only by its most violent aspects. It is possible to identify within the Theodore Roosevelt administration different projects connected to Latin America that favored the consolidation of fraternity and friendship as alternatives to political and military violence. The visit of Secretary of State Elihu Root to Rio de Janeiro during the Third International Conference of American States in 1906 reveals such a connection. In his public speeches, Root did not mention U.S. interventions in Central America. Instead, his words rhetorically resembled those that would later be used during the Good Neighbor Policy (1933–1945) implemented by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration almost thirty years later.

Elihu Root (1845–1937) was born in Clinton, New York. He graduated from New York University Law School in 1867. His political life revolved around the Republican party in New York and, in 1899, he received his first national political appointment from President William McKinley as secretary of war. In 1905, after some time away from public life, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Root to be secretary of state. Once in office, Elihu Root took the reins of U.S.-Latin American relations, often tempering the impatient and threatening speeches of Roosevelt himself.

In 1906, during the Third International Conference of American States, Root embarked on a trip to Brazil’s capital. The people of Rio de Janeiro lined the processional routes to his temporary residence to welcome him to the city.

It can be seen from the press that Root’s passage through Brazil and other South American countries renewed the rhetoric of continental fraternity. In the eyes of the public, the secretary of state was able to transform recent U.S. interference in Central American nations into something beneficial. The newspaper O Paiz, transcribing the editorial of the Uruguayan newspaper, El Dia, demonstrated how South Americans could interpret the U.S. interventions in Central America favorably:

El Dia, from Montevideo, a newspaper that can be taken as an official newspaper, because of its affinities with the president of Uruguay, consecrated one of his editorials to the attitude of the United States in the last Central American conflict and thus expressed itself:

‘This last case’, he says, ‘of friendly intervention’, which seems to have been crowned with a complete success, begins, or rather sets, more clearly, the new course of American policy.

The policy of frank friendship and peace-keeping that President Roosevelt proposes to initiate tends to make the continent bigger, whose economic conduct will be immensely superior to those of Europe in the name of peace’”[1].

Speaking to the American delegates at a special session of the conference in his honor, Root marked his uniqueness among other officials of his government, especially regarding foreign policy that urged the United States to invest in Latin America:

“We, the United States, wish for no victories but those peace, for no territory except our own, for no sovereignty except the sovereignty over ourselves, which we deem independence.

We neither claim nor desire any rights, privileges or powers that we do not freely concede to every American Republic. We wish to increase our prosperity, to expand our trade, to grow in wealth and in wisdom, but our conception of the true way to accomplish this is not by pulling down others, to profit by their ruin, but by helping all our friends to common prosperity and a common growth, so that we may all become greater and stronger together within a few months, for the first time the recognize possessors of every foot of soil on the American continent can, and I hope will, be the formal and final acceptance of the declaration that no part of the American continent is to be deemed subject to colonization”[2]

The secretary of state was able to construct two different speeches about Latin America: South America would gain a status of “equality” with respect to the United States, having its sovereignty constantly reaffirmed; Central America, on the other hand, would not receive the guarantee of sovereignty. This obviously led to different interpretations of the Roosevelt corollary on the continent. Brazilian diplomats such as Joaquim Nabuco and Barão do Rio Branco supported the Monroe Doctrine—the United States policy of opposing European colonialism in the American continent beginning in 1823—as the expression of the sovereignty of the American republics.

But public political rhetoric does not always reveal the backstage of power. It wasn’t long before the mismatch between Root and his Latin American friends arose. Actually, Root faced an impasse. At the Third International Conference of American States, the Drago doctrine was presented by the Argentine delegation, aiming to end the military blackmail of creditor states in Latin American countries. Root, after traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and while the United States was intervening in the Dominican Republic, said that his country never considered it appropriate to use military force to collect debts. Such a statement spread throughout the world, and rhetorically defined the U.S. support for the Drago Doctrine, which Theodore Roosevelt was not yet willing to accept. In fact, the secretary of state was overstepping official policy.

Later, Root prepared an adaptation of the Drago Doctrine to present at the Hague Conference. In his new version, the United States would renounce the use of military force, provided that the accused country accepted international arbitration and respected its result. In this case, Root would leave the door open for military interventions in cases of “rebellious” governments. Upon returning to the United States, Root sought to establish concrete policies for more friendly relations with Latin America, but unfortunately failed to establish an alternative official policy to the Big Stick.

Elihu Root never intended to revolutionize the values ​​of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, Root opened the doors for several South American countries to practice their “sovereignties” in a number of international conferences, declaring, on some occasions, that Latin Americans were more developed than the United States in certain social aspects. He aimed to reform the methods, moving toward more friendly relations, spreading a more trustworthy image of the United States to governments and Latin Americans.

In July 1928, in an article titled “Our Foreign Policy: The Democratic View,” published in the Foreign Affairs, Franklin D. Roosevelt reviewed American foreign policy in general, and the inter-American relations in particular, and ranked Elihu Root as the most important living Republican at that time.

Evoking Root’s vision, Franklin D. Roosevelt finished his article calling the United States to a more cooperative foreign policy: “We can point the way once more to the reducing of armaments; we can cooperate officially and whole-heartedly with every agency that studies and works to relieve the common ills of mankind; and we can for all time renounce the practice of arbitrary intervention in the home affairs of our neighbors. It is the Spirit, Sir, which matters.”[3]

The Inter-American policy, undertaken by Secretary of State Elihu Root in the first decade of the twentieth century shows the conflicting ways of thinking about Latin America and United States relations at the time. What is remarkable is that these approaches to international relations arose within the Republican administration of Theodore Roosevelt, which was historically marked by aggressiveness on the American continent.

Although Root—who in 1912 received the Nobel Peace Prize as a recognition of his work in defense of arbitration and cooperation among nations—did not see this directive officially implemented by the U.S. government, but he without a doubt planted the seeds for the Good Neighbor Policy. By the same measure, we could also say he planted the seeds of the soft power in inter-Americans relations.

Alexandre Guilherme da Cruz Alves Junior is Professor of History of the Americas at Federal University of Amapá, Brazil. He is the author of Discursos Americanos de Coorperação (Rio de Janeiro, 2014), as well as editor with Flávio Vilas-Bôas Trovão of História das Américas através do Cinema (Curitiba, 2018).

[1] O Paiz, July 31, 1906, p. 8.

[2] New York Herald (Paris Edition), Aug. 2, 1906, p.3.

[3] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Our Foreign Policy: A Democratic View,” Foreign Affairs, 6 (July 1928), p. 573–86.