Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” Foreign Policy

President 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.” Roosevelt believed it was unnecessary to use force to achieve foreign policy goals, so long as the military could threaten force.


As early as the mid-sixteenth century, there was interest in a canal across the Central American isthmus out of trade interests. The discovery of gold in California further spurred interest in connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for shipping the ore to Eastern ports.

President Roosevelt was determined to build the canal. He negotiated with the government of Colombia, which 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 Colombian people were outraged over the loss of their land, so the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty.

Roosevelt applied the “big stick” by supporting the Panamanian people in revolt against Colombia. In November 1903, he sent American battleships to the coast of Colombia, blocking it from suppressing the Panamanian uprising. Roosevelt immediately recognized the independent country of Panama, which became an American protectorate until 1939.

Panama accepted the terms that had previously been offered to Columbia. Construction on the canal began in May 1904.


Roosevelt wanted to send a message to the rest of the world, especially European leaders, that the colonization of the Western Hemisphere had ended. The United States would not tolerate interference in the countries there. He also sent a message to leaders in Central and South America: if problems erupted in the region, the United States would intervene in order to maintain peace and stability.

In 1904 Roosevelt gave a speech that became known as the Roosevelt Corollary. The Roosevelt Corollary was based on the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which warned European nations of the consequences of their interference in the Caribbean. The Monroe Doctrine had proclaimed an American policy of noninterference in its neighbors’ affairs, whereas the Roosevelt Corollary proclaimed the right and obligation of the United States to involve itself whenever necessary if any Latin American nation threatened stability in the region.

Roosevelt immediately began to apply the corollary. He established protectorates over Cuba and Panama and directed the United States to manage the Dominican Republic’s custom service revenues. Despite growing resentment from Western Hemisphere countries over American intervention in their internal affairs, they feared American reprisals should they resist— they had seen what happened when Colombia rejected the treaty to build the Panama Canal.

The Roosevelt Corollary and Its Impact

The Roosevelt Corollary put the United States in the role of the “policeman” of the Western Hemisphere. The Corollary was used by U.S. presidents throughout the twentieth century as a rationale for American involvement in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Haiti, and other Latin American countries. This intervention often strained relations between Central America and the United States.

Source: Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” Foreign Policy
P. Scott Corbett, Volker Janssen, John M. Lund, Todd Pfannestiel, Paul Vickery, and Sylvie Waskiewicz, CC BY 4.0

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