“The Monroe Doctrine and Beyond”

The following was written by Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture under Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), and was published in his work An Enemy Hath Done This (pgs 241-245).


“Our first and fundamental maxim should be, never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe. Our second, never to suffer Europe to inter-meddle with cis-Atlantic Affairs. America, North and South, has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her own. She should therefore have a system of her own, separate and apart from that of Europe. While the last is laboring to become the domicile of despotism, our endeavor should surely be, to make our hemisphere that of freedom” (Thomas Jefferson, to President James Monroe, October 24, 1823).

For more than a hundred years the Monroe Doctrine provided a fundamental guidepost for American foreign policy. Designed to protect American security through opposition to outside intervention in Western Hemisphere, the Doctrine was first enunciated by President Monroe in 1823. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had made similar policy statements (1).

The declaration was directed against the real danger of intervention by European powers in Central and South American affairs, and in particular, against any attempt at restoring to Spain its Latin American colonies, most of which had won their independence a few years earlier. President Monroe’s message was a bold act, a striking example of open diplomacy in the face of danger that loomed large throughout the century of European supremacy. It became securely established in the minds of several generations of Americans.

Most people generally are quite familiar with the Monroe Doctrine. The basic facts are these. On December 2, 1823, President Monroe delivered his annual message to Congress and enunciated a policy which he and his cabinet had formulated regarding the official attitude of the United States toward future extension of European influence anywhere in the American hemisphere – both North and South America. In essence, that policy proclaimed that the United States look with disfavor upon any new European colonization in the future, and any attempt by European powers to extend their influence over existing independent countries. In return, the United States proclaimed that it would not interfere with existing European colonies or in the internal affairs of any country in the Western Hemisphere (2). The purpose was to maintain the current balance of power so that we would not become the targets of future aggressive designs of European nations with massive strongholds on or near our borders. It was felt that the maintenance of an ocean between ourselves and European powers would safeguard us from becoming reluctantly entwined in the perennial intrigues and wars of the Continent.

Whenever the physical security of the United States is directly threatened, as it was in the Cuban crisis, we must not hesitate to uphold the traditional meaning of the Monroe Doctrine: our unilateral opposition to outside intervention in the Western Hemisphere. This Doctrine laid down as a broad principle of action and applied to world communism enjoys strong public support for foreign policy decisions. While the Monroe Doctrine may be subject to modification and divergent interpretation, it can and should continue to play a useful and significant role in the diplomacy of the United States.

The Monroe Doctrine was entirely within the constitutional prerogative of the President. He could not commit our armed forces to battle, for that is a legislative function. But, as spokesman to the world in matters of foreign policy, he not only had a right but had an obligation to advise other nations of this country’s general position on such matters. Advance declarations of this kind serve a valuable function in the international relations of a non-aggressive nation. Hopeful of maintaining peace for ourselves, and with nothing to hide, there is much in favor of spelling out for other nations what conditions generally will be unacceptable to the point where non-peaceful acts will be contemplated. Other nations then can consider the probable consequences of their acts prior to making them, and thus avoid stumbling into a confrontation.

The Monroe Doctrine is based upon the principle, long recognized in international law journals, that a nation has a right to interfere in the affairs of another nation if such interference is within the framework of self-defense. In other words, if the establishment by a foreign power of unusually heavy military installations is observed on a nation’s frontier, and if that nation has good reason to believe that those installations eventually are going to be used as a part of an offensive attack against it, then it is justified in taking the initiative in destroying those installations, without waiting for the actual attack. Such action, although aggressive by itself, is viewed as part of a generally defensive maneuver (3).

Naturally, whether a nation can successfully execute this policy of “preventive self-defense” depends ultimately upon its strength and the advantage of its position. But international law is concerned, not so much with what a nation can do as it is with what a nation may do and still abide by a code of conduct to which honorable men can subscribe. In this respect, the Monroe Doctrine neither added nor detracted on iota from what the United States had a right to do. All it accomplished was to inform other nations what conditions the United States would consider a sufficient threat to its long-range security to justify involving, if need be, the sovereign right of preventative self-protection. If other nations wished to test our resolve or our strength in these matters, that was up to them, but at least we went on record and laid our cards on the table so that no one could say that they did not know.

The important point, however, is that, even if the Monroe Doctrine had never been enunciated, the United States – or any nation for that matter – would still be justified in attempting to prevent an upset on the stable balance of power among its friendly bordering neighbors if it were convinced that such a shift in power eventually would result in a threat to its own security. That principle, which is at the heart of a nation’s right to self-preservation, is just as valid today as ever before – and especially so for the United States.

It should be painfully obvious that the principle of preventative self-defense embodied in the Monroe Doctrine now has been deserted by our leaders in Washington. With a hostile communist regime in Cuba, firmly established only ninety miles from our borders, and with the United States Navy and Coast Guard actively protecting this enemy stronghold against anti-communist Cuban refugees who attempt to raid the island, it is futile any more to expect other nations to seriously believe that the Monroe Doctrine reflects the present attitude of the United States Government. The Monroe Doctrine is right, it just needs to be applied (4).

There is no doubt in my mind that the American people would be angry if they fully realized the extent to which our leaders have abandoned the vital principle of preventative self-defense on behalf of our nation. If a man says he is going to shoot you, and then points a gun in your direction, you don’t have to wait until he pulls the trigger before you take action to overpower him. When the communists say they are going to bury us and then move in a bearded gravedigger right next door, we should grab him by the hair on his chin and throw him out! And we don’t have to apologize to anyone for our action.

What we need is a new application of the Monroe Doctrine – a declaration to the nations of the world to inform them that no longer are we going to tolerate communist or other hostile regimes on or near our borders. Give them fair warning. We don’t need to tell them exactly what we intend to do. That should be determined by each situation and the need (5). But there is no doubt that very quickly in the beginning we should have taken strong and swift action against communist Cuba, not only to eliminate that menace from our borders, but to demonstrate that we mean business with what we declare.

Comments Off on “The Monroe Doctrine and Beyond”