Big Stick Diplomacy


Big Stick Diplomacy is the name given to President Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy, which expanded the Monroe Doctrine.

Theodore Roosevelt, 1901, Portrait, Perry, LOC

Theodore Roosevelt. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Big Stick Diplomacy Summary

President Theodore Roosevelt believed the United States should use its military strength to protect its interests. In 1902, he urged Congress to adopt a strong approach, saying the nation needed to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” 

Roosevelt believed America had the right — and responsibility — to intervene in the affairs of nations he viewed as underdeveloped or not as civilized as the United States, especially economically weaker Latin and Slavic nations.

A crucial part of Roosevelt’s agenda required increasing the Navy, allowing the United States to have influence beyond its borders. Under his leadership, the U.S. Navy became one of the world’s strongest, second only to Great Britain. Roosevelt, a “Rough Rider” who led troops in the Spanish-American War of 1898, was the embodiment of America’s new global role.

Big Stick Diplomacy Facts — Five Things to Know

  1. Theodore Roosevelt used the phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick — you will go far.” on September 2, 1901, during a speech at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul.
  2. According to Roosevelt, the phrase was a West African proverb.
  3. On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot. He died on September 14.
  4. Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States on September 14.
  5. On December 6. 1904, Roosevelt’s Annual Message to Congress introduced the “Roosevelt Corollary,” which was based on the Big Stick Policy and extended the Monroe Doctrine.
William McKinley, 1897, Portrait, Benziger
William McKinley, August Benziger, 1897. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Big Stick Diplomacy Examples

The United States used Roosevelt’s expansion of the Monroe Doctrine, known as the “Roosevelt Corollary,” to take action in several foreign nations, including Cuba, Panama, and Mexico. The Presidents who followed Roosevelt — Taft and Wilson — also modified the policy to suit their needs. Under Taft, it was known as “Dollar Diplomacy.” Under Wilson, it was known as “Moral Diplomacy” or “Missionary Diplomacy.”

Big Stick Diplomacy in Cuba

Roosevelt’s policies were notably evident in U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. took charge of Cuba as a protectorate. In 1898, President William McKinley asserted that the American military would govern the island until a new government was established.

To help ensure the stability of a new Cuban government, Congress passed the Platt Amendment, granting the U.S. the authority to intervene if Cuba was unable to protect its independence. Cuba gained independence only when it accepted U.S. oversight in 1902. 

In 1906, an uprising threatened the stability of Cuba. President Roosevelt responded by deploying troops, who remained on the island for three years. Between 1912 and 1917, the U.S. dispatched Marines to occupy Cuba during periods of unrest that posed a threat to American interests.

Panama, the Panama Canal, and Big Stick Diplomacy

American military supremacy in the Western Hemisphere was demonstrated by the U.S. occupation of the Panama Canal Zone. In 1903, the United States supported a revolution in Colombian Panama. The revolution led to Panama declaring independence and the establishment of a new government granting the U.S. control over the canal zone. The Panama Canal opened in 1914.

Theodore Roosevelt, Panama Canal Visit, 1906
President Roosevelt sitting on a steam shovel during his visit to the Panama Canal. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Nicaragua and Dollar Diplomacy

In 1909, President William Howard Taft sent U.S. troops to Nicaragua to support revolutionaries who were close to overthrowing the existing government. These troops took control of the customs houses. 

Once stability was restored in Nicaragua, the Taft administration advocated for American bankers to extend significant loans to the newly established government. The loans increased American influence over Nicaragua.

President William Howard Taft, Portrait
President William Howard Taft. Image Source:

Wilson and the Dominican Republic

In 1905, the United States took control of the finances of the Dominican Republic. In 1916, after the Dominicans rejected a treaty that would have made it a U.S. Protectorate, President Woodrow Wilson established a military government. American troops were in the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. 

Haiti and the Wilson Administration

In 1915, the Wilson Administration sent Marines to Haiti to help end a revolution. The United States played a significant role in developing a new constitution for Haiti in 1918. U.S. troops remained in Haiti until 1934.

President Woodrow Wilson, Portrait, Cootes
President Woodrow Wilson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Diplomacy in Mexico

During the buildup to World War I, the Wilson Administration was also involved in incidents with Mexico.

In 1910, Porfirio Díaz, a dictator with close ties to American business interests, was ousted, leading to a series of revolutions. In 1913, a reactionary general named Victoriano Huerta took power, prompting President Wilson to refuse recognition of Huerta’s regime.

In 1914, American forces captured the Mexican port of Veracruz. This led to a confrontation between the United States Army and the Mexican Army, resulting in casualties. The Americans suffered 19 men killed, while the Mexicans suffered 126.

Soon after, the U.S. provided military aid to insurgents led by Venustiano Carranza, who was able to take control of Mexico. However, American proposals to form a new government were rejected by the Mexicans.

Following the rejection by Carranza, the U.S. changed direction and supported Pancho Villa. However, when it became clear that Carranza was going to retain control, the U.S. decided to negotiate with him.

In 1916, Villa retaliated by seizing 16 Americans from a train in Mexico and executing them. A few months later, he led his forces across the border and into the United States at Columbus, New Mexico. Villa attacked the U.S. Army post at Camp Furlong, resulting in the deaths of at least 17 Americans. Villa suffered heavy casualties and returned to Mexico.

In response, President Wilson ordered an expeditionary force into Mexico, an event known as the “Pancho Villa Expedition.”  The primary objective of the expedition was to capture Villa, and the expedition was led by John J. Pershing. The expeditionary forces included the 10th Cavalry Regiment and the 24th Cavalry Regiment, which are known as the “Buffalo Soldiers.”

General John J Pershing, Portrait, Horydczak
John J. Pershing. Image Source: Library of Congress.

However, Villa was able to elude Pershing. The Mexican government considered the expedition an invasion and sent forces to engage the Americans, leading to hostilities and casualties on both sides. Rather than risk war with Mexico, Wilson recalled Pershing.

Negotiations between the U.S. and the Carranza government carried on for another four years. The U.S. ultimately recognized the Carranza government. However, tensions remained high between the two nations.

Big Stick Diplomacy APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study Theodore Roosevelt, John J. Pershing, and the Roosevelt Corollary for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Big Stick Diplomacy Definition APUSH

Big Stick Diplomacy is defined as a term used to describe the foreign policy of President Theodore Roosevelt, which emphasized the use of military power and the threat of military intervention to achieve foreign policy goals. It is based on the idea of “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Big Stick Diplomacy Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Tom Richey discussed Big Stick Diplomacy and the approach taken by Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson.

Terms and Definitions Related to Big Stick Diplomacy

Monroe Doctrine — The Monroe Doctrine was crafted by President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1823. It was a pivotal foreign policy statement in American history. It asserted that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits for further European colonization or intervention. In essence, it warned European powers against meddling in the affairs of newly independent Latin American nations. The Monroe Doctrine represented a significant assertion of U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere and laid the foundation for American foreign policy in the Americas.

Spanish-American War (1898) — The Spanish-American War was a conflict fought between Spain and the United States in 1898. The war was sparked by the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor and the desire of the U.S. to expand its influence in the Caribbean and Pacific. The U.S. quickly defeated Spain and as a result, Spain lost control of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and ceded control of Guam and Puerto Rico to the U.S.

Teller Amendment — The Teller Amendment was a resolution passed by the U.S. Congress in 1898, which stated that the U.S. had no intention of annexing Cuba, which was then under the control of Spain. The amendment was passed prior to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and was intended to reassure those who feared that the U.S. would annex Cuba after defeating Spain.

Platt Amendment — The Platt Amendment was a rider to an Army appropriations bill passed by the U.S. Congress in 1901. It defined the terms of the end of the Spanish-American War with regard to the independence of Cuba. It stipulated that Cuba would not contract any foreign debt without the consent of the U.S. and that the U.S. would have the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and maintain naval bases on the island, among other conditions. It was used to justify U.S. intervention in Cuba until 1934.

Roosevelt Corollary — The Roosevelt Corollary, introduced by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, expanded upon the Monroe Doctrine. It asserted the United States’ right to intervene militarily in Latin American countries to maintain stability and prevent European intervention. This policy was used to justify U.S. interventions in several Latin American nations during the early 20th century. While presented as a means of protecting American interests and regional stability, it often resulted in U.S. involvement in the internal affairs of other nations and has been criticized for its impact on Latin American sovereignty.

Dollar Diplomacy — Dollar Diplomacy was a term used to describe the foreign policy of President William Howard Taft, which sought to use economic and financial power, rather than military force, to further American interests abroad. The goal of Dollar Diplomacy was to expand American economic influence in other countries by investing in infrastructure, resources, and other projects.

Moral Diplomacy — Moral Diplomacy was a term used to describe the foreign policy of President Woodrow Wilson, which emphasized the promotion of democracy, self-determination, and human rights in foreign relations. The policy called for the United States to use its moral authority and influence to promote the rights and well-being of people in other countries and to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations when necessary to protect those rights.

Tampico Affair (1914) — The Tampico Affair was a political and military confrontation that took place in April 1914, between the United States and Mexico. It began when a detachment of American sailors was arrested by Mexican authorities for entering a restricted area in Tampico, Mexico. The U.S. demanded an apology and a 21-gun salute, which Mexico refused to give.  U.S. President Woodrow Wilson responded by ordering the U.S. Navy to occupy the port of Veracruz, Mexico, as a show of force. The incident was resolved after diplomatic negotiations and Mexico eventually issued the apology. It is considered a significant contributing factor to the rise of tensions between the two countries, which ultimately led to the U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Big Stick Diplomacy
  • Date 1902–1917
  • Author
  • Keywords Big Stick Diplomacy
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 16, 2023