The Good Neighbor Policy, 1933-1941

Latin America has been a key part of the United States’ (U.S.) foreign policy since the Monroe Doctrine, and American presidents and secretaries of state tried wildly different techniques in the roughly 110 years between James Monroe’s bold doctrine and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) Good Neighbor Policy.  In 1823, President Monroe advocated for a separate hemisphere approach.  Monroe and John Quincy Adams, the author of the Monroe doctrine, wanted European powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere and not to intervene in the affairs of newly formed Latin American republics or try to recolonize them, and in exchange, the United States would stay out of European conflicts.

This was intended to protect the sovereignty of all independent nations in the Western Hemisphere but this changed with victory over Spain in the War of 1898 and the Roosevelt Corollary.  The United States gained Cuba as a result of the war and gave them their independence shortly thereafter, but not without including the Platt Amendment in their constitution, which compromised Cuba’s sovereignty by allowing “the United States to intervene in Cuba’s internal affairs” if they acquired too much debt or if they agreed to treaties that would “impair on its independence,” an ironic notion.[1]  The Roosevelt Corollary adopted similar thinking in all Latin American affairs, adopting a more interventionist policy than the original Monroe Doctrine and asserting that the U.S. had police powers in the region.  This was largely a reaction to the instability of Central American and Caribbean nations and their rising debts to European powers.

After decades of military intervention and the Great Depression sapped the ability and will of the U.S. to continue with the Roosevelt Corollary’s policies, FDR stated that “In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor” in his inaugural address.[2]  In time, this would come to mean a policy of non-intervention in Latin American affairs, the renegotiation of treaties with Cuba and Panama, an increase in trade, and overall, drastic improvement in U.S. – Latin American relations.

A series of leadership changes through revolution and military coups started in Cuba in 1933, but as a testament to Good Neighbor diplomacy, the U.S. did not militarily intervene.  It began with Cuban disapproval of General Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship and the island’s economic misfortunes during the Great Depression.[3]  When tensions started to rise, FDR sent Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who helped to unseat Machado, and after two more leadership changes, Ramon Grau San Martin was made president.  The island remained somewhat unstable, and Welles maintained that Grau was not an appropriate choice and did not represent the majority.  In this time, Welles often asked FDR and Secretary of State Cordell Hull for marines or naval ships to be sent to the island to impose stability.  Several ships and marines were sent to the island, but unlike incidents in the Roosevelt Corollary era, the marines never landed, and military force was never used on the island; it was merely for intimidation and would only be used in an emergency to protect Americans.[4]  Furthermore, the U.S. refused to recognize Grau’s Cuba as legitimate.  This became a problem for Cuba, so in January, 1934, Colonel Fulgencio “Batista decided to depose the President in favor of Colonel Carlos Mendieta,” finally producing stability.[5]

Several months later the U.S. signed a new treaty with Cuba which repealed the Platt Amendment, a huge step forward for Cuban sovereignty and Good Neighbor diplomacy.[6]  Another victory for the Good Neighbor policy came during the Montevideo Conference, which occurred in the fall of 1933 and coincided with the Cuban dilemma.  The conference helped to shape Roosevelt’s decisions in Cuba, as he wanted to make sure intervention would not mar the conference.  He and Hull also sought to use the gathering of American nations to show their dedication to being Good Neighbors, and at one point, Hull told the Latin American delegates “no government need fear any intervention on the part of the United States under the Roosevelt administration.”  The ensuing December 1934 treaty reflected this policy of non-intervention.[7]

The Good Neighbor policy was not simply designed to prevent more intervention but also to end current intervention, in the form of military occupation.  Haiti’s president was assassinated in 1915, and to prevent anarchy and German influence, President Woodrow Wilson sent marines.  After this initial stabilization, the U.S. exerted enormous influence on the Haitian government, and a marine force remained on the island for nearly 20 years until they “officially withdrew in 1934 from Haiti.”[8]

As part of the 1903 Hay-Bunau-Varilla treaty that allowed for the construction of the Panama Canal, Panama was sovereign, but in some ways, they were a protectorate of the U.S., who retained the right of intervention in order to defend the isthmian canal.[9]  This was source of resentment among the Panamanians, and this combining with Roosevelt and Hull’s amicable Latin American policy led to the Hull-Alfaro Treaty, which meant “Intervention in Panama was now legally void” and abolished its protectorate status.  Importantly for the U.S., Article X of the treaty still allowed them to defend the canal.[10]

Good Neighbor diplomacy had an economic aspect to it as well, and although the initial response to the Great Depression was to turn inward and raise tariffs, believing that the answer to economic crisis was domestic trade, eventually “most New Dealers were persuaded that economic recovery depended upon recapturing foreign markets.”[11]  With this in mind, FDR signed the Reciprocal Trade Agreement Act in 1934, which gave him the authority to lower tariffs without congress.  This policy applied to Latin American trade worked wonders, as between 1931 and 1941, U.S. and Latin American trade tripled.[12]

It should be noted that FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, originally coined the term “good neighbor,” and FDR followed in his footsteps by engaging in personal diplomacy in Latin America.[13]  In Latin America, Roosevelt became synonymous with the Good Neighbor policy, and Latin Americans developed an affection for him that made him the most beloved president in history in Central and South America.  The U.S.’s fellow hemispheric nations appreciated the increase in trade and newfound respect they felt by non-intervention in their domestic affairs.  They loved that he personally travelled to Latin American countries and met with their leaders.  Roosevelt’s appearance in Buenos Aires for the 1936 Inter-American Conference was “triumphal” and served as a “capstone” for the Good Neighbor policy, as the Latin American crowds and observers celebrated him like no president, save for Wilson in Europe, had ever experienced in a foreign nation.[14]

FDR’s Good Neighbor diplomacy in Latin America represented a radical break from his distant cousin’s interventionist Roosevelt Corollary.  The sole line in his inaugural address about foreign policy shaped interactions with Latin America for most of his presidency, an area in which his administration had great success.  It inspired non-intervention in Cuba, the removal of interventionist clauses in Cuban and Panamanian treaties, and the recall of marines in Haiti.  Additionally, trade with Latin American countries increased dramatically along with the drastic shift in their view of the United States.  Though the United States’ focus would switch to defense with the coming of World War II, the legacy of the Good Neighbor policy should perhaps best be remembered by FDR’s unprecedented reception at the Inter-American Conference at Buenos Aires and the improvement of U.S. – Latin American relations.



[1] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 325.

[2]  Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1933. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

[3] David E. Cronon, “Interpreting the New Good Neighbor Policy: The Cuban Crisis of 1933,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 39, no. 4 (1959): 538.

[4] Herring, 498-499.

[5] Cronon, 563.

[6] Herring, 500.

[7] Herring, 499.

[8] “U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Haiti, 1915-34,” Office of the Historian.

[9] Herring, 368-369.

[10] Lester D Langley, “The World Crisis and the Good Neighbor Policy in Panama, 1936-41,” The Americas 24, no. 2 (1967): 140.

[11] Paul A. Varg, “The Economic Side of the Good Neighbor Policy: The Reciprocal Trade Program and South America,” Pacific Historical Review 45, no. 1 (1976): 49.

[12] Herring, 500-501.

[13] Herring, 497.

[14] Herring, 501.