The Doctrine That Never Died

By Tom Wolfe

New York Times

January 31, 2005

SURELY some bright bulb from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton has already remarked that President Bush's inaugural address 10 days ago is the fourth corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. No? So many savants and not one peep out of the lot of them? Really?

The president had barely warmed up: "There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants ... and that is the force of human freedom.... The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. ... America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one..." when - bango! - I flashed back 100 years and 47 days on the dot to another president. George W. Bush was speaking, but the voice echoing inside my skull - a high-pitched voice, an odd voice, coming from such a great big hairy bear of a man - was that of the president who dusted off Monroe's idea and dragged it into the 20th century.

"The steady aim of this nation, as of all enlightened nations," said the Echo, "should be to strive to bring ever nearer the day when there shall prevail throughout the world the peace of justice. ...Tyrants and oppressors have many times made a wilderness and called it peace. ...The peace of tyrannous terror, the peace of craven weakness, the peace of injustice, all these should be shunned as we shun unrighteous war. ... The right of freedom and the responsibility for the exercise of that right cannot be divorced."

Theodore Roosevelt! - Dec. 4, 1904, announcing to Congress the first corollary to the Monroe Doctrine - an item I had deposited in the memory bank and hadn't touched since I said goodbye to graduate school in the mid-1950's!

In each case what I was hearing was the usual rustle and flourish of the curtains opening upon a grandiloquent backdrop. But if there was one thing I learned before departing academe and heading off wayward into journalism, it was that these pretty preambles to major political messages, all this solemn rhetorical throat-clearing - the parts always omitted from the textbooks as superfluous - are inevitably what in fact gives the game away.

Theodore Roosevelt's corollary to President James Monroe's famous doctrine of 1823 proclaimed that not only did America have the right, la Monroe, to block European attempts to re-colonize any of the Western Hemisphere, it also had the right to take over and shape up any nation in the hemisphere guilty of "chronic wrongdoing" or uncivilized behavior that left it "impotent," powerless to defend itself against aggressors from the Other Hemisphere, meaning mainly England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

The immediate problem was that the Dominican Republic had just reneged on millions in European loans so flagrantly that an Italian warship had turned up just off the harbor of Santo Domingo. Roosevelt sent the Navy down to frighten off the Italians and all other snarling Europeans. Then the United States took over the Dominican customs operations and debt management and by and by the whole country, eventually sending in the military to run the place. We didn't hesitate to occupy Haiti and Nicaragua, either.

Back in 1823, Europeans had ridiculed Monroe and his doctrine. Baron de Tuyll, the Russian minister to Washington, said Americans were too busy hard-grabbing and making money to ever stop long enough to fight, even if they had the power, which they didn't. But by the early 1900's it was a different story.

First there was T.R. And then came Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1912 Japanese businessmen appeared to be on the verge of buying vast areas of Mexico's Baja California bordering our Southern California. Lodge drew up, and the Senate ratified, what became known as the Lodge Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The United States would allow no foreign interests, no Other Hemispheroids of any description, to give any foreign government "practical power of control" over territory in This Hemisphere. The Japanese government immediately denied having any connection with the tycoons, and the Baja deals, if any, evaporated.

Then, in 1950, George Kennan, the diplomat who had developed the containment theory of dealing with the Soviet Union after the Second World War, toured Latin America and came away alarmed by Communist influence in the region. So he devised the third corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Kennan Corollary said that Communism was simply a tool of Soviet national power. The United States had no choice, under the mandates of the Monroe Doctrine, but to eradicate Communist activity wherever it turned up in Latin America ... by any means necessary, even if it meant averting one's eyes from dictatorial regimes whose police force did everything but wear badges saying Chronic Wrongdoing.

The historian Gaddis Smith summarizes the Lodge and Kennan Corollaries elegantly and economically in "The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine, 1945-1993." Now, Gaddis Smith was a graduate-schoolmate of mine and very much a star even then and has remained a star historian ever since. So do I dare suggest that in this one instance, in a brilliant career going on 50 years now, that Gaddis Smith might have been ...wrong? ... that 1945 to 1993 were not the last years of the Monroe Doctrine? ... that the doctrine was more buff and boisterous than it has ever been 10 days ago, Jan. 20, 2005?

But before we go forward, let's take one more step back in time and recall the curious case of Antarctica. In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt authorized the first official United States exploration of the South Pole, led by Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The expedition was scientific - but also military. The Japanese and the Germans were known to be rooting about in the ice down there, as were the Russians, the British, the Chileans, the Argentines, all of them yapping and stepping on one another's heels. Gradually it dawned on the whole bunch of them: at the South Pole the hemispheres got ... awfully narrow. In fact, there was one point, smaller than a dime, if you could ever find it, where there were no more Hemispheres at all. Finally, everybody in essence just gave up and forgot about it. It was so cold down there, you couldn't shove a shell into the gullet of a piece of artillery ... or a missile into a silo.

Ah, yes, a missile. On the day in November 1961, when the Air Force achieved the first successful silo launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the SM-80, the Western Hemisphere part of the Monroe Doctrine ceased to mean anything at all - while the ideas behind it began to mean everything in the world.

At bottom, the notion of a sanctified Western Hemisphere depended upon its separation from the rest of the world by two vast oceans, making intrusions of any sort obvious. The ICBM's - soon the Soviet Union and other countries had theirs - shrank the world in a military sense. Then long-range jet aircraft, satellite telephones, television and the Internet all, in turn, did the job socially and commercially. By Mr. Bush's Inauguration Day, the Hemi in Hemisphere had long since vanished, leaving the Monroe Doctrine with - what? - nothing but a single sphere ... which is to say, the entire world.

For the mission - the messianic mission! - has never shrunk in the slightest ... which brings us back to the pretty preambles and the solemn rhetorical throat-clearing ... the parts always omitted from the textbooks as superfluous. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," President Bush said. He added, "From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth."

David Gelernter, the scientist and writer, argues that "Americanism" is a fundamentally religious notion shared by an incredibly varied population from every part of the globe and every conceivable background, all of whom feel that they have arrived, as Ronald Reagan put it, at a "shining city upon a hill." God knows how many of them just might agree with President Bush - and Theodore Roosevelt - that it is America's destiny and duty to bring that salvation to all mankind.

Tom Wolfe is the author, most recently, of "I Am Charlotte Simmons."