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The Good Neighbor Policy:

Latin-American/US Relations During the Roosevelt Years

*Origins of the Good Neighbor
**A One-Sided Friendship
**America the Bully
**The Long Line of Intervention
|Franklin Delano Roosevelt [14] **A Prelude to Good Neighborism
*A Change of Course
**The First Steps
**Popularity Abounds
**Powerful Propaganda
**The Same Old Imperialism
**A Cuban Example
*To War
**Security First
**Keep 'Em On Our Side
**The Unravelling


Origins of the Good Neighbor

During his twelve years in office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted a number of innovative programs that left indelible marks on the character of the United States. One of the most integral of these policies, often overshadowed by more high-profile FDR trademarks such as the New Deal and the second World War, proved to be the guiding principle of the “Good Neighbor.” The public goal of this broadly defined diplomatic experiment was to restore positive relations with Latin American nations and abrogate the easily criticized imperialistic image that developed during the early part of the twentieth century, both in the US and abroad. Although the American public viewed this move as a noble and conciliatory gesture, dominance in the region never actually dissipated during FDR’s time in office. In reality, the Good Neighbor policy, as historian Fred Fejes explains, “did not represent a liquidation of past imperialistic goals, but rather a creative transformation of the methods of control and dominance”[1]. For this reason, the Good Neighbor, like many other policies, serves as just one more example of American imperialism.

A One-Sided Friendship

The relationship between the United States and Latin America at the dawn of Roosevelt’s administration can be described as anything but friendly, due to many decades of American intervention and exploitation of its southern neighbors. After a period of limited interaction, hedged by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, America pursued a policy course characterized by economic self-interest, egotism, and blatant intervention into the domestic affairs of Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. When the industrial revolution left businesses searching for new markets to empty their surplus productions, American interest in Latin American affairs increased dramatically. Quite suddenly, American politicians began entering into diplomatic discourse with Latin American leaders and opening the channels of free trade. Pan American conferences were held and, eventually, a Pan American Union formed in 1910, permanently headed by an American and housed in Washington DC. This move, perhaps a microcosm of the Good Neighbor before it even existed, reveals the United States’ willingness to display outward diplomacy and inclusion while still pursuing imperialistic policies. Although many nations were included in this Union, it was always headed by an American and most decisions were made on US soil. By 1914, before the United States entered into World War I, US investment in Latin America had reached $1,641 million. Most of this capital was placed in Mexican railroads and mines, as well as Cuban sugar plantations.

America the Bully

Yet, instead of fostering a relationship marked by equality and friendship during this time of rapidly increasing interaction, the United States, to the resentment of many Latin American leaders, maintained an air of superiority. The personality that most accurately epitomizes this mentality belonged to FDR’s own distant cousin and the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. TR’s “Big Stick” policy, as explained in a message to Congress in 1904, declared that

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick [15]

it was “the US’s unilateral right to intervene militarily in the internal affairs of the other American countries” [2]. And, true to TR’s word, intervene they did. Fueled by ideas of Social Darwinism, Americans operated under the assumption that Latin Americans were racially and intellectually inferior. Motivated by these beliefs, as well as economic, political, and religious self-interest, Americans at the turn of the century were never slow in making themselves conspicuous in the happenings of their southern neighbors. Protestant missionary groups felt encouraged to spread their message to “pagan natives” after the American victory over Catholic Spain in 1898 in the Spanish American War. The Southern hemisphere also became an appealing place for businessmen after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed in 1893. Latin America, in the eyes of many norteamericanos, transformed into the New Frontier, a romantic and primitive land to be tamed and explored. Entrepreneurs, in the spirit of Manifest Destiny, found a new outlet for expansion in the pueblos and ciudades of Latin America.

The Long Line of Intervention

Theodore Roosevelt was not the only US president to carry out a policy course marked by superiority and intervention in regards to Latin America. In fact, he was merely the first in a series of American leaders who dealt militarily and unilaterally with the Southern Hemisphere. Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover each supported direct US involvement in many domestic Latin American situations. As historian Fredrick B. Pike explained, “Americans at the turn of the century and on up through the World War I era had to face up to a fact they had not liked to acknowledge when dealing with mere Indians in an “unoccupied” frontier; they, the Americans, were an imperialist people” [3]. US troops ventured to Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico in the seventeen years after the turn of the century. William Howard Taft became best known for his “dollar” and “gunboat diplomacy,” terms used to characterize his heavy-handed influence over weaker debtor nations. Wilson, more commonly associated with his foreign diplomacy in Europe, also used force to deal with Latin American nations. Due to political instability and the threat of anti-American regimes, he sent US Marines into both Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1915 and 1916 respectively. Yet Wilson’s most conspicuous Latin blunder came in 1914 when he attempted to protect foreign investment interests in Mexico and got caught up in the fight for Mexican nationalism. Harding and Coolidge also employed tactics based on economic imperialism and allowed troops to remain in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as supporting military intervention in Nicaragua. The years between the two Roosevelt administrations witnessed an alarming increase in American hegemony in the hemisphere. In short, by the time World War I ended, “US preeminence in Latin America was unchallenged” [4].

A Prelude to Good Neighborism

By the time Herbert Hoover came to office in the 1920’s, relations between the United States and Latin America were nearing breaking point. To make matters worse, depression era protective tariffs, implemented in an attempt to correct the crippling economic crisis in the US, caused immense strain on Latin American economies. With high barriers such as the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which quadrupled previous tax rates on imports, trade among the hemispheres nearly died out. This hindrance, along with rapid capitalization, dependence on the US, and other internal factors led to turbulent domestic situations in many Latin American republics, as well as deep-seated resentment of American policy. Latin leaders voiced their growing sense of anger at both the 5th and 6th Pan American conferences in Santiago in 1923 and Havana in 1928. Prominent Latin figures began speaking out against intrusive US policies, such as Manuel Ugante who toured Latin America preaching solidarity in the face of US expansion. President Hoover noticed the possible problems this sense of antipathy could cause and planted the seedlings that would spawn the Good Neighbor policy. In 1928 he withdrew troops in Haiti (although it can be argued this was more for economic reasons than to repair relations) and made a tour of nine Latin American countries. He even went so far as to declare April 14th “Pan American Day.” Yet, despite these efforts, resentment endured. Criticism within US borders increased as well, as many voiced their anti-imperialism sentiments and condemned the dubious nature of American policy in Latin America. Even before FDR reached the White House, he began to realize the possible pragmatic and political advantages of repairing this much damaged relationship.

A Change of Course

Once Franklin Roosevelt did assume the presidency in 1933, he committed his administration to altering the course of inter-American relations. In his first inaugural address in March of that year, FDR pledged to follow the “policy of the good neighbor.” Although growing up he never took much interest in Latin America, never spoke a word of Spanish, and still clung to notions of Anglo-superiority, he realized the political potential of this amiable gesture. The stated purpose of the policy was to repair relations between the United States and Latin America and foster a climate conducive to free trade. As Fejes notes, “non-intervention and trade reciprocity…formed the basis of the Latin American policy during the first term of the Roosevelt Administration” [5]. While security issues may have defined the Good Neighbor in later years, economic and political gain indeed fueled the policy’s early stages from 1933 through 1937.

The First Steps

From the beginning, FDR made sure that the public image of the Good Neighbor conjured visions of nonintervention and good-will. As soon as his presidency began, he started to implement conciliatory policies to clear away the damage done by previous administrations. In 1933, he sent Secretary of State Cordell Hull to the Pan American conference at Montevideo to sign a treaty that prohibited intervention by one state into the affairs of another, and proposed to lower tariffs and increase trade. To further show his commitment to good neighborliness, FDR also pledged to remove lingering troops from Haiti and Nicaragua, discussed decreased intervention with Panama and the Dominican Republic, in July of 1934 visited three Caribbean nations, and became the first president to visit South America while in office. Pan American Day became widely celebrated in elementary schools and Latin American diplomats received much greater recognition. FDR, like no other president before him, make a place for inter-American affairs in the heart and mind of America.[6]

Popularity Abounds

Very quickly, the Good Neighbor gained terrific support both in the United States and in Latin America. FDR capitalized on the isolationist mood of the depression to gain support for his new inter-American agenda in his own country. After World War I, Americans wanted to distance themselves from the entanglements of Europe, or The Old World. FDR’s focus on solidarity within the Western Hemisphere, and the seemingly fancy-free culture of The New World, appealed to many looking for comfort after the war “over there.” This new friendship also, quite obviously, appealed to the leaders and people of Latin America who were tired of the United States always intervening in their domestic troubles. Roosevelt’s larger-than-life personality also attracted support from both the north and the south. Pike argues that FDR was able to curry such great favor from Latin Americans because his personality, in many ways, proved very Latin in nature [7]. He cites FDR’s fun loving, Machiavellian, Jesuitical, aristocratic, paternalistic, and populist traits as reasons why he was perceived as “one of us” to Latin Americans and therefore able to work well with them. Whether one adheres to this interpretation or not, the fact remains undeniable that Roosevelt was revered by Latin Americans like no other US president before him. Throngs of adoring citizens flocked to the streets to show their support to the visiting Yankee during visits to Puerto Rico, Buenos Aires, and other key spots on his South American and Caribbean tours.

Powerful Propaganda

The positive image that the Good Neighbor Policy enjoyed during the Roosevelt years is also due, in part, to the innovative propaganda campaigns and cultural diplomacy that occurred during this era. Both the United States and Latin American leaders encouraged positive image campaigns to further strengthen ties and understanding. With a cultural program headed by Nelson Rockefeller, educational exchanges, movies, lectures, newspapers, and radio broadcasts all served as mediums through which the United States could share their democratic, liberal-minded ideals. Short-wave radio broadcasting, a relatively new technology, served as a particularly influential avenue through which propaganda and good will was spread. Both the United States and local governments controlled many forms of news media, though, allowing them to broadcast a very controlled and positive image of themselves. Pan American Airlines, formed in 1927, also brought the United States and Latin America culturally closer by allowing for more accessible inter-American travel. Throughout the late 20’s and 30’s, Cuba, Panama, Mexico, and other exotic Latin American destinations became hot spots for the rich and famous.


Elementary School Students singing America the Beautiful during a radio
broadcast to Laitn America under the auspices
of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs [16]

The Same Old Imperialism

Although the great policy switch proved revolutionary in some regards, it is important to understand that the Good Neighbor, instead of decreasing American hegemony, simply made it more sophisticated and less blatant. Actions that seemed noble and respectful of Latin American sovereignty still allowed the US to maintain control of the region and act imperialistically. Quite on purpose, the Good Neighbor Policy never experienced a rigid definition or clear-cut policy objectives. Rather, it became an enigmatic, far-reaching blanket that enjoyed a rather “slippery” definition of nonintervention. Hull, Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles, and other key players in the State Department used their discretionary authority to decide which nations would receive which treatment. The United States and Latin American perspectives on the definition of nonintervention began to differ greatly; to the US, it meant not using military force, to Latin Americans, it meant keeping out of every realm of society. This dubious diplomatic program did not sit poorly with all leaders, though. Many of them welcomed the economic support that the US did provide, and relished the political backing of the powerful United States.

A Cuban Example One of the most indicative examples of “non-interventionist” control occurred in Cuba in the mid-thirties. The political turmoil brewing in the small island nation 90 miles of the cost of Florida left many hawkish advisors urging FDR to pursue military intervention. FDR refused, but his administration succeeded in persuading the more conservative and pro-American Batista government to overthrow the working-class friendly Ramon Grau San Martín. What looked like non-intervention proved, in reality, to be another form of dominance. The US even abrogated the outdated and insulting Platt Amendment of 1903, which ultimately sanctioned American intervention in Cuba, to cultivate a nationalist aura for Batista. This move certainly looked good on paper and in the media, but in reality, the United States did not actually lose that control. As many historians note, the US did not lose much from their “non-interventionist” policies and “abrogated what was obsolete and retained what it considered vital to the national interest…no intervention was never an absolute reality—only an illusion that was valuable in popularizing the Good Neighbor principle” [8]. FDR and his advisors invoked the slippery definition of intervention many times outside of Cuba, as well. Roosevelt maintained troops in the Panama Canal Zone and Guantanamo Bay, and the US continued to possess economic control of the region with its trade relations and bilateral Import-Export Bank loans. While FDR legitimately wanted to decrease military intervention, he also knew that no intervention was not a possibility. He could not let the United States lose its power in Latin America because of the overwhelming economic benefits that the situation provided (extremely important during the Depression years), and, as war clouds brewed across the Atlantic, the security that an allied Latin America ensured.

To War

In the late 1930’s and 1940’s, the threat of World War II and Hitler’s Nazism changed the Good Neighbor from a policy fueled by economic and political interests to one fully invested in security concerns. FDR knew that in order to remain secure in the face of European fascist aggression he would have to remain strong allies with the entire Latin American region. A 1933 German propaganda campaign directed at the Americas proved largely unsuccessful in the United States, despite its large German population, but gained enough ground in Latin America to cause alarm. Latin American trade with Germany also escalated in the 30’s, threatening US dominance and creating the possibility of an alliance with Germany. A poll taken in 1940 showed that an overwhelming 70% of Americans believed that Germany would attempt to gain control of South America, and in order to prevent this the US would have to fight the Nazis [9]. FDR also shared this public sentiment, and sensed the importance of maintaining friendly relations with the South. His fireside chats often included alarmist rhetoric that stressed the need for hemispheric unity. While Germany may have stood as the largest threat to security in the Americas, other Axis regimes also proved ominous. Many Latin American countries felt cultural bonds to Spain, their former mother country, and American officials worried that Franco’s fascist influence would seep in through these historical ties. A large migration of Italians to Argentina and Japanese commercial dealings in Peru and Mexico also warranted alarm.

Security First

An increasing amount of nationalist regimes, provoked by the continued existence of US economic hegemony, also threatened security. FDR and his administration worked frantically to simultaneously maintain friendly diplomatic relations and hegemony in the region, a fine line that FDR walked surprisingly well. Roosevelt’s political genius in this regard can best be seen in the case of Mexico during the late 1930’s. A radical nationalist government headed by Lázaro Cardenas came to power in 1934, threatening the large number of American companies operating in the country. Four years later, he created a panic within the Anglo business community when he announced a plan to nationalize Mexican oil. Once Cárdenas started selling oil to Germany, Italy, and Japan after the British-American boycott that ensued, FDR knew he had to act quickly and wisely. Much to the disapproval of Wall Street and oil tycoons, he invoked the Good Neighbor and did not support a more conservative overthrow. Instead, he extended diplomatic relations to the Mexican government and a few years later, in a symbolic gesture of good-will, sent Vice President Henry Wallace to show support of the newly elected nationalist Camacho administration. This shrewd move ensured a continued alliance between the two countries and thwarted any threat of a Mexico-German partnership. With this event, the Good Neighbor officially morphed into a policy ruled by security, not economic, concerns.

Keep 'Em On Our Side

FDR knew that Pan American solidarity against Hitler’s Nazi regime and European fascism would be crucial for an Allied victory, and in believing this, the United States became a “far better neighbor than originally intended”[10]. In these years before war, the US implemented more favorable economic programs and almost bribed Latin American republics in order to secure Allied support. A former ambassador to Chile, William Culbertson, remarked that the new form of diplomacy was “to use Federal funds in order to conserve and develop the economic life of the Latin American countries… with the idea in mind that we are to keep them lined up politically for the purpose of economic defense of the hemisphere” [11]. Much to the joy of the United States, this form of Good Neighborism seemed to work. Hull was able to return in 1938 from the 8th Pan American Conference in Lima with a declaration ensuring a united front against Axis powers were a war to start. And, most importantly, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 11th, 1941, all nine Caribbean nations declared war on Japan and made Germany and Italy official enemies. Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico also cut off diplomatic relations with the Axis countries and, by the end of the war, every single Latin American country had declared war on Germany.

The Unravelling

Throughout the early years of US involvement in WWII, Roosevelt continued the policy of the Good Neighbor in full force. Economic programs continued to provide monetary, and therefore political, stability in Latin America. Hull and Welles continued to meet with Latin leaders to discuss issues of security, economics, and cultural solidarity. Roosevelt and his charismatic and influential wife, Eleanor, made many high-profile visits to Latin American nations during the 40’s. In short, relations looked good during these early war years. Yet, as the war dragged on and US attention seemed to be monopolized on

An American and a Latin American
actress working together to
collect type writers for the war effort

Europe, the first signs of tension arose. After high-profile resignations by Hull and Welles, the new leaders of the State Department could not set clear policy objectives. A major blunder, the first in a series, proved to be the non-recognition of a military junta in Bolivia that pledged Allied loyalty. Although it was a legitimate government, US ignorance about the situation led to ill will. Similar occurrences happened in Argentina, and as the war dragged on, FDR’s previous hard work began to slowly unravel. Vice President Wallace was well aware of the growing resentment in Latin America in 1943, leading him to write: “It is a rather disturbing thought that we in the United States can maintain a deep interest in Latin America only so long as we think we have something to gain by it. I hope…during the next few years that Latin America will feel that we are really her friend and not merely a friend for expedient purposes in a time of great need” [12]. Yet unfortunately for Roosevelt and those who had helped architect the Good Neighbor, this is exactly how they felt. In 1945 when FDR, the great symbol of Pan American friendship, passed away, Harry Truman came to office and the era of the Good Neighbor came to a close.


Looking back, the Good Neighbor Policy succeeded in its goal of repairing damaged relations in Latin America during the Roosevelt administration. Never before had South America, Central America, and the Caribbean received so much diplomatic attention from the United States, and never before had there existed such great inter-hemispheric unity. Ultimately, though, the United States maintained hegemony in the region through economic and political channels. For this reason, the Good Neighbor serves as an excellent example of America’s ability to craft its own unique brand of imperialism, even when hidden under the guise of good will. Historians differ on their interpretations of the Good Neighbor’s legacy. While it did manage to cultivate an enormous amount of dialogue and good will while maintaining economic, political and military security in the region, these benefits did not last after FDR’s death. Truman did not continue the policy of Good Neighbor, and throughout the Cold War the United States reverted to practices of unilateralism and conspicuous intervention. Others, such as Pike, argue that the Good Neighbor succeeded in thwarting the spread of Marxism in Latin America through non-militaristic means and bringing ideological convergence in later decades. Whatever the interpretation, it can be agreed that FDR “brought Latin America to the limelight like no chief executive before him had. If any period can be labeled the golden age of Pan American cooperation, the Roosevelt presidency deserves to be so labeled” [13].

Sources Cited

1. Fejes, Fred. Imperialism, Media, and the Good Neighbor : New Deal Foreign Policy and the United States Shortwave Broadcasting to Latin America. Ablex Publishing: Norwood, New Jersey. 1986, 6.

2. Fejes, Fred. Imperialism, Media, and the Good Neighbor : New Deal Foreign Policy and the United States Shortwave Broadcasting to Latin America. Ablex Publishing: Norwood, New Jersey. 1986, 15.

3. Pike, Fredrick B. FDR's Good Neighbor Policy: Sixty Years of Generally Gentle Chaos. University of Texas Press: Austin. 1995, 38.

4. Gellman, Irwin F. Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United States Policies in Latin America, 1933-1945. The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore. 1979, 39.

5. Fejes, Fred. Imperialism, Media, and the Good Neighbor : New Deal Foreign Policy and the United States Shortwave Broadcasting to Latin America. Ablex Publishing: Norwood, New Jersey. 1986, 33.

6.Wood, Bryce. The Making of the Good Neighbor Policy. Columbia University Press: New York. 1961.

7.Pike, Fredrick B. FDR's Good Neighbor Policy: Sixty Years of Generally Gentle Chaos. University of Texas Press: Austin. 1995, 138-145.

8.. Gellman, Irwin F. Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United States Policies in Latin America, 1933-1945. The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore. 1979, 39.

9.. Pike, Fredrick B. FDR's Good Neighbor Policy: Sixty Years of Generally Gentle Chaos. University of Texas Press: Austin. 1995, 231.

10. Pike, Fredrick B. FDR's Good Neighbor Policy: Sixty Years of Generally Gentle Chaos. University of Texas Press: Austin. 1995, 196.

11. Gellman, Irwin F. Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United States Policies in Latin America, 1933-1945. The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore. 1979, 162.

12. Gellman, Irwin F. Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United States Policies in Latin America, 1933-1945. The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore. 1979, 198.

13.Gellman, Irwin F. Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United States Policies in Latin America, 1933-1945. The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore. 1979, 227.

14. Wikipedia.

15. Google Images.

16. National Archives.

17. National Archives.

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