Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick Policy

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“A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb:”Speak softly and carry a big stick-you will go far.” If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble; and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power.” Theodore Roosevelt was highly revered during his time for his unique approach to foreign policy, as seen in the quotation, TR held the belief “speak softly and carry a big stick” when handling international foreign affairs, in order to discussing the topic it is helpful to ask what “carrying a big stick” entails, and how the president would proceed in order to execute his new international policy approach. The ideology was contradictory to the nation's previous policy of international neutrality and isolationism.

The Big Stick policy is very significant in Roosevelt's approach to foreign policy; in the example of Venezuela, the negotiation of the Panama canal, and heavy hand in the conflicts of the far east. Wielding his new foreign policy proceeding the death of President William McKinley, Roosevelt sets out to establish America as a world power, through the expansion of the nation's navy and overall confidence in international diplomacy, he solidifies himself in history as an exceedingly charismatic and proactive president who took a fresh approach to international affairs in order to compete with the ever changing politics of the world. The first examples of Roosevelt's implementation of the Big Stick policy can be found in the various events that took place in Latin America. The negotiation of the Panama Canal is exceedingly important in American history. With the death of McKinley, Roosevelt inherits the task of building a canal to support America's expanding empire and preserve commercial interests in the Pacific and Latin America.

In order to do so, Roosevelt's administration first had to negotiate the terms to build and own the canal with accordance to the British, resulting in the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty in which, “It is agreed that the canal may be constructed under the auspices of the government of the United States”, this is the figurative green light for the U.S. to negotiate the canal under the terms of peace and primarily commercial usage. After their failed attempt at creating a canal in Panama the French agreed to sell the land to the United States. Negotiations with Colombia began and were significantly frustrating, after the Columbian refusal to ratify the proposal for the canal, Roosevelt is approached by a representative of Panama, Banau-Varilla, he informed him of revolutionary ideas that were ready to ignite in Panama. Roosevelt agreed to support the revolution sending the U.S. warship Nashville? to reinforce the Panamanian Revolutionaries, they succeed in a nearly bloodless struggle. Thus came the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty which, “to the United States in perpetuity the use, occupation and control of a zone of land and land underwater for the construction, maintenance, operation, sanitation and protection of said canal”, the statement “in perpetuity” meant forever in this sense.

While this was a massive success for America, the treaty was completely one sided and resulted in Panamanian distaste for the American government, aiding a growing Latin American resentment towards the U.S. Another good example of Theodore Roosevelt’s usage of his Big Stick policy in Latin America can be seen in the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902. The Venezuelans similarly to other nations in South America had fallen into debt with European powers. When Germany and Britain sent naval fleets to collect the money from Venezuela an American Navy fleet quickly responded and flourished the new U.S. policy of policing with a big stick. The Navy fleet was claimed to have been there coincidentally, when in reality it seemed as if the president strategically planned an exemplary show of the navy's preparedness to deploy for war, “I assembled our battle fleet under Admiral Dewey, near Puerto Rico, for ‘maneuvers’,with instructions that the fleet should be kept in hand and in fighting trim, and should be ready to sail at an hour’s notice.” Ultimately American intervention causes the British and Germans to cut off diplomatic ties with the leaders of Venezuela and leave Latin America.

The European powers violation of the Monroe Doctrine was troubling to Theodore Roosevelt, it posed an imminent threat to America’s public safety. In response TR went to congress with what will be called the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1905. A proposal intended to expand U.S. Navy, put attention on commercial interests in the far east and transfer European intervention to the hands of America. Roosevelt asks for the expansion of the Army and Navy in the quote, “it is absolutely necessary to consider the Army and the Navy, and the Congress, through which the thought of the nation finds its expression, should keep ever vividly in mind the fundamental fact that it is impossible to treat our foreign policy, whether this policy takes shape in the effort to secure justice for others or for ourselves, save as conditioned upon the attitude we are willing to take toward our army, and especially toward our navy.” The call for naval growth was centered around the Big Stick foreign policy, and the additional responsibilities as a righteous power of the world to police, enforce and protect itself from foreign powers.

TR states in his corollary, “Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence to the exercise of an international police power.” Overall the implementation of the Corollary resulted in the expansion of the Navy, as well as, the new policy of intervention, causing a further decline in popularity for the U.S. in Latin America. An exceedingly intelligent implementation of Theodore Roosevelt's Big Stick policy was the deployment of the Great White Fleet. “Over a 14 month period, 14,000 men on 16 battleships and auxiliaries, traveled 46,000 miles, circumnavigating the world and demonstrated to Europe and the Far East, American strength during a time of peace.”

There were many reasons for Roosevelt's sailing of the Great White Fleet across the world, most of them pertaining to American interest in the East following the Russo-Japanese war, as well as the opportunity to showcase his naval prowess. The deployment of the fleet was viewed by the department of the navy, “as a trial run for a war with Japan” ;however, Roosevelt also used the fleet to stimulate congress to make more ships due to the reinforced popular public interest in the Navy. Simultaneously, the goal of the Great White Fleet was to “bolster his political support on the west coast by capitalizing on fears of a possible war with Japan.” While the deployment of The Great White Fleet had no actual combat motives, it sought to establish Roosevelt's Big Stick Policy internationally with a soft spoken word of peace during a time of growing tensions with Japan. Theodore Roosevelt took an extremely unorthodox approach to American Foreign policy, his implementation of Big Stick ideology broke America from its isolationist shell taking the first steps into establishing itself as a world power. Through the expansion of the Navy, negotiation of the Panama canal, Venezuela Crisis, and resolution of tensions in the East, Roosevelt went through immense means to uphold his administrative declaration of a big stick. Throughout his two terms TR made extremely advantageous decisions and intellectual resolutions to end tensions through the use of diplomacy and solidified himself in American history as a truly pragmatic diplomat.


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- Theodore Roosevelt's Speech at the Minnesota State Fair - Sept. 2, 1901. Accessed December 12, 2017.

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-Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, Feb. 26th, 1904, U.S. Stats., vol. 33.

-Root-Takahira Agreement,Nov. 30th, 1908, Treaty series 511 ½.

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Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick Policy. (2019, Dec 09). Retrieved November 28, 2023 , from

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