Herbert Hoover, occupation withdrawal, and the good neighbor policy.

Author:McPherson, Alan

A vast historiography is devoted to arguing which U.S. president was most responsible for devising the Good Neighbor Policy (GNP), the seminal policy shift toward the Western Hemisphere of the first half of the twentieth century, and the query is worthwhile. Overall, historians have been generous to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). (1) FDR certainly gave his policy the winning name of "good neighbor" and announced it during his first inaugural address. Though most suspected that he meant the "far east" at the time because he failed to mention Latin America, he did speak of the region explicitly before the Pan American Union on April 12, 1933 (Coleman 1951, 76-78). More important, in 1934 Roosevelt pulled U.S. troops out of Haiti and rescinded the Platt Amendment that gave it the right of intervention, among other things, over Cuba, and in 1936 he ended the U.S. protectorate over Panama in the Arias-Roosevelt Treaty. That same administration formally accepted the principle of nonintervention at the Seventh Inter-American Conference in Montevideo in 1933. And after Republican administrations had raised tariffs, Roosevelt's State Department instead penned reciprocal trade agreements that lowered tariffs for Latin American nations (Gellman 1979, 7, 45; Pike 1995, 208). Finally, Roosevelt deepened what would be Washington's acquiescence to dictatorship in Latin America, also a crucial element of the GNP. Support for strongmen such as Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and Fulgencio Batista of Cuba outsourced the dirty work of keeping peace and order in the Caribbean area after the marines withdrew. (2)

But many have argued that, despite these signal achievements, Herbert Hoover was the true author of the policy of good neighborliness. (3) A consensus of sorts exists that Hoover, and to a lesser extent his two Republican predecessors, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, at least initiated the central tenet of GNP, the pledge of nonintervention, while Roosevelt expanded and formalized the relationship (Gellman 1979, 3). Challenging the champions of Hoover, historian Earl Curry asserted that "Roosevelt was prepared to commit the United States to nonintervention; Hoover was not. And therein lay the difference" (1979, 9). Yet Hoover did repeatedly commit to nonintervention, both in word and deed. It was Hoover who made the decision to exit Haiti and his administration that negotiated the end of the Nicaraguan intervention. After Hoover, it became practically impossible to begin another intervention.

Merely showing Hoover's GNP precedents to FDR is not enough. Missing in almost all debates over which president midwifed the GNP is the role of Latin American and U.S. critics. (4) Historian Anne Regis Winkler-Morey noted that most historians "have neglected to explore the role of popular movements in Latin America and the United States" in ending occupations, seeing the GNP as an "effort to drown out and co-opt the voices of popular internationalism" (2001, 214). Hoover presided over an era of rising protests against intervention, and he responded by taking them seriously and implementing substantive policy changes. True, Hoover initiated little beyond the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but that component of the GNP was by far the most important to foreign critics of intervention. Trade treaties drew little comment from Latin Americans, and direct financial oversight, such as in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, continued for years after troop withdrawal without much opposition. So on the basis of listening to Latin Americans and articulating and implementing a rejection of U.S. occupation in line with the hemisphere's wishes, Hoover took more momentous steps than did FDR, and this against significant dawdling by the U.S. military and even the State Department. (5) This tale of withdrawal from occupation offers a case in which a president, stirred by his own beliefs and his willingness to pay heed to foreign public opinion, wore down the rest of the executive branch and cleared the way for the next president's full normalization of inter-American relations.

Hoover and Inter-American Relations

To be sure, Hoover was not the first to speak of the good neighbor or to claim an aversion to occupation. The first use of the term "good neighbor" to describe inter-American affairs goes back to 1815 (DeConde 1951, 125). Its use by a policy maker in modern times dates to Theodore Roosevelt's (TR) secretary of state, Elihu Root, in 1907 (Myers 1940, 53). In his own corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, TR intoned, "It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere." But few have defended TR as a "good neighbor" since he used his corollary to argue for a U.S. "international police power" in Central America and the Caribbean (Roosevelt 1904). Woodrow Wilson, too, swore off intervention in the region in a speech in Mobile in 1913, promising that "the United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest" (1913). Like TR's corollary, the Mobile speech also proved Orwellian in its contradiction after Wilson ordered occupations in Hispaniola and Veracruz in addition to the Punitive Expedition to Mexico in 1916.

Momentum for at least keeping promises not to begin new occupations gained steam after the Republicans won the White House in 1920. The party had a strong isolationist wing that had rejected the Treaty of Versailles and now called for troops to come home from Latin America. Fear of a German threat to the Panama Canal and its sea lanes also dissipated after 1918. Within U.S. society there grew an increasingly vocal antioccupation movement made up of pacifists, socialists, scholars, theologians, and others. But mostly the chorus of disapproval from Latin America itself was becoming too loud to neglect. Historian Kenneth Grieb argued that President Harding and his secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes, had, in response to all these trends, a clear policy of "abandoning armed intervention in favor of advice and counsel" in order to "foster good will in Latin America and ultimately benefit the United States by enabling it to garner the trade and support of the region" (1969, 425). Jeanne Traphagen was more partial to Coolidge's secretary of state, Frank Kellogg, praising his "many solid achievements" and saying he "prepared a foundation" for the GNP (1956, 325). Bryce Wood gave as an example, during the Coolidge-Kellogg tenure, of future Secretary of State Henry Stimson's negotiation of the Tipitapa accords as conflict resolution among Nicaraguans motivated largely by the desire to avoid occupation (1967, 5). Yet Coolidge did send the marines into Honduras in 1924 and into Nicaragua in 1926 (Williams, 1988, 153).

It was Hoover who felt strongest about ending occupations in order to silence Latin American critics and reap the resulting diplomatic and economic benefits. Historian Alexander DeConde argued that "Hoover was perhaps more concerned with inter-American relations than was any other preceding President." Hoover opposed the Haitian and Dominican occupations as early as 1922 while secretary of commerce (De Conde 1951, ix, 59). "I had developed an increasing dissatisfaction with our policies toward Latin America," he recalled in his memoirs. "I was convinced that unless we displayed an entirely different attitude we should never dispel the suspicions and fears of 'Colossus of the North' nor win the respect of those nations." Hoover understood the power of transnational networks against occupation speaking through newspapers and the damage they would do to the primary interest of the United States in Latin America by the 1920s, which was an increase in two-way trade. "The German-, Italian-, and British-subsidized South American press constantly encouraged this antagonism as part of their trade propaganda," he wrote (Hoover 1952, 210). At Commerce, Hoover was chairman of the Inter-American High Commission and witnessed how anti-U.S. sentiment harmed trade relations in the hemisphere (DeConde 1951, 6).

As a presidential candidate in 1928, Hoover navigated political waters while pursuing the ideal of withdrawal. His opponent, Democratic candidate Franklin Roosevelt, advanced his own party's abandonment of intervention in a Foreign Affairs article (1928, 583, 584). From Hoover's own party Senator William Borah (R-Idaho) pressured him to do the same. Yet Hoover feared losing the support of the Coolidge loyalists, so he hedged. The Republican platform, in the end, "absolutely repudiated] any idea of conquest or exploitation, and [wa]s actuated solely by an earnest and sincere desire to assist a friendly and neighboring State which has appealed for aid in a great emergency" (Cummins, 1958, 130). Walking such a policy tightrope reiterated the shopworn U.S. motivation of altruism toward Latin America while still allowing occupations based on legal arrangements in Nicaragua and Haiti.

Hoover was also aware that public relations were becoming foremost in diplomacy since the popularity of radio and magazines in the 1920s and that a new attitude had to be communicated clearly to Latin Americans. Right after his election he promoted air travel in the Americas as "a benevolent parley that destroys the distance between peoples and constructs friendships between them" ("Link Americas" 1928, 1).

More important, after his election but before he occupied the Oval Office, Hoover undertook a trip unequaled before and since--a seven-week tour of ten Latin America countries from late November to early January. (6) Some may have thought that Hoover might have had more serious tasks to prepare. Yet the length of the trip and its public nature was itself a presidential task, a statement of Hoover's foreign policy priorities.

The trip confronted Hoover with some protest against U.S. occupations...

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