Skip to content

United States Imperialism In Latin America History Essay


US involvement in Latin American affairs during the Cold War period was extraordinarily deep and, according to most scholars, generally malicious. Successive administrations in Washington involved themselves in the domestic affairs of every Latin American state, attempting either to strengthen cooperative governments or to weaken ones that demonstrated geopolitical independence. While repeated interventions, in themselves, suggest that the US government may not have used its power responsibly, the greater problem is that fears about political reliability consistently trumped concerns about democracy, human rights, and economic development. These fears led policymakers in Washington to embrace a long list of brutal dictators and to engage in covert backing for insurgent groups and military cabals dedicated to overthrowing established governments. There are exceptions to this unpleasant history, but periods of genuine respect in Washington for Latin American independence were few and far between. Many scholars have suggested that Cold War concerns about the spread of communism in the region alone drove US policy, especially in the wake of Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union. Others have argued that, while Cuba was deeply troubling, the United States operated simply as a traditional imperial state, attempting to ensure it retained political and economic control over its weaker neighbors. A number of scholars have explored responses to US influence to explain how Latin Americans negotiated with, mitigated the influence of, or even manipulated Washington’s power. This idea is often expanded beyond discussions of US political, military, or economic engagement to focus on cultural penetration and to explain that the importation of items such as films, music, and even cartoons operated alongside other types of imperialism. These last types of studies, which look more intently at Latin American societies than at US government decision-making, are just one piece of the scholarship on the Cold War in Latin America. Because of the importance of the Cold War in Latin America and its impact on the totality of political, economic, social, and cultural developments, it may be possible to argue that essentially any book written about Latin America from the end of World War II to the late 1980s might be considered Cold War history. Because exploring the totality of that literature is not possible or practical in one essay, this bibliography will focus on the substantial scholarship that explores concrete US efforts to fight the Cold War in the region, and the responses to those efforts. It will consider works specifically part of the subfield of US–Latin American relations, which is part of the larger history of US international history. Said differently, if only for practical purposes, this bibliography will try to draw a distinction between scholarship on the internal Cold War in Latin America and scholarship on US–Latin American relations during the Cold War period.

General Overviews

The large number of broad survey texts is, in part, a function of the relative popularity of US–Latin American history courses on university campuses. These books can be divided into three subgroups: works that attempt to use an International History perspective, works that use a Political Science approach, and works that focus on Cultural/Ideological perceptions about Latin America in the United States. While these are broad categories, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. All the texts in this section attempt to provide some of the broad narrative required for introductions to the field.

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

On the cold morning of December 16, 1907, Theodore Roosevelt sent his “Great White Fleet” around the world in a tour de force, showing American naval might. The name of the fleet came from the color of the ships because they were painted a bright, stark white. As the fleet traveled around the world it stopped in many places, like in Sicily, to help refugees of an earthquake in Messina, Italy in 1908. All this was to show America’s new reach around the globe. At this time, The United States had not had this much power, nor had it been a major world power. That all changed when the US started acquiring new territory in the Caribbean, South America, and the Philippines. However, each different area experienced American imperialism in different ways, and on different levels. This project will compare the effects of American imperialism and the ideas of American Empire in the different areas of the Western Hemisphere and the Philippines. The project will also slightly touch on the different policies between the areas affected by the US, but with an emphasis on comparing the effects that those policies had.

American policies during late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries leading up to World War II were imperialistic and forceful, acquiring many territories over the span of a short period of time, mostly all island territories. The United States wanted to control the seas in the Western Hemisphere, but to do so, it needed to build bases and take land to build those bases on. It also needed economic power in the regions, so the United States exerted power over close territories. However, the United States’s acquisitions of territories in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were different depending on the region and the purposes behind the actions of the government were for different reasons, such as to build military bases in Guam and Samoa, to “civilize” the people of the Philippines, and to control the flow of trade in the Western Hemisphere by building the Panama Canal.

In the article, by David Warren, he reports on the 100th anniversary of when President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” sailed around the world, but also takes a look at when the United States’ power grew. Warren explains in the article how imperialism, while almost always cast in a bad light, could be a good thing in some aspects such as “technology — most significantly, certain principles of hygiene which, more even than the discoveries and techniques of modern medicine, contributed everywhere to longevity, prosperity, and health.” The author states how in the years since Roosevelt’s fleet set sail, America’s power grew to the point of becoming a “hyperpower,” a superpower without rival. The article touches on the British fleet, how they controlled the seas, but when Roosevelt’s fleet set sail, it was a symbolic passing of the torch to the United States.

In Michael Hunt’s Pacific Historical Review, he makes the point that American policies before the 1890s were isolationist in nature, however, afterward, they became increasingly involved in world affairs, especially in former Spanish colonies. He also explains that the United States’ military was used to “translate colonial theory into colonial practice,” (Hunt, 468). It is also explained how The United States had problems managing an overseas “empire” for the first time, something that had not happened before in its history.

In “The Provinciality of American Empire: ‘Liberal Exceptionalism’ and U.S. Colonial Rule, 1898-1912” by Julian Go, Go explains that the United States was an empire, however, most citizens and politicians in the US at the time wanted to call it one, or even though of it as one. Go also explains that the US was trying to civilize the areas that it tried to control in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, but in places such as Guam and Samoa, the US just took over for the sake of more territory and military presence rather than actual governing. Go’s purpose is to compare the different ways the US governed acquired territories and to comment on what the US policies were at home and in the territories. The historical moment of Go’s article is at the height of US power before World War 1, when the US was untouched by war. The time period is from 1898-1912, so basically at the start of the twentieth century. One historical detail is that the US tried to “civilize” the Philippines and Puerto Rico by creating elections, and trying to educate the people of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Another is that in Guam and Samoa, the US did not even attempt to educate the people, nor did they try to govern them. The US just built military bases on the islands and appointed leaders based on the already existing hierarchy of the islands using local chiefs and other kinds of local leaders. The final historical detail is that Americans at home did not think anything was wrong with what they were doing. They believed that the missions to “civilize” the people of conquered territories was good and just, that it needed to be done.

In Harry Collings’ Misinterpreting the Monroe Doctrine, Collings explains that the Monroe Doctrine was misinterpreted by people that were not living in the United States because it was seen as an excuse by the United States to be able to do whatever it wanted in the Western Hemisphere without any consequence or pressure by European forces. However, American politicians and regular people believed the Monroe Doctrine was a good thing, as it stopped imperial powers from Europe from encroaching in Latin America, and that it promoted republics. Collings talks about how the Monroe Doctrine did not directly relate to American policies of imperialism, but it was an ideology that the government followed along with imperialistic policies.

The author of Colonial Representation in the American Empireis  Pedro Capo Rodriguez, “Member of the Porto Rico Bar and the Bar of the Supreme Court of the United States.” This source was created in July of 1921, about when the United States was at the height of its imperial power before the Great Depression. Upon reading this source, the intended audience seems to be the United States Congress and or Senate. The language used seems to be addressed to politicians or people of equal stature. Rodriguez’s purpose seems to be to get the government to make the territories that it had recently acquired to become states, especially Puerto Rico. Rodriguez makes a commentary on the fact that the United States’ previous acquisitions had all become states, like Alaska, and all the territory taken from Mexico in  the Mexican-American War. The historical context in which the source could have been read was after World War I, and after the Spanish-American War. The context in which this could have been read was as a plea for statehood by a man from one of the recently acquired territories. Pedro Capo Rodriguez is almost undoubtedly Puerto Rican, as he makes a specific emphasis on Puerto Rico. If he is writing to Congress as I believe he is, then he is a well educated man who is in the upper class. If he is writing to Congress, however, he is of a different race than them as Congress at the time was almost entirely composed of white, upper class men. Rodriguez’s point of view shows the different ways the United States acquired different territories.

In The United States and Imperialism, the author, Frank Ninkovich, makes the argument that the United States adopted imperialism in different ways. In his introduction, he explains that the United States used imperialism in the Philippines just for the sake of taking land or as Ninkovich calls it, “pure imperialism” (Ninkovich, 8). He also explains that it was a different story in the Caribbean because US policy in that area was based on a number of factors, such as fear of European expansion, ability to expand the US economy, and wanting to promote American ideals and ideas in the area. Ninkovich also makes the argument that after America’s short time as an imperial power, globalization took its place to expand American influence. The time period that the author looks at is between the 1890s and  today, with a focus on the early twentieth century. The historical moment that my project and Ninkovich’s book is based upon is around the time that the United States started to become a big world power, able to directly compete with the Europeans. One historical detail is the United States’ acquisition of the Philippines in 1902, in which the United States took the nation by force. Another is the policies used in the Caribbean, which were a bit more oriented towards economic gain and to keep the Europeans out of the Western Hemisphere. The third detail is the United States’ policies used in the rest of the Western Hemisphere including South America and the surrounding territories, in which the US had a heavy influence, such as in the building of the Panama Canal that was finished in 1914. The differences between the policies used in each of the three areas were all a little bit different in how they were carried out, with some using much more force leading to bloodshed and violence, while others were carried out with diplomacy.

The United States has had a long history of Imperialism, taking territories in the Western Hemisphere and in the Pacific. Its influence this part of the world is undeniable, however, to acquire such territories the United States used different tactics. Violence in the Phillippines after the Spanish-American War that ended in 1898, diplomacy in Puerto Rico after it was ceded by Spain, and bloodless takeover by the military in Guam. The United States also used underhanded tactics to create the Panama Canal, basically creating a proxy war in Colombia to make Panama an independent country, then taking the land that would become the Panama Canal. Even though the United States has used imperialism to achieve its empire at the time, the tactics it used were necessary, although they might not have been right. The United States brought stability, technology, and culture to the territories that it acquired, even though the means it used were through imperialism.

Works Cited:

Collings, Harry T. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 111, Supplement: The Centenary of the Monroe Doctrine (Jan., 1924), pp. 37-39

Hunt, Michael H. Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Nov., 1979), pp. 467-471

Go, Julian. “The Provinciality of American Empire: ‘Liberal Exceptionalism’ and U.S. Colonial Rule, 1898–1912.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2007, 74-108.

Ninkovich, Frank A. The United States and Imperialism. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Rodriguez, Pedro Capo. The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Jul., 1921), pp. 530-551.

Warren5., David. “When the U.S. was unchallenged,” The Ottawa Citizen,December 19, 2007, accessed September 7, 2014,