Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” Foreign Policy

While President McKinley ushered in the era of the American empire through military strength and economic coercion, his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, established a new foreign policy approach, allegedly based on a favorite African proverb, “speak softly, and carry a big stick, and you will go far” (Figure). At the crux of his foreign policy was a thinly veiled threat. Roosevelt believed that in light of the country’s recent military successes, it was unnecessary to use force to achieve foreign policy goals, so long as the military could threaten force. This rationale also rested on the young president’s philosophy, which he termed the “strenuous life,” and that prized challenges overseas as opportunities to instill American men with the resolve and vigor they allegedly had once acquired in the Trans-Mississippi West.

A cartoon, captioned “The Big Stick in the Caribbean Sea,” shows a massive Roosevelt marching through the Caribbean Sea holding a stick labeled “Big Stick.” Various nations are labeled, including Santo Domingo, Cuba, Mexico, and Panama. Roosevelt pulls a boat labeled “The Receiver” behind him on a string. Sailing around the perimeter of the Caribbean is a group of ships labeled “Debt Collector” and “Sheriff.”
Roosevelt was often depicted in cartoons wielding his “big stick” and pushing the U.S. foreign agenda, often through the power of the U.S. Navy.

Roosevelt believed that while the coercive power wielded by the United States could be harmful in the wrong hands, the Western Hemisphere’s best interests were also the best interests of the United States. He felt, in short, that the United States had the right and the obligation to be the policeman of the hemisphere. This belief, and his strategy of “speaking softly and carrying a big stick,” shaped much of Roosevelt’s foreign policy.

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