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Big Stick ideology

The letter in which Roosevelt first used his now famous phrase

Big Stick ideology, Big Stick diplomacy, or Big Stick policy refers to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy: "speak softly, and carry a big stick." Roosevelt described his style of foreign policy as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis".[1]

The idea of negotiating peacefully, simultaneously threatening with the "big stick", or the military, ties in heavily with the idea of Realpolitik, which implies a pursuit of political power that resembles Machiavellian ideals.[2] Compare to the term Gunboat diplomacy, as used in international politics by imperial powers.


Vice President Roosevelt first used the phrase in a conversation at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901,[3] four days before the assassination of President William McKinley who died an additional eight days later, which subsequently thrust Roosevelt into the presidency. Roosevelt had referred to the phrase earlier (January 26, 1900) in a letter to Henry W. Sprague of the Union League Club of New York, mentioning his liking of the phrase in a bout of happiness after forcing New York's Republican committee to pull support away from a corrupt financial adviser.[4]

Roosevelt attributed the term as "a West African proverb", and was seen at the time as evidence of Roosevelt’s "prolific" reading habits.[5][6] The proverb reads "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far," but the claim that it originated in West Africa has been disputed.[7] However, it is also rumored that Roosevelt himself first made the phrase publicly known,[7] and that he meant it was West African proverb only metaphorically.[7]


Although used before his presidency, Roosevelt used military muscle several times throughout his two terms with a more subtle touch to complement his diplomatic policies. This included the Great White Fleet, 16 battleships which peacefully circumnavigated the globe as an illustration of America's rising yet neutral prestige under Roosevelt's direction.

In the U.S.

Anthracite Coal Strike

In 1902, 140,000 miners went on strike, wanting higher pay, shorter work hours, and better housing.[6] They were led by John Mitchell, a fellow miner who formed the United Mine Workers (UMW). The mining companies refused to meet the demands of the UMW and contacted the Federal Government for support.[6] Before Roosevelt, the government would send in military support to forcefully end the strike, but during Roosevelt’s terms, this strategy was not used. After the companies called for assistance, Roosevelt, fearful of the effects a coal shortage would have on the economy of the time, decided to host a meeting in the White House involving representatives or delegates, of the miners and the leaders of the mining companies.[6][8] Mitchell, after returning from the White House meeting, met with the miners, and drew a Consensus. The miners decided not to submit to political pressure, and continue on with the strike. Roosevelt then decided to bring in the military, but, instead of forcefully ending the strike and restoring power to the mining companies, he would use the military to run the mines in the "public interest".[6] The mining companies, upset that they were no longer directly making a profit, then accepted the demands of the UMW. This policy was later referred to as the "Square Deal". [9]

Latin America

Venezuelan Affair (1902) and the Roosevelt Corollary

A map of Middle America, showing the places affected by the proverbial "big stick"[10]

In the early 20th century, Venezuela was receiving messages from Britain and Germany about "Acts of violence against the liberty of British subjects and the massive capture of British vessels" who were from the UK and the acts of Venezuelan initiative to pay off long-standing debts.[11][12] After British and German forces took naval action with a blockade on Venezuela (1902–1903), Roosevelt denounced the blockade. The blockade began the basis of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe doctrine.[13][14] Though he had mentioned the basis of his idea beforehand in private letters, he officially announced the corollary in 1904, stating that he only wanted the "other republics on this continent" to be "happy and prosperous". For that goal to be met, the corollary required that they "maintain order within their borders and behave with a just obligation toward outsiders".[14]

Most historians, such as one of Roosevelt's many biographers Howard K. Beale have summarized that the corollary was influenced by Roosevelt's personal beliefs as well as his connections to foreign bondholders.[14][15][16] The U.S. public was very "tense" during the two-month blockade, and Roosevelt requested that Britain and Germany pull out their forces from the area. During the requests for the blockade’s end, Roosevelt stationed naval forces in Cuba, to ensure "the respect of Monroe doctrine" and the compliance of the parties in question.[12] The doctrine was never ratified by the senate or brought up for a vote to the American public. Roosevelt's declaration was the first of many presidential decrees in the twentieth century that were never ratified. [17]

Canal diplomacy

The U.S. used the "big stick" during "Canal Diplomacy", the questionable diplomatic actions of the U.S. during the pursuit of a canal across Central America. Both Nicaragua and Panama featured canal related incidents of Big Stick Diplomacy.[18]

Proposed construction of the Nicaragua Canal
Main article: Nicaragua Canal

In 1901, Secretary of State John Hay pressed the Nicaraguan Government for approval of a canal.Nicaragua would receive $1.5 million in ratification, $100,000 annually, and the U.S. would "provide sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity".[19] Nicaragua then returned the contract draft with a change; they wished to receive, instead of an annual $100,000, $6 million in ratification. The U.S. accepted the deal, but after Congress approved the contract a problem of court jurisdiction came up. The U.S. did not have legal jurisdiction in the land of the future canal. An important note is that this problem was on the verge of correction, until Pro-Panama representatives posed problems for Nicaragua; the current leader (General José Santos Zelaya) did not cause problems, from the outlook of U.S. interests.[19]

Construction of the Panama Canal

In 1899, the Isthmian Canal Commission was set up to determine which site would be best for the canal (Nicaragua or Panama) and then to oversee construction of the canal.[20] After Nicaragua was ruled out, Panama was the obvious choice. A few problems had arisen, however. With the U.S.' solidified interests in Panama (then a small portion of Colombia), both Colombia and the French company that was to provide the construction materials raised their prices. The U.S., refusing to pay the higher-than-expected fees, "engineered a revolution" in Colombia.[21][22][23] On November 3, 1903, Panama (with the support of the United States Navy) revolted against Colombia. Panama became a new republic, receiving $10 million from the U.S. alone. Panama also gained an annual payment of $250,000, and guarantees of independence.[22] The U.S. gained the rights to the canal strip "in perpetuity". Roosevelt later said that he "took the Canal, and let Congress debate".[22] After Colombia lost Panama, they tried to appeal to the U.S. by the reconsidering of treaties and even naming Panama City the capital of Colombia.[24]


The U.S., after the Spanish–American War, had many expansionists who wanted to annex Cuba. Many people felt that a foreign power (outside of the U.S.) would control a portion of Cuba, thus the U.S. could not continue with its interests in Cuba.[10] Although many advocated annexation, this was prevented by the Teller Amendment, which states "hereby disclaims any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people." When summarized, this could mean that the U.S. would not interfere with Cuba and its peoples. The expansionists argued though, that the Teller Amendment was created "ignorant of actual conditions" and that this released the U.S. from its obligation.[10] Following the debate surrounding the Teller Amendment, the Platt Amendment took effect. The Platt Amendment (the name is a misnomer; the Platt Amendment is actually a rider to the Army Appropriation Act of 1901) was accepted by Cuba in late 1901, after "strong pressure" from Washington.[10] The Platt Amendment, summarized by Thomas A. Bailey in "Diplomatic History of the American People":

  1. Cuba was not to make decisions impairing her independence or to permit a foreign power [e.g., Germany] to secure lodgment in control over the island.
  2. Cuba pledged herself not to incur an indebtedness beyond her means [It might result in foreign intervention].
  3. The United States was at liberty to intervene for the purpose of preserving order and maintaining Cuban independence.
  4. Cuba would agree to an American-sponsored sanitation program [Aimed largely at yellow fever].
  5. Cuba would agree to sell or lease to the United States sites for naval or coaling stations [Guantánamo became the principal base].[10]

With Platt Amendment in place, Roosevelt pulled the troops out of Cuba. This action was met with public unrest and outcries for annexation, with reasons ranging from "U.S. interests" to "dominant white race". The Indianapolis News said, "It is manifest destiny for a nation to own the islands which border its shores." Roosevelt had written privately that if "any South American country misbehaves" it should be "spanked".[25] A year later, Roosevelt wrote,

Just at the moment I am so angry with that infernal little Cuban republic that I would like to wipe its people off the face of the earth. All that we wanted from them was that they would behave themselves and be prosperous and happy so that we would not have to interfere.
—Theodore Roosevelt, Roosevelt to White[26]


At the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in September 1905, President Roosevelt leveraged his position as a strong but impartial leader in order to negotiate a peace treaty between the two nations. "Speaking softly" earned the President enough prestige to even merit a Nobel Peace Prize the following year for his efforts.

See also


  1. ^ Roosevelt 1913, p. 522
  2. ^ "Big Stick and Dollar Diplomacy". High Beam Encyclopedia. 2001. Retrieved 2008-07-16. 
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Speak Softly. . .". Library of Congress Exhibit. Library of Congress. 2007-10-31. Archived from the original on 10 July 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-14. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Davis 1990, p. 229
  7. ^ a b c Martin, Gary. "Speak Softly And Carry a Big Stick". 
  8. ^ Marks, Ratchell (2005-10-31). "Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902". Archived from the original on 21 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-14. 
  9. ^ Williams, Talcott (1905). "The Anthracite Strike of 1902: A Record of Confusion". The American Monthly Review of Reviews: 229–251. JSTOR 1902513. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Bailey 1980, p. 500
  11. ^ Hershey 1903, p. 251
  12. ^ a b Barck, Jr. 1974, p. 99
  13. ^ "Theodore Roosevelt: Foreign Policy". Encarta. MSN. 2008. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. Retrieved 2008-07-24. 
  14. ^ a b c LaFeber 1993, p. 198
  15. ^ Fagan, Patrick (2005-05-18). "On Historians' Changing Perceptions of Theodore Roosevelt Pre-1950s and Post-1940s". Retrieved 2008-08-27. 
  16. ^ Gould 1991, p. 380
  17. ^ Burns, James MacGregor; Dunn, Susan (2001). The Three Roosevelts (1st ed.). Atlantic Monthly Press. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0871137801. 
  18. ^ Conniff 2001, p. 63
  19. ^ a b Berman 1986, p. 149
  20. ^ "The Panama Canal: History". 1999-12-30. Retrieved 2008-08-20. 
  21. ^ Zinn 1999, p. 408
  22. ^ a b c Davis 1990, pp. 224–227
  23. ^ Bishop 1913, p. 23
  24. ^ Vargas, Diego Uribe (2007-01-12). "CAPITULO XIV: Memorial de Agravios" (in español). Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango. Retrieved 2008-08-21. 
  25. ^ Perkins 1937, p. 333
  26. ^ Roosevelt to White, Sept. 13, 1906, Roosevelt Papers, Library of Congress


  • Bailey, Thomas A. (1980), A Diplomatic History of the American People 10th ed., Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-214726-2 
  • Barck, Jr., Oscar Theodore (1974), Since 1900, MacMilliam Publishing Co., Inc., ISBN 0-02-305930-3 
  • Beale, Howard K. (1957), Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power, Johns Hopkins Press 
  • Berman, Karl (1986), Under the Big Stick: Nicaragua and the United States Since 1848, South End Press 
  • Bishop, Joseph Bucklin (1913), Uncle Sam's Panama Canal and World History, Accompanying the Panama Canal Flat-globe: Its Achievement an Honor to the United States and a Blessing to the World, Pub. by J. Wanamaker expressly for the World Syndicate Company 
  • Conniff, Michael L. (2001), Panama and the United States: The Forced Alliance, University of Georgia Press, ISBN 0-8203-2348-9 
  • Davis, Kenneth C. (1990), Don't Know Much About History, Avon Books, ISBN 0-380-71252-0 
  • Gould, Lewis L. (1991), The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, University Press of Kansas, ISBN 978-0-7006-0565-1 
  • Hershey, A.S. (1903), The Venezuelan Affair in the Light of International Law, University of Michigan Press 
  • LaFeber, Walter (1993), A Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations: The American Search for Opportunity. 1865 - 1913, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-38185-1 
  • Perkins, Dexter (1937), The Monroe Doctrine, 1867-1907, Baltimore Press 
  • Roosevelt, Theodore (1913), Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography, The Macmillan Press Company 
  • Zinn, Howard (1999), A People's History of the United States, Harper Perennial, ISBN 0-06-083865-5 

External links

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