Theodore Roosevelt And Imperialism

Theodore Roosevelt is known for his vibrant personality, progressive reforms, and strong foreign policy. He became president in 1901 and presided over a transformative period marked by rapid industrialization and increasing global influence for the United States. Central to his vision was the concept of imperialism. It’s an ideology advocating for the expansion of a nation’s authority through territorial acquisition and the establishment of economic and political dominance.

The United States was on a path of aggressive expansionism during Roosevelt’s tenure. This changed the country’s role on the world stage. Roosevelt’s actions epitomized a bold and assertive approach to foreign policy. In this article, we’ll discuss the important contributions of Theodore Roosevelt to American imperialism. We’ll examine how his leadership and policies expanded the nation’s borders and redefined its identity as an emerging global power.


Colonel Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s Early Life and Political Career

Theodore Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858, into a wealthy family in New York City. Despite suffering from severe asthma and other health issues during his childhood, Roosevelt displayed a relentless spirit, embracing a rigorous physical regimen to overcome his ailments.

He graduated from Harvard University in 1880 and embarked on a varied career, which included stints as a rancher, historian, and author. Roosevelt’s political journey began in the New York State Assembly, where he quickly made a name for himself as a reformer.

His rise continued with appointments such as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he gained national fame leading the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. In 1901, following the assassination of President William McKinley, Roosevelt assumed the presidency, becoming the youngest person to hold the office at that time.

The State of the United States and Global Politics at the Turn of the 20th Century

At the dawn of the 20th century, the United States was emerging as an industrial powerhouse. The country experienced significant economic growth, technological advancements, and urbanization. This period also saw increased immigration and social change, setting the stage for the progressive reforms that Roosevelt would champion.

Globally, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were characterized by intense imperial competition among European powers as nations like Britain, France, and Germany expanded their empires across Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. The U.S., driven by economic interests and a desire for international prestige, began to pursue a more assertive foreign policy, seeking to establish its presence on the global stage.

The Concept of Manifest Destiny and Its Evolution into Imperialism

The ideology of Manifest Destiny emerged in the mid-19th century. It held that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent. This belief was used to justify the westward expansion that resulted in the displacement of Native American populations and the annexation of vast territories.

By the late 19th century, this doctrine evolved into a broader imperialist vision. Influenced by social Darwinism and notions of racial superiority, American leaders and intellectuals argued that the United States had a duty to spread its civilization and democratic values beyond its borders.

Roosevelt embraced this ideology, believing that American expansionism was both a moral imperative and a strategic necessity for the nation’s continued prosperity and security. His presidency marked an important moment in the transformation of Manifest Destiny into an assertive and interventionist foreign policy. It laid the groundwork for the United States’ emergence as a global power.

Roosevelt’s Foreign Policy

Official White House Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by artist John Singer Sargent

Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was marked by a vigorous and proactive approach aimed at expanding American influence and securing its interests on the global stage. Roosevelt believed in a strong military presence and was convinced that the United States had a moral duty to bring stability and order to less developed regions.

His policies emphasized American interventionism, strategic alliances, and the use of both diplomacy and military force to achieve national objectives. Roosevelt’s foreign policy was underpinned by a sense of American exceptionalism, where the United States was seen as a beacon of progress and civilization.

The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

One of the most significant aspects of Roosevelt’s foreign policy was the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, articulated in 1904. The original Monroe Doctrine, which was declared in 1823, warned European powers against further colonization or intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Roosevelt expanded on this doctrine, asserting that the United States had the right to intervene in Latin American countries to stabilize their economies and political systems.

This corollary was prompted by concerns over European creditors threatening to use force to collect debts from unstable Latin American nations. Roosevelt argued that the United States should act as an “international police power” to prevent European intervention, thus maintaining regional stability and protecting American interests. The Roosevelt Corollary justified numerous U.S. interventions in Latin America, significantly shaping the region’s political landscape.

The Concept of “Big Stick” Diplomacy

Roosevelt’s foreign policy is often summarized by his famous adage, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” This approach, known as “Big Stick” Diplomacy, emphasized the importance of negotiating peacefully while simultaneously displaying military might as a deterrent against potential adversaries. Roosevelt believed that a strong and modernized navy was crucial for enforcing U.S. policies and protecting its interests abroad.

The Great White Fleet, a group of U.S. Navy battleships, was sent on a world tour between 1907 and 1909 as a demonstration of American naval power and technological prowess. “Big Stick” Diplomacy was evident in various actions, such as the mediation of the Russo-Japanese War, the acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone, and the multiple interventions in Latin American affairs.

Key Events and Actions

Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders after capturing Kettle Hill in Cuba in July 1898, along with members of the 3rd Volunteers and the regular Army black 10th Cavalry

  • The Spanish-American War and Its Aftermath
  • The Spanish-American War, fought in 1898, marked a turning point in American foreign policy. It was sparked by the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor and driven by U.S. interests in Cuban independence.
  • The war resulted in a swift victory for the United States, leading to the Treaty of Paris, which ended Spanish colonial rule in the Americas.
  • As a result of the treaty, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States, significantly expanding American territorial holdings and influence.
  • Acquisition of Territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines
  • Puerto Rico: Became a U.S. territory following the Spanish-American War. The Foraker Act of 1900 established a civilian government, and Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917.
  • Guam: Acquired as a strategic naval base in the Pacific. It played a crucial role in U.S. military strategy, particularly during World War II.
  • The Philippines: The United States faced resistance from Filipino nationalists, leading to the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). The conflict resulted in the establishment of American colonial rule, which lasted until Philippine independence in 1946.
  • The Construction and Significance of the Panama Canal
  • The Panama Canal project was a monumental engineering feat and a critical component of Roosevelt’s foreign policy.
  • Roosevelt supported the Panamanian independence movement from Colombia to secure the rights to build the canal.
  • Construction began in 1904 and was completed in 1914, significantly shortening maritime travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
  • The canal enhanced U.S. naval mobility and commercial shipping, solidifying American strategic and economic influence in the region.
  • Roosevelt’s Role in Mediating the Russo-Japanese War and Winning the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Roosevelt played a pivotal role in mediating the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), a conflict over imperial interests in East Asia.
  • He invited representatives from Russia and Japan to peace negotiations in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, leading to the Treaty of Portsmouth.
  • For his efforts in facilitating the peace agreement, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, becoming the first American to receive the honor.
  • This mediation not only elevated Roosevelt’s international standing but also demonstrated the United States’ emerging role as a global peacemaker.

Impact on American Imperialism

Roosevelt shortly after leaving office, October 1910

Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency had a profound and lasting impact on American imperialism. His aggressive foreign policies and strategic actions significantly expanded U.S. influence, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. These policies not only enhanced America’s military and economic power but also established the nation as a dominant global player.

Expansion of American Influence in Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine asserted the U.S. right to intervene in Latin American affairs.
  • Led to military interventions and occupations in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.
  • Aimed to protect American economic interests and prevent European influence in the region.
  • Established the United States as a dominant force in Latin American affairs throughout the 20th century.

The Impact of Roosevelt’s Policies on U.S. Military and Economic Power

  • Emphasis on building a strong navy, exemplified by the Great White Fleet’s global tour.
  • Construction of the Panama Canal enhanced U.S. military and economic strategic capabilities.
  • Secured new territories and established overseas bases, ensuring rapid response to global events.
  • Expansion into new markets and protection of American investments abroad contributed to national prosperity and industrial growth.

Long-term Effects on U.S. Foreign Policy and Global Standing

  1. Roosevelt’s assertive foreign policy approach set a precedent for future American presidents.
  2. Established the United States as a key player in global diplomacy and conflict resolution.
  3. The concept of the U.S. as an “international police power” influenced subsequent interventions.
  4. Roosevelt’s belief in American exceptionalism and the duty to spread democracy became enduring themes in U.S. foreign policy.
  5. Infrastructure and strategic advantages gained during his presidency contributed to the U.S. emergence as a global superpower in the 20th century.
  6. The legacy of imperialism and interventionism continues to shape American foreign policy, balancing national interests and global responsibilities.


Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency indeed marked an important era in American imperialism. His actions significantly increased U.S. influence, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, and strengthened the nation’s military and economic power. His legacy of interventionism and the pursuit of American interests abroad laid the foundation for the United States’ emergence as a global superpower. Roosevelt’s vision and policies continue to shape American foreign policy, highlighting the balance between national interests and global responsibilities.