The early 20th century saw increasing great power competition. The rise of the United States, Japan, and especially Germany disrupted the old Congress of Vienna system and the Pax Britannica. One of the early flashpoints of this disequilibrium was the 1902 Venezuela Crisis. Theodore Roosevelt, as in many of the early flashpoints, was at the epicenter of the dispute. America’s strategic supremacy in the Western Hemisphere, as expressed through the Monroe Doctrine, came under threat. Theodore Roosevelt later stated that it had been a miracle that no war came with Germany in 1902 over Venezuela. How did he do it?
Throughout the 19th century, the newly-independent Latin American states frequently neglected to pay their foreign debts. This gave European governments frequent excuses to intervene in the Western Hemisphere, ostensibly to collect what was owed to them. The real motivation behind this, though, was to contain an expansionist United States. Napeoleon III aimed for this during his intervention and installment of a puppet emperor in Mexico, for example.
The United States knew that Europe would attempt to inhibit its growth, and so began a policy, from James Monroe onward, that regarded any act of intervention in the Americas from nations outside the Western Hemisphere as a danger to the interests of the United States.
Theodore Roosevelt took the Monroe Doctrine more personally than some of his predecessors, being a veteran of the Spanish-American War. So when trouble brewed in Venezuela beginning in 1901, when it refused to pay any further debts, America would inevitably get drawn into the dispute.
At the time, Theodore Roosevelt, an “accidental president,” was still consolidating his position. He had seen some domestic success, having successfully mediated the 1902 coal miners’ strike which threatened to plunge the American northeast into a bitter winter. The great powers of Europe would soon put him to a bigger test.
Retaliating against the failure to pay debts and for property damage done to British, German, and Italian nationals in a civil war from 1898-1900, Britain and Germany delivered an ultimatum to the Venezuelans in late 1902 – resume debt payments or suffer the consequences. Venezuela refused. Britain and Germany promptly blockaded the country, with Italian support.
Theodore Roosevelt cared little about debt collection, but warned Germany in 1901 that if it did intervene, it must not annex any territory. Nevertheless, the threat became clear when the Europeans bombarded areas on the Venezuelan coast. The President clearly understood Germany’s increasingly aggressive posture in its own hemisphere and determined that it would not happen in the Americas. Allowing any further escalation would undermine the Monroe Doctrine and leave the Americas vulnerable to further European efforts, undermining the position of the United States.
Venezuelan President Cipriano Castro opened a window of opportunity when he requested international arbitration to settle the dispute. Theodore Roosevelt supported this, but Britain and especially Germany did not, and continued the show of force off the South American coast. With the Monroe Doctrine under threat, relations between the United States and Germany in particular chilled. Germany was deeper into the dispute than Britain was and advised the British that: “We would consider the temporary occupation on our part of different Venezuelan harbor places.”
Theodore Roosevelt knew that for the Germans, “temporary” could be analogous to the Chinese territory they had just “temporarily” acquired on a 99-year lease. The President had studied in Germany in his early life, and so understood its expansionist tendencies, flush with triumph as it had been since the defeat of France in 1871. Indeed, Germany had constructed secret plans for an invasion of the United States.
The Big Stick
Fortunately, nobody understood sea power better than Theodore Roosevelt, author of The Naval War of 1812. He was also friends with a German notary, Baron von Sternburg, which helped him to convey information, notably that Admiral George Dewey, victor over the Spanish at Manila Bay in 1898, would be sent with a massive fleet to Puerto Rico to oversee combined army-navy exercises. Sternburg, a longtime veteran of Washington’s social scene, knew Dewey’s feelings about his country. Dewey would eventually command 53 ships in the Caribbean, far more than the 29 Germany and Britain had in the area.
He spoke to the German ambassador, Theodor von Holleben, a few days later, saying:
Tell the Kaiser that I put Dewey in charge of our fleet to maneuver in West Indian waters, that the world at large would know this merely as a maneuver, and we should strive in every way to appear simply as cooperating with the Germans, but that I regretted to say … that I should be obliged to interfere, by force if necessary, if Germany took any action that looked like the acquisition of territory in Venezuela or elsewhere in the Caribbean.
He gave the Germans 10 days to respond. If they continued their present stance, he threatened to send Dewey into the area to “observe” near Venezuela.
Those 10 days went by with no changes, but public opinion in the United States and Britain grew increasingly negative toward the intervention. It became clear that Britain would not risk confrontation with the United States over Venezuela. Germany would be on its own in any conflict, which Theodore Roosevelt now threatened von Holleben with directly.
Kaisher Wilhelm II, realizing that he would be outgunned in a confrontation in the Western Hemisphere, eventually decided to accept the international arbitration as proffered by President Castro. However, it was necessary for him to keep his honor intact to avoid any re-escalation into another crisis. von Holleben was quietly recalled to Berlin under the guise of illness, while Theodore Roosevelt later sent him a warm letter of regard. As such, no public embarrassment came for him or Wilhelm, nor did Theodore Roosevelt brag about his victory. The blockade ended in early 1903.
The whole thing was kept so secret that the true extent of the 1902 Venezuela Crisis became known only decades later, long after everyone involved had died. Talk about saving face!
Lessons from the 1902 Venezuela Crisis
The 1902 crisis offers us several lessons on conduct, leadership, and strategy.
In the first place, the President was concerned with getting the job done, not with egos or honor. He knew what his objective was. He could not allow European nations to violate the Monroe Doctrine and so perceive American weakness, especially so close to the future Panama Canal zone. He acted on this with no other distractions, though tempers obviously flared.
He also knew he had to calibrate his response according to the characters of the leaders he was dealing with. The British, he knew, were the less eager part of the alliance – an uneasy one indeed, given the growing German threat to Britain. Would they wish to risk confrontation with the United States, too, over Venezuela? He knew the answer was likely “no.”
Wilhelm II was the key to the crisis. Aggressive and insecure, persuading him would require him to feel fear but not admit it. This was the delicate part of the operation, and this the President accomplished.
The ace up his sleeve came from his understanding of naval strategy, and that the United States would always have local superiority over European nations in any Western Hemisphere confrontation. The United States could call far more naval power to the Americas than either Germany or even Britain, who needed those resources elsewhere. The President played this to the hilt in the crisis of 1902.
The 1902 crisis also gives us insights into our own time, which is also one of rising great power competition. As China expands its malign influence in the Americas, it is long past time to reassert the Monroe Doctrine, and kick the CCP out. Any future America First President should study the crisis of 1902 carefully and make use of similar tools.
You can read a lot more about this in Theodore Rex.
There is also a chapter on Theodore Roosevelt in Lives of the Luminaries.
And if you liked this post and want me to write one for you, hire me.