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Gunboat diplomacy is the use of military force (or the direct threat thereof) to maintain hegemony over a sphere of influence, usually associated with the age of imperialism and colonialism. The term originates from the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911 when the German Empire sent the gunboat Panther to the Moroccan port of Agadir in a precursor to World War I. French interests interpreted the
naval incursion friendly ceremonial visit of the Panther as a militaristic response to a diplomatic dispute.
In practical terms, gunboat diplomacy means (for example): when the peasants revolt against United Fruit in Latin America - send in the Marines. When a small republic or an obscure kingdom has a coup d'etat that you don't like the results of - send in the Marines.
Theodore Roosevelt famously described this policy in 1900 as "a big stick".
Smedley Butler (1881-1940), a retired Marine Corps general, wrote the booklet War is a Racket (1935) detailing how gunboat diplomacy works. In a famous quote from the book:
“”I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
Very few U.S. presidents since the late-19th century have not resorted to gunboat diplomacy. The five who notably eschewed it were Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. FDR (President from 1933 to 1945) promoted the "good neighbor policy" with regard to Latin America (which would mean fewer interventions) but ultimately became more occupied with other matters.
Gunboats as heavily-armed warships went somewhat out of fashion in the course of the 20th century. The functions of the gunboat as a means of
bullyingcoercing recalcitrant locals passed more and more to aircraft, which had the advantage of projecting power further inland while saving on the messiness of boots on or near the ground. Note:
- the bombing of Laos (1968-1973) during the Vietnam War
- NATO air-strikes on Yugoslavia (1999) during the Kosovo War of 1998-1999
- Russian air-force intervention (2015- ) in the Syrian Civil War of 2011-
More examples of U.S. gunboat diplomacy
- The Opening of Japan, 1854 - perhaps the most literal example; Commodore Matthew Perry convinced the Tokugawa Shogunate to open up trade and establish relations with the US by threatening to use his ships' guns to destroy the city of Edo (now Tokyo).
- U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, 1910, under William Howard Taft.
- U.S. invasion of Haiti, 1915, under Woodrow Wilson.
- Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, 1961, under John F. Kennedy
- U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965, under Lyndon Johnson
- U.S. invasion of Cambodia, 1970, under Richard Nixon. Euphemistically called an "incursion" and often considered a side campaign of the Vietnam War
- U.S. invasion of Grenada, 1983, under Ronald Reagan
- U.S. military "advisers" sent to El Salvador and Honduras, and the "contrarevolutionary" guerrilla war against Nicaragua, also under Reagan. See also Iran-Contra
- U.S. invasion of Panama, 1989, under George H. W. Bush
- U.S. troops restore the absolute monarchy in Kuwait, 1991, also under Bush. (But they eventually became a constitutional monarchy, so that worked out well. So, one out of nine ain't bad?)
- U.S. invasion of Haiti, 1994 (called off at the last minute after the Haitian government agreed to transfer power), under Bill Clinton
- The one and only... 2003, under Dubya