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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). This ended Japan's isolationism; today, Japan is the third largest economy in the world and a leading technological powerhouse.
- 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, which unfortunately failed to displace Fidel Castro.
- U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965, under Lyndon Johnson
- U.S. and South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, 1970, as part of the Vietnam War under Richard Nixon, to hit out at North Vietnamese and Vietcong units stationed in the western parts of the country. It was a qualified success, inflicting some damage against the Communist forces.
- U.S. invasion of Grenada, 1983, under Ronald Reagan, in response to the arrest and execution of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. It was a complete success and today, Grenada is a democracy.
- 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, prompted by a declaration by the General Assembly of that country that the two nations are at a state of war and the shooting of (unarmed) U.S. servicemen, charged with espionage. All this was preceded by a serious deterioration in bilateral relations.
- U.S. troops restore the absolute monarchy in Kuwait, 1991, also under Bush. Kuwait is now a constitutional monarchy.
- U.S. invasion of Haiti, 1994 (called off at the last minute after the Haitian government agreed to transfer power), under Bill Clinton.
- U.S. invasion of Iraq, 2003, under George W. Bush, now understood to be a mistake.
Use of gunboat diplomacy by Great Britain
The U.S. of course, learned from the best. Interestingly, most of the following occurred during the Pax Britannica period.
- The War of Jenkin's Ear with Spain (1739-1748) - Officially due to the captain of a British merchant ship having his ear severed after being boarded by the Spanish coastguard eight years before the war started. In reality, it was to protect Britain's right to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies.
- The First (1839-1842) and Second (1856-1860) Opium Wars against China - basically the War on Drugs in reverse.
- The Don Pacifico Incident (1850), when the Royal Navy blockaded Greece in response to an angry mob unconnected to the Greek government burned down the house of a British citizen, who might not have even been a British citizen.
- The Anglo-Zanzibar War (1896), a war that lasted less than an hour.
- Attempting to overthrow the Egyptian president to prevent him nationalising the Suez Canal (i.e the Suez Crises, 1956).
In fact the UK has at one point or another invaded all but 22 countries.
- The Morocco Crisis of 1911, Mount Holyoke
- The newspaper "Common Sense" 1935, according to Wikiquote