Gunboat diplomacy

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I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I'll do anything to end the war. We'll just let slip the word to them that, 'for God's sake don't you know Nixon is obsessed with communists. We can't restrain him when he's angry — and he's got his finger on the nuclear button', and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two weeks begging for peace.
Richard Nixon to H.R. Haldeman.[1]:83

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.[2]

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.[3]

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 promoted the "good neighbor policy" with regard to Latin America (which would mean fewer interventions), but ultimately became more occupied with other matters.

George W. Bush took gunboat diplomacy to a new level of stupid after 9/11.

Examples of gunboat diplomacy[edit]

US Atlantic fleet on world tour, 1907.
  • The Opening of Japan, 1854 - perhaps the most literal example (and arguably an example of how gunboat diplomacy can be used for good); 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.
  • The Baltimore crisis,Wikipedia 1891.
  • US naval role in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
  • Teddy Roosevelt's Great White FleetWikipedia world tour in 1907.
US carrier strike group in the Atlantic, 2019.

See also[edit]


  1. The Ends of Power by H. R. Haldeman (1978) Times books. ISBN 0812907248.
  2. The Morocco Crisis of 1911, Mount Holyoke
  3. The newspaper "Common Sense" 1935, according to Wikiquote