Charles Hughes on National Interest and the Monroe Doctrine

Charles E. Hughes was an American statesman, Republican Party politician, and the 11th Chief Justice of the United States. He was also the 36th Governor of New York, the Republican presidential nominee in the 1916 presidential election, and the 44th United States Secretary of State.

This very influential American statesman helped install into the State Department the idea that “national interest” should be the controlling principle of diplomacy for the United States.

On the evening of Friday, November 30, 1923, Hughes gave a speech under the auspices of the American Academy of Political and Social Science to celebrate the centenary of the Monroe Doctrine:

Mr. Chairman, members of the academy, ladies and gentlemen:

Foreign policies are not built upon abstractions. They are the result of practical conceptions of national interest arising from some immediate exigency or standing out vividly in historical perspective. When long maintained, they express the hopes and fears, the aims of security or aggrandizement, which have become dominant in the national consciousness and thus transcend party divisions and make negligible such opposition as may come from particular groups. They inevitably control the machinery of international accord which works only within the narrow field not closed by divergent national ambitions or as interest yields to apprehension or obtains compensation through give and take. Statesmen who carry the burdens of empire do not for a moment lose sight of imperial purposes and requirements.

With splendid courage no less than with profound wisdom the Fathers chose the latter course at once conserving our safety and enhancing our influence. It was the choice of an infant nation, but of a nation conscious of the promise of its influence as a World Power.

It is not my intention to repeat what I have said in a recent address with respect to the Doctrine but rather, restating its true content, to inquire as to its place in the scheme of the foreign policies of the United States as a World Power in the Twentieth Century with respect to the region of the Pacific Ocean and the Far East, to Europe, and to this hemisphere.

We fought the Spanish War to put an end to an intolerable nuisance at our very door, and to establish and make secure the independence of Cuba, not to override it. And as a consequence of victory in that war we acquired distant possessions, but not with the purpose of making these a basis for encroaching upon the territory or interfering with the political independence of the peoples of the eastern nations. In safeguarding the integrity of China, in securing equality of commercial opportunity, in endeavoring to forestall efforts at exploitation and aggression, in seeking to remove suspicion and allay apprehensions, and in enlarging through assured tranquility the opportunities of peaceful commerce, we have been pursuing under different conditions the same aims of independence, security, and peace which determined the declaration of Monroe.

It is the policy of this Government to make available its friendly assistance to promote stability in those of our sister Republics which are especially afflicted with disturbed conditions involving their own peace and that of their neighbors. It is the desire of the United States to render this assistance by methods that are welcomed and which are consistent with the general policies above stated. For example, in the case of the Central American Republics, it has been our constant endeavor, in the interest of the maintenance of their integrity and sovereignty, to facilitate by our good offices such agreements between themselves and such measures of security and progress as will favor stable and prosperous conditions.

In promoting stability we do not threaten independence but seek to conserve it. We are not aiming at control but endeavoring to establish self-control. We are not seeking to add to our territory or to impose our rule upon other peoples.

We are seeking to establish a Pax Americana maintained not by arms but by mutual respect and good will and the tranquilizing processes of reason. We have no desire to arrogate to ourselves any special virtue, but it should constantly be recognized that the most influential and helpful position of the United States in this hemisphere will not be that of the possessor of physical power but that of the exemplar of justice.

lt should also be observed that in our commercial relations the United States is seeking unconditional most-favored-nation treatment in customs matters.

We have established a waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans-the Panama Canal. Apart from obvious commercial considerations, the adequate protection of this canal-its complete immunity from any adverse control- is essential to our peace and security. We intend in all circumstances to safeguard the Panama Canal. We could not afford to take any different position with respect to any other waterway that may be built between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Disturbances in the Caribbean region are therefore of special interest to us not for the purpose of seeking control over others but of being assured that our own safety is free from menace.

With respect to Cuba, we have the special interests arising from our treaty and our part in the securing of her independence. It is our desire to see her independence not weakened but safeguarded and her stability and prosperity assured.

The Monroe Doctrine stands, as it has always stood, as an essential part of our defensive policy, but we are no less but rather more interested in the use of the opportunity which it created and has conserved.

I love me some Realpolitik! This is how the truly world works. Our leaders have always been very clear about where they stand.

Thanks for reading,


The Centenary of the Monroe doctrine. An address by Honorable Charles E. Hughes, Secretary of State of the United States, at the meeting held under the auspices of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and the Philadelphia forum at Philadelphia on the evening of Friday, November 30, 1923, to celebrate the centenary of the Monroe doctrine by Charles Evans Hughes:

Read the full speech:

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