Printer friendly version Print this page

Historical Text Archive © 1990 - 2014
Printer friendly version of: http://www.historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?action=read&artid=356


Western Hemisphere Idea

Core of idea is that the peoples of the Western Hemisphere stand in a special relationship to one another that sets them apart from the rest of the world. One of the basic assumptions of the idea was the contrast, real or imagined, between all of America and all of Europe. This included the idea of republicanism vs. monarchy. The idea that there is an "America" is in itself an interesting idea because it reflects the lack of geographical knowledge of early modern Europeans and the tendency of humans to lump together or to stereotype. In Spain today, the name America refers most commonly to Latin America, not the United States. The New World was not a single "world," but many worlds. How does one compare the Puritan conquest of New England with Cortez ‘ conquest of the Aztecs? How does one compare England's half-hearted settlement and control of the sparsely populated North-American colonies with the Spanish problem in the Andes, with its highly-developed Inca Empire? Although both Spain and England dealt with indigenous populations, Africans, Europeans, and mercantilism, there were vast differences in the responses they made. Nevertheless, there were people who thought in terms of Americans and asserted American unity. What developed was the idea that America represented Utopia, the Brave New World.

Ingredients of the Western Hemisphere idea included the appearance of geographical unity, common on experiences of adaptation to a New World environment and a struggle for independence from Europe, and common institutions and ideas. In addition, in the first half of the 19th century , there was the idea of antithesis between Europe and America.

Two stages of the Western Hemisphere idea

(1) provincial/national. The colonists or creoles begin to think of themselves as belonging to this part of America

(2) continental/Inter-American

    Part of the Western Hemisphere idea was the idea of forming an "American" system. Again, this was the idea of a special interrelationship. Latin America took the lead in developing international cooperation in the New World but not giving this the hemispheric character of a true American system. The United States took the lead in developing the idea of a such a system but lagged behind Latin America in implementing it through international action. When it became the basis of US foreign policy, as it did in the Monroe Doctrine, it was a hemispheric projection of the national policy of isolation. Bolívar was interested in a Spanish America and European tie (principally British) for protection. Thomas Jefferson in letters written about 1811, wrote of the idea of Western Hemisphere unity but the US was isolationist except for taking territory it wanted. The US did not participate in the 1826 Panama conference because of its isolationist tradition, fears of the slaveholding South, lack of economic interest, and US party politics. In 1845, President James K. Polk asserted that US protection only covered North America. Manifest Destiny was not just Mexico but also Cuba and part or all of Mexico. Mexico made five attempts between 1831 and 1842 to assemble a Spanish American congress but they all failed. Peru tried to get some hemispheric support to present aggression.

    The US acted independently whenever it wanted, sometimes violating its own Monroe Doctrine. For example, it intervened in the Venezuelan boundary dispute involving British Guiana and Venezuela and in the Spanish-Cuban War of 1895-98. By the turn of the century, many Latin American nations saw the US as the chief threat to hemispheric unity. Even the first Pan American Conference in 1889 was largely seen as a US not a Western Hemisphere show.

NB. Arthur Whitaker, The Western Hemisphere Idea is the source of these ideas.