In order to understand American attitudes toward dictatorships, it is essential to survey the development of the ideology of American foreign policy during the nineteenth century. The desire for land and greater economic opportunity, combined with the commonly held view that the nation and its people were on a special mission, fueled the expansion of the United States. Territorial expansion was rapid, with the country growing from thirteen states on the Atlantic coast in 1789 to control over transcontinental North America by the end of the 1840s. The key was that this conquest was all done in the name of expanding liberty, as part of the mission of the United States to provide a moral example and guidance to the world. Expansion, therefore, was part of American political ideology from the outset. When establishing the Republic and the Constitution, one of the central questions the Founders grappled with was whether a vast territory could be compatible with a virtuous republic. Rome served as the most often-used historical precedent, and its lesson was that a republic could not expand and avoid the corruption and dictatorial power that emerged under Julius Caesar. It was generally believed that republics could only function and survive if they were the size of Greek city-states or Geneva. James Madison addressed this problem in Federalist No. 10 and provided an alternative view that solved the dilemma between expansion and a republic for the Federalists. Madison argued that expansion was a positive good for the nation and the ideology of republican values. With the proper constitution and checks on power, a large republic was not merely possible; it was necessary to maintain freedom. An expanding nation provided insurance against any faction, cabal, or region dominating national politics and seizing power. Institutional checks and balances were, therefore, aided by size. A large republic would guard against tyranny by making it impossible for a coherent majority or sizable minority to form and gain control.
The belief in an Empire of Liberty and vision of national greatness was captured well on the Great Seal of the United States with the inscription annuit coeptis; novus ordo seclorum (God has blessed this undertaking; a new order of the ages). Throughout the nineteenth century this continued to inspire and guide Americans' actions and helped fuel the rapid expansion across the continent that John O'Sullivan termed "manifest destiny" in 1845. The notion of manifest destiny rested on the view that Anglo-Saxons had a right to land because they, according to Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, one of the most articulate exponents of manifest destiny, used it according to the intentions of the creator. By this reasoning, the material gains of the United States were not selfish acts, but benevolent undertakings in line with the principles of the nation. Manifest destiny became the ideological shield used to justify Indian removal and the taking of land from Mexico in the name of liberty and freedom. Nineteenth-century Americans did not see their actions as doing violence to their own moral instincts, religion, or republican and democratic values. With the belief that God willed that the United States control the continent, these actions could be carried forward without creating an ideological crisis.
The full expression of the compatibility of expansion and liberty came in Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 "frontier thesis." Turner, speaking at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, set out to provide an understanding of American history and development in the first century since the adoption of the Constitution. Central to Turner's thesis was the idea that westward expansion and the frontier experience were the key influences on American life and the development of American democracy, and it was this that made U.S. history and the American people unique. The United States was seen as an exceptional nation, free from the vices of Europe and its corrupt institutions. He argued, "Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." The frontier created and recreated an independent people and formed and regenerated American democratic government and values.
Yet, from the outset, challenges would appear in the world that created a paradox around the expansion of liberty and the support of democracy and human rights. The first of these was the French Revolution in 1789. Initially, it was welcomed by most Americans as a repeat of the American Revolution. The French appeared to be following the American example and the overthrow of their monarchy was seen as a harbinger of change from autocratic rule to a republican and a democratic future guided by the same enlightenment values that inspired the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. As the events in Paris took a more radical course and the impact of the revolution brought international conflict, however, the Washington administration became divided over whether to support France or not. The ensuing disorder and wars in Europe harmed American trade and raised questions about the proper extent of change and democratic rule for other people. The question of supporting and promoting change and democratic values had quickly proven to be a complex and difficult proposition.
The revolutions that swept South America and then Central America in the first decades of the nineteenth century further complicated the question of how to respond to the collapse of colonial empire and the rule of monarchs. As with France, most Americans initially welcomed the fall of Spanish rule to the south, but concerns were quickly raised about the stability of the new nations and the danger of other European powers taking advantage of the upheaval to impose their own rule in the former Spanish empire. The United States responded to these threats with the Monroe Doctrine that declared that Spain could not reimpose its rule on the already independent states of the Western Hemisphere and that the United States would not permit any new colonization or military intervention by any European power. In turn, the United States promised not to meddle in European politics. Thus, the United States asserted its authority to determine the political future and course of events for the rest of the nations of the Americas. These developments prompted Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to issue a warning to his fellow citizens concerning the dangers of foreign intervention and the tension between expansion and democratic rule. Adams argued that the United States should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Rather, the nation was better served in international affairs by upholding its own values and leading by example. It could seek to impose its will on other areas of the world, but in the process it would damage its own institutions and succumb to corruption.
By the middle of the century, a clear policy had emerged in Washington that the United States would recognize any government that could maintain itself in power and meet the minimum obligations of government. In 1848, Secretary of State James Buchanan, summarizing this policy, stated: "We do not go behind the existing government to involve ourselves in the question of legitimacy. It is sufficient for us to know that a government exists, capable of maintaining itself; and then its recognition on our part inevitably follows."
Simultaneously, however, Americans developed other positions that would come to shape the nation's attitudes toward dictatorships in the twentieth century. Central to these were the notions of the racial inferiority of other peoples, the desire for stability and order in the world as necessary for the promotion and protection of American economic interests, and a growing fear of revolution. The concept of race has been an all-pervasive one in American history from the first contact with Native Americans and the importation of Africans as slaves. By the nineteenth century, an essentialist outlook dominated white Americans' thinking on race. Different people were placed in categories based on what were believed to be their inherent traits as peoples, groups, and nations. Anglo-Saxons were considered the most advanced race, carrying civilization wherever they went.
Groups were ranked in descending order of civilization and ability to govern and maintain stability. Other western Europeans were seen as near equals to Anglo-Saxons. The rest of the peoples of the world were categorized as either inherently dangerous or unfit for self-rule, and usually both. Latin Europeans and Slavs were seen as fundamentally undemocratic as people, and all non-Europeans were seen as inferior and in need of guidance and direction from "their betters." These views were buttressed by the development of the "scientific" idea of social Darwinism that held that the domination of western Europe and the United States over world affairs as well as their greater wealth were merely the working out of natural selection and the survival of the fittest.
These ideas were consolidated at the beginning of the twentieth century in the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. In the wake of the Spanish-American War and the acquisition of the Panama Canal zone, the maintenance of order in the Caribbean and Central America was becoming an ever-growing concern to the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt worried about the negative impact of unrest to the south on American trade and investments, and sought various means to preserve order through the assertion of police power over the other nations in the hemisphere. Roosevelt believed that the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations made it incumbent on what he saw as the civilized powers to insist on the proper behavior of other nations. In 1904, Roosevelt provided his rationale for why revolutions were dangerous and justification for American intervention in Latin America in what became the Roosevelt Corollary:
If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotency, to the exercise of an international policy power.
Soon after, U.S. troops were dispatched to Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras to maintain order.