Pan-Americanism is more easily traced than defined. In the middle of the nineteenth century, various "Pan" movements achieved popularity as adjuncts or exaggerations of the powerful nationalisms of the times, throwbacks to ancient Pan-Hellenism. Pan-Slavism was perhaps the first to acquire some measure of fame; Pan-Hellenism revived about 1860 and was followed by Pan-Germanism, Pan-Islamism, Pan-Celtism, Pan-Hispanism, and others. Probably all these "Pan" movements share certain predicates: their believers feel some unity, some uniqueness—perhaps superiority—and they share mutual interests, fears, history, and culture. In short, their similarities make them different from the rest of the world, and they combine for strength. Pan-Americanism, however, fails to meet most of those criteria and must fall back upon the weaker elements of a common geographical separation from the rest of the world and something of a common history.
From early colonial times, Western Hemisphere peoples believed that they were unique. Statesmen of the Americas, both North and South, were united in affirming that some force—nature, or perhaps God—had separated the Old World and the New World for a purpose; and this isolation in an unknown land had brought a common colonial experience that deserved the name of "system." Among leaders who saw and described this division was Thomas Jefferson; Henry Clay often argued before Congress for its preservation; Simón Bolívar acted upon it; and President James Monroe's doctrine most fundamentally assumes it.
What were the elements of this American system? First was independence, defined by Clay as freedom from despotism, either domestic or European. Peoples of the Americas believed in a common destiny, a body of political ideals, the rule of law, and cooperation among themselves (at least when threatened from the outside). In later years Secretary of State James G. Blaine saw these factors strengthened by commerce; the Brazilian statesmen Joaquim Nabuco and José Maria da Silva Paranhos, Baron Rio Branco, talked of a common past; Woodrow Wilson thought he saw a unique American spirit of justice.
Americans could not ignore geography. They had moved to, or been born in, an under-populated continent, where the strife of Europe was put aside and mobility, vertical or horizontal, was easily achieved. Nature isolated the American, and that isolation would produce a different people. But the most apparent difference between Americans and their European cousins was in the form of government. The vastness of America enhanced the individual's worth, and the right of each person to have a share in government found fertile soil there. Thus, when the Spanish and Portuguese colonies struggled to gain their freedom in the half-century after 1789, most deliberately chose the unfamiliar republican form of government that would safeguard the rights of citizens to choose those who would govern them. Inevitably some constitutions were copied, but that was the plagiarizing of words; the ideas were pandemic. (That a few nonrepublican administrations arose was a matter singularly ignored and always easily explained away to anyone who pursued the puzzle.) From Philadelphia to Tucumán in the Argentine, new constitutions proclaimed that Americans had a new way of life and a new form of government to ensure its continuance.
Nowhere were these American ideas better expressed than in paragraphs of the presidential address that became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe asserted a belief in the existence of two worlds, one monarchical and one republican; the New World was closed to further colonization by the Old, and neither should interfere with the other. Third parties were not to tamper even with regions in the Americas that were still colonies. Whether the U.S. will to protect this separation was based upon geography or, ironically, the British fleet, the doctrine expressed what Americans believed and would fight to preserve.
At times Americans have been carried away with the enthusiasm of their rhetoric and have found unifying interests where they did not exist. Proponents of Pan-Americanism have often spoken of the existence of a common heritage, a statement with limited application, for in the hemisphere there is no common language, culture, or religion. Contrary to most "Pan" movements, Pan-Americanism has little basis in race or ethnicity, and it scarcely seems necessary to belabor the cultural diversity of the persons who bear the name American. If heritage were the chief basis of community, Spanish Americans would have their strongest ties with Spain, Brazilians with Portugal, Anglo-Americans with Great Britain, and so on. Nor can Pan-Americanism ignore those millions of African heritage or those who are indigenous to the Americas. Language and religion are even more varied than race in the Americas and can offer no more means of unification.
Finally, consideration must be given to the geographical basis for Pan-Americanism. It is a fact that the Americas occupy their own hemisphere and that they had been comfortably separated from the disturbances of Europe by great seas until the mid-twentieth century. Clearly this isolation resulted in some community of interest. The danger lies in exaggeration, for the modern traveler soon learns that in terms of dollars, hours, or miles, much of the United States is far closer to Europe than it is to most of Latin America, and Buenos Aires is far closer to Africa than it is to New York or Washington, D.C. In short, it is a fallacy to contend that the Americas are united by their proximity. The Americas, North and South, occupy the same hemisphere, and that does present an important mythology and symbolism to the world. More than that cannot be demonstrated.
Who are the Pan-Americans? No one has ever established requirements for membership nor set forth the procedures by which a people can become part of the elect. Form of government played a more or less clear part; the American nations all seemed to understand that colonies could not participate in Pan-American movements, but that local empires (the only one bearing that title for any duration was Brazil) were welcome. Nations sent delegates to the various conferences called during the nineteenth century primarily because they were invited by the host, not because of any established rules. Thus, some meetings that are classified as Pan-American might have had delegates from only four or five states. After 1889 nearly all of the republics of the hemisphere took part. The proliferation of new states in the years following World War II is reflected in Pan-Americanism, and former British colonies, no matter how small (and perhaps unviable), seem to have been welcomed into the American family, as has Canada, though generally the Canadians have often pursued their own policies. A nation can also be excommunicated, as Cuba was in 1961. And despite sanctions imposed upon Cuba by the Organization of American States (OAS), it continued to have diplomatic and economic relations with several American states, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.