The Good Neighbor Policy: History and Impact

President Enrique Penaranda of Bolivia, and President Roosevelt of the United States
President Enrique Penaranda of Bolivia, and President Roosevelt of the United States. They are shown looking at the United Nations' pact, in which Penaranda pledged his country's tin-producing resources against the axis. Photographed in Washington, D.C. in May 1943.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The Good Neighbor Policy was a primary aspect of United Stated foreign policy implemented in 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) for the stated purpose of establishing friendly relations and mutual defense agreements with the nations of Latin America. To maintain peace and economic stability in the Western Hemisphere, Roosevelt’s policy stressed cooperation, non-intervention, and trade instead of military force. Roosevelt’s policies of military non-intervention in Latin America would be reversed by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower after World War II.

Key Takeaways: The Good Neighbor Policy

  • The Good Neighbor Policy was the United States' approach to foreign policy established in 1933 by President Franklin Roosevelt. Its primary goal was to ensure mutual friendly relations between the U.S. and the nations of Latin America.
  • In order to maintain peace and stability in the Western Hemisphere, the Good Neighbor Policy stressed non-intervention rather than military force.
  • The interventionist tactics that the U.S. employed in Latin America during the Cold War ended the Good Neighbor Policy era. 

US-Latin America Relations in the 19th Century

Roosevelt’s predecessor, President Herbert Hoover, had already tried to improve U.S. relations with Latin America. As secretary of commerce in the early 1920s, he promoted Latin American trade and investment, and after taking office in 1929, Hoover promised to reduce U.S. intervention in Latin American affairs. However, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. continued to periodically use military force or threats to protect the commercial interests of American companies operating in Latin American countries. As a result, many Latin Americans had grown increasingly hostile toward the United States and its so-called “gunboat diplomacy” by the time President Roosevelt took office in 1933. 

Influence of Argentina and Mexico

The main challenge to Hoover’s non-interventionist policy came from Argentina, then the wealthiest Latin American country. From the late 1890s to the 1930s, Argentina reacted to what its leaders considered to be U.S. imperialism by carrying out a sustained effort to cripple the capability of the United States to employ military force in Latin America.

Mexico’s desire to prevent American military intervention in Latin America grew from the loss of half of its territory in the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. Relationships between the U.S. and Mexico were further damaged by the 1914 U.S. shelling and occupation of the port of Veracruz, and the repeated violations of Mexican sovereignty by U.S. Gen. John J. Pershing and his 10,000 troops during the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920.  

FDR Implements Good Neighbor Policy

In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, President Roosevelt announced his intent to reverse the United States’ past course of foreign military intervention when he stated, “In the field of world policy I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.”

Specifically directing his policy toward Latin America, Roosevelt marked “Pan-American Day” on April 12, 1933, when he stated, “Your Americanism and mine must be a structure built of confidence, cemented by a sympathy which recognizes only equality and fraternity.”

FDR’s intent to end interventionism and forge friendly relationships between the U.S. and Latin America was confirmed by his Secretary of State Cordell Hull at a conference of American states in Montevideo, Uruguay, in December 1933. “No country has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another,” he told the delegates, adding, “The definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention.”

Nicaragua and Haiti: Troop Withdrawals

Early concrete effects of the Good Neighbor Policy included the removal of U.S. Marines from Nicaragua in 1933 and from Haiti in 1934. 

The U.S. occupation of Nicaragua bad begun in 1912 as part of an effort to prevent any other nation except the United States from building a proposed but never built Nicaraguan canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

American troops had occupied Haiti since July 28, 1915, when President Woodrow Wilson sent 330 U.S. Marines to Port-au-Prince. The military intervention was in reaction to the murder of pro-American Haitian dictator Vilbrun Guillaume Sam by insurgent political opponents. 

Cuba: Revolution and Castro Regime

In 1934, the Good Neighbor Policy led to the ratification of the U.S. Treaty of Relations with Cuba. U.S. troops had occupied Cuba since 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Part of the 1934 treaty annulled the Platt Amendment, a provision of the 1901 U.S. army funding bill, which had established stringent conditions under which the U.S. would end its military occupation and “leave the government and control of the island of Cuba to its people.” Annulment of the Platt Amendment allowed for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Cuba.

Despite the troop withdrawal, continued U.S. intervention in Cuba’s internal affairs directly contributed to the 1958 Cuban Revolution and the rise to power of anti-American Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro. Far from becoming “good neighbors,” Castro’s Cuba and the United States remained sworn enemies throughout the Cold War. Under the Castro regime, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled their country, many for the United States. From 1959 to 1970, the population of Cuban immigrants living in the U.S. grew from 79,000 to 439,000. 

Mexico: Oil Nationalization

In 1938, U.S. and British oil companies operating in Mexico refused to comply with Mexican government orders to raise wages and improve working conditions. Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas responded by nationalizing their holdings, creating the state-owned petroleum company PEMEX.

While Britain reacted by cutting diplomatic relations with Mexico, the United States—under the Good Neighbor Policy—increased its cooperation with Mexico. In 1940, as World War II loomed, Mexico agreed to sell much-needed crude oil to the United States. Aided by its Good Neighbor alliance with the U.S., Mexico grew PEMEX into one of the world’s largest oil companies and helped Mexico become the world’s seventh-largest oil exporter. Today, Mexico remains the United States’ third-largest source of imported oil, behind only Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Cold War and the End of the Good Neighbor Policy

After World War II, the Organization of American States (OAS) was established in 1948 for the purpose of ensuring cooperation between the countries of the Americas. While the U.S. government had helped found the OAS, its focus under President Harry Truman had shifted to rebuilding Europe and Japan instead of maintaining the Good Neighbor Policy’s relations with Latin America.

The post-World War II Cold War ended the Good Neighbor era, as the United States sought to prevent Soviet-style communism from arriving in the Western Hemisphere. In many cases, their methods conflicted with the Good Neighbor Policy’s principle of non-intervention, leading to a period of renewed U.S. involvement in Latin American affairs.

During the Cold War, the U.S. openly or covertly opposed suspected communist movements in Latin America, including:

  • The CIA overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954
  • The failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba in 1961
  • U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965-66
  • CIA-coordinated efforts to unseat Chilean socialist President Salvador Allende in 1970–73
  • The Iran-Contra Affair CIA subversion of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government from about 1981 to 1990 

More recently, the United States has assisted local Latin American governments in fighting drug cartels, for example, the 2007 Mérida Initiative, an agreement between the United States, Mexico, and the Central American countries to fight drug trafficking and transnational organized crime.

The cost of U.S. intervension has been high, and typically borne by the citizens of Latin American countries. An American-backed coup in the 1950s in Guatemala led to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people between 1960 and 1996. El Salvador traces some of its most brutal gangs to the deportations of American-raised gang leaders, while the country also faces the aftereffects of violence stemming from American training to "fight" communism. As a result of this violence and instability, refugee numbers have skyrocketed: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counts more than 890,000 people from the North of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) and Nicaragua displaced from their homes.

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Longley, Robert. "The Good Neighbor Policy: History and Impact." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). The Good Neighbor Policy: History and Impact. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Good Neighbor Policy: History and Impact." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).