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The Monroe Doctrine was set out in December of 1823. The President at the time was James Monroe, which is where the policy gets its name.
What the doctrine essentially said is that the United States considers the Western Hemisphere to be our own sphere of influence. In this area (the Americas) we will not tolerate any other countries coming in and trying to colonize territory. We will also not allow other countries to interfere in the affairs of countries in this hemisphere.
The doctrine was issued at this time largely because Spain's colonies were becoming independent and the United States (along with Britain) did not want any European countries coming and trying to take over those newly independent nations.
The editor before me gave a very good explanation of the Monroe Doctrine. I would like to add a few things by breaking it apart a bit. The Monroe doctrine was developed to do the following:
In December 1823, in a message to Congress, Monroe set forth the following principles, which would later become known as the Monroe Doctrine:
The doctrine stated that the United States and Western Hemisphere was no longer open for colonization.
Our government system was different than the European system and would not succumb to the other system.
Any interference from other nations towards the Western Hemisphere would be considered as a threat to the security of our nation.
The United States agreed to make an effort to remain out of the European wars.
Although the doctrine was presented, the United Sates could not actually enforce it until the advent of steel built vessels and the build up of the navy in the 1800's.
It's also important to note how the Monroe Doctrine was used. At the time in 1823, America was not very strong militarily, so it might have seemed presumptive for Monroe to issue his doctrine when he might not have been able to back it up with force.
That being said, the Doctrine was used as a legal precedent when expansion became more realistic. Lincoln referred to it during the Civil War when Britain was considering intervention. McKinley used it as partial justification for the 1898 war with Spain over Cuba, and even as recently as Ronald Reagan and his rationale for the US invasion of Grenada in 1984.
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