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
- Enlightenment as stimulus to Americanism. It created the basic kinship of ideas between
two and also gave them a reciprocal interest in and some knowledge about each other's
- The anti-American thesis, that the New World was inferior, and the American defensive
reaction to this which was strengthened by commercial and political revolution of the late
- The struggles of 1808 and beyond became the catalytic agent and they drew upon a common
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.