Christopher McKnight Nichols’ Promise and Peril is a very good history of American anti-imperialism and non-interventionism from the 1890s through the 1930s. Here he describes the clash between President Cleveland’s generally anti-imperialist foreign policy and Republican advocates of “the large policy” of expansionism and activism overseas:
In 1895-1896 Lodge and Roosevelt condemned what they saw as President Cleveland’s “policy of retreat and surrender” in Hawaii and Venezuela, as orchestrated by his two secretaries of state, Walter Quentin Gresham (who died in 1895) and Olney. When the English refused the “Olney-Cleveland ultimatum,” Roosevelt, Lodge, and others argued that Cleveland’s response–to appoint a commission to set the boundary–was an act of appeasement to England. Such actions revealed Cleveland as an opponent of a Lodge model for a hard-line interpretation of Manifest Destiny. Cleveland chose to try to avoid the forcible protection and global expansion of the Monroe Doctrine, and did not agree to annex Hawaii (or condone the American business interests that had orchestrated a coup on the islands). Lodge argued vociferously for building and expanding a modern navy, for not standing down against England on the Venezuela issue, and for annexing Hawaii immediately. Nevertheless, Cleveland’s actions relieved the tension between the United States and the English, and helped avert war. (p. 39)
Whenever a hawkish nationalist accuses someone of “retreat and surrender,” it is usually a good rule that the person being accused opposes a rash and needlessly confrontational course of action. Reviewing Lodge’s recommendations for U.S. policy in the mid-1890s, we can see that supporters of his “large policy” were disastrously wrong in how to handle the Venezuela boundary dispute. If they had had their way, these expansionists could have plunged the country into a major war that would have been extremely costly at best and disastrous for the country at worst. The U.S. was fortunate to have an avowed opponent of European colonialism and imperialism in the White House at the time.
As it was, Cleveland’s handling of the dispute was already too confrontational for the tastes of many of his contemporary anti-imperialists. As Nichols explains:
William James and Carl Schurz regarded Cleveland’s diplomatic maneuvering–that is, threatening conflict yet intending to steer clear of war and imperial overstretch–as inflammatory and risky, despite purportedly virtuous motives….For the first time, James had seen a blinding and dangerous American jingoism at work in the response to the Venezuelan crisis. He learned that “a nation’s ideals can be changed in the twinkling of an eye.”
Still, James seems to have perceived Cleveland’s efforts as generally trending in a positive direction but still being far too belligerent. As Cleveland petitioned Congress to create a committee to examine the border dispute, he simultaneously warned England not to encroach farther into Souh America. The abiding issue for him was action contrary to the Monroe Doctrine. (p. 39)
Cleveland’s opposition to (imagined) British designs on Venezuelan territory was probably the last time that the Monroe Doctrine was invoked for its original purpose. As it turned out, the British were not bent on seizing Venezuelan territory, and the dispute came to nothing. It’s sobering to consider how close this completely meaningless dispute brought the U.S. to waging a major war, and how ready the expansionists were to plunge the country into a major war over nothing.