Assess the importance of the Venezuela crisis of 1895-96 for the Anglo-American relationship Essay

The renowned statesman Otto von Bismarck once affirmed that the most fundamental fact of the twentieth century would be that England and the United States spoke the same language. The history of that century does in actual fact verify the German’s insightfulness; Anglo-American geniality and collaboration has printed a permanent mark on the past one hundred years. Undoubtedly, common culture and language have created strong ties between the two nations and these elements are at the core of what of the special Anglo-American relationship. However, simultaneously, the ancestral nature of this relationship has provoked and aggravated conflict as frequent as it has promoted friendship and cordiality.

In the same way that the most strident disputes usually occur within close relationships, a nation will usually find its most serious points of controversy are with other nations that are most similar to it, either culturally, economically or geographically. During the nineteenth century, relations between Britain and the United States were generally sour. Britain, at the time a world leading nation, viewed the U.S as ‘disorderly and vulgar’, a country governed by ‘topsy-turvy principles’. Whereas, America perceived Britain as a nation ruled by ‘a few hundred land robbers, a few thousand profit-mongers, with the addition of a gilded, powerless, puppet dubbed Queen’. It was in 1895, that the two English-speaking nations encountered their last conflict, one that showed serious dangers, ‘a controversy about the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana that raised the threat of war’.

‘The menace of war brought forth an instrument of peace’. Ultimately, the Venezuelan affair ‘cleared from the soul of the American public much of the perilous stuff of Anglophobia which weighed upon it, and it brought home to Britons the essential need of assiduously cultivating friendly relations with their great neighbour across the Atlantic’. Thus the crisis brought the American and British nations into an era of rapprochement; the chasm began to shrivel notably. By 1905, most feasible grounds for diplomatic conflict had been purged and among the general public, both the Americans and, in particular, the British now looked across the Atlantic with significantly softened attitudes. In essence, the Venezuela crisis of 1895-96 proved to be an important turning point for Anglo-American relations.

In order to assess the importance of the Venezuela crisis on the Anglo-American relationship, it is vital to scrutinise the nature of their relationship before the crisis. In the nineteenth century Britain and the United States were far from separate economic entities, in spite of political separation, territorial rivalries and war. In fact, the two nations could be seen as ‘closely interrelated parts of a single fast-developing web of global credit and commercial enterprise’. Britain was evidently the metropolitan power. Moreover, the loss of the American colonies did not affect Britain’s status as a great power, for the acquisition of a vast new empire in India gave it a land that offered ‘a ready acceptance of distinctions of class and caste, a tradition of deference to authority, well developed machinery for collecting taxes, professional standing armies, and a ruling class generally willing to accept British domination in return for protection’.

Conversely, America was raw and new, a land of wide-open spaces, its competence yet to be brought to fruition. ‘Nowhere in North America was there anything to compare with the gigantic fortresses of the Mogul Emperors, or in terms of wealth, with its princely rulers and their retinues.’ Meanwhile, in Britain itself the economy had begun to grow at unprecedented rate. Britain was rich in coal and iron, the basic requirements of the emerging steam age. Its technological advances strengthened Britain’s already dominant and leading position as a trading nation.

By mid-century Britain was importing just under half of the world’s raw cotton, the bulk of it from the United States. Britain provided the investment capital, technological know-how, manufactures, and much of the commercial enterprise, while the United States supplied the raw materials required by industry and, with the move towards free trade, a growing proportion of the nation’s foodstuffs’. Thus, the economic dependency that each nation developed towards each other was the sole factor that brought the two nations into a coalition before the Venezuelan crisis of 1895-96.

Territorial rivalry and imperial interests, however, hindered the Anglo-American relationship. There was a problem of agreeing on the boundary line separating U.S from British territory. These territorial crises could have led to war and on some occasions war did seem imminent. ‘What gave rise to these crises was not so much the intransigence of the two countries’ negotiators as the impact of unforeseen events and the volatility of popular opinion’. Thus ‘popular opinion’ was perhaps an overriding reason for such a resentful relationship between the two nations.

The deep-rooted aversions that Britain and America had towards one another did not help in smoothening the Anglo-American relationship. The Americans viewed Britain as a nation comprised of upper-class snobbery and lower-class subservience. Frederick DeSumichrast gave a fine depiction of the average American’s perception of England before the First World War: ‘He saw her hand in nearly every disaster , domestic and foreign; he suspected her interference in every election that ran counter to his wishes;… and he rejoiced over her misfortunes, crowed over her mistakes, and thanked God he was not an Englishman’. In the eyes of an American, true democracy only existed in the United States where the American was a citizen not a subject and the authority that his government exercised came from the people.

Lincoln famously put it in his Gettysburg Address of 1863, that the American government was ‘a government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ America was seen as a land of the present and the future, while Europe a land of the past. An element that exacerbated American contempt towards Britain was the fact that Britain did not involve itself in the Civil War. Although popular opinion in Britain supported the North, most northerners believed that Britain was in favour of the South. Essentially, some of the British were appalled at the huge scale of slaughter that took place, while others experienced a thrill of satisfaction at America’s discomfiture. ‘For as long as they could remember they had endured the taunts of the United States and its admirers, and yet here it was tearing itself apart while Britain basked in peace and prosperity.’

On the other hand, Britain saw quite the opposite in the United States. America was often viewed by Britons condescendingly and haughtily, as a na�ve and inexperienced upstart, an example of democracy run amuck. British commentators united in condemning one American institution and that was slavery, which was abolished in the British Empire in 1834. ‘The fact that the British saw slavery as incompatible with liberty made its continued existence in the United States, supposedly the land of liberty, appear not merely incongruous, but grotesque’. Reflecting these strong attitudes, Anglo-American relations were bitter but non-confrontational so long as the United States continued to remain distant and detached in British affairs.

The Venezuelan border dispute is generally considered the starting point of the rapprochement. Anglophobia reached new heights during the Venezuelan crisis of 1895-96. This was the last time the two nations would find themselves on the brink of war and so its importance to the Anglo-American relationship is enormous.

Before looking at the effects the crisis had on the Anglo-American relationship, it is vital to give a brief outline on what happened during the course of the crisis and how the affair ended. When Britain annexed the territory of British Guiana in 1814, there was no clearly defined boundary. Later in the century, the British accepted a line drawn by an agent, Robert Schomburgk, as its claim. Venezuela made a counter-claim for territory including two-thirds of the British colony. In 1885-86, Britain laid claim to a further 30,000 square miles to the west of the Schomburgk line, an area which finds of gold were reported. As a result Venezuela appealed to the United States asking for aid and intervention. The people of Venezuela argued that the British were violating the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, a doctrine that prohibited the European conquest of American states, and colonization of American territory.

This doctrine was written on the basis that ‘in the New World there was growing up a fresh, young and confident society untouched by the evils of Europe; it was wise, nay, indeed imperative that it should suffer as little as possible from the corrupting influences on the other side of the Atlantic, and it was therefore sound logic to assume that the action of the European diplomacy should be limited in its scope when it came to American affairs’. Although the crisis had occurred many years after the publishing of the Monroe Doctrine, the doctrine did not cease to have an immense value in American foreign policy. Initially, the Americans did not react so quickly towards the Venezuelan requests.

However, with the involvement of William L. Scruggs, the emotional and intellectual processes of the president were accelerated. Scruggs wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘British aggressions in Venezuela, or the Monroe Doctrine on Trial’, which was widely distributed and in effect, raised the awareness of the American people on the issue. The United States then moved in favour of arbitration but the British response showed a great deal of indifference and refused to arbitrate.

This irritated President Cleveland, making him more aggressive and persistent in the way that he dealt with Britain. An incident in April between Nicaragua and Britain emphasised the bland indifference of the British government to American public opinion. The secretary of state, Richard Olney, prepared a dossier for a new diplomatic bout with Great Britain, a dossier that is almost like an ultimatum in the sense that it states that if Britain do not accept arbitration, then war is the only step the United States can take.

Clearly, the Anglo-American relationship has reached its peak of hostility here. Lord Salisbury proceeded to the challenge and countered this dossier by stating that the Monroe Doctrine was irrelevant to the Venezuelan crisis and was not made an international law: The disputed frontier of Venezuela has nothing to do with any of the questions dealt with by President Monroe….It is not a question of the imposition upon the communities of South America of any system of government devised in Europe. It is simply the determination of the frontier of a British possession which belonged to the throne of England long before the Republic of Venezuela came into existence.’

In the Cleveland message of December 17, the President requested Congress for authority to appoint a commission. It clearly implied that should the commission find Britain it would be the duty of the U.S to resist it. These fighting words and a wave of jingoism swept the country. In Robert Beisner’s broader assessment of America’s changing foreign policy, he disregards the idea that Cleveland’s actions were merely an appeal to Anglophobia in order to engender political support; deeper matters were in play.

The U.S was aware of the escalation of imperialism worldwide and felt that within the western hemisphere, it directly endangered American safekeeping. The U.S could not allow for Latin America to endure the European land grab that Africa did. This outlook, Beisner argues, evolved from America’s desire for an international position. The upholding of this position required international ‘policies’ and the first of these policies was the defence of the Monroe Doctrine. Cleveland was resolute in the establishment of a U.S supremacy in the hemisphere. As Beisner has noted, the significance of the Venezuela crisis was that it transformed the Monroe Doctrine from a policy of 1823 to a doctrine of all time.

In the event, Britain backed down, being unwilling to alienate the United States, particularly at a time when stock market took fright and the growth of German ambitions was starting to preoccupy her. In 1899 the arbitrators awarded Venezuela the land claimed by Britain in 1885-6 but also effectively reaffirmed the Schomburgk line. ‘The principal significance of the Venezuelan crisis was that it marked a watershed in Anglo-American relations’.

Stuart Anderson argues in his book ‘Race and Rapprochement’, that it was the Anglo-Saxon ties between Britain and the U.S that caused Britain to climb down and take a soft stance towards the issue of the Venezuela crisis. Anderson cites the numerous Anglo-Saxon expressions in the correspondence between officials like Arthur Balfour and Joseph Chamberlain that show their reluctance to risk war with their brothers across the Atlantic. On the other hand, Alan Dobson asserts that Britain had far more concrete reasons that led her to give way to American wishes. Britain was realising her own decline, as an isolated and strategically vulnerable country. With the fears of Russia or France abusing her and the rising German anti-British attitude that was revealed by the letter the Kaiser sent to the of the Boer Republic, Britain could not risk a conflict with the U.S, so agreed to arbitration. The idea that Germany considered intervening in the South African affairs infuriated the British far more than the Cleveland message. It became apparent that Germany’s naval expansion was partly fixated on challenging Britain’s control of the seas.

‘Quarrelling with fellow Anglo-Saxons in the face of a Teutonic menace that threatened the interests of both countries was absurd’. Furthermore, Britain had become a liberal democracy much like the United States with the reform acts of 1867 and 1884, while Germany, in contrast, was an autocratic power, a threat to all forms of democracy. Therefore, a mounting insecurity and uncertainty inclined Britain and the U.S towards amity and good relations. So one can argue, that it was not just the Venezuela crisis that brought the two nations together but the numerous threatening and ominous developments that took place alongside the crisis that made the crisis itself seem trivial.

The Spanish-American War was a vivid portrayal of the change in mood that had emerged after the Venezuela crisis of 1895-96. The British feelings towards the outbreak of the war were strongly pro-American. The British had heard accounts of the ruthless and savagely treatment of Cubans by Spain; now Cuba was to be set free by a nation that held the same civilised and humanitarian values as Britain. The rest of Europe expressed disapproval towards American intervention, while Britain declared neutrality and made its support and sympathies clear. ‘A rumour even circulated that at the battle of Manila Bay a squadron of the royal Navy contributed to the U.S victory by stationing itself between Admiral Dewey’s fleet and a German flotilla that threatened to intervene on the side of the Spanish.

Although not strictly true, the fact that the Americans believed it showed that their attitudes were changing as well’. Meanwhile, Germany’s eagerness to establish a naval base in Samoa clarified their ambitions in the pacific. This accounted for Britain’s support of the American annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines. Having embarked onto the world stage, Americans were relieved to know that they had British backing. It was not only Britain who supported America in her foreign policy. The U.S demonstrated the same compassionate and supportive attitude during the Boer War with the assistance they offered. In fact, Britain turned to the United States for war supplies. Looking back at 1895, it was probably very hard to believe that such a strong relationship between the U.S and Britain would be built in this short period of time.

By the late nineteenth century transatlantic travel was no longer the daunting mission it had once been. This change brought the two countries even closer together. The large Cunard and White Star were almost like floating palaces where life was organised on firmly hierarchical lines. In steerage, conditions were still reasonably primitive and backward. Whereas, for those on the upper decks, there were all the facilities of a luxurious hotel. ‘In short, ocean travel offered opportunities for relaxation and social intercourse not available to earlier generations of transatlantic passengers or, for that matter, to the air travellers of today’. Also, the increasing ease of travel helped contribute to a new phenomenon, transatlantic marriages.

The political structures of the United States and Britain differed. However, this did not stop the liberal and progressive elites of both nations to have similar outlooks. ‘In theory, the monarchy was still the basis of the British political and social order. Supposedly Britons obeyed the law, not as Americans did because of social contract or because it protected their natural rights, but because they were subjects and must do what the monarch told them. In practice, however, the people now told the monarch what to tell them, which came to much the same thing. The two systems were alike, too, with regard to many of the problems they confronted- urban squalor, crime, prostitution and the social evils arising out of unregulated industrial competition. The British academic and jurist, James Bryce, whose ‘The American Commonwealth’ (1888) provides the best contemporary account of the American politics of the period, felt equally at home in British and American elite circles.’ This network of political linkages brought the two nations closer together.

In conclusion, Anglo-American unity did strengthen during the period after the Venezuela crisis of 1895-96. The Venezuela crisis can be seen almost as a release of all the antagonisms held by each nation towards each other, and after this liberation came reconciliation. In the words of J.A.S Grenville, ‘the Venezuelan crisis and its settlement constituted a landmark in the new trend of Anglo-American relations…it led to the settlement of all Anglo-American differences, to friendship and finally to alliance’. H.C. Allen also accounts for the importance of the Venezuela crisis towards the Anglo-American relationship by stating: ‘In the end it cleared from the soul of the American public much of the perilous stuff of Anglophobia which weighed upon it, and it brought home to Britons the essential need of assiduously cultivating friendly relations with their great neighbour across the Atlantic .

While it lasted, it showed the danger of letting the activities of unimportant third parties inveigle the two great principles into courses of action tending towards war with one another; when either nation faced up squarely to the issue of fratricidal war it it drew back decisively, but both had by vigilant and foreseeing diplomacy, to ensure that they never advanced in argument too far to withdraw… It was a symptom of the imperialist spirit which was seizing the American mind.

It was a further lesson to Englishmen to expect violence, but unfulfilled, expressions of American intentions from the American public and even American statesmen. In the end it strengthened the belief of the two countries in arbitration, but it only just did so for it had been a close call. Most important and most salutary of all, it was a triumph for democratic public opinion, and particularly for that of the new democracy of Britain, which was the chief peacemaker; the British public never looked like accepting war , the American public after the first fine careless rapture drew back from the prospect of making it’.