Diplomacy – Might, Money, and Morals

This lesson will enhance student skills on analyzing primary source documents, and addressing the shift of American Diplomacy from Roosevelt’s Big Stick Diplomacy to Taft’s Dollar Diplomacy and finally Wilson’s Moral Diplomacy.

Historical Background

By the end of the 19th century, the United States was shifting its view of itself from world power bench warmer, to the starting line-up in power. In the Post-Spanish American War world, the United States found the need to redefine itself on the world stage through active foreign policy planning. This lesson will study the evolution of US diplomacy from Roosevelt’s Big Stick to Taft’s Dollar Diplomacy and end with Wilson’s Missionary/Moral Diplomacy.

With the Spanish-American War, the United States had begun the steps to building an empire. They acquired overseas colonies, and “demonstrated” their military power against a major European nation. When Theodore Roosevelt was elected president (remember, he had served as President for 3 years already after McKinley was assassinated), he focused on building a strong nation that sought peace through strength. During Roosevelt’s time in office he developed a strong foreign policy known better today as Big Stick diplomacy (after an old African Proverb – Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick). By the time Taft took over office, America had clearly demonstrated its power through the world tour of the Great White Fleet. Taft was ready to transfer the waste of money from showing off US military strength by means of shifting the debts and dependency of foreign nations on Europe to a dependency financially on the US, thereby allowing the US to manipulate nations into positions that were favorable to it. As Wilson took office – the nation had demonstrated its power and financially coerced nations into conforming to the US business models. Now it was time to work on molding these nations into democracies.

It is this progression from Might to Money to Morals that brought our nation into the 20th century.

Lesson Objective

Students will analyze political speeches, cartoons and images representing Roosevelt’s Big Stick Diplomacy, Taft’s Dollar Diplomacy and Wilson’s Moral Diplomacy in order to accurately identify the progression and shift in method of US diplomacy as demonstrated in a culminating essay.



  1. Hook / Introductory Activity: (If you have time and interest – the lesson is NOT dependent on this activity) If your students are not comfortable with the concept of “diplomacy” this website offers a large variety of “discussion questions” for educators that you could pick several to have students brainstorm some pre- and post- answers to. Students can try to answer them on their own and then pair-share to expand those ideas. These questions would be a good way to hook students and get them prepared for the various forms of diplomacy they are soon to learn and why the diplomacies shape the way they do. There is a prepared worksheet for those who are interested in this as a PRE and POST activity
  2. Student Work – Primary Source Analysis Activity (PICK ONE OPTION) – Using Roosevelt’s Big Stick Cartoon, Taft’s Cartoons and Wilson’s Missionary Diplomacy Cartoon either:
  3. (A) SMALL GROUPS: Break students into pairs or groups of three – provide them a copy of the worksheets above and have them work as a group to analyze the items and respond to the questions.
  4. (B) INDIVIDUAL + PAIR REFLECTION: Provide each student with the document on Roosevelt’s Big Stick Diplomacy. Give them 6-10 minutes to analyze the document and answer the questions. Once the majority of students are done – allow them to pair share what they thought was interesting about the item and share any additional insights or questions they had with each other. Repeat with the other documents (in order of presidents –> Taft then Wilson).
  5. (C) EXPERT GROUPING: Hand out the all the documents in a series – one to each student (ensure that you have a relatively balanced distribution of each one as the students will become experts on theirs and then share). When choosing this option, give the students the 6-8 minutes to complete their item, then give them 2-3 minutes in their like document groups to ensure that the students are in agreement on what they will be sharing out to the other groups when they are experts. Then team up the groups so that they can “expertly” share their document.
  6. Tie Together Question: Having analyzed the documents, and noting that they are all in relation to the changes in American diplomacy over time, what conclusion can they draw about the shift in American methods of diplomacy? What do they think caused the shifts in American diplomacy? Do they think one method would be more successful than the others – why or why not? In what ways did each diplomacy affect US world identity?
  7. Teacher lecture or document series: Students now need to connect the forms of diplomacy with the people who created them and the instances in which they were used. Provide the students with the student worksheet Diplomacy Graphic Organizer. Decide how to deliver the information to them-lecture / PowerPoint, pair share readings, textbook reading etc. Go over the Graphic Organizer (teacher answers provided)
  8. Wrap-Up – Class discussion OR Exit Cards OR Homework Questions: (1) In what way did each diplomacy affect US world identity? (2) Explain how “big stick” diplomacy was replaced by “dollar” diplomacy and “moral” diplomacy, promoting American investment and ideals through foreign policy.


Teachers can collect: (a) The 3-4 primary source activity analyses; (b) Written responses to the “in what ways has each diplomacy affected US world identity?” & explain how “big stick” diplomacy was replaced by “dollar” diplomacy and “moral” diplomacy, promoting American investment and ideals through foreign policy.

Multiple choice exam – this is a bank of questions to choose from


Lower Level or ESOL: Complete the first cartoon with Roosevelt as a class. Review cartoon analysis skills – focusing on SEE before INFER and then reflection and conclusion.Do one document at a time – and then go over it as a class, giving students time to appropriately process the documents

Advanced: Provide the students with each of the Presidents’ Inaugural Address or Address to Congress which discusses their ideas and goals for the nation in terms of foreign policy. This can be in lieu of teacher directed lecture.


“American President: A Reference Resource,” Miller Center, University of Virginia, http://millercenter.org/president/roosevelt/essays/biography/5

“Fourth Annual Message (December 3, 1912),” Miller Center, University of Virginia, http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/detail/3786

James Monroe. Monroe Doctrine (1823), The National Archives and Records Administration, www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=23

“Ships of the Great White Fleet,” A collection of postcards, medals, photographs, and memorabilia by William Stewart, www.greatwhitefleet.info/index.htm

“The Cruise of the Great White Fleet,” The Navy Department Library, http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/gwf_cruise.htm

Theodore Roosevelt, “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1905, http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres42.html

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