In foreign policy matters, President George Norris generally followed the older isolationist wing of the Progressive Party. The first action of the Norris administration was a reorganization of military appropriations, focused on ending the numerous sporadic American occupations in the Caribbean. During World War I, the United States had sent marines to occupy the island of Hispaniola. Haiti had fallen deeply into debt to American banks in the beginning of the 20th century, and the country had fallen into chaos as the presidency changed six times between 1911 and 1915. Additionally, President Wilson was concerned about possible German ambitions with the small German community in Haiti, and in 1915 sent marines to occupy and stabilize Haiti. A year later, Wilson also ordered marines to occupy the neighboring Dominican Republic after it erupted in civil war as well. The occupation of these two countries lasted beyond the end of World War I and well into the 1920s as the United States enforced customs and generally conducted economic oversight over the two countries as part of support for the American-backed governments. The American occupied and supported governments liberalized the countries’ constitutions and made improvements such as upgrading infrastructure, but to most of the population of Haiti and the Dominican Republic the period represented a loss of sovereignty and resentment against the United States grew. While the Hoover administration had briefly considered withdrawal from the Dominican Republic, an uprising in the eastern province of El Seybo led to a continuation of the occupation.
President Norris started a commission to organize the transition to a national government and the withdrawal of American troops from Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1931. The commission, led by Senator William Borah of Idaho, laid out a withdrawal of troops from both countries within two years. In the Dominican Republic, Horacio Vásquez was appointed provisional president and in 1932 the first elections were held in the country. Vásquez’s Alliance Party was defeated by Rafael Estrella Ureña and his National Liberal Party. In Haiti, the election process took longer and was less smooth. A national assembly in Haiti elected Sténio Vincent president of the country in 1930, but the last American marines were withdrawn from the country by 1934. During this transitionary period, Vincent was allowed to fill government positions with Haitians, concluding in 1935 with a transfer of full fiscal control to Haiti. President Vincent established popular elections in 1935 and was reelected to a six year term in 1936.
While the Norris administration were generally isolationist in their foreign policy, President Norris personally shifted his stance during the final year of his presidency. There were many reasons for this. The ultranationalist coup in Japan in February of 1936 that established Hajime Sugiyama as Prime Minister led to alarming worry over Japanese expansionism in East Asia and the Pacific. After the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in June of 1936 and the brutal occupations of Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing, pictures of bombed out Shanghai and word of atrocities in Nanjing reached the foreign press and the President. President Norris called on all parties of Congress to support punitive action against Japan. While no action was taken during Norris’s presidency, his support in the following years led to an embargo of oil exports to Japan in 1938 which was expanded to include iron and steel exports a year later and an increase in United States military placements in Hawaii and the Philippines in case of Japanese retaliation.
Along with increased Japanese expansionism in the 1930s, the situation in Europe was beginning to escalate as Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy started their nationalist ambitions. Hitler’s only aggressive action was to reoccupy the Rhineland, which the Treaty of Versailles had declared a demilitarized zone following World war I. Norris, who had objected to stipulations of the Versailles Treaty including to United States presence in the Rhineland, did not raise an objection to the remilitarization. However, he and the United States did raise a protest to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The United States never recognized the Italian annexation of Ethiopia in May of 1936, however a diplomatic protest was all that arose out of the Norris administration’s opposition to the invasion.
Despite all these events, the most significant accomplishment of foreign policy during George Norris’s time in office was the administration’s overdue diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. While the United States and Soviet Union had arranged economic agreements during the 1920s, the Republican Lowden and Hoover administrations continued the policy of not officially recognizing the USSR. As soon as Norris entered the presidency in 1929, he began undertaking steps to change it. Gathering up a Commission for American-Soviet Relations that included public relations pioneer Ivy Lee, diplomat William C. Bullitt, and Progressive Party activist and future ambassador Dudley F. Malone, Norris initiated correspondence with the Soviet government. Soviet Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin sent Maxim Litvinov, fresh off of signing a pact with the USSR’s European neighbors renouncing future war between them, to Washington to begin direct negotiations with the Norris administration through the CASR. After a month of discussion, Litvinov and the CASR agreed on terms surrounding Soviet payment of outstanding debt to the United States, civil rights of Americans living in the USSR and that the USSR would cease funding the Communist Party in the US. In 1930, the United States officially recognized the Soviet Union and vice versa, and embassies were established between the two countries. William Bullitt was appointed the first US ambassador to the Soviet Union, but was replaced by Dudley Malone in 1934. Maxim Litvinov would succeed Chicherin as Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union shortly after his return to Moscow from the negotiations.