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Nicaragua 1927: Portent for the Future

Augusto César Sandino
Augusto César Sandino

First, an explanation. The term “portent” is strictly defined as “omen,” or “warning,” “prophetic insight” of something momentous to come, something even larger than the original. This definition should cause either disbelief or anguish that its author (myself) has “wandered off” his “reservation.”

Understandable, as anything remotely connected to a tiny Central American nation nearly 100 years ago is not exactly, to use media jargon, “fast-breaking news.”

True, but contradicted by the companion expression that “history repeats” and that even the obscure can, and will, come back to “haunt us.”

History may have relevance after all, especially when the United States is just now coming back from a series of military interventions called (by the same media) “endless wars” and in the larger shadow of Vietnam, where this country lost 58,000 men in over a decade of guerrilla war.

But why Nicaragua, and why 1927?

Unbeknown to almost all Americans (“all” is appropriate with 99.9 %), Nicaragua happens to be the location of America’s largest military action between the two world wars (1918 – 1941). It also happens to be the location of a classic example of how/why a great power (that had just won history’s greatest war in 6 months) was both frustrated and unable to win a simple guerrilla contest against a tiny (about 500) band of irregulars in a jungle and mountain area with less than a half-million people.

Ridiculous…. but true.

At the time, the U.S. was in the middle of an “isolationist” reaction to the tragedy of World War I (called “normalcy”) and was disinterested in most world politics away from hemispheric affairs. Inside this indifference was an exaggerated interest in the “crown jewel” Panama Canal and anything or anybody that might threaten its stability. Mexico and Central America were critical in this regard, with the U.S. highly sensitive to Mexico as a destabilizing factor. Regarding Mexico, President Coolidge told Congress on January 10, 1927:

“I have the most conclusive evidence that arms and munitions in large quantities have been shipped to the revolutionaries in Nicaragua … The United States cannot fail to view with deep concern any serious threat to stability and constitutional government in Nicaragua tending toward anarchy and jeopardizing American interests.”

The “revolutionaries” in Nicaragua were led by Marxist guerrilla Augusto C. Sandino and his band who were holed up in the northern mountains and refused to surrender. The possibility of a takeover against the central government prompted Coolidge to send prominent Republican and former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to arrange an intervention. With almost 5,000 Marines stationed throughout Nicaragua, Stimson went home confident that order would soon be established and a native force, “Guardia Nacional,” would relieve the Marines.

Nothing of the sort happened.

The first “disaster” came almost immediately when a group of about 80 Marines was surrounded by guerrillas in a fortress called Ocotal in mid-July. On the verge of surrender, the Marines were rescued by their air wing which torpedoed the fort, an instance now recorded as the first “dive-bombing” in military history. But the attack left hundreds of “Sandinistas” (as they came to be called) lying dead outside Ocotal, an event that created both domestic and global sympathy when it became news.

Things only got worse. Not only did Sandino become an international celebrity for the Marxist Left, but he also organized his home base against the “outsiders” and slipped across into Honduras when the Marines came close. “It will be very difficult,” the U.S. Ambassador wrote home, “to improve conditions so long as these bandits are permitted to cross the frontier at will.” A Marine communiqué noted how the Sandinistas were able to organize “the population of the northern part of Nicaragua into a complex system of intelligence and supply.”

Within the American ideology, the Sandinistas were denied any and all “nationalistic” origins, as memos both classified and public continued to refer to them as mere “bandits,” interested only in theft and loot. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As things in Nicaragua went, “from banditry to a state of insurrection” (New York Times), U.S. officials grew more pessimistic. The Admiral in charge of the full operation, David Sellers, noted once that, “the bandits are apparently better organized and equipped than the Brigade Commander had reason to believe.” Marine General Logan Feland eventually admitted that success in Nicaragua would “be a matter of months or even years,” while admitting that the promised Guardia “will continue at least a decade as an uncontrolled but dependent offspring of any Naval force which may remain in Nicaragua.”

In the meantime, the success of the Sandinistas in defying American power continued into the 1930s and aroused worldwide and domestic frustration against U.S. policies. By 1929, Assistant Secretary of State Francis White privately wrote that “the sentiment in this country and especially in Congress is very strong against keeping the Marines there indefinitely… we cannot indefinitely maintain a large force of Marines in Nicaragua.”

Later on, the same Henry L. Stimson who had begun the whole episode as a Coolidge emissary had now become Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover. Events subsequently forced a full turnaround in Stimson’s mind. Privately, he wrote that “the Marines haven’t done their job… it simply hasn’t been a good job well done.” Publicly, when he was asked at a Press Conference if he would do it again, Stimson simply replied, “Not on your life.”

The last Marine left Nicaragua on January 3, 1933. Officially, the Marine Corps was bitter, with the Commandant General Ben H. Fuller proclaiming at the end that he “would welcome the opportunity to settle the situation with a sufficient force of Marines.”

Augusto Sandino was assassinated in 1934 by the Guardia Nacional.

Today, 2022, a new-generation “Sandinista,” Daniel Ortega, is President of Nicaragua.

Any “lessons” here?