It was quite a few years ago that an officer whom I have long admired, and whose studies included Chinese history, related to me this anecdote: “It was a time filled with tumult and upheaval, a time of great treachery, chaos, and the din of many battles. The people experienced great trepidation, much hunger, and inordinate physical suffering. A great warrior, having observed these things firsthand, may have made the greatest understatement of all time when he said, “We live in interesting times.”
Nicaragua was always (and I believe, continues to be) an interesting place; its history is filled with interesting times. As but one example, Nicaragua is the only foreign country to have an American serve as its president—not for long, mind you, but it did happen.
As I mentioned last week, Spain’s colonies in the Americas were so large that its government could not possibly maintain control over them. Added to this, Spanish arrogance toward those living in American colonies was such that an independence movement was only a matter of time. That time came in 1821 when the Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, and Costa Rica issued a joint declaration of independence. Spain, unable to do anything about it militarily, left the revolutionaries free from conflict to form a confederation modeled on the American federalist system. It took a few years, but a Central American Republic was eventually formed … it would not last beyond 1839.
In these early days, effective communication was impeded by poor roads and barely navigable rivers —but there was an even larger problem: Latino Culture. There were but two political entities, and these were aggravated by a thing called localism. The result was the development of intense hatred one for the other: anti-Catholic liberals opposed staunchly Catholic conservatives. By 1839, Nicaragua was standing apart from the Central American Republic as an independent state, but that was about the only positive thing anyone could say for Nicaragua. The economy was a shamble, and jealousy created petty caudillos who competed with one another for power and influence. Over time, the struggle became a competition between haves and have-nots. Nicaragua remained in a nearly-constant state of civil war for many years.
There were two reasons prompting the United States to regard Nicaragua as a vital interest. The first was American expansionism. The United States’ victory over Mexico ceded California to the United States. This prompted Americans to begin looking for speedy routes to the Pacific coast. The land route across the American plains was dangerous and time consuming, but the sea route around South America was even more so. Thus, the second reason was Nicaragua’s geography.
After the discovery of gold in California, increased demands for transportation to the Pacific Coast prompted American diplomats to obtain transit rights through Nicaragua. Leading this charge was none other than Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose steamship and railroad interests earned for him the moniker “Commodore.” Vanderbilt, who had already started rail line construction across the Isthmus of Panama, wondered whether a transoceanic canal might be the practical solution; it was an idea ahead of its time. Instead, Vanderbilt formed the Accessory Transit Company.
Standing somewhat off-stage were the British, who watched America’s expansion with great interest, noting also the geographical importance of Nicaragua. With a firm foot-hold north of the Bluefields Lagoon, the British expanded the Mosquito Protectorate. In 1848, Great Britain seized the town of San Juan del Norte, renamed it Greytown, and declared the town a free city. Annexation placed Greytown under the control of the British at the mouth of the San Juan River. Vanderbilt may have acquired transit authority through Nicaragua, but he would need the permission of the British Consul at Greytown before he could move passengers and freight from Greytown, up the San Juan River, across Lake Nicaragua, and then overland to San Juan del Sur.
Thus, in 1850 we find emerging Nicaragua facing two sources of conflict: the traditional mashup between liberals and conservatives, and the international competition between the Americans and British. As the British employed local mobs to disrupt American commercial interests, America used its Marines to quell such disturbances. There was very little Nicaraguans could do about the international competition, but in the matter of rebellion, they seemed dedicated toward making all the wrong choices.
Unable to gain advantages over conservatives, the liberal party sought unconventional strategies. In return for cash and land grants, an American mercenary (and self-styled Impresario) by the name of William Walker offered to provide 300 settlers who would be subject to military duty in the liberal army. Walker’s subsequent successes as a military commander led to his appointment as Commander in Chief of the Army. From that high office, and for whatever reason, in 1856 Walker influenced the government to revoke Vanderbilt’s transit charter. Incensed, Vanderbilt vowed revenge.
When the opportunity presented itself, Walker bolted the liberal party and accepted a conservative nomination as President of Nicaragua. He is the only American to serve as President of Nicaragua. His tenure was a short, however, because Commodore Vanderbilt began a vigorous campaign to supply liberals with arms and ammunition. Eventually, Walker’s foolishness caught up with him. The government of neighboring Honduras executed him by firing squad on 11 September 1860. Once the Walker problem was resolved, conservatives and liberals found a way to calm their passions for thirty years.
By 1894, Conservatives and Liberals were back at one another’s throats. This time, however, civil unrest in Nicaragua invited foreign intervention as mobs threatened American and British citizens and property. American Marines went ashore on several occasions. War broke out again in 1898 when President Jose Santos Zelaya (shown left) arbitrarily extended his tenure as president for another term.
If there is anything we can say about Zelaya, it is that he had the uncanny ability to combine his liberal idealism with corruption and militarism. He did work hard to attract foreign investment, but he also extorted a hefty amount of money from investors in the form of kickbacks. Zelaya and his cabinet also held a monopoly over the nation’s business enterprises. As Nicaraguan citizens struggled with worthless money and runaway inflation, Zelaya peddled natural resources to the highest bidder—always lining his own pockets.
The United States was not happy with President Zelaya after he executed a few captured rebels and it turned out that two of these were American citizens. Much more than this, however, the Americans learned that Zelaya had begun to explore the possibilities of building a transoceanic canal with Japan and Germany. As far as the United States was concerned, this simply would not do, so in early December 1909, American Marines were landed at Port Bluefields to establish a neutral zone protecting foreign lives and property. The reality was, however that Port Bluefields was no more than a base of operations for anti-Zelayan rebels. Ever clairvoyant, Zelaya packed up the booty he acquired over many years of corruption and on 18 December 1909, fled to Mexico.
Nicaragua’s political structure became increasingly unstable; between 1909 and 1911, the country witnessed four presidencies. After Zelaya’s departure, the United States called for Nicaragua to write a constitution —a task Nicaraguans found nearly insurmountable. It was also a time when, through free trade and interest free loans, the Americans exercised strong control over Nicaragua.
From a practical standpoint, after urging its citizens to invest in Nicaragua, the United States could hardly stand idly by as rebels destroyed these properties. Accordingly, the Americans demanded of President Adolfo Diaz his guarantee of effective protection of US citizens and property. President Diaz was in no position to guarantee anything of the kind, so he asked for United States intervention. Initially, the Navy sent ashore a handful of seamen from the USS Annapolis, which had anchored off Corinto. Another forty Marines and sailors landed at Port Bluefields from the USS Tacoma. The bluejackets and Marines may have been an effective deterrent against small pockets of rebels, but given the size of Nicaragua, what was needed was a base of supply and six battalions of infantry.
Spearheading America’s expeditionary force on 14 August 1912 was Major Smedley D. Butler, U. S. Marine Corps. Arriving at Corinto (Chinandega) aboard the USS Justin, Butler’s battalion consisted of 13 officers and 341 Marines. Within two weeks, the Americans had gained footholds on both coasts of Nicaragua and assembled a powerful infantry unit prepared to strike eastward toward Managua.
Major Butler was an “in your face” kind of warrior. The day following disembarkation, Butler led three companies of Marines into Managua to secure the American legation. That achieved, Butler decided to offer a deal to the rebel leader, General Mena. It was an offer for Mena to surrender honorably; an effort to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. First Lieutenant Edward Conger volunteered to lead two other Marines into the jungle to deliver the note. In due course, Conger reported that he had met with General Mena, that the General was ill with rheumatism, and that the general would be happy to surrender were he still in charge of the rebel forces. The new rebel commander was the former Minister of War in the Zelaya Cabinet, Benjamín Francisco Zeledón Rodríguez—a die-hard liberal.
(Continued Next Week)
 The Accessory Transit Company was one “American property” that needed safeguarding by US Marines.
 A region of eastern Nicaragua and northeast Honduras. A British protectorate from 1655 to 1860, it then became an autonomous state known as the Mosquito Kingdom. In 1894 Nicaragua appropriated the territory, and in 1960 the northern part was awarded to Honduras by the International Court of Justice.
 A free city is an independent political entity; also, City State.
 Walker previously organized a mercenary force to invade lower California; he was defeated in his efforts by disease, starvation, and uncooperative natives.