Marines in Nicaragua, Part III

After the election of Woodrow Wilson (shown right)[1] in 1913, his newly appointed Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan[2], resurrected the Knox Treaty[3] in 1914, inserting a clause which ceded to the United States the right to use its armed forces to intervene in the affairs of Nicaragua. Then Nicaraguan Ambassador Emiliano Chamorro Vargas[4] approved the instrument in August 1914, and Bryan dutifully sent the treaty to the Senate for their ratification.  The senate, with a Democratic majority, refused to consider the Bryan-Chamorro document until the Secretary first removed the Bryan clause.

Due to our understanding of Nicaraguan politics thus far, it should come as no surprise that the Bryan-Chamorro treaty was soon elevated to critical mass.  Adolfo Diaz had only survived as Nicaragua’s president because he was protected by American Marines and this is certainly how Liberals presented Diaz to the people.  True, America’s financial reforms would ultimately work to the benefit of the most Nicaraguans, but the process was tediously slow and the people of Nicaragua are not known for their patience.  Still, not one Liberal in Nicaragua would approve of the idea that the USA had a right to employ its armed forces in their country.

Aside: It was around this same time when a Russian revolutionary by the name of Vladimir Lenin asserted that if you tell a lie often enough, it eventually becomes an unmitigated truth.  This axiom has become a mainstay of leftist politics ever since, and it was certainly true in Nicaragua.  President Adolfo Diaz became a hated man in Nicaragua because of the propaganda campaign mounted against him by the Liberal Party, and they were unrelenting.  The fact is that Diaz was the most qualified man to serve as president, and he may have been the most honest of all Nicaraguan presidents.

In 1916, Nicaragua was preparing for its next presidential election.  Conservatives were ready to wash their hands of Diaz, favoring instead Emiliano Chamorro (shown right).  Liberals, on the other hand, favored a former advisor to President Zelaya named Julian Irias —a man who was at the time of his nomination, living in exile.  Still, the United States was concerned about Irias because, given the simple fact that liberal voters far outnumbered conservatives; an honest election would turn the country over to the liberal party.  More to the point, Irias was a man who associated himself with one of the most corrupt regimes in Nicaragua’s short history.

Thus, what the United States needed to do is somehow deny the election to Irias while preventing another rebellion.  This was accomplished when outgoing President Diaz prevented Irias from re-entering Nicaragua.  The nail on this coffin was America’s warning to Liberals that under no circumstances would the US ever recognize anyone associated with former President Zelaya.  To clear a pathway for Chamorro, conservative candidate Carlos Cuadras Paso was persuaded to withdraw from the race.

Emiliano Chamorro won the election in a landslide.

As a rule, Nicaragua’s presidency was habit forming; once in power, a president was disinclined to step down.  An exception to this rule was Emiliano Chamorro.  After four years in office, Chamorro decided to step aside and allow his Uncle Diego to succeed him.  Diego Chamorro won the 1920 election by more than 58,000 votes.  It was after this that an American political scientist by the name of Harold Dodds took on the difficult task of devising honest electoral machinery for Nicaragua.  His plan, completed in 1922, was enthusiastically supported by liberals —but hated by conservatives.  Conservatives acquiesced, however, once the US Ambassador reminded Chamorro that his nephew Emiliano had promised to support such a plan.

Nicaraguans may have fallen in love with Dodds’ election reforms, but their hate for American Marines remained constant.  Marines assigned to the American legation were continually reviled by the citizens of Managua —so much so that assignment to the Marine Guard may have been considered among the worst duties in the Corps.  With nothing constructive to do after duty hours, Marines drank to excess and pursued loose women within Managua’s fetid cantinas.  Nicaraguan police found that a drunken, disorderly Marine was an excellent target for revenge.

A series of clashes between Marines and local police came to a head on the night of 8 December 1921 when a Marine private shot and killed a police officer.  Afterwards, Marines were assigned to “shore patrol” duties; it was a matter of Marines keeping tabs on their own[5].  Meanwhile, American diplomats were concerned that the Marine Legation Guard was insufficiently staffed to head off pre-election liberal rioting.  Insisting on reinforcements, additional Marines were sent to the Guard from the USS Galveston (30 Marines), USS Denver (52 Marines), and USS Nitro (45 Marines).  Seagoing leathernecks were withdrawn after the elections, but bringing them in was a sound idea.  One individual who was present at the time later reported that the flames of hate in Nicaragua were palpable.  President Chamorro was crucified in the press for allowing the Americans to land additional Marines, but of more lasting importance to affairs in Nicaragua were the propagandists who claimed Mexican benevolence vs. American barbarity.  It was the first sign of the emergence of a bond between Nicaraguan Liberals and the Mexican government.

The long-awaited revolt took place in May 1922.  The Marine Guard was sufficiently strong enough to prevent fighting inside Managua, and even though Fort Loma was seized, government troops easily suppressed the uprising outside the capital.  Meanwhile, Liberal sentiments reflected hope of election reform and calm settled throughout the nation.  It was a peace that remained unbroken even when President Chamorro died in office.

Vice President Bartolomé Martínez González was known to have ambitions to succeed Chamorro; Liberals, who relied upon America’s promise of fair elections, argued that it would be illegal for the Vice President to permanently succeed Chamorro.  US diplomats clarified that no government which seized power in defiance of the constitution would be recognized as legitimate.  Satisfied, the Liberals focused all their energies to winning the 1924 election.

Over time, Liberals came to regard American leathernecks with some esteem.  When it was proposed that Marines (several of which provided support to Dobbs), should help supervise the electoral count, it was the conservatives (not the liberals) who complained loudest.

The new elections law was tested in 1924; it was the most nearly-honest election ever held in Nicaragua.  A coalition government was placed in office, with Conservative candidate Carlos José Solórzano Gutierrez elected President, and Liberal Juan Bautista Sacasa as Vice President.  Upon taking office, Solórzano promised that his administration would be scrupulously honest.  Praising the efforts of the United States to bolster the Nicaraguan economy, and stressing the notion of peaceful cooperation, Solórzano asked the United States to withdraw the Marine Guard from Managua … which was ultimately postponed from January until August 1925[6].  What Solórzano wanted was for the Marines to train a sufficient constabulary capable of maintaining the peace, but the government took no action to organize a police force until shortly before the Marines were withdrawn.

Three weeks after departure of the American Marines, a group of liberal cabinet ministers attended a reception.  Over the sound of popping champagne corks was heard a cacophony of gunfire from a band of conservatives who burst into the room, loudly accused the liberals of treason, and then ending their tirade by taking several liberals into custody.  The icing on this cake was that in late October, followers of Emiliano Chamorro seized the fortification at La Loma, and Solórzano and Vice President Sacasa left the country.  Thus, purged of liberal-leaning politicians, the Nicaraguan legislature reorganized itself and Emiliano Chamorro Vargas[7] seized power.

No one expected such boldness.  Along with efforts to persuade Chamorro to resign, the US refused to recognize his presidency.  This was of little concern to El Presidenté Chamorro, however, because thanks to elaborate US controls governing the collection of customs, all collected revenues automatically went to the central government no matter who was serving as president.  Although his seizure of office was clearly unconstitutional, Chamorro maintained control over the financial machinery of his new republic, which meant that Chamorro could easily afford to ignore the protestations of the United States.

Bluejackets 001Chamorro appeared undisturbed even when rioting swept throughout the country.  He believed that if the situation deteriorated, he could always rely on the United States to support Conservatives, as they had done so many times in the past.  In May 1926, USS Cleveland dropped anchor at Bluefields.  Marines and bluejackets went ashore to protect American property; no support for Chamorro would be forthcoming.  Moreover, the United States government accorded exiled Vice President Sacasa all the diplomatic honors due to a high official of a friendly state.  Worse than this, Mexico began providing Liberals (viewed as the party of Nicaraguan Nationalism) with arms and munitions.

Moncada JM 1910In eastern Nicaragua, Liberal General Jose Moncada (shown right) forced the conservative government back upon the Bluefields; a major battle was beginning to take shape.  The USA was concerned about the safety of its citizens and their property, resulting in the landing of a hundred Marines and bluejackets from the USS Galveston in August.  Conservatives looked upon the Americans as a savior to the conservative cause, but their mission was to prevent fighting, safeguard American citizens, and prevent rioting that would endanger private property.

Within a few weeks, Liberals and Conservatives were engaged in a large battle near El Bluff (Bluefields) … neither side gaining an advantage.  On 24 September 1926, Americans forced both sides out of El Bluff, causing them to resume their conflict at El Rama, 50 miles away.  Yet, despite their failure at El Bluff, the Liberal armies were doing quite well.  While they were not able to crush their adversaries, the Liberals did manage to disrupt commerce, and this had the effect of starving Chamorro economically.  No bucks, no bullets.

The United States negotiated a temporary truce beginning on 1 October 1926, inviting both sides to attend a peace conference at Corinto.  Armed Marines enforced a neutral zone around the city.  Peace talks took place from 16-24 October aboard USS Denver.  Vice President Sacasa, believing that it was not safe for him to attend this meeting, sent representatives.  What the US wanted was an impartial person to head an interim government.  Since there were no impartial leaders in Nicaragua, the conference was a waste of everyone’s time.

President Chamorro announced his resignation on 30 October 1926, the day the truce expired.  A conservative congress chose Senator Sebastian Uriza as Chamorro’s successor, but again the US withheld its recognition from Uriza’s government.  By this time weary of war, the Conservative Congress reconvened, reinstated expelled liberal members, and chose Adolfo Diaz to once more serve as (interim) president until 1928.  The amazing part of this is that at the time, Diaz remained the most hated man in Nicaragua.  The United States (along with several European powers) immediately recognized the Diaz government.  Mexico protested, however, insisting that Sacasa was the rightful leader even though absent from the country.

President Diaz failed to end the revolution, however.  In the first place, General Moncada refused to lay down his arms unless ordered to do so by former Vice President Sacasa.  Secondly, Sacasa himself arrived in Nicaragua in early December to take charge of the revolt, and with him came massive shipments of arms from Mexico.  When President Diaz learned of this, he began screaming for American assistance.

He would get it.

(To be Continued)

Notes:

[1] Despite his professed hatred for Imperialism and his staunchly anti-interventionist policies, Woodrow Wilson became the most interfering American president of all.

[2] A great orator, but a man whose thought patterns were loath to achieve originality.

[3] Refers to the convention signed on 6 June 1911 by Secretary of State Philander C. Knox and Nicaraguan minister Salvador Castillo, providing economic and political aide to Nicaragua.  The treaty languished in the US Senate until May 1912 where it failed to gain enough support to move to a senate vote.

[4] Hispanic naming conventions involve one or more given names, followed by two family names (surnames).  The first surname is the father’s surname, and the second surname is the mother’s maiden name.

[5] This was a system employed for many years in China; Marines, left unsupervised, always find a way to get into trouble.

[6] The withdrawal of Marines was the product of a slow evolution in American foreign policy.  Beginning in 1913, President Wilson hoped to deal with Central Americans as equals, but the strategic importance of Nicaragua forced him to keep a careful eye on the nation’s domestic affairs.  Victory over Germany and developing friendship with Great Britain ended concerns about foreign encroachment.  American bankers regarded European investments of greater importance than their Central American holdings.  Finally, the American people demanded more attention to domestic issues than those on foreign shore.  President Coolidge urged honest elections in Nicaragua rather than the election of a government favorable to the United States.  Removal of the Marine Guard was the beginning of an attempt to deal with Nicaragua as a sovereign power, rather than treating the country as a dependency.  Such optimism was misplaced, however.

[7] Chamorro-Vargas previously served as president 1917-1921.

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