The Man Who Made The Yanquis Go Home

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Rear Adm. Julian L. Latimer stood on the bridge of his flagship, the USS Rochester, as it nosed into the harbor of Puerto Cabezas, on Nicaragua’s northeastern Mosquito Coast. It was Christmas Eve, 1926, and the fifry-seven-year-old West Virginian had been called abruptly away from family festivities at the Canal Zone naval station at Balboa.

Rear Admiral Latimer could see Puerto Cabezas clearly: with its sawmill and rows of workers’ shacks, it looked like a Georgia lumber town. But it was owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Standard Fruit Company, which used it as a shipping point for the mahogany produced by the company’s vast plantations in the interior. American-owned the town may have been, but the Rochester was there, along with two other warships, the Cleveland and the Denver , because Puerto Cabezas currently was occupied by people the U.S. State Department viewed as hostile.

A civil war between Nicaraguan Liberals and Conservatives, erupting in the aftermath of the country’s 1924 election and a subsequent coup, had drawn Washington’s attention when deposed Liberals appealed for outside aid to help reestablish their “constitutionally elected” coalition government. Led by Dr. Juan B. Sacasa, the Liberals had been able to enlist only one ally—Mexico. Rather than helping their cause, this sealed their fate. The Coolidge administration was squabbling heatedly with the ruling Mexican Liberal party over Mexican laws curbing foreign ownership of property and restricting gringo oil leases. Among certain circles in the United States, such economic nationalism was nothing but “bolshevism.”

The Rochester and its accompanying warships owed their presence in Nicaraguan waters at least outwardly to the call of Adolfo Díaz, a Conservative who had been installed as president with American approval. He was disliked at home because he was unable to rule without the presence of U.S. Marines. During a term of office fourteen years before, Díaz’s call for Yanqui help had cost a thousand Nicaraguan lives and millions in state debts. This time, invoking a highly questionable threat, Díaz claimed that the Liberal army had been beefed up by “three hundred Mexican bolsheviks.” The U.S. State Department quickly responded—citing the “spectre of a Mexican-fostered Bolshevistic hegemony intervening between the United States and the Panama Canal.”

 
Sandino ignored the directive to disarm, beginning a pattern of defiance that would bedevil and divide the United States for six bloody and costly years.
 

Rear Admiral Latimer might have expected only a short postponement of his Christmas celebration as his squadron anchored in the harbor opposite the building that housed the Sacasa government. The Liberals had abandoned their initial capital, in the Caribbean port of Bluefields, only days before—at first sight of the warships. And now on this Christmas Eve it seemed that they were also to lose control of Puerto Cabezas. As swarms of bluejackets trooped through the town searching Sacasa’s residence and posting sentries every few yards, Latimer declared that, effective 4:00 P.M. Christmas Day, everything “within rifle range” of American properties would be “neutralized.” The action was not an intervention in the internal affairs of Nicaragua, he explained; it was simply a measure to protect American lives and property.

Dr. Sacasa—who still called himself president—protested the “bellicose display,” saying that he had no quarrel with Americans or designs on their holdings. But he and his ministers and generals looked on, powerless, as bluejackets disarmed all Nicaraguan soldiers left within Latimer’s neutral zone. Seven hundred tons of weapons and ammunition, purchased earlier by the Liberals in New Orleans, were confiscated and piled alongside the harbor—destined to be dumped in the bay.

Before this could be done, an unlikely squad of six Liberal soldiers and a group of port prostitutes stole over to the pile of confiscated weaponry. They managed to grab thirty rifles and six thousand cartridges. Their leader, an unprepossessing little man whose name was Augusto César Sandino, had, a few weeks before, floated in a dugout canoe for nine days down the Coco River from the interior highlands to secure some weapons for his irregulars. Of all the officers in the Liberal ranks, Sandino alone planned to ignore Admiral Latimer’s directive to disarm, beginning a pattern of defiance that would bedevil and divide the United States for six bloody and costly years. In weeks Latimer’s force of 16 warships, 215 officers, 3,900 soldiers, and 865 Marines would prove insufficient to effectively occupy Nicaragua. By then the name Sandino had already come to stand for more than just the man.