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The Man Who Made The Yanquis Go Home
Starting with thirty “liberated” rifles, Augusto Sandino forced American troops out of Nicaragua in 1933
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
The appearance of a scruffy young irregular from the mountains did not visibly impress the urbane Dr. Sacasa nor his war minister, José María Moncada. Graying, convivial, and pro-American, a former schoolmaster and journalist, General Moncada knew Sandino’s father well, from local political work, and viewed Augusto as something of a backslider. The young man had adopted a jaunty guerrilla’s outfit, the most striking elements being his large, shovel-shaped Stetson cowboy hat (which dwarfed his prematurely lined face), bandoleros crossing his chest, and a formidable pair of riding boots. For his part, Sandino thought Moncada possessed questionable Liberal credentials, as the elder general had served in Díaz’s cabinet during his earlier administration. Thus Sandino did not react well when the “renegade conservative” haughtily turned down his plea for arms.
Moncada irritated him further by telling him, after Sandino had stolen guns from the confiscated pile, to return to the mountains—and to leave the rifles behind. Other Liberal leaders temporarily defused the situation, and Sandino left for San Rafael del Norte in the Segovias. News of his flamboyant action at Puerto Cabezas was already becoming mythical among the ranks of Liberal soldiers. In time the legend would tell of Sandino not only going hungry to feed his troops and the poor but also dreaming clairvoyant dreams and sending forth mysterious “waves” that psychically linked his fighters. But in 1927 the legend was young—more concerned with moral righteousness and machismo. Soldiers began migrating from the Sacasa-Moncada forces to be with Sandino, who had grown disgusted with the traditional politicos and had decided the revolution would have to be saved from them. Sacasa was only inept, he felt, but the more ambitious Moncada bore watching. “Moncada will at the very first opportunity sell out to the Americans,” he wrote in early 1927.
The minister of war’s personal ambition was soon unveiled. Not only Sacasa but also his sworn enemy, the Conservative Díaz, told the Americans they would abdicate their leadership in favor of a third man, and General Moncada began to maneuver himself into the spotlight. Inevitably he clashed with Sandino, the commander of the only other organized Nicaraguan army. Soon after Sandino left Puerto Cabezas, he defeated a large Conservative force at El Bejuco, capturing thousands of rifles and millions of cartridges, and Moncada’s ill-equipped soldiers began showing up among the Sandinistas. Furious, Moncada attempted, unsuccessfully, to have Sandino killed.
Meanwhile, President Díaz’s foreign aid continued to arrive. On February 21 the Navy Department announced that 5,414 American servicemen were on duty in Nicaragua or on their way there. Washington began to sell munitions on credit to the bankrupt Díaz government. None of this sat well with Sen. William E. Borah of Idaho, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had long been voicing doubts about entanglements in Latin America. Decrying a U.S. “mahogany and oil policy” that put protection of property above questions of right and wrong, Borah demanded that the troops be recalled.
Patiently the administration repeated the rationale: the intervention was strictly “neutral”; communists in “Mexico and other Latin American countries” were committing anti-American acts, and citizens’ lives and property were endangered. Increasingly the Monroe Doctrine was cited. In April, President Coolidge spoke, promising to protect United States citizens wherever they might be. He added, “We are not making war on Nicaragua any more than a policeman on the street is making war on passersby.”
Coolidge’s soothing words fell upon uneasy ears. Walter Lippmann, then writing for the New York World, complained that the United States had “neither been honestly neutral, nor have we honestly intervened. We have combined the worst features of both policies.” The London Spectator commented, “The United States is finding out, as we found out long ago, how slippery is the slope of imperialism.”
Plainly Coolidge did not enjoy what was going on. Marines, simply by their presence, were coming under fire. To avert a political and military disaster, the President appointed Henry L. Stimson, a former Secretary of War, to mediate between the embattled parties. But the peace conference, which began on May 4 outside Managua, satisfied no one but the United States. Under threat of American force, the armies of both Díaz and Sacasa were instructed to disarm. Díaz would complete his term, followed by an American-supervised election. Stimson (it was whispered) obtained Moncada’s cooperation by promising him the presidency in 1928.
Sandino began to suspect Moncada when a Liberal war council convened to vote on the disarming. Moncada assured his subordinates that this defeat was actually a victory, since the 1928 election would doubtlessly return them to power. Of twelve Liberal generals, only Sandino refused to commit himself, turning down promised rewards of money and land. The chilly relations between the two men worsened when Moncada angrily blurted out, “And who made you a general?”