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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
For several weeks after his stronghold was smashed, Sandino was reputed to have been killed in the bombardment. He claimed later to have staged his own funeral to aid in the deception, but when he reappeared near the town of Jinotega, alarm bells went off in Washington. Col. Charles A. Lindbergh made a barnstorming tour of Central America on behalf of the Coolidge administration; he was showered with rose petals on Latin airstrips, but many back home wondered aloud whether he had attached his name to a bad issue.
More outraged Republican and Democratic voices asked why Coolidge had committed soldiers to slaughter in Central America without first obtaining the legislators’ approval. Even Will Rogers, the revered cowboy philosopher, wondered why the country was getting involved in Nicaragua.
Diplomacy was rediscovered—it was, after all, an election year at home—and Latimer’s successor, Adm. David F. Sellers, was ordered to open a dialogue with Sandino. The guerrilla responded with a demand for withdrawal of American soldiers and the proposal that Latin American nations, not the North Americans, should supervise and guarantee free elections. As this was not part of U.S. plans, the Americans and Sandino became engaged in one of the most peppery diplomatic exchanges ever recorded. An exasperated Sellers stiffly complained of the “insolence” of “bandit” Sandino’s replies.
By 1930 Hoover had come to believe the Marines could not defeat a popular guerrilla movement. The American troops now began to be rotated home.
“Who are you, anyway?” Sandino wrote a Yankee officer. “How dare you threaten with death, and otherwise, the legitimate sons of my country? Do you think you are in the heart of Africa? Don’t believe that I am afraid of you! If you are any kind of man come out and fight it out with me single-handed on neutral ground, whenever you want.”
The unproductive correspondence continued despite the launching of a concerted drive to wipe out Sandino within two months. American forces were told to travel light and adopt the guerrillas’ tactics. “If you want to eat,” the soldiers were told, “catch a bandit and take his beans from him.”
Dispatches and official releases took on a pronounced tone of confidence in the spring of 1928, but the war was as savage and hard as all guerrilla wars. Both sides traded charges of atrocities, which, as our melancholy experience in such conflicts has shown, were at least in part accurate.
As 5,480 Marines and 2,000 National Guardsmen pursued the rebels, the first American journalist managed to find his way to Sandino’s camp. In a widely publicized series of articles and interviews, Carleton Beals, writing for The Nation, portrayed Sandino as a dedicated nationalist, politically sophisticated, capable of humor and confident. Sandino was indignant when people called him a communist or a bandit, and he was also, Beals wrote, “a bit flamboyant and boastful and with a tendency to exaggerate his successes.”
“My record is absolutely clean,” Sandino told Beals. “Any man can examine every step I have ever taken. He will never find that Sandino his life long has ever taken anything that has not belonged to him, that he has ever broken a promise, that he has ever left any place owing any man a cent.” A few minutes later the guerrilla showed Beals his ledger of army expenditures. “Everything we take in and spend is faithfully recorded here,” Sandino explained. “Today, for instance, I gave Colonel Colindres fifteen dollars, all I had at the moment, to buy clothes for five of his soldiers who escorted you from El Remango and who came in dirty and ragged. I suggested to him that he tell the shopkeeper we are poor and that he make the money go as far as possible, and if it didn’t quite stretch to send the bill to President Coolidge, who is to blame for this violation of my country.”
From his command post in the hills, Sandino appealed on the eve of the American-supervised election in 1928 to the leaders of fifteen Latin American nations. He urged them to protest diplomatically or with arms “the uncounted crimes being committed by the Government of the White House, in cold blood, in our unhappy Nicaragua.” His agents had tried to convince Indians in remote hamlets that Americans ate babies—causing prospective voters to flee into the jungle when Marines rode in to conduct registration and balloting. Such campaign dirty tricks, however, had little lasting effect.
Despite the election of General Moncada (as expected), Sandino’s popularity was growing in the cities as well as in the mountains, and the new Nicaraguan president feared that the Marines would be withdrawn by the new administration of Herbert Hoover in Washington, leaving him with no support for his regime. He tried to organize a private army but was told by the Marine commander to concentrate on nonmilitary measures such as public works if he wanted to win over the people. The National Guard, supposedly a nonpartisan police force, would eventually have its American officer corps replaced by Nicaraguans; Moncada was told to forget about armies until that time.