The Marine Tradition

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Concerning these interventions there has been much argument. That they have profoundly irritated many Latin Americans is undeniable, and that at times they served chiefly to protect certain Wall Street investments is equally undeniable. At the same time, until fairly recently it was taken for granted—in Washington, at least—that if the United States lets no European power intervene in the affairs of any New World nation, it must itself intervene if revolutions bring chaos, bankruptcy, and rioting to an unstable land. Consequently, through more than half a century, it often stepped in to take charge and restore order—in a Caribbean island republic, in Central America, or elsewhere—and when this happened the men who did the stepping were the hard, bronzed marines in their bleached khaki.

Frequently the intervention was uneventful enough, with nothing required beyond a cruiser or two at anchor in a harbor and a few companies of marines marching from wharf to central plaza. At other times there was hard fighting—as, for example, in Nicaragua in 1912, when after some weeks of occupation duty a battalion of marines, backed by two batteries of marine artillery, stormed a fortified place named Coyotepe Hill, held by rebel troops, near the town of Masaya. It took a bombardment and a spirited frontal assault to accomplish this, and the marines suffered eighteen casualties, but the job was done; and after minor clean-up operations elsewhere in the country, the fighting ended, the rebellion flickered out, and five and one-half months after they landed the marines—except for a legation guard—departed, leaving comparative peace and order behind them.

This was Marine Corps routine, off and on, for many years, and whatever it may have done to America’s relations with other New World nations it had a profound, and beneficial, effect on the Corps itself. It kept the Corps honed to a steady fighting edge; it made veterans out of men carefully selected and rigorously disciplined; and it contributed vastly to that pride in their identity that the Marines have turned into such an asset (and, at times, such an irritant to the other services). The Corps has always liked to repeat the standard report which an admiral, ordered to take a squadron into some sun-baked and riotous seaport, would send back after 24 hours: “The Marines have landed and have the situation well in hand.”

From time to time, efforts have been made to abolish the Corps and quietly absorb the men into the other services. Theodore Roosevelt favored such a move toward the end of his administration, but Congress refused to go along with him; President Taft also tried it, a few years later, without success. The utility of a landing force that was always in a state of readiness was becoming more and more obvious, and experience in the First World War helped clinch things.

At the outbreak of the war Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels offered “equipped and ready, two regiments of Marines to be incorporated in the Army.” He wrote that some army officers were not at all keen to accept this offer, but Daniels presently had his way, and in 1917 the Fifth and Sixth regiments of marines went to France to serve in the Second Division of the A.E.F. as the Marine Brigade.

The Second Division was mostly army regulars, and with these men the tough marines fitted perfectly. One of the most articulate officers who ever served in the Corps, Captain John W. Thomason, Jr. (later a colonel), wrote a book that he called Fix Bayonets! about the Marine Brigade’s experiences in the Second Division, and he left this sketch of the old-timers who served in this brigade: