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Mr. Coolidge’s Jungle War
Forty years ago, American Marines tangled with a tough Latin-American guerrilla leader whose tactics against “the capitalists” would evoke an unhappy shock of recognition in Vietnam today.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
The various rebel commanders, as requested, signed an agreement with General Moncada that they would surrender their arms—all but one, namely Augusto Sandino. The only word from Sandino was a note saying that he was going north to collect arms from his dissident followers and would “remain there awaiting your [Moncada’s] orders.” No one paid much attention to Sandino’s absence as the various revolutionary battalions and the government forces surrendered their arms to officers of the 5th Marine Regiment. The job of policing the country was assumed by the Marines’ provisional brigade and the Nicaraguan constabulary, which was to be commanded by Marine officers.
On May 15, Stimson confidently telegraphed the State Department: “The civil war in Nicaragua is now definitely ended. … I believe that the way is now open for the development of Nicaragua along the lines of peace, order, and ultimate self government.”
The next day two Marines, Captain Richard B. Buchanan and Private Marvin A. Jackson, were killed when a guerrilla band attacked their post guarding the railroad near León.
Sandino had spoken. It was the starting gun of a long and hitter struggle to pacify the country. Stimson later recorded that General Moncada had told him that Sandino, “having promised to join in the settlement, afterward broke his word and with about 150 followers, most of whom he said were Honduran mercenaries, had secretly left his army and started northward toward the Honduras border.”
Stimson left Managua that day, May 16, to return to Washington, convinced that Sandino and his band would soon be tracked down and captured. Instead, the Marine Corps, along with the Nicaraguan constabulary, found itself plunged into a guerrilla war with few guidelines and even fewer omens of success.
There were, to be sure, certain precedents. The Marines themselves had been engaged in police actions in Haiti. The U.S. Army, confronted on several occasions by guerrillas of various types, had learned and then forgotten the lesson that it takes a vast preponderance of men and materials to hunt down determined bands of partisans operating in rough country, among people friendly to the quarry but hostile to the hunters. During the Civil War the Union Army had been bedevilled by the irregular forces of Mosby, Quantrill, and others. In 1886 the regular Army had turned out 5,000 of its best troops to run down the Apache leader Geronimo and his followers, whose strength was approximately one per cent of their own. In the southern Philippines after the Spanish-American War, it had taken the army fourteen years to pacify the Moro insurrectos. An even more frustrating experience was General John J. Pershing’s futile expedition into Mexico in 1916, chasing after Pancho Villa with the best of the U.S. Cavalry and coming back with an empty cage.
Sandino, as Marine intelligence officers quickly learned, meant to stir up as much trouble as possible. He had taken his hard-core followers up into the heavily forested mountains of Nueva Segovia and Jinotega provinces near the Honduras border and was recruiting what became a striking force estimated at one thousand men. He had even designed a battle flag of red and black emblazoned with a death’s-head. It was also observed that he was adept at rousing the patriotic emotions of the people in the back country by playing on resentment of foreign violations of their native soil, an emotion stronger in the mountains than in the more sophisticated cities to the south.
Augusto Sandino was a mestizo, not much over five feet tall, with a striking look of self-confidence in his intense black eyes. In 1927 he was thirty-four years old. The son of the owner of a small coffee plantation, he was educated at the Eastern Institute in Granada, worked on his father’s finca, and then left his native Niquinohomo after a violent dispute with a prominent man in the vicinity. For a time he worked in mines and on banana plantations in Nicaragua, and then he went to Mexico and was employed by an American oil company in Tampico. He returned to his father’s home in 1926, laden with books on sociology and syndicalism—and, oddly enough, a bulky missionary tract, which he frequently consulted, published by the Seventh-day Adventists.
He loved to coin heroic slogans and hurl them at his followers on all suitable occasions (“Death is but one little moment of discomfort; it is not to be taken too seriously … God and our mountains fight for us”). But Sandino also had a sense of humor. Whenever he “requisitioned” supplies for his forces from the merchants, plantations, or mining companies on which he periodically descended, he insisted with sardonic punctilio on leaving nicely printed certificates: “The Honorable Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States of North America, will pay the bearer $——.”