- Historic Sites
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
Several weeks later it appeared that Sandino was making a push toward Matagalpa and its coffee plantations. At the head of 150 mounted guerrillas, he occupied the large finca of Charles Potter, an Englishman, appropriated all the cash and supplies on the premises, enlisted a number of Potter’s workers, and then amiably enough departed. Scores of refugees from the district fled to Matagalpa for protection, since it was guarded by a Marine outpost of forty-five men. Undoubtedly Sandino could have taken the town the night after he left Potter’s plantation, though a battalion of Marines was being rushed there in commandeered automobiles. Instead, Sandino and his mounted force vanished in the direction of the northern mountains. Evidently he intended to employ hit-and-run tactics, in the style that would become classic when codified by Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara. Sandino hoped to keep the country in a turmoil and prevent any American-supervised elections.
Gradually, however, the Americans succeeded in bringing most of the countryside under control, particularly in the north, where Sandino had been able to operate almost at will. Vigorous and constant patrol action, along with the systematic destruction of Sandino’s supply caches, whittled down the guerrilla leader’s freedom of movement. Suddenly, however, there was an outbreak of banditry on the eastern coast of Nicaragua, which had been quiet all through Sandino’s activity. In April, a bandit gang raided an American-owned mine, took $12,000 in cash, and kidnapped the manager.
To combat this new menace the Coco Patrol was established under Captain Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, who became renowned as a tactician in the jungle campaigns against the Japanese fifteen years later. The patrol, on foot and in boats, moved up and down the Coco River from the eastern lowlands to the uplands of the northwest, where it linked up with patrols from Colonel Dunlap’s 11th Regiment. On several occasions Captain Edson’s special force outwitted and outfought the bandits who tried to ambush it along the jungle trails. Edson developed the concept of the “fire team” to spring any traps laid for him. Specially trained, one unit of the team would build up a “base of fire” the moment the force ran into an ambush; then other elements would quickly move out to turn the enemy’s flanks.
The link-up between the Coco Patrol and the 11th Regiment’s patrols not only protected the mines that bandits had been raiding but reduced the guerrilla activity almost to zero. At least the country was quiet enough, by November of 1928, to hold the presidential election. An American electoral commission headed by General Frank R. McCoy and staffed by specially trained Marines supervised the voting. General Moncada, the candidate of the Liberals, won by a 20,000-vote majority over Adolfo Benard, the Conservatives’ candidate. On November 5, two days after the election, El Commercio, the chief Liberal organ in the capital, proclaimed in its banner line: “The United States is Vindicated Before the World.”
Not entirely, perhaps; but the United States did keep its promise to end the intervention as soon as it seemed feasible. The Marine contingent was gradually reduced as the Guardia was trained by American officers to take over the job of maintaining order. The 11th Marine Regiment, however, stayed at its posts in northern Nicaragua until March, 1931. The reason for its continued presence was the still intransigent Sandino. Even after the Liberal victory at the polls, he stayed in the hills and maintained his disloyal opposition. Financed from the outside, he had “begun to carry on radical propaganda in the interior,” as Dana Gardner Munro has written, having veered leftward of both legal political parties.
Sandino stayed on the run until 1933, when a peace agreement was worked out by Dr. Sacasa, who had succeeded to the presidency. Several months later, Sandino was engaged in disarmament talks at Managua with Sacasa and Anastasio Somoza, who was the commander of the Guardia at that time. While Sandino dined with Sacasa’s family and a few other guests on the night of February 21, 1934, members of the Guardia, outraged by the leniency granted him under Sacasa’s amnesty, and perhaps encouraged by the American minister, Arthur Bliss Lane, agreed that the time had come to kill Sandino. Group responsibility was assured by signing a pact that they called “The Death of Caesar.” When Sacasa’s congenial group dispersed at about ten o’clock, their automobiles were halted as they emerged from Sacasa’s grounds and the Sandinistas among them were whisked off to the Managua airfield to be executed. Somoza himself was conveniently in another part of town and, to the disbelief of the Sandinistas, refused to interpose his authority. A machine gun was positioned, a signal was given, and the prisoners were gunned down. With the Sandinista leadership went the whole movement; its remnants were wiped out within weeks.