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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 United States was first introduced to the vexations of large-scale guerrilla warfare forty years ago in the mountain jungles of Nicaragua. There for the first time Americans were confronted by an elusive partisan leader of a type to become bitterly familiar not only in the Caribbean but in Southeast Asia, a man who pioneered techniques of warfare when Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were in rompers and Mao Tse-tung was an obscure revolutionary. “Mr. Coolidge’s War,” the affair has been called. More formally, it was the American intervention in Nicaragua of 1927-28—and though it was not one of the thunderclaps of history, its significance is evident.
For well over a year a particularly agile and mischievous guerrilla chieftain named Sandino—the name became almost a household word in the late twenties—campaigned successfully against the elite battalions of the United States Marine Corps. In giving them so much trouble, he unintentionally made his country a proving ground for U.S. weapons and tactics. In Nicaragua the Marine Corps began to formulate the doctrine that would guide the jungle campaigns against the Japanese in World War II and against the Viet Cong in South Vietnam; it tried out such novelties as dive-bombing, aerial support of ground forces, search-and-destroy missions, and the counterambush. It would not be appropriate to belabor the point, but with a change of dateline many of the dispatches from Vietnamese battlefields read like the afteraction reports of the Marines’ provisional brigade in Nicaragua.
Similarly interchangeable would be the protests of liberal and pacifist elements in the United States. President Coolidge had his Senator Fulbright in the liberal Republican William E. Borah of Idaho, who kept demanding to know the true casualty figures of the U.S. force and of those opposed to it. Another senator introduced a resolution that would have forbidden the President to employ military forces when “Congress has not declared a state of war to exist.” Hundreds of ordinary citizens picketed the White House with signs reading “Wall Street and not Sandino is the Real Bandit,” and Marines bound for Nicaraguan duty received letters urging them to desert when they landed and join Sandino in his “war for freedom.”
It was not primarily Wall Street’s interests, nor any fervor for foreign ventures on the part of the lackadaisical Coolidge, nor even an ironclad interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine that propelled the intervention. For almost a century the United States had considered Nicaragua strategic to the national interest: it offered the best alternative route for a trans-Isthmus canal—a route that is still a matter of consideration in the event that political upheaval, or the need for a larger canal, should make an alternative to the Panama Canal necessary. (A survey of the Nicaraguan route, undertaken by a commission set up by the U.S. Congress in 1938, estimated that such a canal would cost almost $1,500,000,000, against the $375,000,000 spent in Panama. Today, of course, it would cost much more.)
This continuing strategic interest, plus the concessions obtained by American companies for the exploitation of Nicaragua’s bananas, mahogany, and gold, made the country almost an American protectorate. Between 1912 and 1925, Marines were landed several times to restore order after political disturbances. The closely drawn struggle between the Liberal and the Conservative parties in Nicaragua, which had been going on since early in the nineteenth century, erupted with even greater violence late in 1926 when a Conservative, Adolfo Díaz, was elected to the presidency by the Nicaraguan congress and recognized by the United States and most of the other great powers. The Liberal leader, Dr. Juan Sacasa, then proclaimed himself president, with the support of revolutionary forces under General José Maria Moncada. Mexico recognized Sacasa and sent him four shiploads of arms and supplies. Before long, his forces had occupied large sections of the country.
Once again the U.S. government felt it was necessary to intervene. The 5th Marine Regiment was landed on the Atlantic coast, and a shore party from the cruiser Galveston on the Pacific. The State Department gave the Associated Press a story pointing to the “spectre of a Mexican-fostered Bolshevistic hegemony intervening between the United States and the Panama Canal.” By March of 1927 the U.S. Navy reported that 5,414 men were on duty in or en route to Nicaragua. However, President Coolidge decided to make a last try at a political solution. He rushed former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to the embattled country aboard a cruiser just as General Moncada’s revolutionary forces advanced to within forty miles of Managua, the capital.
Colonel Stimson briskly set about negotiating a truce between the contending factions. He persuaded President Díaz to offer the rebels a general amnesty, the return of confiscated property, and participation in the Díaz cabinet by Liberal leaders. Then Stimson arranged a meeting with General Moncada, which was field on May 4, 1927, under a large blackthorn tree just outside the village of Tipitapa. A week later they met there again. As a result, Moncada agreed to allow Díaz to stay in the presidency provided that the United States would supervise the election the following year.
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 $——.”
Sandino’s objectives were succinctly stated in a message he left at the La Luz mines after levelling the American-owned property there: “The most honorable resolution which your government could adopt in the conflict with Nicaragua is to retire its forces from our territory, thus permitting us, the Nicaraguans, to elect our national government, which is the only means of pacifying the country. With your government rests the conservation of good or bad relations with our government and you, the capitalists, will be appreciated and respected by us according as you treat us as equals and not in the mistaken manner which now obtains, believing yourselves lords and masters of our lives and property.”
The mordant edge of Sandino’s humor was soon felt by Marine Captain G. D. Hatfield, whose force of thirty-seven Marines and forty Nicaraguair constables occupied Ocotal, the largest town in the province of Nueva Segovia, and formed the spearhead of the forces charged with running down the rebel. Captain Hatfield and Sandino exchanged a number of letters inviting each other to surrender or, failing that, to “come out and fight.” Sandino easily outdid the Marine commander in bravura. One of his messages was decorated with a drawing of a guerrilla brandishing a machete over the prostrate form of a Marine; it was signed, “Your obedient servant, who wishes to put you in a handsome tomb with flowers.” Meanwhile, Sandino was striking hard at foreign-owned mining properties in the northern mountains. The managers of French and German mines near Ocotal were kidnapped and held for $5,000 ransom. Sandino and his followers also wrecked the gold mine operated by Charles Butters, an American, at San Albino, where Sandino had worked as a clerk just before joining the Liberal revolution.
On July 15, on orders from his superiors, Captain Hatfield sent Sandino an ultimatum demanding that he surrender within twenty-four hours or be wiped out. “I will not surrender,” Sandino replied, “and will await you here. I want a free country or death.”
Actually he had already decided against “awaiting” the Marines in the mountains above Ocotal and had begun deploying for an attack. One day after receiving the ultimatum, at 1 A.M. on July 16, he launched a furious assault on the garrison at Ocotal with an estimated six hundred followers. Only luck saved Captain Hatfield and his men from destruction. A Marine sentry patrolling one hundred yards from the city hall sighted a shadow moving along a line of bushes. The shadow, startled, fired on him. The Marine raced to the city hall, where Hatfield’s headquarters were located, and the town’s defenders were alerted just before Sandino struck in force. The Sandinistas had infiltrated the town and were closing in on the main defense positions around the city hall.
Outnumbered by almost ten to one, the Marines and the constables reacted with admirable discipline and poured rifle, grenade, and machine-gun fire on the attackers from the rooftops, courtyards, and windows. One group of Sandino’s men charged into the courtyard behind the city hall and killed a Marine, but was forced to withdraw. In the square fronting on Hatfield’s command post, the partisans were caught in a crossfire between Marines in the city hall and the Guardia (constabulary) in the nearby church tower. Thomas G. Bruce, a Marine first sergeant commissioned as a lieutenant in the Guardia, lay in the street behind a heavy machine gun and accounted for many of the Sandinistas trying to cross the square.
At dawn, Sandino realized his surprise attack had failed, and he withdrew his followers from the center of town. The garrison, he decided, would have to be starved out. A heavy fire was poured at long range into the two buildings held by Hatfield and his men.
Two Marine reconnaissance planes, part of the nine-plane unit of World War I de Havillands based in a cow pasture outside Managua, happened to fly over Ocotal late that morning on a routine patrol. On glimpsing the battle below they streaked for their base. At three o’clock that afternoon a flight of five planes led by Major Ross E. Rowell swooped out of rainy skies and proceeded to demonstrate what air support could accomplish even in what the Marines called a “bamboo war.” Major Rowell and his flight loosed small bombs and strafed Sandino’s positions for a half hour before running out of ammunition.
At nightfall, Captain Hatfield was able to report that Ocotal’s defenders had given Sandino a sharp setback. His own casualties included one Marine killed and two wounded and four members of the Guardia wounded, against reports from residents of the town that forty of Sandino’s followers had been killed and an unknown number wounded.
Sandino, at any rate, was forced to lift the siege and pull back into the mountains to the east when a column of Marine reinforcements arrived. Several days later he issued a proclamation that he had attacked Ocotal to “prove that we prefer death to slavery” and added that “whoever believes we are downcast by the heavy casualties misjudges my army …” Another column of Marines and Guardia was sent into the mountainous heart of guerrilla country and occupied the village of Jicaro, which Sandino had renamed Sandino City and designated as his “capital.”
The guerrillas had scattered in the mountains in what would become known as a classic pattern of dispersal following an engagement. At the time, however, the American authorities simply took the dispersal as a sign that they were giving up the fight. So convinced were the Americans that Sandino was beaten that they ordered a withdrawal of part of the provisional brigade to Guantánamo in Cuba and to other bases. General Logan Feland also left, after handing over command of the Nicaragua field force to Colonel Louis Mason Gulick. Meanwhile an Army general, Frank R. McCoy, arrived with orders from President Coolidge to supervise the coming election.
The countryside was fairly quiet that summer, and by the end of July there were only 1,700 Marines still stationed in Nicaragua. But the lull was deceptive. Actually Sandino was quietly building up his forces for renewed and heavier fighting. A Marine Corps historian wrote later:
He was a master of propaganda and managed to use the Ocotal affair to his advantage: it served to attract the attention of communistic and other radical elements in Central America, Mexico and even in the United States; and it made Sandino a central figure to rally around. Considerable sums of money were raised, some even in the United States, and turned over to him for the purpose of providing military equipment and maintaining an armed force. Within a few months Sandino had several thousand followers and an actual armed force of almost a thousand. All this went on, however, without the knowledge of any responsible American official.
Harold Denny, the New York Times’s capable young man on the scene, agreed that Sandino may have become a hero abroad through “extravagantly false” propaganda, but in Benny’s view “he did not represent public opinion in Nicaragua.” His countrymen sympathized with Sandino but seldom offered their voluntary support. Many foreigners in Nicaragua, not including Americans, also sympathized with him because:
He was an under dog making a terrific fight. I have heard foreigners in fear of an imminent attack on their plantations discuss him with something akin to admiration. But few people in Nicaragua were really interested in throwing the Americans out of the country, even though they might not love them. To the more intelligent persons of both parties, Sandino was a lively danger to Nicaragua’s hard won opportunity for a just peace. Toward the last even some of his supporters outside the country urged him to cease fighting because his warfare, instead of driving the marines from the country, was insuring that they would remain.
The only American to wangle a personal interview with Sandino during the year of his most intense activity as a guerrilla chieftain was Carleton Beals, a correspondent for the Nation, one of the most eloquent of the defenders of Sandino’s right to foment a rebellion against the American presence. Beals made a long and perilous journey through Honduras and across the northern border of Nicaragua, entering Sandino country through the back door. Through his well-advertised sympathies Beals was enabled to “make the proper connections in Mexico and Guatemala” and follow “the thread of Sandino’s underground with the outside world,” through El Salvador and then Honduras. While travelling that clandestine route, guided by Sandino sympathizers, Beals was shown a photograph of the town of Chinandega after it was bombed by U.S. planes, and in his report there are foreshadowings of Harrison Salisbury’s dispatches from Vietnam. “An entire street laid in ruins and sprinkled with mangled bodies,” Beals wrote; “the tumbled walls of the hospital, broken bodies of patients flung about. … Was it so long ago that we called the Germans Huns for destroying civilian populations without mercy?”
Beals’s interview with Sandino demonstrated to Americans that he was no mere adventurer but a man of intensely idealistic convictions. Sandino attacked the Díaz government as an American puppet, blamed American financial interests for all the troubles visited upon his country, inveighed against Nicaragua’s sale of its canal rights to the United States, and blamed the country’s economic plight on eighteen years of American intervention. Only in relating his military successes, Beals thought, was Sandino “quite too flamboyant and boastful.”
One myth exploded by Beals was the much repeated charge that Sandino was being equipped with Russian arms. Beals examined some of the rifles carried by the Sandinistas and found that they did indeed bear Russian markings. Investigation showed, however, that they had been manufactured in the United States for export to the Kerensky regime, which gave way to the Bolsheviks before the weapons could be employed against the Germans; subsequently they were sold as army surplus to Mexico, and were among the four boatloads of arms that Mexico sent to the Liberal revolutionaries just before the Nicaraguan revolution broke out. Beals was not impressed with their quality, observing that some of them “exploded in the hands of the users.”
It was Marine air reconnaissance that finally tipped off the American authorities that a new Sandino build-up was in progress. The “squadron” in the Managua cow pasture had been reinforced with new Corsair fighter planes, forerunners of the Navy’s World War II carrier planes, and they kept a close surveillance over the mountains of Nueva Segovia province where Sandino was presumed to be hiding. In mid-October it finally became apparent to the Marine headquarters in Managua that their field commanders were right: Sandino was about to stir up trouble again.
The Marine aviators flying over the mountains of Nueva Segovia observed much activity on the trails. In October a plane piloted by Lieutenant Earl A. Thomas, with Sergeant Frank E. Dowdell as his observer, crashed near Quilali in the heart of Sandino country. The pilot of another plane in the same flight saw the two men crash-land and escape from the wreckage. A patrol was sent out to rescue them but became engaged in a heavy fire fight with an estimated three hundred guerrillas; the patrol was forced to withdraw after three of its men were killed. Marine intelligence officers later learned that Thomas and Dowdell were killed by Sandinistas after they took refuge in a cave.
About that time the Marines managed, from aerial reconnaissance and other reports, to pinpoint the center of Sandino activity. It was a mile-high, heavily forested mountain named El Chipote—meaning in Spanish slang “back-handed slap”—in southeastern Nueva Segovia. The mountain was fifteen miles long and shaped like a battleship. On its prow Sandino had established a fortified camp scored with trenches and pitted with foxholes and machine-gun nests. The Coco River flowed down just to the south of the summit of El Chipote, the Jicaro through a valley on its western flank.
Rooting Sandino out of that stronghold became the Marines’ immediate objective. On December 21, 1927, two columns set out on converging marches toward the fortified hogback of El Chipote. They were curiously undermanned, considering the fact that Marine intelligence credited Sandino with having close to a thousand men under his command. One column—one hundred fifty Marines, seven members of the Guardia, and a long pack train, commanded by Captain Richard Livingston—marched from Jinotega; another column, commanded by First Lieutenant Merton A. Richal and consisting of sixty Marines and constabulary, set out from Pueblo Nuevo. They were to meet at Quilali on the Jicaro River and join forces for the climb up El Chipote.
By the morning of December 30, both columns were within a few miles of Quilali. Suddenly Sandino’s followers, awaiting their foes’ slow and ponderous approach, sprang a double ambush. Less than a mile south of Quilali, as it proceeded along a narrow trail clinging to the flank of El Chipote, Captain Livingston’s column was attacked by a large force of Sandinistas from concealed positions above the trail. The guerrillas rained down fire from automatic rifles and trench mortars. (The mortars, homemade, had been produced by Sandino’s armory at the Butters mine a few miles up the Jicaro. They were fashioned from lengths of iron pipe, and the missiles they fired were rawhide pouches packed with scraps of iron, stones, and glass fragments; the pouches were tamped into the pipes with charges of dynamite.) Before the column could fight its way out of the trap, five Marines were killed and twenty-three others wounded, six of them, including Captain Livingston, seriously. Their pack train was scattered and most of their supplies lost. Livingston’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Moses J. Gould, took over the job of leading the detachment to the village of Quilali through snipers’ fire on both sides of the trail.
A short time later the other column was similarly surprised a few miles west of Quilali. It took that detachment two days to fight its way out of a succession of ambushes; Lieutenant Richal himself was seriously wounded and three other Marines were also hit before they reached Quilali. Lieutenant Bruce, the machine gunner who had fought so valiantly at Ocotal, now commanded Richal’s Guardia detachment; he was killed in one of the running battles.
The remains of the two columns barricaded themselves in the score of stone-walled and tile-roofed houses of Quilali; between them they could muster less than two hundred men able to shoulder arms. Against them were an estimated seven hundred guerrillas who had obviously been trained to a pitch far above that of the usual Central American bush army. The village was under constant fire. Its defenders would be starved out unless relief arrived in a hurry.
Once again it was the fledgling Marine air power, represented by the two-seater Corsairs and obsolescent de Havillands under Major Rowell’s command at Managua, that was called upon to balance the odds. Planes on constant reconnaissance over rebel territory spotted the fighting at Quilali. Lieutenant Gould, now in command of the combined ground force, strung messages on wires stretched between two poles, which the pilots picked off with grappling hooks. Among other things, Gould asked if his wounded could be evacuated.
A dashing and skillful pilot, Lieutenant Christian F. Schilt, volunteered to fly out from Managua, land at Quilali, and remove the wounded—or at least try to. Meanwhile Gould and his men hacked out a landing strip. The only possible place where Schilt could land his Corsair was on the three-hundred-foot stretch of the road that ran through the village. Houses on both sides of the road were demolished and cleared away. Then, with picks and shovels dropped by other planes, Gould and his men widened the strip to seventy feet. Lieutenant Schilt would have to land on and take off from a rough patch of ground about the size of a football field.
Somehow Schilt managed to pull off the evacuation despite intense harassing fire from Sandino’s men in the surrounding hills. Another Marine pilot circled overhead and poured machine-gun fire into Sandino’s positions while Schilt made ten nerve-shredding landings in the besieged village, took out ten of the most seriously wounded, and brought in supplies and a relief officer; it was one of the greatest flying feats of all time. Schilt was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Marine air unit continued to support the detachment at Quilali by dropping ammunition and supplies, and by strafing the enemy positions. Captain R. W. Peard, the officer flown in by Lieutenant Schilt, took over the command and moved it to the San Albino mine, a more suitable base for operations against Sandino’s camp on the mountain towering over them. Two relief columns under Major Archibald Young also arrived, by truck and on foot. On January 14, 1928, Captain Peard led his command up the trails leading to the summit of El Chipote, supported by a flight of dive-bombing planes, and captured one of Sandino’s outposts. The guerrillas’ camp itself was repeatedly bombed and strafed. On January 26, Major Young’s reinforcements joined them and the combined force attacked Sandino’s headquarters—and found it empty.
The moment that news of the heavy fighting at the base of El Chipote was received at Washington, orders were given for a heavy reinforcement of the Marine units in Nicaragua. General Feland was restored to command there, and rifle battalions sailed once again from Guantänamo and other bases until there were 5,700 Marines on the scene. The build-up came at an embarrassing time for the United States. It was the eve of the Pan-American Congress at Havana, and many Latin-American nations were restive over the American intervention. The State Department defended the increase of troops in Nicaragua by declaring that Sandino’s guerrillas were “regarded as ordinary bandits, not only by the Government of Nicaragua, but by both political parties in that country,” and that American forces would stay only long enough to make certain that a free and fair election would be held. At the conference the delegates of Mexico and El Salvador tried to bring the Nicaraguan question to the floor but were outmaneuvered by the U.S. delegate, former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes.
Meanwhile, the Marines and their Guardia allies were launching intensive efforts to catch Sandino and stamp out his rebellion. The northern area, comprising Nueva Segovia province and the adjoining territory where Sandino’s bands were operating, was declared a military zone and was handed over to Colonel Robert H. Dunlap and his 11th Marine Regiment to be pacified. His patrols moved throughout Sandino country, often supplied from the air by newly arrived Fokker transport planes. On February 27, 1928, a Marine patrol was ambushed in southern Nueva Segovia: five were killed and eight wounded before a relief column rescued them.
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.
Somoza refused to punish those responsible for the assassination. And so the theme of violence, which runs through Nicaraguan political history with the wearying persistence of a Greek tragedy, was sustained. Soon after, Somoza forced Dr. Sacasa to resign, and himself assumed the presidency. Twenty-two years later, still the dictator-president, General Somoza in his turn was assassinated. He has been succeeded in the presidency by his two sons. Early in 1967, Nicaraguan politics again figured in the news, no doubt bemusing veterans of the Marine campaigns of forty years ago who had believed they were bringing the American brand of democracy to that country. Anastasio Somoza, Jr., the younger son, was elected as expected—but only after a flare-up of street fighting in the capital.
The rebellious spirit of Augusto Sandino was not summoned up in any of the news reports of the last election. But it lives on, not only in the mountains where he fought, but as an exemplar throughout the Southern Hemisphere. He was the first to defy the armed power of the Yankee Colossus, and to show that such defiance could be relatively successful if conducted on sound guerrilla principles. Furthermore, his revolution within a revolution, tiny in geographic scope, demonstrated to all who feel that the United States is too quick to intervene in the affairs of its southern neighbors that the American hegemony is maintained by force. The lessons of his rebellion continue to be studied, if not in the U.S. staff colleges, then in the bush camps of Colombia, Venezuela, and other disaffected areas where guerrillas still fight.