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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.