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PROBABLY most critics of interventions by the United States in Nicaragua censure the sending in of our marines without having any very clear understanding of either of the two factors jointly responsible, namely, the general policy of our government and certain conditions peculiar to a politically backward and economically undeveloped country like Nicaragua. Similarly, it may be said that most of these critics applaud the withdrawal of the marines without considering whether it signifies a change in American policy or in any of the fundamentals of the Nicaraguan situation; few stop to inquire whether the withdrawal marks merely another incident in an interminable sequence of in and out movements.
On February 13 Secretary Stimson announced that the United States will withdraw all of the marines after the Nicaraguan elections of 1932 and that the present forces in occupation, aggregating about 1,500 men, will be reduced to 500 before next June. The decision is in harmony with traditional American policy which has in principle quite definitely, though in practice at times somewhat falteringly and inconsistently, opposed intervention.[i] Let us examine it in the perspective of the full history of American interventions in Nicaragua since the first one in 1909.
The criticism to which the American intervention in Nicaragua has long been subjected, both in the United States and in Latin America, undoubtedly played a part in determining President Hoover and Secretary Stimson to withdraw the marines at this time. The criticism took concrete form when the United States Senate on January 5 passed a resolution calling on the State Department for full information on the course and conduct of the present occupation of Nicaragua since it began in 1926. If Mr. Stimson's announcement was made in answer to these criticisms it probably has been effective; it has been hailed with approval by the liberal press and by liberal spokesmen in Congress. Unfortunately, however, it does not close the Nicaraguan chapter. The movements of the marines are the consequences rather than the causes of our policy.
At the same time that he announced the intention of taking the marines out of Nicaragua, Mr. Stimson attempted to dispose of the two outstanding problems of the present situation: the elections of 1932 and General Sandino. We are, before the withdrawal, to assure fair elections in 1932; and the Nicaraguan Government is at once to begin receiving extraordinary funds for the improvement of the constabulary and the construction of roads, necessary preliminaries to dealing with Sandino.
As no foreign loan was mentioned and as subventions by our Government to the Nicaraguan Government for road-building and other worthy purposes are not customary, it is to be inferred that the extraordinary credits mentioned will be derived from the reserves and surplus of the National Bank and the railway, both of which institutions are in excellent financial condition and owned outright by the Nicaraguan Government. No objection can be made to such an arrangement provided there is a real need for the money and provided, further, that the expenditure is of an extraordinary or temporary character; obviously, recurring expenditures, even for the maintenance of public order, should be met from ordinary revenues and not from loans or capital reserves. Some significance, perhaps, attaches to the fact that the Nicaraguan Government after over three years of American policing finds itself unable to meet, out of ordinary revenues, the costs of adequate police protection. Some doubt, too, may possibly be entertained as to the future ability of a Nicaraguan Government, reduced to borrowing from the reserves of its bank and railway, to finance the successful accomplishment of a task -- the elimination of Sandino -- at which the United States Government, employing over 5,000 marines, has failed after nearly four years of campaigning.
In order to get the perspective for the proposed withdrawal of the marines let us go back to July 1912, when Nicaragua was for the moment unoccupied.[ii] We find President Diaz appealing for assistance against a revolution. By October 1912 the marines had crushed that revolution for him. From then until August 1, 1925, a company of marines, commonly called the Legation Guard, remained at Managua. The mere presence of this handful of men is said to have prevented revolution during those thirteen years. Up to 1924 one Conservative Government followed another in an orderly manner. Everyone seemed satisfied except the Liberals, who were unhappy over always losing the elections. They have, since the intervention of 1927, won two elections under our electoral supervision, and now appear pleased with the occupation.
In November 1923 our Government, moved by the usual considerations determining a withdrawal of the marines, notified the Nicaraguan Government of our intention to take the marines out in January 1925. The note of our Legation stressed three happy auguries: 1. The forthcoming elections of 1924 were to be held in accordance with a model electoral law drafted by an American expert, Mr. H. W. Dodds, recommended by the State Department. 2. An efficient constabulary was to be organized between November 1923 and January 1925 under the direction of American instructors, likewise recommended by the State Department (the marines coöperating until their departure). 3. It was believed that "The new government should be in a very strong position indeed . . ." as it was "hoped that before its entry into office the General Treaty of Peace and Amity[iii] will have been ratified and put into effect so that any individual or group of individuals who might endeavor to overthrow the constitutional authorities will know full well in advance that the other four Central American governments will not on account of Article 2 of that Treaty recognize any government coming into power contrary to the provisions of that treaty. In any case, the position and policy of the United States Government with regard to such recognition is and will continue to be that enounced by the American Minister to Honduras. . . ."[iv]
Everything connected with these three auguries counted upon by Washington to assure a tranquil future for the Nicaraguan Government taking office in January 1925 materialized as well as could be expected. Mr. Dodds's elections went through smoothly. Major Carter's constabulary was organized. And the Central American Treaty was ratified.
Notwithstanding the auspicious outlook, both the retiring Conservative Government and the incoming (January 1925) Coalition Liberal-Conservative Government requested the retention of the marines. Probably the only important parties to the situation genuinely desirous of the withdrawal of the marines were the American State Department and General Chamorro, who was planning to execute a coup d'état as soon as they had departed. As a special concession to the Nicaraguan Government, and with a view to facilitating the organization of the new constabulary under the State Department instructor, Washington consented to keep the marines in Nicaragua until August 1, 1925. On that date they were withdrawn according to schedule. Nearly every one in Nicaragua openly predicted that this withdrawal would be the signal for a coup d'état, most probably by General Chamorro.
Fulfilling all expectations except those hopefully expressed by the State Department, General Chamorro made his first public move just three weeks after the withdrawal of the marines. Two months later, on October 25, 1925, by a daring and well executed coup d'état, he seized complete control. On January 16, 1926, he seated himself in the presidency through Congressional proceedings which he and his followers pronounced constitutional. The constitutional President, Señor Solorzano, had been persuaded to resign and the constitutional Vice-President Sacasa had fled the country, not wishing to stand trial before a Congress, the composition of which General Chamorro had somewhat altered to conform to his views about the results of the preceding elections. Recognition was denied the Chamorro Government.
General Chamorro swiftly and easily put down a revolution in May but a more formidable movement launched in August, and generously supplied with arms by the Government of Mexico, proved too much for him. He resigned the presidency on October 30, a fact which has been hailed as a triumph for our policy of non-recognition. But this view of the event does not seem to take due account either of the activities of the revolutionists or of the valuable coöperation which they received from Mexico. The laurels probably should be shared equally by the revolutionists (Liberals), their Mexican supporters, and our non-recognition policy.
General Chamorro's fellow Conservative and associate, former President Diaz, assumed the presidency on November 11 and was recognized the same day by the United States, which sincerely hoped thereby to terminate the civil war and hasten the much desired constitutional settlement. But the revolutionists, under the Liberal leader, General Moncada, much as they professed attachment to peace and constitutionality, preferred to achieve these goals in their own way as victors rather than to accept them in a formula wrung from the Conservatives while in power. Besides, the Liberal revolutionists were winning the war. The United States had recognized President Diaz, but was at loss what to do to prevent his overthrow. We were indisposed to fight his battles as we had done in 1912. We therefore confined our support to establishing neutral zones favorable to the Diaz Government, to selling it United States Government war materials on credit, and to facilitating for it a $1,000,000 loan. But all this was still not enough. We were backing a loser.
Finally, President Coolidge sent Mr. Stimson to Nicaragua in April 1927 to make peace. On May 12, at Tipitapa, Mr. Stimson delivered to the revolutionary leader, General Moncada, a letter stating that the United States had acceded to the "request of the Nicaraguan Government to supervise the elections of 1928" and that "the forces of the United States will be authorized to accept the custody of the arms of those willing to lay them down, including the governmental, and to disarm forcibly those who will not do so." General Moncada published this letter to his army and recommended surrender, pointing out the folly of fighting against the superior forces of the United States. Government forces and revolutionary forces (except for General Sandino and his followers) alike laid down their arms. On May 15, Mr. Stimson telegraphed to the American people: "The civil war in Nicaragua is now definitely ended."
Since this optimistic announcement the American marines, in some three hundred separate engagements with General Sandino's followers, have suffered the following casualties: 27 killed in action; 15 dead from wounds; 59 wounded but not fatally; 52 dead from sickness (malaria prevails in the regions in which this warfare has been waged). The Nicaraguans killed have numbered 3,764. So far, the results seem negative. Only last December 31, eight marines were killed and two wounded in an ambush attack. The activities of General Sandino are reported to be on the increase.
Notwithstanding the peace proclamation of May 1927 and the employment of as many as 5,700 American marines and sailors at one time in field operations, the pacification of Nicaragua remains unachieved. Chief among the reasons cited is a lack of roads to permit of effective patrolling of the entire area of so sparsely settled a country. Bands of natives can roam the vast tropical jungles and easily find a meager subsistence, quite safe from American pursuers. Moreover, these organized opponents of our intervention have the sympathies of the masses both in Nicaragua and through Latin America, a fact which accounts for their abundant supplies of arms and their knowledge of the movements of the marines. They have raided property owners from time to time to replenish the war chest and larder, but these are practices not without precedent in guerilla and even more formal warfare. A purely objective view of the facts hardly warrants calling the Sandinistas "bandits." There are many other more tempting fields in Central America for banditry, animo furandi. In those fields, however, public opinion would be hostile to the bandits; and public opinion is probably more deadly to bandits than United States marines.
Any military campaign to rid Nicaragua of these "bandits" would undoubtedly require a system of roads and administration such as empire builders since before the days of Julius Caesar have invariably had to create when embarked on foreign enterprises. Such a system would obviously be unjustified for an autonomous country with the sparse population and economically primitive development of Nicaragua; the taxpayers could not bear the burden. We have given Nicaragua two fair elections (1928, 1930); but we have not felt called upon to use our resources for material improvements which are a necessary part of any permanent solution along imperial lines. The stage is therefore set for the continuation of present disorders and the repetition of recent history. Moreover, by reason of Sandino, the particular situation from which we now propose to withdraw is far graver than that which preceded the withdrawal of the marines in 1925.
Two courses seem open to the United States:
(1) We may revert to the general rules of international law, abandoning the special recognition policy which we pursue in Central America and ceasing our effort to eradicate revolutions from Nicaragua. We should then hold contending factions to a due respect for the lives and property of our citizens, landing marines only in temporary crises for the protection of American lives. Such occasions ought to be rare, as the contending factions in civil wars, if left alone, usually try to afford foreigners due protection.[v] Most important of all, we should for the first time in over twenty years allow a Nicaraguan civil war to be fought to a finish by Nicaraguans and we should promptly recognize the winners so as to facilitate the speedy pacification of the country by the strongest party. We might properly insist on non-interference by outside governments, but this need not involve our own intervention, nor need the attitude we assume be made the subject of a treaty.
(2) We may continue to uphold the principle of legitimacy laid down in the Central American Treaty and to try to break the Nicaraguans of their revolutionary ways. (These ways have recently shown no signs of falling into desuetude in seven other Latin American states, or in Europe.) If this continues to be our policy it may be expected that, in view of the hostility of American opinion to prolonged marine occupations, in view of traits inherent in human nature in Nicaragua as elsewhere, and in view of our unwillingness as a nation to shoulder the responsibilities and costs of doing a thorough job of imperial administration in Nicaragua, such as we have done in the Philippines, we shall continue and develop a definite Nicaraguan cycle of "in again, out again."
[i] Cf. "Revolution, Recognition and Intervention," by Lawrence Dennis, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Vol. 9, No. 2.
[ii] American forces had been sent to Nicaragua in 1909-1910 to assist in the overthrow of the Zelaya régime. Zelaya had been in power since 1893, but finally provoked our ire by executing in 1909 the two American revolutionaries Cannon and Groce.
[iii] The Central American Treaty of 1923.
[iv] In regard to the pending Honduran elections of 1923. It is interesting to observe in retrospect that the principles enounced did not prevent the Honduran elections of 1923 from being fraudulent nor avert the two sanguinary Honduran revolutions of 1924 arising therefrom.
[v] Incidentally, there is no reason for apprehension regarding our canal rights from any Nicaraguan party; every Nicaraguan desires nothing better than the immediate construction of the Canal.