IN AUGUST 1925 the United States withdrew from Nicaragua the small legation guard which had helped merely by its presence to maintain stable government in that country for some thirteen years. Less than three months later, General Emiliano Chamorro seized the Loma fortress, which dominates the city of Managua. From this vantage point he was able to dictate terms which placed him in command of the army and made him virtually the ruler of Nicaragua. President Carlos Solorzano, who, like General Chamorro, was a Conservative, but who had come into office ten months before as the result of a coalition between his own wing of the party and the Liberals, was compelled to repudiate his agreements with the Liberals and to remove all office holders not in sympathy with the new régime. Even those members of Congress who were not willing to support Chamorro were expelled, and the Liberal Vice-President, Doctor Juan Bautista Sacasa, was compelled by threats of personal violence to flee the country. In January 1926 President Solorzano withdrew from office and General Chamorro was elected by the Congress to take his place.

In the General Treaty of Peace and Amity signed at Washington in 1923, the five Central American Republics had agreed not to recognize any government established in a Central American state by a revolution or a coup d'état, and the Department of State had announced that its own policy would thenceforth be governed by this same principle. General Chamorro's administration was not therefore recognized by the United States, and this fact made it very difficult for him to establish his authority on a firm basis in Nicaragua, even though the government at Washington had made it clear that it would not look with sympathy upon efforts to overthrow his régime by force. The Liberals immediately made preparations for a revolt. An outbreak on the east coast in May 1926 was suppressed by Chamorro's troops, but a more formidable movement in the same region in August soon involved Nicaragua in one of the most disastrous civil wars in the republic's history. The Department of State endeavored to bring about an agreement between the contending factions, but a peace conference held on the U.S.S. Denver at Corinto in October failed, and hostilities were resumed.

Immediately after the Corinto conference, General Chamorro resigned as Provisional President, and the Conservative leaders who remained in control at Managua took steps to establish an administration which could hope to receive recognition from the other Central American republics and from the United States. The members of Congress expelled by Chamorro during the preceding year were invited to resume their seats to participate in the election of a designate to the presidency, and a majority of the legal membership chose ex-President Adolfo Diaz, a Conservative, as the new chief executive. His administration was promptly recognized by the United States. New peace proposals, including participation in the Cabinet and other government offices, a full amnesty, and a cash payment to the revolutionary troops, were made to the Liberals but were declined; for Dr. Sacasa, the Vice-President, had returned to Nicaragua shortly after Señor Diaz's inauguration and had set up on the east coast what claimed to be the constitutional government of the republic. Dr. Sacasa was recognized by the government of Mexico and received substantial assistance in arms and supplies from Mexican sources.

By this time American marines had again been landed in Nicaragua. There were many citizens of the United States and of other foreign powers on the east coast, where most of the fighting had occurred, and the American customs receivership, established in 1911, was still in existence under contracts with British and internal bondholders, although all advances made by the American bankers had been repaid some years before. For the protection of foreign life and property, neutral zones had been established in several of the east coast ports before the end of 1926. In January 1927, after several European governments had insisted upon protection for their citizens, and after President Diaz had officially requested that the United States assume responsibility for the security of foreigners, a legation guard was sent to Managua. This subsequently made it necessary to assume the policing of the railroad from the capital to the Pacific coast and to establish neutral zones in several cities along the line. Each successive step involved the United States more deeply and made it increasingly probable that the American marines would sooner or later be drawn into the fighting. Meanwhile, the prolonged civil war was bringing the country to the verge of anarchy.

It was under these circumstances that Mr. Stimson went to Nicaragua as the personal representative of the President of the United States in April 1927. He found both parties anxious for peace. The leaders on both sides had sometime previously stated their belief that a fair settlement could be obtained if the United States would consent to supervise the presidential election to be held in 1928, and would undertake to assure the maintenance of fair play between the two parties in the meantime; and an agreement was worked out by Mr. Stimson on this basis after a conference at Tipitapa with General Moncada, the leader of the revolutionary army. Although the Liberals were unwilling to recognize the right of Señor Diaz to remain in the presidency, they acquiesced in his continuance when Mr. Stimson insisted upon this point. Both sides were to deliver their arms to the American marines, an amnesty was to be proclaimed, and the government was to be reorganized in such a way as to restore to the Liberals the representation in the courts and the control of several provincial governments which they had enjoyed under President Solorzano. Provision was also made for a non-partisan constabulary, to be trained and temporarily officered by American marines, which should be the sole military force of the republic. The creation of an impartial police was regarded as the most effective guarantee of fairness and freedom in the election and was hence an important feature of the peace agreement.

Peace was in fact reëstablished throughout the greater part of Nicaragua, and the principal forces on both sides were disarmed without difficulty. The courts were reconstituted on a bipartisan basis, Liberal governors were appointed in several provinces, and the new constabulary, the Guardia Nacional, was organized under officers from the Marine Corps. General Frank R. McCoy was designated by the President of the United States as chairman of the commission which was to supervise the approaching election, and the contest for votes, which promised to be a close one, began to absorb the attention of the politicians in both parties.

It was only in the inaccessible mountainous region along the Honduran frontier, popularly called the Segovias, that normal conditions were not restored. General Augustus Caesar Sandino, one of the minor leaders in the Liberal army, had agreed to disarm his followers at the time of the Tipitapa conference, but instead had surreptitiously withdrawn into the northern provinces, where he carried on guerrilla warfare, raiding unprotected towns and plantations, terrorizing the native population, and from time to time ambushing small patrols of marines and constabulary. The American and Nicaraguan forces which were sent against him were able to hold him in check but not to capture or destroy his scattered forces. Thousands of square miles of almost impenetrable mountains and jungle offered a perfect refuge, and it was always easy for a group of outlaws to lay aside their arms and resume the aspect of peaceful citizens when the marines approached. Such contacts as occurred were generally of a minor nature, but forty-seven marines were nevertheless killed in battle, or died of wounds, during the operations in Nicaragua between 1927 and 1932.

While the methods which Sandino and his followers employed were those of the worst type of bandit, it is difficult to suppose that he could have kept up the struggle, against great odds and in the face of severe hardships, if he had not been inspired by a fanatical hostility to foreign intervention. He maintained from the beginning that his purpose was to compel the withdrawal of American forces from Nicaragua. His efforts were regarded with little sympathy by his fellow countrymen, who were far more concerned with the electoral campaign and with repairing the damage done by the civil war; but he soon became a hero outside of Nicaragua. The press, both in Latin America and in the United States, gave his activities an importance which must have surprised him, and the encouragement which he received from anti-American propagandists in other countries and from "antiimperialist" writers in the United States did much to prolong his futile and destructive campaign.

How little influence Sandino was able to exert in Nicaragua itself was shown by his failure to interfere appreciably with the conduct of the election which was held in November 1928. It was possible to carry out both the registration of voters and the balloting in a satisfactory manner even in the districts where he was most active. The Conservatives, who were defeated by a substantial majority, accepted the result in an excellent spirit. On January 1, 1929, General José Maria Moncada, the Liberal candidate, was inaugurated as President of the republic.

The continued disturbances in the north made it impossible to terminate the American intervention immediately even though its main purpose had been accomplished. Although the number of marines in Nicaragua was reduced from more than 5,000 men at the end of 1928, to 2,215 on September 1, 1929, it was impossible to withdraw the force entirely, because the newly-organized National Guard could not function without its American officers until Nicaraguans had been trained to replace them. Since the United States had required the disbanding of the old army and police, as a step essential for the conduct of a free election, it could not refuse to assist in the maintenance of order until the Guardia was in a position to assume full control.

Both the American authorities and President Moncada, however, endeavored to have the Guardia assume as rapidly as possible the full burden of actual military operations. The Nicaraguan forces in the north were substantially increased, and in February 1931, after eight American marines had been ambushed and killed while repairing a telephone wire near Ocotal, the two governments agreed upon a plan under which the marines would be withdrawn entirely from the northern area. By June 1931 this plan had been carried out, and there remained in Nicaragua, besides the American officers in the Guardia, only an instruction battalion of about five hundred men and an aviation section to maintain communication with the otherwise inaccessible Guardia posts in the north. The marines were not withdrawn entirely, partly because they would be needed to assist in the 1932 elections, partly because it was considered inadvisable to leave the American officers in the Guardia without some military support. Secretary Stimson indicated, however, that the United States contemplated the complete withdrawal of American forces from Nicaragua immediately after the 1932 election.

In October 1928 General Moncada and Señor Benard, the Liberal and Conservative presidential candidates, had agreed that the new administration would request American supervision of the elections to be held during the next four years, in order to assure the continued maintenance of peace. Soon after his inauguration, then, General Moncada requested the designation of an American to serve as chairman of the national board of elections, and on May 8, 1930, Captain Alfred W. Johnson, of the United States Navy, was appointed to supervise the congressional election of that year. In January 1932, in response to a renewed invitation from President Moncada, Admiral Clark Howell Woodward was nominated to supervise the presidential elections to be held the following November.

The internal political situation in Nicaragua had become somewhat confused as the end of President Moncada's term approached. In the latter part of 1931, the President had proposed that a constitutional convention, rather than a congress, be chosen in the elections of 1932, in order that the whole framework of the government might be revised in such a way as to assure participation by the minority in the work of administration. He had obtained the consent of the leading Conservatives, but had been opposed by many Liberals, who, despite General Moncada's emphatic denial, alleged that the President's real purpose was directly or indirectly to perpetuate his own authority. Although the plan was abandoned, after the Department of State had indicated that it would be unwilling to supervise the 1932 elections if their scope were so changed, it helped to accentuate the already existing division among the Liberals, and when the American Electoral Mission arrived it found two separate organizations, each of which claimed to be the legal representative of the Liberal party. Admiral Woodward ordered a plebiscite to determine who should appear on the ballot under the Liberal emblem, but before this was held the two factions composed their differences and agreed upon the nomination of Dr. Sacasa for the presidency. Rodolfo Espinosa was subsequently nominated for the vice-presidency. The Conservatives finally nominated Adolfo Diaz for president and Emiliano Chamorro for vice-president.

The supervision of the election of 1932 presented very difficult problems. In the first place, it was deemed advisable greatly to reduce the American personnel as compared with that of previous electoral missions, partly to avoid having Americans serve in or near the regions where their nationality would make them especially liable to attack by Sandino, and where it would be impossible to protect them without sending additional forces to Nicaragua, and partly in order to permit as many Nicaraguans as possible to obtain practical experience in the conduct of the election. This last consideration was especially important because it was intended that there should be no supervision of future elections by the United States. Even the sending to Nicaragua of the personnel considered absolutely indispensable was made difficult by an amendment inserted in the Naval Appropriation Act, after preparations for the election had already reached a point where withdrawal of the American supervision was out of the question, forbidding the use of funds for sending additional marines to Nicaragua for electoral purposes. It was found possible, however, to obtain a staff of 371 men from forces which were available, and Nicaraguan citizens served as chairmen in 247 of the 429 local electoral boards. Despite the difficulties encountered, the elections were held in a manner which brought expressions of approval from the press of both parties. Dr. Sacasa received a substantial majority.

The new President was inaugurated on January 1, 1933, and on January 2 the last of the American marines were withdrawn from Nicaragua. The command of the Guardia had already been turned over to Nicaraguan officers. On January 3 the Minister of Foreign Relations in the new administration formally expressed to the Secretary of State the Nicaraguan Government's appreciation of the Marines' "valuable coöperation in the maintenance of order and peace" and its gratitude for the "fruitful work which culminated in a free and just election."

Dr. Sacasa faced several formidable problems. Sandino and his lieutenants had become more rather than less aggressive during the past year, and there were indications that recent political and economic conditions had increased the number of his sympathizers, even in the regions where he had formerly had little support. His movement was still relatively unimportant from a military point of view, but it might easily reach dangerous proportions if allowed to continue. The Guardia was an uncertain factor after the withdrawal of its American officers. Since there had not been time to train an adequate Nicaraguan officer personnel in the five years since the force had first been organized, it had unfortunately been necessary to appoint many civilians in the higher ranks -- a step which caused much discontent among the officers already in service.

In meeting this situation, however, the new President was fortunate enough to be able to count upon the support of both of the great political parties. Several of the more important leaders had begun to discuss how they could prevent a return to the old régime of oppression and factional strife, when it became clear that the marines were actually to be withdrawn. On June 30, 1932, a group of influential Liberals and Conservatives, including Dr. Sacasa and ex-President Chamorro, had signed a formal agreement to work for national unity and peace and to use their personal influence to bring about not only fair treatment for but also participation in the government by the party defeated in the approaching election. Four months later, representatives of the two parties formally concluded a series of four agreements providing for united support of the new administration in dealing with Sandino, and laying out a program of constitutional reform designed to assure the participation of both parties in the conduct of public affairs, and more especially the representation of the minority in Congress, the courts, and the municipal governments. An effort was to be made to improve electoral machinery and methods, and bipartisan commissions were to be created to assist and control the action of the executive in the financial administration and in the conduct of foreign affairs.

A separate agreement, signed by the presidential and vice-presidential candidates of each party in the presence of the American Minister on November 5, 1932, provided for the maintenance of the non-partisan character of the Guardia and obligated the candidates to support the government to be elected the next day. The Guardia was to continue to be the sole armed force in the republic, and its officers and enlisted personnel, with the exception of the commander-in-chief and the general staff, were to be selected in approximately equal numbers from the two parties.

A portion of the program embodied in the inter-party agreements was carried out even before Dr. Sacasa's inauguration. On December 17 the Conservative leaders issued a manifesto accepting the result of the election as the dictate of the majority of the Nicaraguan people, and promising support to the new administration in a program of pacification and constitutional reform. A Liberal manifesto issued at the same time reiterated the intention of the majority party to establish the basis for an effective cooperation of all political elements in the work of the Government and to guarantee to all citizens, regardless of party, the exercise of their civil rights. A few days later the Congress carried out one of the important provisions of the agreements by giving the Conservatives representation in all of the courts of appeal and a majority of the judges in the court at Granada. President Sacasa, in his inaugural address, pledged himself to carry out the program upon which the party leaders had agreed and to transfer the presidential authority at the end of his term to a successor chosen at a free election; and a commission of members of both parties has very recently been appointed by the Congress to draft the proposed amendments to the Constitution.

The most important result of the agreements was the establishment of peace in the Segovias. With the withdrawal of the American marines, Sandino could no longer maintain that his operations were a protest against foreign intervention, and he was confronted by the announced determination of the two great political parties to support the government in terminating his depredations. As the result of a mission which was sent to confer with him immediately after the inauguration of the new administration, the insurgent leader came to Managua by airplane, and on February 2 his plenipotentiaries and the accredited representatives of the Liberal and Conservative parties signed an agreement which was immediately "ratified" by the insurgent leader and formally "accepted" by President Sacasa. This document recited at some length the fact that Sandino refused to accept any financial or material compensation for laying down his arms, and that the representatives of the two parties "rendered homage" to his noble and patriotic attitude. Sandino's followers were granted a large area of state land in the valley of the Coco River, to be at least ten leagues from the nearest town, and were permitted to keep one hundred men under arms for the time being to maintain order in their new settlement. They were also to be given preference in employment in public works which the government promised to inaugurate. This agreement appears to have been satisfactorily carried out. An amnesty was decreed by the Nicaraguan Congress, and on February 22 it was announced that the disarmament of the insurgent forces had been completed.

With the withdrawal of the marines and the capitulation of Sandino, the American intervention in Nicaragua was closed. Whether the intervention was in itself justifiable or wrong is a question beyond the scope of this article and a question which could not be discussed adequately without a comprehensive examination of the fundamental bases of the foreign policy of the United States. Unquestionably the events of 1926-7 had a most unfortunate effect upon our relations with other Latin American countries. They increased the prevalent suspicion and dislike of the United States, with noticeable results not only in the sphere of diplomacy but also in commerce. Commercial rivals and other elements interested in creating anti-American sentiment were prompt to seize upon the opportunity for hostile propaganda, and distorted and misrepresented the details of a policy which in any case was highly offensive to Latin American public opinion. From the standpoint of the United States, it is clearly most unfortunate that the intervention should ever have occurred. Whether or not a refusal to intervene might have had still more disastrous results of a different character is another matter.

There can be no doubt, however, that the intervention was beneficial to Nicaragua. A civil war which threatened to plunge the country into the depths of anarchy was brought to an end, and substantial progress was made toward establishing the bases of a lasting peace. There could have been no more impressive justification of the policy inaugurated in 1927 than the signature five years later of the inter-party agreements, because it was this policy, ably and tactfully carried out by the American representatives in Nicaragua, which made possible the growth of the spirit of conciliation which inspired these pacts. Before 1928, the bitterness and distrust engendered by generations of civil strife made extremely difficult any real coöperation between the party leaders. With the holding of a series of free elections, the tension between the parties noticeably decreased. The defeated party did not feel the resentment which inevitably followed the installation of a government by force or fraud, and the administration was not compelled to adopt repressive measures to prevent revolution. Five years of peace -- for the operations of Sandino hardly affected the daily lives of the great majority of the Nicaraguan people -- had made it possible to forget in large measure the blood feuds of the past, and there was a general reluctance to contemplate a return to the old conditions.

The future rests with the Nicaraguans themselves. There is much to discourage undue optimism, particularly at the present time when bad economic conditions have caused unrest in Nicaragua as in other countries. Further, the continued maintenance of a spirit of coöperation will be more difficult than it would be in a country where partisanship among all classes of the people was not so intense. Situations are certain to arise which will call for the exercise of much self-restraint and for a high order of statesmanship by the party leaders. It is difficult to suppose that setbacks will not occur. But we can find encouragement in the fact that the same leaders under whom the country was plunged in a destructive civil war in 1926 were able six years later to coöperate loyally in a program to establish permanent peace. It is the new spirit evident in the relations between the two parties which makes one hopeful for Nicaragua's future.

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  • DANA G. MUNRO, Professor of Latin American History at Princeton University; formerly Chief of the Division of Latin American Affairs in the Department of State and Minister to Haiti
  • More By Dana G. Munro