U.S. Marines Have a Long (and Mixed) History in Nicaragua

October 18, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: U.S. Marine CorpsMarinesNicaraguaMilitary HistorySandinistas

U.S. Marines Have a Long (and Mixed) History in Nicaragua

For more than two decades, U.S. Marines fought bandits and put down political insurrections in Nicaragua—with mixed results.

Key Point: The Marines in Nicaragua gained valuable experience in jungle fighting, expertise they would put to good use against the Japanese in World War II.

Since the 19th century, Nicaragua has been of key strategic interest to the U.S. government. Revolution regularly rocked the Central American country. The two major parties, Conservatives and Liberals, had been bitter adversaries for centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jose Santos Zelaya rose to power. When Zelaya announced that he wanted to create a giant Central American republic by combining all the countries of the region into one nation, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened. He had representatives from the affected countries meet in Washington to hammer out a settlement creating a Central American Court of Justice to hear grievances. On the surface it appeared that Roosevelt’s strategy had succeeded, but Zelaya and his cohorts had no intention of following the treaty.

The “Dollar Diplomacy” of Henry Daft

Newly elected President William Howard Taft and his secretary of state, Philander Knox, devised a plan to have American diplomats abroad convince their respective countries to invest in American companies and borrow funds from U.S. banks.

The Taft brainstorm, dubbed “Dollar Diplomacy,” looked good on paper, but Nicaraguans were growing exceeding weary of their leader, Zeyala. In the fall of 1909, with backing from foreign interests, the Conservatives and aristocrats linked up and landed troops in Bluefields Province to fight Zeyala. Leading the armed force was the provincial governor, Juan Estrada, a member of Zeyala’s Liberal cabinet who had defected to the Conservatives.

Taft opted not to intervene in the civil war, but Zeyala unwisely caught and executed two American soldiers of fortune. Angered, Taft dispatched warships to the area and forced Zeyala’s resignation. Jose Madriz, the new president, continued the civil war. Rebels blockaded the port of Bluefields. Now Taft had had enough. USS Dubuque and USS Paducah, a pair of gunboats stationed just off the coast, swung into action. On May 19, 1910, landing parties from both vessels disembarked in the first of numerous American armed interventions into Nicaraguan affairs. After the American gunboats threatened to bombard the bluff where the Liberal government forces were located, Madriz’s men backed off. Meanwhile, Estrada’s rebels received U.S. aid and strengthened their position. Eventually, the Liberals disappeared and Estrada became head of the government.

A Battalion of Leathernecks in Nicaragua

In 1912, another political and military crisis erupted in Nicaragua. On May 31, a huge blast rocked Managua on the west coast, destroying Loma Fort and killing 60 people. Several days later a powder magazine was obliterated by another detonation. When new president Adolfo Diaz informed the U.S. government that he could not guarantee protection of Americans or their property, USS Annapolis steamed to Managua. At Bluefields on the eastern side, USS Tacoma dispatched a force of Marines and sailors.

Small detachments were not enough to quell the insurgency, so it was decided to send in a larger body of troops. In mid-August, a 350-man Marine battalion docked at Corinto on the Pacific coast. Just prior to the landing, rebels had shelled the city for three days, killing nearly 1,000 people, mostly women and children. In charge of the Marine contingent was the legendary Major Smedley Butler, a hero of the Boxer Rebellion and a future Marine Corps general. Butler wasted no time pushing his way into Managua to begin negotiations to end the disturbance.

Leon, a main city that was situated halfway between Managua and Corinto, had been seized by the rebels. Butler gathered a 200-man force and set out for Leon. Butler’s troops finally cleared the line and another 750 leathernecks under Colonel Joseph Pendleton arrived to help clear the country of rebels. With the all-important city of Leon reopened to rail traffic, Butler’s battalion set out to clear the railway south of Leon to Granada, a distance of 75 miles. Although stricken with malaria, Butler maintained command and began the arduous trek to Granada via the archaic railroad.

As the slow-moving train snaked its way deeper into rebel territory, the leathernecks remained vigilant. As the cars carefully made their way through Masaya, a horseman charged in front of the train, pulled a pistol, and fired at Butler. Fortunately his aim was not good and the bullet missed Butler but struck a nearby corporal in the finger. Rebels, positioned on rooftops and doorways, raked the train with gunfire. Marines leaped from the cars onto the road and returned fire. Butler ordered the engineer to fire up the boilers and get the train moving. The leathernecks were much better marksmen than their adversaries, and soon the rebels withdrew. Five Marines were wounded and three were missing in the altercation. The rebels had 68 killed and another 60 wounded.

With Masaya in Marine hands, the battalion inched their way toward the rebel stronghold at Granada. The movement was stalled at times because sections of track had been destroyed by the Liberals. Upon reaching his destination, Butler fired off a message to rebel commander Luis Mena demanding his surrender. Knowing he could not defeat the Marines, the former minister of war capitulated.

Crushing the Insurection

With Mena and his force gone, the leathernecks concentrated their efforts on Benjamin Zeledon’s army still at La Barranca. On October 2, Butler’s battalion linked up with Pendleton’s men and, together with the Conservative army, Pendleton devised a plan to seize Zeledon’s position at Coyotepe. It was no easy task. The Liberals had managed to stockpile food and ammunition over a long period of time.

At dawn, with Butler’s Marines assaulting from the southeast and the 1st Battalion striking from the northwest, the leathernecks began their attack. Augmented by two companies of sailors from USS California, the force pushed forward to capture their objective despite the fact the government troops never materialized. Although the Liberals poured rifle fire down the hill, it proved to be largely inaccurate, and the Marines and bluejackets quickly reached the summit and, driving off its defenders, turned their own artillery on the other positions located nearby. Realizing he was defeated, Zeledon attempted to flee but was gunned down by his own men. When it was over, 27 rebels were slain and nine were taken prisoner. Seven Marines and sailors were killed.

With the insurrection squashed, the majority of U.S. forces departed the country. A small detachment of Marines were left behind to guard the American Legation in Managua. The continual presence of the leathernecks was a tremendous source of indignation to the Nicaraguan people, but in 1924 the most honest election in the nation’s history took place. During that time Marines, dressed in civilian clothes, were stationed at the polling booths to maintain order.

With relative stability established in Nicaragua, President Calvin Coolidge decided it was time to bring the Marines home. Americans who resided in the country warned the administration that newly elected president Carlos Solorzano of the Conservative Party and Vice-President Juan Sacasa of the Liberal Party would need some time to establish their government. Coolidge opted to keep the Marines there for another eight months and sent Major Calvin Carter, retired from the Philippine Constabulary, to create a program that would train selected Nicaraguans for a new National Guard that would oversee their own affairs.

Another Incursion into Nicaragua

On August 3, 1925, the Marine Guard Detachment took a train to Corinto, boarded a troop transport, and sailed for the United States. Less than a month after the leathernecks sailed from Nicaragua, a small group of Liberal cabinet members were accused of treason, arrested, and imprisoned. Conservative Emiliano Chamorro proclaimed himself the new president of Nicaragua. The United States protested the coup and refused to recognize the new government. When rioting erupted, Marines and bluejackets once again landed to ensure that American lives and interests were not at risk. As the two armies closed in around Bluefields, more than 100 infantrymen arrived from USS Galveston.

A truce was established and delegates from both parties tried to settle their issues. When the negotiations broke down, Chamorro promptly left office. Former president Adolfo Diaz returned as the interim head of state until new elections could be held. Knowing he could not defeat the Liberals, Diaz urgently asked for U.S. assistance, which was denied by Coolidge. However, when the Liberals imposed higher taxes on American businesses, began seizing their equipment, and then killed an American employee, Coolidge finally acquiesced.

Once again U.S. Marines were sent to Nicaragua. This time, however, it would not be as easy a task to rid the countryside of the insurgents. Well armed and developing better tactics, they were prepared to meet the leathernecks on the battlefield. The 2nd Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. Logan Feland, arrived on March 7, 1927. The nucleus of the brigade was the 5th Marines.

Coolidge still wanted to reach a peaceful solution. He sent Henry L. Stimson, a future cabinet secretary, to negotiate an agreement between the warring factions, the crux of which called for the joint surrender of weapons, an end to the fighting and all property taken returned to their rightful owners. Liberals would be allowed to become a part of the Diaz administration as well. While the leathernecks would stay to maintain order, a national constabulary would be created and its members trained by Marines to keep the peace when the United States finally departed.