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The US in Central America: a repeat performance?

It was Santayana who said that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. . . . Just over half a century ago a United States president, in a gesture which the New York Times termed ''of a pyrotechnic suddenness of Rooseveltian intensity,'' accused a Latin American government of supplying arms to a rebellious faction in a Central American nation at the behest of the Soviet Union. On Jan. 10, 1927, Calvin Coolidge submitted this message to the Congress. Two days later his vigorous and aggressive secretary of state, Frank Kellogg, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a lengthy document purportedly tracing Mexican involvement in supplying arms and military personnel to the forces of Juan Sacasa, who was seeking to overthrow the US-backed Diaz regime in Nicaragua.

The document alleged that Sacasa was dedicated to the establishment of a Bolshevist state, hostile to the US and threatening to the Panama Canal. The lengthy text detailed the objectives of the All-American Anti-Imperialist League , a Moscow-supported organization formed to marshal Latin America against the US. Kellogg also presented photos and other evidence of the use of Mexican ships to move arms to the rebels. However, there was no conclusive evidence that Mexico had entered into any agreement with Moscow to over-throw US influence in Nicaragua. The parallels with the present administration's allegations of Soviet involvement in Nicaragua are patent.

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At the same time an American admiral aboard the cruiser Rochester was directing the landing of US Marines at several points on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. For the purpose of ''protecting US nationals'' (a precedent used by President Johnson to justify Marine Corps landings in Santo Domingo in 1965) and ''barring the entry of arms and munitions intended for the Sacasa forces'' (this parallels current Washington talk of ''blockades''), Marine detachments from the Navy transport Argonne established ''neutral zones'' initially as far as 40 miles inland and were soon defending the Nicaraguan capital Managua from an advancing rebel army.

Our European allies looked on askance. The British press spoke of the ''indefensible Nicaraguan adventure'' and of Washington's ''definitely aggressive policy toward Latin America.'' In Paris semi-official commentators wrote of this as proof of the existence of American imperialism and of the transformation of the Monroe Doctrine from a ''principle of defense'' to a ''postulate of a US protectorate'' over Latin America. In Brazil leading newspapers accused the US of imperialism and spoke of the ''scandalous and distorted use of the Monroe Doctrine.''

The media these days bring us almost daily reports of European and Latin American doubts about the US posture in Central America and of hostile demonstrations against the US in European and other world capitals.

The Congress at first listened respectfully to Secretary Kellogg's testimony and was circumspect about challenging his views. The government of Mexico, beset with horrendous internal religious and political strife, was fearful of possible US intervention over this and over questions of the expropriation of US-owned mineral and agricultural properties. The Mexican foreign minister hastened to issue a conciliatory statement terming his nation's interest in Nicaragua purely ''spiritual.'' And even the rebel leader Sacasa was apparently cowed. He sent a statement to the Associated Press on the Coolidge message denying any agreements with Mexico, listing his claims to legitimacy, and concluding that, in view of President Coolidge's views, he would probably abandon his struggle rather than risk ''an absurd and unequal war with the United States.''

And so a minicrisis passed from the headlines. But the root causes continued to grow and fester in the area.

Sacasa temporarily disappeared from the scene, although he did reappear as duly elected president a few years later. But another obscure Nicaraguan revolutionary, Cesar Augusto Sandino, took up the struggle against foreign intervention in his homeland. With his martyr's death in 1933, he gave the continuing struggle a symbol and a name.

The US Marines were ashore in Nicaragua to stay for another five years of frustrating guerrilla warfare and attempts at social engineering. Young Marine lieutenants like ''Chesty'' Puller would have their first experience in jungle warfare in Nicaragua, experience which stood them in good stead as they led battalions, regiments, and divisions in similar combat in World War II. The frustrations of supervising elections and interpreting local laws made the State Department loath to extend these experiments into other Latin American nations for several decades.

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The Congress, acquiescent at the onset of this particular incident, gradually became more concerned. Their interest sparked by a few reporters and columnists like Carlton Beals, concerned legislators began to question the reasons for US Marine expenditures in money and men in the jungles of Central America. By 1933 the executive had no choice but to plan the full withdrawal of US troops as the Congress enacted budget legislation prohibiting the expenditure of appropriated funds to send the Marines to Nicaragua.

Before the final departure from Nicaragua in 1933 the Marines left another legacy. This was the Nicaraguan National Guard, a constabulary designed to assure the integrity of the US-installed democratic electoral process. As commander of this elite body the Marines chose their most apt pupil, an aggressive English-speaking young officer - Ana-stasio Somoza. His and his progeny's tragic impact on Central America needs no telling here.

In the meantime the grinding poverty of the bulk of the population of Central America continued, and continues to this day. Economic statistics reflect favorable balances. In relative and real terms the commerce and industry of the area have shown steady positive movement. But it has been growth without economic or political justice. The rigid social and economic structures of centuries continue to prevail. The rich have become richer and the poor multiply only in numbers.

The more things change. . . .

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