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Somoza and RooseveltGood Neighbour Diplomacy in Nicaragua, 1933-1945$

Andrew Crawley

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780199212651

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199212651.001.0001

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Becoming Good Neighbours

Becoming Good Neighbours

(p.7) 1 Becoming Good Neighbours
Somoza and Roosevelt


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The policy of good neighbour as expounded throughout the Americas, was to have a novel foundation. In Nicaragua, it took as its guiding principle the ideal of non-interference in domestic political affairs. To argue that Somoza's ascent was directly promoted and indirectly facilitated by the practical application of this doctrine is not to suggest that his assumption of power represented, for Washington, an achieved goal. That Somoza rose to power during the infancy of good neighbourism, however, was more than coincidence. The relationship between the two countries, and between the political actors in each of them, was more complex — and certainly more interesting — than much of the received wisdom has tended to suggest. This chapter looks at how the United States applied the policy of becoming good neighbours to Nicaragua that led to Somoza's leadership, which endured until his assassination, and a regime that dominated the country for a very long time.

Keywords:   Somoza, non-interference, political affairs, good neighbourism, Nicaragua, Washington

In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the Good Neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others; the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors. We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take, but must give as well.1

Franklin Roosevelt

Inaugural address

4 March 1933

Three years after Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the United States to the good neighbour policy, Anastasio Somoza deposed the elected government of Nicaragua. He thereby established a control that endured until his assassination in 1956, and a regime that would dominate the country until 1979. When the Guardia Nacional finally forced the departure of the Liberal president Juan Bautista Sacasa in the summer of 1936 there was no shortage of accusations in the Latin American press that the Roosevelt administration was installing Somoza as president.2 The allegation was untrue, but in the circumstances that prevailed in Nicaragua at the time it was virtually inevitable.

Part of the manner in which Somoza and his sons consolidated their hold on Nicaragua, however, and the perceived nature of the relationship between the Somoza regime and the United States (a perception typified by the historiography’s interminable repetition of a single, graphic quotation ascribed to Roosevelt), have given some credibility to insinuations (p.8) that persist to this day. With the triumph of the FSLN in 1979, those imputations passed into the popular mythology of the Nicaraguan revolution.

Such charges suggest on Washington’s part a positively formulated policy, long-range planning, and well-defined, country-specific objectives that in reality were conspicuously absent. It is true, nonetheless, that Somoza could not have assumed and retained the presidency of Nicaragua if the US State Department had actively disapproved. Of the circumstances surrounding his rise to power, Roosevelt’s good neighbour policy was to be a significant feature. That policy, as expounded throughout the Americas, was to have novel foundations. In the words of a contemporary and admiring observer, it was ‘founded on complete respect on the part of the strong for the rights and independence of the weak; on cooperation, not tutelage; on hope, not fear’.3 In Nicaragua, it took as its guiding principle the ideal of non-interference in domestic political affairs.

To argue that Somoza’s ascent was directly promoted and indirectly facilitated by the practical application of this doctrine is not to suggest that his assumption of power represented, for Washington, an achieved goal. That Somoza rose to power during the infancy of good neighbourism, however, was more than coincidence. The relationship between the two countries, and between the political actors in each of them, was more complex—and certainly more interesting—than much of the received wisdom has tended to suggest.


Two months before Roosevelt’s inaugural address, the US marine corps evacuated Nicaragua. The abandonment of a country in which the United States had maintained an almost uninterrupted military presence since 1912 was the culmination of trends that had long been evident. Throughout the 1920s, the United States was increasingly determined to maintain its freedom of action through a return to isolationism and an avoidance of any foreign commitments that might constrain such freedom. The rejection of internationalism and of collective security programmes was a posture welcome at home, where prolonged involvement in other countries’ affairs enjoyed little support. In the forty-three years to 1933 there were forty-three occasions on which a US president used armed forces in Latin America without congressional approval. (p.9) Of these, thirty-two were in the Central American and Caribbean region. Nicaragua had seen seven of them. Such interventionism was being assailed by congressional isolationists, as well as by church groups, trade unions, academia, and much of the press. As political conditions in Nicaragua worsened in the late 1920s, US public opposition to the presence of American troops in the country increased. Following the bloody battle of Ocotal in July 1927, when a frontal engagement between Sandinista guerrillas and US marines proved catastrophic for the insurgents after they were dive-bombed by five DeHaviland biplanes, a New York Times leader remarked that ‘the lot of an international policeman on foreign soil is not a happy one … When it comes to actual warfare, in which there are casualties in our marines, and a reported great slaughter among the Nicaraguans who attacked them, it seems as if ill luck were malignantly pursuing the whole venture.’ President Calvin Coolidge was accused of waging a private war in Nicaragua, and the Democrats took advantage of the issue to make withdrawal part of their 1928 election campaign.4

With the onset of the Depression, the management of foreign policy was subject to close attention. By the time Roosevelt was elected in 1932, the United States was in crisis. As urban purchasing power collapsed, the factories started to close. Unemployment, at five million in 1930, leapt to nine million in 1931 and to thirteen million in 1932; on inauguration day in 1933 it stood at fifteen million. National income fell by almost a third, and industrial production by half. The collapse of the banking system eliminated millions of savings accounts. Americans, in their millions, lost everything—jobs, homes, and possessions. The Hooverville shanties sprouted around the cities as malnutrition became a commonplace. Perhaps two million vagabonds were roaming the United States in a futile search for work. The government seemed impotent. As self-confidence evaporated, panic set in. On 4 March 1933, Franklin (p.10) Roosevelt took the presidential oath and told his compatriots: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror’.5

The domestic problems were immediate, more concrete than a distant conflict. Almost as pressing were the memories, or at least perceptions, of the First World War. The revisionist thinking on the war, in Congress and the media, had concluded that the United States had been dragged into it by the scheming of arms manufacturers and ‘high finance’—the latter being, in the public mind during the Depression, an abomination. Pacifism and isolationism proved a powerful joint force. Domestic recovery was vital, and foreign policy was to serve that goal. Asserting the uniqueness of the American political and economic order, the prevailing philosophy insisted that undue foreign activism would ensnare the country’s energies and impede internal revival.6

The post-war dominance of the United States in the western hemisphere, moreover, facilitated a change in policy towards Latin America. New York supplanted Europe as the region’s main source of credit, and thus the prime reason for non-American encroachment (the latter being, traditionally, the ostensible reason for American encroachment) had largely disappeared. ‘Does anyone believe’, the Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, asked in 1928, ‘that the present governments in Europe are in any position to attack any one of the South American countries and impose their form of government?’ Even if they had been in such a position, it would scarcely have been worth their while to embark on trans-Atlantic intervention in order to protect European investments.7

The United States was also dominant in foreign trade. From 1913 to 1929, the growth of all Central American exports to the US market was substantially greater than the increase in total exports. For Nicaragua, the figures were 100 per cent and 37 per cent respectively. By 1933, 63 per cent of Nicaragua’s imports came from the United States, with just 13 per cent (p.11) coming from Britain and 7 per cent from Germany. In the same year, 50 per cent of Nicaragua’s exports were sold in the US market; just 14 per cent went to Germany and 7 per cent to Britain. Throughout the Caribbean area, the United States was the main market and the main supplier.8

The growth of US isolationism, moreover, coincided with an upsurge of Yankeephobic nationalism in Latin America as the sister republics examined multilateral and juridical means of limiting habitual US interventionism. The agendas of the inter-American conferences among western-hemisphere governments began prominently to feature proposals for non-intervention protocols, and to consider the anti-intervention recommendations of the Inter-American Commission of Jurists.9 Conditions in Nicaragua dominated the inter-American meeting of 1928 in Havana, where the Latin American delegations made a direct assault on US intervention policy. The Commission of Jurists presented a draft Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, whose central article proposed a doctrine of non-intervention. At the time, Washington was unwilling to accept the absolute repudiation of intervention that the convention demanded, but there was an implicit constraint on US policy in the Kellogg–Briand Pact of the same year: as the United States formally rejected the armed violation of national sovereignty under the terms of the pact, it seemed inconsistent to retain a right of intervention in one area of the world.10 In these circumstances, the damage being caused by the Nicaraguan intervention to US prestige throughout the hemisphere could no longer be ignored. In the same year as the Kellogg–Briand Pact, the Clark Memorandum on the Monroe Doctrine rejected the [Theodore] Roosevelt Corollary and affirmed that the Doctrine embodied a sense of competition between the United States and Europe, not between the United States and Latin America.11 (p.12) By the early 1930s, anti-Americanism was central to nationalism in much of Latin America. At the same time, isolationist sentiment in the United States was finding expression as a severe anxiety about overseas entanglements. Hence the marine evacuation of Nicaragua in 1933 was greeted with approval by the US public and Congress, and opposition came almost exclusively from US investors. Contrary, however, to the impressions inherent in the notion of the colonial economies of ‘banana republics’, US investment in Nicaragua had always been relatively low. US agricultural investment in the country slumped from $11.3 million in 1929 to only $2.4 by 1935. When the marines left in 1933, total US investment in Nicaragua stood at just $13 million. This was the lowest US investment figure for any of the Latin American republics except Paraguay.12 At less than one third of 1 per cent of total US investment in the whole region, it was practically negligible. It certainly did not warrant risking the lives of American marines. By the spring of 1931, Washington had decided that it would no longer deploy troops even to save endangered American lives in Nicaragua: a State Department press release made clear that if US citizens did not feel safe, they should leave.13

In pursuit of the broader national interest through more cordial relations with an entire continent, little heed was paid to the objections of relatively minor private interests in a small country. As early as November 1927, the assistant secretary of state, Francis White, had devised a simple equation for US policy in Nicaragua:

To have peace and order we must have a proper constabulary; to have a proper constabulary we must have money; and to have money we must have an agreement with the bankers. The bankers, not unnaturally, are a pretty hard-boiled lot and want to see profits … [But] the department of state’s solicitude in this matter is for Nicaragua; the bankers can take care of themselves.

There were, moreover, other financial considerations. The cost of keeping American forces in Nicaragua was $1.5 million above the marines’ (p.13) normal expenses; in the midst of the Depression, Congress was unwilling to allocate further funds to keep them there.14

By 1933, therefore, the intellectual underpinnings of US policy in Nicaragua had ceased to seem valid. Intervention no longer served Washington’s interests. It has been persuasively argued that national interests may be located in two categories: vital interests which, if lost or clearly imperilled, will cause a nation to resort to war; and secondary interests that countries will seek to uphold non-violently. The latter may be political, economic, or ‘psychological’ issues related to national identity and prestige.15 In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Washington had defended both sets of interests in Central America in the same manner. Hence the automatic reaction to dispatch armed forces when conditions in the region became unsettled. By 1933, with no external threat and the domestic interests of American ‘high finance’ suffering profound public discredit, the Roosevelt administration was able to preserve a clearer distinction between national and private concerns, and perceptions of the best means to protect US secondary interests changed.16 American prestige had been damaged by intervention in Central America, and would now be upheld by non-intervention.

The policy of disengagement, moreover, and its subsequent evolution into good neighbourism under the Roosevelt administration, was conceived partly on the idea of reciprocity: the notion that if the United States refrained from interference in the domestic politics of Latin America, the sister republics would strive to curb activities—such as constant civil strife—that were detrimental to US interests.17 In Nicaragua, successful reciprocity would need support if it was to ensure the broader US objectives of peace and stability. By the Tipitapa Agreement of May 1927, therefore, the US government had undertaken to create a Nicaraguan National Guard in order to protect those interests.


The US marine evacuation of January 1933 was not an unprecedented event in Nicaragua. The last remnant of the 1912 intervention—the 130-man marine guard at the US legation in Managua—had been withdrawn just eight years earlier, in August 1925. A much larger force was to return within a month. In August 1925 the departing US troops had left behind (p.14) a precarious coalition government headed by a Conservative president, Carlos Solórzano, and a Liberal vice-president, Juan Bautista Sacasa.18 Both parties had split before the 1924 elections. The ‘Nationalist Liberals’ nominated Sacasa for the presidency; the ‘Republican Liberals’ advanced Luís Corea. The mainstream Conservatives nominated Emiliano Chamorro, while a breakaway faction of ‘Republican Conservatives’ proposed Bartolomé Martínez, the incumbent vice-president. Martínez was constitutionally ineligible to accept the nomination, and the State Department informed him that the United States would be unable to recognize the next Nicaraguan government if he were heading it.19

Martínez therefore reached an agreement with the Nationalist Liberals whereby Carlos Solórzano, one of his Conservative supporters, was chosen as presidential candidate while Sacasa, the Liberal presidential candidate, agreed to be renominated for the vice-presidency. This coalition united the larger Liberal faction with the smaller Conservative one. The coalition ticket had the backing of the incumbent government and unsurprisingly won the elections. Solórzano and Sacasa took office on 1 January 1925 and were accorded US recognition.20

The majority Chamorrista Conservatives would not concede the legitimacy of the Solórzano government, and their antagonism grew when Conservative congressmen were summarily expelled from Congress and replaced by Liberal Nationalists. Conditions nonetheless remained calm until August. Then, with the US marines gone, disturbances erupted throughout the country; martial law was declared; the railway was closed. On 10 September, a month after they left, US troops were back at the ports of Corinto and Bluefields. The disturbances ceased; the American cruisers were withdrawn on 21 September. On 25 October, Chamorrista troops seized the presidential mansion and took over Managua with ease. Solórzano, uncertain of the loyalties of his armed forces, had refused to give them sufficient ammunition to quell an uprising. Chamorro then compelled Solórzano to sign an agreement in which the president agreed to appoint Chamorro as the army commander, (p.15) and to pay him $10,000 for the expenses he had incurred in staging the coup.21

Facing death threats against himself and his family, Vice-President Sacasa left Nicaragua in November. On 12 January 1926 a Chamorrista-dominated Congress impeached him. On 14 January Solórzano resigned and Chamorro assumed the presidency. US recognition was withheld under the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Peace and Amity.22 An east-coast Liberal uprising against Chamorro began in early May, and Liberal forces soon controlled much of the coast. The USS Cleveland was ordered to Bluefields, where marines and sailors were landed to protect American lives and property. During the summer, US ships were patrolling both coasts as the revolution expanded. In August, General José María Moncada joined the fight on Sacasa’s behalf. In the south-west of the country, around San Marcos, the husband of Sacasa’s niece was also fighting for the Liberal cause.23 This sobrino político was Anastasio Somoza García.

The Coolidge administration faced a difficult choice. On the one hand, the Chamorro regime was plainly unconstitutional and US recognition of it, at least as a matter of precedent, was proscribed by the 1923 treaty. On the other hand, the American business community in Nicaragua backed Chamorro, apparently persuaded that US investment in the country was most secure when the Conservatives were in power. The State Department, however, feared that recognition might spur further Liberal violence.24

The concerns of American business were therefore considered, but it was alarm about Mexican ‘bolshevism’ that eventually shaped US policy in Nicaragua as the Calles administration interfered in favour of Sacasa. (p.16) It was only a decade since Woodrow Wilson’s military intervention in Mexico, and the country’s relations with the United States remained strained. Washington saw Mexican support for Nicaragua’s Liberal rebels as a strategy to control the isthmus. The United States refused to recognize Chamorro (and, indeed, urged his resignation throughout the year), but Mexican arms deliveries to the Liberals posed the danger of a Sacasa victory and an attendant expansion of Mexico’s influence.25 On 10 January 1927, Coolidge told a joint session of Congress that he had conclusive evidence of large Mexican arms shipments to the Liberal revolutionaries: ‘The United States cannot fail to view with deep concern any serious threat to stability and constitutional government in Nicaragua …especially if such a state of affairs is contributed to or brought about by outside influence or by a foreign power.’26 President Chamorro, nevertheless, was still under US diplomatic pressure to step down. The State Department had instructed Lawrence Dennis, chargé d’affaires at the Managua legation and head of mission in the absence of a minister, to exert all politic pressure to oblige Chamorro to resign. Taking his instructions very seriously, Dennis waged a remarkable campaign. This included ‘urgent’ telephone calls to the president in the middle of the night, demanding his resignation.27

By August 1926 the Liberal revolutionaries controlled most of the east-coast ports, and more US marines and sailors were landed at Bluefields. Unwilling to recognize Chamorro, but perturbed at the possibility of heightened Mexican influence in Central America in the event of a Sacasa victory, the United States strove for a negotiated settlement that denied the presidency to both of them. Washington imposed an arms embargo to curb the supply of weapons to both sides and, from 16 to 24 October, arranged a peace conference on the USS Denver in Corinto harbour. President Chamorro’s nemesis, the US chargé d’affaires Lawrence (p.17) Dennis, presided. The talks soon reached an impasse and ended without agreement. On 31 October, hostilities resumed.28

The previous day, Chamorro had finally succumbed to Dennis’s crusade and resigned. Congress elected another Conservative, Adolfo Díaz, to the presidency on 11 November and he was accorded prompt US recognition. Returning to Nicaragua on 1 December, Sacasa proclaimed himself head of a ‘constitutional government’ at Puerto Cabezas and named Moncada as his minister of war. Mexico recognized Sacasa’s ‘government’; the State Department informed Sacasa that he would not be recognized by the United States. This was a matter of prestige for Washington, part of an implicit contest with Mexico for supremacy in Central America.29

As Sacasa’s Constitutionalist Liberals made military gains in late 1926, the prospects seemed bright that the Díaz government would fall without Washington’s direct support. In the winter of 1926–7, therefore, the intervention escalated. On 24 December, US marine forces declared Puerto Cabezas a ‘neutral zone’, ordering Sacasa to evacuate the Constitutionalist army within forty-eight hours. Further marine landings on both coasts initially penned the Constitutionalists inland and disrupted supply lines. In January 1927, US forces declared all the ports neutral zones. In February, the entire Granada–Managua–Corinto railway was declared neutral. By March there were over 2,000 US marines in Nicaragua, and Washington was openly arming the Díaz government. By then, however, Moncada was leading troops across the country to the western cities, and at the end of the month General Augusto Sandino won Jinotega for Sacasa’s Liberals, allowing the rebels to threaten Matagalpa and Managua. Díaz seemed doomed.30

Reluctant to see Díaz ousted, but unwilling to commit US marines to more direct combat against the Liberals, in May 1927 the Coolidge administration dispatched Henry Stimson, former Secretary of War in the Taft government, to mediate the civil war. Stimson reached an agreement with Díaz whereby the latter was to remain in office until the 1928 elections, which were to be supervised by the United States. An amnesty was to be declared, and all weapons were to be surrendered to American forces. The old Nicaraguan constabulary was to be disbanded, and a new (p.18) National Guard was to be organized, trained and commanded by US officers. Sufficient numbers of US troops were to remain in the country to enforce the provisions of this agreement. Stimson, meeting Moncada and Sacasa’s other representatives in Tipitapa on 4 May, threatened to use more direct force against them if they failed to concur; Moncada did so. Another 800 US marines were landed, bringing the total to over 3,000, and the Constitutionalist forces were demobilized and decommissioned.

As his army was disbanded, Sacasa departed for Costa Rica. Alone among Liberal military leaders, Augusto Sandino refused to abide by the provisions of the Stimson agreement. As the US marines received from the Constitutionalists 11,600 rifles, 303 machine guns, and over five million rounds of ammunition, Sandino and his followers set out for the Nicaragua–Honduras border region to embark on guerrilla war. On 22 December 1927, an agreement was signed for the establishment of the National Guard under the auspices of the US navy and marine corps.31

Some five thousand American marines supervised Nicaragua’s elections of 1928, probably the first in the country’s history whose outcome was not determined by the incumbent government. José María Moncada, Sacasa’s revolutionary ‘Minister of War’, was the victor. Sacasa himself, identified by the United States as an agent of Mexican subversion, was named ambassador to Washington. Four years later, on 6 November 1932, he won the presidency in elections again supervised by the United States. US marine forces began to embark for home on 1 January 1933, the day of his inauguration.


For the State Department, the marine evacuation signified ‘the realization of the commitment which the United States had assumed at Tipitapa to organize and train a non-partisan constabulary’. More broadly it marked ‘the termination of the special relationship which has existed between the United States and Nicaragua’. Henceforth, US relations with Nicaragua were to be on exactly the same basis as Washington’s relations with any other country. As far as the United States was concerned, the withdrawal of American forces indicated the fulfilment of all obligations, legal and moral, it had assumed by virtue of the intervention.32 This point proved to be moot. (p.19) From Washington, events were depicted as charting a new and more hopeful course. In Managua, circumstances seemed less promising. In five years of guerrilla war against the Sandinistas, the National Guard’s counter-insurgency campaigns had been directed by American officers. Plans for the marine evacuation therefore demanded that Nicaraguan officers be trained. The Americans recruited rapidly, rushing civilians through the Guardia academy in an effort to make them military officers. In March 1931 the National Guard’s jefe director, General Calvin Matthews of the US marine corps, admitted that by the time of the withdrawal the higher ranks would not be filled. A year later, less than nine months before the marines’ scheduled departure date, the Guardia had just thirty-five Nicaraguan officers, all of them lieutenants. The US–Nicaraguan agreement of December 1927 had provided for a corps of ninety-three officers. According to the State Department, 178 officers was the lowest number considered essential for the Nicaraguan government.33

The failure to provide an adequate military leadership was compounded by an incapacity to create an apolitical Guardia. The United States was supposed to establish a politically impartial armed force. To that end, each recruit took an oath renouncing all political affiliation; punishment was threatened for any man displaying ‘overt expression of preference for one party’.34 This procedure was wholly ineffective. President Moncada, who had to approve the candidates for the military academy, naturally favoured Liberals. More specifically, he favoured what the US electoral mission’s (that is, the marines’) intelligence division termed ‘known henchmen of President Moncada’. The entry requirements, moreover, made it likely that most recruits would be from the traditional Liberal-supporting backgrounds of the middle-class and artisan sectors.35

Less than two months before the evacuation, the State Department made a final effort to secure a neutral Guardia. On 20 October and 3 November respectively, General Matthews and the American minister (p.20) to Managua, Matthew Hanna,36 sent to the leaders of both political parties a written plan, approved in Washington, which endeavoured to secure an apolitical National Guard by dividing the officer positions equally between Liberals and Conservatives. The two presidential candidates, Sacasa and Díaz, were to present a list of thirty names, each composed equally of members of the two parties, from which Nicaraguan officers might be selected to replace the departing Americans in the higher ranks. Immediately after the elections, the outgoing president was to take the victorious candidate’s list and appoint the men on it to the Guardia’s senior posts. Sacasa and Díaz, with their vice-presidential running mates Rodolfo Espinosa and Emiliano Chamorro, were asked to sign an agreement to this effect at the US legation in the presence of Hanna, which they did on 5 November, the eve of the election.37

By its very nature this plan was a contradiction in terms, since it endeavoured to establish an apolitical National Guard on the basis of the appointees’ political inclinations. After witnessing the direct consequences of this arrangement, a later US minister to Managua would point out the obvious: that in itself it simply underlined the National Guard’s political composition. Three of the four signatories to the agreement later jointly testified that they had strong reservations about the procedure and that they expressed their apprehensions to Hanna. The minister, they claimed, stated categorically that they should rest assured that the US government would morally guarantee the accord, whereupon they signed it. It was Hanna, moreover, who wrote to Sacasa on 3 November to point out that the post of the National Guard’s first Nicaraguan jefe director could not be subject to the provisions of the agreement.38

When Sacasa and Moncada were leading the Constitutionalist revolution of 1926 they had been assisted by the husband of Sacasa’s niece, Anastasio Somoza García. Thirty-six years old in 1932, Somoza had been born in San Marcos and educated in the United States. There he had acquired fluent English and met his future wife, Salvadora Debayle, (p.21) daughter of one of Nicaragua’s most prominent families. In 1926, with Sacasa and Moncada in revolt, Somoza and some neighbours decided to take San Marcos for the Liberals. Somoza emerged from this venture with the rank of general and became a favourite of Moncada, his second cousin. Because of his command of English, and what by all accounts was an innate facility for dealing with Americans, he was selected as a translator at the Tipitapa conference. Henry Stimson was very impressed by Somoza’s manners and disposition, as well as his command of English. Under Moncada’s presidency the general was successively Nicaraguan consul in Costa Rica, under-secretary of foreign affairs, and foreign minister. He was widely considered to be highly competent.39

The United States had no official candidate for jefe director of the National Guard, but the US minister, Matthew Hanna, and his wife found Somoza charming and efficient, and the minister’s clear preference for him could not have been easily disregarded.40 In October 1932 he had informed the State Department of his preference in unequivocal terms: ‘I look upon him as the best man in the country for the position.’ Somoza’s candidacy was similarly backed by General Matthews and other American officers. In the end, it fell to Somoza’s friend Hanna and Somoza’s cousin Moncada to revise the list of candidates prepared by Somoza’s uncle, the president-elect, Sacasa. On the day when the first US troops embarked for home, Anastasio Somoza was confirmed as jefe director of the National Guard.41

It was evident to both of Nicaragua’s political parties that a bipartisan agreement on the nature of the country’s military establishment would (p.22) be insufficient to guarantee a smooth transition in 1933. They had been seeking means of ensuring that the departure of the marines would not prompt the same fiasco as when US forces had left in 1925. On 30 June 1932, therefore, the presidential candidates, Sacasa and Díaz, signed an agreement to accept minority representation in the government after the 1932 elections. In a second accord on 3 October they set out specific steps to be taken after the polls. These included the establishment of a bipartisan commission to negotiate peace with Sandino; minority party representation in the executive branch; at least a third of each party’s lists for municipal elections to consist of individuals of the rival party; and constitutional reform to enshrine these two latter provisions in the national charter.42 Sacasa was duly elected a month later.

By the time of the US marine withdrawal, then, the two political parties had agreed on a programme of national unity; a legitimate president had been elected in polls generally considered to have been relatively honest; a supposedly apolitical armed force was in place under a reportedly efficient jefe director; and Sandino’s activities could reasonably be expected to diminish. In Washington, the diplomats in the State Department’s Latin American division were washing their hands. The department issued a press release referring to ‘an entirely new and non-partisan force, the Guardia Nacional’ and disclaiming any responsibility for future events in Nicaragua. In New York, the leader writer at the Times recast the press release to praise the undoubted efficiency of the National Guard and to express the conviction that Sacasa would be equal to any problems that the situation presented.43 This, it transpired, was wishful thinking.

Nine months earlier Laurence Duggan, chief of the Latin American division, had foreseen other possibilities in a memorandum intended for a more restricted circulation than the press release on which the New York Times editorial was based: ‘upon the withdrawal of the Marine Officers in the Guardia next fall, the forces of disintegration will be set into action’.44 The last US troops departed Nicaragua on 2 January 1933, and the country was left to govern itself.

Duggan was entirely right. In the decades since 1933, much has been made of Somoza’s position as ‘the last marine’, a notion that contrives to (p.23) make the Roosevelt administration a willing partner in his relentless rise to power. Less forthright (but more graphic) expressions of this link continue to assign the blame: Somoza, it has been said, ‘was a time bomb, planted in Managua by the Hoover administration, and Franklin Roosevelt allowed it to explode’.45

Apportioning blame is a benefit of hindsight. In reality, it was impossible at the end of 1932 to predict what might happen even in the short term. The only likelihood, as Duggan was saying, was that something drastic would occur. It required no great foresight to predict this, and Duggan’s assessment is remarkable only inasmuch as it stands out against a background of official and semi-official pronouncements averring that tranquillity would prevail.46 This was indifference applied as diplomacy, since it was clear at the time that the new Nicaraguan government could scarcely have come to power in less favourable conditions.

First, the personality of the new president was a basic problem. Juan Sacasa, a revolutionary of very timid temperament, proved to be a remarkably weak chief executive in highly unstable circumstances. He was, according to Hanna’s successor Arthur Bliss Lane, incapable of acting in a strong and determined manner. In a political system that judged personality as fundamental to authority, Sacasa was inadequate. Matthew Hanna’s personal distaste for the president’s weakness was manifest in his dispatches to the State Department. Even Lane, who would later work assiduously to protect Sacasa against Somoza’s remorseless ascent, commented frequently in his own dispatches on what he saw as the president’s striking ineptness.

Second, Sacasa was politically handicapped from the outset. In a country where there persisted the perception that the United States was a chief arbiter of executive power, it became a matter of fundamental political significance that Sacasa’s attainment of the presidency was largely what the most recent US intervention had been designed to avert. Even if a policy of non-interference had not been adopted, Sacasa’s authority would have been hampered by a widespread perception in Nicaragua that he was not quite what the State Department wanted in Managua’s presidential mansion.

Third, in a tradition in which the removal of presidents had come to be seen as much a military as a political problem, the US marines left Sacasa (p.24) with in army which, in Lane’s words, comprised ‘an instrument to blast constitutional procedure off the map’. At the beginning of 1933 that instrument consisted of 4,000 men with 259 machine guns, 54 submachine guns, 23 automatic rifles, and 4,474 standard rifles. Even before the marine evacuation, US intelligence reports had been stressing the widespread uneasiness about what would happen after the American officers were withdrawn from the National Guard. In December 1932, one such report accurately predicted that ‘the American-trained, junior native officers will refuse obedience to the political appointees of the higher ranks, and [they] … will cause an attitude of passive resistance to the orders of such civilian appointees to spread throughout the Guardia personnel.’47

The National Guard was hopelessly politicized, soon divided into Sacasistas, Somocistas, Moncadistas, and Chamorristas. To balance Somoza’s influence, Sacasa was cultivating an alliance with General Gustavo Abaunza, the Chief of Staff. Abaunza shuffled the commands in an effort to neutralize somocista and chamorrista officers, spurring Somoza’s conviction that Abaunza was fomenting military unrest in order to oust him as jefe director. Somoza also had to contend with what Hanna termed ‘machinations and intrigues’ on the part of the ministers of finance and the treasury. Chamorro, for his part, outraged at the manner in which Somoza and Sacasa were ignoring the pre-election pact for neutral armed forces, fought for a reduction in the military budget.48

Fourth, in a party political system traditionally marked by personalist factionalism, the divisiveness that had plagued the 1932 election campaign became highly schismatic. To succeed Moncada, who was constitutionally ineligible for a second term, no fewer than four Liberal pre-candidates had appeared in 1932: Juan Sacasa, Vice-President Enoc Aguado, the former foreign minister Leonardo Arguello, and the former minister to Washington Rodolfo Espinosa. At the beginning of 1932, Moncada had proposed calling a convention to frame a new constitution. The charter would have given the Guardia a proper legal basis and conferred constitutional validity on the Bryan–Chamorro Treaty of 1914, which accorded the United States the right to build a Nicaraguan canal. (p.25) These two proposals were designed to induce Henry Stimson (by then Hoover’s Secretary of State) to accept the plan. Moncada sent a mission to Washington to persuade the State Department to postpone the 1932 polls, and to supervise instead elections for a constituent assembly. If the latter had been held, it would have been impossible to elect a new president in November 1932 to assume office in January 1933. The alternative would have been an extension of Moncada’s term.49

Convinced that Moncada was planning to perpetuate his mandate, the four Liberal presidential hopefuls formed an anti-Moncada branch of the party. In March 1932 the two factions, each claiming to represent the true party, held separate conventions. On 3 April, following their Managua convention, one sector nominated Leonardo Arguello as the party’s candidate for the November elections. Moncada, disconcertingly, seemed to back the Arguello faction. The US electoral mission under Admiral Clark Woodward50 failed to recognize the Managua convention; a later gathering, held in Sacasa’s home city of León, nominated him and Espinosa as the Liberal ticket. The split in the Liberals raised the possibility that a minority candidate might win the November elections. The Conservatives had nominated Adolfo Díaz, whose presidency the United States had intervened to protect in 1912 and 1926–7.51

If Díaz had won the presidency in 1932, few would have believed that his election had not been dictated by Washington. Sandino’s activities after the marine evacuation, far from slowing, might have intensified. In a manifesto of January 1932 urging Nicaraguans to boycott the polls, the guerrilla leader had proclaimed: ‘Let those affiliated with the Liberal Party not fear a victory of the Conservative platform, because that platform will not last longer than the people take to nullify it with their Defending Army of National Sovereignty’—that is, the Sandinistas.52 Coupled with the minority position of Conservatives in the Guardia, this circumstance might have made civil war an immediate prospect. Sacasa’s election delayed a breakdown in constitutional procedure, but some crisis was probably inevitable. (p.26) With the departure of the marines, this intra-party factionalism reemerged abruptly as the apparent unity imposed by the pre-election pacts began to disintegrate. The Nicaraguan Senate held fifteen Liberals and eight Conservatives; twenty-nine Liberals and fourteen Conservatives sat in the Chamber of Deputies. The apparent preponderance of Liberal strength should have facilitated Sacasa’s task, but the reality was different. At the end of December, Hanna had noted substantial dissension in the Liberal ranks, the result not least of Moncada’s natural influence and overt lobbying. Hanna identified the vice-president of Congress and the second vice-secretary as Moncadistas. The second vice-secretary of the Senate was also a Moncadista, as were the president of the Chamber, the vice-president, and the first and second vice-secretaries. It would shortly become apparent that Sacasa’s own vice-president, Rodolfo Espinosa, was working against him.53

Fifth, Sacasa faced an alarming series of extra-parliamentary challenges to the stability of his government. Moncada’s retirement had prompted the return of many Nicaraguan exiles whom he had expelled, and who promptly resumed the activities that had led to their departure. Initially, this amounted simply to the normal propagandizing activities of disgruntled political ‘outs’, but the trend was disconcerting and Hanna predicted that in time it might become dangerous.54 Conditions were exacerbated by the presence in the Segovias region of large numbers of Honduran revolutionaries who had sought refuge in Nicaraguan territory. This complicated an already difficult military situation, since Sandino controlled part of that area with armed guerrillas, a force that Sacasa would have to contain by deploying an army whose officer corps, it became evident in the first week of his administration, was plotting against him.55

Finally, the US presence in Nicaragua had become so dominant in the previous period that, in the words of one contemporary observer, Washington had ruled the country ‘more completely than the American Federal Government rules any state in the Union’.56 In these circumstances the abrupt removal of US influence (as the main manifestation of such influence boarded ships for home) was bound to prompt some (p.27) degree of political turbulence. Sacasa, however, would find little sympathy at the US legation.

Notwithstanding the State Department’s public assertions to the contrary, political stability in Nicaragua was the least likely scenario at the start of 1933. Very hard to predict at the time, however, was how the inevitable short-run instability might resolve itself in the longer term, or which of the contending forces might emerge ascendant. That Anastasio Somoza—an apparently efficient and amiable 37-year-old with no military training and a fondness for dirty jokes—might have been ‘planted’ by the Hoover administration as part of some long-term US policy objective was a possibility of which the Roosevelt State Department seemed to be blissfully unaware.


In Managua, Hanna noted that the US marine withdrawal produced surprisingly little comment and was met by demonstrations of neither regret nor rejoicing on the part of the people. Hanna, evidently bemused that an event of such magnitude in Nicaragua’s political life should be received with apparent indifference, offered a tentative explanation: ‘Pretty much everybody whose personal interests and welfare were benefited by the presence of the marines contemplated their withdrawal with anxiety for the future … There is joy, of course, that the country is free from foreign troops but it is so mixed with fear of what the consequences may be that few have seen fit to proclaim their satisfaction.’57

The fears were justified. In circumstances that corresponded closely to the conditions attendant on the 1925 withdrawal, the tenuous stability that had been a symptom of the marines’ presence began to fall apart very fast in January 1933. There were, however, two significant differences from 1925. First, this time Washington was determined not to be dragged back into Nicaragua’s instability; and second, that determination had found concrete expression in the establishment of a well-armed, politically divided, ill-officered National Guard. For the State Department, the absolute need to uphold the former circumstance demanded the absolute denial of the latter. In Managua, even the department’s own representatives found this contradiction hard to swallow. Lane would later write:

The people who created the National Guard had no adequate understanding of the psychology of the people here … Did it ever occur to the eminent statesmen who (p.28) created the [National Guard] that personal ambition lurks in the human breast, even in Nicaragua? In my opinion, it is one of the sorriest examples of our part, of our inability to understand that we should not meddle in other people’s affairs.58

The bitterness of Lane’s hindsight coincided with the clarity of Duggan’s foresight. Just six days after the marines left, a plot against Sacasa was uncovered among the Guardia’s officer corps. The crash recruiting programme among civilians, who had been promoted over serving officers, had become a source of mutinous discontent even before the evacuation. It seems likely that Somoza was not behind the conspiracy, and that he was alarmed at this early demonstration of the Guardia’s innate instability. The emergence of the plot, however, and the fact that it was he who eventually brought the situation under control by appealing to the patriotism of the officer corps, were indications of his personal influence and boded ill for the future. The spirit of insubordination continued to border on incipient mutiny; both Somoza and Sacasa expected further trouble from the Guardia.59

With the removal of the US marines, the actual business of domestic policy-making was wholly overshadowed by the intensity of the political volatility. Sandinista–Guardia clashes were continuing; unemployment was severe; business activity was sharply depressed; political dissensions had abruptly re-emerged; subversive propaganda was circulating; and there prevailed a general belief that Sacasa lacked the character to govern under these conditions. As reflected in reports emanating from the US legation, the political atmosphere was entirely one of imminent disaster. The legation detailed the tortuous manoeuvrings of each faction, emphasizing that the Sacasa administration would probably be incapable of maintaining domestic peace, and that the instability was aggravated by the various cliques’ inability to devise any coherent strategy to address the country’s problems.

‘The sum total of all this’, Hanna told his chiefs in Washington, ‘has been to create a profound anxiety concerning the future and a situation of doubt and uncertainty which arouses a lack of confidence in the government at its very inception and strengthens the forces that are not in sympathy with it.’ As President Sacasa was aware, the forces not in sympathy with his government included almost everybody who mattered. On 19 January 1933, nineteen days after his inauguration and (p.29) eighteen days after the last US troops left, Sacasa declared martial law and placed the entire country under a state of siege.60

Juan Bautista Sacasa had reached political maturity in a context that measured the potential for political control as a twofold matter: the attitude of the United States and the availability of weapons. He therefore viewed the immediate elements of instability—the intra-party factionalism, the insurgent Sandinistas, the Honduran revolutionaries, the returning exiles, and the mutinous Guardia—as a military problem dependent on the policy of the United States. Hanna was summoned to the presidential mansion on Tiscapa Hill to hear a request for US arms. The minister was convinced that the situation warranted their supply. He informed the State Department,

I believe that President Sacasa has not overstated the dangers of the situation or his needs if a crisis occurs and I think we should make every effort to help him … The existing spirit of unrest with so many dangerous elements unrestrained can develop very quickly into widespread revolt. It would be impossible for this government to pay cash for the military supplies it needs.61

The US War Department refused to loan arms to the Sacasa administration for the purposes of defence. It further refused to sell arms on credit, on the grounds that Nicaragua remained indebted to the United States for former credits extended for armaments in 1922, 1923, and 1927. Sacasa looked elsewhere. Talks with the Ubico regime in Guatemala produced a tentative agreement to provide arms, until the State Department pointed out to Guatemala that a loan of weapons to Nicaragua would contravene article 3 of the Convention for the Limitation of Armaments.62 It was against the background of this daunting array of challenges that Sacasa was trying to settle six years of guerrilla war in a manner acceptable to every group, and to keep the country afloat in the midst of the Depression.

The Depression had a catastrophic effect on Nicaragua. The country’s GDP, which had expanded by 6.4 per cent between 1925 and 1929, contracted by 4.9 per cent between 1930 and 1934. World prices for coffee, the main source of foreign exchange and accounting for 46 per cent of (p.30) exports, had slumped sharply in January 1932. The price of Nicaraguan coffee fell from 46¢ per kilo in 1926 to 16¢ by 1933. Between 1929 and 1933 the value of coffee exports dropped from $5.9 million to $2.2 million, despite an increase in export volumes. Indeed, the value of all Nicaraguan exports collapsed from $10.9 million in 1929 to $4.9 million in 1933 and did not stabilize until the mid 1930s. Imports were cut drastically to maintain a positive balance of trade. The Exchange Control Commission had taken direct control of imports in September 1932 and thereafter gave preference to imports of essential goods and raw materials for the export sector. Between 1929 and 1933, import values fell from $11.8 million to $3.8 million. The decline entailed a sharp drop in revenue, since tariffs on trade accounted for almost two-thirds of government income. Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala were able to boost imports and revenue via debt default. Nicaragua, however, did not default on its obligations; the country merely suspended amortization payments. Thus government spending was severely curtailed, with an attendant sharp decline in services.63

Facing economic catastrophe, deprived of US backing, obstructed in his search for arms to ensure self-defence, and justifiably apprehensive about his own army, Sacasa attempted to secure an alternative source of military support. Sandino was the leader of the only available armed force that might counteract an insubordinate Guardia. He had also been a general in Sacasa’s Liberal army during the Constitutionalist war. Sandino, for his part, now had reason to make peace. With the US marines gone, the main motive for his insurrection had disappeared. Moncada, whom he saw as a traitor for agreeing to the Tipitapa Agreement, was no longer president; the National Guard was now controlled by the Liberals, to whom he avowed loyalty; and his ties to Central American communists were broken. In late November 1932, a joint meeting of the executive committees of both main parties had agreed to send a delegation to mediate with Sandino.64

On 19 January 1933, the day on which he declared martial law, Sacasa made arrangements to confer with the guerrilla. On 23 January, the president’s envoy returned to Managua with a peace proposal; a fifteen-day armistice was agreed. On 2 February, Sandino went to Managua and signed a peace agreement with Sacasa. As a result, some 1,800 guerrillas surrendered their arms and were granted control of almost 37,000 square (p.31) kilometres of territory in the Segovias region to establish an agricultural commune. Sacasa also pledged to begin a series of public works projects in the area and to give the Sandinistas preference in employment. The guerrillas were to be amnestied for all political and criminal offences committed since May 1927. Finally, Sandino was allowed to retain a security force of 100 armed men for a year after the signing of the agreement.65

Sacasa’s successful attempts at pacification gave rise to significant problems. First, although Somoza accompanied Sandino in the car from the airport to the presidential mansion, Guardia dissatisfaction at this turn of events was substantial; it was also understandable. For six years the Nicaraguan National Guard had borne the brunt of a sometimes vicious guerrilla war. As the US marines had gradually wound down their own combat activities in the field, ceding the risks to native troops, the Guardia had confronted the brutality for which the Sandinistas were renowned: the corte de chaleco, the corte de cumbo, and the corte de blumers were just some of the more gruesome techniques of Sandinista mutilation practised on those deemed to be enemies. That the rebels should now be allowed to settle an agricultural community at government expense could not but prompt Guardia discontent. It was also apparent that the Sandinistas were not fully disarmed. The 1,800 guerrillas demobilized at San Rafael del Norte on 22 February surrendered just 337 rifles, 2 machine guns, and 16 automatic rifles.66

Second, peace with the Sandinistas appeared to remove a problem that had been a powerful incentive to inter-party cooperation. The re-intensification of party rivalry imperilled the pre-election pacts. The parties split over traditional Liberal and Conservative lines, and hostility re-emerged over such issues as the question of civil and church marriages and the validity of religious schools’ bachelors’ degrees, as well as such specific pressing matters as the politicization of the National Guard.67 One month after Sacasa’s inauguration, the prospects for his administration were looking bleak.

(p.32) In the United States, the president-elect, Franklin Roosevelt, was one month away from his own inauguration. He had paid little attention to foreign policy during the election campaign and seems to have had only a limited knowledge of Latin American affairs. He had opposed the Nicaraguan intervention, however, a position evident in his 1928 Foreign Affairs article ‘Our Foreign Policy’, and was a proponent of multilateral action in Latin America rather than unilateral US intervention. He was to hint at such a hemisphere strategy in his first speech to the Pan American Union on 12 April 1933, when he stressed intra-regional cooperation and pledged to build regionalism on a spirit of mutual respect.

Roosevelt chose Cordell Hull as his Secretary of State. A former senator from Tennessee with no experience of diplomacy, Hull was an austere and opinionated man who was easily upset by criticism and whose knowledge of Latin American issues was minimal. The president appointed Sumner Welles as his assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs. An old friend of Roosevelt, Welles had become chief of the State Department’s Latin American Division in 1921, at the age of 28, and was an experienced diplomat in regional matters.68

Welles’s appointment created a potentially difficult situation in the State Department. His background and temperament were very different from Hull’s, and from the outset their relationship was poor. It soon deteriorated into keen personal acrimony. Welles was often insubordinate. Hull, a true Democrat but evidently no liberal, referred to his assistant secretary as ‘my fairy’. Their conflict reflected bureaucratic rivalry in the State Department that would eventually affect Washington’s policies in Latin America. Two camps were starting to be established. The ‘Latin Americanists’, led by Welles and Duggan, were career diplomats who had been working on the region for years. Jealous of their expertise, they viewed broader international developments from a western-hemisphere perspective. The ‘internationalist’ camp, headed by Hull, were old Wilsonians who viewed US–Latin American relations as simply a small part of a global network of foreign links. Only superficially acquainted with Latin American politics and history, they tended to oversimplify regional issues; they, however, were the makers of general policy.69 (p.33) It was this incipiently divided foreign policy establishment that confronted the challenge of Nicaragua in the spring of 1933. Sacasa lifted the state of siege at the end of March but by mid May he was obliged to reimpose martial law in the department of Managua as what Hanna termed ‘the germ of decomposition’ began to take hold. By the third week in May, events seemed to be drifting towards a crisis. As confidence in the government diminished, and as the Sacasa administration appeared increasingly ineffectual in its leadership, its adversaries became more outspoken. The ruling party split into five distinct groups: supporters of Arguello, Aguado, Espinosa, Moncada, and Sacasa himself. The president and his vice-president made no effort to hide their dislike of one another, and Sacasa found himself supported by only a meagre faction of the Liberals.70

In these circumstances, Sacasa had at least to attempt to contain the Guardia and the burgeoning influence of its new jefe director, Anastasio Somoza. The activities and cost of the National Guard, in fact, were significant elements in the rapid decline in Sacasa’s popularity that was steadily eroding his authority. Public criticism focused on the percentage of government income and spending allotted to the Guardia. William Eberhardt, the American minister in Costa Rica and Hanna’s predecessor at the Managua legation, reported a figure of $1 million for military expenses out of a total revenue of $1.5 million. Though Eberhardt was mistaken in this respect, the amount was still substantial when set against the real value of revenue for 1932 of $2.8 million.71

Moreover, Eberhardt’s sources indicated that the Guardia treated the public ‘in a most arrogant, insolent and abusive manner, so much so that it is freely predicted that it will only be a question of time when armed opposition is bound to develop’. In March, Sacasa had sent to Congress a bill calling for a reduction in the Guardia appropriation. By June, the monthly Guardia budget had fallen from 100,000 córdobas (C$) to C$75,000; further cuts seemed likely. At the end of the month, the legislature granted Sacasa the authority to reduce government expenditures further, including Guardia costs, since revenue was insufficient to meet the budget. The military spending cuts of that month coincided with (p.34) a public manifesto from Sandino—whose loyalists were continuing to suffer Guardia harassment in the Segovias—declaring the Guardia unconstitutional and calling upon Sacasa to ‘arm the people’.72 Arming the people would probably have been a mistake.

In the face of public disaffection and official assaults on its manpower and budget, the National Guard appears to have attained an institutional coherence that to some extent overrode the political and personalist divisions of its early days as a force under exclusively Nicaraguan command. Many of the higher ranks, politically appointed over the heads of the junior officers in late 1932 and early 1933, were Sacasa loyalists, and the president was evidently being marginalized. The Chief of Staff, Abaunza, at Sacasa’s urging, had been displacing Conservatives. The majority Moncadistas and Somocistas had a unity of purpose in view of the clear understanding between their patrons. Military esprit de corps was fortified by the leniency with which Sandino had been treated by civilian politicians, and most particularly by a deterioration in the troops’ living conditions that cut across their political divisions. The latter circumstance reached a head in August, by which time the Guardia had not been paid for three months. Military unrest, inevitably, had reached alarming proportions.

In that light, Sacasa’s concession to the Sandinistas—financing their settlement on an agricultural commune—seems to have been an act of political ineptitude. The coup of December 1931 in El Salvador, which ousted the Araujo regime and brought General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez to power, occurred very largely because the army had not been paid. Somoza estimated that he would need $80,000 from the National Bank to cancel the arrears. Though owned by the Nicaraguan government, the National Bank of Nicaragua was incorporated in the United States and had its offices and directorate in New York. Of the nine directors, four were American citizens. Somoza cabled the directors a request for $80,000. The board replied by authorizing the bank to allot $25,000.73

It was this context, compounded by Somoza’s loyalty to Moncada rather than to Sacasa, that led Eberhardt to believe that an early overthrow of the Sacasa administration was ‘a distinct possibility’. The possibility seemed to be made graphically concrete in the early hours of 1 August, (p.35) when a large quantity of weapons rained down on the streets of Managua. The Guardia’s main arsenal at the Campo de Marte military base had exploded, sending a shower of revolvers, rifles, machine guns, and live rounds over a radius of several blocks. Sacasa declared a state of war in the department of Managua and a state of siege throughout the rest of the country. He began to arm loyal Liberals; press censorship and a curfew were imposed.74

Believing that the Guardia was staging a coup, Sandino offered to provide an army of 600 men to protect Sacasa. Somoza countered by advising Sacasa that if Sandino made any such move the Guardia would revolt: machine-gun emplacements were hastily assembled at all entrances to the Campo de Marte. Responsibility for the explosion was never clarified, though the recriminations were endless and for Sacasa the question was never in dispute. Two hundred Conservatives were detained in Managua and similar arrests were made in other towns throughout the country. The inter-party hostility temporarily promoted solidarity within each of the parties, but also gave rise to further proposals to break the pre-election pacts. The atmosphere in Managua was one of intense apprehension: government employees took to going to work with revolvers in their belts.75

From Washington, Cordell Hull urged Hanna to ‘do everything you appropriately can to counsel calmness and moderation’.76 Hanna’s distaste for Sacasa, and his lack of confidence in the president’s abilities to administer the country, were manifest in his dispatches to the State Department and contrasted with his equally clear admiration for Somoza, whom he had been advising on a personal basis. These impressions cannot have passed unnoticed in Washington during the months when the new officials in the State Department’s Latin American division were attempting to define their Central American policy. Hanna, however, had a professional interest and a personal stake in the maintenance of stability. He had helped prepare the marine evacuation, create the officer corps, and appoint the National Guard’s jefe director. He saw the preservation of the pre-election agreements as essential if civil war was to be avoided, and embarked on a series of meetings with Sacasa, Somoza, (p.36) disaffected Liberals, and Conservative leaders in an attempt to save the pre-election pacts. By the third week of August the furore sparked off by the arrest of the Conservatives began to diminish as the prisoners were released; this was largely because of pressure on Hanna’s part. According to the US military attaché, however, it was ‘only a matter of time before trouble starts again’.77

By the autumn of 1933 the prospects of Sacasa’s completing his term did not look bright in either Managua or Washington. His anxiety over the security of his government hardened into an obsession. Hanna, whose dispatches to Washington over the previous eight months had amounted to a catalogue of woe for the administration as it lurched from one crisis to the next, complained about this: ‘[Sacasa] is losing sight and sacrificing the favourable influences he fell heir to as a consequence of the intervention.’78 From Sacasa’s viewpoint, such influences were not readily apparent. At the end of September he indefinitely prolonged the state of siege for the whole country as reports multiplied of his government’s imminent collapse. Vice-President Espinosa informed Daniels, the US legation’s first secretary, of a planned coup to overthrow Sacasa and ‘eliminate’ Espinosa himself. The Mexican chargé also reported rumours of a military rebellion. The announcement of an early visit to Managua by Sandino, and Sacasa’s indisposition with acute malaria, tended to support this view.79

The American minister in Guatemala was meanwhile given a letter that had come into the possession of President Ubico. Purportedly written by Vice-President Espinosa and addressed to one Rafael Lima, a Salvadorean ex-diplomat, the letter suggested that the vice-president was involved in a plot to assassinate Sacasa. Espinosa, according to the American military attaché, had been working ‘clandestinely’ against the president since the inauguration. In Washington, Willard Beaulac—first secretary of the Managua legation under Eberhardt, and now back at the department—made discreet investigations. He concluded that the letter was authentic, and that Espinosa and Lima were attempting to form a revolutionary movement.80 (p.37) Daniels gave credence to the probability of a coup led by Somoza as the president was leaving Managua because of his illness. He informed the department that the jefe director would be the predominant force in the city and that a military dictatorship might be imminent. The following day, 10 November 1933, in his instructions to the American delegation about to leave for the Seventh Inter-American Conference in Montevideo, Hull wrote: ‘it is believed that [Nicaragua] has a fair chance of remaining peaceful and of retaining the benefits which have accrued to it as a result of American assistance.’ President Sacasa was at that moment preparing to move himself, his family, and his entire cabinet to a coffee plantation in the hills twelve miles south of Managua, leaving Somoza as the main political force in the capital. The pattern for good neighbourism in Nicaragua during Roosevelt’s first term was thereby set.81


(1) Quoted in Samuel Rosenman(ed.), Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 1938), ii, 14.

(2) 817.00/8444, Corrigan (El Salvador) to Hull, 19 May 1936; 817.00/8509, Weddel (Argentina) to Hull, 6 June 1936; 817.00/8520, Boal (Mexico) to Hull, 12 June 1936.

(3) Dexter Perkins, The United States and the Caribbean (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947), 146.

(4) T. H. Greer, What Roosevelt Thought: The Social and Political Ideas of Franklin D. Roosevelt (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1958), 158–60; C. Neale Ronning (ed.), Intervention in Latin America (New York: Knopf, 1970), 29–32; F. R. Dulles, America’s Rise to World Power, 1898–1954 (New York: Harper, 1955), 144–5; Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Latin American Policy of the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1943), 202; S. Adler, The Uncertain Giant, 1921–1941: American Foreign Policy between the Wars (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 94–9; Benjamin T. Harrison, Dollar Diplomat: Chandler Anderson and American Policy in Mexico and Nicaragua, 1913–1928 (Washington: Washington State University Press, 1988), 116; New York Times, 20 July 1927; Tony Jenkins, Nicaragua and the United States: Years of Conflict (New York: F. Watts, 1989), 41; Bernard Diederich, Somoza and the Legacy of US Involvement in Central America (New York: Dutton, 1981), 17.

(5) Cleveland Rogers, The Roosevelt Program (New York: G. B. Putnam’s Sons, 1933), 3, 7; William E. Leuchtenburg, ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1933–1940’, in Arnold A. Offner (ed.), America and the Origins of World War II, 1933–1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), 1–2, 18–19; Charles C. Alexander, Nationalism in American Thought, 1930–1945 (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1969), 2; Hugh Brogan, The Pelican History of the United States of America (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 531–4.

(6) Charles A. Beard (ed.), America Faces the Future (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932); Charles A. Beard, The Idea of National Interest: An Analytical Study in American Foreign Policy (New York: Macmillan 1934), passim; Brogan, Pelican History, 572.

(7) Dexter Perkins, The United States and Latin America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961), 109; William Everett Kane, Civil Strife in Latin America (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 97, 118–19.

(8) James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America (London: Verso, 1988), 60; New York Times, 7 May 1934.

(9) Kane, Civil Strife, 114.

(10) Signed in Paris in 1928, the Kellogg–Briand Pact committed its fifteen signatory countries to renounce war as an instrument of national policy and to agree that the settlement of all disputes should ‘never be sought except by pacific means’ except in the case of self-defence. Within three years, as the Japanese Kwantung Army occupied Manchuria and withstood all league pressure to withdraw, the pact would be seen as an instrument of very limited use. See Barbara W. Tuchman, Sand Against the Wind: Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–1945 (London: Macmillan, 1991), 130–9; Kane, Civil Strife, 118–19.

(11) Written by the under-secretary of state J. Reuben Clark in 1928 (and published by the State Department in 1932), the memorandum did not renounce the right of intervention but it did undermine Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary that the United States had an obligation to ensure that Latin American nations behaved responsibly towards European countries. See William Kamman, A Search for Stability: United States Diplomacy toward Nicaragua, 1925–1933 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 198–9.

(12) US Department of Commerce, A Balance of International Payments of the United States in 1933 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1934); H. Gerald Smith, ‘Economic Ties Linking the United States and Latin America’, Commercial Pan America, 45 (Feb. 1936), 7; Harrison, Dollar Diplomat, 118.

(13) Kamman, A Search for Stability, 202–3.

(14) Ibid. 221; New York Times, 18 Apr. 1928.

(15) Robert D. Crassweller, The Caribbean Community: Changing Societies and US Policy (London: Pall Mall Press, 1972), 37.

(16) Ronning (ed.), Intervention, 14.

(17) Bryce Wood, The Making of the Good Neighbor Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 309.

(18) Chester Lloyd Jones, The Caribbean since 1900 (New York: Prentice Hall Inc., 1936), 381.

(19) US Department of State, The United States and Nicaragua: A Survey of the Relations from 1909–1932, Latin American Series, 6 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1932). Repr. in Henry Lewis Stimson, Henry L. Stimson’s American Policy in Nicaragua: The Lasting Legacy, with introduction and afterword by Paul H. Boeker, plus essays by Andrés Pérez and Alain Brinkley (New York: M. Wiener Publishers, c. 1991), 181.

(20) Ibid. 182.

(21) Ibid. 187–8.

(22) On 7 Feb. 1923, a US-organized Conference on Central American Affairs in Washington ended with a Treaty of Peace and Amity which reaffirmed the principles of recognition agreed at a similar meeting in 1907. These established that the countries of the isthmus (Panama excluded) would not recognize any Central American government which came to power as the result of a revolution or coup, or which was headed by an individual who was ineligible to exercise the presidency under the terms of his country’s constitution. The United States was not a signatory to the agreement, but announced in June 1923 that its recognition policy would be guided by the accord. Washington’s motivations appear to owe much to concern about revolutionary nationalism in the isthmus inspired by the Mexican revolution. See Jones, The Caribbean, 427; Donald C. Hodges, Intellectual Foundations of the Nicaraguan Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986) 124; Dana C. Munro, The United States and the Caribbean Area (Boston: World Peace Foundation, 1934), 209–11.

(23) Neill Macaulay, The Sandino Affair (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967), 25–6; Munro, The United States, 249.

(24) Harrison, Dollar Diplomat, 103.

(25) Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 26; Gordon Connell-Smith, The Inter-American System (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 76; 817.00/5854, Memorandum, Robert E. Olds (Assistant Secretary of State), Jan. 1927, quoted inKamman, A Search for Stability, 227.

(26) Quoted in John J. Tierney Jr, ‘Revolution and the Marines: The United States and Nicaragua in the Early Years’, in Belden Bell (ed.), Nicaragua: An Ally under Siege (Washington DC: Council on American Affairs, 1978), 8–23; Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 25.

(27) Harrison, Dollar Diplomat, 104, 105. An account of Dennis’s crusade against Chamorro is told with relish by the New York Times correspondentHarold N. Denny in his Dollars for Bullets: The Story of American Rule in Nicaragua (New York: L. MacVeagh, The Dial Press, 1929).

(28) Connell-Smith, The Inter-American System, 76–7; Harrison, Dollar Diplomat, 111; Stimson, Stimson’s American Policy, 195; Munro, The United States, 249.

(29) Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 25–8; Jones, The Caribbean, 388–98; Stimson, Stimsons American Policy, 192, 197–8; Kamman, A Search for Stability, 229; Munro, The United States, 250.

(30) Tierney, ‘Revolution and the Marines’, 17–18; Hodges, Intellectual Foundations, 124; Stimson, Stimsons American Policy, 192, 203; Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 28–9.

(31) Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 29; Jones, The Caribbean, 388–91; Stimson, Stimson’s American Policy, 205; Munro, The United States, 254–5.

(32) 817.1051/808, Welles to Lane, 28 December 1933; US Department of State, Press Releases (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office), 2 Jan. 1933.

(33) Marvin Goldwert, The Constabulary in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1962), 38–9, 42; Richard Millet, Guardians of the Dynasty (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1977), 125–32; US Department of State, Press Releases, 9 Apr. 1932; Stimson, Stimson’s American Policy, 234.

(34) Millet, Guardians, 125.

(35) RG 38 C-10-d 6473-E, US Electoral Mission, intelligence section, intelligence report, 1 Dec. 1932; Millet, Guardians, 126–7.

(36) US diplomatic missions in Central America in this period were legations, each headed by a minister. The Nicaragua legation was not elevated to the status of embassy until Apr. 1943, when James Bolton Stewart presented his credentials as ambassador.

(37) The letters from Matthews and Hanna to Sacasa are reproduced in full in Juan Bautista Sacasa, Coóno y por qué caí del poder (León, Nicaragua: s.n. 1946), 14–15, 59–64.

(38) Adolfo Díaz, Emiliano Chamorro, and Juan Sacasa to Hull, 30 Nov. 1936, reproduced in Sacasa, Gw?0y por qué, 159–60; RG 38 C-10-d 6473-E, US Electoral Mission, intelligence section, intelligence report, 1 Dec. 1932; RG 38 C-10-d 6473, commander, Special Service Squadron, to chief of naval operations (director of naval intelligence), 24 June 1936.

(39) Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 236–7; William Krehm, Democracies and Tyrannies of the Caribbean (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1984), 108–9; Shirley Christian, Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 9, 19; Newsweek, 13June 1936, 17.

(40) Since Somoza’s appointment as jefe director in Nov. 1932 was so pivotal in all that followed, it is worth noting the most persistent rumour surrounding it. This holds that Matthew Hanna was dominated by his much younger wife, and that Mrs Hanna was having an affair with Somoza. Gregorio Selser quotes a manifesto by Sandino: ‘The unhappy Hoover regime has sent to Nicaragua as minister an old wreck by the name of Matthew Hanna, whose wife—a German as it happens—now runs the Yankee legation in Managua … [and] is addicted to young National Guard officers’ (Sandino, General of the Free (New York: Month Review Press, 1981), 145). Similar stories are repeated by many other sources. William Krehm, Time correspondent in Nicaragua, puts the matter more graciously: ‘Mrs. Hanna, considerably her husband’s junior, adored dancing, and Tacho danced so very, very well.’ (Democracies and Tyrannies, 109).

(41) 817.1051/701½, Hanna to White, 28 Oct. 1932; Millet, Guardians, 130; Diederich, Somoza, 2. Somoza’s son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, believed that it was his father’s family connections that ensured his appointment. SeeDebayle, Nicaragua Betrayed (Boston: Western Islands, 1980), 89.

(42) Knut Walter, The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936–1956 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 27–8.

(43) US Department of State, Press Releases, 2 Jan. 1933; New York Times, 3 Jan. 1933.

(44) 817.1051/613½, Memorandum, Duggan to Wilson, 23 Mar. 1932.

(45) Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 258.

(46) The comments of the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, in his instructions to the US delegation to the Montevideo conference are typical in this regard:710G/731, Hull to the American delegates at Montevideo, 10 Nov. 1933. See the final paragraph of this chapter.

(47) Vladimir Petrov, A Study in Diplomacy: The Story of Arthur Bliss Lane (Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1971), 31; Walter, The Regime, 30; Millet, Guardians, 136; RG 38 C-10-d 6473-E, US Electoral Mission, intelligence section, intelligence report, 1 Dec. 1932.

(48) 817.1051/778, Hanna to State Department, 23 Mar. 1933; Eduardo Crawley, Dictators Never Die: A Portrait of Nicaragua and the Somoza Dynasty (London: C. Hurst, 1979), 79–81; Millet, Guardians, 145–50; Petrov, A Study in Diplomacy, 30–2; Walter, The Regime, 29.

(49) The Nation, 13 July 1932.

(50) Woodward was appointed chairman of the National Electoral Board by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court.

(51) The Nation, 13 July 1932; RG 38 C-10-d 6473, commander, Special Service Squadron, to chief of naval operations (director of naval intelligence), 24 June 1936.

(52) In a letter to General Pedro Altamirano on 9 Nov. 1932, Sandino advised that, if the Conservatives won the election, the Sandinistas would settle the issue with bullets. Both references are from Hodges, Intellectual Foundations, 143.

(53) 817.032/127, Hanna to Stimson, 27 Dec. 1932; 817.00/7917, Lawton to Hull, 19 Dec. 1933; 817.00/7917, memorandum, Beaulac to Wilson, 2 Jan. 1934; 817.00/7927, military intelligence report, 28 Dec. 1933.

(54) 817.00/7713, Hanna to Stimson, 16 Jan. 1933.

(55) Ibid.; 817.00/7698, Hanna to Stimson, 17 Jan. 1933.

(56) Denny, Dollars for Bullets, 9.

(57) 817.00/7713, Hanna to Stimson, 16 Jan. 1933; 817.00/7705, Hanna to Stimson, 13 Jan. 1933.

(58) Quoted in Diederich, Somoza, 16.

(59) Goldwert, The Constabulary, 43; 817.00/7713, Hanna to Stimson, 16 Jan. 1933; 817.00/7709, Hanna to Stimson, 22 Jan. 1933; New York Times, 22 Jan. 1933.

(60) 817.00/7713, Hanna to Stimson, 16 Jan. 1933; 817.00/7709, Hanna to Stimson, 22 Jan. 1933; 817.00/7820, Hanna to Stimson, 16 May 1933; 817.00/7714, military intelligence report, 31 Jan. 1933; New York Times, 22 Jan. 1933.

(61) 817.00/7698, Hanna to Stimson, 17 Jan. 1933.

(62) RG 94 AG 470-Nicaragua, Maj. Gen. Callahan (assistant chief of staff) to Chief of Staff; 817.00/7698, White to Secretary of War, 19 Jan. 1933; 817.00/7698, Stimson to Hanna, 26 Jan. 1933; 817.00/7701, Whitehouse to Stimson, 18 Jan. 1933.

(63) Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus, 91–2; Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Political Economy of Central America since 1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 49, 308; Walter, The Regime, 36–7.

(64) Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus, 71; Walter, The Regime, 30–1.

(65) 817.00/8642, State Department memorandum, chronology of events, unsigned, undated; David Harward Bain, ‘The Man who Made the Yanquis Go Home’, in Andrew C. Kimmens (ed.), Nicaragua and the United States (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1987), 33; Diederich, Somoza,18; Sacasa, Cómo y por qué, 10; Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 246.

(66) Walter, The Regime, 31; Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, 247, Crawley, Dictators Never Die, 72.

(67) 817.00/7793, Hanna to Hull, 18 Mar. 1933.

(68) Irwin Gellman, Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United States Policies in Latin America, 1933–1945 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 69; Joseph M. Jones, ‘Good Neighbor, New Style’, Harper’s Magazine, 192 (Apr. 1946), 316; Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1933–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 60.

(69) Gellman, Good Neighbor Diplomacy, 13, 70; Bryce Wood, The Dismantling of the Good Neighbor Policy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), 2; Morgan, FDR: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 679; Randall Bennett Woods, The Roosevelt Foreign Policy Establishment and the ‘Good Neighbor’: The United States and Argentina, 1941–1945 (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1979), 22, 25–6.

(70) New York Times, 24 Mar. 1933; 817.00/7812, Hanna to Hull, 13 May 1933; 817.00/7823, Hanna to Hull, 19 May 1933.

(71) 817.00/7856, Eberhardt to Hull, 1 Aug. 1933.

(72) 817.00/7823, Hanna to Hull, 19 May 1933; New York Times, 16 Mar. 1933, 4 June 1933, 23 June 1933, 29 June 1933.

(73) 817.1051/796, Hanna to Hull, 18 Aug. 1933; New York Times, 28 June 1933.

(74) 817.00/7856, Eberhardt to Hull, 1 Aug. 1933; 817.00/7850, Hanna to Hull, 4 Aug. 1933; 817.48/37, Hanna to Hull, 4 Aug. 1933; 817.48/38, Hanna to Hull, 4 Aug. 1933.

(75) 817.00/7850, Hanna to Hull, 4 Aug. 1933; 817.00/7867, Hanna to Hull, 16 Aug. 1933; 817.48/38, Hanna to Hull, 4 Aug. 1933; 817.00/7861, Hanna to Hull, 9 Aug. 1933.

(76) 817.00/7850, Hull to Hanna, 7 Aug. 1933.

(77) 817.00/7862, Hanna to Hull, 11 Aug. 1933; 817.00/7869, Hanna to Hull, 18 Aug. 1933; 817.00/7879, military intelligence report, 18 Aug. 1933.

(78) 817.1051/796, Hanna to Hull, 18 Aug. 1933.

(79) 817.00/7892, Daniels to Hull, 3 Oct. 1933; 817.00/7901, Daniels to Hull, 1 Nov. 1933; 817.00/7903, Daniels to Hull, 2 Nov. 1833; 817.00/7927, military intelligence report, 28 Dec. 1933.

(80) 817.00/7892, Daniels to Hull, 3 Oct. 1933; 817.00/7901, Daniels to Hull, 1 Nov. 1933; 817.00/7917, Lawton to Hull, 19 Dec. 1933; 817.00/7927, military intelligence report, 28 Dec. 1933; 817.00/7917, memorandum, Beaulac to Wilson, 2 Jan. 1934.

(81) 817.00/7903, Daniels to Hull, 2 Nov. 1933; 817.00/7904, Daniels to Hull, 8 Nov. 1933; 710G/731, Hull to the American delegates at Montevideo, 10 Nov. 1933.