U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After three years of domestic turmoil and civil war in Nicaragua, U.S. Marines entered the country to protect a government sympathetic to U.S. interests.

Summary of Event

In October, 1909, revolution erupted in the Republic of Nicaragua. The rebels, led by Juan José Estrada and based in the Atlantic port city of Bluefields, sought to overthrow President José Santos Zelaya, who had ruled Nicaragua since 1893. These anti-Zelayist rebels sought and received aid from the U.S. government. The revolt, in its various phases, would continue until U.S. troops intervened in 1912. Nicaragua, U.S. intervention [kw]U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua (Aug. 4-Nov., 1912) [kw]Intervention in Nicaragua, U.S. (Aug. 4-Nov., 1912) [kw]Nicaragua, U.S. Intervention in (Aug. 4-Nov., 1912) Nicaragua, U.S. intervention [g]Latin America;Aug. 4-Nov., 1912: U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua[03150] [g]Nicaragua;Aug. 4-Nov., 1912: U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua[03150] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 4-Nov., 1912: U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua[03150] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 4-Nov., 1912: U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua[03150] Díaz, Adolfo Mena, Luis Weitzel, George T. Zeledón, Benjamín F. Knox, Philander C. Butler, Smedley Zelaya, José Santos Estrada, Juan José Sandino, Augusto César Somoza García, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Luis Somoza Debayle, Anastasio

The United States had long hoped for Zelaya’s downfall. For years, Zelaya had sought to unite all of Central America under one government—his—and to free Central America from control by foreign powers, particularly the United States. Such ambitions were increasingly unacceptable to U.S. policy makers. The Venezuelan boundary dispute, the defeat of Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War, the taking of the Panama Canal zone, and recent economic investments in the Caribbean region indicated the growing commitment of the United States to regional hegemony.

Nicaraguans line up on a dock, waiting for U.S. Marines to arrive.

(Library of Congress)

By 1909, Zelaya’s attempt to interest Great Britain and Japan in a new Nicaraguan canal (which would rival the one being built in Panama), his attempt at a loan of several hundred million pounds from a British syndicate, and his country’s invasion of Honduras in 1907 had so challenged the emerging U.S. hegemony that American policy makers welcomed any anti-Zelayist initiative. Initially, Estrada’s revolt seemed promising. To the confusion of State Department officials, however, the Nicaraguan revolt became a quagmire. From 1909 to 1912, the U.S. government vacillated among promises of financial aid, diplomatic pressure, and the use of U.S. troops in a search for a stable non-Zelaya government.

Estrada’s revolt had the backing of the North American business community in the area and the support of the U.S. consul in Bluefields, Thomas Moffat. When the rebels set up a rival government and asked for diplomatic recognition, however, American secretary of state Philander C. Knox demurred. Within two months, the United States had severed diplomatic relations with Zelaya’s government, prompting his resignation.

José Madriz, Madriz, José who succeeded Zelaya, was seen merely as a Zelayista puppet and was refused U.S. recognition. The civil war continued, and President Madriz’s forces dominated. In May and June, 1910, to forestall Estrada’s complete collapse, the U.S. government landed troops at Bluefields and saved the revolt. By early August, with his forces now on the offensive and backed by U.S. Marines, Estrada turned the tide. In August, Madriz resigned, realizing that the U.S. government had, with its Marines, given de facto recognition to Estrada’s government.

Knox’s and the U.S. government’s vision of regional hegemony now came into focus. Guided by a special envoy, Thomas C. Dawson, Dawson, Thomas C. agreements were signed in 1910 stating that the new Nicaraguan government would name Estrada as president and Adolfo Díaz, a Conservative leader, as vice president; that a mixed claims commission would be created to sort out all unsettled foreign claims against Nicaragua; and that a customs-guaranteed loan from the United States would be arranged. This loan would show Knox’s “dollar diplomacy” in action—U.S. dollars would replace bullets to ensure stability, simultaneously undermining European financial influence in the region.

Although supported by the U.S. government, Estrada’s grip on power proved tenuous. He was thought to be too dependent on the United States, and his Liberal Party connections antagonized his Conservative cohorts, especially Secretary of War Luis Mena. Amid rumors of revolt, Estrada resigned in May, 1911, replaced by Conservative vice president Díaz.

Díaz proved a more enduring U.S. client than Estrada. By mid-1911, Díaz’s government had completed negotiations on the U.S. loan discussed the previous year. The loan treaty was passed by the Nicaraguan Assembly but stalled in the U.S. Senate. Knox, undeterred, arranged for private banking firms in New York City—Speyer and Company, Brown Brothers, and J. and W. Seligman—to go ahead with a new loan. They arranged to lend Nicaragua one million dollars, with repayment guaranteed through customhouse receipts. This and other loans helped secure, for the U.S. bankers, a 51 percent controlling interest in Nicaragua’s new state bank and 51 percent of the state railway. These arrangements, in conjunction with the naming of U.S. colonel Clifford D. Ham as collector of customs in Nicaragua in 1912, committed the United States to Nicaraguan political stability.

However, dollar diplomacy did not reap much stability. By the spring of 1912, Managua had become embroiled in political intrigue, as Liberal Zelayists, ambitious Conservative leaders, and nationalist politicians plotted insurrection, accusing Díaz of submitting to U.S. interests. General Mena, secretary of war, proved the most determined. In early 1912, Mena, in control of the army and with widespread political support, had himself elected president for the term beginning in January, 1913. Knox declared such action to be in violation of the 1910 Dawson agreements. Mena decided that revolution was his only avenue to the presidency.

In late July, 1912, Mena attempted to replace Managua’s garrison, loyal to President Díaz, with 150 of his own troops. When the garrison resisted, Mena’s forces attacked them. Mena’s forces were driven back, and the U.S. minister, George T. Weitzel, met Mena and induced him to resign as secretary of war. Mena then fled Managua, set up a rival government, and entered into open rebellion. Zelaya’s former minister of war, Benjamín Zeledón, as well as other Liberals, joined in. Within days, the Díaz government tottered.

Following requests for protection from U.S. and other foreign nationals, and upset by Mena’s capturing of lake steamers (technically owned by U.S. bankers), Minister Weitzel demanded that Díaz protect U.S. lives and property. He could not. Instead, Díaz requested U.S. intervention. On the afternoon of August 4, 1912, one hundred bluejackets from the USS Annapolis landed at Corinto and proceeded to Managua, temporarily securing control of the city. This landing constituted the first U.S. military intervention in the region to prevent a revolution from succeeding. Weitzel, understanding that one hundred sailors represented only a stop-gap measure, requested additional support. On August 5, the USS Tacoma landed its Marines in Bluefields “to protect the Atlantic coast.” On August 14, Major Smedley Butler’s battalion of 361 Marines from Panama reached Managua, finding a city reeling from three days of rebel bombardment. By early September, more than 1,000 U.S. Marines were committed to Nicaragua. The number would peak at some 2,700.

Nicaragua’s neighbors, El Salvador and Costa Rica, protested U.S. military intervention, sensing that their own independence was jeopardized. The newly created Central American Court, established with Theodore Roosevelt’s support in 1907-1908 in an effort to bring law and order to the region, also condemned U.S. military intervention. The United States ignored the court’s ruling, and in the process it helped to destroy the legal organ it had created.

By early September, 1912, U.S. troops had regained control of the vital railroad link between Corinto on the Pacific Coast and Managua and had crushed most rebel strongholds. Major Butler remained determined to open the railroad from Managua inland to Granada on Lake Nicaragua and subdue all rebel forces. On September 18, Weitzel announced categorically that the United States would not allow the Díaz government to fall. For many rebels, this meant that their fight was hopeless. General Mena, ailing and beaten, surrendered in late September at his Conservative rebel stronghold in Granada.

The rebels now held only the major cities of Masaya and León. On October 4, Colonel Joseph Pendleton attacked General Zeledón’s troops encamped in the hills overlooking Masaya. In the fiercest fighting of the entire campaign, Zeledón’s forces were routed and the general was killed. The city of León fell within days, the civil war ended, and Díaz remained in power. By November, all but one hundred U.S. Marines had left Nicaragua; more than one thousand Nicaraguans and more than fifty U.S. citizens died in the 1912 intervention.

Significance

The precedent of sending in troops to determine who ruled in the region was set. Once in Nicaragua, U.S. Marines would stay there—except for the period from August, 1925, until January, 1927—until 1933. Knox and several successors learned that bullets as well as dollars were required to maintain U.S. hegemony in the region. Although U.S. policy makers proclaimed a strong desire to bring U.S.-style democracy to the region, military intervention suggested that order and stability were the primary goals. When U.S. troops did leave in 1933, they did not depart from a democratic nation, but from the emerging dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, whose dynasty would fall to yet another future rebel organization, the Sandinistas, in 1979. That regime change fueled another decade of American intervention, which ended with the establishment of a legitimately elected government in 1990. Nicaragua, U.S. intervention

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berman, Karl. Under the Big Stick: Nicaragua and the United States Since 1848. Boston: South End Press, 1986. A general survey of U.S. involvement in Nicaraguan affairs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Booth, John A. The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. First-rate survey of twentieth century Nicaraguan politics. Covers the Zelaya period, U.S. intervention, and Sandino well but concentrates on the Somoza era and the Sandinista revolution. Extensive references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denny, Harold Norman. Dollars for Bullets: The Story of American Rule in Nicaragua. New York: Dial Press, 1929. Highly critical of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. Castigates U.S. bankers for their excessive greed. A good read but dated and strident in tone. References and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunkerley, James. Power in the Isthmus. A Political History of Modern Central America. London: Verso, 1988. A formidable and massive survey of Central American politics. The scope, analytic framework, empirical detail, and cerebral reflection make this a necessary reference work, although some will find the analysis too highbrow and esoteric for their tastes. Excessively long sentences will be a burden to others. Much consideration given to class conflict and the mechanisms of elite control. The latter three-fourths of the book is given over to the period after 1950. Earlier chapters achieve a better synthesis and higher standard of excellence. Abundant references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hill, Roscoe R. Fiscal Intervention in Nicaragua. New York: Paul Maisel, 1933. A standard work on the unsavory details of U.S. financial involvement in Nicaragua. Told from the U.S. bankers’ point of view. Somewhat dated. Readers will be in need of a fresh approach to understand the larger ramifications of the intriguing relationship between U.S. politicians and their bankers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Chapter 1 presents a revisionist account that views U.S. economic imperialism as the major cause behind U.S. intervention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langley, Lester D. The Banana Wars: An Inner History of American Empire, 1900-1934. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983. Chapter 6 is a straightforward political and military account of U.S. intervention during the 1909-1912 crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macaulay, Neill. The Sandino Affair. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967. Fascinating account of one of the pivotal figures in Nicaraguan history. Captures Sandino’s charisma, the dynamics of the guerrilla movement, and the reasons it succeeded against the U.S. Marines. Excellent sources, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millett, Richard. Guardians of the Dynasty. New York: Orbis Books, 1977. History of the Nicaraguan National Guard and its symbiotic relationship with the Somozas. Looks forward to the day when both would disappear. References and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munro, Dana G. Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900-1921. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964. Chapter 5 presents a largely traditional, geopolitical, and sympathetic explanation of the 1912 intervention, which should be read in conjunction with LaFeber.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Musicant, Ivan. The Banana Wars: A History of United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama. New York: Macmillan, 1990. Written by a former marine, chapter 4 presents an account of the major military campaigns during the 1912 intervention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stansifer, Charles. “José Santos Zelaya: A New Look at Nicaragua’s Liberal Dictatorship.” Revista Interamericana 7 (Fall, 1977): 468-485. A revisionist account convincingly presented that maintains that Zelaya has been wrongly depicted as a bloodthirsty tyrant when in fact he was a nationalist who did much for the national development of Nicaragua. Limited coverage. References but no index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stimson, Henry L. American Policy in Nicaragua. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927. A carefully crafted defense of U.S. policy in Nicaragua by one of the chief American participants, who was later to be secretary of state. Stimson orchestrated the 1927 Espino Negro Pact that got all the liberal generals except Sandino to agree to a U.S.-sponsored election putting the liberals back in power. No index or sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Thomas W. Nicaragua. 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2003. Widely regarded as the best single-volume treatment of Nicaraguan history. Suffers somewhat from its author’s leftist bias but is still an excellent source, particularly for the country’s more recent history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Ralph Lee, Jr. Central America: A Nation Divided. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Excellent history of Central America, with Nicaragua covered in detail and put in the larger context of Central American and hemispheric politics. Judicious and fair. Exceptional balance among political, economic, and social forces. Good index and a penetrating bibliographic essay of fifty-three pages.

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