© Cathleen White 2014
The legacy of Henry Stimson’s mission to Nicaragua varies with the points of view of those involved. For those whose goals were met, the Stimson mission was a resounding success. Those who saw themselves as defeated dismissed the mission as a farce or an outright failure.
Peace proved to be an elusive quarry. Henry Stimson felt secure in his declaration of peace probably because he had managed to do more than any other American to mediate a solution in so short a time. However, it is important to realize that Stimson’s visit did not change any one fundamental condition that had led to the most recent incidents of violence. The United States forced the recognition of Adolfo Díaz as President but Juan Sacasa still claimed the title for himself. The Stimson mission exacerbated the political divisions between the Liberals and Conservatives by playing one party against the other in a bid to control the Nicaraguan electoral process. The token offered to both sides was U.S. supervision of the 1928 elections, but even that idea predated Stimson’s mission. Stimson’s one minor success was to negotiate a partial disarmament of some of the combatants. Marring this accomplishment was that the Marines who conducted the disarmament became a necessary fixture in Nicaragua. Their deployment did not end until January 1933. Stimson’s mission did nothing to address the endemic problems of poverty, illiteracy, U.S. economic exploitation, and social stratification that contributed to the ongoing unrest and dissatisfaction in Nicaragua.
While Henry Stimson’s mission to Nicaragua may not have achieved much in retrospect, the assignment did have a lasting impact on his career. Through his mission in Nicaragua, he made a favorable impression on Calvin Coolidge. At the beginning of 1928, the President appointed Stimson to the Philippines as Governor General. Coolidge’s successor, Herbert Hoover, also recognized Stimson’s abilities and appointed him to the position of Secretary of State. Stimson returned to public life in 1940 when he became Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War for the duration of WWII. He helped formulate plans to use atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to effect a surrender.
Stimson’s associates and adversaries in Nicaragua met with a variety of political and personal ends. Their fates, in many cases, can be traced to the outcomes of the Stimson mission.
Members of the Chamorrista faction of the Conservative Party began to lose power and the ability to control the government of Nicaragua, although their demise took many years. Adolfo Díaz completed his term as President, despite difficulties created by members of the Liberal Party. He ran unsuccessfully for the Presidency in 1932, losing, ironically, to Juan Sacasa. Emiliano Chamorro attempted to regain power for himself and his followers. Beginning in 1927, he attempted to discern Washington’s opinion of his return to power. He feigned ignorance of the illegality of his previous presidency and suggested that he may run for office again. Assistant Secretary of State White informed Chamorro in the most direct terms that he would not be recognized if he elected in 1928 because of his part in the coup against Sacasa. Nevertheless, he ran for President in 1928 and was the vice presidential candidate in 1932. His name appears with Conservative political actions during the next fifteen years. In 1947, after an abortive attempt to overthrow the government, Chamorro went into exile in Mexico.
The Liberal Party came to power in 1928 and retained control for the next fifty-one years. General José Moncada’s election to the Presidency in 1928 lent credence to the assertion that the Tipitapa agreement had been self-serving. His followers, many of who had gone into exile into Costa Rica, returned in time for the 1928 election and the associated distribution of the spoils of victory. Dr. Juan Sacasa returned to power for one term after the election of 1932.
The “young Liberal” who had so favorably impressed Stimson, Anastasio Somoza, rose to top of Nicaraguan politics. He became the head of the constabulary that the United States had insisted on establishing as a replacement for the Marines. He used his position in the Guardia Nacional to influence national policy and to propel himself to the Presidency. Both of his sons followed in his footsteps, securing a hold on the Nicaraguan government until their overthrow in 1979.
Augusto Sandino, the disgruntled Liberal general who refused to sign the peace agreement, embarked on a program of guerrilla warfare, defying the efforts of the U.S. Marines to capture him. In 1934 the Guardia Nacional murdered Sandino and two supporters after having dinner with President Sacasa. Later that year, in a classic piece of understatement, an American writer eulogized Sandino by concluding:
The story of Sandino’s rise within less than seven years from obscurity until he ranked among Latin Americans as an outstanding figure–comparable, according to Argentine press comment, to the heroes of South American independence, San Martín and Bolívar–will inevitably be perpetuated by his tragic end.
This episode in Nicaraguan-United States affairs is a microcosm of that relationship as well as much of U.S. foreign policy. The United States insists, in the face of blatant, contradictory action, that it does not believe in intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. However, its maneuverings in Nicaragua clearly demonstrate that such protestations and statements are merely a ruse. The truth is that those Nicaraguans who were willing to accept that charade, and their limited roles in it, rose to positions of power. Those who did not accept at face value the assurances of the United States fell from legal power. Their only option, in the face of such opposition, was to engage in armed insurrection against a government backed by the reputation, money, and might of the United States. The history of relations between the two countries is full of examples of such action. The period from 1920-1927 merely contains more than its share of such incidents.