Part V: Enter Stimson

© Cathleen White 2014

By April of 1927, President Coolidge was ready to try a different approach to the Nicaraguan problem. The possibility of open U.S. involvement in the war in Central America became a controversial topic and did not improve the President’s popularity. On top of that the “President was tired of the Nicaraguan mess and wanted to get it off his hands.” President Coolidge did not indicate which motive was stronger, but he finally committed himself to action. On April 7, 1926, the State Department announced that veteran diplomat and former Secretary of War Colonel Henry Lewis Stimson would travel to Nicaragua as the personal emissary of President Coolidge. Stimson’s original mission was to relay “certain views which cannot conveniently be taken up by correspondence” and return home with the same sort of sensitive information. His actions ultimately covered a much broader scope than what was initially described.

Henry Lewis Stimson’s background suited him to represent the views of the United States towards Nicaragua. His family traced its roots to English colonists who migrated to Britain’s American colonies in the early seventeenth century. As Stimson put it, his lineage “contained enough clergymen and deacons to keep up fairly well the moral standards of the stock.” This White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant background became evident in Stimson’s evaluation of Nicaragua’s problems. He used language that belied his Puritan roots: the “evils” of the Nicaraguan system were in need of “purification.”

Like most Yankees of his day (and the present, for that matter), Stimson knew little about Nicaragua. He openly admitted that “[s]o far as ignorance could free it from prejudices or commitments, my mind was a clean slate.” His ignorance was not a virtue because it forced him to rely on background information provided by the State Department and the Coolidge Administration, two parties that were definitely not “free from prejudices or commitments.” Stimson felt that his education imprinted with authentic American values such as “democratic class spirit,” independence, competitiveness, and courage suited him admirably for such an undertaking. According to Stimson’s way of thinking, other countries should develop these values. In addition, he viewed his training as a lawyer as invaluable to the diplomatic process and particularly to his mission in Nicaragua, “I came to realize the importance played in a democracy by persuasion as distinguished from force or threats and to recognize the importance of the lawyer as a trained advocate of persuasion.”

During his early years of public service Stimson was a soldier, an attorney for the United States under Theodore Roosevelt, and Secretary of War under William Taft. He was a Progressive, interested in the reform of a corrupt political system. Henry Stimson embodied all that the United States represented: traditional Puritan values, optimisim produced by success, reason trained by a thorough education, ignorance of the world caused by ethnocentrism, and diplomatic skill based on an ability to manipulate opinion.

While Stimson claimed ignorance about the current Nicaraguan crisis, he certainly was not without opinions about Latin America. In the interim between being assigned his task and his departure, he steeped himself in information on Nicaragua’s history, her relations with the United States, and the current situation. His conclusions concerning the nature of the situation that he was about to confront reveal his paternal and ethnocentric worldview. Colonel Stimson regarded U.S. economic, political, and military intervention as benevolent actions taken to aid a developing neighbor. Stimson cited as problems ethnic divisions, illiteracy, underdevelopment, and political instability. However, he ignored U.S. duplicity in creating the conditions that he now deplored. Instead, he blamed the inherent lack of ability of the Nicaraguan people for the continuing political chaos and economic disarray. He disparaged Nicaragua’s early unsuccessful attempts at democracy by writing, “…it naturally soon became evident that [the Nicaraguans] were not yet fit for the responsibilities that go with independence, and still less fitted for popular self-government.” Of course, a chief concern of Washington, and hence of Stimson, was Nicaragua’s “corrupt and inefficient” economic status. According to the Colonel, that country’s poverty and underdevelopment were the result of grossly inept revenue collection and the absence of a middle-class “from whose influence and out of whose problems come the usual activities of a democracy.” On the other hand, he characterized U.S. interference as “lend[ing] assistance,” “mutual agreement,” “moral pressure,” and “the saving of a nation from anarchy.” He favored increasing the U.S. presence to include military and police commanders, election supervisors, and financial overseers.

In short, Henry Stimson’s plan for Nicaragua was Machiavallian in nature. He justified the means for achieving his desired ends by asserting that:

If those independent governments do not adequately fulfill the responsibility of independence; if they fail to safeguard foreign life within their borders; if they repudiate lawful debts to foreign creditors; if they permit the confiscation within their borders of lawful foreign property–then, under the common usages of international life, the foreign nations whose citizens and property are thus endangered are likely to intervene in Central America for the legitimate protection of such rights. History clearly shows that such intervention often leads to continuing control.

In addition, Stimson, like so many U.S. foreign policy makers, did not view the actions of the U.S. as those of a foreign country, so far as Nicaragua was concerned. This view was justified by the argument that Washington needed to protect approaches to the Panama Canal, the rights to build a canal in Nicaragua, as well as its investments in the country. Stimson posited that Washington’s rights to intercede in Nicaragua are based not on the Monroe Doctrine, but on its “Isthmian policy.” Such a policy, he believed, extended the national interests of the U.S. south to the Canal and was “simply the application of principles and policy which would govern any other nation in a similar situation.” Furthermore, Stimson firmly believed that economic stability would lead to political stability, necessary for U.S. security in the Isthmian region. He felt that the problem with previous attempts by Washington to rehabilitate Nicaragua’s economy was an oversensitivity to criticism that was irresponsible and based on erroneous information. In actuality, the financial manipulation of Nicaragua by New York bankers and Washington officials resulted in an unnecessarily accumulated debt of over thirty-three million dollars. Their actions were characterized by Stimson as “a long, patient, and intelligent effort on the part of this country to do an unselfish service to a weak and sorely beset Central American state.” In short, Stimson’s mind clearly was not free from prejudices on the subject of U.S. intervention in other nations. He could, and did, justify any act that favored the promotion of Washington’s agenda.

Shortly before leaving for Nicaragua, Stimson met with President Coolidge and his advisors to set an agenda for the mission. Stimson first settled the issue of the recognition of Díaz as the true President. If President Coolidge clarified the matter, then Stimson felt that he could defer to his superior when confronted on the issue. Stimson firmly believed that the President’s word was a persuasive and powerful tool both at home and abroad. Other subjects that were mentioned, but not decided, included the election of 1928 and the possibility of armed intervention by the United States. President Coolidge, according to Stimson, gave him “the utmost latitude” concerning his mission and any actions which he might deem necessary. However, according to diplomatic communiqués, State Department officials in Washington and Managua continued to characterize Stimson’s mission in much narrower terms. They still viewed the Colonel as a factfinder and discouraged any deeper involvement in the Nicaraguan crisis.

The mission left Washington on April 9 and arrived in Nicaragua on April 17. When Stimson arrived, he was confronted with information that tended to contradict what he had been told in Washington. He found that the differences between Díaz and the Liberal Army commander, General José Maria Moncada, were personal as well as political. Díaz was, in the estimation of Charles Eberhardt, incapable of suppressing the Liberal insurrection. Díaz was, in fact, hoping for continued American presence as a means of bringing about peace.

Stimson immediately undertook the task of meeting with the contending parties. Despite additional directives from Washington, he quickly set his sights on a solution to the Nicaraguan crisis. He began with a cordial meeting with Díaz but intentionally refrained from telling him that he had the support of the United States. Stimson also met with various government officials. Carlos Cuadra Oasos, the Minister of Foreign Affairs informed Stimson that the party in power traditionally controlled the elections and that the losers were always ready to revolt in order to regain power. Stimson told the Minister that the Nicaraguans needed to learn how to accept defeat at the polls and be sportsmanlike. He suggested “jokingly–Nicaraguans ought to play more football, baseball, etc.” Cuadra Pasos replied that “even sports have umpires.” In this manner the two men began a discussion of United States’ supervision of the 1928 election and the possible conditions under which it could occur.

The Colonel also met with various members of the Liberal Party. Oddly enough, Stimson never met Sacasa. When approached about a meeting Stimson replied that he might have time to see Sacasa on the return trip home. From this response, clearly Sacasa was of little importance to Stimson. He did, however meet with many factions of the Liberal Party, including some of Sacasa’s personal representatives. It was in a meeting with Gustavo Aguello that a conference was first proposed between the Conservative and Liberal Parties. But Stimson ran into problems with some Liberals. They insisted that Sacasa was the legal President. Stimson repeated his standard reply: President Coolidge had recognized Díaz and Stimson was obligated to support his President. The Liberals tried to discuss the rebellion, insisting that it was the problem most desperately in need of a solution. Stimson held that the real problem was the lack of a fair electoral system. He even went so far as to tell one group that “the time had come when someone and probably everyone must sacrifice false pride” and make an effort to hold a fair election. Furthermore, Stimson wrote that the presence of U.S. Marines in Puerto Cabezas was actually aiding Sacasa’s efforts. As described by the Colonel, Dr. Sacasa remained safely in Puerto Cabezas “until the end of the war, issuing therefrom freely his revolutionary edicts and pronunciamientos.”

Despite a telegram from Secretary of State Kellogg cautioning against Stimson playing the role of mediator, he began to outline conditions for a possible settlement. The four original conditions were: “peace by planting-time,” the return of exiled Nicaraguans, participation of Liberals in the Díaz cabinet, and the supervision of the 1928 election by the United States. Díaz signed a copy of the proposal and a copy of the plan was then sent to Sacasa, in hopes of his agreement. Stimson accomplished all of this within a week of his arrival.

Sacasa agreed to send representatives to a meeting by April 28, adding that he was eager to reach a peace agreement. Meanwhile, Stimson suggested to the Secretary of State that the forcible disarmament of the Liberal forces might prove necessary. Perhaps Stimson believed in the principle of persuasion over threats or force, but he certainly was not above covering all of his bases. Obviously he was determined to have peace in Nicaragua, even if he had to arrive at it through coercion. The State Department requested information that would be necessary to arrange for the disarmament. Could the present force of American Marines handle the task? Stimson replied that the present number could do the job, but additional troops would increase efficiency. How long would the disarmament take and would any resistance be offered? Stimson estimated that resistance would be active but disorganized and he cautioned that guerrilla warfare would make an early peace unlikely Finally, would the threat of action by the United States make any difference in Sacasa’s actions? Stimson hoped that a threat would be sufficient to hasten the disarmament process.

Apparently U.S. public opinion and the press were overwhelmingly in support of Stimson’s mission. On April 30 Stimson received one of the most puzzling and enlightening telegrams of his mission. Secretary of State Kellogg suddenly instructed Stimson to reach an agreement between the two sides using any means necessary. The State Department even went so far as to tell Stimson that the ouster of Díaz was not out of the question as a last resort in negotiations! This sudden development revealed several things about the Stimson mission. First, it showed that the Coolidge administration did not firmly support of Díaz. Second, the telegram raises questions about who was really directing U.S. policy in Nicaragua: Stimson or Coolidge? Stimson protested regularly that he was honoring President Coolidge’s recognition of Díaz. In fact, the entire premise of Stimson’s venture was that the United States supported the Díaz administration and would continue to do so until the 1928 elections. However, the telegram supports the possibility that Stimson used Coolidge’s recognition of Díaz as a convenient tool in the peace process. The cable from Kellogg also indicates that maintaining Washington’s integrity was less important than solving an unpopular foreign relations problem. Stimson’s reply was to the point: Díaz could not be eliminated. He was the only Nicaraguan with a claim to the presidency who could be counted on to be trustworthy and cooperative. Stimson’s reply discloses another of his motivations: securing in power a Nicaraguan president who would be amenable to the United States. Díaz could be relied upon due to dependence on U.S. military support. Nevertheless, Díaz would not be eligible for the presidency in 1928 and Washington had to look to the future.

On May 3, two important events occurred. First, arrangements were made for a conference between Stimson, Moncada, and Liberal leaders at Tipitapa, a small village near Managua. The other event was to have more far-reaching implications. Stimson had a meeting with a member of the Liberal Party whom he described as “a very frank, friendly, likable young Liberal and his attitude impresses me more favorably than almost any other.” The young man in question was Anastasio Somoza García. Somoza visited Stimson in an attempt to remove Díaz in favor of ousted president Solórzano. Solórzano, Somoza remarked, was easily influenced. Despite Stimson’s favorable impression of Somoza, nothing was accomplished at the meeting.

The next morning, Stimson arrived at Tipitapa as the official representative of both the United States and President Díaz. Moncada met with Sacasa’s delegates first, in private. He then met with Stimson for about an hour under in private under a nearby blackthorn tree. The result of their discussion was the “Tipitapa letter,” which Moncada asked Stimson to write after their conference. Several key issues were settled in the note. Stimson stated that the United States would supervise the 1928 elections at the request of President Díaz. Until then, the United States insisted on the retention of Díaz. Disarmament of Nicaragua, by force if necessary, was a necessary step in the peace process. Stimson was informed by Moncada that he could not “voluntarily” offer these terms, but if Stimson insisted on them, then Moncada would persuade his troops to agree to the settlement.

The Tipitapa letter became a great source of controversy. Many people accused Moncada of using the meeting to further his own ambitions. One of Moncada’s commanders, Augusto Sandino, later wrote, “I judge Moncada before history and before the Fatherland as a deserter from our ranks, with the added aggravation of having gone over to the enemy.” This may indeed be the case, as Moncada would benefit from his participation in the peace process. Another, less likely, possibility was that Moncada earnestly wanted peace. In any case, the task of convincing the Liberal Army to lay down its weapons belonged to Moncada.

The parties to the agreement began to implement its provisions within days. Díaz began extending amnesty to political prisoners and exiles. He also promised to appoint six Jefes Politicos–political chiefs–from the Liberal Party to six Liberal provinces. On May 7, the Liberals agreed to accept the peace plan but refused to recognize Díaz. At any rate, their acceptance amounted to a tacit recognition as the only alternative was to continue fighting. On May 8, both sides helped to outline the “Steps to be taken for American supervision of the Nicaraguan Election, 1928.”

Four days later, on May 12, Stimson cabled Kellogg that Moncada’s men, with one exception, had agreed to the peace plan. Augusto Sandino had left the meeting with a small group of followers. Reportedly they were heading for Jinotega Province. Stimson announced, “I believe this marks definitely the end of the insurrection.”

On May 16, Stimson sent a cable to the Secretary of State that proclaimed, “The war in Nicaragua is now definitely ended.”

That day, Henry Lewis Stimson left Managua for Washington. His mission was over.