An account of the ousting of modernising President Zelaya of Nicaragua by the United States in 1910, written by Stephen Kinzer.
A postage stamp led the United States to overthrow the most formidable leader Nicaragua ever had. It set off a chain of events that reverberate to this day, making it probably the most influential stamp in history. Had it never been issued, Nicaragua might have emerged long ago as a peaceful, prosperous country. Instead it is chronically poor and unstable, a cauldron of rivalries and a stage for repeated American interventions.
To the casual eye, this stamp looks unremarkable. It is printed in purple and depicts a steaming volcano at the edge of a lake. Around the edges are the words “Nicaragua,” “Correos” “10 Centavos,” and, in tiny letters at the bottom, “American Bank Note Company NY.” When it was issued in 1900, Nicaragua was in the midst of a modernizing revolution. Today it is a poignant reminder of what might have been.
During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the ideals of social and political reform swept across Central America. Visionary leaders, inspired by European philosophers and nation builders, sought to wipe away the feudal systems that had frozen their countries into immobility. One of them, President José Santos Zelaya of Nicaragua, took his nationalist principles so seriously that the United States felt compelled to overthrow him.
Portraits of Zelaya, like the one that today adorns Nicaragua’s twenty cordoba note, show him to have had a forceful countenance, with an elegantly twirled mustache and piercing eyes that seem to blaze with impatient energy. As a young man, he displayed such promise that his father, an army colonel and coffee farmer, arranged to send him to school in Europe. After graduating, he returned home with his Belgian wife and joined the Liberal Party, which represented the ideals of secularism and radical reform. In 1893, as the long-ruling Conservatives were consumed by factional conflict, he and a group of Liberal comrades organized a revolt that brought them down with remarkable ease. Within a few months, he emerged as the country’s new leader.
Zelaya was six weeks short of his fortieth birthday when he was sworn in as president of Nicaragua. He proclaimed a revolutionary program and set out to shake his country from its long slumber. He built roads, ports, railways, government buildings, and more than 140 schools; paved the streets of Managua, lined them with street lamps, and imported the country’s first automobile; legalized civil marriage and divorce; and even founded the nation’s first baseball league, which included a team called “Youth” and another called “The Insurgency.” He encouraged business, especially the nascent coffee industry. In foreign affairs, he promoted a union of the five small Central American countries and fervently embraced the grand project that had thrust Nicaragua onto the world stage: the interoceanic canal.
Every American president since Ulysses S. Grant had pushed for the canal project. In 1876 a government commission studied possible routes and concluded that the one across Nicaragua “possesses, both for the construction and maintenance of a canal, greater advantage, and offers fewer difficulties from engineering, commercial and economic points of view, than any one of the other routes.” Slowly the project gained momentum. In 1889 a private company chartered by Congress began dredging near Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. It was undercapitalized and went broke shortly before Zelaya came to power.
One group of men cheered this failure. They were members of a Paris-based syndicate that owned a great swath of land across Panama, where French engineers had tried and failed to build a canal. These men stood to become very rich if they could find a buyer for their land. The only possible customer was the United States government, but it was pursuing the Nicaragua route. Persuading Washington to change course would require a highly sophisticated lobbying campaign. To direct it, the syndicate hired a gifted New York lawyer who understood better than anyone else of his generation how to bend government to the will of business.
As American corporations began expanding to enormous size in the late nineteenth century, they encountered a host of organizational and political problems. Many turned for help to William Nelson Cromwell. In appearance Cromwell was almost eccentric, with light blue eyes, a fair complexion, and long locks of snow-white hair. Behind that odd facade lay a brilliantly sharpened mind. Cromwell’s business triumphs were legendary.
“He can smile as sweetly as a society belle,” one newspaper correspondent wrote, “and at the same time deal a blow at a business foe that ties him in a hopeless tangle of financial knots.”
As both a master of corporate law and a consummate Washington lobbyist, Cromwell was an ideal partner for the French canal syndicate. In 1898 the chief of the syndicate, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, hired him and gave him a daunting assignment: arrange for the United States to build its canal across Panama instead of Nicaragua.
Cromwell’s first tactic was to obstruct the slow but steady progress that was being made toward a resumption of work in Nicaragua. This he did repeatedly, with much help from friends in Congress and the State Department. Then, in 1901, the assassination of President McKinley brought Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent believer in sea power, to office.
Roosevelt was determined to have the canal built quickly, no matter where. Early in 1902, he asked Congress to appropriate $140 million for a canal across Nicaragua. Cromwell had managed to win several influential figures to his side, including Senator Mark Hanna, a senior leader of the Republican Party. To cement their alliance, he made a $60,000 contribution to the Republicans, charging it off to the canal company as a business expense. Even these friends, however, were not strong enough to defeat the Nicaragua bill. On January 9 the House of Representatives approved it by the daunting margin of 308 to 2.
Cromwell had managed to postpone this debate for years. Now that it was at hand, his cause looked doomed. He could win only if fate was somehow to intervene. It did, in the form of the American Bank Note Company.
Like a number of other small countries, Nicaragua had hired this reputable New York firm to manufacture its postage stamps. The company’s designers produced stamps that showed Nicaragua’s most notable geographical landmarks. Among them was a series depicting the majestic Momotombo volcano, complete with a plume of smoke spiraling from its crater. One day in Washington, an astute lobbyist for the French canal syndicate noticed one of these stamps on a letter sent from Nicaragua. It gave him an inspiration that changed the course of history.
By coincidence, 1902 was a year of extraordinary volcanic activity in the Caribbean. In May a devastating eruption killed thirty thousand people on the island of Martinique. Soon afterward there was another eruption, on St. Vincent. American newspapers were full of horrifying stories about the destructive power of volcanoes, and for several months the public mind was seized by a kind of volcano hysteria. Cromwell realized that he could take great advantage of this happenstance.
First he planted in the New York Sun a small item, later shown to have been false or highly exaggerated, reporting that the Momotombo volcano had erupted and set off seismic shocks. Then he rounded up a sheaf of Momotombo stamps, had them pasted onto sheets of paper bearing the title “An official witness to the volcanic activity of Nicaragua,” and sent one to each senator. The leaflets conveyed an obvious message: it would be madness to build a canal in a country so geologically unstable that it used the image of a smoking volcano on its postage stamps.
Few people in Washington knew that Momotombo is nearly dormant, that it lies more than one hundred miles from the proposed canal route, and that the decision to portray it on a stamp had been made not in Nicaragua but by designers in New York. As the stamps were passed around Washington, the ministers of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, who were directing what they thought would be a fairly easy campaign to secure approval of the Nicaragua route, suddenly found themselves overwhelmed. When debate over the canal bill began in the Senate, Mark Hanna delivered a passionate speech favoring the Panama route, illustrating it with a frightening though highly fanciful map purporting to show zones of seismic danger in Central America. His speech and behind-the-scenes lobbying, closely coordinated with Cromwell’s parallel efforts, produced the desired result. On June 19, 1902, three days after senators received the Momotombo stamps, they voted for the Panama route by a margin of forty-two to thirty-four. Soon afterward the House reversed itself and also accepted that route. For his lobbying services, Cromwell collected a fee of $800,000.
The Momotombo stamp was not the only factor in the vote. It came against the backdrop of a political feud between the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John T. Morgan of Alabama, a leading advocate of the Nicaragua route, and Senator Hanna, who chose the Panama side partly as a way to undermine Morgan. Some senators were influenced by a last-minute report from the Isthmian Canal Commission, concluding that there were advantages to the Panama route. Others saw it as a good financial deal after the canal company reduced its asking price from $109 million to $40 million. Transcripts of the debate, however, show that senators had a highly exaggerated view of the danger volcanoes could pose to a Nicaraguan canal. The transcripts, as well as later statements by members of Congress, leave no doubt that the Momotombo stamp and the resulting fear of volcanic eruption in Nicaragua played a decisive role in the vote for Panama.
Senator Morgan complained after the vote that a “corrupt and influential” pro-Panama lobby had unscrupulously misled his colleagues. He was right, but the issue had been decided. On June 29, President Roosevelt signed the law authorizing construction of a canal across Panama. Today a block of the Momotombo stamps is prominently displayed at the Interoceanic Canal Museum there.
During the years when it appeared that the canal was going to be built across Nicaragua, American officials got along well with President Zelaya. In 1898 the American minister in Managua wrote in a dispatch that Zelaya “has given the people of Nicaragua as good a government as they will permit him. . . . Foreigners who attend to their own business, and do not meddle with politics which does not concern them, are fully protected.” Two years later, Secretary of State John Hay praised Zelaya’s “ability, high character and integrity.” The American consul at San Juan del Norte, which was to be the Caribbean terminus of the canal, called him “the ablest and strongest man in Central America” and reported that he “is very popular with the masses, and is giving them an excellent government.”
After Congress chose the Panama route, this admiration quickly turned to disdain. American officials who had once viewed Zelaya’s campaign to promote Central American unity as noble began to see it as destabilizing. His efforts to regulate American companies, once thought of as symbols of his self-confident nationalism, started to look defiant.
“To the State Department, Nicaragua was no longer a country that needed to be coddled or cared for in preparation for future usefulness,” the American historian John Ellis Findling later wrote. “Rather, it was now a country that needed to be watched carefully and kept in line.”
President Roosevelt plunged into the canal project with unrestrained vigor. Before he could build anything in the Republic of Panama, however, he had to resolve one remaining problem. There was no such thing as a Republic of Panama. Panama was a province of Colombia, and Colombian leaders were reluctant to surrender sovereignty over the proposed canal zone—although they suggested they might reconsider if the United States offered more money.
“I feel there are two alternatives,” Roosevelt wrote to Secretary of State Hay. “To take up Nicaragua; in some shape or way to interfere when it becomes necessary so as to secure the Panama route without further dealing with the foolish and homicidal corruptionists in Bogotá.” After brief reflection, he chose the second option.
The United States had little experience in fomenting revolutions. It did, however, have one model. A decade earlier, the American diplomat John L. Stevens had devised a simple plan that allowed a handful of people with little popular support to overthrow the government of Hawaii. Roosevelt decided to adapt that plan for Panama. He would encourage Panamanian “revolutionaries” to proclaim independence from Colombia, quickly give them diplomatic recognition, and then use American troops to prevent the Colombian army from reestablishing control.
On November 2, 1903, the commander of the American gunboat Nashville, anchored at Colón on Panama’s Caribbean coast, received an order from Washington to “prevent the landing of any armed forces with hostile intent, either government or insurgent.” He was puzzled, because no revolution had broken out. The next day, one did. A hastily assembled group of rebels announced in the provincial capital, Panama City, that they were declaring Panama independent.
There was no army post in Panama City, but there was a large one in Colón, and its commander reacted immediately to news of the rebellion. He assembled a five-hundred-man force, marched it across town to the railroad station, and demanded a train to take it to Panama City. The American manager of the Colón railroad station falsely told him that only a single car was available. Undaunted, the commander boarded with his staff officers, evidently confident that he could crush the rebels even without a large force. He had fallen into a trap. Americans telegraphed ahead and arranged for him and his officers to be arrested as they stepped off the train.
A second American warship, the Dixie, docked at Colón on November 5 and put four hundred marines ashore. The next day the United States formally recognized the rebels as leaders of a new Republic of Panama. Eight more warships quickly appeared in the waters off Colón, forming a blockade that made it impossible for Colombian vessels to reach the breakaway province. One historian called it “as brazen—and successful—an act of gunboat diplomacy as the world has ever seen.”
Even Roosevelt himself seemed ambivalent about what he had done. At first he sought to deny it. “I did not foment a revolution on the isthmus,” he protested to one interviewer. Soon afterward he asserted that Colombia’s “utterly incompetent” leaders had foolishly lost Panama by refusing to approve the canal treaty “in spite of the plainest warnings.” He was evidently not persuaded by his own words, because at his next cabinet meeting he asked Attorney General Philander Knox to come up with a legal argument he could use to justify the operation.
“Oh, Mr. President,” Knox replied, “do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.”
“Have I answered the charges?” Roosevelt asked anxiously. “Have I?”
“You certainly have, Mr. President,” Secretary of War Elihu Root wryly answered. “You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”
In Nicaragua, President Zelaya took these events with remarkable equanimity. He never showed any anger at losing the canal, or any outrage at the American-sponsored “revolution” that cut a nearby nation in two. Instead, just a few weeks after the uprising, he received an envoy from the Republic of Panama, gave a dinner party in his honor, and recognized his government. He had good reason for all this, as John Ellis Findling explained.
Zelaya’s complacency toward the loss of the canal route can be explained by two major factors new in isthmian affairs. First, the years 1902 and 1903 were peaceful ones for Central America, and Zelaya used the time to begin quietly shaping a new Central American union under his leadership. . . . Second, [he] had begun to grant large and potentially lucrative concessions to American and Nicaraguan businessmen. A United States canal would probably have interfered with this economic policy.
Like idealists and utopians up to the present day, Zelaya dreamed of reestablishing the united Central America that existed from 1821 to 1838. In 1902 he called the presidents of the other four Central American countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica—to a conference at which he hoped to launch the process of reunification. It produced a series of fine-sounding accords, but soon the isthmus fell back into its age-old conflict between Conservatives and Liberals. Zelaya began trying to impose his will, first by applying political pressure and then by sending military expeditions into Honduras and El Salvador.
Once construction of the Panama Canal started, American officials took an exceedingly dim view of adventures like these. Yet Zelaya’s periodic military forays, upsetting as they were to some in Washington, would probably not have been enough to lead the United States to decree his overthrow. Nor would his failure to observe the niceties of democracy at home. To these two transgressions, however, he added a third, which tipped the balance against him. He continually clashed with American companies operating in his country.
Among all of Zelaya’s accomplishments, none stands above his unification of the Nicaraguan nation. Through his efforts, the British, who had long controlled the thriving ports on Nicaragua’s eastern coast and the tropical wilderness around them, finally gave up their pretensions there. After they were gone, American businessmen moved in. More than a dozen bought concessions from Zelaya’s government that allowed them exclusive logging, mining, or other rights in specified areas. Several later turned against him and appealed to the State Department for help.
Among the most pugnacious of these was George D. Emery, a Boston lumber merchant. In 1894, Emery bought a concession to harvest mahogany, cedar, and other fine woods from a forest in eastern Nicaragua. Within a few years he had become the prime supplier of mahogany to the Pullman Palace Car Company and other discriminating customers. He employed more than 1,500 Nicaraguan laborers, paid the government $40,000 per year in concession fees, and represented $2 million in American investment.
Emery’s concession agreement required him to do two things: build a rail line through his forest preserve, and plant two trees for every one he cut down. He did neither. When the government began insisting, he demanded that the State Department defend him against Zelaya’s “molestation and oppressive extractions.”
President Roosevelt paid little attention to the complaints of businessmen like Emery, and the question of whether he would have moved to crush Zelaya has intrigued Nicaraguan historians for years. Roosevelt is often thought of as one of the founders of American imperialism. His colorful exploits in Cuba, his oft-quoted declaration that the United States should keep a “big stick” handy for use in world affairs, and his willingness to stage a sham revolution in Panama all argue for that view. It would be incomplete, however. Roosevelt was eager to resolve troubles with foreign nations peacefully when possible, and he took great pride in the fact that during his presidency, the United States never started a conflict in which a single life was lost. He had no sympathy for idle ruling classes like those that had long dominated Central America. In José Santos Zelaya, a man of restless intellect, impatient energy, and reformist zeal, he may even have seen a reflection of himself. As late as 1908, he was still addressing the Nicaraguan leader as his “great and good friend.”
Nevertheless, Roosevelt was indirectly responsible for Zelaya’s overthrow, because he propounded the principle that justified it. Since 1823, U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere had been shaped by the Monroe Doctrine, a unilateral declaration that the United States would not tolerate any attempt by European powers to influence the course of events in the Americas. Once work began on the Panama Canal, Roosevelt decided to go further. In 1904 he proclaimed the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the right of the United States to intervene in any country in the Western Hemisphere that it judged to be in need of intervention.
If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the U.S., however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international peace power.
Roosevelt left the presidency in March 1909. His successor, William Howard Taft, was closer to big business, and chose Philander Knox, a highly successful corporate lawyer and former attorney general, to be secretary of state. Knox had spent years representing major American corporations, most notably Carnegie Steel, and had worked closely with William Nelson Cromwell to organize the company that became United States Steel. One of his most cherished clients was the Philadelphia-based La Luz and Los Angeles Mining Company, which held a lucrative gold mining concession in eastern Nicaragua. Besides his professional relationship with La Luz, Knox was politically and socially close to the Fletcher family of Philadelphia, which owned it.
The Fletchers protected their company in an unusually effective way. Gilmore Fletcher managed it. His brother, Henry Fletcher, worked at the State Department, holding a series of influential positions and ultimately rising to undersecretary. Both detested Zelaya, especially after he began threatening, in 1908, to cancel the La Luz concession.
Encouraged by the Fletcher brothers, Knox looked eagerly for a way to force Zelaya from power. He thought he might have one when the lumber baron George Emery approached him. Emery was demanding that the Nicaraguan government compensate him for losses he said he had incurred in Nicaragua, and Knox seized on his case. He sent a brusque note to the Nicaraguan minister in Washington, warning him that his country’s “unnecessary, unwarranted and dilatory” delay in settling this claim threatened the “good will” that existed between Managua and Washington. Much to Knox’s surprise and perhaps disappointment, Zelaya met all his demands and quickly accepted the settlement Emery proposed. Under its provisions, Emery gave up his concession and received $640,000 in compensation.
Soon afterward, Knox’s anger flared again when Zelaya signed an agreement to borrow £1.25 million from European banks to finance his dream project, a coast-to-coast railroad. Knox had nothing against the railroad, but he understood perfectly well that by borrowing money from European rather than American banks, Zelaya was trying to make his country less dependent on the United States. This he could not abide. He asked the British and French governments to quash the loan, but they politely refused. In the summer of 1909, it was successfully floated in London and Paris.
For several years, Knox and others in Washington had been spreading rumors that Zelaya was secretly negotiating with European or Japanese interests to build a canal across his country that would compete with the one the United States was building in Panama. Those rumors were false, but Zelaya did not deny that the canal idea intrigued him. Nor did he hide his conviction that it was to Nicaragua’s advantage to have friends other than the United States. He was a fervent nationalist with outsized ambitions for himself and his country. Once he ordered a Peruvian citizen deported from Nicaragua, and when the Peruvian threatened to appeal to his government, Zelaya replied, “Appeal by all means! When I ridicule the United States, laugh at Germany and spit on England, what do you suppose I care for your beggarly Peru?”
Knox found all this quite intolerable. In the summer of 1909, he began orchestrating a campaign designed to turn American public opinion against Zelaya. He seized on several minor incidents in Nicaragua, including one in which an American tobacco merchant was briefly jailed, to paint the Nicaraguan regime as brutal and oppressive. He sent diplomats to Nicaragua whom he knew to be strongly anti-Zelaya, and passed their lurid reports to friends in the press. Soon American newspapers were screaming that Zelaya had imposed a “reign of terror” in Nicaragua and become “the menace of Central America.” As their sensationalist campaign reached a peak, President Taft gravely announced that the United States would no longer “tolerate and deal with such a medieval despot.”
With this declaration, the United States pronounced Zelaya’s political death sentence. American businessmen in Bluefields, the main town on the Caribbean coast, rushed to carry out the execution. With tacit approval from the American consul, William Moffett, with whom they shared their plans at every stage, they formed a conspiracy with the ambitious provincial governor, General Juan José Estrada. On October 10, 1909, Estrada declared himself president of Nicaragua and appealed to the United States for diplomatic recognition.
This revolution was extraordinarily well financed. The chief accountant for the La Luz mining company, Adolfo Díaz, a bespectacled clerk from a modest Conservative family, served as its treasurer. American companies operating in and around Bluefields sent him large sums of money. The cost of the revolution has been variously estimated at between $63,000 and $2 million.
Estrada used much of the money to raise and equip a militia. It did not prove a great fighting force, though, and his proclaimed march on Managua quickly bogged down in the jungle. Zelaya sent troops to crush it. Knox, watching from Washington, was stymied. His revolution had broken out, but it was quickly collapsing. He needed a pretext to intervene. To his great good fortune, Zelaya gave him one.
Estrada’s call for rebel fighters, like every call for fighters in Central America, had attracted dozens of American adventurers, mercenaries, and gunslingers. Some were miners looking for excitement. Others worked for American-owned companies in Bluefields or other coastal towns. A handful sailed down from New Orleans. Two would go down in Nicaraguan history.
Lee Roy Cannon was a Virginian who had been a rubber planter in Nicaragua, a police officer in El Salvador, and a mercenary in Honduras. He had retired to Guatemala, but apparently retirement did not suit him. When Estrada offered him the rank of colonel in Nicaragua’s rebel army, he accepted.
Cannon’s closest comrade was another veteran of Central American wars, Leonard Groce, a Texan who had taken leave from his job as the supervisor of mining properties for La Luz. The two men carried out several operations together. After one of them, both were captured. They confessed to having laid a mine in the San Juan River with the intention of blowing up the Diamante, a naval vessel that was carrying five hundred government soldiers to suppress their uprising. Both were summarily convicted of “the crime of rebellion” and sentenced to die. Zelaya rejected their pleas for clemency, and early on the morning of November 17, 1909, they were put to death by firing squad.
As soon as news of these executions reached Washington, Knox seized on it. He fired off an angry note to the Nicaraguan foreign minister declaring that the United States would “not for one moment tolerate such treatment of American citizens.” Then he issued an official legal opinion holding that because Estrada’s rebellion had given his men the “stature” of belligerents, Cannon and Groce had been entitled to prisoner-of-war status. That made Zelaya a war criminal.
Knox tried to persuade Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica to send armies into Nicaragua to topple Zelaya, but all three demurred. That left the secretary of state and President Taft to decide whether the United States should act alone. They had no trouble making up their minds. On December 1, Knox wrote the Nicaraguan minister in Washington an extraordinary letter demanding that Zelaya’s government be replaced by “one entirely disassociated from the present intolerable conditions.” Nicaraguan schoolchildren study it to this day.
It is notorious that President Zelaya has almost continually kept Central America in tension or turmoil. . . . It is equally a matter of common knowledge that under the regime of President Zelaya, republican institutions have ceased in Nicaragua to exist except in name, that public opinion and the press have been throttled, and that prison has been the reward of any tendency to real patriotism. . . .
Two Americans who, this government is now convinced, were officers connected with the revolutionary forces, and therefore entitled to be dealt with according to the enlightened practice of civilized nations, have been killed by direct order of President Zelaya. Their execution is said to have been preceded by barbarous cruelties. The consulate at Managua is now officially reported to have been menaced. . . .
The government of the United States is convinced that the revolution represents the will of a majority of the Nicaraguan people more than does the government of President Zelaya. . . . In these circumstances, the President no longer feels for the government of President Zelaya that respect and confidence which would make it appropriate hereafter to maintain with it regular diplomatic relations.
There was no mistaking the seriousness of this message. “We are stricken to the heart, we are paralyzed,” the Nicaraguan minister said after receiving it. Zelaya was also taken aback. He appealed to Mexico and Costa Rica, whose leaders were on good terms with the Taft administration, to intercede on his behalf, but they refused. Then he proposed that a commission made up of Mexicans and Americans come to Nicaragua to investigate the Cannon and Groce cases, and promised to resign if it found him guilty of any wrongdoing. Taft replied by ordering warships to approach both Nicaraguan coasts, and the marines to assemble in Panama.
The Knox Note, as it came to be known, made clear that the United States would not rest until Zelaya was gone. Given the American military forces arrayed against him, he had no alternative but to comply. On December 16, 1909, he submitted his resignation. In his farewell speech to the National Assembly, he said he hoped his departure would produce peace “and above all, the suspension of the hostility shown by the United States, to which I wish to give no pretext that will allow it to continue intervening in any way with the destiny of this country.” A few days later he boarded a ship at the Pacific port of Corinto and sailed into exile.
The new president, José Madríz, a distinguished Liberal jurist, made suppressing the rebellion his first priority. He dispatched an infantry force to Bluefields, and also ordered the purchase of a New Orleans-based steamship, the Venus, and her refitting for military use. By the time the Venus arrived off the coast of Bluefields, in mid-May 1910, the infantry was already there. Government commanders demanded that Estrada’s rebels surrender or face simultaneous attack from land and sea.
Before a shot could be fired, the United States intervened. William Moffett, the American consul, sent the commander of the Venus a note telling him that out of concern for the lives of Americans in and around Bluefields, he had declared the area a “neutral zone.” Following the example of John L. Stevens, the American diplomat who had ordered government troops in Hawaii not to attack or arrest rebels, Moffett ordered the commander not to fire at any onshore position and not to interfere with commercial shipping. This meant that the Venus could neither attack the rebels nor stop ships that were bringing them arms. It also assured the rebels of a continuing source of income from customs revenue.
When Moffett wrote the note, he had no military power to enforce it. A few days later, two American warships, the Paducah and the Dubuque, appeared at Bluefields and disgorged several companies of marines. Their commander was Major Smedley Butler, a master of counterinsurgency who, at the age of twenty-eight, was already a veteran of the Spanish-American War, the Philippine conflict, and the Panama intervention of 1903. Butler’s men took control of Bluefields without resistance. After quickly assessing the situation there, he concluded that the rebels had no chance of withstanding an army attack.
“Unless something drastic was done, the revolution would fail,” Butler wrote later. “It didn’t take a ton of bricks to make me see daylight. It was plain that Washington would like to see the revolutionists come out on top.”
To help that happen, Butler devised a simple formula. He wrote a letter to the Nicaraguan army commanders poised outside Bluefields, telling them that while they were of course free to attack whenever they wished, he must insist that they not use firearms. Stray bullets, he explained, “might accidentally hit American citizens.”
“How are we to take the town if we can’t shoot?” the commanders demanded in reply. “And won’t you also disarm the revolutionaries defending the town?”
“There is no danger of the defenders killing American troops,” Butler told them smoothly, “because they will be shooting outwards, but your troops will be firing towards us.”
Nicaraguan soldiers encamped outside Bluefields were thus forbidden to assault the rebels there. They withdrew and marched to the town of Rama, about twenty-five miles up the coast. Butler led a handful of marines after them.
We sent an American beachcomber on ahead to Rama to be sure there would be another American life to protect, and then re-enacted the farce at Bluefields. We forbade shooting by the government forces, and they finally melted away, convinced of the hopelessness of opposing the revolutionists backed by the Marines. The revolution ended then and there.
President Madriz, who had devoted his life to jurisprudence, believed he could negotiate with the United States on the basis of legality. He did not anticipate that American leaders would intervene so directly against his government. When they did, he proposed a series of compromises. American diplomats rejected all of them, insisting that Nicaragua must have a government free of “Zelayist influence.” There was nothing more to be said or done. At the end of August, Madriz resigned from office and followed Zelaya into exile.
With the seat of power vacant, General Estrada was able to march unopposed to Managua. While still under way, he sent a telegram to Secretary of State Knox assuring American leaders of “the warm regard entertained for them by the victorious party of the revolution.” He entered the capital and was sworn in as president on August 21, 1910.
“On that day,” New York Times correspondent Harold Denny later wrote, “began the American rule of Nicaragua, political and economic.”
The day was more significant than Denny could have known. It may now be recognized as the opening of an era. This was the first time the United States government had explicitly orchestrated the overthrow of a foreign leader. In Hawaii, an American diplomat had managed the revolution, but without specific instructions from Washington. In Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, American “regime change” operations were part of a larger war. The overthrow of President Zelaya in Nicaragua was the first real American coup.
Excerpted from: Overthrow: America's century of regime change from Hawaii to Iraq - Stephen Kinzer. We recommend you buy this book: