Small Wars and Such

One of the most significant publications ever produced by the Marine Corps is the Small Wars Manual (1940).  What makes this such a remarkable document is that it was a compilation of lessons learned from operations conducted by expeditionary Marines serving in Central America and the Caribbean (1903 to 1933).  Today, we would refer to these engagements as counter-counterinsurgency operations.  It was an era in which combat Marines responded effectively and uniquely to threats posed by rebels and bandits who endangered the peace and stability of Latin America’s emerging nations.  These were operations that employed ground and air forces; ultimately these evolved into strategies and tactics that have become the hallmark of the U. S. Marine Corps, beginning in World War II through its present -day expeditionary role.

I want to tell you about the America’s small wars, but first we should look at the situation as it existed early in the 20th Century.

Latin American intervention

Diplomacy occurs when a nation’s leaders perceive that it best serves the interests of their country to engage with other nations —although, how nations engage with one another is a separate matter.  America’s naval forces have long been an instrument of national foreign policy, but for the record, United States Marines do not make US policy—they implement it.

Spain’s inability to control its new world colonies in the early 1800s led to rebellion and independence movements.  This became a concern to European powers, each with their own colonies in far-off lands, because rebellion threatened the economies and prestige of the motherland.

The Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), which was composed of ambassadors of major European states (none of which had much use for independence movements, or republicanism), seemed poised to assist Spain in reclaiming its colonial empire.  Having already established a robust trade relationships with emerging Latin American republics, Great Britain and the United States signaled opposition to European intervention in the affairs of any emerging nation in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1823, British diplomat George Canning proposed an alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States to preclude European meddling in the Americas.  Ultimately a European intention to help reassert Spanish imperialism faltered.  What did emerge, however, was the so-called Monroe Doctrine[1], which in the United States, became a defining moment.  For everyone else, it was no more than a gaping yawn; America had no way of enforcing such policies.  In fact, if early-American diplomats ever anticipated preventing European interference in the Western Hemisphere, they would require the assistance of the British Navy.

Ultimately, several former Spanish colonies took a wrong turn.  Latin American strongmen[2], seeking only to enrich themselves —often at the expense of their countrymen— accepted loans from European nations without any intention of repaying these notes.  Under such circumstances, European nations believed that they had the right to seize the property of errant nations as a means of securing payment of defaulted loans.

In 1902, Foreign Minister Luis Maria Drago of Argentina reacted to the actions of Britain, Germany, and Italy during the Venezuela Crisis (1902-1903), in which they had blockaded and shelled Venezuelan ports as a means of collecting debts accrued under regimes led by caudillos.  Drago asserted that no European power should be permitted to use force against an American nation to collect any debt.  President Theodore Roosevelt rejected the Drago Policy out of hand, stating that the United States would not protect any Latin American nation from punishment if it is delinquent in matters of foreign relations[3].

In 1904, Roosevelt issued his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the right of the United States to intervene in Latin American affairs in cases of flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American caudillo —to preempt intervention by European creditors.  The corollary was a useful tool for extracting economic benefits by force whenever Latin American leaders failed to pay their debts to European and US banks and other business interests.  American interventionism was often referred to as the “Big Stick” policy —some today enjoy referring to this as American Imperialism[4].  Roosevelt’s corollary provoked outrage throughout Latin America as it assumed that the Latinos were incapable of managing their own affairs.

Nevertheless, the truth is that in many cases, men running countries in the Caribbean and in Central and South America were petty thieves and murderous thugs; men who cared about one thing: increasing personal wealth and power.  One has only to observe the recent presidencies of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro to see that nothing has substantially changed in Venezuela since 1902.

Excepting Haiti, there is no place in all Latin America more politically chaotic than Nicaragua; civil war in was a frequent occurrence between so-called liberal and conservative factions[5].

In 1912, the United States responded to an invitation from Nicaragua’s conservative president Adolfo Díaz[6] to help him put his house in order.  One-hundred US Marines were sent to protect the lives and property of American citizens living and working in Nicaragua.  This rebellion was relatively short-lived, mostly because it did not take our Marines long to defeat rebel forces.

Seeking to provide a little insurance against any future violence, the US State Department assigned a somewhat robust Marine guard to the US Embassy.  Ultimately, however, an increased presence of Marines became a two-edged sword. The size of the legation guard guaranteed some amount of calm, particularly near the capital city Managua, but the Nicaraguan government became complacent —relying on American Marines rather than improving their own internal security.

Nicaraguan elections of 1924 brought to power a coalition engineered in the United States.  The Americans meddled in this election with every hope and expectation of achieving political stability.  Anticipating success, the Marines were sent home.  Unhappily, however, coalition governments last only so long as everyone can agree.  Nicaragua’s coalition broke down rather quickly.  The new president was a conservative by the name of Carlos Solórzano; his vice president was a liberal by the name of Juan Bautista Sacasa.

The coalition deteriorated when soldiers answering to Solórzano’s brother-in-law applied the indiscriminate application of firearms at a Liberal Party Reception, and then prematurely ended the gala by arresting several guests.  The result of this was yet another civil war and the rise of General Emiliano Chamorro to power.  The United States responded to these events by maintaining its policy of refusing to recognize the legitimacy of any government achieving power through coup-d’état.  Yet, in refusing to recognize Chamorro, the United States only made matters worse.

Meanwhile, former vice president Sacasa remained leader of liberal forces.  He gained support from Mexico’s president Plutarco Calles, who first recognized Sacasa as the legitimate ruler of Nicaragua, and then compounded this problem by providing Sacasa with military supplies.  When discovered, Calles’ activities complicated diplomacy with the United States, and moreover, propelled the United States into backing its old friend Adolfo Díaz —who was one of the most hated men in Nicaragua.  In backing Díaz, President Calvin Coolidge offered him financial loans and US Marines, whose mission it was to establish and maintain military-free zones.

In recognizing the tumbledown state of the Nicaraguan military, American diplomats and military officials sought to bolster Nicaragua’s internal security by creating, training, and employing a new Guardia Nacional.  The establishment of national guards had long been favored by American diplomats in Latin America because:

  • National armies became the principal source of corruption and disorder. They consumed most of the government’s revenue, and beyond popular oppression, gave nothing in return to the government or the people.
  • The creation of a non-partisan constabulary would provide much-needed stability in Nicaragua. A disciplined force, trained by Marines, offset the tendency among Latino officials to abuse their power.
  • US Marine Corps officers and NCOs were offered commissioned officer status in the Guardia Nacional and positioned as key leaders and instructors. Doing so gave the US government some direct control over the future direction of Nicaragua.  Under American tutelage, the all-volunteer national guard would receive better arms, uniforms, and discipline.  Most importantly, however, the Guardia Nacional would be a nonpartisan force made up men loyal to their country more than political party.

Conservatives in Argentina expressed opposition to US intervention in Nicaragua; protests took place from Buenos Aires to Paris, and from Southern Chile to the lower Rio Grande in Texas.  Costa Rica even threatened to hold up agricultural contracts with the United Fruit Company.  Among Latinos, Nicaragua was often referred to as the “Little Belgium in our hemisphere[7].”

Meanwhile, after ten days of bloody fighting, liberal forces seized control of the Nicaraguan town of Chinandega.  They were driven off by a sustained bombardment from Marine aircraft.  What followed were dozens of reports of maimed civilians laying unattended in the city’s streets.  President Coolidge upped the ante by sending in more Marines —American naval forces were eventually joined by a British battle cruiser.

Fighting ended in May 1927 when the US brokered an agreement of forced disarmament and mediation of upcoming elections.  These elections gave an overwhelming victory to the Liberals; former general José Moncada, became president.  While true that the US-backed Conservatives had lost the election, the US, with every assurance that the elections had been honestly conducted, abided by its results.  The civil war now ended, the plan now was for the National Guard to replace American Marines.

Concurrently, however, the Liberal Party (and self-proclaimed) General Augusto Sandino, commanding significant liberal forces in Nicaragua’s dense jungle, and who was unhappy with Moncada’s election, refused to lay down his arms.  He wanted an end to Nicaraguan conservatives and their Yanqui backers.

(Continued Next Week)


[1] Only referred to as such after 1850.

[2] In Spanish, Caudillos

[3] While serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt rationalized America’s intervention in Cuba as a legitimate application of the Monroe Doctrine.  The Venezuela Crisis (1902-1903) demonstrated America’s new-found willingness to use naval power to enforce US policy.

[4] The notion that United States (directly or indirectly) asserted economic and/or military control over other countries or their policies.  Such influence is often closely associated with an expansion into foreign territories in furtherance of Manifest Destiny, or as an obligation undertaken as part of the “White Man’s Burden.”  To the extent that the United States dabbled with foreign imperialism, it was only flirtatious and done badly.

[5] Such terms as liberal and conservative can be misleading, however; in 1920, they bear little resemblance to their modern definitions.  At the beginning of the 20th Century, a Latin-American liberal was more prone to nationalism, held greater popular support among the Nicaraguan people, and adopted a more anti-American tone.  Conservatives maintained a strong relationship with military and business sectors.  They too could take the anti-American tone, but overall, conservatives appeared willing to work with the US so long as they could gain business and political advantages.

[6] No doubt Diaz believed that it was in his best interests to issue the invitation to the United States.

[7] The term “Poor Little Belgium” was often used to explain the cause of British entry into World War I (1914).


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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Small Wars and Such”

  1. I served with an old WO who had been pulled out of Chesty Puller’s platoon in Nicaragua and sent to glider pilot school. When I served with him he was a pilot with HMX-1. This was in ’62-’65.
    Semper Fi
    Cpl S.L. Carroll


    1. Thank you for stopping by, and for your commentary. It is a special moment for me whenever a Marine stops by to share his connection to our history. I met General Puller in 1969. More to follow on this thread; hope you’ll stop back again.
      Semper Fi …


  2. I just love these small peeks into our history and hidden windows. Unfortunately half of the south American countries are still a huge PITA, unstable, corrupt and many still irredeemable no matter who runs them into the ground. Thanks Mustang. Great stuff . Always great stuff.


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