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U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua, 1911/1912

In the years leading up to the First World War, the United States and Mexican governments competed for political influence in Central America. As a result, the U.S. Government intervened more directly in Nicaraguan affairs in two separate, but related, incidents in 1911 and 1912, with the objective of ensuring the rule of a government friendly to U.S. political and commercial interests and preserving political stability in Central America. Although officials within the administration of President William H. Taft saw themselves as intervening to ensure good government, many Nicaraguans became increasingly alarmed at what seemed to be a foreign takeover of their political, banking, and railroad systems.

U.S. Secretary of State Philander Knox had become increasingly concerned about the activities of Nicaraguan President José Zelaya. Zelaya had come to power in a military coup in 1893. Shortly afterwards, Zelaya annexed the British colony of the Mosquito Coast. Zelaya embarked on a campaign of internal improvement and began to court foreign investment, not only from the United States but from other nations as well. Knox was particularly concerned about Zelaya's negotiations with the Japanese government for the construction of a transoceanic canal. In 1909, Nicaraguan involvement in the affairs of El Salvador and Costa Rica spurred Knox to seek a way to isolate Zelaya and possibly remove him from power. In the fall of 1909, a revolt broke out against Zelaya in Nicaragua, and Knox seized it as a chance to oust Zelaya.

During his rule, Zelaya had acquired a number of enemies, including disaffected fellow members of his Liberal party, his Conservative opposition, U.S. Government leaders such as Knox, and the Guatemalan government, which provided covert support for some of the early stages of the revolt against Zelaya. Knox initially intended to remain neutral, but kept several navy ships stationed off Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. However, Thomas P. Moffatt, the U.S. consul at the Nicaraguan port of Bluefields provided more overt support to the rebellion in contravention to Knox's instructions.

Knox saw an opportunity to intervene directly when two U.S. citizens who were serving as officers in the rebel army had been captured and executed by Zelaya's forces. U.S. Marines landed on the Caribbean coast, and the rebellion scored increasing victories against Zelaya. After rebel leader Juan Estrada's forces seized Managua, Nicaragua's capital, Knox agreed to recognize the new government, provided that U.S. demands for prosecution of those responsible for the execution of U.S. citizens were met, along with demands for an election within the next six months and the establishment of a commission to resolve claims for damage against property during the revolt.

Although Estrada had come to power, his hold on Nicaraguan government was shaky, and his many rivals also aspired to the presidency. Sensing the need to further secure U.S. interests, Knox sent Thomas C. Dawson as a special agent to Nicaragua. Dawson had previously overseen U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic. Dawson quickly assessed the Nicaraguan political situation, and realized that if an election were held, Zelaya's Liberals would win. To avoid a Liberal victory, Dawson convinced Estrada to form a constituent assembly to elect Estrada president instead. Thereafter, the Nicaraguan government agreed to a U.S. loan, a new constitution, the abolishment of monopolies, and conceded to the previous demands that the United States had placed on the new government in exchange for recognition. Implementation of these agreements, however, would be difficult because of their unpopularity in Nicaragua. In the meantime, Estrada's political rivals succeeded in replacing him with his vice president, Adolfo Díaz.

Nicaraguan and U.S. representatives signed a treaty on June 6, 1911, which included U.S. Government and private bank approval for the post of customs collector. In a second, short-term loan agreement, the collector general was nominated by a consortium of banks and approved by Knox. Díaz also effectively handed control of the Nicaraguan national rail company to a U.S.-backed company. However, the 1911 treaty was not ratified by the U.S. Senate as many Senators increasingly opposed the Taft Administration's connections with large corporations.

In July 1912, Díaz's political rival, the Minister of War, Luis Mena, began a revolt to seize power. Although he had already won election to succeed to the presidency in 1913, Mena was uncertain of securing U.S. backing. Diaz asked the U.S. Government to intervene in order to secure the property of U.S. citizens. With U.S. support, Diaz maintained his hold on power, and Mena left the country. Concerned about preserving stability in Nicaragua, the U.S. kept a small detachment of 100 marines in Nicaragua until 1925.

Although Taft and Knox viewed U.S. actions in Nicaragua as an attempt to remove a dangerous dictator and prevent local mismanagement of finances, their actions caused considerable nationalist concern in Nicaragua. A second intervention in 1925 would trigger a persistent insurgency led by Augusto Sandino. The Sandinista National Liberation Front, which dominated Nicaraguan politics in the 1980s, and fought its own counterinsurgency against the Contras during that time, is named after Augusto Sandino.


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