Glimpses of Wilsonianism: United States involvement in Nicaragua during the Coolidge era
The military occupation of Nicaragua was one of the Calvin Coolidge administration’s most unpopular foreign policies. Upon the death of President Warren G. Harding in 1923, Coolidge inherited the White House and a Nicaraguan withdrawal plan set up years earlier. As planned, the United States monitored the Nicaraguan national elections in 1924, and withdrew its occupation force in 1925. When the country collapsed into civil war a few months later, the Coolidge administration ordered the Marines back into Nicaragua to restore order. Coolidge and his Secretary of State, Frank B. Kellogg, argued the occupation was necessary to protect American economic interests, defend canal rights, and hinder “Bolshevik” Mexico’s attempts to influence the outcome of the Nicaraguan civil war. For years historians have presented many of the original arguments as facts in various monographs of the Nicaraguan occupation. This thesis challenges the validity of these long-held beliefs and presents the Nicaraguan occupation as a discreet experiment in Wilsonianism instead of a mission of self-interests.
Careful study of the economics trends and the political situations within Nicaragua and the United States during this era reveal that the public justifications for the occupation were far less significant than Coolidge and his supporters admitted. When compared to other Latin American nations, financial investments in Nicaragua were small. The probability of the United States building a canal during the 1920s was also minute given the results of engineering studies conducted by United States government in the years before Coolidge entered the White House. The Mexican interference had no serious Bolshevik element and was not taken seriously by critics then or now. The question then remains: why did the United States invest so much time and effort in a country with limited economic, strategic, or political significance?
Because of isolationist tendencies in the general American populace, the Coolidge publicly justified involvement in Nicaragua purely in terms of American interests, yet there was a quietly concerted effort to stabilize the country by applying the ideals of Wilsonianism, ideals long thought missing in 1920s foreign policy. The pursuit of the rule of law through free elections, peace talks, disarmament, and multilateral treaties reveal that the Coolidge administration thought and acted in ideological terms, and not just economically and strategically-driven realism. Instead of supporting the factions with the strongest military, Coolidge and his men in the state department pursued policies that fought to keep Nicaraguan elections free and legitimate even when it caused temporary upheavals within Nicaragua. Long after Coolidge had left office, the United States remained in Nicaragua. Henry Stimson, Coolidge’s trusted advisor and Nicaraguan policymaker, was appointed Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State and kept the United States on the Coolidge path in that area until 1933. It was a noble and dedicated experiment in Wilsonianism, an experiment that, even though it failed, should not be minimized or forgotten.
0337: American history
0616: International law