Thursday, March 5, 2015
March 5, 2015: Forgotten Wars: The Occupations of Nicaragua
[Two hundred years ago this week, the U.S. declared war on the North African nation of Algiers, leading to the unremembered conflict about which I wrote in Monday’s post. That Second Barbary War is one of many such forgotten wars in American history, and I’ll also highlight and AmericanStudy others for the remainder of the week’s posts. Leading up to a special weekend post responding to a relevant recent piece by one of my model AmericanStudiers.]
On two conflicts that are all too representative, and how to remember them specifically nonetheless.
In one of the many snarky and pointed footnotes in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008), Junot Díaz (or perhaps his narrator Yunior, it’s never quite clear who authors those footnotes and cases can be made for either man) writes, of the 1965-1966 U.S. invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic, that “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.” The same could be said of many other 20th century U.S. occupations, including another of the Dominican Republic (between 1916 and 1924), a handful of occupations of Cuba between the Spanish American War and the Communist Revolution, and of course the South Asian conflicts in both the Philippines and (most famously and most frequently compared to Iraq) Vietnam. Indeed, few histories seem as consistently central to the American Century as the occupying, conflicted, controversial, enduring presence of U.S. military forces around the globe.
In many ways, the 1909-1910 and 1912-1925 U.S. occupations of Nicaragua simply exemplify those enduring histories. Just look at some of the quotes from those relevant years on the Stanford timeline at that first link: “U.S. troops impose a puppet government”; the puppet ruler “requests U.S. military assistance to control civil unrest,” but “Nicaraguans resist U.S. occupation and the national hero, Benjamin Zeledón, dies”; as a result of their presence in the nation “the U.S. acquires the right to build” canals and naval bases there, “provoking anti-North American sentiment and guerilla warfare in Nicaragua, and eliciting protests from other Central American countries”; “when U.S. forces withdraw, rebellions ensue; the marines return to quell the disturbances”; and so on and so forth. Four different presidents, from both parties, led the U.S. during those decades, but in Nicaragua, as in so many other places around the world before and since, the story remained the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as our French friends (no strangers to 20th century international occupations themselves, of course) might put it.
Yet at the same time, lumping all such international occupations together is a limited and ultimately problematic thing to do: for lots of reasons, but mostly because it reduces these specific situations and histories, and even more so these individual nations and communities, to interchangeable parts of an ongoing pattern. Take Benjamin Zeledón, for example, the lawyer, politican, and military leader who was killed by U.S. Marines in 1912, at the age of 33, while leading the fight to depose the U.S.-backed (and perceived U.S. puppet) President Adolfo Díaz. Zeledón seems to have a great deal in common with José Martí, but with one crucial difference: Martí led Cuba’s fight against Spanish occupation, aligning him with the U.S. (as did his prior years of exile in America); while Zeledón’s battle was against U.S. occupiers and their Nicaraguan allies. Perhaps that’s one reason why nearly all of the web pieces I could find on Zeledón, including the two to which I’ve linked above, are written in Spanish; remembering this man and his story, including it in our U.S. histories, would force us to think about the effects of our Nicaraguan occupations in a tangible and unsettling way. I’d say it’s long past time we did so.
Last forgotten war tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other under-remembered conflicts you’d highlight?