This work is a useful and scholarly review of United States policy in Nicaragua, 1925-1933. The data have been laid out in orderly fashion, and extensive use has been made of primary sources such as Department of State papers in the National Archives and papers of Calvin Coolidge, Henry L. Stimson, Frank R. McCoy, and others in the Library of Congress and elsewhere.
Curiously, while the staffs of the Archivo General de la Nación and the Biblioteca National in Managua are said to have been “kind and helpful” (p. xi), the lack of any reference to these repositories in the sections of the bibliography on “Printed Sources and Government Publications” and on “Manuscript Sources; Archives and Personal Papers” (p. 249-253) suggests that such friendly assistance did not produce any documents. It is regrettable that the author does not comment on the accessibility of Nicaraguan archives as distinct from the affability of their guardians.
The style of the book is factual and declaratory, with occasional lapses. Two of these raise serious questions about such a fundamental issue as the author’s perception of causation. These are: “Perceiving that the San Juan [River] might provide too easy a passage, nature installed rapids and sandbars, and a Costa Rican volcano silted up the channel” (p. 6); and “Presence of a large Indian population in Central America forced the Spanish to imperialism” (p. 3). On the other hand, we are indebted to the author for this insight into Nicaraguan politics. When ex-President Emiliano Chamorro was appointed by his successor as “minister on a special mission” in Europe, a Nicaraguan official was asked what his duties would be. He replied that “his only duty was to be absent from Nicaragua” (p. 73).
The author’s stated purpose is “to analyze what happened in hope that it will not repeat itself elsewhere in American foreign relations” (p. 2). His work, however, is far more descriptive than analytical. He deals only with Nicaragua in an eight-year period. There is no comparative analysis of United States policy in other Latin American countries during this period, and only fleeting references (pp. 1, 235) to a principal result of that policy—the enduring dictatorship of the Somoza family from 1936 to date.
The book’s last sentence leaves us in the air: “It is clear from this episode in our diplomatic history that United States intrusion may end a crisis, but limited intervention and a few supervised elections cannot guarantee the political stability and well-being of a nation” (p. 236). He hopes what happened in Nicaragua will not happen again. In view of this last sentence, are we to infer that “unlimited” intervention would guarantee stability and well-being? Presumably not, although he does not say so. He does not seem to favor another alternative, since he states that in the 1920s “total nonintervention seemed to lead nowhere except to chaos—a condition of course unacceptable to the United States” (p. 234). Perhaps the problem is a semantic one, since there are other undefined expressions here and there, such as “thoroughgoing intervention” (p. 232) or “outright intervention” (p. 234), whose fuzziness impedes the analysis.
Finally the author makes a brief reference to a subject which he seems to think is noncontroversial. He states flatly that in the 1920s, “although the Republican administrations did not forswear the right to intervene, they laid the groundwork for good neighborliness” (p. 1). The author thus joins other historians who have made a similiarly dubious claim in no less dubious terms. One might as well say that Louis XVI “laid the groundwork” for the French Revolution, or George III for the American. The difference here is that the author and his colleagues seem to be claiming some credit for the Republican administrations in founding the Good Neighbor policy. If that is their intent they should try to make a case rather than take refuge in rhetoric. The author has expressed the hope that the Nicaraguan episode would not be repeated. If that episode is “the groundwork for good neighborliness,” the Republican administrations are going to need more cautious and more persuasive defenders as bricklayers for the house that Franklin D. Roosevelt designed and built.