1909: Leonard Groce and Lee Roy Cannon, American mercenaries in Nicaragua

3 comments November 17th, 2009 Headsman

In few countries is it possible to trace the development of anti-American sentiment as clearly as in Nicaragua. A century of trouble between the two nations, which led to the death of thousands and great suffering for generations of Nicaraguans, began when the United States deposed President Zelaya in 1909. Benjamin Zeledon [Spanish link -ed.] took up arms to avenge him. Zeledon’s death inspired the young Sandino, who, in turn, inspired the modern Sandinista Front.

For all his faults, Zelaya was the greatest statesman Nicaragua ever produced. If the United States had found a way to deal with him, it might have avoided the disasters that followed. Instead, it crushed a leader who embraced capitalist principles more fully than any other Central American of his era.

-Steven Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq

It was a century ago today* that the execution of two American soldiers of fortune set all that strife in motion.

Leonard Groce, a mining supervisor, and Lee Roy Cannon, a rubber planter, were among those hired out by the U.S.-backed rebellion of Juan Jose Estrada. Dictatorial Nicaraguan President Jose Santos Zelaya — no known relationship to his namesake bookend at the other end of that century, the recently deposed leftist Honduran President Manuel Zelaya — had earned Washington’s ire by attempting to carve out an excessively independent sphere of action for his country. Most notably, he courted European investment, and mooted funding a possible Nicaraguan competitor to the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal.

Though the Estrada insurrection was spinning its wheels militarily, Groce and Cannon would give it legs diplomatically, and afford the Yankees sufficient pretext to overthrow Zelaya directly.

These two U.S. nationals were caught mining the San Juan River in an admitted attempt to sink a Nicaraguan troop transport, and shot in El Castillo a few days later. (Here‘s Groce’s final letter to his mum — a Spanish translation; I have not been able to find the English original.)

When word reached U.S. Secretary of State Philander Knox about the shootings, he “saw an opportunity to intervene directly.”**

Knox dashed off a bellicose note to the Nicaraguan charge d’affaires calling his

regime … a blot upon the history of Nicaragua …

From every point of view it has evidently become difficult for the United States further to delay more active response to the appeals so long made, to its duty to its citizens, to its dignity, to Central America, and to civilization.

The Government of the United States is convinced that the revolution represents the ideals and the will of a majority of the Nicaraguan people more faithfully than does the Government of President Zelaya.

“Then,” says Steven Kinzer, “he issued an official legal opinion holding that because Estrada’s rebellion had given his men the ‘stature’ of belligerents, Cannon and Groce had been entitled to prisoner-of-war status. That made Zelaya a war criminal.”

Maybe Zelaya mistook the foreign bombers for “unlawful combatants.”


Groce and Cannon temporarily became a media cause celebre in the U.S. This article is from the Nov. 21, 1909 edition of the Salt Lake Herald-Republican.

By late December, with marines† landing, Zelaya bowed to the inevitable and resigned, and Nicaragua began a generation under more-or-less overt U.S. control.

That terrible miscalculation drew the United States into a century of interventions in Nicaragua. They took a heavy toll in blood and treasure, profoundly damaged America’s image in the world, and helped keep generations of Nicaraguans in misery. Nicaragua still competes with Haiti to lead the Western Hemisphere in much that is undesirable, including rates of poverty, unemployment, infant mortality, and deaths from curable diseases.

Kinzer

There’s more coverage of this episode and America’s early 20th century Nicaraguan policy in The Banana Men: American Mercenaries and Entrepreneurs in Central America, 1880-1930 and Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy toward Latin America.

* A few sources give the date as the 16th, and the situation was confused and uncertain enough on the ground that early press reports elide the execution date altogether. The 17th tracks with The Banana Men, Overthrow, and the U.S. diplomatic correspondence.

** Knox, a plutocrats’ attorney from Pennsylvania and certifiable bastard, was also personally connected with Pittsburgh-based mining interests Zelaya was threatening to expropriate. Groce worked for the firm.

† Marine Corps Major (later General) Smedley Butler mounted three different expeditions to Nicaragua during the civil war following Zelaya’s departure. He would later remember of his service in America’s southerly “Banana Wars” interventions, “I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mercenaries,Nicaragua,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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