"Red Mike Edson", U.S. Marines And Miskito Indians: The Rio Coco Patrol Of 1928
By David C. Brooks - Originally Published November 1996
While most military histories of the Marine involvement in Nicaragua have focused on light infantry tactics, it's the political aspects of the Second Nicaragua Campaign that might provide the more relevant lessons.
When it comes to the history of the U.S. Marine Corps, few names stand out more than MajGen Merritt A. "Red Mike" Edson's. Famous for winning the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal, Edson is also recognized for his leadership during the Rio Coco patrol during the Second Nicaragua Campaign (1926-33). Although several historians have treated the Rio Coco patrol, they mostly have emphasized Edson's composure in the face of natural hazards and determined opposition from Sandinista guerrillas or his creativity in employing light infantry tactics.1 Most of these accounts have not dealt with the unique political aspect of the mission. Yet this "other side" of the Rio Coco patrol is perhaps the more significant for today's Marines. Edson's story illustrates how the many campaigns of that era, together known by the trivializing term "Banana Wars," may have much to say to the Marines of today.
Though the link between the 1920s and the 1990s may not be obvious, the two eras share a basic similarity: The collapse of the United States' great power rival (in the earlier case imperial Germany, in the latter the Soviet empire) has led to a period of prolonged peace characterized by limited war and multiple forms of small-scale military engagement. Historically, the burden of these messy kinds of political-military missions has fallen heavily upon the U.S. Marines. Like their Banana Wars' ancestors, today's Marines have to carry out a variety of complex tasks-peacekeeping, hostage rescue, refugee support, drug interdiction, counterinsurgency, and combinations thereof-on the shoestring budgets typical of these periods of military retrenchment. In its own way, Edson's Rio Coco patrol illustrates how Marines in the past successfully adapted to similar exigencies. The full story of the patrol, however, also shows some of the stickier and unanticipated difficulties that accompany any effort at foreign intervention, even a relatively successful one.
Background to Intervention
Before discussing Edson's mission, it is important to recall the circumstances that brought about the Second Nicaragua Campaign. In 1926, a vicious civil war broke out in Nicaragua between the country's two rival political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. Washington responded, as it so often had in the past, by sending Marines to Nicaragua to establish neutral zones and protect U.S. lives and property.
Along with the Marines came Special Presidential Envoy Henry Stimson in May 1927. Stimson put forward a plan to get the warring factions to move their struggle from the battlefield to the ballot box. U.S. Marines would both train a new, nonpartisan Nicaraguan army, the Guardia Nacional, and would supervise a free election. Under pressure from Stimson, Liberal and Conservative leaders agreed to the American representative's plan-all save one. In May of that year, Liberal General Augusto C. Sandino rejected the U.S. sponsored scheme as unwarranted Yankee interference in his country's affairs and retreated into the mountains of the Nicaraguan north with about 200 men to launch an early "war of national liberation" against what he called Nicaragua's vendepatria (country-selling) elites and the U.S. Marines.
Within a year, the conflict had become a stalemate, locking itself into a pattern familiar to students of counterinsurgency. The Marines easily controlled the cities and towns of western Nicaragua. Sandino and his men, however, were masters of the rugged hills of Nueva Segovia. In addition, when pressed from Marine patrols, the Sandinistas could cross the mountains that divide Nicaragua and descend the Coco River, or Rio Coco as it is known in Spanish, which forms the border between Honduras and Nicaragua, and attack the country's Caribbean side-the site of many important U.S. and foreign investments. This region of Nicaragua, known locally as the Atlantic Coast, served as a kind of strategic rear for the insurgents.
Thanks for reminding people of our Pre Vietnam counterinsurgency operations. The Marines were good at what they did, if only command now allowed their tactics to be used in Vietnam things may have turnd out different.