Purdue News

July 12 marks the 150th anniversary of American William Walker's inauguration as president of Nicaragua.

June 27, 2006

Prof: Tennessee pirate shares blame for anti-U.S. sentiments in Latin America

Robert May
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Today's anti-American feelings in Latin America are as much about history as they are about current feuds over oil and leadership issues, says a Purdue University history professor.

"U.S.-Latin American relations suffered a horrific setback 150 years ago, when an audacious Tennessean conquered Nicaragua and plotted to take over other Central American countries," says Robert May, a professor of history. "William Walker may be America's forgotten president, but he left an imprint on Latin America that exacerbates current concerns, especially in Central America."

Walker, who assumed Nicaragua's presidency 150 years ago, was a 19th century filibuster, a commander of a private American military force that invaded foreign countries without U.S. government permission. These soldiers — taking actions that might be considered terrorism by today's standards — attacked Mexico, the Spanish colony of Cuba, British Canada and the Central American states repeatedly until the U. S. Civil War, May says.

May acknowledges that feuds between Latin American countries, like Venezuela, and the United States are fueled by a variety of modern issues and that Walker's filibustering invasions were just a few of many incidents of U.S. armed aggression against Latin American states in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, May is concerned that today's policy-makers are not aware that Walker's actions more than a century ago still strongly resonate among Latin American citizens. During the 1980s, Sandinista leaders referenced Walker's invasion to rally Nicaraguans and world opinion against U.S. policies in Central America.

"Because Walker invaded Nicaragua and assumed the presidency, he affected world affairs much like Osama bin Laden has since 2001," May says. "In the United States, Walker regularly dominated newspaper headlines. Books, poems, magazine articles and plays were written about him.

"Walker had thoughts of conquering all of Central America once he subdued Nicaragua, and many Americans celebrated his successes as proof of Manifest Destiny — a belief that God intended the United States to further expand territorially. He even legalized slavery there."

Despite some Americans who supported filibusters, many were critical of Walker. Unfortunately, other countries were convinced that the U.S. government was using filibusters to steal foreign lands, May says.

Almost a year after Walker's July 12, 1856, inauguration, Nicaraguans ousted him with the help of armies from other Central American states. In 1860 Walker was executed by a Honduran firing squad when he again tried to invade Central America.

This year there will be a number of commemorations in Central America marking Walker's invasion and ouster. In addition, these countries celebrate national holidays that mark the defeat of Walker and his army. A national monument in San José, Costa Rica, even celebrates Walker's defeat, and the international airport in San José is named for a soldier who helped defeat Walker.

"During a recent trip to Costa Rica, I became aware that many Costa Ricans share a belief that the Central American Free Trade Agreement is somehow a continuation of Walker's aggressions," May says. "People oppose this free trade agreement partly on that basis, however irrational the correlation might seem, and attack President Bush's intervention in Iraq as a supposed continuation of William Walker's policies. Some Central Americans even make a lot over the fact that Walker's last name is President Bush's middle name.

"Americans have forgotten the story about Walker's plundering, but many Central Americans have not."

May is author of "Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America," and "The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861." In March, he gave a series of talks in Costa Rica about Walker.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Robert May, (765) 494-4131, rmay@cla.purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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