Pomp and Circumstance: The Other State Visit of 1939

by William A. Harris, Deputy Director

President and Mrs. Roosevelt greet President and Mrs. Somoza at Union Station, May 5, 1939. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection)

Many are familiar with the state visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the summer of 1939. That hot dog lunch gets all the attention. But another state visit in May 1939 set a high standard that only the presence of British royalty could top, only sans hot dogs.

On May 5, 1939, President Roosevelt hosted the President of Nicaragua Anastasio Somoza Garcia in Washington, DC, for a state visit with all the pomp and circumstance afforded for such events. It was a grand affair replete with parades, dinners, and tours.

Our relations with Nicaragua had a long and troubled history by 1939. The US had ended its most recent military intervention in the Central American nation in 1933, though the US had far from abandoned its interest in Nicaraguan governmental affairs, largely making it possible for Somoza to assume power as head of the National Guard which ultimately led to his presidency.

Page 2 of a State Department biography of President Somoza prepared for President Roosevelt. The genteel estimation of Somoza is quite at odds with the known reality even in 1939. (FDR Library, PSF, Nicaragua)

Anastasio Somoza Garcia knew it was in Nicaragua’s and his personal best interests to maintain constructive and peaceful relations with the United States. He desired US financial incentives and investment especially related to a Nicaraguan trans-isthmus canal. The US had its own priorities and was looking to shore up support among Central and South American neighbors as war loomed in Europe. Somoza had long lobbied for a formal visit. When the invitation finally came, he wasn’t disappointed.

A memorandum to President Roosevelt from President Somozo in preparation for his visit. (FDR Library, PSF, Nicaragua)
A briefing paper prepared for President Roosevelt for his meetings with President Somoza. (FDR Library, PSF, Nicaragua)

President Roosevelt and the State Department provided Somoza with all the attention for which any leader could hope. In fact, newspapers reported that Somoza received a more lavish welcome than those accorded to kings and prime ministers on previous state visits. He and his wife were overnight guests at the White House; the President led a formal parade through the streets of Washington; and he and Mrs. Roosevelt hosted a series of social affairs including a white tie state dinner and musicale in the East Room.

FDR tours President Somoza through Washington in an open car on a sunny day, May 5, 1939. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection)
Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts watches the Somoza parade. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection)
President Somoza lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, May 5, 1939, after a visit to Mount Vernon. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection)
Draft guest list for the state dinner in honor of President and Mrs. Somoza. Another 150 guests were invited to the musicale that followed. (FDR Library, PSF, Nicaragua)

The visit proved a success, though no canal was ever constructed through Nicaragua. Somoza did declare war on Germany and Japan at the start of World War II and work in tandem with the US throughout the war. Somoza, who used the title “General,” ruled until 1947, then again from 1950 to 1956, when he was assassinated. He was effectively the leader even while not formally in office, and his brutal, strongman tactics ultimately led to violent opposition. His family officially and effectively ruled Nicaragua until 1979 when they were finally ousted after a lengthy revolution.

A note of thanks to FDR from Manuel Reyes, Nicaraguan foreign minister and later president between Somoza’s two tenures in office. (FDR Library, PSF, Nicaragua)