by William A. Harris, Deputy Director
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.
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.
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.
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.