107. Letter From the Counselor of the Embassy in Nicaragua (Curtis) to the Officer in Charge of Nicaraguan Affairs (Wollam)1

Dear Park: In connection with your letter of September 27, 1956,2 which both the Ambassador and I had read very carefully, I [Page 219] wish to set forth certain factual data about developments as they occurred here. This statement, I hope, will give you some background on why we acted as we did, particularly with reference to the problem of reporting developments.

The President was shot about 11:30, the night of September 21. The Ambassador first got word of the shooting about 12:30 from the Military Attaché, Colonel Chilson.3 I first got word about 1:00 when I returned to the house of the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Alejandro Montiel, to drive him to the Palace for an emergency cabinet meeting. The Ambassador, upon arrival at the Palace, immediately tried to telephone Washington and Panama. Tropical Radio, as usual, had closed down at 10:00 p.m. but had been reopened by order of the Palace only for telephone calls from the Palace or approved by it. The Ambassador had alerted the Embassy staff, who were present in the office. By this time, the cabinet had declared martial law, with the President’s signature on the document, and all outgoing communications, except ours, were held up. National Guard units had been arresting listed persons from about midnight.

The Ambassador asked Col. Downing to take the telephone call he was trying to put through, and come to the office. At the office we tried two additional means of communication, namely through … to Washington and through Mars Radio hook-up to Panama. Shortly after 2:30 a.m., September 22, the Ambassador drove to León. In the meantime, I remained at the office to continue the efforts to communicate with either Panama or Washington.

At León, the Ambassador received a medical statement on the nature of the wounds and injuries, which he telephoned to me at the Embassy office. This confirmed the earlier report he received at the Palace and was the basis for our request for medical help. By 4:30 a.m., it had been decided to transfer President Somoza from León to the General Hospital at Managua, using the IAGS helicopter for the purpose. About 6:00 a.m., Nicaragua time, i.e. 8:00 a.m., Washington time, … finally got the message through. Shortly after that we also were able to communicate with Panama. The Ambassador arrived back from León about 6:30 a.m. President Somoza arrived and was placed in the General Hospital about 7:30 a.m. Our Military Attaché, Col. Chilson, and the staff of the US Military Mission, under Lt. Col. De Sautels after establishing contact with Panama, set up a continuous communication system.

Col. De Sautels and Col. Chilson established an office over at the General Hospital in a room opposite that where President [Page 220] Somoza was lying. The Ambassador remained at the Embassy office and I moved between the office and the General Hospital with messages that we did not feel could properly be sent over the telephone. In view of the strict control around the area where the President was located, as well as strict police control of the movement of vehicles at that time, the Ambassador, Col. Chilson, Col. De Sautels, … and I were the only ones who could get in and out of the hospital area near the President freely. Either Luis Somoza or Tachito Somoza, and sometimes both, had permanent headquarters in the same area of the General Hospital.

By 9:30 a.m. we had received word of the prospective departure of the Panama medical team and of the decision of President Eisenhower to send down General Heaton. I went over to the Hospital to be present when Col. Bruce and his group arrived from Panama, about 2:30 p.m. Their preliminary examination convinced them that there was no abdominal puncture, that the lung puncture, if any, was minor, and that the serious problem was the bullet that had lodged in the spinal column. This last bullet required a neurosurgeon. In accordance with the oral instructions which the Ambassador had received over the telephone, as soon as Col. Bruce and his colleagues had arrived, I placed a telephone call direct to General Snyder at the White House. Col. Bruce spoke to him and gave their findings. By this time, approximately 4:00 p.m., Saturday afternoon, the plane with General Heaton was in the air and it was too late to pick up a neurosurgeon from the States. In the meantime, Col. Bruce indicated that a very good Panamanian neurosurgeon, Dr. Gonzalez Revilla, was in Panama. We, meaning Col. Bruce, made arrangements through the Military Attaché communications with Panama for Doctor Gonzalez to be ready, either to perform an operation in Panama or to be transported with his equipment and assistants to Managua for an operation.

During the period from this time until the arrival of General Heaton and his colleagues, the President was in extreme pain. Sufficiently, so that he had persuaded Dr. Luis Manuel Debayle that it was essential to start operating immediately. It was only Col. Bruce’s contrary opinion and the fact that General Heaton was enroute which prevented an operation with inadequate medical data, according to what Col. Bruce told me, and under adverse conditions.

During this time, there was little opportunity to sit down and write any telegraphic reports. Col. Chilson had some moments of opportunity at the hospital. I had none. … Consequently, during this period we had their messages going out. All the Army messages were marked Pass State and represented our joint views. … We were fully coordinated here and each telegram represented our joint views. At that point we felt the important phase of the operation [Page 221] was action and keeping Luis and the attending doctors informed rather than extensive reports, which could only have been surmises and guesses at that stage.

After General Heaton arrived, confirmed the findings of Col. Bruce, and recommended strongly that President Somoza be transferred to Gorgas, it was necessary to get a clearance for this purpose from General Snyder and to have the concurrence of competent authorities in Nicaragua. By about midnight, Saturday night, an impasse had been reached in that General Heaton was recommending strongly the transfer of the President for medical reasons and to improve the chances of success of the necessary operation. Col. Luis Somoza, who by then had assumed de facto control of government operations in his capacity as President of the Congress and designate to the Presidency, under the constitution, if President Somoza should either die or be incapacitated, was reluctant to approve the transfer of President Somoza to Panama. This position of his was partly based on the views of some of his advisers. At that point, I called Ambassador Whelan and asked him to come down, which he did. The matter was finally resolved when Ambassador Whelan, General Heaton, and Luis Somoza went in and outlined briefly to President Somoza the problem. General Somoza’s reply was “What are we waiting for, let’s get going.”

After the departure of President Somoza for Panama at about 2:30 a.m., September 23, we had a breathing spell, and for the first time since the start were able to get some sleep. We were still operating on the theory that messages sent through Army, Embassy or … channels, were being promptly coordinated in Washington. Consequently, at this point we had no reason to change our method of operation or reporting. As you know, the Foreign Service Inspectors were here. They asked whether we wished the Inspection suspended in view of the situation. With the pressure somewhat eased and our feeling about the single channel for combined reporting, we informed them that there seemed to be no reason at that point to discontinue the Inspection. We were possibly mistaken in taking that position, although Mr. Stebbins later said that he was glad of the opportunity to observe the Embassy operation in an emergency. My secretary, Miss Cecil Levy, was working full time, plus extensive overtime, solely for the Inspectors, with the exception of Friday morning. Toward the end of that week it became necessary to reorganize the Embassy in view of the urgent necessity of sending Mrs. Lawyer to the United States for medical attention.

Another additional pertinent fact was that the Ambassador is Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and that Nicaraguan protocol is deficient in several important respects. This was relatively minor until funeral arrangements had to be made, when it became a [Page 222] tremendous job to convey communications received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to each of the 22 other Missions established in Managua.

In the meantime, while our considered estimate of the situation was that there would be continued maintenance of law and order, and stability, at least for a substantial initial period, nevertheless even Tachito Somoza was somewhat worried about the possibility of local rioting or disturbances which could have been dangerous to American citizens. Early, we were told a leaflet (of which we were not able to get a copy) of a communist nature was distributed in the market in Managua. We knew that strict orders had been issued that in the event of any serious disturbance there, the soldiers were to shoot to kill. Consequently, we felt it prudent to take certain preliminary emergency steps in case it should be necessary to house, feed, and protect American citizens from any particular area.

… On September 25, Captain G.F. Richardson from General Harrison’s staff, Quarry Heights, arrived to blast the Military Attaché for not keeping Quarry Heights informed of developments. He was fully briefed by us and left satisfied that there was no failure on the part of our Military Attaché but rather that the Department of the Army had not been forwarding the messages.

In conclusion, let me assure you that in the future the Embassy will submit its own reports. We are also inclined to agree with you that a political reporting officer, who is already scheduled for here, is desirable. Moreover, it seems essential that the State Department set up its own emergency channels of communication during the time in these countries when commercial channels are closed down and when it is difficult to wake up personnel at the receiving end (Panama and Washington, in this case) to accept messages.4


  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 717.11/10–456. Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. In a letter to Ambassador Whelan, September 27, Wollam wrote that the Office of Middle American Affairs was aware of the fact that the Embassy reported to the Department through various channels. He stated further, “There are, however, areas in the Department which are not aware of this cooperation and that do not know the reporting coming through other channels is often factual data and estimates from the Embassy itself. This occasionally leads to the unjustified feeling that the Embassy is letting other agencies do its reporting or that there is an insufficiency of data from the Embassy.” (Ibid., 717.11/9–2756)
  3. Robert A. Chilson, U.S. Army Attaché in Nicaragua.
  4. In a letter to Curtis, October 11, Wollam stated the following: “You may be certain that it is fully realized that there are emergency situations when special communications have to be used, and any suggestions you have for improving the channels will be promptly followed up here. The Embassy’s judgement on how something should be transmitted is the final authority, since it is usually impossible for us here to know exactly what the circumstances are.” (Department of State, Central Files, 717.11/10–456)