Our Bastard(s) Somoza
November 11, 2002 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Our Bastard(s) Somoza Speaking of brutal Nicaraguan dicatator Somoza, Harry Truman is supposed to have said "He's a bastard, but he's our bastard." Looking for a source for this quote, I discovered it's attributed to Truman, FDR, and Nixon. This is such a broad chronological range that I figured I could narrow it down by finding out when Somza lived. No such luck: according to two biography*/histories, there were actuall three Somozas: Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who fathered Luis Somoza Debayle and Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and the Somoza dynasty that ruled Nicaragua from the mid 1930s through the late 1970s. All three of those presidents could well have made the comment. But I'm still stuck for a source...

* This link (the first history/bio) requires anyone clicking from an outside page to go through an extra "Welcome Mat" page on the first time through. Annoying, but no registration required.

posted by namespan (18 comments total)
well, according to this, it was "son of a bitch", not "bastard", it was said by Cordell Hull, not Truman, FDR, or Nixon, and it was about Rafael Trujillo, not Somoza.

...but there is no evidence that anyone ever sent it, anyway.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 11:33 AM on November 11, 2002

Boy, Google turns up quite a variety of attributions. Besides the Somoza ones, there's "Arthur Scargill is a bastard, but he's our bastard"; "Reagans [sic] dictum 'Saddam may be a bastard, but he's our bastard' ";"An American president said of President Marcos [etc.]"; "As stated by John Foster Dulles former US secretary of state during the early years of the Cold War. He was referring to a particularly obnoxious South American dictator of a US client state"; and the historically challenged "as Roosevelt said of Noriega" -- not to mention:

und im presseclub am sonntag sagte die amerikanerin - zur erklärung der weltlage:- "he's a bastard - but he's our bastard" - so lustig kann amerikanische außenpolitik sein - meine damen und herren - ja?
posted by languagehat at 11:46 AM on November 11, 2002

If you had read the article you linked to, stupidcomputernickname [heh], you would have read the bit at the bottom stating that the answer was inconclusive and that the real author of this quote may be "unknowable in principle".
posted by ar0n at 11:50 AM on November 11, 2002

I actually heard it being said by LBJ about Diem, but the dates don't really match up (Diem got assassinated, IIRC, before johnson took office). I am pinging a friend of mine who is a research librarian, to see if she can find an authoritative answer.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 11:50 AM on November 11, 2002

Hitler's Moustache! Of course I had to miss stupidcomputernickname's last line! sigh. My apologies. Closer to usenet every day.
posted by ar0n at 11:52 AM on November 11, 2002

Heh. Innerestin'. I always thought it was said by LBJ -- it is the kinda thing he would have said.

(Digression/tangent: In a tough race for Congress in the mid-50s, LBJ is said to have told his campaign manager to spread the rumour that his opponent slept with barn animals.
"But that's not true! Why would I say that?"
"So he'll have to deny it.")
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:56 AM on November 11, 2002

languagehat: mein deutch ist grausom, but I think that German sentence says something to the effect that the "our bastard" attitude pretty much sums up american foreign policy?

I'm not sure I'd go that far... but one of the reason that Somoza is interesting to me (and why I went looking for this quote) is that it's pretty clear that Somoza had support from U.S. interests and the U.S. government. Questions about why said government seems to do these sorts of things are on my mind at the moment. I'm wondering if there were specific strategic interests here... or if this "our bastard" really is a general attitude in foreign policy since around the time of FDR...
posted by namespan at 12:53 PM on November 11, 2002

Okay, perhaps this is my chance to air this thought that has been nagging me. I've read many times that Mahatma Gandhi, when asked (usually by "a reporter") what he thought of Western Civilization, replied (often "promptly") that it "would be a good idea."

Like all of these celebrity one-liners, it sounds too neat (rimshot!). It sounds implausible (why would a reporter ask that question if not for a punchline?). And I can't find a specific attribution -- in fact, no more details on this incident than I've typed out here.

Can anyone nail this quote down (and no, the google search isn't too illuminating), or should I just assume it's an urban legend?
posted by argybarg at 1:04 PM on November 11, 2002

Sometimes one liners that seem unbelievable and therefore "urban legends" because they are too pat, to clever to come up with on the spot, actually were uttered on the spot...but not composed them. Winston Churchill, who was able to come up with several memorable one liners on the spot, often also scripted his "spontaneous" remarks in advanced and then memorized, based on what he believed people would be saying in future conversations.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:10 PM on November 11, 2002

I actually heard it being said by LBJ about Diem, but the dates don't really match up (Diem got assassinated, IIRC, before johnson took office).

Yes. This lead to Mrs. Diem's comment of "What goes around comes around" when she was informed of the Kennedy assassination. This too may be apocryphal.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:44 PM on November 11, 2002

There are several aspects here -- and pj is right to bring up urban legends, because the process is similar.

Memorable witticisms:
* are attributed to people who seem more likely to have said something (e.g. LBJ or Nixon, known for their coarse mouths, or JFK, known as a hard-nosed cold warrior)
* are attributed to more famous people who are better remembered (e.g. any president, rather than a mere diplomat)
* are used colloquially in books and articles about a person and become attributed to the subject rather than the author (as in the link provided by stupidetc.)
* are created in fictions or satires about a person and are later repeated as historically accurate (e.g. many Shakespearean dialog elements)

There are dozens, even scores, of "Mark Twain" quotes that have no proven origin. But we know of Twain as an eminently quotable epigrammist and a particularly elegant turn of phrase must naturally, we believe, be his.

When you get into political quotes, there are often suspect motivations entailed in the attribution. The classic of this genre would have to be "I wish I had studied Latin in school" by Dan Quayle after visiting ... Latin America. Alas for those who gleefully turned it into a jeer, it was an invention by a New York Times columnist, intended of course as a joke. Even today you will find it listed with other "Dan Quayle Quotes" -- and the very same list made the rounds (I believe it was even posted here) deliberately and falsely reattributed to George W. Bush, who has no shortage of his own malapropisms.

There's a quote I would like to trace along these lines, by the way. It was a famous, nearly clichéd poster in the 1970s: I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I hope you realize that what you heard was not what I meant. For years I thought it was some kind of encounter-group concoction -- until I saw a side reference in a newspaper column that tantalizingly attributed it to a Defense Department spokesman who had *cough* accidentally released details on certain military operations in Laos or Cambodia to which we could not legally admit. I've also seen it attributed to Richard Nixon, and you can google that, so it's not entirely off base: as I say, a general assumption would probably more likely have traced it to a counterculture source.

More believably than either of these, though, is its attribution to semanticist S.I. Hayakawa.

namespan: As far as the history of Nicaragua goes, you might start with the Monroe Doctrine and wind up somewhere in the 1950s with COMINTERN and the US Cold War policy of containment. So, right or wrong, overstep or not, the US did have definite -- and quite overt -- strategic interests in preventing a Communist foothold in the Americas. But in a larger sense, it wasn't until the end of the colonial period that such relationships became exceptionally problematic. You may also find this American Diplomacy article interesting, insofar as it both invokes the quote and examines the rise of human rights objections to US foreign policies.

Also, an obligatory link to On the Shoulders of Giants, an entire book about the process of tracing a particularly famous quote.
posted by dhartung at 2:02 PM on November 11, 2002

Also, an obligatory link to On the Shoulders of Giants

A delightful book -- I recommend it to anyone with a taste for over-the-top scholarship seasoned with dollops of humor.
posted by languagehat at 3:42 PM on November 11, 2002

good dh, to which i would add:

-witticisms are often repeated, because they are witty, thus many people end up "saying them" and are correct answers to "who said that?" questions, when what is really requested is, "who said that first?" e.g. "talking about music is like dancing about architecture" - this gets attributed all over because many musicians have repeated it, among them Laurie Anderson and Elvis Costello. it's v. likely this was coined by an anonymous music fan and trickled up to the media stars and critics who repeated it.

-very few people care who said such-and-such joke first, whereas with epigrams, there is much contentiousness. this specious divide illustrates the high culture low culture divide: a joke is not really of value, or is merely an idea and not a work of art in itself - a joke is always in flux, can be told any which way; and a joke is a part of the world, part of history, a product of humorous events that people witness. an epigram is by contrast an idea to which creativity has been applied; it's been chiseled down to the axiomatic minimum, like a fine mathematical proof or haiku, or like a word, for that matter.
posted by mitchel at 4:09 PM on November 11, 2002

In a tough race for Congress in the mid-50s, LBJ is said to have told his campaign manager to spread the rumour that his opponent slept with barn animals.

That story is particularly difficult to believe considering LBJ only ran an incumbent senator race in the 50's, and won 3 to 1.

Regardless, he might have said that in the election of 1948, but I've never heard that before
posted by eateneye at 10:03 PM on November 11, 2002

"He's a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch" is the famous version of this quote. This quote was proliferated in the Spanish-language version of the book "Nicaragua for Beginners" by the famed Colombian cartoonist Rius, which is currently out of print. I thought Rius attributed it to Eisenhower but it might be Truman- don't have a copy on hand to check.

"Son-of-a-bitch" is the polite translation of the Nicaraguan phrase "hijo-de-puta," "son-of-a-whore / loose woman." The phrase is the equivalent of calling someone a "m*f*" to their face, of referring to someone not present as "a real m*f*," or of George Bush calling someone an "evildoer." These are also the words used in Nicaragua to call someone out for a fight in which physical injury or death may result, so if you ever hear someone call you this, apologize immediately / run like hell!

I'm certain many Nicaraguans still firmly believe this quote is true, given the horrible economic situation since the war. Nicaragua, a garden of Eden in which a mango tree can bear fruit in less than ten years, has been plunged into poverty that's bad even by local standards, though not quite as bad as Haiti.

If you're really interested in following up, you could contact the Nicaragua Network or the Institute for Policy Studies for a few leads. (I wouldn't recommend putting the folks at the Nicaraguan Embassy on the spot by asking them directly if this quote is true, because Nicaragua needs all the help it can get!)

namespan: Although dhartung gives you the basics on Cold War viewpoints, that approach is a bit like attempting to understand the Muslim world simply by reading Rantburg. My suggestion is read anything by Rius, and if you have time, learn enough Spanish to hear the Latin American side of US foreign policy. Unlike Afghanistan, a high-budget military operation in a remote, inhospitable climate which came back to bite us rather dramatically, in Nicaragua lot of Americans and Nicaraguan-Americans were personally involved in building bridges to end the so-called "covert" war of the 1980s. With luck there have been some lessons learned on all sides. AQ is a whole different animal from revolutionaries in Latin America, and if the US response is sending the same cast of shady covert action figures to run the same tired old routine they did in Nicaragua, we're in trouble. (Maybe that crew is older and wiser now, but they'll have to prove up before a lot of us believe they're anything but a one-trick pony.) /rant
posted by sheauga at 1:24 AM on November 12, 2002

i was once given 100 pounds as a tip by a wealthy
businessman who was in the rest....oh, hello languagehat!
posted by sgt.serenity at 8:00 AM on November 12, 2002

Dhartung -- On the quote "I know you believe you understand . . ." I always saw it as attributed to Nixon, but without reference to source. I found two citations that say otherwise: one to a Robert McCloskey and one in the UK newspaper the Guardian as an "Irish Epigram".....
posted by ahimsakid at 10:14 AM on November 12, 2002

Much appreciation, everybody... good links, and especial thanks to dhartung, languagehat, and sheagua for the policy and offline resources. I've got more reading to do!
posted by namespan at 10:23 AM on November 12, 2002

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