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The Establishment of United States Military Ties


A Navy training ship
Courtesy Colombia Tourist Office

The initial contacts between Colombian and United States military personnel in the early twentieth century were less than auspicious for the development of future relations. Although the settlement to the War of a Thousand Days was negotiated aboard a United States Navy ship, relations between the two countries soon soured when President Theodore Roosevelt, spurred by the Colombian Senate's refusal to ratify a treaty for the construction of a transisthmian canal across Colombian territory, took advantage of a rebellion in Colombia's northernmost department to achieve his goal. As Colombian troops headed northward to the department of Panama to put down the revolt, they were halted at the isthmus by the United States Navy gunships sent to intercept them. Within weeks, on November 3, 1903, Panama declared its independence from the Republic of Colombia. Two days later, the new national government was granted recognition by the United States. Colombia's resentment against the United States was only partially assuaged in 1922, when the United States government agreed to pay the Colombian administration the sum of US$25 million for the loss of its territory.

During the 1930s, United States-Colombian military contacts were reestablished under somewhat more favorable, though no less disconcerting, conditions. In 1932, on the eve of the Leticia conflict, the first United States naval officer was sent "on loan" to Colombia to assist with plans for the defense of the country's ports and with arms purchases. When fighting erupted, the United States government--which then had advisers in Colombia and Peru-- briefly found itself supporting both sides in the war. The officer sent "on loan" resigned his commission in 1934 but continued privately to serve as an adviser to the Colombian navy. In 1938 the first United States Navy mission was sent to Colombia. Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, formal contacts between the Colombian and United States armies also were established as plans were formulated for the overall defense of the Panama Canal.

Although Colombia had remained neutral in World War I, the government supported the Allies both prior to and during World War II. In 1940 Colombia allowed the United States to construct and operate air and naval bases on its territory, thereby providing a strategic position for defending the western approach to the Panama Canal. Colombia also nationalized German holdings in the country, ordered the departure of all German nationals, and authorized the operation of a counterespionage network that was maintained by officials at the United States embassy and the consulates located throughout the country. In late 1943, following the sinking of several Colombian cargo vessels by German submarines operating in the Caribbean, Colombia formally declared war on the Axis Powers.

Although the PC had criticized the nature of Colombian-United States ties during World War II, the relationship between the armed forces of the two nations remained strong after the PC assumed power in 1946. Colombia continued to maintain a military representative on the Inter-American Defense Board, an organization established early in 1942 to provide for hemispheric military cooperation and collective defense. Colombia also was among the first Latin American countries to send personnel for training at the United States Army's School of the Americas, which opened in Panama in 1949. The amount of postwar United States military assistance made available to Colombia--initially under the Mutual Defense Assistance Act and later under the Mutual Security Act--also continued to rise. In 1951 Colombia became one of the first countries in Latin America to sign a Military Assistance Agreement with the United States, which made the country eligible for receipt of grant aid. Between 1950 and 1964, Colombia received the fourth greatest amount of United States military assistance in Latin America, after Brazil, Chile, and Peru.

In 1950 Colombia's cooperation with the United States military changed form after the newly installed administration of Laureano Gómez Castro decided to support the United Nations (UN) sanctioned police action in Korea. After being refitted for combat by the United States Navy, the frigate Almirante Padilla--the premier vessel of the Colombian navy--carried out coastal patrol duty for the multinational task force in Korea. Colombia also provided a 1,000-troop army infantry battalion. The battalion was assigned to a United States infantry regiment, and Colombian troops fought alongside United States soldiers. The Colombians remained in combat service until the commencement of the Panmunjom armistice negotiations in July 1953 and returned home in November 1954. Of the 3,089 Colombian soldiers who served in Korea, 131 were killed in combat and 448 were wounded; 69 men were classified as missing in action. Noncombatant casualties included 10 dead and 162 injured.

During the Korean conflict, both domestic and foreign critics accused the Colombian government of being a United States puppet. The Gómez administration found pragmatic as well as political reasons, however, for sending Colombian troops abroad. In addition to earning the favor of the United States, Colombian troops were trained and equipped with United States matériel at no cost to the Colombian regime. The Colombian military kept the equipment upon returning home. The troops also gained valuable combat experience, which they used to help put down the rural fighting, then bordering on guerrilla warfare, that in the early 1950s represented a serious domestic problem.

Data as of December 1988

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