TODAY, THE SANDINISTAS MARK THE

eighth anniversary of their revolution. But it's also a holiday of sorts for those yearning to hear the Nicaraguans "cry uncle." On July 19, 1856, the United States recognized a new government in Nicaragua led by an American, a sort of early-day contra named William Walker, who had declared himself president of the country.

Walker, a 32-year-old newspaper editor, had already failed at an invasion of Mexico when he became a general in a mercenary band fighting in one of Nicaragua's civil wars. He managed to parlay that military role into the top job.

President Franklin Pierce instructed the U.S. minister to recognize the new government in Nicaragua, primarily because he was under the mistaken impression that a Nicaraguan named Rivas was president. When he learned the truth, Pierce refused to receive Walker's ambassador to Washington, Appleton Oaksmith, who claimed to be Nicaraguan. The Central American republics joined forces to get rid of Walker, and when the Costa Rican Army surrounded him, the U.S. Navy intervened in May 1857 only to bring him back to the United States.

Walker promptly went to Washington, met the new president, James Buchanan, and later claimed that a confidant of the president told him that if he went back to assume power in Nicaragua, the United States would support him. The Buchanan administration denied his claim but didn't stop Walker from raising another army and leaving New Orleans bound for Managua. He landed, went inland and was captured by U.S. troops in December 1857. In the custody of a U.S. marshal, Walker was handed over to the secretary of state.

Local newspapers took pride in how coldly Washington received the wandering Walker, but a band of southern members of Congress, flattered by Walker's decree legalizing slavery in Nicaragua, seized the time to begin one of the city's most confusing political debates.

Sen. Jeff Davis argued that the United States had violated the sovereign soil of Nicaragua when it captured Walker. President Buchanan agreed but noted that the Nicaraguan government had thanked the United States for getting the troublesome Walker out of the country. Buchanan tried to mollify congressional expansionists by telling them that one day the United States would control Nicaragua, but not through Walker's shoot-'em-up approach. Buchanan insisted the takeover would come through the natural expansion of the white race.

As for Walker, a jury in New Orleans acquitted him of violating the Neutrality Law of 1818, so Walker, as fixated on Nicaragua in 1860 as some are today, set off again to invade the country, this time taking the route of the current-day contras, through Honduras. The British Navy caught Walker on that occasion and offered to take him home, but Walker insisted he was home, maintaining that he was still the president of Nicaragua. The British turned Walker over to the Hondurans. On September 12, 1860, they executed him. ::