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Thomas Edward Whelan


Thomas Edward Whelan was born in St. Thomas, North Dakota, on this date in 1895. Whelan, a potato farmer by trade, later served as a state senator, as well as the state chairman of the Republican Party. His most surprising role, however, came in 1951, when President Harry Truman appointed Whelan to be the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua.

After finishing high school, Whelan attended the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, majoring in law. After graduation, he entered the U.S. Army at Cavalier to serve in World War I. Discharged in 1918, he returned to St. Thomas to farm with his brother. He eventually married and became active in politics. From 1932 until 1940, Whelan served as a state senator and, for eight years afterward, as the state chairman of the Republican Party.

His political work centered on the state’s agricultural industry, and he was largely concerned with the plight of the family farmer. He was also active in the American Legion, serving as state commander, and later as national chairman of the American Legion Foreign Affairs Committee. But it was in 1951 that Whelan was asked to do something that no other North Dakotan had ever done.

Since the early 1940s, it was well known that North Dakota Senator William Langer had one very salient complaint during his time in Washington. He often lamented that “There’s never been one ambassador from North Dakota, not in [all] the years since statehood.” In response, President Harry Truman appointed Whelan to be the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua in 1951.

The North Dakota farmer soon found himself and his family relocating to the Latin American country. To Truman’s delight, Whelan became one of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s closest friends. The two referred to each other affectionately as ‘Tommy’ and ‘Tacho.’ The men “…partied, played poker, [and] junketed around the country together.”

When President Eisenhower took office in 1953, Whelan resigned, but the President quickly reappointed him to the position. In 1956, Somoza was shot and critically wounded by an assassin. Whelan rushed to his friend’s side and quickly “…arranged to fly the dying dictator to a U.S. hospital in the Panama Canal Zone.” Somoza was succeeded by his sons, and Whelan remained ambassador until 1961. By the time his tenure ended, Whelan was the nation’s longest serving ambassador. He returned to North Dakota, where he passed away in 1977 and was interred in his hometown of St. Thomas.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job

Sources:,9171,894877,00.html (May 16, 1960. “Nicaragua: The Chummy Ambassador,” Time Magazine.)
Sept. 24, 1951. “From North Dakota to Nicaragua,” Time Life Magazine. p. 65.