Radio stations and newspapers clamoured for military action to avenge a national insult. Two rival countries moved troops towards a disputed border region. Diplomats sought foreign mediation. Then one country prepared an ultimatum: to avert all-out war, it demanded, the other country must immediately withdraw its…postage stamps!
It might sound far-fetched, but such was the dispute between neighbouring Nicaragua and Honduras in 1937.
The trouble was sparked in late August by the issue of a new set of Nicaraguan air mail stamps. Their design showed a map of the country, with a zone in the north, bordering on Honduras, labelled 'territorio en litigio' (territory under dispute).
The problem was, Honduras no longer considered this land to be in legal limbo. A long-simmering dispute had been settled once and for all, it felt, when arbitration by King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1906 had awarded it to Honduras.
As mail bearing the new Nicaraguan stamps began to reach Honduras, the issue was considered a grave affront to Honduran sovereignty. Patriotic riots broke out in the capital, Tegucigalpa. On September 3, police had to prevent angry demonstrators from attacking the Nicaraguan Legation.
Honduran authorities demanded that the offending stamps be recalled, and both governments started sending troops towards their common border. All-out war was a distinct possibility, before diplomatic mediation from the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica helped to smooth the waters, and a tentative truce was drawn up.
Nicaragua still refused Honduran demands to withdraw the troublesome stamps. A glance at a modern map, however, shows the disputed region is still part of Honduras.