It’s not unusual for wars to start over something small, but rarely have they begun over something as tiny as a single postage stamp. It almost happened.
In 1937, the government of Nicaragua printed a new design of Air Mail stamps. It should have been innocuous: the design was little more than a map of the country. But at the top of the map, there was a problem. While the border between Nicaragua and its neighbor, Honduras, was clearly depicted, an area north of that border was colored with the same ink used for Nicaragua and marked “Territorio en Litigio” (Territory in Dispute.)
At one time, this designation was accurate. In 1821, when Central America assumed independence from Spain, the border between the two countries had been in question. Part of the problem was that the border was not only long (through the widest part of Central America) but also sparsely populated. After a special commission made of up representatives from both countries dissolved after only agreeing to a third of the border, Honduras and Nicaragua agreed to ask Spain to mediate. In 1906, Spanish king Alfonso XIII awarded most of the disputed area to Honduras.
The 1937 Nicaragua air mail stamp was considered a direct affront to Honduras, and riots erupted when the stamps first showed up in the latter country. The police had to intervene to stop a mob from taking the Nicaraguan embassy, while media outlets called for “military action to avenge a national insult.” Both countries began sending armed forces to the border. The United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica all joined in a mediation effort until the Central American countries agreed to be peaceable.
The war was averted, but the situation remained tense for many years.