George Underhill (plaintiff), a United States citizen, built a water system for and supplied water to the City of Bolivar, Venezuela, pursuant to a contract signed with the government. General Hernandez (defendant) organized a coup and overthrew the government. The United States soon recognized Hernandez’s faction as the rightful government of Venezuela. After Hernandez overtook the City of Bolivar, Underhill applied to Hernandez for a passport to leave the country. Hernandez initially denied the request. Several days later, Hernandez granted the request, and Underhill returned to the United States. Underhill sued Hernandez in United States federal court, alleging an illegal detention. The court of appeals ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction over the case, because it was an act of a foreign government on its own soil. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.