New York Times Book Review
Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992by William M. LeoGrande
In this remarkable and engaging book, William LeoGrande offers the first comprehensive history of U.S. foreign policy toward Central America in the waning years of the Cold War. From the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua and the outbreak of El Salvador's civil war in the late 1970s to the final regional peace settlements negotiated a decade later, he
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
In this remarkable and engaging book, William LeoGrande offers the first comprehensive history of U.S. foreign policy toward Central America in the waning years of the Cold War. From the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua and the outbreak of El Salvador's civil war in the late 1970s to the final regional peace settlements negotiated a decade later, he chronicles the dramatic strugglesin Washington and Central Americathat shaped the region's destiny. For good or ill, LeoGrande argues, Central America's fate hinged on decisions that were subject to intense struggles among, and within, Congress, the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White Housedecisions over which Central Americans themselves had little influence. Like the domestic turmoil unleashed by Vietnam, he says, the struggle over Central America was so divisive that it damaged the fabric of democratic politics at home. It inflamed the tug-of-war between Congress and the executive branch over control of foreign policy and ultimately led to the Iran-contra affair, the nation's most serious political crisis since Watergate."A masterly and comprehensive chronicle of U.S. policy toward Central America in the 1980s.Atlantic Monthly"[LeoGrande] has risen above partisanship to produce a book central to any historical evaluation of those troubled times.Foreign Affairs"[LeoGrande] takes the reader confidently through a complex, often tortuous story. . . . Throughout, the analysis is thorough and clear.New York Times Book Review"Full of unorthodox, original perspectives, LeoGrande's clearly written, magisterial study holds timely post-Cold War lessons that transcend the Central American setting.Publishers WeeklyIlluminating one of the most controversial chapters in the history of American foreign policy, William LeoGrande presents a comprehensive account of U.S. involvement in Central America during the 1980s. From the military clashes fought on the ground in Central America to the bitter political discord that wrenched apart Washington, he chronicles the dramatic struggles that characterized what he calls "the last battle of the Cold War." >
New York Times Book Review
An insider's account, told in a compelling, journalistic style that non-academics will appreciate.
A Washington Post Book World Pick of the Fall Crop.
A masterly and comprehensive chronicle of U.S. policy toward Central America in the 1980s.
Throughout, the analysis is thorough and clear.
New York Times Book Review
Easily one of the most authoritative studies of U.S.-Latin American relations and the twentieth century.
An eminently clear, accessible and restrained account of a lamentable phase in US-Latin American relations.
- The University of North Carolina Press
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Barnes & Noble
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 3 MB
Read an Excerpt
When I began this book, I intended to write an account of the domestic opposition to Ronald Reagan's Central America policy, focusing on the Congress. Not since Vietnam had Americans been so bitterly divided over a foreign policy issue as they were over Central America. I soon realized, however, that investigating the domestic debate was like pulling on a loose thread--it lead inexorably to other questions.
To understand the political struggle between the Reagan administration and its critics, it was first necessary to examine what was happening in Central America. As U.S. involvement deepened, a tension arose between the instinct of many U.S. policymakers to preserve Washington's traditional hegemony in the region, and the desire of Central Americans to control their own destiny. On this issue, Washington discovered adversaries not only among Marxist guerrillas on the left, but also among military officers and businessmen on the right. Maintaining even tenuous control over allies such as the Salvadoran armed forces or the Nicaraguan contras proved as difficult for Washington as plotting strategy against the Salvadoran guerrillas and the Sandinistas.
In the United States, the tempo of the debate between the Reagan administration and its critics waxed and waned with the rhythms of the war on the ground. As the region's civil strife escalated, Reagan's opponents charged that his policy was failing to achieve its stated objectives; Reagan replied that the critics' caviling tied his hands, preventing success.
I was also compelled to look at how policy was formulated inside the Reagan administration. From the beginning, it was beset by a severe internal schism between self-described "hard-liners" and "pragmatists" who struggled with one another for control over foreign policy in general and Central American policy in particular. On Central America, the hard-liners were inclined toward military solutions, and they bitterly opposed any diplomatic accord that gave Washington less than total victory. For the pragmatists, Central America was not the most important place on the globe, and the wars there were less a test of ideological mettle than a challenge to traditional U.S. security interests. If those interests could be reasonably safeguarded by diplomatic compromise, the pragmatists were willing to pursue it.
The policy differences between hard-liners and pragmatists were often reinforced by rivalries of ambition and personal animosity. It was not uncommon for different officials to describe U.S. policy in hopelessly contradictory ways within a few days--or even hours--of one another. Both camps leaked continually in an effort to gain the upper hand in the internal tug of war. With a president reluctant to resolve conflicts among his senior advisers and notoriously inattentive to the details of policy, the administration's internecine conflict over Central America was never definitively resolved. Every policy decision bore the scars of it.
On one issue, however, the hard-liners and pragmatists could agree: both regarded the policy prescriptions of the liberal Democrats in Congress as anathema. The biggest battles fought in Washington over Central America pitted the Reagan administration against Congress, and most administration officials regarded the Democrats' efforts to promote an alternative policy as ill informed and illegitimate.
Finally, I had to look beyond Central America at the behavior of U.S. allies and adversaries. For Ronald Reagan and his conservative loyalists, Central America was not intrinsically important. Its significance derived from its place in a global context; it was a theater in the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Indeed, Central America was the last major battle of the Cold War. Reagan's policy cannot be understood outside that context, and the opposition to his policy from liberal Democrats reflected their rejection of Reagan's Manichaean conception of international affairs. While Reagan invariably pointed to Soviet and Cuban machinations as justification for his approach, liberal Democrats pointed to the nearly universal opposition to U.S. policy among allies in Latin America and Western Europe--opposition that manifested itself in active efforts to resolve Central America's armed conflicts diplomatically, despite persistent resistance from Washington. No one caused the Reagan administration more headaches than Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, whose regional peace plan won him the Nobel Peace Prize.
For me, then, what began as a relatively bounded project examining the domestic debate over Central America evolved into a comprehensive history of U.S. policy toward the region during its decade of crisis--how policy was made, how it worked, and how the administration tried to sell it to the American people. From the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua and the outbreak of the civil war in El Salvador in the late 1970s, to the final regional peace settlements negotiated a decade later at the end of the Cold War, this book chronicles the struggles--both in Central America and Washington--that shaped the region's destiny. I have tried to give a reasonably full account of how the regional crisis unfolded on the ground, but the principal venue of this story is Washington, D.C. For good or ill, Central America's fate during this crisis depended fundamentally on decisions made in Washington--decisions over which Central Americans themselves had little influence.
The narrative is predominantly chronological. Within that basic framework, I have tried to weave together four thematic elements corresponding to the dynamics described above: (1) the conflicts on the ground in the region; (2) the conflicts within the U.S. administration over what policy should be; (3) the domestic debate between administration supporters and critics, especially in Congress; and (4) the role played by other countries in Latin America and Europe in alleviating or exacerbating the crisis.
Part I begins by exploring the roots of the Central American crisis that erupted during the later years of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Ronald Reagan came to office determined to reverse the basic thrust of Carter's foreign policy, and Central America became a symbol and test case for demonstrating Reagan's new hard line against international Communism. During Reagan's first year in office, U.S. policy shifted from Carter's attempts to seek a negotiated settlement in El Salvador, and coexistence with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, to Reagan's effort to achieve military victory for the Salvadoran government, and the ouster of the Sandinistas by covert proxy war.
Part II focuses on El Salvador, which became one of the most controversial foreign policy issues of Reagan's first term. As U.S. military support for the Salvadoran government increased, the civil war escalated dramatically. Congressional Democrats bitterly opposed Reagan's apparently uncritical and unlimited support for a government that engaged in widespread and egregious violations of human rights. Under pressure from Congress, the administration tried to entice the Salvadoran government to reform, only to discover that managing the internal politics of the regime was as difficult as fighting the war.
Part III shifts the scene to Nicaragua. Although Reagan launched the covert war against the Sandinista government shortly after assuming office, it became a focus of public debate only toward the end of his first term. When Congress cut off U.S. support for the contras in 1984, senior administration officials led by National Security Council staff aide Oliver North conspired to keep aid flowing. The revelation of this effort to circumvent Congress, which came out during the Iran-contra investigation, shook the Reagan presidency to its foundations.
Part IV carries the narrative into the Bush presidency, when both the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran wars were finally settled by negotiations. In Nicaragua, the implementation of a regional peace agreement led to a free election in 1990 that was won by the Sandinistas' civilian opponents. In El Salvador, after a surge in fighting in 1989, both sides concluded that a negotiated peace was preferable to endless war. With help from the international community, including the United States, they were able to reach a peace agreement in 1992. The book concludes with an assessment of what the decade of turmoil in Central America has meant for U.S. relations with Latin America, and for the Central Americans, who are left to recover and rebuild after long years of brutality and war.
Finally, the book looks at the consequences of Ronald Reagan's policy for our own political process. Like the domestic turmoil unleashed by Vietnam, the struggle over Central America was so divisive that it damaged the fabric of democratic politics at home. It weakened the ties of comity between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, inflamed the tug-of-war between Congress and the executive branch over control of foreign policy, and ultimately led some administration officials to circumvent the law. Just as domestic dissent over Vietnam led to the White House plumbers and Watergate, domestic opposition to Reagan's Central American policy led to Oliver North and William Casey's secret intelligence apparatus and the Iran-contra scandal.
To readers especially interested in Guatemala, I apologize for giving it short shrift. Although the war in Guatemala in the 1980s was no less intense or bloody than those in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Washington's role was more peripheral. An ongoing congressional ban on military aid, which lasted until late in the decade, prevented the United States from becoming the arsenal of the Guatemalan army the way it did in El Salvador. Moreover, Guatemala's guerrillas never achieved the strength to threaten the survival of the regime, so Washington had less impetus to intervene. Still, I would have liked to include several chapters on Guatemala, but considerations of space precluded it.
During the early 1980s, I had the good fortune to work on the staff of the Democratic leadership in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, dealing specifically with U.S. policy toward Central America. From 1982 to 1984, I worked with the Democratic Policy Committee, chaired by Senator Robert C. Byrd, and from 1985 to 1986, I worked with the House Democratic Caucus Task Force on Central America, chaired by Congressman Mel Levine. From these vantage points, I was able to witness and participate in many of the key battles between the administration and its congressional opponents.
In reconstructing events and conversations, I have relied, where possible, on official documents, published (e.g., presidential and congressional papers and hearings) and unpublished (e.g., declassified documents). During the debates on Central America, a surprising number of classified documents were leaked to the press by one or another faction inside the administration. For most key decisions, the record of internal deliberations available from journalistic sources is unusually complete. In citing documents, I have tried, to the extent possible, to direct readers to the most readily available published source when there is one. Some of the documents cited, mostly ones from Central American sources, have never been published. Almost all of these are in my possession. Most of the unpublished U.S. government documents cited are available at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.
In addition to documents and contemporary journalistic reports, my account is also based on several hundred interviews conducted over the course of a decade with executive branch officials, members of Congress and their staff, and Central Americans on all sides of the region's various conflicts. When interviews were conducted formally, with set ground rules, I have cited the sources appropriately. Conversations that occurred in the course of my work in Congress are cited anonymously, since people then were speaking to me as a colleague, not with the expectation that their views would eventually show up in print.
Aficionados of Congress will find that the notes contain additional detail on various procedural maneuvers. I banished this material to the notes because it is too arcane for most readers, but as a former congressional staff member, I couldn't bring myself to edit it out completely.
Careful readers will also notice the frequency of citations to the daily press. One reason is simply that the narrative style I use frequently quotes comments in press briefings and interviews not reproduced in official documents (although I rely on official transcripts when available).
A second, more substantive reason is that the press played a crucial role in how the story unfolded. From the coverage of human rights violations in El Salvador to the revelations of the Iran-contra scandal, the press had a profound effect on the formation of both elite and mass opinion. And in Washington, warring factions inside the Reagan administration regularly used the press as a weapon in their internecine combat.
Finally, as the adage goes, journalists write the rough draft of history, and I wanted to show what a good job most of them did with the Central America story. In many notes, I juxtapose contemporary press accounts with documentary evidence that only became available much later, showing that reporters had the facts essentially right early on. The documentary evidence may be more authoritative, but it seemed to me only fair to give credit to those who had the story first. A number of reporters consistently filed high-quality reports, both from Central America and Washington--people such as Alan Riding, Karen DeYoung, Christopher Dickey, Raymond Bonner, Stephen Kinzer, Clifford Krauss, Don Oberdorfer, Alfonso Chardy, Roy Gutman, Dennis Volman, Sam Dillon, Julia Preston, Joanne Omang, Brian Barger, and Robert Parry.
Projects of this length and duration invariably accumulate debts to many people along the way, some of whose contributions are so great that they should be formally acknowledged. My thanks go first to friends and colleagues who read parts of the manuscript and provided valuable comments on it: Ken Sharpe, Janet Shenk, Alex Wilde, and Pete Vaky.
Peter Kornbluh at the National Security Archive gave me invaluable assistance finding my way through mountains of declassified government documents on Central America. Jim Lobe, Griffin Hathaway, Pat Bodnar, and Marshall Yurow were all kind enough to share with me interviews and documents collected in the course of their own research. Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright allowed me to see his memoir when it was still in manuscript. My editors, Elaine Maisner, Pam Upton, and Eric D. Schramm, were as skilled as any I have encountered.
Both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Open Society Foundation helped launch this project, without realizing it, when they provided me with fellowships to take time off from teaching in order to work as a congressional staff member. Financial support for writing the book was provided by the Arca Foundation, the Everett McKinley Dirksen Congressional Center, American University, and W. H. Ferry and Carol Bernstein Ferry. My thanks to all for their generosity.
The burdens of writing a book are shared, unavoidably, by an author's family. In my case, I owe a special debt of gratitude to my wife and partner, Martha Langelan. She tolerated my spending untold hours hunched in front of the computer screen, she read the whole manuscript when it was even longer than it is now and gave me editorial advice second to none, and she remained ever optimistic (outwardly at least) that this book would, in fact, get finished. That it did is in no small measure a result of her support.
A New Beginning
As if on cue, the sun broke through the gray blanket of clouds over the city of Washington just as Ronald Wilson Reagan was sworn in as fortieth president of the United States. The sunshine pushed the temperature into the mid-fifties, making January 20, 1981, one of the warmest inauguration days on record. The rainstorm forecast for the afternoon never came.
On the inaugural platform, Reagan looked relaxed and resplendent in morning coat and striped pants. At sixty-nine, he was the oldest man ever to assume the presidency, but he looked vigorous next to Jimmy Carter. The outgoing president had not slept for three days, trying in vain to arrange the release of the fifty-two American hostages in Iran before the final hours of his presidency ticked away. Carter, who refused the suggestion by Reagan's staff that he, too, don formal morning dress, looked weary and plain in his ordinary business suit.
A southern populist, Carter had tried to demystify the institution of the presidency by bringing the president closer to the people. After his own inauguration, he walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House rather than ride in a limousine. He insisted on being called "Jimmy" Carter, not James Earl. He was everyman, and after the Byzantine Court politics of the Nixon years, Americans found him reassuring. But people were not entirely comfortable with a president who seemed so common. Americans liked having some pomp and ceremony associated with the presidency. The office was no ordinary one, and it demanded an extraordinary person to fill it. Despite his intelligence and a real compassion for the less fortunate, Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, never projected a heroic persona.
An engineer by profession, Carter approached the presidency as a problem solver--clear-headed, unemotional, matter-of-fact. He appealed to the American people for support by explaining issues, trying to persuade them by dint of logic. Coming to office in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, during the Middle East oil crisis, Carter believed the days of U.S. military and economic global dominance were over, and he said so. To many Americans, it was an unwelcome message. Carter was not wrong when he observed, in his infamous "malaise" speech, that the country was plagued by self-doubt, but in the end it was easier to blame the messenger.
Ronald Reagan, a successful film actor for over twenty years, approached politics as if it were theater. He understood instinctively that the first task of the leading man is to form an emotional bond with the audience. Once the hero wins the audience's loyalty, it will stick by him, rooting for him, even if he displays a few minor faults and even if the story line has an occasional hole in it. This was the secret of Reagan's "teflon" presidency--a willing suspension of disbelief. He could make factual mistakes, he could advocate policies that most people disagreed with, but he was so warm and engaging, both in person and in front of the camera, that the audience was always on his side. He played the hero to perfection.
And he cast Jimmy Carter as the villain. When Carter told the American people that they had entered an era of limits, Ronald Reagan reassured them that it was not America that was unequal to the challenge; rather, Jimmy Carter was unequal to it. "It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams," Reagan said in his inaugural speech. "We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to inevitable decline. We have every right to dream heroic dreams."
People liked Ronald Reagan because he told them they lived in a shining city on a hill and that the nation's greatest days were still ahead. He told them that their traditional values--the belief in hard work, love of country, dedication to family, and the small-town sense of community--were not obsolete. Reagan's appeal was classically conservative; he recognized people's discomfort with the rapid economic, social, and cultural changes that had pounded the nation like a succession of hurricanes since the early 1960s--the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert E Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, the women's movement, Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation. He held out the promise that fidelity to the old virtues could form the basis of a moral revival and make America great again, both at home and abroad. The lost tranquility of Norman Rockwell's America could be recaptured. America would have "a New Beginning."
Central America and the Legacy of Vietnam
In foreign policy, Reagan aimed to recapture the bipartisan unity and self-confidence that were shattered in Vietnam. Over the next eight years, he would pursue a foreign policy diametrically opposed to Jimmy Carter's. Where Carter had sought to expand detente with the Soviet Union, Reagan would return to a Cold War posture of distrust and animosity, punctuated by the largest peacetime military buildup in American history. Where Carter had sought to craft a new relationship with the Third World based on tolerance for ideological pluralism and a presumption against intervention, Reagan viewed the Third World primarily through the prism of the East-West struggle and, under the rubric of the "Reagan Doctrine" would launch half a dozen covert paramilitary wars against perceived adversaries. Where Carter promoted human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, Reagan would renew U.S. alliances with anti-Communist authoritarian regimes.
The foreign policies of these two presidents were as different as any in the post-World War II era, and nowhere were the differences clearer than in Central America. When civil conflicts erupted in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the late 1970s, Carter's instinct was to limit Washington's direct involvement and promote diplomatic settlements. Despite the growing strength of Marxist guerrillas, he refused to commit the United States to the defense of the status quo by resuming military aid to dictatorial regimes. From his first day in office, Ronald Reagan repudiated Carter's approach in favor of active U.S. military support for Central America's anti-Communists.
For the next decade, the Central American crisis would dominate America's foreign policy agenda and polarize domestic politics. During the first Reagan administration, the civil war in El Salvador held center stage. Despite fervent opposition from congressional Democrats, who opposed aiding a regime guilty of massive human rights abuses, Reagan never wavered in his support for the Salvadoran military. In eight years, he poured nearly $4 billion in U.S. assistance into the country. During Reagan's second term, El Salvador receded from Washington's political agenda (though the war continued unabated), only to be replaced by Nicaragua. As part of its global campaign to roll back the tide of international Communism, the Reagan administration organized an exile army to wage a proxy war against Nicaragua's revolutionary government. Here, too, Reagan met with stiff congressional resistance, but he would brook no opposition. When Congress finally voted to prohibit further U.S. aid to the exiles ("contras"), senior administration officials, led by National Security Council staff aide Oliver North, continued to support the contras clandestinely. The revelation that they had circumvented the law produced a political scandal reminiscent of Watergate and nearly destroyed Reagan's presidency.
Why did such a small region loom so large in the American psyche during the 1980s? The debate over Central America was, in large measure, an extension of the debate over Vietnam. For the Reagan wing of the Republican Party, Central America was, first and foremost, an arena of struggle between Communism and Democracy. Those who, like Ronald Reagan, regarded Vietnam as "a noble cause" worried that the "Vietnam syndrome" was interfering with America's ability to resist Soviet encroachments in the Third World. Central America was a test of America's mettle after the defeat in Southeast Asia, and conservatives were determined to win a clear victory to reinvigorate the nation's will to use force abroad.
Much of the general public shared the Republican right's distress about America's position in the world. Defeat in Vietnam seemed to mark the end of America's global preeminence. The 1970s oil crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the revolution in Iran all seemed to confirm that the United States was sliding downward toward the status of a second-rate power. Ronald Reagan pledged to stop the march of the "Evil Empire" of international Communism by restoring the United States to its rightful place as world leader. Central America was the place that Reagan would draw the line.
If anti-Communism was a unifying force for Republicans, it divided Democrats. The Democratic Party never fully recovered from the political trauma of Vietnam. The war split the party from top to bottom along ideological lines: The "doves" of the left-liberal wing backed Eugene McCarthy's and Robert Kennedy's insurgent challenges to Lyndon Johnson; the "hawks" stuck with their president and Hubert Humphrey. After Johnson's withdrawal from the race and Kennedy's assassination, the party convened in Chicago for a fratricidal bloodletting that paved the way for the election of Richard Nixon. Four years later, the Democrats nominated antiwar candidate George McGovern.
Although McGovern lost as decisively as Barry Goldwater had almost a decade earlier, the ideological center of the national Democratic Party moved to the left, just as the center of the Republican Party had moved to the right after 1964. Outside the South, Democrats who had been Cold War liberals became antiwar liberals. The few who resisted this evolution either migrated as neoconservatives to the Republican Party, or tried in vain to fight a rear-guard action against the Democrats' ideological shift. In the South, however, most Democrats remained supporters of the war and a tough anti-Communist foreign policy. The shift of majority sentiment in the national party to an antiwar, anti-interventionist posture widened the chasm between southern Democrats and their northern colleagues, reinforcing the split over civil rights. Liberal Democrats regarded Vietnam as a mistake and were always on guard to be sure the mistake was not repeated in some other faraway land. To them, Central America looked like another Vietnam in the making--another benighted Third World region where America would run afoul of history by casting its lot with authoritarian military regimes defending an anachronistic social order. They were determined not to start down the slippery slope.
The American people--from the average citizen to the foreign policy elite--were as divided about the lessons of Vietnam as were the Republican and Democratic Parties. Among the elite, Vietnam shattered the bipartisan consensus constructed by Harry Truman at the onset of the Cold War. That consensus rested upon several basic premises: that the Soviet Union (and later, Communist China) was an aggressive power that had to be contained or, like Hitler's Germany, it would subjugate others relentlessly; that the United States, as the leader of the free world, had primary responsibility for standing up to the Soviets; and, after Korea, that no corner of the world was too far away or too insignificant to defend from Soviet encroachment, lest aggression appeased become aggression repeated.
An unwritten corollary to this containment doctrine held that revolutions in the Third World created opportunities for Communist penetration. Instability was incompatible with U.S. security interests. With this precept as rationale, the United States took on the role of global policeman. In its zeal to block the advance of Communism, Washington often committed itself against the aspirations of revolutionary nationalists and social democrats in developing nations around the world. The war in Vietnam brought the limits of U.S. power into sharp focus. If the United States was no longer willing or able to "pay any price, bear any burden" in the international struggle against Communism, then debate was inevitable over what price should be paid, and where. Central America became the arena for that debate.
Among the general public, the war in Vietnam increased isolationist sentiment, substantially, but it also split the "internationalist" public into two camps: those who thought Vietnam was justified and those who did not. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, these two groups disagreed fundamentally over the most basic issues of American foreign policy. The antiwar group opposed virtually all U.S. military involvements abroad, especially if they involved sending American advisers or troops and therefore raised the specter of "another Vietnam." Those who supported the war in Vietnam evinced no such fears and no reluctance about new adventures abroad.
These policy differences within the public and the political elite tended to follow partisan cleavages, especially as the Republicans became more conservative and the Democrats more liberal. Partisan politics no longer stopped at the water's edge. For any post-Vietnam American president, the combined political weight of anti-interventionist and isolationist sentiment would have been a formidable obstacle to military commitments abroad. The simultaneous shift in institutional power between the president and the Congress made foreign commitments even harder to sustain.
Until Vietnam, Congress, the press, and the public had left control of foreign policy to the president. Without the normal checks on executive power that keep domestic politics on a relatively even keel, the Imperial Presidency became powerful enough to wage war with little regard for public opinion, until discontent erupted into massive antiwar protests at home. In reaction to what Senator William Fulbright (D-Ark.) called "the arrogance of power" came the "democratization" of foreign policy--the reassertion by Congress of a more active role. In 1973, Congress tried to recapture its constitutional power to declare war by passing the War Powers Resolution over President Nixon's veto. Later that same year, Congress ended America's role in Indochina's wars by prohibiting all U.S. military and paramilitary combat operations "in or over Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia." In 1975, the Clark amendment (named for Senator Dick Clark, Democrat from Iowa) prevented Henry Kissinger from extending Washington's covert role in the Angolan civil war. Revelations of the CIA's misdeeds--including spying on Americans, conducting medical experiments on unwitting subjects, and plotting to assassinate foreign leaders--led Congress to create permanent committees to oversee the intelligence community and require that they be notified of all covert operations. Finally, in the late 1970s, Congress passed a series of laws prohibiting the United States from providing foreign assistance to governments that were "gross and consistent violators of internationally recognized human rights."
The legacy of Vietnam--public uncertainty about America's proper role in the world, partisan division over foreign policy, and institutional conflict between Congress and the executive branch--was not something Ronald Reagan could simply wish away, even though he had been elected on a platform that promised to make America great again. The Reagan Republicans sometimes liked to think that the Vietnam syndrome could be exorcised easily, that the restoration of American preeminence was simply a matter of political will.
Certainly, as the sun shone down on Ronald Reagan riding along Pennsylvania Avenue in his inaugural parade, everything seemed possible to the Republican faithful who lined the route, eagerly straining for a glimpse of their conquering hero. Patriotic songs filled the air--"God Bless America," "Anchors Aweigh," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"--and Reagan sang along as the marching bands played. A red, white, and blue float carrying young girls in tight outfits passed the presidential reviewing stand, releasing hot-air balloons that carried aloft an American flag. "Oh, it's so good it made me cry," gushed Maxine Hinkle, a Republican from West Virginia. "I can't believe how everything is coming out a happy ending."
Only about a thousand demonstrators marred the carefully staged celebration, trying to puncture the festive bubble. Standing in clusters at various points along the inaugural parade route, they carried placards proclaiming their opposition to the new president on a variety of issues. They were not disruptive, but their mere presence was an unwelcome intrusion, an unpleasant reminder that outside the Republicans' cocoon of good feeling, America was still deeply divided and unsure of its future. Reagan pointedly looked away as he passed the demonstrators, so he probably didn't see the signs held up by some of them demanding, "U.S. Out of El Salvador."
What People are Saying About This
LeoGrande's copious study is . . . skillful and accessible. He takes the reader confidently through a complex, often tortuous story, starting with the Carter Administration's paralyzing uncertainty about how to respond to the fall of the Nicaraguan President, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, through the bitter Washington battles over human rights in El Salvador and aid to the Nicaraguan contras, to the Iran-contra affair and ultimately the 1990 Nicaraguan elections that ended Sandinista rule. Throughout, the analysis is thorough and clear.New York Times Book Review
Meet the Author
William M. LeoGrande is professor of government at American University. A specialist in Latin American politics and U.S. foreign policy, he has been a frequent adviser to the government and private foundations and has served on committee staffs in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews