The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"The Reagan Doctrine"
A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990
Robert Kagan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)

The landslide re-election of Ronald Reagan guaranteed another battle with Congress over aid to the contras in 1985. The first second-term president since Nixon, and the most popular second-term President since Eisenhower, Reagan stood ready to turn his enormous popularity into legislative successes across a broad range of foreign and domestic issues. Critics both inside and outside the Reagan camp complained that Reagan's "issueless" 1984 campaign left him no mandate to demand actions from Congress. Over the course of 1985, however, it became clear that Reagan's second landslide victory carried a message to the Democratic Party that a majority of voters understood in general what Reagan stood for and preferred it to what the Democrats had been offering.

The nation's overwhelming support for Reagan did not translate directly into support for the contra war in Nicaragua. Polls still showed that American people opposed to the covert war, insofar as they knew about and understood it. But the 1984 elections demonstrated in a more general way, as the 1980 elections had, that the constellation of political and ideological forces in the American system favored a more aggressive, anti-communist foreign policy than that advocated by Reagan's Democratic opponents. While 1984 ended with the contra program all but dead, at a broader level the entire 1984 campaign, from the Democratic primaries to Election Day, had once again revealed Democratic vulnerabilities and Republican strengths that were likely to affect the debate over contra aid in 1985.

Reagan was not a suicidal politician; thus he had not made contra aid the centerpiece of his 1984 election bid. Instead [he] began his campaign for contra aid after his landslide victory, taking advantage of his own popularity and Democratic unease. In each phase of the battle, he pushed the congressional consensus as far as he believed it could go and then settled, always a bit short of his goals, but always further along than before. One result was that the compromises he made along the way sometimes became traps, both for his policy and for him. The other result was that in the Sisyphian task of winning congressional support for the contras, he did finally push the stone to the top of the hill.

To some of President Reagan's leading advisers, the effort seemed a waste of energy and political resources. Under the legislation passed in October 1984, Reagan could ask Congress to release the $14 million in covert military assistance any time after February 28. Before the new year had even begun, however, Reagan officials believed there was little chance of Congress passing such aid. Some in the State Department suggesting foregoing the battle for aid altogether. Secretary Shultz recalls that he "did not favor continued futile efforts . . .[which] only underlined and contributed to our problem." Assistant Secretary Motley and Craig Johnstone tried to start a discussion about "the possibility of life in Central American policy after the contras." As late as January 17, Robert McFarlane told Adolfo Calero that if the contras could not prove themselves a more potent force politically and militarily, then "I thought we owed it to them and to ourselves [to] cut our losses and theirs." McFarlane's comment reflected his conviction that without much greater congressional support the contras were a hopelessly weak reed on which to rest American policy.

President Reagan himself was eager to do battle on the issue of Nicaragua. He intended to wield his restored political power to make the members of Congress "feel the heat" if they refused to "see the light." Less constrained after his landslide re-election, Reagan gave fuller voice to his moral convictions about communism and America's role in fighting it. As a means of selling his unpopular covert war in Nicaragua, President Reagan elaborated more fully on themes he had adumbrated at Westminster in 1982. Linking together the popular Afghan and unpopular Nicaraguan rebellions and putting both in a broader historical and ideological context that stretched from the American Revolution to the French Resistance, Reagan elaborated an international strategy that was revolutionary abroad and politically potent at home.

The "Reagan Doctrine," as it was dubbed by columnist Charles Krauthammer in 1985, was a sweeping application of American political philosophy and morality to the conduct of international affairs. It denied the fundamental legitimacy of all communist governments, and by implication all non-democratic governments, declared them to be essentially transient, affirmed the right of democratic movements to challenge them, and proclaimed the right, even the responsibility, of the United States to provide assistance to those movements. "There are those who say America's attempt to encourage freedom in Nicaragua interferes with the right of self-determination," Reagan said in April. "[But] when a small clique seizes a country there is no self-determination, and no chance of it." Reagan was thinking primarily about communist governments, but Secretary Shultz took the doctrine to its logical conclusion and declared that "as a matter of fundamental principle, the United States supports human rights and peaceful democratic change throughout the world, including in non-Communist, pro-Western countries." Pushed by the difficult task of selling its policy in Nicaragua, and emboldened by the continued success of democratic reform in El Salvador, Reagan and Shultz thus called for an unprecedented ideological consistency in American foreign policy.

The departure from traditional Republican policies was striking. For most of the twentieth century, Republicans had been isolationists, anti-Communists, or practitioners of realpolitik. Even Democratic presidents, from Kennedy to Carter, had hesitated to question the legitimacy of non-communist dictatorships. The Reagan Doctrine was the unique product of a unique combination of circumstances in the United States. At the height of the cold war, with the most fervently anti-communist President in American history, a Congress half-controlled by Democrats, and an American public moved by conflicting desires for national assertiveness and withdrawal, by belligerent anti-communism and post-Vietnam moralism, the Reagan doctrine came as close as any other international political strategy to answering the contradictory demands of the country.

And, as intended, the Reagan Doctrine proved both attractive and frightening to a Democratic Party divided between anti-Communists and liberal idealists and seeking a marriage between the two. More than even Reagan officials might have imagined, the idea of supporting armed rebellions against communist regimes, at least in some parts of the Third World, found increasing support among moderate and even liberal Democrats over the course of the year. The tearing down of the old "double standard" -- by which conservatives and liberals accused one another of coddling dictators of the left or right -- came as welcome relief to many Democrats, who could better justify their anti-communism when it was explicitly tied to support of democracy. For moderate and conservative Democrats the attraction of the Reagan Doctrine was that its anti-communism was subsumed in a higher idealism with Democratic roots; it removed some of the stigma the Democrats had long attached to Republican anti-communism.

The fuller elaboration of the Reagan Doctrine in the first months of 1985 helped force an important shift in the terms of the Nicaragua debate, although the shift had begun before the Nicaraguan elections. More and more Democrats expressed the view that the Sandinistas should be urged and even pressured to reform their regime and institute democracy. Few disputed the administration's claim that the 1984 elections in Nicaragua had been illegitimate -- in contrast to the popular perception of El Salvador's elections. If anything, the Sandinistas' election only increased Congress's scrutiny of their internal politics; and it whetted the appetite of American politicians in an increasingly idealistic and intrusive mood. Many were not prepared to take the next step with the Reagan administration by supporting the contras, but the enunciation of the Reagan Doctrine inevitably drew attention to the supposed "forces of freedom" in Nicaragua whom Reagan even referred to as "the moral equal of our Founding Fathers."

While the Reagan Doctrine provided the rationale for long-term support of the contras, however, it also placed a heavy burden on the rebel movement, a burden which the contras could not easily sustain. As the terms of the American debate shifted to democracy, both critics and would-be-supporters of the Reagan administration's policy asked the obvious question: Were the contras capable of bringing democracy to Nicaragua? That question broke down into two parts: Were the contras democratic, and could they win?

The scandal of the CIA's "assassination" manual in the fall of 1984 had raised again the question of the contras' conduct of the war, and their opponents focused new attention on the issue in the months leading up to the vote on contra aid in April 1985. New allegations of widespread human rights abuses by the contra forces struck at President Reagan's arguments on his own ground. A New York lawyer, Reed Brody, compiled a list of 200 abuses committed by the contras over the previous three years, including "assassination, torture, rape, kidnapping and mutilation of civilians." The Sandinistas, recognizing the importance of Brody's investigation, did their best to help him, arranging interviews with victims of contra attacks, providing transportation and escort to the interviews, paying Brody's three-month hotel bill, and even providing office space. If Brody's report was thus somewhat tainted, however, more independent human rights monitors also found evidence of violations by the contras. In March, Americas Watch cited abuses by both the contras and the Nicaraguan government, but singled out the contras for what it called "the deliberate use of terror." Other reports attacked the composition of the contras' top leadership, which was still dominated by former National Guardsmen. These reports bolstered charges by Democrats that the contras were, in the words of New York Democrat Thomas Downey, "thieves, brigands, and butchers." Enrique Bermudez, returning from a trip to the United States at the beginning of March, reported to his troops that "we have a terrible image [in Washington]."

In response to these charges, the President's speechwriters pulled out all the stops, resulting in the President's ill-advised comparison of the contras with the Founding Fathers. But while the allegations of contra abuses were sometimes exaggerated by human rights monitors hostile to Reagan's policies, it was indisputable that contra troops in their attacks and ambushes often made no distinction between civilians and armed Sandinista soldiers. It was the contras' policy, de facto if not always de jure, to treat civilians who helped the Sandinistas as combatants. In years past, there had been many incidents of campesinos murdered as "informers" without evidence or investigation. Contra officials complained that the Sandinistas often placed those whom they considered civilians in harm's way -- for instance, in the lead truck of a convoy -- and that they were not to blame for civilian deaths under such circumstances. But rebels also admitted to journalists that they "often killed Sandinista prisoners and Government officials and that they believed the Sandinistas would kill them." In the United States, the violent behavior of the contras became the rallying point for the nationwide movement of church organizations that in 1985 turned their attention from stopping aid to El Salvador -- efforts which were having less and less effect on Congress -- toward the more promising goal of stopping further aid to the contras.

The critics' case against the contras on moral grounds was complemented by arguments that the contras were also too weak militarily to achieve the goals that Reagan had set for them. The timing of this second argument was apt, because in the first four months of 1985, the contras had reached a nadir in their three-year struggle against the Sandinistas. 1984 had ended in disaster as contra forces, cut off entirely from American supplies and logistical support, began pulling out of Nicaragua. In the last three months of 1984, more than three-fourths of the FDN's forces retreated back across the border into their camps in Honduras. Those that remained in Nicaragua were low on supplies and chiefly tried to avoid engagements with the Sandinista army. In the view of State Department officials, the contras had been largely ineffective since the U.S. funding had run out.

Despite their low levels of supplies and uncertain future, the contras' ranks were still swelling, thanks in part to the . . . Sandinista draft. While the Sandinista army conscripted thousands of young men into its ranks, thousands of others fled the country to avoid the draft. Sons of the middle and upper classes fled to Costa Rica and elsewhere; but thousands of young campesinos from the northern provinces fled to Honduras, where a small but significant percentage joined the contas. Explaining their decision to dodge the Sandinista draft and then risk their lives with the contras, these youths told reporters that "fighting with the rebels was different because it was 'voluntary.'" That the contras, even at their weakest moment, could continue to attract such strong support in the northern provinces exasperated Sandinista political and military leaders, who finally lost patience. Near the e nd of February, Sandinista forces reportedly used mortars and long-range cannons to shell 15 small communities in Jinotega where contra forces had been operating.

This heavy-handed tactic was soon followed by a more coordinated, and less bloody, effort to empty northern villages. On March 17, Daniel Ortega announced the resettlement of 7,000 families or more than 20,000 people in Jinotega and their relocation to government-controlled farm cooperatives. Families ordered from their homes, with little notice and little time to pack, watched as soldiers set fire to their shacks and slaughtered or hauled away their livestock. Sandinista political officials declared it "an opportunity to reorder the population, which has been very dispersed." Tomas Borge put the matter differently. The removal of civilians made it "easier to use our artillery. It clearly becomes a war zone." One Sandinista soldier told a reporter: "There will be nobody left but them and us."
The contras' military and political weaknesses forced the Reagan administration to seek remedies. Democrats wary of the Sandinistas needed something more to support than Adolfo Calero, Enrique Bermudez, and 10,000 contra fighters sitting in Honduras. Reagan officials believed the main weakness of the contras was their lack of "legitimate" leadership, which in American terms meant moderately progressive, anti-Somoza, bourgeois politicians or business leaders. McFarlane believed that in order to pass aid to the contras, "Congress had to find the Contra movement a more appealing, legitimate movement oriented toward political goals, pluralism, and so forth." He had told Don Fortier and Oliver North that "to help win the vote" they should try "to expand the base of the Contra leadership to include acknowledged, credible, political figures in Nicaragua." After the 1984 elections there were few more credible political figures than Arturo Cruz.

Cruz and his advisers had the same idea. Near the end of 1984, Cruz's son, Arturo Cruz, Jr., argued that liberal and moderate Democrats in Congress "needed their own pretext" to approve contra aid. He compared the situation to that of El Salvador. The rebels needed to "find our own Duarte to lay the basis for a bipartisan consensus. Then the liberals can say that they do not necessarily approve of the policies of the Reagan administration, but rather are approving aid in order to strengthen the center, and Nicaraguan Democrats."

Grafting Cruz onto the contra leadership was no simple matter, however. Cruz did not want to become just another rebel. The prize Cruz represented to the Americans, and the danger he posed to the Sandinistas, was as the solitary link between the bourgeois political opposition in the cities of the Pacific coast and the armed campesinos in the northern hills of Jinotega. As Cruz and his allies contemplated a merger with Calero and the forces of the FDN, they wanted to make sure Cruz had some control of the guns, too. Cruz's international prestige was as much a threat to Calero and Bermudez as to the Sandinistas. Bermudez had not led his troops for five years in order to turn them over to Arturo Cruz. The confrontation between Cruz and FDN leaders was not only over personal power, but also over fundamental political goals. Cruz genuinely hoped for a peaceful solution, though he agreed with the FDN and the Americans that military pressure was necessary, for the moment. And the elements of a peaceful solution, in Cruz's mind, could well include a reconciliation with the Sandinistas, at least with the Ortega brothers. Calero viewed the possibility of conciliation with the Ortega brothers as a dangerous illusion. But Calero was under enormous pressure from the Reagan administration to accept Cruz into the contra leadership. McFarlane warned him in January that if the contras could not "produce a political leadership" that was more appealing, then perhaps it was best to forget about further aid from the United States. At the end of February Calero and Cruz agreed to work together.

The enlistment of Cruz did not solve the Reagan administration's problem in Congress, however. Most moderate Democrats were still not ready to vote for military aid to the contras. At the beginning of March the President remained at least 20 to 30 votes shy of a majority for his proposal in the House. Some of Reagan's advisers recommended extraordinary measures. Oliver North recommended that the President go around Congress and appeal directly to the American people to "contribute funds to support liberty and democracy in the Americas." Pat Buchanan and Constantine Menges wanted the President to make a nationally televised speech to put more pressure on the Democrats to approve his proposal. Conservatives inside and outside the administration wanted to fight and lose, if necessary, so that the American people "would know who was responsible and which policy failed."

McFarlane, other White House officials, and ultimately Reagan himself rejected this strategy. McFarlane was intent on finding an agreement with House Democrats, not in proving them irresponsible. On April 4 Reagan announced that if Congress approved his request for $14 million in covert military aid, he promised to withhold weapons and ammunition from the contras and provide them only with "humanitarian" assistance until June 1. If the Sandinistas agreed to a cease-fire on the terms presented in the contras' March 1 proposal in San Jose, Reagan would continue withholding military aid for an additional 60 days, while negotiations toward a final settlement on national reconciliation were completed. Speaker O'Neill lashed out in a fury at the President, calling the proposal a "dirty trick" and accusing Reagan of "hoodwinking the American public" with his talk of "humanitarian aid" to "butchers" who were "killing people out there, ravishing the villages." But observers noted that the plan "put Reagan's Capitol Hill critics on the defensive."

The coming days were consumed by a public relations battle mounted across the country. The President opened the week on April 15 by declaring that a vote against his proposal was more than "a rejection of the freedom fighters . . . [it was] literally a vote against peace." A private conservative group, "Citizens for America," organized a public relations campaign "to take the President's case right to the people, to hop right over the national media." The campaign cost about $300,000 and included visits by 22 Central American business officials to cities across the United States and then to the offices of selected congressmen. Another group brought six Nicaraguan refugees to Washington to tell their stories. "Resistance International," a group of European politicians and writers, visited the White House of April 18 to endorse Reagan's proposal. The State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy released documents . . . alleging a variety of Sandinista misdeeds, including involvement in the international drug trade. Former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick gave a speech in Pennsylvania. Cruz, Calero and [Alfonso] Robelo were brought up to lobby members of Congress.

While opponents of contra aid, then and later, complained about this "barrage" of public diplomacy, the campaign was more than matched by what the Congressional Quarterly called a "well-organized drumbeat of opposition to [President Reagan's] policies in Central America." A broad coalition of church groups, peace groups, human rights groups, environmental groups, labor and professional organizations, and "solidarity" networks across the country had mobilized at the beginning of the year. With their historical roots in the small human rights movement of the late 1970s, these groups had been transformed by the Salvadoran "death-squad" murders of American nuns and Archbishop Oscar Romero into a nationwide movement of activists opposed to the Reagan administration's policies in Latin America.

On April 23 . . . before [the House] voted on a final contra aid bill, the Nicaraguan government announced that President Ortega would travel to Moscow to meet with General Secretary Gorbachev at the beginning of May. In the United States the trip was a disaster for the Sandinistas. Senator Dodd could well express wonder "that some Democrats were surprised that Daniel Ortega went to Moscow. Where do my colleagues think he was going to go? Disney World?" But what so offended moderate Democrats about the timing of Ortega's trip to Moscow -- aside form the immense political embarrassment it caused them -- was that it cast in stark relief the strategic choice the Sandinistas had made and apparently always would make. Rather than put their fate in the hands of the American Congress, the Sandinistas ran off to seek the succor of the Soviets. Congressman Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said members of Congress considered the trip to Moscow "a personal rebuke."

While [House Majority Leader] Jim Wright continued to insist that whether one liked the Sandinista government or not, it was "the established government of that country," Democrats like [Dave] McCurdy, [Sam] Nunn and their supporters rejected this non-interventionist principle in favor of a more intrusive concept of American policy. Aronson argued that the Sandinistas had forfeited any legitimate claim to invoke the principle of "sovereignty" since they themselves had received foreign help in overthrowing Somoza, and he asked fellow Democrats: "Why was it 'legitimate' to help the Nicaraguan people wage their revolution in 1979 but 'illegitimate' to help the Nicaraguan people save their revolution today?" This had been President Reagan's argument for the past three years. It was, moreover, the novel principle that underlay the newly enunciated Reagan doctrine, which questioned the legitimacy of all non-Democratic governments everywhere and asserted the right of the United States to interfere on behalf of democratic forces fighting those governments. When McCurdy insisted that American foreign policy be guided by "standards that are the same for El Salvador, Nicaragua, South Africa, Chile, and other nations throughout the world," he was only echoing what Secretary Shultz had said in February.

On May 7 McCurdy and his moderate colleagues introduced their new legislation. [The] bill provided the $14 million in "humanitarian" aid directly to the "Nicaraguan resistance forces." McCurdy's bill also included the provisions favored by moderates in both House and Senate during the previous debate and promised by President Reagan in letters to both Houses: an economic embargo against Nicaragua, the removal of human rights violators from the contras' ranks, and the resumption of bilateral talks between the United States and Nicaragua. The main distinction between McCurdy's and Reagan's strategy, in the end, was one of emphasis. Both sides agreed on the need to pressure the Sandinistas by supporting the contras, but the Reagan administration preferred victory to negotiations and the moderates preferred negotiations to victory.

During the debate, conservative Virginia Democrat Dan Daniel sternly reminded his more moderate colleagues that their party had been "trampled at the polls" in the presidential election and that "postelection polls indicated that one of the reasons for that political loss was the perception that the Democrats were soft on defense." "If we fail to oppose the spread of communism in this hemisphere," Daniel warned, "and we are once more perceived to be soft on defense, and communism, then we could be shut out completely in the next election." Senator Nunn called Central America "a great testing ground for our nation and also the Democratic Party." Southern Democrats were particularly susceptible to these arguments, since Reagan had compiled some of his biggest margins in their districts.

On June 12 the House approved McCurdy's amendment by a margin of 248-184, with 73 Democrats (59 from the South) joining 175 out of the 182 Republicans.