The Reagan administration came to power in 1981 seeking to downplay Jimmy Carter's emphasis on human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America. Yet, by 1985 the administration had come to justify its policies towards Central America in the very same terms. This article examines the dramatic shift that occurred in policymaking toward Central America during Ronald Reagan's first term. Synthesizing existing accounts while drawing on new and recently declassified material, the article looks beyond rhetoric to the political, intellectual, and bureaucratic dynamics that conditioned the emergence of a Reaganite human rights policy. The article shows that events in El Salvador suggested to administration officials—and to Reagan himself—that support for free elections could serve as a means of shoring up legitimacy for embattled allies abroad, while defending the administration against vociferous human rights criticism at home. In the case of Nicaragua, democracy promotion helped to eschew hard decisions between foreign policy objectives. The history of the Reagan Doctrine's contentious roots provides a complex lens through which to evaluate subsequent U.S. attempts to foster democracy overseas.

Ronald Reagan's presidency coincided with a period of profound political, economic, and social upheaval in Central America. The overthrow of Nicaraguan dictator Antonio Somoza Debayle and a military coup in El Salvador in 1979 were harbingers of a bloody decade in which more than 200,000 Central Americans were killed in political violence and civil war.1 The Reagan administration came to office in early 1981 believing that the forces of revolutionary change in the region were the product of Cuban and Soviet meddling. Unlike the Carter administration, which had tried to moderate political change by closely monitoring the human rights records of U.S. allies, Reagan administration officials advocated for assistance to traditionally friendly regimes—no matter how oppressive—in their struggle to defeat Communist forces.

From these ideological origins, U.S. Central America policy underwent a historically significant shift during Reagan's first term that uncomfortably reconciled the administration to a strategy of nation-building. The administration's early determination to provide free-flowing military aid to the embattled Salvadoran regime was stymied by a congressional requirement to certify El Salvador's progress on human rights protections as well as political, economic, and social reforms. At first, officials carried out this requirement only grudgingly, paying lip service to the notion that counterinsurgency aid supported liberalization by weakening externally supported leftist insurgents. Vociferous congressional and non-governmental opposition protested that U.S. military assistance was abetting repression and brutal human rights violations. Salvadoran elections in 1982 and 1984, however, lent credibility to the administration's claims that an empowered electorate could provoke political change that undermined the appeal of revolutionary politics. As the Reagan administration realized the potential of elections to ameliorate the intractable Salvadoran conflict—and its own domestic political impasse—democracy promotion and human rights emerged as the primary justification for U.S. support of counterrevolutionary policies throughout Central America. By the beginning of Reagan's second term, a moral imperative to provide material support to anti-Communist forces on the grounds of their democratic credentials had taken shape as the Reagan Doctrine. As Thomas Carothers concludes, the administration “arrived at the point of unifying a tremendously disparate set of policies under the stated theme of democracy promotion.”2

Historians of Reagan's foreign policy have long portrayed the Reagan Doctrine as a political-military strategy designed to confront the Soviet Union aggressively on its vulnerable periphery. But although scholars have focused extensively on Reagan's economic and military policies in the developing world, they have devoted markedly less attention to the political aspects of intervention. They have ignored the contested origins of the Reagan Doctrine in debates over human rights and democracy that occurred both within the administration and between the administration and the many critics of its Latin America policy.3

One reason for these shortcomings is the pervasive political acrimony surrounding the region in the 1980s, which has proven a double-edged sword for historians. On one hand, the bitter fight between the administration and its opponents produced a wealth of public discussion and declassified material—not to mention a daunting contemporary literature—that shows how issues were framed and policies articulated by key actors. On the other hand, the living history of the 1980s has skewed attention toward particular themes, such as the Iran-contra scandal, congressional oversight of covert action, and culpability for human rights violations, to name the most conspicuous. The controversial nature of the debates in the 1980s has mired the historiography in cyclical partisanship that often simplifies, rather than illuminates, the relationship between U.S. policies and Central American violence. The most serious accounts of U.S. policy toward Latin America in the 1980s remain those written by officials personally involved in the events, bearing the none-too-subtle marks of political scars and bruised reputations.4

Scholars of Latin American politics and history have led the way in capitalizing on newly available sources to connect the local dynamics of Latin American violence and political change with the geopolitical contest waged by superpowers in the global Cold War.5 Historians of U.S. foreign relations, however, have been slow to revise their own frameworks on how U.S. power—conditioned by ideology and perception—related to the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence unleashed throughout the region.6

I aim to contribute to this literature by showing how the Reagan administration's confrontation with Central American revolutionary movements from 1980 to 1984 placed two ideological impulses uncomfortably at odds: the administration's stated commitment to defeat Communist adventurism in Latin America; and the desire to spread U.S. political values.7 Policy development was far more complicated and less predictable than typically portrayed by historians who argue that the administration was wedded from the outset to a “military solution.” In spite of the Republican Party's long-standing aversion to idealistic foreign policy and its particular opposition to Jimmy Carter's emphasis on human rights, democracy promotion emerged as the Reagan administration's strategic framework for securing U.S. interests in Central America. Using new sources to examine the political, bureaucratic, and intellectual dynamics of Reagan's first term, I show how experiences in El Salvador led U.S. officials to adopt democratic elections as the central element of a political solution—one that offered a credible means of establishing legitimacy for regimes with autocratic tendencies, while simultaneously undermining the politics of the Central American revolutionary left. In the process, the administration went from ridiculing Carter's policy of liberal interventionism to adopting a policy of its own that embraced the rhetoric of democracy promotion and targeted totalitarian states with pro-liberalization policies.

Reagan was a central but complicated figure in this transformation. The president's genuine faith in the power of human freedom to resist totalitarianism gave democracy promotion its greatest bipartisan political appeal.8 Yet the simplicity of Reagan's vision was underscored by his inability to reconcile the contradictions of democracy promotion and human rights highlighted by his critics, who argued that military aid in Central America undermined the very “democratic” progress that Reagan was championing. Reagan was also unable to reconcile the divergent views that persisted among political advisers and policymakers within his own administration regarding the strategic wisdom and political costs of promoting elections. Although some officials saw democratic values as central to America's mission abroad, others saw the language of democracy as a handy rhetorical device for building political support for unsavory U.S. policies. The struggle between these advocates—amplified by external opposition—placed U.S. policymakers at the heart of the struggle over the meaning of democracy in Latin America in the 1980s. The Reagan Doctrine, then, emerged from a set of ambivalent lessons learned in Central America during Reagan's first term. The doctrine's rhetorical commitment to the rollback of Communism worldwide—for which democracy was no longer the end but the means, the justification, and the test of victory as well—glorified, but also trivialized, the opportunities and costs of bringing about political change in foreign countries.

Forget Carter

Just three days after being appointed secretary of state, Alexander Haig was summoned to the Reagan transition team's offices on Washington, DC's bustling M Street.9 Inside, Haig was handed a binder, three inches thick, labeled “sensitive.” A cover memorandum informed Haig that the binder contained the transition team's “work to date in the identification of prospective candidates for key positions in the Department of State”—up to eight candidates for each of the top 34 positions. The transition team impressed upon Haig that these names reflected the preferences of the president-elect.10

In fact, the transition team reports reflected the efforts of a faction of conservative “young Turks” determined to limit the influence of Nixon-Ford Republicans in the transition.11 Prominent among them was Senator Jesse Helms's aide on Latin America issues, John Carbaugh, linked to a self-styled “cabal” of hawkish congressional staffers, known as the Madison Group, who were dedicated to opposing Carter's foreign policies.12 When The New York Times reported that a transition team report had called for the need to rein in “social reformers” in the State Department's Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, Carbaugh was suspected of being behind the leak.13 Simultaneously, Carbaugh's name was widely mentioned as a candidate to head the bureau under Reagan.14

The formidable Haig, who had formerly been chief of staff to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and later the Supreme Allied Commander Europe—bristled at the guidance. An outsider to Reagan's inner circle, Haig was eager to reassert the secretary's traditional role in foreign policy decision-making and to temper the administration's political enthusiasm by deferring to Foreign Service Officer (FSO) expertise.15 Days after receiving their report, Haig dismissed the campaign's State Department transition team, raising hackles among conservative Republicans.16 Although Haig later downplayed the episode, it illustrates how politics, personality, and bureaucracy complicated the ideological approach to foreign policy that the administration publicly embraced.17

The linchpin of that ideology was Reagan's geopolitical and moral anti-Communism, which induced the president-elect to reject the policies of détente pursued by his predecessors and to tout the superiority of U.S. values over the Soviet system.18 To Reagan, Nixon's and Ford's attempts to negotiate closer ties with the Soviet Union had jeopardized U.S. security and invited Soviet challenges by depriving the United States of its moral and military advantages.19 Whereas Carter argued that anti-Communism clouded Americans’ perception of national interest, Reagan believed that ignoring Soviet expansionism would invite the USSR to pose further challenges to U.S. power abroad. In his worldview, Central America represented a crucial battlefield on which the Soviet Union was eager to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities. “No area of the world should have a higher priority than the place where we live, the Western Hemisphere,” Reagan stated in one campaign speech.20 In another, he lamented that Cuba had become a “[military] base in this hemisphere for the Soviets” and asked: “Must we let Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador all become additional ‘Cubas,’ eventual outposts for Soviet combat brigades? Will the next push of the Moscow-Havana axis be Northward to Guatemala and thence to Mexico, and South to Puerto Rico and Panama?”21

The Reagan administration's ideology of anti-Communism largely took shape in response to the perceived failures of Carter's policies in Latin America. Carter had attempted to balance a grave concern for human rights with a policy of non-interventionism, but Reagan's advisers insisted that Carter's idealistic policies had only strengthened Communist forces in the region.22 Carter's preoccupation with human rights in Nicaragua had not just failed to prevent Somoza's overthrow, they believed; his meek attempts to broker a moderate political outcome had facilitated the complete victory of the Sandinistas in July 1979.23

In El Salvador, the Carter administration's attempts to isolate the radical left and right by backing the moderate government under Christian Democrat José Napoléon Duarte had similarly backfired. While supporting Duarte's bank nationalization and land reform initiatives, the Carter administration had escalated its criticism of the Salvadoran government's human rights record, leading ultimately to the cutoff of U.S. military aid following the grisly rape and murder of four U.S. missionaries by Salvadoran National Guard troops in December, 1980.24 From the Reagan administration's perspective, Carter's decision to cease military aid had sacrificed the strategic relationship with El Salvador at the precise moment when guerrilla insurgents in the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) posed the greatest military threat to the pro-U.S. government. Events seemed to confirm Reagan administration officials’ claims, when Carter reversed the decision in January and resumed aid to the beleaguered Salvadoran military forces. He also suspended aid to Nicaragua based on evidence of Sandinistan interference in El Salvador. “In four years,” Reagan stated in a televised campaign address in October 1980, “Mr. Carter's administration has managed to alienate our friends in the hemisphere, to encourage the destabilization of governments, and to permit Cuban and Soviet influence to grow.”25

The Reagan administration was correct that Cuba and the Soviet Union saw the revolution in Nicaragua and insurgencies in Central America as opportunities to expand their influence in the region. But the administration's anti-Communist worldview failed to account for constraints that weakened the threat of foreign subversion.26 Even scholars who suggest that the United States could have reached a modus vivendi with the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) have acknowledged that the Sandinistas’ political program entailed a radical restructuring of the Nicaraguan economy and society.27 Daniel Ortega sought Soviet backing to export his country's Marxist revolution soon after the Sandinistas came to power in the 1979 revolution.28 Moscow was ambivalent about the prospects of such support. The risks of openly challenging the United States in the region were unappealing to Soviet decision-makers, particularly once Soviet troops had become embroiled in Afghanistan.29 On the other hand, the Sandinista regime offered an opportunity to affirm the Brezhnev Doctrine of national liberation and to challenge Fidel Castro's leadership of international revolution.30 In May 1980, the Sandinistas sent a delegation to Moscow to discuss the prospect of massive military aid that would turn the Sandinista military into a formidable revolutionary force. The Soviet Union agreed in principle but cautiously postponed a detailed agreement for another year.31

The administration's ideological preoccupation with Soviet and Cuban interference limited its appreciation of the socioeconomic causes of political unrest in Central America and blinded it to the brutal violence that regimes had employed to repress that unrest. The Carter administration's policy of tying military aid to human rights assessments was rejected by the Reagan administration on the grounds that such an approach erased a more basic distinction between allies and enemies.32 Reagan's supporters maintained that placing abstract moralism above calculations of geopolitical interest had been reckless policy. Thus the essence of the Reagan administration's critique of Carter's foreign policy—particularly in Latin America—was to ridicule its purported lack of realism.33 During the campaign, Reagan lambasted Carter's idealistic “policies of vacillation, alienation, and neglect” and instead argued that hemispheric relations must be “solidly based on shared economic and security interests, not upon mutual recrimination and insult.”34

The articulation of the administration's anti-Communist ideological approach owed much to the writings of Jeane Kirkpatrick, a specialist on Latin America at Georgetown University. Kirkpatrick shared Reagan's belief that Latin America was crucial to U.S. national security.35 In her most famous exposition, an article titled “Dictatorships and Double Standards” published in Commentary magazine during the campaign, she described the fundamental weakness of Carter's human rights–based foreign policy. Guided by a rationalist, liberal ideology, the Carter administration had incorrectly perceived Marxist-Leninist revolutions as constructive social change. “Carter was, par excellence,” she writes, “the kind of liberal most likely to confound revolution with idealism, change with progress, idealism with virtue.”36 The result was a double standard toward totalitarian regimes of the left and the right, which had forsaken U.S. interests and furthered Soviet objectives. In Iran and Nicaragua, “the Carter administration actively collaborated in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasions.” The Somoza regime had been repressive, Kirkpatrick acknowledged, but it was nonetheless a reliable ally of the United States. History provided little evidence, she argued, that Marxist regimes would ever willingly embrace democracy.

Nevertheless, Reagan's anti-Communism did not eschew the role of ideals in U.S. foreign policy. Rather, he simply wanted to ensure that those ideals should never trump national security concerns in maintaining alliances with Cold War allies. Outlining his vision for the hemisphere during the campaign, Reagan said that “for our long-term strategy, the communication of our ideals must become part of our strategy for peace.” When he was asked whether he shared Carter's religious belief in human rights, he replied: “I think that all of us in this country are dedicated to the belief in human rights.”37 Reagan's campaign aide for Latin American affairs, Roger Fontaine—a future National Security Council (NSC) staffer—told The New York Times in September that “the preoccupation with human rights didn't begin with the Carter administration, and it won't end with it.” Reagan would “work just as vigorously as Carter for it, but he won't push governments back into a corner.” Fontaine continued: “We believe more in private diplomacy. It gives us more credibility and in the end will help us move the hemisphere in the direction we want more effectively … . The United States cannot be the judge of the whole world and of the Americas in particular.”38

Confidence in U.S. democratic values was central to the administration's anti-Communism, but officials were initially uncertain how moralism might guide foreign policy in a region rife with perceived threats of Communist subversion. The Reagan administration, Roger Fontaine told the press, would approach the region with the notion that democracy—not military dictatorship—offered the best safeguard against Communism. Yet he cautioned that “democracy can in some cases be instituted too rapidly.”39 Even Kirkpatrick argued: “Despite a good deal of myth-making to the contrary, Americans have always believed that democracy is the best government for everyone.”40 In “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” she even tepidly suggests that traditional societies are more likely than Communist regimes to undergo liberalization: “It is not impossible that U.S. policy could effectively encourage this process of liberalization and democratization … provided that the effort is not made at a time when the incumbent government is fighting for its life against violent adversaries.”41

Kirkpatrick's argument serves as a useful picture of the administration's ideology on the eve of taking office: Democratic ideals mattered in Latin America, but so long as the region was threatened by Soviet and Cuban adventurism, political and social reforms like those endorsed by Carter would be secondary to containing revolution and defeating insurgents. The vigorous rejection of Carter's liberalization policies, however, obscured a diverse set of allegiances and policy preferences that further complicated the administration's ideological vision. For example, starting on inauguration day, Haig authorized a housecleaning of the Latin America bureau that wiped out nearly all of Carter's officials from ambassadorial and desk office positions in Central America. The most notable firing was that of Robert White, who, as ambassador to El Salvador, had been a vocal critic of the Reagan administration's proposed policies. He was removed within a week of the inauguration. White was eventually offered a post within the inspector general's office, but he declined the position and remained an outspoken critic during Reagan's two terms.42

However, rather than drawing from conservative ranks, Haig restaffed the bureau with FSOs whose primary experience had come during the Vietnam War. Prevailing over conservative political opposition in the Senate—primarily from Senator Helms—Haig proposed Thomas O. Enders for the post of assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. Enders was later remembered—and ultimately doomed, like Haig—for his independent streak and his lack of allies within the administration.43 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger shared the administration's Manichaean view of leftist revolutions in Central America, but his focus on restoring U.S. military power made him wary of the possibility of U.S. military involvement overseas.44 Director of Central Intelligence William Casey's romantic view of spycraft—cultivated in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II—gave him an aversion to congressional oversight and a brash confidence in the effectiveness of covert action that portended trouble for the administration. Casey's deputy, Robert Gates, remembers that Casey saw eye to eye with most of Reagan's cabinet members, yet “for reasons I’ll never understand, Bill Casey became obsessed with Central America.”45

The “‘Russians Are Coming’ Syndrome,” 1981–1982

During Reagan's first year in office, the administration struggled to translate its anti-Communist worldview into concrete policy. Bureaucratic struggles, external opposition, and events in El Salvador undermined the administration's public posturing in favor of defeating an externally fomented Marxist threat. Initially, Haig was the one who drove the agenda on Latin American affairs. He wasted no time setting the terms of the Reagan administration's rebuke of Carter's policies. In his first press conference, the secretary announced that “international terrorism [would] take the place of human rights” as the core focus of U.S. foreign policy. Insisting that there was “no de-emphasis, but a change in priority,” Haig told reporters that dwelling on human rights would produce “distortions” of U.S. interests.46

Although Reagan's first terrorism-related priority was the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis (the hostages were released just after Carter formally stepped down), the effort to combat terrorism also encompassed resistance against leftist advances in Central America.47 In El Salvador, the FMLN launched a final offensive against the government designed to preempt Reagan's likely decision to increase military aid to the civilian-military junta. On 27 December 1980, FMLN commander Fermán Cienfuegos (the nom de guerre for José Eduardo Sancho Castañeda) had confidently predicted that “Mr. Reagan [would] find an irreversible situation in El Salvador by the time he reaches the Presidency,” and that “the situation will be red hot by the time Mr. Reagan arrives.”48 The FMLN leader was half right. The final offensive fell short of overthrowing the El Salvadoran government, but it turned the fate of El Salvador into an immediate priority for the incoming administration. After meeting with the Jamaican prime minister during his first week in office, Reagan wrote in his diary that the Caribbean was becoming “a ‘Red’ lake.”49

Presented with the opportunity to take action, the administration balked.50 On 26 January, Haig wrote to the president: “We are continuing to assemble and assess the evidence of Nicaraguan Government involvement in El Salvador. The evidence of Nicaraguan culpability is substantial.”51 However, Haig cautioned, “there are a number of factors that argue against an immediate decision to stop and recall assistance through a determination that Nicaragua is supporting violence in other countries.”52 Haig outlined the administration's goals: “The key consideration is that we want Nicaraguan support for the insurgents in El Salvador and the ability of Cuba to use Nicaraguan territory to stop and stay stopped. Our treatment of the determination should be part of a strategy to meet that objective.”53

At a series of NSC meetings remembered by Haig as “anguishing,” internal differences emerged over how to achieve these objectives.54 Haig advocated a policy that would “carry the consequences” of Cuban-Soviet meddling “directly to Moscow and Havana, and through the application of a full range of economic, political, and security measures, convince them to put an end to Havana's bloody activities in the hemisphere and elsewhere in the world.”55 Others in Reagan's cabinet were reluctant to “raise the stakes.” They encouraged Haig to address El Salvador and Nicaragua within existing frameworks of financial assistance and covert action.56 Haig's State Department began to sound out of step with the administration.

On 18 March, Haig told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Sandinista revolution had been the first part of a Soviet-supported “four-phase operation” to take over Central America.57 A press-guidance cable issued to U.S. embassies in Central American the following day backpedaled: “although we are deeply concerned by the trends there, we have not accepted Communist domination of Nicaragua as a fait accompli.”58 On 19 March, Haig's undersecretary of state for political affairs, Walter Stoessel, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration was considering all options—including military force—to halt the flow of arms from Cuba to Central America. Under questioning from Senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, Haig affirmed that “any assessment that we have made thus far suggests that it is indeed Cuba which is the platform, the instigator, and the operative leadership behind the situation in El Salvador.” He declared: “I have said that we will have to take this problem to the source and, clearly, that is our intention.” But he insisted that even though the president was exploring a “full range of options,” the administration had “no approved game plan … to deal with this problem.”59 Haig insisted that the administration was not suffering from a so-called “‘Russians are coming’ Syndrome.”60

The administration's policy in Central America remained muddled in the spring of 1981. Press leaks fueled public speculation that Haig's boisterous claims isolated him within the administration and that a rift had divided Reagan's foreign policy team. The typical account—which persists in most historical narratives—alleges that a fundamental disagreement over worldview had developed within the administration. “Hardliners” like Haig, Kirkpatrick, and Casey have been characterized as intransigent ideologues “pre-occupied with Soviet expansionism” who were intent on “drawing the line” in El Salvador. Meanwhile, bureaucrats at the State Department Bureau of Inter-American Affairs such as Thomas Enders were “inclined toward a sort of pragmatic moderation.” These moderates were portrayed as sharing with the Democratic opposition in Congress an understanding of the economic and social inequalities at the root of the Central American conflict. According to this depiction, the moderates agreed that the United States should increase military aid to the Salvadoran regime but felt that aid should be accompanied by pressure to enact political and economic reform.61

There is a degree of truth to this distinction, insofar as the State Department emerged as the most consistent advocate of policies aimed at Salvadoran political reform and the most amenable to negotiations with the Nicaraguan government. However, the hardliner/moderate narrative relies on an overly simplistic view of the gulf between State Department bureaucrats and national security decision-makers, as well as an overstatement of the degree of consensus among either faction. A more useful explanation for the multiple divisions that arose over El Salvador—but one that makes for a messier picture of policymaking—is found in the divergent and shifting political priorities within the Reagan administration. Reagan's foreign policy advisers generally agreed on the need to take action to meet the threat of Communist influence in Central America, though they disagreed over the best way to translate ideas into action that would secure U.S. interests. Meanwhile, Reagan's political advisers—Nancy Reagan, Edwin Meese, James Baker, and Michael Deaver—urged moderate policies out of concern for public reaction to more aggressive policies.62 The crux of their disagreement, as Kagan has pointed out, “was over the question of how, when, and on what issues to use President Reagan's political power.” Unlike foreign policy officials, the latter group shied from confrontation with liberal Democrats in Congress. “They did not disagree with the general conservative view of the Soviet Union and Communism.” However, “as a matter of political tactics,” they would be willing to bargain with House Democrats on issues that were not seen as crucial.63

In early 1981, Reagan remained suspended between the various factions, seemingly oblivious to the causes of the friction. Haig retained the president's support, but when he voiced his concern about attempts to marginalize the State Department, Reagan recorded privately that the general was “seeing things that aren't there.”64 In February the administration released a white paper justifying an increase in military aid and the dispatch of 55 military advisers to El Salvador. The white paper defined the national security threat as external Communist intervention in El Salvador. Calling it a “strikingly familiar case of Soviet, Cuban, and other Communist military involvement in a politically troubled Third World country,” the white paper alleged a “well-coordinated, covert effort to bring about the overthrow of El Salvador's established government and to impose in its place a Communist regime with no popular support.” The document referred to the internal nature of the conflict, applauding the governing junta's attempts at reforms and its “willingness to negotiate the terms of future political processes with democratic members of all opposition forces.” But the strategic objective was clearly identified as ending external meddling, with less regard for the political outcome of the Salvadoran conflict. “The solution in El Salvador should be of the Salvadorans’ own making and nonviolent,” the white paper stated.65

Reagan's relative silence regarding the El Salvador white paper spoke volumes about the fears of his political advisers that U.S. intervention in Central America would deflect attention from higher-priority issues like tax cuts and military rearmament.66 Released only a week after a white paper on the economy and an address to Congress on economic matters, the El Salvador white paper garnered massive criticism. The Washington Post called it the “first test” of Reagan's presidency.67 Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, writing in The New York Times, called the white paper “gruyere-like” and criticized the administration for ignoring what he saw as the real source of the conflict in El Salvador—not Soviet intervention but issues “bred in the marrow of a colonialism nearly 500 years old.” Calling the army the “unlimited custodian of colonialism in El Salvador,” he warned that it would “use the arms it gets from the United States to kill unlimitedly.”68 Criticizing the administration's plan, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts called for the United States to commit itself to “a political solution,” including supervision of a “military truce” between the government and the guerrillas, the avoidance of any increase in military supplies to either side, and the holding of a conference that would bring together “all political elements committed to a long-term peaceful solution.”69 The public debate escalated, with public officials broaching the subject of U.S. military action against Cuba, as well as the potential introduction of U.S. troops to El Salvador.70

Haig's hawkishness painted him as a consummate military hardliner. Bombastic calls for confrontation with Cuba alienated him further from Reagan's politically-minded aides. However, in private documents Haig acknowledged the importance of political components in U.S. strategy in El Salvador. In a memorandum to Reagan on 27 February titled “Elections or Negotiations in El Salvador,” Haig advised the president: “we should strongly support elections as the most plausible long-term solution to the crisis.” Haig's reasoning was strategic, not idealistic. Because the Duarte government had called for elections in which the left would participate, Haig explained, negotiations over the elections—rather than over a power-sharing agreement with the left—would give the United States the appearance of moderating its tone toward the guerrillas. “This enables us to favor negotiations (discussions) that are consistent with our strong support of elections.” On the cover sheet transmitted by National Security Adviser Richard Allen, Reagan scrawled, “I like elections.”71

Through the early months of 1981, the administration also hesitated to promulgate a hardline strategy toward Nicaragua. Although the administration officially announced the cutoff of aid to the Nicaraguan government in April, Haig and Enders advocated a negotiated solution with the FSLN that would require Nicaragua to curb its support for the Salvadoran FMLN guerrillas in exchange for relative freedom inside its own borders.72 These negotiations caused suspicion among members of the NSC who feared the State Department would cut a deal with the FSLN.

Nonetheless, Haig and the State Department continued to lead the policymaking process on Central America. In a memorandum to the president on 6 July, Haig said he was “concerned” by developments in El Salvador that might threaten “the survival of the Duarte government.” Haig wrote that he had authorized Enders to make a “clear statement of our position which will reiterate our purposes and our commitment to a democratic settlement of the Salvadoran crisis.”

Enders addressed the World Affairs Council on 16 July 1981. In the speech, “El Salvador: The Search for Peace,” Enders continued to portray U.S. policy as an ameliorative response to foreign subversion, stating: “today, as in the past, the basic policy of the United States is to try to help resolve the problems of frail government institutions, of poverty, and of underdevelopment that create vulnerabilities to this form of aggression.”73 However, the speech marked a major policy development by suggesting that a lasting peace would require the United States to involve itself in the internal divisions that existed among Salvadorans—not just among the minorities on the violent left and the violent right, but among those in the middle who saw “the need to develop participatory institutions and those who maintain[ed] that there [was] no alternative to the old personalistic politics.” The United States would support Salvadoran democratic political reform, he said,

not out of blind sentiment, not out of a desire to reproduce everywhere a political system that has served Americans so extraordinarily well, and certainly not because we underestimate the difficulties involved. Rather, we believe that the solution must be democratic because only a genuinely pluralistic approach can enable a profoundly divided society to live with itself without violent convulsions gradually overcoming its differences.74

The policy outlined by Enders, designed primarily for action at the embassy level, was, as Grandin notes, straight out of Carter's playbook, and paved the way for the “most ambitious liberal democratic nation-building program since Vietnam.” But Grandin—much like Reagan's contemporary critics—is ultimately skeptical of the speech, portraying it as mere lip service, harnessing the “language of human rights and social justice” to win support for a more militaristic policy.75 Nonetheless, Enders's relation of the specific problem—an intractable, foreign-fueled civil conflict in El Salvador—to general solutions of pluralism and democracy represented the first step of a novel turn by the Reagan administration.

Earlier in 1981, Reagan told Time magazine that, with regard to El Salvador, “you do not try to fight a civil war and institute reforms at the same time.”76 But the administration's leading voice on Central American affairs was suggesting the opposite: that internal reform was necessary to support the objective of ensuring the Salvadoran regime's survival.77 Historians debating the genuineness of the administration's push for political and social reform must also acknowledge that Enders's speech represented the administration's most public endorsement to date of the Duarte government. Furthermore, the speech aligned the administration with Duarte's moderate Christian Democratic Party (PDC), which had already called for an early return to elections. In San Salvador, Duarte applauded Enders's speech, agreeing with his view that new structural reforms could not be undertaken unless political infighting ceased, thus allowing progress on reforms already underway.78 Although the speech strengthened Duarte's hand, his opponents—on the right and the left—saw it as political interference. The FMLN dismissed Enders's speech as a U.S. promise “to continue military and economic aid to the Salvadoran junta in order to show the insurgents that they cannot obtain a military victory and to force them to participate in the elections slated for 1982.”79

Elections were by no means a foregone conclusion. In July, Duarte asserted that the PDC “[remained] firm in its decision to take the country toward democracy,” but challenges came from all sides.80 When Duarte failed to promulgate a parties law to govern the constituent assembly elections set for March 1982, the Central Electoral Council (CCE) publicly urged the adoption of the measure so that “the electoral process will be totally free and so that [international observers] realize on the spot that the Salvadoran peoples are the ones who will elect their government leaders.”81 Duarte responded by inviting all sectors of the country to register political parties with the CCE.82 The biggest opposition to democratic elections came from the Salvadoran right. The conservative Salvadoran daily El Diario de Hoy ran an editorial titled “The Cures Prescribed by Officious Healers,” which criticized the U.S. State Department's “big idea” of holding elections: “It wants the Salvadorans to vote, and this includes all political parties, including criminal groups, and it wants then to begin the task of drafting a ‘constitution’ amid the terrible confusion which exists today,” the paper complained. “The exercise of power is not legalized by elections but by following the law and moral precepts … . We must call for elections when they help to bring about peace and not when they help to confuse or destroy.”83 U.S. support of Duarte did not necessarily mean that U.S. officials would back the traditional convergence of U.S.-Salvadoran military and economic interests. Duarte publicly stated that the Salvadoran right had proved more destabilizing than the guerrillas to the government, and he lamented the power wielded by conservative business interests.84

If Enders's speech was a rhetorical embrace of political reform in El Salvador, the Democratic opposition in Congress was determined to force the issue. In September 1981, Congress passed an amendment to the foreign aid bill requiring the administration to submit a biannual certification that the government of El Salvador was making progress in six categories, including human rights, political liberalization, and economic and social reform. Democrats argued that strict accountability was necessary to ensure that U.S. tax dollars did not fund political violence already responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens. The Reagan administration and its congressional supporters complained that a semi-annual review of aid would put the Salvadoran regime at the mercy of the FMLN. The certification legislation that emerged was a compromise granting Congress no veto power over the assistance; yet it had two important results. First, it challenged the administration to reorient its policies to internal developments in El Salvador, rather than Communist subversion.85 Furthermore, it forced the administration to grapple with the domestic political costs of supporting the Salvadoran regime. As the administration did so, the legacy of the Vietnam War weighed on the minds of Reagan's advisers. Even though many officials believed that the Vietnam syndrome must not hinder the U.S. government's ability to wield power abroad, policymakers were at pains to ensure that Central America would require no such military intervention.86

Haig, along with most of Reagan's advisers, was alarmed by the prospect of certification, which would expose U.S. policy in El Salvador to public scrutiny. His reaction reveals a serious concern that committing the administration to political reforms in El Salvador would jeopardize the administration's larger strategy. “What we need above all is strong White House help in removing disabling El Salvador amendments now attached to the Foreign Assistance Act,” he wrote to Reagan. These “would at a minimum embarrass, at a maximum abort our programs.” In this context, he suggested that “President Duarte could help with Congress and public relations problems in the United States. An early visit by him is required. You would only need to give him a photo opportunity.”87

But when Duarte did visit the United States in September 1981, Haig seemed more committed to the importance of a Salvadoran political solution. “We strongly support the Duarte government as the best, indeed probably the only, hope for a peaceful, moderate solution to El Salvador's political problems,” he wrote to Reagan. The constituent assembly elections scheduled for March 1982 were “a key step in enhancing the government's legitimacy and undermining support for the guerrillas.” Haig demonstrated a shocking obliviousness to key sources of violence in El Salvador, lamenting only that “accounts of atrocities” by right-wing death squads and elements of the security forces “continue to sap the government's domestic and international support.” Yet, he noted that “the military remains the country's dominant political force. Duarte has thus far been ineffective in confronting the military or curtailing their excesses. His meeting with you will go far toward strengthening his hand with the military.”88

The continuing lack of clarity and consensus among key officials on the goals and strategy in El Salvador reflected a larger incoherence in the administration's regional policy. The minutes of the 10 November 1981 NSC meeting reveal stark disagreements about how the administration should translate its view of interconnected, regional threats into concrete policy. Haig kept the central focus of the strategic discussions on Cuba, announcing that “[w]hat we are deciding now is taking a course of action that is designed to stop Cuban adventures and we are willing to use any kind of pressure to succeed.” Haig continued to push aggressive action against Castro, noting that “[i]nvasion is the trigger for a serious Soviet response. Up to that point there is a free play area.” Others were wary of aggressive action. Weinberger argued that the administration should instead focus its efforts on building a Central American coalition, moving step by step toward concerted action: “We must prepare public opinion, and we must work on getting a coalition of Latin American countries to work with us… but we cannot today accept a unilateral commitment of force.” Kirkpatrick again disagreed: “we do not have time to build coalitions … . We cannot wait for public opinion either to form … . We can use covert action. We can employ proxy forces.” Casey reminded his colleagues that Nicaragua, not El Salvador, should be the principal target. Kirkpatrick disagreed, arguing that “El Salvador has to be stabilized first. Then we should move onto Nicaragua and let the others do the work for us.” But Haig then “warned against creating an insurgency in Nicaragua unless you are prepared to go all the way.” Reagan, silent through most of the meeting, weighed in during the final minutes. Lamenting the state of public and congressional opinion, he called the prospect of military invasion “an impossible option” and hesitantly endorsed Casey's and the vice president's calls for covert action against Nicaragua. “I don't want to back down,” Reagan finished. “I don't want to accept defeat.”89

On 17 November 1981, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17), the first attempt to place the challenges of El Salvador and Nicaragua within a comprehensive Central America policy.90 NSDD-17 embraced the pro-democracy stance that the State Department had voiced earlier in the year, declaring that the United States would provide “strong support for those nations which embrace the principles of democracy and freedom for their people in a stable and peaceful environment.”91 But there is little reason to believe that the document expressed a commitment to nation-building as anything more than a rhetorical trope with which to characterize the basic goal of “defeating the insurgency in El Salvador” while preventing Cuba and Nicaragua from manipulating the struggle. This goal would be achieved by providing economic support for Central American countries, increasing military aid to El Salvador and Honduras, and creating a public information task force to “inform the public and Congress of the critical situation in the area.”92

NSDD-17 authorized “support” for the “democratic forces in Nicaragua”—a vague phrase that reflected the administration's indecision about the objective of its support for the nascent anti-Sandinista movement. On one hand, the so-called Contras represented a means of pressuring the Sandinistas into a meaningful negotiated settlement that would curb their external meddling once and for all.93 On the other hand, the administration—Reagan in particular—was acutely aware that support for paramilitaries would entail serious political costs at home.94 Although the finding did make mention of a political component—“to build popular support [deleted] that will be nationalistic, anti-Cuban, and anti-Somoza”—in congressional briefings the administration chose to emphasize the tactical objective of interdicting and disrupting arms flows from Nicaragua to El Salvador.95 There was no real suggestion that the Contras could achieve political victory over the FSLN took place. Instead, support for the Contras initially emerged as an attempt to challenge the Sandinistas at the lowest cost and in the least risky manner possible. Given Reagan's tentative support for a negotiated settlement, covert action at this point represented a last resort—what Kagan calls the “lowball” option.96

Through 1981, the Reagan administration's Central America policy amounted to more bark than bite. Publicly committed to combating Cuban and Soviet influence in Latin America, key figures struggled to articulate a viable strategy for doing so and shied away from the political costs of their preferred actions. Despite brief rhetorical flirtations with themes of political liberalization, Reagan's decision-makers found no common ground with their congressional opponents, who demanded that the administration address the mounting evidence of human rights violations in El Salvador as part of any political reform. Military assistance provided by the Reagan administration aimed, above all, to support the regional status quo. Democratization of any meaningful sort would have to wait.

Getting the Doctrine Straight, 1982–1983

It is no coincidence that Reagan's first assistant secretary for human rights, Elliott Abrams, later became assistant secretary for Latin American affairs. In 1982 and 1983, Abrams was largely consumed by the debate over human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America. But reflecting on his first year in the job, Abrams recalled, “there really was no human rights policy in the first year.” Part of the reason was bureaucratic. Reagan's first appointee to the position, Ernest Lefever, was blocked from confirmation by Democratic opposition. A superior asked Abrams, then serving as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, to suggest a replacement. He recommended himself and was confirmed in December.97 Nonetheless, Abrams later admitted “it took us a while to get our doctrine straight … . We had to figure out what a Reaganite human rights policy would look like.” The effort faced a formidable obstacle in the person of Secretary Haig. “I may be being unfair to him,” Abrams remembers, “but I believe he viewed human rights as a rather foolish subject.”98

Abrams and Haig could hardly have been more different. The 33-year-old Abrams had already served as counsel to Democratic Senators Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and was considered a rising star of the so-called neoconservative movement. In a 1981 profile piece, Abrams told The New York Times: “My views on politics and foreign policy have not changed … what changed was my perception of the two parties.”99 In 1976, Abrams had written in a Commentary symposium on American political ideology that “fidelity to liberal principles” required reprising “America's role in resisting totalitarianism around the globe.” Mid-century U.S. liberals, Abrams believed, had risen to the challenge of promoting the cause of freedom against totalitarianism. The New Left had sapped liberals of this resolve, leading them to question the superiority of U.S. democratic values over Communist ones. For Abrams, no such equivocation was possible. Liberty, America's fundamental political ideal, he wrote, “is of transcendent importance.”100 Sharp and intellectually vigorous, the former Democrat intrigued the press and the opposition alike, and his appointment was hailed as a sign that Reagan planned to take human rights seriously.

Abrams's first steps to that end made national news. In November 1981, The New York Times published excerpts of a leaked State Department memorandum sent by Abrams to Haig, sketching out a Republican human rights policy. The memorandum stressed the urgency of fusing the administration's anti-Communism with a more liberal idealism. “We will never maintain wide public support for our foreign policy,” the memorandum read, “unless we can relate it to American ideals and the defense of freedom.” Unlike Carter's human rights policy, which the administration portrayed as overly punitive, Abrams suggested that frank, evenhanded assessments could serve—rather than undermine—a realistic consideration of interest: “We must take into account the pressures a regime faces and the nature of its enemies. If a nation, friendly or not, abridges freedom, we should acknowledge it, stating that we regret and oppose it.” Punishment, however, should “result from a balancing of all pertinent interests.” For conservatives wary of jeopardizing traditional alliances in the name of human rights, the memorandum concluded with resounding emphasis on the domestic political costs of inaction: “There is no escaping this without destroying the credibility of our policy.” Evenly applying standards of human rights to friends and enemies alike, the document suggested, would allow the United States to confront Soviet Communism on ideological and moral grounds, as well as on proxy battlefields.101

The wisdom of Abrams's counsel became obvious in January, when the Reagan administration submitted its first certification report to Congress. The report briefly addressed all of the requirements of the congressional process, concluding that the Salvadoran government “is making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” Reagan certified that the regime was gaining “substantial control over all elements” of the armed forces, “so as to bring an end to the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens.” Finally, it certified that the government was making progress implementing political and economic reforms and was committed to holding democratic elections “at an early date.”102

The administration's perfunctory claims were overshadowed by simultaneous mainstream media reports that Salvadoran government soldiers had systematically massacred more than 1,000 citizens in the city of El Mozote.103 U.S. officials first reacted by disputing the claims, concluding that the civilians either had been killed inadvertently in crossfire between the government forces and the FMLN or were, in fact, armed and legitimate targets.104 In either scenario, the administration assigned responsibility to the FMLN.

The confrontation over Reagan's certification of progress in El Salvador soon shifted from editorial pages to committee hearing rooms. In a series of contentious sessions that stretched into March, House and Senate committees heard testimony from more than ten panels of administration officials, members of Congress, academics, and human rights advocates. The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs set the tone, as chairman Michael D. Barnes (a Democrat from Maryland) began by announcing his disappointment “that the President of the United States would put his signature on this document.”105 He disputed the evidence that the Salvadoran government was making progress. “The good intentions described in the certification are overwhelmed,” he said, by outside evidence pointing to massive and serious human rights transgressions.106 On a point-by-point basis, Barnes deconstructed the case for certification put forward by the administration. The problem, as Barnes explained, was not simply suspect reporting. The administration's shallow report had sapped the certification process of the precise power that its architects had envisioned—using public oversight to gain leverage in order to reduce the Salvadoran army's power relative to civilian officials.107 Fifty-five Democratic members of Congress sent Reagan a letter stating that “extensive documentation” belied his certification and asking him to withdraw it.108

Reagan's opponents insisted that the United States not accept signs of democratic progress in El Salvador so long as the military played a role in the ruling government. The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights, Don Bonker (a Democrat from the state of Washington), testified that Duarte was not “in control of the events and activities in his country,” even if he was “committed to bringing about policies that we can support.” To Democrats, “all those attempts at institutional changes and improvements have little bearing upon the actual fact that atrocities continue.”109 In testimony to the House, Enders tried to respond to these arguments by admitting that the human rights situation was “deeply troubled” and fueled by violence on the left and the right. Alleging inaccurate information on the part of human rights organizations, Enders argued that the number of violations had dropped by nearly half.110 These were not winning arguments. When asked by the committee whether the junta's planned elections might end the war, Enders sounded cautious: “The idea is to take a step toward legitimacy by the only means that can confer that; that is, open elections.”111 Congressman Gerry Studds, a Democrat from Massachusetts, replied by lambasting Enders, over the sounds of applause by human rights protesters, “You take empty rhetoric and call it reform.” Enders assured the committee that Reagan's certification was not a mark of satisfaction but a confirmation that progress was being made. Representative Stephen Solarz, a Democrat from New York, called the manipulation of terms “Orwellian.”112

Because Congress could not vote down the certification itself, the hearings produced no immediate results. They did, however, make judgments about political progress and human rights a central point of contention between the administration and its opponents. The Democratic opposition argued that the Salvadoran military's salient role in the Salvadoran political system would make it impossible to curb human rights abuses and should therefore preclude U.S. aid to the government. The administration continued to believe that human rights should be instrumental to its support of the Salvadoran government's battle to defeat the insurgency on the battlefield. As Abrams had testified to the Senate, “it is no part of a human rights policy to allow the Duarte government to be replaced by a Communist dictatorship. To acquiesce in this, to withdraw our support from the government of El Salvador, would make a mockery of our concern for human rights.”113

As the battle over human rights raged between the State Department and the Congress, the NSC considered how the president might break the political impasse. In February, as the administration deliberated about the risks and benefits of a major address dealing with Central America, Reagan recorded in his diary that “worry of the no's is that I’ll sound like we’re going to war over El Salvador or Cuba. I finally said I thought we should do a speech about need to bring the Americas together in a solid alliance.”114

The result was a speech unveiling the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), a comprehensive aid program for Central America. Counterposing themes of totalitarianism and freedom, Reagan rhetorically cast the CBI as a moderate program designed to spread economic opportunity and democratic development throughout the region, with the support of the United States:

Our neighbors need time to develop representative and responsive institutions, which are the guarantors of the democracy and justice that freedom's foes seek to stamp out. They also need the opportunity to achieve economic progress and improve their standard of living. Finally, they need the means to defend themselves against attempts by externally-supported minorities to impose an alien, hostile and unworkable system upon them by force. The alternative is further expansion of political violence from the extreme left and the extreme right, resulting in the imposition of dictatorships and—inevitably—more economic decline, and more human suffering and dislocation.115

The administration's rhetorical support for democracy was soon put to the test during constituent assembly elections in El Salvador in March 1982. Publicly, U.S. officials hoped that the elections would lend credence to their claims of progress. Privately, they were uncertain of what the results might bring. An embassy cable in March reported that right-wing parties were leading the pack but that the undecided vote could “easily swing” the results.116 As the election neared, Haig seized on the event's importance in a memorandum of 8 March 1982 to the president:

Developments in Poland and El Salvador teach us three important lessons in politics: 1) there are growing pressures for political change in Communist and authoritarian countries alike; 2) if we want democratic forces to win, they need practical training and financial assistance to become as effective as the Communists in the struggle to maintain power; and 3) the United States is organized to give economic and military assistance, but we have no institutions devoted to political training and funding.117

Not typically prone to such idealism, Haig made the connection between democratic values and the administration's geopolitical interests explicit: “Ultimately a truly stable, cooperative and open international system requires societies based on freedom of choice and legitimacy rather than force and oppression.” Haig pointed out that moderate democratic forces were the best “long term protection” against Communism.118

Although Haig continued to avoid addressing the contradiction between military aid and democracy in Latin American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, the memorandum nonetheless featured a strategic justification for encouraging political reform that went beyond selling policies to congress. The rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981 and its swift repression by the Polish Communist regime had demonstrated the strategic value of promoting democracy: “We can help to keep the Soviets preoccupied with problems inside their existing empire … by giving practical assistance to democratic and nationalistic forces and thus going on your own political offensive. The use of this political tool is no less effective than the military and economic leverage, and is much less costly and risky.”119 The memorandum pointed to the ideological implications as well: “Launching a program to support democracy now can help provide a new focus for our idealism, give the successor generation here and in Europe something other than nuclear disarmament as a goal, gain bipartisan support, and give your administration a positive, freedom-oriented face.”120

These visions of democratic grandeur were almost derailed by the constituent assembly election itself. The right-wing ARENA party under the leadership of Roberto D’Aubuisson—a ruthless conservative with links to the death squads—formed a coalition majority to trump the U.S.-preferred Christian Democrats. U.S. officials, wary of D’Aubuisson's lethality as well as his popular support, had weighed the costs of his political success. In late 1981, Ambassador Deane Hinton cabled the State Department, urging an “open door stance” in case of an ARENA victory: “If we are wrong let us bite the bullet, even though Major Roberto D’Aubuisson is not your model democrat and would, if he came to power, give us fits.”121

Bite the bullet they did. Emphasizing legitimacy, successful elections, and high voter turnout, U.S. officials claimed that the elections had been a formal success. Images of popular participation by Salvadoran citizens struck a powerful chord with American audiences. The usually combative news commentator Sam Donaldson hinted at the political power of the elections when he closed a question to the president by saying “before we begin inviting trouble … we, all of us, should have been a little bit inspired by what took place there in that election.”122

Reagan was personally moved by accounts of the El Salvador election and quickly absorbed the events into his rhetorical framework for the Cold War. In a speech to the British Parliament on 8 June 1982, Reagan described the Cold War as a struggle between democracies and authoritarian-totalitarian regimes. Echoing Winston Churchill, Reagan identified the Achilles’ heel of the Communist bloc:

From Stettin on the Baltic to Varna on the Black Sea, the regimes planted by totalitarianism have had more than 30 years to establish their legitimacy. But none—not one regime—has yet been able to risk free elections. Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root … . It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens.123

By hand, the president inserted into the speech a vignette about the elections in El Salvador: “One day those silent, suffering people were offered a chance to vote, to choose the kind of government they wanted. Suddenly the freedom-fighters in the hills were exposed for what they really are—Cuban-backed guerrillas who want power for themselves, and their backers, not democracy for the people.”124

Some historians have cited this speech as an example of a profound transformation in Reagan's thought.125 Others have emphasized the purely rhetorical nature of the episode, suggesting that Reagan remained uncomfortable on a personal level with the implications of promoting democratic change in foreign countries.126 More likely the elections in El Salvador neither altered Reagan's core beliefs nor challenged his political inclinations. For Reagan, the Salvadoran elections resonated with a basic faith in the appeal of human freedom, which existed alongside his conviction in the right of armed struggle against Communist forces. As Reagan had stated in a radio broadcast in August 1978, “the ideological struggle dividing the world is between Communism and our own belief in freedom to the greatest extent possible consistent with an orderly society.”127

Despite Reagan's soaring rhetoric, U.S. policy said little about the profound violence that continued to destabilize Salvadoran politics following the election. Nor did it answer the opposition's charges that the elections had been counterproductive, reinforcing Reagan's lack of concern about human rights violations by military elements within the regime. If anything, U.S. policy had demonstrated the challenges of attempting to influence the outcome of foreign elections. Covert and overt funding designed to demonstrate the viability of the Salvadoran electoral system and the legitimacy of the governing junta had failed to prevent the right-wing ARENA party from capturing a majority.128 Less discreetly, Ambassador Hinton had suggested that election of the right-wing ARENA party might result in the loss of U.S. assistance.129 Only after Hinton and Haig visibly wielded the threat of curtailed U.S. assistance did the Salvadoran right yield to a U.S.-selected interim president, Alvaro Magaña, whom Newsweek called, “nonideological, nonpolitical, generally moderate—and very friendly with the army.”130 The army's support of the moderate Magaña was encouraging, but D’Aubuisson's role as president of the Constituent Assembly guaranteed the entrenchment of the far right in the interim government that would oversee El Salvador's political future. Furthermore, the Reagan administration's commitment to empowering moderate forces remained unconvincing. Hinton explicitly threatened that unless the right-wing “gorillas of this mafia” stopped wanton abuses of human rights, they would forfeit U.S. military funding, but he promptly received a rebuke from the White House.131

Critics of administration policy continued to allege that the constituent assembly elections were mere “demonstration elections” imposed by U.S. power brokers to improve the image of an otherwise unsavory ally. Political Scientist Terry Karl has argued that the 1982 elections in El Salvador allowed the Reagan administration to overcome a domestic political impasse, permitting a major escalation of military support and silencing calls for a negotiated settlement.132 Indeed, at the first press conference after Magaña assumed the presidency, he told reporters he had “nothing to negotiate” with the insurgents. He stressed that he elections had demonstrated a “clear, absolute, and definite demonstration on the part of the people” that the regime should “try to make peace, but without negotiations.”133

However, the administration's concerted—if ineffective—effort to marginalize the ultra-right, in the person of D’Aubuisson, represented a doubling-down of U.S. policy on promoting democratic political reform. A subtle indication of the policy shift under way in the summer of 1982 was the administration's second certification of El Salvador. The presidential certification admitted that progress on human rights had been eratic at best.134 The tone of the hearings was more constructive. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Clement Zablocki, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was “pleased to see that the second certification is more complete and more balanced than the first,” although he noted reservations about the administration's conclusions.135 Representative Barnes noted the improvement as well but characterized the document as “still not convincing.”136 Opposition to Reagan's policies remained fervent. The more harmonious tone of the hearings can be credited to the fact that the administration had—at least rhetorically—accepted congressional Democrats’ premise that Salvadoran political reforms were a central objective of U.S. policy in the region.

Following the elections, the administration's rhetoric seemed to reflect a more pervasive endorsement of democratic change in the region as a whole. Officials like Haig and Kirkpatrick began to shift their criticism of the FSLN from its involvement in El Salvador to its domestic human rights record.137 A State Department country analysis of Nicaragua dated 25 May 1982 described U.S. interests as “work[ing] for establishment of pluralism in Nicaragua” and “support[ing] democratic forces in Nicaragua in their effort to promote a pluralistic society.”138 Ironically, the pressure Congress placed on the administration to deal with the internal activities of the Salvadoran regime is what had allowed for a framing of Nicaragua policy in similarly political terms. Previously, the administration's policies in Nicaragua and El Salvador had been seen as distinct, with the former having been “lost” and the latter needing to be saved. The new focus on democracy and human rights offered a way, as Haig had argued, to marry the concepts of paramilitary action and political warfare in the name of democracy, perhaps giving the administration room to expand the goals of its covert action. Thus, as Kagan argues, amid the rhetorical changes underway in 1982, “the anti-Sandinista guerillas began to take their place as part of the doctrine of democratic aspirations” that later became the Reagan Doctrine.139

“The Map of Democracy Is the Map of Human Rights,” 1982–1983

Bureaucratic change brought fresh attention to Central America policy. On 16 July 1982, George Shultz was sworn in as secretary of state to replace Haig. Shultz claims in his memoirs that he believed events in Central America to be of prime importance because they were in “our neighborhood.”140 Still, there is ample evidence that Central America was primarily a distraction for Shultz's trans-Atlantic and Middle Eastern diplomacy. Coming into office, Shultz viewed El Salvador as a “hot spot,” believing the goals were to “nourish democracy in El Salvador, improve the Army's ability to deal effectively with the guerillas, and, at the same time, persuade the army leaders and their right-wing supporters that violations of human rights would not be tolerated.”141

Such a policy entailed serious risks and required political nuance. The governments of Central America tolerated “unsavory characters,” Shultz wrote in his memoirs. “Still, serious people in those governments were engaged in a stalwart effort to move toward democracy and the rule of law.” Political ideologies had prevented U.S. officials from crafting a human rights policy that supported moderate regimes, Shultz complained. The American left was recklessly willing to abandon those governments without fear of Communist takeover, and the right “would have us support the anti-Communists no matter what their behavior.”142

Shultz's pragmatic, moderate approach to human rights policy and democracy promotion put him at odds with those in the administration who embodied the conservative anti-Communist ideology he bemoaned. Senior officials on the NSC staff and Reagan's cabinet—Kirkpatrick, Constantine Menges, and Weinberger—feared that Shultz's preferences would give the State Department a free hand to undermine regional allies or, worse, to cut a deal with leftist forces.143 Nonetheless, according to Abrams, Shultz's advocacy of human rights in foreign policy battles got the human rights bureau of the State Department “in business,” and by the end of 1982 Abrams was confident that he had the secretary's ear.144

In late April, Abrams wrote to National Security Adviser William Clark that

we have a great argument on human rights and El Salvador. It is that “the only reliable guarantee of human rights is democracy.” Our efforts to build democracy in El Salvador are the only solution to its human rights problems. When we look at the globe, we can see that the map of democracy is the map of human rights.145

Abrams suggested that, instead of responding to Democrats’ arguments on human rights by insisting that the United States supports democracy, and then noting human rights problems, the administration “should note that elections and democracy are the solution to El Salvador's human rights problems.”146

In November, as Reagan prepared to travel to Central and South America, NSC briefing materials lauded Costa Rica as an example of the goals of U.S. policy toward Central America: “a genuine democracy at peace with its neighbors, and which has taken the lead in resisting Cuban/Nicaraguan interference.” The NSC memorandum—which drew upon language provided by Shultz—listed as a primary objective, “to associate the U.S. with progress toward democracy,” and stated that “in Central America, we view democracy as a bulwark against the Cubans and Nicaraguans and as a sine qua non for domestic progress and regional stability.”147

Perhaps the greatest indicator of Shultz's influence on Central America policy was the growing openness from the administration about the gravity of the human rights situation in El Salvador. As Shultz grew frustrated with the pace of democratic reform in El Salvador, the administration began speaking more directly about the role of the regime in deaths carried out by the far right. The administration's third certification report in January 1983 admitted that, since the previous certification period, “political violence continued to diminish—although at a slower rate … . Human rights abuses continue and … the further development of democracy and human rights are not to be taken for granted.”148 At the same time, “the election was an important step in establishing a democratic process which offers the best chance for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.” Although many had feared that the elections would lead to the triumph of the right, “[o]n the contrary far rightist elements … have not achieved a clear majority, and issues are being hammered out within a democratic forum.”149

The chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Charles Percy, a Republican from Illinois, suggested that the certification process was working: “It should be absolutely clear to Salvadorans of all political persuasions” that U.S. support sought “not just to win a battle against insurgents but also to aid and encourage the development of an equitable and democratic society where there was none before.”150 Abrams agreed and went further: “What compels military aid, or I think should, is a conclusion not only that military aid helps in the struggle against the Guerrillas, but that the struggle is essential in order to win the battle for democracy.”151 Abrams asked the committee to consider the costs of withdrawing support. If the guerrillas were to win, he intimated, what then would happen to human rights in El Salvador? Turning the argument around on the congressmen, he argued that the questions involved in certification were the wrong ones: “What are the views of the people? … I do not think we have asked that question enough.”152

U.S. support of Salvadoran elections was instrumental in its very design. After all, the congressional certification requirement was what had subjected Salvadoran political progress to congressional scrutiny, elevating it to the same level of judgment as human rights. Shultz and Abrams skillfully wielded the certification, showing how even halting progress toward democratic elections could persuade the Congress to authorize additional economic and military aid. Preparing Reagan for a phone call with Magaña in April, Shultz wrote that “for a number of reasons, including internal power struggles, the Salvadorans have been unable to come up with the kind of progress we need to carry the votes on Capitol Hill.” Shultz's talking points urged the president to tell Magaña that “over the next three months we will face some critical votes in the Congress on assistance to El Salvador.” Shultz urged the president to “reaffirm our strong support for El Salvador while making clear that we must have the support of the Congress to be of help.”153

Abrams's portrayal of elections as instrumental to the administration's political aims echoes Kirkpatrick's earlier portrayal of human rights as strictly secondary to national security concerns in Central America. The difference was the emergence of credible U.S. action to ensure that elections were held. Reacting to the State Department's defense of democratization in El Salvador, Bernard Weinraub of The New York Times noted that the Reagan team had seemingly “softened its tone” on Central America: “The new approach consists of substantial economic aid mixed with military assistance, support for democratic social change and a deliberate retreat” from portraying Central American states as dominoes in the U.S.-Soviet conflict.154

The shift was not uniformly convincing, however. During the certification hearings, Senator Dodd questioned the administration's commitment to its stated policy, noting that all too often “our Ambassador [is] saying one thing, the President saying something else, and our administration backing away.”155 In fact, bureaucratic divides continued to hamper the administration's policy toward Central America, as became clear during a February 1983 fact-finding trip to the region by Kirkpatrick. The visit, the brainchild of National Security Adviser William Clark, represented an attempt by the NSC to wrest control of policymaking from the State Department. Kirkpatrick reasserted the gravity of the military situation, reporting back that the region was on the brink of military disaster and recommending $60 million in emergency aid for El Salvador and more funding for the Nicaraguan Contras.156 Enders, seeing that Kirkpatrick's findings called into question the State Department's endorsement of a political solution, cabled regional ambassadors in an attempt to undermine the mission. When Kirkpatrick became aware of the memorandum, she turned it over to Clark and Casey, who used the evidence to persuade Reagan to oust Enders.157 Shultz acceded to the removal of his principal aide on Central America, but he wrote to Reagan demanding a streamlined policy structure that would make Shultz the key decision-maker.

The State Department's endorsement of Salvadoran elections carried political costs in El Salvador as well as within the administration. Supporting early free elections was seen by hardliners, particularly on the Salvadoran right, as counterproductive to the goal of defeating the FMLN. In June, Reagan met in the White House with Magaña and his new defense minister, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, formerly head of the National Guard and later (in 2012) deported from the United States for his role in the torture of Salvadoran citizens.158 Reagan praised Magaña for his efforts to speed up elections and to incorporate the left, but Casanova interjected to stress the urgency of military aid: “United States military aid is very important; with more aid we will have a faster resolution of the war. But this aid must not stop and start.” All soldiers were “now taught about human rights,” Casanova continued. “They know that they must be determined to defend human rights. The elections and the electoral process are devisive [sic] and can delay military successes.”159

A worsening politico-military situation in El Salvador only strengthened Shultz's insistence that elections were the linchpin of a political solution. The fourth and final certification report, submitted in July 1983, displayed the turnaround in the administration's approach from the dismissive tone struck two years earlier. In this report, Shultz adopted a skeptical tone that likened the administration's concerns to that of its critics. “I have concluded that the statutory criteria for certification are met,” Shultz wrote. Nevertheless, it was

evident that the record falls short of the broad and sustained progress which both the Congress and the Administration believe is necessary for the evolution of a just and democratic society in El Salvador. I am particularly concerned by the failure of the Government of El Salvador to achieve more positive results in establishing discipline over the security forces and in assuring that those, military or civilian, who commit gross violations of human rights will be brought to justice and held accountable under the law … . The evolution of democracy is a long and difficult process, especially when there are concerted efforts to defeat it. As we have seen, in El Salvador, the progress in some key areas has been disturbingly slow. However, our disappointment over the pace of change could not obscure the fact that progress is occurring. The people of El Salvador deserve our support in their effort to achieve a truly democratic society, which will provide the best and most lasting safeguard of human rights.”160

Reagan and Shultz went on to develop an extremely close working relationship, but Shultz never gained the decisive authority he desired within the cabinet, hampering his attempts to integrate political, social, and economic aspects of a strategy vis-à-vis Central America. Multiple policymaking bodies with overlapping responsibilities allowed officials to pursue different ends under the guise of pursing the president's preferred policy. Robert McFarlane, who took over as national security adviser in October 1983, shared with Shultz the view that fundamental economic reforms would have to lay the basis for long-term political moderation in Central America. McFarlane, however, exhibited a disdain for what he saw as the ineptitude of the State Department on policy toward Central America, and a lack of leadership from Shultz crippled their working relationship.161

Disdain for the State Department's openness to negotiations to end the Central American conflict influenced the way McFarlane and other policymakers thought about pursuing their policy goals in Nicaragua. Once again, Congress decisively conditioned the way the administration considered its policy options. As support for the Contras began figuring more prominently in intelligence briefings to Congress as the primary means of U.S. pressure on the FSLN, opponents of intervention began to question the ultimate political aims of the administration's policy.162 In July, the House passed the Boland-Zablocki amendment, restricting U.S. covert assistance for the purpose of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government.163 The law struck at the heart of the administration's policy dilemma in Nicaragua. If the administration saw the Contras as “freedom fighters” as Reagan claimed, then the goals of U.S. support had gone beyond the original aims of curbing Nicaragua's involvement in El Salvador. If the Contras remained mere bargaining chips, then the prospects of extracting meaningful concessions from the FSLN were remote. Rather than resolving the dilemma, the administration diagnosed the problem as one of public perception. A declassified “Public Diplomacy Strategy Paper,” written in May, laments the “apathetic and in some particulars hostile U.S. public” response to the administration's policy in Central America. To the State Department, correcting these misperceptions was a matter of “insisting on the real objectives of U.S. policy, e.g., establishing and supporting democracies … vigorously publicizing specific events illustrating progress being made on human rights, e.g. … progress in the electoral process.”164

The NSC, meanwhile, remained convinced that political opposition to Reagan's policies resulted not from a concern over mounting reports of atrocities by armed rightwing groups or a lack of political progress, but from a lack of resources and a failure to sell those policies. The meeting led to three broad recommendations: a revitalized public diplomacy effort, the creation of a presidential commission to develop bipartisan support for administration policies, and development of a new military plan to counter Soviet and Cuban influence in the hemisphere. The resulting decision directive, NSDD-100, signed by Reagan on 28 July 1983, espoused a newfound rhetorical enthusiasm in connecting military assistance to the ideals of U.S. foreign policy. The directive read, “our ability to support democratic states in the region, and those on the path to democracy, must be visibly demonstrated by our military forces. We must likewise enhance current efforts to provide a democratic alternative to the peoples of the region who are subjected to repression and totalitarianism.”165 As for the Contras, NSDD-100 affirmed that the “democratic resistance” in Nicaragua must be provided “adequate U.S. support” to discourage Soviet-Cuban involvement and to see that “the government adheres to the principles that it agreed to in July 1979,” referring specifically to the FSLN's initial commitment to free elections.166 The document did not elucidate how military pressure on the regime would translate into political pluralism.

By the end of 1983, regional developments, congressional pressure, and Shultz's appointment had encouraged the Reagan administration to consider democracy promotion more seriously, and to justify its policies in terms of it. Elections and respect for human rights were now portrayed as critical to defeating Communist encroachment in Central America. But disagreements persisted within the administration over the policies that a commitment to promoting democratic values required. To some Republican officials, democracy remained a mere rhetorical trope, designed to help garner support for military regimes engaged in counterinsurgency warfare. To others, democracy promotion was the cornerstone of a new Republican foreign policy that would secure U.S. interests in an open international system, guaranteeing the improvement of human rights while undermining the appeal of the revolutionary left. U.S. policy in Central America—once guided by an ideology of anti-Communism that dictated unwavering support for the military efforts of like-minded, authoritarian regimes—now plunged the Reagan administration into a political struggle over the form, meaning, and future of democracy in the region.

Democracy Promotion on the March, 1984

The year 1984 was a momentous one for Reagan's policy toward Central America. The president became more personally involved in the political effort to forge a bipartisan consensus, and democracy promotion was central to this effort. The year began on a political high note for the Reagan administration with the release of the Report of the Bipartisan Commission on Central America, produced under the leadership of Henry Kissinger.167 The report placed policies of democracy promotion in a larger international and conceptual framework. “The tortured history of Central America is such that neither the military nor the political nor the economic nor the social aspects of the crisis can be considered independently of the others,” read the report's introduction. “Unless rapid progress can be made on the political, economic, and social fronts, peace on the military front would be elusive and would be fragile. But, unless externally-supported insurgencies are checked and violence curbed, progress on those other fronts will be elusive and will be fragile.”168

The report departed from the Reagan administration's initial perception of threat by decoupling self-determined social change and external intervention. “Indigenous reform, even indigenous revolution is not a security threat to the United States,” the report affirmed. On the other hand, intrusion by other parties “exploiting local grievances to expand their own political influence and military control is a serious threat to the United States, and to the entire hemisphere.”169 The commission's recommendations fell under three headings. First and foremost was democratic self-determination: “the essence of our effort together must be the legitimation of governments by free consent—the rejection of violence and murder as political instruments, of the imposition of authority from above, the use of power of the state to suppress opposition and dissent.”170 The official Sandinista radio station dismissed the report as “[trying] to present President Reagan's militaristic policy as one interested in the social and economic aspects of the Central American region.” Further, it lamented, the report “[demands] large internal changes… that would surely be unacceptable for the Sandinista government.”171

El Salvador again became a test case. In March 1984, Salvadoran voters returned to the polls to elect a president. In the first round of elections, Duarte led by a wide margin, 43.4 percent to D’Aubuisson's 29.8 percent, and received substantial U.S. backing in the five-week runoff campaign. Advocating a liberal social pact, Duarte also pledged to bring the military under civilian control and to curb death squad violence. Duarte advocated a “national dialogue” with the guerrillas, although he insisted he was unwilling to grant them undue power via negotiations. Hesitations over Duarte's involvement with the civilian-military junta prior to constituent assembly elections were overshadowed by his domestic and international reputation as an authentic democrat. Throughout the runoff campaign, the CIA maintained support for the Christian Democrats and for Duarte.172 The FMLN, as it had two years earlier, boycotted the elections but failed to mount an effective political response that would detract from the apparent momentum of democratic change.

Duarte won the runoff election on 6 May 1984, garnering 53.6 percent of the vote compared to 46.4 percent for D’Aubuisson. D’Aubuisson's supporters blamed U.S. democratization policy, alleging that CIA interference had cost them a victory. They found a sympathetic ear in Washington in Senator Helms, who asked Reagan to remove Ambassador Thomas Pickering for his role in ARENA's defeat. In a telling counterpoint to the disapproval that Hinton's speech had earned just two years earlier, Reagan asserted that the United States was “taking no sides” in the election and offered Pickering his full support.173 The move demonstrated how the impression of El Salvador's democratic progress had allowed Reagan to embrace political reform over purely ideological anti-Communism as the basis of policy toward Central America.

Attempting to apply that democratic vision to Nicaragua invited fresh fire from congressional critics. In April, revelations of CIA involvement in a Contra plot to mine Nicaraguan harbors brought U.S. support for covert activities in Nicaragua to a halt. Inspired by the outcome of the Salvadoran elections and confident in the political attractiveness of supporting democracy, Reagan took the debate to the public. In a television address on 9 May, Reagan told Americans: “I asked for this time to tell you of some basic decisions which are yours to make. I believe it's my constitutional responsibility to place these matters before you.”174 The issue, said the president,

is our effort to promote democracy and economic well-being in the face of Cuban and Nicaraguan aggression, aided and abetted by the Soviet Union … . If we continue to provide too little help, our choice will be a Communist Central America with additional Communist military bases on the mainland of this hemisphere and Communist subversion spreading southward and northward.175

Citing the Kissinger Commission report, Reagan said that to avoid these risks would require “long-term American support for democratic development, economic and security assistance, and strong-willed diplomacy.”176

Reagan's speech then took a turn into unfamiliar territory. The motivation for helping Central America, he averred, was not just national interest. Instead, it was “morally… the only right thing to do.” More importantly, the objective was to “do enough” to “protect our security and … the lives of our neighbors so that they may live in peace and democracy without the threat of Communist aggression and subversion.” Even as El Salvador was

struggling valiantly to achieve a workable democracy … by contrast, the contras, the freedom fighters in Nicaragua, have offered to lay down their weapons and take part in democratic elections, but there the Communist Sandinista government has refused. That's why the United States must support both the elected government of El Salvador and the democratic aspirations of the Nicaraguan people.177

This was Reagan's most dramatic statement of a foreign policy that had been developing incrementally since 1982, conditioned by political and strategic considerations. With newfound rhetorical flourish, Reagan spelled out the idealistic implications of the policy:

If the Soviet Union can aid and abet subversion in our hemisphere, then the United States has a legal right and a moral duty to help resist it. This is not only in our strategic interest; it is morally right. It would be profoundly immoral to let peace-loving friends depending on our help be overwhelmed by brute force if we have any capacity to prevent it.178

Reagan had never sounded so Wilsonian: “Where democracy flourishes, human rights and peace are more secure. The tide of the future can be a freedom tide.”179

Reagan's speech aimed to transcend the regional stakes of the Central American conflict by framing it with a growing perception of political and economic weakness in the Soviet system, which in turn limited Moscow's ability to assist proxies in the Third World.180 Although critics maintained that Reagan's rhetoric glossed over questions about the genuineness of democratic openings in Central America, the gambit worked. Despite the outrage caused by the Nicaraguan mining incident, the Democrats’ opposition proved no match for Reagan's popular appeal, combined with the visible success of Salvadoran presidential elections. Preparing Reagan to meet with Duarte in May, Shultz wrote that the Salvadoran president-elect's visit was “critical both for the impact his presence will have on Congress and American public opinion and its effect in El Salvador in strengthening his position.”181 The administration won successive legislative victories appropriating $196.6 million in funds for El Salvador in 1984 and $128 million for 1985.

Duarte's election also gave the administration a much-needed international boost. A State Department memorandum to the White House called Duarte's July visit to Western Europe “a clear-cut success,” punctuated by warm receptions in London and Paris and a $17.8 million development aid agreement with West Germany.182 The visit's success signaled “increased West European understanding for … Salvadoran policy.”183 Legislative victory and international momentum not only represented a newfound consensus over the power of democratic ideals to achieve U.S. objectives in El Salvador; it also suggested to policymakers that Reagan's core belief in basic human freedom could justify policies of liberation elsewhere in the Third World over partisan opposition.

Just as events in El Salvador worked to bolster the Reagan administration's emphasis on democracy promotion, internal disagreements continued to disfigure the attempt to apply such a policy to Nicaragua. Recognizing that the administration had little leverage over the Contras, and expecting another bitter fight with the Congress, the State Department continued to advocate a negotiated solution. Shultz worked in secret to craft a four-point proposal for negotiations with the FSLN that would, if successful, oversee withdrawal of Cuban and Soviet military advisers from Nicaragua and the holding of free and fair elections. The NSC, however, emboldened by the Salvadoran aid victory, objected on the grounds that steps taken by the FSLN toward democratization in Nicaragua would be unverifiable. Shultz and U.S. negotiator Harry Shlaudeman nonetheless undertook negotiations in Mexico from June 1984 to January 1985, only to find the Sandinistas intransigent. “Whenever a moment of truth came in negotiations,” Shultz later wrote, “they would not turn away from the path they had set for themselves, nor would they turn away from Cuban-Soviet patronage.”184

The United States continued to advocate democracy in Nicaragua, but Shultz's abandonment of the negotiations track left the Contras as the administration's primary instrument of policy. Without any means of applying coherent political pressure, the 1984 Nicaraguan elections became a telling counterpoint to the heady experience of El Salvador. Shultz captured U.S. policymakers’ dilemma in a memorandum to NSC members on 23 July. “The Sandinistas hope to use these elections to legitimize their regime and to gain international and financial support,” Shultz wrote. “It is in our interest to pressure the Nicaraguans into holding genuinely free and fair elections,” but—true to Reagan's mantra about Communists and free elections—hopes were not especially high: “If, as is likely, this proves impossible, we need to ensure that the Nicaraguan elections are seen for the sham that they are.”185 Thus the Reagan administration settled on a policy of protest-by-abstention, encouraging opposition groups to protest election corruption.

Although initially the FSLN had little reason to worry about coherent political opposition, the emergence of Arturo Cruz, a democratic figure popular with the private sector, changed that calculation. Cruz's risky campaign strategy was designed to gain attention and support before he was inevitably forced out of the running by the FSLN. On a trip to the United States seeking international support, Cruz—with little backing from the Reagan administration—made the case that the FSLN was using Somoza-style elections to gain international legitimacy. After successfully lobbying for international support, Cruz returned to Nicaragua in September 1984 with limited demands on the FSLN—agreeing, for example, not to voice public support of negotiations with the Contras. U.S policymakers remained aloof, turning their attention to the battle for renewed Contra aid rather than rallying support for Cruz. The U.S. government's fixation on the Contra issue did not bode well for Cruz. The passage of a second Boland amendment, further tightening the restrictions on U.S. funding for paramilitary activity, granted a free hand for the FSLN to clamp down on its political foes just as opposition rallies were making it more apparent that elections posed a legitimate risk to the regime.186 As expected, on the eve of the elections, the FSLN altered the terms of Cruz's participation. Talks between the FSLN and Cruz over the terms of his participation broke down, and he withdrew from the contest.187

Although the administration had remained aloof in the case of elections in Nicaragua, developments there allowed the administration to portray the Sandinistas as outcasts from an otherwise ubiquitous “democratic trend in central America.” This was the argument Reagan used when he wrote to congratulate Guatemalan leader General Óscar Humberto Mejia for overseeing the resumption of democratic elections.188 By 1984, this thinking had also shifted the terms of the debate in the United States. Now Democrats, once the party of opposition to Reagan's interventionism, nominated a presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, who promised not to “pull the plug” on U.S. support to Central America.189 Many traditional opponents of Reagan's policies in the region had become disillusioned by the FSLN's intransigence at the negotiating table, the regime's electoral corruption, and its continued ties to Moscow and Havana. Not only was Reagan's rhetoric validated by the stubborn radicalism of the Sandinistas in the face of apparent regional progress, but appeals to democratic ideals had proven politically attractive, even to members of the opposition. Aid to the Contras, seemingly a self-defeating political issue for the administration, persisted in 1984 under an uneasy political truce: Congress continued to approve “non-lethal” aid to Nicaraguan refugees for allegedly humanitarian purposes.

Conclusion: Constructing the Reagan Doctrine

Reagan's second inaugural address in 1985 punctuated a striking reversal of roles that had occurred in his policy toward Central America. Just four years earlier, the administration had faced blistering criticism from congressional foes for its supposed disregard of human rights. Now Reagan invoked human rights as the central objective served by U.S. support for democracy: “Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than in our own hemisphere … . America must remain freedom's staunchest friend … . Every victory for human freedom will be a victory for world peace.”190 Three months after the fact, in an essay for Time, Charles Krauthammer contended that Reagan had stealthily unveiled a new doctrine of foreign policy that turned U.S. geopolitical thinking “on its head.” The Reagan Doctrine, as Krauthammer termed it, proclaimed “overt and unashamed American support for anti-Communist revolution. The grounds are justice, necessity and democratic tradition.”191 The Reagan Doctrine, so called, had more than a slight resemblance to the Truman Doctrine. But it departed from precedent by suggesting that Communist advances might be reversed and not just prevented, that democracy promotion could prove triumphant where containment had failed.192

To advocates of democracy promotion, the Reagan Doctrine was far more than rhetorical grandstanding. Kagan describes the doctrine as

a sweeping application of American political philosophy and morality in 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.193

This view reflected the political realities of policymaking toward Central America by 1985. Elections and moderate sociopolitical reforms were apparently taking hold in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Critics continued to argue that military-perpetrated and -authorized violence negated these reforms, but the Reagan administration believed they validated the notion that political and military solutions were mutually reinforcing rather than exclusive. The administration now believed it could apply those terms to the resistance movement fighting the Sandinistas. As Abrams later noted, the themes raised in Reagan's second inaugural address were distinct from Carter's approach to human rights because they eschewed a case-based, punitive approach for a more optimistic policy that sought long-term systemic change. Promoting democracy was not just policy in Central America—it became Reagan's human rights policy. “This strategy,” Abrams later observed, “fit nicely with the President's instincts” of speaking generally about change while at the same time avoiding confrontation with friendly governments who disregarded those ends.194

Yet Reagan himself never invoked the doctrine that bore his name. Less than a year after his second inaugural address, a Lebanese newspaper broke the story that U.S. officials had been trading arms for hostages in Iran. By the end of November, the administration admitted that the NSC was using the proceeds of the arms sales for illegal funding to the Contras. The scandal was politically and symbolically significant. An administration rhetorically committed to the idea of supporting democracy abroad had subverted U.S. laws rather than bear the political costs of its policy or address the particular circumstances that made Nicaragua a more contentious issue than El Salvador.

But if the effect of Iran-Contra was to make covert warfare prohibitively unappealing, the Republican turn to democracy promotion bequeathed a more salient legacy. During Reagan's first term, Democrats and Republicans squared off over the objectives of foreign policy in the Third World and over the proper place that liberalization should play relative to national interest. Inheriting a region beset by violent and intractable civil conflict, the administration first set out to protect traditional regimes against Communist encroachment. However, relentless congressional opposition forced Reagan's team to focus its attention on the internal reform of its allies. Sensitive to the political costs of a partisan battle over policy toward Central America, key advisers and foreign policy decision-makers gradually made democratization the pervasive theme of a policy that attempted to recapture the issue of human rights from its liberal critics.

Reagan's core belief in the universal appeal of freedom was crucial to this transformation, even though it often appeared to conflict with the anti-Communist ideology shared by the president and many policymakers during his first term. Elections in El Salvador in 1982 and 1984 provided compelling evidence to Republicans that U.S. security objectives could be achieved in politically appealing ways by promoting democracy. However, the temptations of this approach nearly proved the administration's downfall. The justification for illicit support of the Contras in terms of freedom and human rights showed how rhetorical tropes of democracy promotion could be manipulated to eschew hard choices between foreign policy goals or, worse, to foreclose debate on the ends and means of U.S. intervention abroad. In an age when Democrats and Republicans alike continue to see democracy promotion and liberal progress as legitimate objectives of foreign policy in peace and in war, the experiences of Reagan's first term provide a useful lens through which to assess the true motivations and costs of promoting U.S. values abroad.



John H. Coatsworth, Central America and the United States: The Clients and the Colossus (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), p. 166.


Thomas Carothers, In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Policy toward Latin America in the Reagan Years (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 1.


Historical scholarship on Reagan's Central American policy has gone through several stages. For an example of the first wave—overwhelmingly critical—produced during the 1980s, see E. Bradford Burns, At War in Nicaragua: The Reagan Doctrine and the Politics of Nostalgia (New York: Harper & Row, 1987). For early investigative approaches to the policymaking process, see Roy Gutman, Banana Diplomacy: The Making of American Policy in Nicaragua 1981–1987 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988); and Bob Woodward, Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987). For examples of more-balanced academic histories produced after Reagan's presidency, see Dario Moreno, The Struggle for Peace in Central America (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994); James M. Scott, Deciding to Intervene: The Reagan Doctrine and American Foreign Policy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), esp. chs. 1, 6; and a more critical account in Coatsworth, Clients and the Colossus. For a recent Marxist interpretation of the period that explicitly links Reagan-era policy in Central America to U.S. military interventions under George W. Bush, see Greg Grandin, Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).


Here I am referring to Robert Kagan, who worked with George Shultz and Elliot Abrams at the State Department, William LeoGrande and Cynthia Arnson, both congressional staffers during Reagan's tenure, and Thomas Carothers, a self-described “peripheral insider” on democratization policy at the State Department. They have written the most complete academic histories of the subject, but all carry the imprint of their authors’ respective positions in the debate. See Robert Kagan, A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977–1990 (New York: The Free Press, 1996); William M. LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977–1992 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); and Cynthia J. Arnson, Crossroads: Congress, the President, and Central America 1976–1993 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993). For an insider's perspective on the Carter years, see Robert Pastor, Not Condemned to Repetition (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002). A more recent example is Edward A. Lynch, The Cold War's Last Battleground: Reagan, the Soviets, and Central America (Albany: SUNY Press, 2011).


See Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser, eds., In from the Cold: Latin America's New Encounter with the Cold War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); and Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph, eds., A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence in Latin America's Long Cold War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).


For a more optimistic assessment of U.S. scholars’ embrace of Latin American perspectives—driven by archival material and fieldwork—see Max Paul Friedman, “Retiring the Puppets, Bringing Latin America Back In: Recent Scholarship on United States–Latin American Relations,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 27, No. 5 (November 2003), pp. 621–635. For recent examples, see Tanya Harmer, Allende's Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); and Alan McPherson, The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). For a promising vision of how Latin Americanists’ attention to the culture of politics might inform transnational histories of U.S.–Latin American relations in the twentieth century, see the essays in Gilbert M. Joseph, Catherine C. LeGrand, and Ricardo D. Salvatore, eds., Close Encounters of Empire: Writing the Cultural History of U.S.–Latin American Relations (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), esp. Joseph's essay in that volume. Scholars working in this vein have for the most part eschewed treatment of the final decade of the Cold War.


Carothers's account is one of the few historical treatments to deal exclusively with the role of democracy promotion in the region. Grandin also addresses the fact that Reagan adopted democracy promotion policies similar to Carter's in an effort to regain the moral high ground sacrificed by détente. Grandin writes: “it was largely in Central America where Reagan first forcefully embraced human rights and support for democracy as a legitimate objective of foreign policy.” Grandin's aim is to show how democracy promotion—largely as an exercise in rhetoric—became integral to U.S. counterinsurgency policy through the present day. See Grandin, Empire's Workshop, pp. 80–86. For a more sympathetic approach, which explores the way Reagan's commitment to U.S. political ideals motivated foreign policy and the contradictions inherent in such an approach, see Ariel David Adesnik, “Reagan's Democratic Crusade: Presidential Rhetoric and the Remaking of American Foreign Policy,” D. Phil. Diss., Oxford University, 2006. I thank David Adesnik for sharing his manuscript, along with some valuable insights.


For a celebratory but exhaustive account of Reagan's anti-Communism, see Peter Schweizer, Reagan's War: The Epic Story of his Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph over Communism (New York: Doubleday, 2002). For a brief, more critical account of Reagan's often impulsive relationship to themes of freedom, see Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History 1974–2008 (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), pp. 137–139.


Bill Peterson, “Is My Name on the List? There Is Great Interest in and Politicking over Sub-cabinet Jobs and Who Will Fill Them,” The Washington Post, 2 January 1981, p. A1.


Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1984), p. 64.


For the “Young Turks” comment, see source quoted in Josh M. Goshko, “Press Leaks from the Transition: Washington's Version of a Soap,” The Washington Post, 10 December 1980, p. A5.


On the Madison Group, see William Safire, “The Madison Group,” The New York Times, 4 December 1980, p. A31.




For the leaked transition report authored by Pedro San Juan, see Juan de Onis, “Reagan State Dept. Latin Team Asks Curbs on ‘Social Reformers,’” The New York Times, 4 December 1980, p. A1.


Don Cook, “The Foreign Service, Awaiting Haig's Pleasure, Puts Its Fears on Hold,” Los Angeles Times, 4 January 1981.


Haig, Caveat, pp. 68–71.


In December, defense secretary–designate Caspar Weinberger similarly dismissed the recommendations of Reagan's Defense Department transition team. When Weinberger appointed former Carter official Frank Carlucci as deputy secretary, the columnists Robert Novak and Rowland Evans noted a wave of panic among the “Reaganauts.” See Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Antidotes to Weinberger,” The Washington Post, 19 January 1981, p. A15.


Scholars have struggled to depict Reagan's ideology. Some see in Reagan's foreign policy deep strains of an ideology that fears collectivism and emphasizes the promotion of democratic values overseas to protect interests and security at home. See Kagan, Twilight Struggle and Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Schweizer in Reagan's War depicts Reagan's ideology as an experience-driven opposition to Communism. Seeing Reagan's ideology as a combination of geopolitical and moral anti-Communism helps to shed light on the conflicting ways that ideological precepts were translated into action. Edward Lynch argues in Last Battleground that anti-Communism naturally led to Reagan's support for democracy, stating that “Reagan was determined to stop Soviet intervention in Central America and to reverse the diplomatic and strategic gains that the Soviets had already made when Reagan came to office.” The “surest way to counter the efforts of the Soviets,” Reagan believed, was democracy promotion. See Lynch, Last Battlefield, pp. ix, 41–45. These two ideological goals were—at least initially—contradictory, and the tension between them the source of internal and external opposition.


For Reagan's view that détente forced the United States to negotiate from a position of weakness, see “Salt II Talks” in Kiron Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, eds., Reagan, in His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America (New York: The Free Press, 2001), pp. 84–85, and the editors’ commentary, p. 24.


Ronald Reagan, “Televised Address by Governor Ronald Reagan ‘A Strategy for Peace in the ‘80s,’” 19 October 1980, in Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (RRPL), http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/Reference/10.19.80.html.


Ronald Reagan, “State of the Union Speech,” 13 March 1980, in Skinner, Anderson and Anderson, eds. Reagan, in His Own Hand, pp. 471–479.


For a full treatment of Carter's human rights–based foreign policy, see Kathryn Sikkink, Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy in Latin America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004). For a discussion of human rights and non-interventionism within the larger framework of Carter's foreign policy, see Betty Glad, An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), pp. 70–72. For an early historical analysis of Carter's foreign policy motivations that explains the disconnect between Carter's personal values and his international leadership, see Gaddis Smith, Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986).


Pastor, Not Condemned, p. 189. Pastor notes that although the Carter administration had been reluctant to label the Sandinistas a Marxist-Leninist entity for fear of closing off opportunities for engagement, the Reagan administration enthusiastically applied the label during the campaign. Pastor admits that this view, “uncluttered with … complexities,” was politically appealing, but he suggests that it sowed seeds of ideological antagonism that the Reagan administration would be unable to overcome. Luigi Einaudi, director of policy planning for the State Department Bureau of Inter-American Affairs under Carter and Reagan, maintains that the Nicaraguan “dénouement” forced the Carter administration to reevaluate the morality of intervention: “The Carter people had tended to assume that what happened in Central America really wasn't all that much business of theirs, they couldn't influence it all that much anyway, indeed, maybe that it was immoral for them to try and influence it too much, and so forth.” See Max G. Manwaring and Court Prisk, eds., El Salvador at War: An Oral History of the Conflict from the 1979 Insurrection to the Present (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1988), p. 22.


LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, p. 43.


Reagan, “Strategy for Peace.”


A CIA report from 6 September 1978 notes that “since the group was formed, the Sandinistas have looked to Cuba for ideological inspiration, strategic guidance, tactical training, material support, and sanctuary.” The report also states that the group received safe haven in Costa Rica and was possibly receiving support from Venezuela. See “Nicaragua: The Sandinista Guerillas and Their International Links,” CIA Report, 6 September 1978, in Digital National Security Archive (DNSA), Nicaragua Collection.


See, for example, LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, p. 28.


See Leonev's account, detailed in Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (New York: Basic Books, 2005).


A State Department secret report produced in January 1980 concludes that “caution, borne out of respect for US power, and acknowledgment that the US views dimly any change in the balance of power in a neighboring region, has been the main guide to Soviet policies in the Western hemisphere.” However, the report went on to warn: “Moscow will increasingly test and probe for US limits,” using the Nicaraguan revolution to “build up its presence in legitimate ways wherever possible.” See “The Soviets in Latin America: Trends and Prospects,” State Department Secret Report, 25 January 1980, in DNSA, Nicaragua Collection.


See Yuri Pavlov, Soviet-Cuban Alliance 1959–1991 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 1994), p. 99. Pavlov, the Soviet ambassador to Costa Rica from 1982 to 1987, argues that Cuban and Soviet leaders disagreed over the efficacy of confronting the United States in Latin America. Détente had provided the Soviet Union with the opportunity to limit a costly arms race, to weaken U.S. influence in Western Europe, and to promote national liberation movements in the Third World. Although Moscow and Havana agreed on the third objective, Soviet leaders were more keenly aware that aggressive support for revolution in Latin America could jeopardize goals that were more important. Castro was frustrated by the outcomes of such prudence.


Ibid., p. 123.


See the interview with Elliott Abrams, “Reagan's Leadership: Mystery Man or Ideological Guide,” in Kenneth W. Thompson, ed., Foreign Policy in the Reagan Administration: Nine Intimate Perspectives, Miller Center Reagan Oral History Series, Vol. 3 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993), p. 185.


See, for example, Reagan, “Strategy for Peace,” in which the president stated plainly: “My administration will forge a new, more realistic policy toward our own hemisphere.”




See Gutman, Banana Diplomacy, pp. 30–31.


Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards” (1979), reprinted in Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), p. 45.


Ronald Reagan, “The President-Elect's News Conference in Los Angeles,” 6 November 1980, available online from Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid = 85231.


Warren Hoge, “Reagan Aides, in South America, Say He Would Not Favor Dictators,” The New York Times, 22 September 1980, p. A12.




Jeane Kirkpatrick, “U.S. Security and Latin America,” Commentary, Vol. 71, No. 1 (January 1981), p. 40.


“Dictatorships and Double Standards,” p. 51.


LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, p. 76.


Gutman, Banana Diplomacy, pp. 32–34.


As Elliott Abrams later put it, Weinberger “invented a set of rules that would have made it difficult to have conducted the American Revolution.” See Abrams, “Reagan's Leadership,” p. 7. See also Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), pp. 301–302.


Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 242.


Don Oberdorfer, “Haig Calls Terrorism Top Priority: Human Rights Goals Demoted as Concern of Foreign Policy,” The Washington Post, 29 January 1981, p. A1.


During a busy first week in office, Reagan recorded several of his first presidential diary entries on the topic of terrorism and Communism. On 26 January, Reagan wrote: “A meeting on terrorism with heads of the F.B.I.—S.S.—C.I.A., Sec's of State, defense & others. Have ordered they be given back their ability to function.” See Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries, Vol. 1, January 1981–October 1985, ed. by Douglas Brinkley (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 15.


Alan Riding, “Salvadoran Rebel Predicts Final Push: Says Offensive Will Begin before Reagan Takes Office Jan. 20,” The New York Times, 27 December 1980, p. A1.


On 27 January Reagan met with the returning hostages and their families. The following day he met with the Jamaican prime minister. See Reagan, Reagan Diaries, Vol. 1, p. 15.


Haig, Caveat, p. 127.


“Determination Considering Nicaraguan Support for Acts of Violence in other Countries,” Memorandum from Haig to the President, 26 January 1981, in DNSA, El Salvador Collection.






Pastor attributes the administration's slow response to its focus “on a limited agenda” and its slowness in appointing officials to key decision-making positions. See Pastor, Not Condemned, p. 190.


Haig, Caveat, p. 122.


See LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, pp. 82–85. Haig's near-obsession with confronting Castro frightened Reagan's political advisers, who quickly grew to see Haig as a liability. In late February, the Central Intelligence Agency developed a “broad proposal” for covert action to counter Cuban subversion in the hemisphere. See “Covert Action Proposal for Central America,” McFarlane to Haig, 27 February 1981, in DNSA, Nicaragua Collection.


U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA), Foreign Assistance Authorization for FY82: Hearing, 97th Cong., 1st Sess., 1981, p. 194.


“Press Guidance,” Cable No. 071375, State to Managua, 19 March 1981, in DNSA, Nicaragua Collection.


U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations (SCFR), Foreign Assistance Authorization for FY1982: Hearing, 97th Cong., 1st Sess., 1981, pp. 3–4.


HCFA, Foreign Assistance Authorization for FY82, p. 164.


Carothers, In the Name of Democracy, pp. 17–19. This familiar narrative pits NSC staff ideologues bent on military and covert intervention against State Department pragmatists who favored diplomacy and negotiation. That sort of juxtaposition, however, overlooks the broad consensus that eventually developed in favor of democracy promotion from individuals as disparate as Secretary of State Haig, National Security Adviser McFarlane, and Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliot Abrams. Nor does it account for the persistent anti-Communism exhibited by pragmatists like Enders and his successor, Anthony Motley. This is not to suggest that bureaucratic rivalries did not exist or affect policymaking, but infighting is inadequate to explain why after 1981 the administration shifted its focus from the threat of external subversion to internal politics.


The late Michael Deaver confirms in his 1987 memoir that Nancy Reagan “favored a diplomatic solution in Nicaragua” and skillfully influenced the president's thinking on the issues. See Michael K. Deaver with Mickey Herskowitz, Behind the Scenes: In Which the Author Talks about Ronald and Nancy Reagan … and Himself (New York: William Morrow, 1987), pp. 41–42. Deaver also recalls that on his first day of work James Baker cautioned him that “those guys down in the National Security Council want to get us into a war in Central America. Now, we’ll be out of here so fast it’ll make your head swim if we get ourselves involved in a war down there.” The two reportedly made a “pact” to stifle the belligerent initiatives of the NSC staff. See “Interview with Michael Deaver,” Ronald Reagan Oral History Project, Miller Center Presidential Oral History Program, 12 September 2002, http://web1.millercenter.org/poh/transcripts/ohp_2002_0912_deaver.pdf.


Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 173.


Reagan, Reagan Diaries, Vol. 1, p. 29.


“US White Paper on El Salvador,” The Christian Science Monitor, 26 February 1981.


See Cannon, Role of a Lifetime, p. 163.


Josh M. Goshko, “U.S. Prepares to Aid Salvador in First Test of Reagan Policy,” The Washington Post, 14 February 1981, p. A1.


Carlos Fuentes, “Latins’ Pressing Questions,” The New York Times, 5 March 1981, p. A23.


Juan de Onis, “Reagan Aide Refuses to Rule Out Action against Cuba on Salvador,” The New York Times, 23 February 1981, p. A1.


Chief of Staff Edwin Meese spoke publicly about the possibility of quarantining Cuba, and Senator Charles Percy backed the administration's push to resume military aid. Although Percy deflected questions about U.S. troop involvement, he declined to “rule out any options.” See Bernard Gwertzman, “More Salvador Aid Backed in Congress,” The New York Times, 18 February 1981, p. A1.


Memorandum from Haig to Reagan, “Elections or Negotiations in El Salvador,” 27 February 1981, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files: Executive Secretariat, NSC: Country Files, Box 30, El Salvador.


See LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, pp. 118–124, for a summary of what LeoGrande calls “the Enders initiative.”


Thomas Enders, El Salvador: the Search for Peace,” Speech before the World Affairs Council, 16 July 1981, in DNSA El Salvador Collection 1977–1984.




See Grandin, Empire's Workshop, p. 84.


Laurence I. Barrett, “An Interview with Ronald Reagan,” Time, Vol. 117, No. 1 (5 January 1981), p. 32.


Dario Moreno usefully characterizes the policies outlined by Enders as a program of “controlled evolution” that sought to harness inevitable economic and political changes that were already underway, without threatening the overall objective of stability. Although Moreno acknowledges that Reagan's policies were a continuation of Carter’s, he notes that under Reagan “the United States supported a new alliance between the military and conservative elements within the middle class (excluding the oligarchy) in order to maintain regional stability in the wake of the Nicaraguan revolution. The strategy of these conservative-reformist regimes … combined social and economic reform to co-opt the democratic left, with repression of the revolutionary left to assuage the right's fear of reform.” See Moreno, Struggle for Peace, p. 16.


“Duarte Views Private Sector, Backs Enders Speech,” trans. from Agence France-Presse, 18 July 1981, in U.S. Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), Latin America, 22 July 1981, p. 12.


“Venceremos Reports Enders’ Speech on Aid to Regime,” trans. from Radio Venceremos (San Salvador), 18 July 1981, in FBIS, Latin America, 22 July 1981, p. 8.


“Duarte Dismisses Rumors of Government Fall,” trans. from Agence France-Presse, 8 July 1981, in FBIS, Latin America, 8 July 1981, p. 4.


“CCE Urges Prompt Promulgation of Law on Parties,” trans. from Agence France-Presse, 9 July 1981, in FBIS, Latin America, 15 July 1981, p. 5.


“Duarte Urges All to Take Part,” trans. from San Salvador Domestic Service (San Salvador), 11 July 1981, in FBIS, Latin America, 15 July 1981, pp. 5–6.


“U.S. Positions on Future Elections Criticized,” trans. from “The Cures Prescribed by Officious Healers,” El diario de hoy (San Salvador), 14 July 1981, in FBIS, Latin America, 16 July 1981, pp. 2–3.


“Duarte Views Private Sector,” FBIS.


Arnson, Crossroads, p. 69.


Haig wrote, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff were chastened by our experience in Vietnam, in which our troops performed with admirable success but were declared to have been defeated.” Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was particularly emphatic about avoiding another Vietnam. See Haig, Caveat, p. 128; and Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 171. For an illustration of Vietnam's effects on the policy debates, see, for example, SCFR, The Situation in El Salvador: Hearings, 97th Cong., 1st Sess., 18 March and 9 April 1981, pp. 25–27.


Memorandum, Haig to Reagan, “The Risk of Losing in El Salvador and What Can Be Done about It,” 11 August 1981, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files, NSC: Meeting Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 91282, Folder “NSC 00020 17 Aug 1981.”


Memorandum, Haig to Reagan, “Your Meeting at the White House with President Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, 11:30 am, Monday, September 21, 1981,” 19 September 1981, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files, NSC: Country Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 30, Folder “El Salvador (06/01/1981–12/31/1981).”


NSC Meeting Minutes, “Strategy toward Cuba and Central America” 10 November 1981, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files, NSC: Meeting Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 3, Folder “NSC Mtg 0024.”


On 16 November, Reagan wrote in his diary, “we have decided on a plan of covert actions etc. to block the Cuban aid to Nicaragua and El Salvador. There is no question but that all of Central Am. is targeted for a Communist takeover.” See Reagan, Reagan Diaries, Vol. 1, p. 85.


“National Security Decision Directive on Cuba and Central America,” 17 November 1981, Federation of American Scientists, http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsdd/nsdd-017.htm.




Kagan, Twilight Struggle, pp. 202–203.


Reagan made an abstruse reference in a diary entry on 16 October that may have reflected his trepidation about the use of covert activity. “An N.S.C. meeting,” he wrote, “that has left me with the most profound decision I’ve ever had to make. Central America is really the world's next hotspot. Nicaragua is an armed camp supplied by Cuba and threatening Communist takeover of all Central America.” Reagan, Reagan Diaries, Vol. 1, p. 76. For the circumstances surrounding the finding, see Pastor, Not Condemned, p. 195; Gutman, Banana Diplomacy, p. 85; and LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, p. 143.


Arnson, Crossroads, p. 79.


On Reagan's declared aim to bring the FSLN to the negotiating table, see LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, p. 285. On the lowball option, see Kagan, Twilight Struggle, pp. 200–207.


Elliott Abrams, interview, Washington, DC, 27 April 2010.


Abrams, “Reagan's Leadership,” p. 106. Incipient attempts at working out a conservative human rights policy actually took place in early 1981. These were primarily led by Carnes Lord of the NSC staff under the direction of National Security Adviser Richard Allen. The outcome of this effort is unclear and has not been cited as an influence on the later thinking of Abrams. See memorandum, Lord to Allen, “Talking Points on Human Rights” 19 February 1981, in RRPL, Human Rights, WHORM: Subject File.


Tim Russert, who succeeded Abrams in Moynihan's office, quipped: “When he was a Democrat he had a snazzy house on Capitol Hill, a Mazda RX7 sports car, and he liked to walk around town … Now that he's a Republican, he's a jogger, he lives in an A-Frame house in northwest Washington, drives a station wagon, and has one and a half kids.” Judith Miller, “A Neoconservative for Human Rights Post: Elliott Abrams,” The New York Times, 31 October 1981, p. A7.


Elliott Abrams, “What Is a Liberal? Who Is a Conservative,” Commentary, Vol. 62, No. 3 (September 1976), p. 32.


“Excerpts from State Department Memo on Human Rights,” The New York Times, 5 November 1981, p. A10. Kagan, arguing that the memorandum represented the nascent Reagan Doctrine, attributes it to Elliot Abrams in Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 210. Abrams confirmed, in an interview with the author, 27 April 2010, that he was the author of the memorandum.


Memorandum for the Secretary of State, “Presidential Determination 82-4: Determination to Authorize Continued Assistance for El Salvador,” 28 January 1981, in DNSA, El Salvador Collection.


See Barbara Crossette, “U.S. Disputes Report of 926 Killed in El Salvador,” The New York Times, 2 February 1982, p. A1.


See Deane R. Hinton, Confidential Cable No. 00773, San Salvador to Department of State, Washington, 31 January 1982, in DNSA, El Salvador Collection; and Leigh Binford, The El Mozote Massacre: Anthropology and Human Rights (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), pp. 50–52.


HCFA, Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, Presidential Certification on El Salvador: Hearings, 97th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1982, pp. 11–13.




Ibid., pp. 38–39.


Ibid., p. 20.


Ibid., p. 17.


Ibid., pp. 24–25, 27.


Ibid., p. 41.


Ibid., p. 61.


SCFR, Certification Concerning Military Aid to El Salvador: Hearings, 97th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1982, p. 18.


Reagan, Reagan's Diaries, Vol. 1, p. 108.


Ronald Reagan, “Remarks on the Caribbean Basin Initiative to the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States,” 24 February 1982, available online in Woolley and Peter, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid = 42202.


Confidential Cable No. 2466, San Salvador to Department of State, 23 March 1982, in DNSA, El Salvador Collection.


Haig, Memorandum to the President, 8 March 1982, in Declassified Document Reference System (DDRS), No. CK3100537447.




Ibid. For a brief summary of the rise of Solidarity and the ensuing Communist crackdown, see Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin Press, 2005), pp. 587–589.


Haig, Memorandum to the President, 8 March 1982.


Cable No. 89533, San Salvador to State Department, 15 December 1981, in DNSA, El Salvador Collection.


Ronald Reagan, “The President's News Conference,” 31 March 1982, available online in Woolley and Peters, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid = 42346.


Ronald Reagan, “Address to Members of the British Parliament,” 8 June 1982, available online in Woolley and Peters, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid = 42614.


On Reagan's insertion, see Adesnik, “Reagan's Democratic Crusade,” pp. 191–192.


David Adesnik writes the change of mood after the success of elections in El Salvador: “Instead of thinking about America's democratic values as a burden that prevented it from fighting Communism more effectively, Reagan began to think of America's values as the most potent weapons in its anti-Communist arsenal. In short, Reagan converted himself to the Wilsonian faith of Democratic Cold Warriors such as Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy.” In keeping with his main thesis, Adesnik notes: “At times, Reagan's instincts came into conflict with his newfound faith and prevented him from behaving as one might expect of a true Wilsonian.” See Adesnik, “Reagan's Democratic Crusade,” p. 168.


Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 213.


Ronald Reagan, “Two Worlds,” in Skinner, Anderson, and Anderson, eds., In His Own Hand, p. 13.


Beginning in September 1981, the U.S. embassy had arranged with William Kimberling of the Federal Election Commission to meet with Salvadoran political parties and to make recommendations about technical assistance and resources necessary to ensure the elections proceeded as planned. The State Department retained Kimberling through April 1982 and used his guidance—together with that of outside experts from conservative think tanks—to advise the CCE on how to forestall electoral fraud. The consultations placed a heavy emphasis on procedure, with the goal of “achieving the greatest possible national and international public confidence in the election process and outcome.” See Memorandum from William Kimberling, “Notes on the Upcoming Election in El Salvador,” 5 November 1981, in DNSA, El Salvador Collection. Based on the administration's advice, the State Department arranged for a $200,000 purchase of dye, which was delivered by the CIA. Salvadoran voters could dip their fingers into it to verify that they had already voted. Mid-level officials’ and diplomats’ increasing involvement in political procedure was not accompanied by any serious reappraisal of the aims of U.S. policy at high levels. See “Salvadoran Elections,” CIA Document, 22 January 1982, in DNSA, El Salvador Collection.


LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, p. 160.


John Brecher, “Government by Gridlock?” Newsweek, 3 May 1982, p. 42.


LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, pp. 178--180.


Terry Karl, “Exporting Democracy: The Unanticipated Effects of U.S. Electoral Policy in El Salvador,” in Nora Hamilton et al., eds., Crisis in Central America: Regional Dynamics and U.S. Policy in the 1980s (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989), p. 174.


“President Magaña News Conference on Policies,” trans. from San Salvador Domestic Service, 3 May 1982, in FBIS, Latin America, 6 May 1982, p. 3.


LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, p. 171.


U.S. Congress, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, Presidential Certification on El Salvador (Volume II), 97th Cong., 2nd Sess., June-August 1982, p. 11.


Ibid., p. 12.


Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 213.


“Country Report,” U.S. Department of State, 25 May 1982, in DNSA, Nicaragua Collection.


Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 214.


George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993), pp. 128–130.


Ibid., pp. 129–130.


Ibid., p. 291.


For one account of NSC-Defense-CIA opposition to Shultz's diplomatic initiatives, see Constantine Menges, Inside the National Security Council: The True Story of the Making and Unmaking of Reagan's Foreign Policy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 147.


Abrams, “Reagan's Leadership,” p. 106.


Memorandum from Abrams to Clark, 29 April 1983, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files, William P. Clark Files, Box 1, Folder “Central America April–June 1983.”




“Issues and Objectives Paper for President's Latin America Trip,” 22 November 1982, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files, NSC: Meeting Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 91284, Folder “NSC 00067 23 Nov 1982.”


Department of State, “Report on the Situation in El Salvador with Respect to the Subjects Covered in Section 728 (d) of the International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1981,” 21 January 1983, pp. 2–3, in DNSA, El Salvador Collection.


Ibid., pp. 22–24.


Ibid., p. 3.






Memorandum from Shultz to Reagan, “Calling Salvador President Magaña,” 5 April 1983, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files, NSC: Country Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 30, Folder “El Salvador 03/01/1983–06/06/1983.”


Bernard Weinraub, “Reagan Policy in Central America: After 2 Years, Tough Tone Softens,” The New York Times, 25 January 1983, p. A1.


SCFR, Presidential Certifications on Conditions in El Salvador: Hearing, 97th Cong., 1st Sess.,1983, p. 127


LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, p. 187.


For an excellent summary of this incident and its role in Enders's ouster, see Cannon, Role of a Lifetime, pp. 327–328.


For background on the deportation order, see Julia Preston, “Salvadoran May Face Deportation for Murders,” The New York Times, 23 February 2012, p. A17.


Memorandum of Conversation, Reagan Meeting with Magaña, 10 June 1983, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files, NSC: Country Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 30, Folder “El Salvador, 01/01/1983–10/31/1983.”


Shultz to O’Neill, 20 July 1983, in RRPL, White House Staff and Office Files, NSC: Country Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 30, Folder “El Salvador, 01/01/1983–10/31/1983.”


See Robert C. McFarlane with Zofia Smardz, Special Trust (New York: Cadell & Davies, 1994), pp. 279–281.


Ibid., p. 310.


Ibid., p. 312.


“Public Diplomacy Strategy Paper,” U.S. Department of State, 5 May 1983, in DNSA, Nicaragua Collection.


“Enhanced U.S. Military Activity and Assistance in the Central American Region (NSC-NSDD-100),” 28 July 1983, available online at Federation of American Scientists, http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsdd/nsdd-100.htm.




The administration recognized the need to “gain bipartisan support for a sensibly tough and ambitious policy toward central America” and had seen to it that conservative elements of the Democratic Party were well represented. See Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 309.


Henry Kissinger, Report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984) p. 2.


Ibid., p. 4.


Ibid., p. 2.


“Radio Sandino Views Kissinger Report on C.A.,” trans. from Radio Sandino Network (Managua), 12 January 1984, in FBIS, Latin America, 13 January 1984, p. 14.


See Philip Taubman, “C.I.A. Said to Aid Salvador Parties,” The New York Times, 12 May 1984, p. A6. Taubman reports that the CIA gave $960,000 to the Christian Democrats and $437,000 to the National Conciliation Party, with the intention of blocking ARENA. The remaining $700,000 was unaccounted for. See also Jeff Gerth, “C.I.A. Has Long Sought to Sway Foreign Voters,” The New York Times, 13 May 1984, p. A12; and LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard, pp. 247–249.


Steven V. Roberts, “Reagan Defends Aide in El Salvador Assailed by Helms,” The New York Times, 4 May 1984, p. A1.


Ronald Reagan, “Address to the Nation on United States Policy in Central America” 9 May 1984, available online in Woolley and Peters, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid = 39901.












Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 295. On Soviet weakness, see Judt, Postwar, pp. 577–584.


Memorandum from Shultz to Reagan, 18 May 1984, in RRPL, NSC Country Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 30, Folder “El Salvador (4/1/84–5/31/84).”


Memorandum from Charles Hill to Robert C. McFarlane, 26 July 1984, in RRPL, NSC Country Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 30, Folder “El Salvador (11/23/1983–03/19/1984) [too late to file].”




Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 424.


Memorandum from Shultz to Weinberger, Casey, and McFarlane, 23 July 1984, in RRPL, NSC Country Files, Executive Secretariat, Box 32, Folder “Nicaragua 11/1/83–7/31/84.”


Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 324.


Ibid., pp. 333–334.


Note from Reagan to General Mejia, 11 July 1984, in RRPL, Constantine Menges Files, Box 90378, Folder “Guatemala (1).”


See Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 346.


Ronald Reagan, “Inaugural Address,” 27 January 1985, available online in Woolley and Peters, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid = 38688.


Charles Krauthammer, “The Reagan Doctrine,” Time, 1 April 1985. Krauthammer celebrated the doctrine, but he was critical of the administration's case that it respected sovereignty. Instead, he believed the value of the doctrine was that it “dropped the fig leaf” and declared U.S. support for armed revolution both moral and prudent.


See Scott, Deciding to Intervene, p. 4.


Kagan, Twilight Struggle, p. 352.


Abrams, “Reagan's Leadership,” p. 108.