In the late 1960s, my sixth-grade class had a unit on Latin America. Every few days, we would turn to a different country. The textbook provided basic facts: date of independence, capital city, population, major industries, literacy rate and per capita income in dollars. These disclosures must have been intended in part to help us empathize, and we did understand that the literacy and income figures were quite low in comparison to the US. But for preteens with few if any financial responsibilities, or even what our parents did for a living, the week after week repetition of dismal numbers did not make much of an impact. I’m still pretty good with capital cities though. Caracas, Managua, Quito,Tegucigalpa!
Among the shortcomings of this pedagogical approach, the greatest was its context: it was delivered in the middle of the Cold War. Countries were either allies, enemies or potential problems for the US, and countries in the Americas didn’t have much of a choice. The Monroe Doctrine had long ensured that the US would “protect” the Western Hemisphere from outside influence. Cuba had shown what might happen without vigilance.
In light of the Cold War’s result, it might seem petty for a fortunate US citizen to belabor the adverse side effects - - “toxicities” to borrow the medical term - - of many foreign interventions. But in places like Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala and Iran, we are still living with the consequences. It’s part of a longer history of exported violence with terrible outcomes. These outcomes rarely become election issues in the US until the fallout becomes visible: when poor people reach our borders or former allies start building nuclear weapons.
To be sure, the Soviet Union also left wreckage all over the world. In The Global Cold War, historian Odd Arne Westad concluded that “[t]he Soviet leaders who had brought about the intervention [in Afghanistan] were, by the end of the 1980s, seen as fools or knaves . . . For many, Soviet allies in the Third World seemed to perform a mockery of the advanced socialist humanism that they viewed themselves as representing.” This could have been the epitaph for any number of US alliances. The difference, as Westad has observed, is that the Cold War’s favorable outcome for the US could more easily be seen as obscuring the objectively awful results as mere collateral damage.
Despite a number of dramatic failures, CIA-sponsored military “projects” - - the intelligence community’s neutral term - - continued all the way through the Iran-Contra scandal, the last misbegotten intervention before the German people stunningly breached the Berlin Wall in 1989. But the CIA did not come out of nowhere. The US had been declaring its overseas interests and sending the marines, in some incarnation, almost from the beginning of the republic. It’s a part of our history that gets overshadowed by more dramatic conflicts, the Civil War and World Wars. As with the legacies of slavery and Indian displacement, we may find it uncomfortable to recall that the US often benefitted from exploitative business arrangements, especially in the Caribbean and Central America. But our failure to recall puts us at a distinct disadvantage, because the countries on the receiving end have proven to have very long memories.
At the time of independence, the new United States was small and isolated in the Americas. Spanish colonies had been pulling silver out of the mountains of Peru and Mexico for centuries. Most of the other European settlements, as well as the southern US states, were plantation economies, growing crops for export. Vast stretches of both American continents were still populated exclusively by indigenous peoples. The US was also different. It was a republic with elected leaders, unlike almost anything in the world. Some of its northern states were the first in the Americas to have diversified economies that did not depend almost exclusively on slavery or other less-than-voluntary labor.
In context, the United States’ early expansion - - acquiring the “Old Northwest,” trans-Appalachia, Florida, the Louisiana Purchase - - did have a defensive aspect, removing powerful European rivals from the borders, although this was hardly the sole motivation. The same was true of the Monroe Doctrine. Following the Bolivarian independence revolutions, the new South America countries were friendly to the US (and less powerful than Spain). In 1823, President Monroe warned European states against future interference in the Americas. At the time, the US did not have remotely enough firepower to enforce this presumptuous pledge, probably not even enough to control all of its own territorial claims, but as a statement of national policy it had to be seen as a gesture of support for the new countries and a complicating factor for European powers (especially Spain). The policy was crafted by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who was not an unrestrained supporter of expansion; two decades later, he was one of very few House members to vote against the Mexican War.
The country’s priorities soon changed, and the Monroe Doctrine would get a much different interpretation. US expansionists dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Mexican War (1845-6), the final wars against the American Indians (1860-1890) and the Spanish-American War (1898), completed American transcontinental expansion, added official overseas territories in Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, plus hegemony in Cuba and Central America. All were to some extent wars of aggression, or at least of choice; none of these “enemies” had posed a threat to US territory.
In newly independent Cuba, the US did not withdraw its occupying forces until Cuba added the Platt amendment to its new constitution in 1901. As Ada Ferrer explains in Cuba: An American History, Connecticut Senator Orville Platt insisted that the Cuban constitution acknowledge a US the right to intervene military in order to preserve Cuban “independence” or to maintain an “orderly” government. The subjectivity of these conditions would hobble Cuban leaders for decades. (Noting that anyone living in the Western Hemisphere is in the Americas, Ferrer also cites the linguistic arrogance of those who use “Americans” to refer to US residents, something I must confess to have done elsewhere.) The US also engineered the separation of Panama from the stubborn Colombian government, paving the way (pardon the expression) for American completion of the Panama Canal from 1904-1914.
Overall, the US protected its economic interests, as much or more than its security interests, with twenty military interventions in nominally independent Latin American and Caribbean countries (including French-speaking Haiti) in the period 1898 to 1920 alone. Even President Wilson, the famous proponent of self-determination (for some), ordered or continued military interventions in Haiti, Nicaragua and Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). The US had boots on the ground in Nicaragua for over 20 years, withdrawing only in 1933, in the depths of the Depression, and only after the US military had chased Augusto Sandino’s insurgents into the mountains and trained the domestic Guardia Nacional to preserve order. The Guardia’s commander, Anastasio Somoza, had Sandino assassinated the very next year, and the Somoza family would dominate the country for the next 40 years.
Similarly, despite the country’s turn to extreme isolationism in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the US sent a battleship and two destroyers to Havana harbor in September 1933, after the Sergeants’ Revolt put the reformist Ramon Grau San Martin briefly into the Cuban presidency and formally eliminated the Platt amendment. Although the Roosevelt administration did not put soldiers onshore, US ambassador Jefferson Caffery delayed diplomatic recognition, threatening to strangle the economy, until a countercoup by Cuban military leader Fulgencio Batista put a more acceptable administration in place in 1934.
These interventions, and the implicit threat of others, enabled even more thorough economic dominance. In 1929, just before the Depression, of the five Central American states’ collective $97 million in exports, $54 million were from coffee and $31 million from bananas. The US was the leading export market for each country except El Salvador (where Germany led). The profits of each country’s export business accrued mostly to US companies, especially the United Fruit Company, known as “La Frutera,” and US banking, utility and rail interests, which dominated in every country. Similarly, in 1926, US-owned mills produced 63 per cent of Cuba’s principal export, sugar. These are stunning statistics. That same profitability enabled the companies to displace local - - in Central America, largely Indian - - farmers from much of the agricultural land, and to set prices for labor in agricultural industries not noted for generous wages or comfortable working conditions.
Smedley Butler, a famous Marine Corps commander, later regretted his role: “I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12 [and] helped make Honduras ‘right’ for American fruit companies in 1903 . . . I might have given Al Capone a few hints.” This was not ancient history in 1945-’46, at the start of the Cold War. In 1948, nearly 80% of Central American exports went to the US. US military and economic power dominated the region.
During the Cold War, the US government would quite rightly, and without evident self-consciousness, object to Soviet dominance over its Eastern European neighbors, especially Soviet military interventions to suppress uprisings in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).
All US anti-communist projects were overshadowed by the Vietnam War, the Ahab-like obsession of two generations of US leaders of both parties, and a tragedy for victims and victors alike. Vietnam, the extreme result, did prompt a brief period of cautious reconsideration, and a lot of great movies in the 1970s and 1980s that also reflected on the US experience - - mostly to the exclusion of the Vietnamese.
Beyond the highly visible spectacle of Vietnam, it was not until the 1980s that two widely released movies dealt with US-sponsored anti-communist activities in other developing countries. 1 Like the American films about Vietnam, both films have the limitation that they tell their stories from the perspective of Western protagonists; interestingly both feature the reliably unreliable Michael Murphy in supporting roles that do not cast the American presence in a flattering light.
The better film is The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), by Australian director Peter Weir, with Mel Gibson in the lead as Guy Hamilton, a young Australian reporter in his first overseas assignment amid the political turmoil in Indonesia in 1965. Billy Kwan, an Indonesian photographer with dwarfism (played by Linda Hunt in an Oscar-winning performance) befriends Guy and gets him access to important sources (as well as a meeting with Jill Bryant, a beautiful British attaché played by Sigourney Weaver), while trying to educate him that Indonesian culture prizes a balance between the rational and the spiritual. Guy values the introductions but, to Billy’s frustration, the message of balance does not sink in; instead, Guy uses information received in confidence from Jill in a news story that advances his career.
Indonesia’s poverty is repeatedly contrasted with the gilded and carefully guarded life of the Western ex-pats. Guy and Jill flirt at the British embassy’s swimming pool, and the Western reporters party at the house of a British journalist and his Indonesian male partner. Guy later learns that his driver is a member of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), who explains his motivation by asking why an intelligent man can live well in Australia but not in Indonesia. In the end, Guy narrowly escapes the imposition of martial law following the military takeover and reunites with Jill as the last airplane out closes its doors. And without any need to show the bloodshed that followed.
While the actual political events may not be fully understood by historians, it is clear that General Suharto, a close Washington ally, took power from the elected President Sukarno on October 1, 1965, ostensibly to protect Sukarno and the country from a communist uprising, or possibly as part of a pre-planned coup. In any case, the movie ends before the real crime began. In the ensuing years, perhaps half a million Indonesians were murdered in the name of anti-communism, and Suharto did not relinquish his position or restore democracy. Josh Oppenheimer’s remarkable documentary The Act of Killing (2012) preserves the officially repressed history of this near genocide in the clearest way imaginable, by interviewing aging perpetrators who calmly recount how and where they did their work.
The second movie is Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), based loosely on true events that took place around 1980. Stone is not known for subtlety, and I cannot recommend the film as a cinematic experience. But Stone deserves credit for his unflinching portrayal of real-life violence by the Salvadoran military and government-aligned death squads, including the murder of liberal Archbishop Romero and the abduction and murder of four American nuns who provided aid to the campesinos. The film also highlights the US role, with most of the American officials parroting incoming President Reagan’s line that leftist insurgents were terrorists or outside agitators from communist governments in Nicaragua and/or Cuba, and that eventually a series of communist takeovers might present a threat to the US. In the film, the insurgents’ push for the capital nearly succeeds, only to be turned back by US-supplied tanks and aircraft. The economic desperation that motivated the rural FMLN groups is left mostly unexplained. “They’re not just killing Indians,” a veteran photographer warns the film’s protagonist (James Woods) in an unintentionally cringe-worthy moment. For the most part, though, they were.
The fear of communism in the US arose almost from the publication of Das Kapital in the mid 19th century, approximately in parallel with the country’s increasing domination of Central America and Cuba. Among other things, Marx and Engels did mean to provoke. They wrote that capitalism was a phase that would pass naturally and inevitably, the production of goods would become so efficient that cost would no longer be a concern, and everyone would have what they needed. This was almost religious: the economic version of the immaculate conception. The threat of class conflict was clear enough, though, and as a result neither communism nor the broader ideas of socialism ever got much political traction in the US.
Soon after World War I and the Russian Revolution, a series of bombings in the US, and fear of the spread of the strange ideas themselves, terrified leaders in Washington. President Wilson’s Attorney General Mitchell Palmer authorized a massive, mostly illegal sweep against suspected domestic communists in 1919 and 1920. Because of the supposedly foreign source of these ideas, the Palmer Raids focused on deporting immigrants - - politically safe targets in a war-weary nation. They also launched the career of J. Edgar Hoover.
It was not until World War II, and the end of US isolationism, that the government began direct support of anti-communist partisans overseas. The first effort was in China, where the Roosevelt administration had given extensive military support during World War II to the Guomindang led by Chiang Kai-Shek, and none to Mao’s communist army, though both had vowed to prioritize expelling the Japanese, their common enemy. President Truman continued to support Chiang in the civil war period following the Japanese defeat, but by 1949 Chiang’s far better-armed forces were routed by Mao’s far more loyal and better organized armies.
No soul-searching resulted from the collapse of this well-supported ally; almost everybody in the US was a committed Cold Warrior by then. In March 1947, Truman announced that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” This was his successful pitch for Congressional approval to support the British-allied Greek government in its fight against Greek communists. (It was assumed in the US, incorrectly as it turned out, that the Greek communists were fighting at Stalin’s direction, that is, that the Greek conflict was a battle against Soviet expansionism.)
The Truman Doctrine laid the policy groundwork for open-ended interventions against communism abroad, although his administration’s most important actions were public rather than covert. They created and implemented the Marshall Plan to revive the Western European economies, provided financial assistance and public support to center-right coalitions against communist parties in critical French and Italian elections, sponsored the Berlin airlift and gave military support to Greek partisans in the Greek civil war. Combined with the Soviets’ own blunders - - the attempted blockade of West Berlin, the overthrow of a moderate Czech government and, most importantly, prohibiting the Soviet bloc states from participating in the Marshall plan - - the Truman administration actions helped remove communist parties as political factors in Western Europe.
Republicans trashed him anyway. They argued that he had “lost China” and claimed that his State Department and other agencies harbored communist sympathizers. With greater plausibility, they blamed Secretary of State Acheson for inadvertently omitting Korea in a speech outlining US interests in East Asia, thus perhaps leading Stalin to acquiesce in Kim Il Sun’s 1950 invasion plans. (Or, given Kim’s ambitions and rivalry with Mao, a territorial war may have been inevitable.) From that time until at least the early 1970s and Nixon’s outreach to China, US political leaders of almost every stripe found it necessary to demonstrate their hard line.
Anti-communist tactics changed in the 1950s. Administrations of both parties increasingly depended on semi-secret “covert” actions, often involving the use of force. For example: Eisenhower green-lighted coups in Iran and Guatemala, as well as direct US involvement with the Diem regime in South Vietnam following the French defeat and withdrawal; Kennedy approved the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and the coup against President Diem in Vietnam; Johnson supported brutal anti-communist actions in the Dominican Republic and Indonesia; Nixon took secret military actions in Cambodia and Laos, and helped topple Chile’s democratically elected President Allende.
To be sure, most CIA operations conformed to accepted practices (such as they were) for intelligence gathering and development of sources, and only a small fraction were military or paramilitary in nature. And these more extreme projects were not always unsuccessful in the short term, from the US perspective. The problem was that they became almost a foreign policy default rather than a last resort: a form of action that didn’t require any complicated or time-consuming negotiations or political explanation. The secrecy and the need for only narrow executive branch approval created a kind of regulatory arbitrage, in which covert action ran ahead of public and private diplomacy, which required the much more cumbersome and time-consuming process of forging consensus among interested parties. These ostensibly easier and faster actions had collateral consequences in the target countries, which were nearly impossible to predict, much less control. By one count, there were over 900 “major or sensitive” covert action “projects” (defined to include secret foreign political or propaganda activities as well as military aid and paramilitary actions) between 1961 and 1975 alone, along with thousands of smaller projects.
Surprisingly, much of what we know about CIA history comes from government studies and reports about the organization and purview of the intelligence community. Many of these, more amazingly, focus on implementing controls over covert actions, an eternal aspiration never fully realized. One prominent example is the Doolittle report of 1954. This report is sometimes quoted out of context, but it reflects a life-or-death fear of the Soviet Union that was very common at the time.
In a bipartisan gesture barely conceivable today, President Truman had asked former Republican President Herbert Hoover to lead a review of the executive branch structure and management; President Eisenhower had liked Truman’s idea and asked Hoover to lead a second commission. When it came to CIA covert activities, however, Eisenhower took the review offline. In July 1954, he asked Air Force General James Doolittle to chair a top-secret review of covert activities that would in effect be carved out of the Hoover committee’s broader and more public reporting. Doolittle wasn’t just any general; he was a World War II hero for flying an amazing, morale-boosting mission to drop bombs on Tokyo in 1942, in the earliest days of US involvement in the Pacific, and long before the US launched the controversial firestorms of March 1945. Eisenhower appointed three prominent Republican businessmen, one of whom, William Pawley, was also an aviator and CIA veteran, to Doolittle’s committee.
By September 30, 1954, the group delivered its report. Its specific recommendations seemed like routine business consulting advice: hire more high-quality personnel, improve security, coordinate with other agencies reporting up to the National Security Council (in effect, the President), and streamline operations. But in the introduction, the panel went well beyond what was needed to justify these operational recommendations, in order to emphasize the urgency and importance of the agency’s mission. It was vital, first of all, that the intelligence agencies “be strengthened and coordinated to the greatest possible degree.” A second consideration, “less tangible but equally important” was described as follows:
It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of “fair play” must be reconsidered. We must develop espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods that those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.
We should remember that this report came out only a year after the end of the Korean War, the Cold War’s only hot war, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteer” troops fought directly against the US army, seemingly without regard to casualties. It was also only a year since the end of Stalin’s brutal rule, and considerable uncertainty remained, even in the Soviet Union, about who or what might succeed him. We should also remember that the fundamentally repugnant recommendation of abandoning prior “norms of human conduct” was the view of four hand-picked friends of Eisenhower’s, and hardly a consensus view of US citizens, who at the time of course did not have access to the top-secret report. But it was the view of many in the intelligence community, and it only took a few such people, plus the President, to launch covert actions.
Security was duly tightened, and the results of covert actions did not attract attention unless things went quite wrong.
The calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961 was the most prominent example, a project so badly conceived and executed that it spawned the term “groupthink.” But the post-mortems focused on avoiding future screw-ups. The policy question was little debated: was it even a good idea to try to invade Cuba and topple the Castro regime?
Cuba was just a warm-up. Vietnam brought out a raft of skeletons. In a decidedly un-biblical chain of events, policy and military failures in Vietnam begat the Pentagon Papers (yet another internal study) which, when leaked to and published by the New York Times and Washington Post, begat President Nixon’s “plumbers” unit (designed to fix leaks, get it) which upon their inevitable mission creep begat the screwed-up political burglary at the Watergate office complex which begat Senate and House hearings and Nixon’s impeachment and, to return to our point, stunning disclosures about intelligence service activities at the FBI and CIA.
These disclosures led to widespread public skepticism about covert projects, perhaps for the first time since World War II. Congress, under Democratic control after Watergate, asserted the right to conduct oversight and both House and Senate committees conducted reviews. In its 1975 report, the Senate committee, chaired by Frank Church (D, Idaho), provided examples to support the need for greater political accountability:
The Bay of Pigs fiasco, the secret war in Laos, the secret bombing of Cambodia, the anti-Allende activities in Chile, the Watergate affair, were all instances of the use of power, cloaked in secrecy which, when revealed, provoked widespread popular disapproval.
The committee also raised questions about some of the more extreme methods used:
What can properly be concealed from . . . the American people? Assassination plots? The overthrow of an elected democratic government? Drug testing on unwitting American citizens? . . . Attempts by an agency of the government to blackmail a civil rights leader? These have occurred and each has been withheld from scrutiny by the public and the Congress by the label ‘secret intelligence.”
The committee absolved the US from complicity in any successful assassinations, but not because it hadn’t tried. The US government initiated and participated in unsuccessful plots to assassinate Patrice Lumumba of Congo (who was later killed by domestic opponents) and Fidel Castro. In addition, the US government had encouraged coup plots that resulted, incidentally as it were, in the killings of Presidents Diem of South Vietnam (1963) and Trujillo of the Dominican Republic (1961) and General Schneider of Chile (1970). (Schneider, commander in chief of the Chilean Army, had disappointed US operatives by allowing the elected president Salvador Allende to take office.)
Absent from the committee’s list is any reference to the killings of ordinary citizens by US-backed regimes once in place: the half million or more in Indonesia, the disappearances of thousands of persons deemed to be political threats for decades in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Iran.
Instead, the history seemed to show that some CIA projects had worked very well. A Church Committee staff report called out two early, “acclaimed achievements” as giving “policymakers a sense of confidence in the CIA’s capacity for operational success.”
In 1953 and 1954 two of the Agency’s boldest, most spectacular covert operations took place – the overthrow of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and the coup against President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala. Both were quick and virtually bloodless operations that removed from power two allegedly communist-associated leaders and replaced them pro-Western officials.
But that was 1975. By 1979, the Shah of Iran and his brutal secret police had been chased from power and replaced with the most anti-American regime imaginable. The Islamic Republic, a great oppressor of its own people and a sponsor of regional terrorism, has now been in place for over 40 years. The “spectacular” success of the CIA’s 1953 operation was not only temporary but extremely counterproductive.
By then we might have made a similar reassessment of the Guatemalan coup, and not just because Guatemala itself fallen into a low-grade civil war that lasted over three decades. Fidel Castro’s future compatriot Che Guevara was in Guatemala when Arbenz departed; Castro himself saw in Guatemala clear evidence to the wisdom of nineteenth century writer and revolutionary José Marti’s warnings against US encroachment. When Castro took power in Cuba, he announced and undertook strident measures against US interests, seemingly without regard to his country’s economic interests, in order to avoid Arbenz’ fate. Cuba has indeed suffered for its isolation, but Castro’s government has obviously remained in power.
The Church committee, however, stayed true to its mandate of procedural reform. It provided an invaluable basis for Congressional oversight of intelligence services. It stopped short of evaluating the long-term effects - the wisdom - of the policies that motivated covert interventions in other countries.
The Cold War rivals each claimed that their system was superior in delivering prosperity and fairness, but scarcely bothered to consider the economic development of their Third World allies. What mattered more had been geographic security (for example, in Eastern Europe), access to resources (as with Iran) and denying victory to a rival while avoiding politically unpopular results at home (as in Cuba and Vietnam). Better economic development could have improved the chances of achieving and preserving all of those goals.
It wasn’t as though a model didn’t exist. The Marshall Plan had succeeded in cementing the Western European alliance by extending credit to, and promoting trade between, the participating countries. These included, remarkably, France and Western Germany, which had spent the previous three decades at each other’s throats. It was pretty clear that the architects of the postwar economic system at Bretton Woods, including John Maynard Keynes himself, understood why such a plan would work: it induced businesses and governments to revive and invest more in their pre-war manufacturing and trade arrangements; indeed, they began to worry more about being outpaced by others.
But this model was not extended to developing countries. In part, this was a legacy of imperialism, the idea that Third World peoples weren’t “ready” to support an industrial or service-based economy. But another reason was that economists didn’t yet understand what became known as “Dutch disease,” a term evidently coined by The Economist magazine in the late 1970s. When the Netherlands discovered and began exporting oil in the 1960s, the rest of its economy foundered. It turned out that exporting raw materials brings in cash, which hurts other businesses by diverting resources and by strengthening the country’s currency to the disadvantage of export businesses. Further, in many cases, very few consumers do have a stake in the extraction profits. This effect would help to explain the persistence of underdevelopment in the Middle East and Africa, among others, but unfortunately it was not well understood until the early 1980s.
The economies of Central America and the Caribbean suffered for an analogous reason: the dominance of export crops created vast wealth, in US dollars, for a small number of families (and US companies) that owned the banana, coffee and sugar plantations. These businesses did little for other local businesses, potential consumers or, more specifically, indigenous farmers. Local agricultural workers were paid survival wages that did not improve their own lives, much less become the source of a consumer-based economy. The dependence on exports of cash crops, and the concentration of land ownership in Guatemala, mentioned above, was repeated throughout Central America and much of the Caribbean. Worse, small subsistence farmers were often driven off of their lands due to the lack of formal titles and forced to move or to become plantation workers. These were the conditions that led to “communist” rebellions in the countryside.
Several governments attempted to respond to this problem of poverty, underdevelopment and inequality by intervening directly in the economy. These reform proposals often took the form of expropriating a portion of large estates, including those owned by wealthy families and foreign companies, which in Central America were commonly left idle. Although landowners and businesses, including US investors, had been literally fighting attempted economic reforms since the days of Smedley Butler, during the Cold War it helped to label the reformers “communists.”
For example, in Iran, the Mossadegh government’s frustration with its inability to renegotiate unfavorable century-long oil field leases with British companies led to threats to nationalize the oil fields; these threats significantly influenced the CIA-sponsored coup. In Guatemala President Arbenz had ordered redistribution of a portion of the largest holdings to small farmers, because two percent of landowners owned 75 percent of the arable land. Much of the land in these large estates, including United Fruit Company’s vast holdings, to the great frustration of landless campesinos. Although one might have thought this a capitalist measure, promoting individual ownership, initiative and productivity, the Eisenhower administration considered it communism and green-lighted the raid. In contrast, Fidel Castro did succeed in nationalizing US-owned property and businesses after his 1959 revolution, partly as a defensive move to preclude future interference, but Cuba paid the price in the form of the US economic embargo, among other measures.
Expropriation of private interests, even with fair compensation, is certainly an extreme step, and not one that most economists would encourage except in extreme circumstances. Even the US government, however, enacted and regularly enforced antitrust laws to prevent the excessive concentration of economic power by large corporations, from the 1890s until the 1980s. For example, the breakup of AT&T in a 1982 settlement is thought to have accelerated the incredible technological advances; and contemporary Americans can hardly imagine having no choice of cellular providers. (Recently, some conservative politicians have joined liberals in expressing concern about the market power wielded by tech giants such as Google and Amazon.) We would certainly rebel if we were forced to work for a single local employer, as happened throughout Central America.
In short, the de facto US policy of opposing any redistributive economic reforms very likely perpetuated the conditions for rebellion; it was almost certainly a missed opportunity. In the southern Indian state of Kerala, communist parties were elected to power for several decades. Their initiatives in land reform - - expropriating idle estates and offering small parcels to rural families - - and investments in public education transformed Kerala from a backwater to a middle-class economy and a prime source for tech and service workers throughout India and the Middle East. Some cultural sensitivity was required, certainly: in Kerala, teaching the grandmothers to read shamed parents into letting their kids go to school rather than work agricultural jobs full time. That particular innovation might not have worked in Central America. But there are transferable principles. Land redistribution, for example, can be something like the opposite of communism, making many families into homeowners and private business operators.
To be fair, the Kennedy administration - - authentic if not always competent Cold Warriors - - did pay some attention to development, by launching the Peace Corps and sponsoring the Alliance for Progress aid program in Latin America. But the Peace Corps wasn’t going to put universal public education in place, and none of the programs had the motivational power of land reform. The aid dollars also have a “Dutch disease” impact: adding money to an economy does not necessarily empower business investment, jobs or consumer spending. In any case, the succeeding Johnson and Nixon administrations weren’t much concerned with development, and most of their aid wound up being military. That didn’t work in Vietnam either.
Despite decades of quasi-colonialism, fewer than 100,000 Salvadoran immigrants lived in the United States in 1980. The migrant population more than quadrupled during the years of US-sponsored crackdowns, to about 465,000 by 1990, and has continued to increase by about 400,000 each decade since. Since the entire country has a population of about 6.5 million, immigrants to the US may represent fifteen to twenty per cent of native Salvadorans. The lack of economic opportunity is the most commonly cited reason for migration, but fear of violence continues to be a significant factor; the threat of violence hinders economic opportunities as well. Similar dynamics have motivated continued migration from Guatemala and Honduras, the other two sides of the “Northern Triangle.” (According to a recent report in the New York Times, by 2022 gang violence in El Salvador grew so extreme that the government of Nayib Bukele ordered a military crackdown, which has been remarkably successful in suppressing the gangs and allowing people to walk the streets in safety. The progress, however, required jailing tens of thousands of people, many under brutal conditions, and a loss of personal liberties in the general population. Order and personal safety are crucial in a civil society, but so are the freedoms of speech and assembly, and it is part of El Salvador’s tragedy that its government was forced to sacrifice the latter.)
Today’s desperation is a lingering side effect of these recent civil wars. US policies and actions, taken after Vietnam, after publication of the Church report, and after the disastrous revolution in Iran, stoked violence and made local economic development nearly impossible.
While events in Iran, and a second oil crisis, occupied most of US public attention in 1979, Nicaragua’s right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown in July by communist-influenced Sandinista forces. The heir to a pre-CIA US intervention in the 1930s, Somoza had succeeded in eliminating most of the left-wing groups who had organized under the banner of 1930s opposition leader Augusto Sandino; Somoza probably had just not gotten around to eliminating the group led by Daniel and Humberto Ortega and the colorful guerilla leader Eden Pastora. Instead, Somoza thought it more urgent to assassinate a prominent liberal critic in Managua, and he thereby triggered a genuine popular revolt and international condemnation. The US had had enough of these excesses, and Somoza fled to Miami.
Echoes of the Cuban revolution followed. The new government pursued land reform and nationalization of certain industries in an effort to improve the lives of their impoverished citizens, only to lose support among the wealthy and the (concededly very small) middle classes. The Ortegas also aligned themselves explicitly with Cuba, for much the same nationalistic reasons that Castro had denounced the US in the first place: to avoid the threat of yet another US-led restoration.
This was enough to make Nicaragua and Central America a theme of the US presidential campaign in 1980. Harshly criticizing the Carter administration, Republicans put the reversal of the Nicaraguan revolt on the party platform, and Reagan himself warned that the Caribbean was “rapidly becoming a Communist lake in what should be an American pond.” In the wake of oil-shock economic setbacks and the far more prominent Iranian hostage crisis, Reagan swept to victory.
And his administration followed through. In 1981, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s Ambassador to the United Nations, proclaimed that “Central America is the most important place in the world for the United States today.” This was preposterous, of course, and Ms. Kirkpatrick, whose office had a global purview, surely knew it. President Reagan would fly to Reykjavik, Iceland to negotiate nuclear arms rollbacks with Mikhail Gorbachev; he would stand on an outdoor platform in Berlin and call for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” His administration risked tremendous political capital to complete the unpopular sale of AWACs advance aircraft to Saudi Arabia, as part of a thaw (if not a backroom deal) to keep oil exports flowing after two OPEC-led embargoes had torpedoed the US economy in the 1970s. But no one in the administration was going to tell Margaret Thatcher or other leaders in Western Europe, or in the East Asia or in Israel, that they should reschedule their meetings because of an urgent phone call from, for example, Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte.
Ms. Kirkpatrick’s hyperbole really made a different point: the US was no longer concerned with negotiations or human rights, and certainly not with land reform, only with winning the Cold War. As Undersecretary of State Fred Ikle put it, “We do not seek a military defeat for our friends. We do not seek a military stalemate. We seek victory for the forces of democracy.” Presumably those democratic “forces” knew which way to vote.
The White House had, however, learned at least one lesson from Vietnam: don’t send US troops - - at least not in uniform. Instead, working around serious opposition from a Vietnam-wary Congress, the CIA armed, trained and supplied about 15,000 “Contras” in Nicaragua, with bases in neighboring Honduras. Despite being lucratively supplied, the Contras were notoriously inept soldiers, and their brutality did not win them significant political support in the country either, despite the clear limitations of the Ortegas’ government. Disruption, not victory, was the real objective in the eyes of some Contra supporters. But the disruption came at a heavy price: The civil conflict led to the deaths of about 30,000 citizens, perhaps 100,000 displaced persons and a corresponding crisis of inflation and unemployment. And even Republican support would be undermined in 1986, when it emerged that the Reagan White House had sold arms to its ostensible arch-enemies in Iran, of all places, in order to provide Congressionally forbidden funding to the Contras.
The situation grew even worse in El Salvador. As the US poured military aid into the country, Duarte’s ostensibly center-right government was forced to stand aside for vicious paramilitary actions led by Duarte’s political rival, Roberto D’Aubuisson. Their aim was to suppress the FMLN, Marti National Liberation Front, a somewhat fractious alliance among rebellious rural groups seeking land and wage reform in a country noted for its sharp concentration of wealth in a few families. The hostilities left some 70,000 dead, around one percent of the entire population, and displaced many times that number. Asylum claims from Salvadorans fearing violent retribution from the government or paramilitaries were routinely rejected by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, in stark contrast to the INS view of those fleeing the Ortegas’ Nicaragua.
Despite the forces arrayed against them, both the Nicaraguan government and the Salvadoran FMLN rebels held out to the end of the Cold War and participated in the regional peace process led by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias in 1987. Although the right-wing government remained in power in El Salvador, the FMLN gained recognition as a political party. Westad quotes a former FMLN member as reflecting that “What was the war for? For the solution to the land problem. We feel something already, and we’re sure that we’ll be free . . . [T]hat we not be seen as slaves, that we’ve won.”
In neighboring Guatemala, the largest country in Central America, the military had controlled the government more or less continuously since the 1954 coup. The US continued to supply extensive military aid but had lost its ability to influence behavior. The government had attempted to suppress insurgency campaigns since the early 1960s, but these had only grown in size, especially in rural Indian regions from the late 1970s. What amounted to a civil war continued past the end of the Cold War and the Arias peace process until peace accords were reached in 1996. It has been estimated that 200,000 civilians were killed during the decades-long struggle, 93 percent by government or government-allied forces. Some 83 percent of the dead were Maya.
Daniel Ortega, ironically, lost the first Nicaraguan election after the formal end of hostilities, although he would soon make a political comeback. He now runs one of the most corrupt autocracies in the world, an embattled survivor in the mold of the Castros and the Iranian ayatollahs, whose regimes continue to hold power. Meanwhile, as noted above, violence and underdevelopment in the Northern Triangle countries have continued to drive migration to the US, in numbers that trail only Mexico.
We should remember and try to learn something from these terrible outcomes: things were bad before and bad today, but the US has had a heavy hand in the region since the late 19th century. And by 1980, after Vietnam and Iran, among others, the risk of blowback should have been widely understood. Sending weapons to one faction is going to make enemies (and refugees) of the others, and enemies can have long memories. Ms. Kirkpatrick and her colleagues either ignored recent history or, more likely, understood the risks and counted on armies to keep the peace. As the US had so often done.