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The Brief American Pageant , Sixth Edition
David M. Kennedy, Stanford University
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
Thomas A. Bailey
Mel Piehl, Valparaiso University
Primary Sources


Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source


Support for the Contras
(1984)
Ronald Reagan

Instructors' Note
This document provides a good beginning point for studying U.S.-Latin American relations during the Reagan era. It also serves as a good starting point for studying the Iran-Contra affair. You might want to first have students review the history of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua so that they understand the deep hatred of some Nicaraguans for the United States. Many Nicaraguans equated the brutality of the Somoza dictatorship with U.S. interference in Nicaragua's internal affairs and saw the Sandinistas as the country's salvation. So, in spite of Reagan's focus on Nicaragua, the Sandinista government won the election in November 1984. Four years later, however, the Sandinistas lost and stepped aside peacefully as a conservative government took their place. Help them understand Reagan's deep commitment to sending aid to the Contras despite congressional resistance and how this situation evolved into the Iran-Contra affair. (There is a video clip of Oliver North's testimony on the Iran-Contra affair on this CD.)



Introduction
With the help of the U.S. government, the Somoza family ruled as dictators in Nicaragua from 1934 until 1979. In that last year, the Sandinista rebels overthrew Somoza and promised democratic elections. In 1980, part of Ronald Reagan's campaign was an emphasis on controlling the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union. Three days after taking office, President Reagan accused the Soviet Union and Cuba of sending military supplies to Communist guerrillas in El Salvador through Nicaragua and cut off aid to Nicaragua. Reagan immediately began supporting the anti-Sandinista guerrillas known as the Contras. Sharply criticized for comparing the Contras to the U.S. Founding Fathers, Reagan made this national address on May 9, 1984, to clarify his administration's policies in Central America.

Questions to Consider
  1. Identify the Sandinistas.

  2. Identify the Contras.

  3. Analyze President Reagan's explanation of the U.S. defense policy. Was it an accurate assessment?

  4. Evaluate the importance of Central America to U.S. foreign policy.

  5. Should the United States have supported the Contras? Why or why not?



Source
The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: We do not start wars. We will never be the aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression, to preserve freedom and peace. We help our friends defend themselves.

Central America is a region of great importance to the United States. And it is so close: San Salvador is closer to Houston, Texas, than Houston is to Washington, DC. Central America is America. It's at our doorstep, and it's become the stage for a bold attempt by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua to install communism by force throughout the hemisphere. . . .

Right now in El Salvador, Cuban-supported aggression has forced more than 400,000 men, women, and children to flee their homes. And in all of Central America, more than 800,000 have fled—many, if not most, living in unbelievable hardship. Concerns about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Communist oppression to seek entry into our country are well-founded.

What we see in El Salvador is an attempt to destabilize the entire region and eventually move chaos and anarchy toward the American border. . . .

. . . So far, we have . . . provided just enough aid to avoid outright disaster, but not enough to resolve the crisis, so El Salvador is being left to slowly bleed to death. Part of the problem, I suspect, is not that Central America isn't important, but that some people think our administration may be exaggerating the threat we face. Well, if that's true, let me put that issue to rest.

I want to tell you a few things tonight about the real nature of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas, who rule Nicaragua, are Communists whose relationship and ties to Fidel Castro of Cuba go back a quarter of a century. . . .

The Cuban-backed Sandinistas made a major attempt to topple the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in the fall of 1978. They failed. They were then called to Havana, where Castro cynically instructed them in the ways of successful Communist insurrection. He told them to tell the world they were fighting for political democracy, not communism. But most important, he instructed them to form a broad alliance with the genuinely democratic opposition to the Somoza regime. Castro explained that this would deceive Western public opinion, confuse potential critics, and make it difficult for Western democracies to oppose the Nicaraguan revolution without causing great dissent at home. . . .

The Sandinistas listened and learned. They returned to Nicaragua and promised to establish democracy. . . . Well, Somoza left, and the Sandinistas came to power. This was a negotiated settlement, based on power-sharing between Communists and genuine democrats. . . .

The Sandinista rule is a Communist reign of terror. Many of those who fought alongside the Sandinistas saw their revolution betrayed. They were denied power in the new government. Some were imprisoned, others exiled. Thousands who fought with the Sandinistas have taken up arms against them and are now called the contras. They are freedom fighters. . . .

Shortly after taking power, the Sandinistas, in partnership with Cuba and the Soviet Union, began supporting aggression and terrorism against El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. They opened training camps for guerrillas from El Salvador so they could return to their country and attack its government. . . . Nicaragua is still the headquarters for Communist guerrilla movements. . . .

The Sandinista regime has been waging war against its neighbors since August of 1979. This has included military raids into Honduras and Costa Rica, which still continue today.

And they're getting a great deal of help from their friends. There were 165 Cuban personnel in Nicaragua in 1979. Today that force has grown to 10,000. And we're being criticized for having 55 military trainers in El Salvador. Manpower support is also coming from other parts of the terror network. The PLO has sent men, and so has Libya's dictator, Qadhafi. Communist countries are providing new military assistance, including tanks, artillery, rocket-launchers, and help in the construction of military bases and support facilities. . . .

. . . We Americans should be proud of what we're trying to do in Central America, and proud of what, together with our friends, we can do in Central America to support democracy, human rights, and economic growth while preserving peace so close to home. Let us show the world that we want no hostile Communist colonies here in the Americas—South, Central, or North.



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