Air University Review, July-August 1986

Central America:
A Microcosm of U.S. Cold War Policy

Dr. Thomas M. Leonard

Today, Central America is at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. We are told by the current administration that the region is of primary importance to U.S. vital interests and that it is currently threatened by communist aggression. Central America has become a pawn in the Cold War.

Cold War Strategy

The Cold War was born as a result of different approaches to the needs of the post-World War II world as held by the United States and the Soviet Union. Each of the two nations saw the other, in mirror-image, as the world’s bully. Owing to its possession of the atomic bomb and economic wealth, the United States maintained that world peace and order depended on the existence of prosperity and political democracy. Each became the handmaiden of the other and caused the Americans to conclude that poverty and economic depression bred totalitarianism, revolution and communism, and possibly war. For the United States, continued liberty and prosperity were linked to a free world. On the other hand, the Soviets were motivated by traditional Russian nationalism, the communist ideology, and a craving for security against a revived Germany.1

Against this backdrop, the first area of confrontation was Europe. Soviet policies toward Eastern Europe, German reunification, and the United Nations contributed to the stiffening U.S. attitude toward Moscow. The American attitude change was reflected in policy implementation from postwar reconstruction programs for individual countries to the European Recovery Program (or the Marshall Plan, as it was popularly known) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Essentially, through economic revitalization of wartorn European nations, the Truman administration wanted to prevent communist subversive inroads into Western Europe; it also wanted to secure the region from military attack.2

Truman's containment policy may have prevented communism from capturing Western Europe, but it did not prevent the Soviets from strengthening their hold on Eastern Europe and developing the atomic bomb, the Chinese Communists from toppling Chiang Kai-shek, or the North Koreans from crossing the 38th parallel. These events, coupled with the anticommunist emotional hysteria at home, contributed significantly to the 1952 presidential election of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Republicans promised a "New Look" in foreign policy, as best espoused by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Characterized as a rigid moralist, Dulles advocated massive retaliation and support for wars of national liberation to turn back the communist tide. Despite this bold rhetoric, the Eisenhower administration did not resort to massive retaliation in Indochina in 1954, nor did it intervene to support the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956. Instead, containment continued, predicated on the increased fear of a global communist conspiracy, if not overt, then through subversion. The communist conspiracy thesis caused confusion for Americans in the rising tide of Third World nationalism, which demanded the ouster of oligarchs and implementation of government socialism to meet the needs of less fortunate masses.

The efforts to strengthen NATO, the establishment of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, support for the Shah of Iran, Eisenhower's Middle Eastern Doctrine, and the 1958 Formosan and Berlin crises illustrate the policy application of continued containment. Under such circumstances, it is understandable that Eisenhower concluded in his farewell address on 17 January 1961 that "we face a hostile ideology––global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method."3

Compared to the quiet and sometimes complacent, fatherly image of Eisenhower, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson came across as bold and aggressive individuals during the 1960s. Kennedy came to Washington in 1961 committed to winning the Cold War. Both he and Johnson had shared the early Cold War experiences, and Johnson had witnessed those events leading to World War II. So had their advisors. Both presidents were confident of U.S. superiority and the nation's ability to lead its allies, but they arrived on the scene when a diffusion of world power was taking place: NATO was demanding greater independence from Washington, and Third World nationalism commanded more autonomy. Both leaders, however, clung to the past, still thinking that the United States could direct events through the execution of arms and aid. Each exhibited a growing tendency toward military solutions. This last point is best illustrated by the continued arms buildup supposedly to deter nuclear conflicts, creation of the special forces to conduct counterinsurgency wars, and reliance on conventional forces to handle limited wars. The confrontation between changing world realities and the presidents clinging to tradition, caused Senator J. William Fulbright (D. -Arkansas) to conclude that this "arrogance of power" left the United States a "crippled giant" by the end of the 1960s. The experience in Vietnam proved Fulbright's point all too well.4

The presidency of Richard Nixon witnessed striking diplomatic changes, described by at least one historian as the "great Nixon turnaround." Nixon's view of the world was similar to that of his National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, and was adhered to by President Gerald R. Ford after Nixon resigned. Accordingly, there were five power centers in the world: the Soviet Union, the United States, China, Japan, and the Common Market countries of Western Europe. Each had responsibilities to maintain order in its sphere and not intrude in the areas dominated by the others. Thus, small nations could no longer play off the major powers against one another or count on outside help. The policy also permitted the United States to contain both the Soviet Union and China by having them contain each other. Détente made common sense. The Cold War proved too expensive, and because of the U.S. participation in Vietnam, Congress demanded that the United States play a more limited role in the world. Détente, however, was premised on shaky grounds: that the major powers would remain in their own spheres and that violent nationalism in the Third World would subside. Neither premise proved correct.5

At its start, the Carter administration was divided by conflicting interpretations of Soviet intentions and capabilities. While Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and the State Department thought that the Soviets were adversaries with whom the United States could negotiate, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and his White House staff feared continuing Soviet expansion. In retrospect, Carter came to adopt Brzezinski's recommendation that U.S. policy read as "a challenge to [Soviet] legitimacy and thus to their very existence." The Soviets were denounced for supporting a proxy war in Ethiopia, using Cubans to battle Somalia, supporting the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and, finally, invading Afghanistan. Diminished trade relations with the Soviet Union, human rights proclamations against the Soviets, enhanced trade with the People's Republic of China, the Carter Doctrine proclamation, and the boycott of the 1980 Olympics illustrate the Cold War mentality of the Carter presidency.6

Despite Carter's apparent continuation of the containment policy, Ronald Reagan came to the White House, in January 1981, convinced that the U.S. standing in the world had diminished significantly in the recent past. Carter's foreign policy was considered too soft on communism. Reagan was determined to change course and restore the United States to its primary world position. Reagan's bold declarations reminded many observers of the Eisenhower-Dulles years. During the next four years, the aggressive tone continued in bilateral relations with the Soviets and about such issues as Afghanistan, Poland, the trans-European gas pipeline, and the Middle East. The administration also appeared as Taiwan's close ally. The operational policy, however, did not match the rhetoric, and a clear case could be made that the containment policies of the preceding presidents continued.7

This brief synopsis of U.S. foreign policy from 1945 to 1984 illustrates the primacy of relations with the Soviet Union. Despite changes in rhetoric and strategy, U.S. policy continually sought the containment of Soviet communism.

U.S. Policy toward Latin America

U.S. policy toward Latin America from 1945 to 1984 followed the contours of global strategy. First, the inter-American system was brought into the struggle against external aggression. By the Act of Chapultepec adopted in 1945 at Mexico City, the American republics agreed to consult before taking action against acts of aggression by any hemispheric nation. Two years later at Rio de Janeiro, at which time the United States had more sharply defined the Soviet threat, participants agreed to provide for assistance against aggressors prior to consultation. When the threat to hemispheric security was other than direct aggression, the American states agreed to joint action following consultation. At Bogotá in 1948, the inter-American Defense Board was charged with developing hemispheric defense plans. Finally, in 1951, after six years of debate, the U.S. Congress approved the Mutual Security Act, initially providing $38 million for direct military assistance to Latin American nations whose participation in hemispheric defense was determined essentially by the president.8

During the same time period, 1945-51, administration spokesmen––Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall, together with Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs Edward G. Miller––continued to utter traditional themes regarding inter-American relations: pleas for political stability, faith in democracy, and promises of nonintervention in the internal affairs of its southern neighbors.9 The statements contradicted the policy actions, which also ignored the demands of many Latin Americans for an end to dictatorships and an improvement in the quality of life for the less fortunate. Communism was not yet a threat to the hemisphere.

The Eisenhower-Dulles rhetoric regarding Latin America was no less bold than the statements regarding the Soviet Union. Truman was castigated for ignoring the hemisphere's economic and social needs. Milton Eisenhower's Report on Latin America and a similar report by the Commission on Foreign Economic Policy, both issued in 1953, gave hope for new directions in U.S. policy toward Latin America. Both argued for a more liberal trade policy featuring tariff reductions and increased trade with Eastern Europe.10

These recommendations were in sharp contrast to Eisenhower's closest advisors, businessmen who looked on the world as something that could be managed and who were advocates of private enterprise in a world increasingly turning toward revolutions and socialism. Assistant Secretaries of State for Latin American Affairs––John M. Cabot, Henry F. Holland, and Roy R. Rubbottom––consistently echoed similar thoughts. Thus, rather than following through on the Milton Eisenhower and Randall Commission reports, the United States advised Latin American countries to create an environment conducive to private investment and, if that was accomplished, federal monies would be used to support the necessary infrastructures.11

Compatible with this approach, Secretary of State Dulles's strident anticommunist campaign applied to Latin America. According to Dulles, communism, or anything that resembled it, was a threat to U.S. interests. Communists, however identified, were considered agents of the Soviet Union and therefore linked to the international conspiracy against the United States. At the tenth Inter-American Conference of American States, which met in Caracas in March 1954, Dulles warned that the hemisphere was imperiled by international communism. After spirited debate, the conference adopted a U.S. sponsored resolution asserting that any American nation subjected to communist political control was considered foreign intervention and a threat to the peace of the Americas. As such, decisive collective action was called for, presumably under the 1947 Rio Treaty.12

Comparable to continuing Truman's global containment policy, the Eisenhower-Dulles team brought no appreciable change in U.S. policy toward Latin America. There was an increase in North-South trade during the decade, but so too was there an increase in the amount of military assistance flowing southward. The net result was the entrenchment of anticommunist dictatorships in Latin America. The illusion of stability was shattered in 1958 with the near loss of life of then-Vice-President Richard Nixon during a Latin American tour, as well as a subsequent visit by Milton Eisenhower that resulted in his The Wine Is Bitter. The portents of revolution caused incoming President John F. Kennedy to warn that it was "one minute to midnight" in Latin America.

Kennedy personally––and through his spokesmen, Adolf A. Berle, Adlai Stevenson, and Edward M. Martin––expressed a willingness to accept moderately leftist governments that were meeting the "revolution of rising expectations" by sponsoring constructive change. In fact, the new administration was intolerant of military coups against such governments, as evidenced by U.S. action regarding Peru in 1962 and the Dominican Republic a year later. Avoiding direct intervention, the United States used its leverage to keep liberal regimes in power.13

In contrast, Lyndon Johnson gave support to those governments in sympathy with U.S. policies, which meant governments of the right and extreme right. This tendency was more pronounced after the 1965 Dominican Republic crisis and the appointment of Thomas C. Mann as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs. Mann was emphatic: communism in the Western Hemisphere was intolerable because it threatened U.S. national security.14 The communist issue intensified as a result of Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba which generated fear that his revolution would spread throughout the hemisphere. For its part, the United States forced the isolation of Cuba from hemispheric affairs, supported anti-Castro forces, and even sponsored assassination plots. In response to this new communist threat, the United States implemented the Alliance for Progress in 1961. In return for financial support, Latin American governments pledged themselves to agrarian and tax reforms––measures not welcomed by Latin elites. However, little significant progress was made in tearing down the vestiges of traditional society. Moreover, because of civil disruptions at home, the agony of Vietnam, and the perceived lessened threat of Fidel Castro by mid-decade, the United States lost interest in the Alliance for Progress, which passed quietly in 1971.15

The drift away from Latin America continued under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Inter-American affairs were relegated to a veritable limbo. Trade, not aid, was the guidepost. Agreements with the Soviet Union, the misadventures of Ché Guevara, and Castro's growing dependence on the détente minded Soviet Union lessened the threat to security and, coupled with the 1973 U.S. supported overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, lessened the communist threat to the hemisphere. Cambodia, China, and the Middle East in global affairs, plus Watergate on the domestic scene, were more important than Latin America. "Benign neglect" best described U.S. policy toward Latin America during the first half of the 1970s. Without pressure from the north, right-wing military dictatorships became commonplace in the south.

The energy crisis focused new attention on Latin America. Rich in natural resources, including oil, Latin America became more important to the United States. Henry Kissinger recognized this fact in 1976 and began a new dialogue with Latin American nations. President Jimmy Carter recognized the new realities too. He accepted the report by the Center for Inter-American Relations (commonly known as the Linowitz Report) that Latin America had achieved a degree of independence from the United States and that the outmoded policies of domination and paternalism should be rejected. The 1977 Panama Canal treaties were evidence of this change in U.S. thinking.16

Admitting that the region had been ignored since the Alliance for Progress, Assistant Secretary of State for lnter-American Affairs Terence A. Toddman and his deputy William H. Leurs promised new programs to meet the economic and social needs of Latin-America. Aid, however, was contingent on improvement in human rights. Use of human rights criteria was not new to U.S. foreign policy. Provisions in the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act, 1975 Food Assistance Act, and 1976 Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act provided for withholding aid where there were human rights violations. The idealistic Carter, however, promised new emphasis, but more than rhetoric was needed to persuade military governments. Despite promises by various Latin leaders, there was minimal improvement in human rights or in meeting the social and economic needs of many of Latin America's traditionally impoverished citizens.17

Reagan's Latin American policy altered Carter's direction. Latin America was now placed within the context of East-West relations, not North-South. In application, human rights were to be promoted through quiet diplomacy, not through public denunciations and aid cutoffs. Because Soviet expansion, rather than economic development, was emphasized, military solutions were given first consideration.

Reagan's first foreign policy team––Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Assistant Secretary for Latin American Affairs Thomas 0. Enders, and U.S. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick––reflected these views. By the time that George Shultz replaced Haig and Langhorne H. Motley succeeded Enders, the policy was in place.18 Thus, since 1945, Latin America was not of prime importance in U.S. policy. Only when the threat of communism––real or imagined––appeared did the United States respond. And then only briefly. Rather, U.S. failure to pursue constructive policies to match the rhetoric of democratic and social change only strengthened the position of oligarchical governments.

U.S. Policy Focused
on Central America

Central America was a microcosm of both Latin America and the world at large. U.S. policy toward the region reflected the broader Cold War policies of each presidential administration and, at the same time, the failure to respond to the inherent problems of political dictatorship and social reform.

The "revolution of rising expectations" first surfaced in Central America at the end of World War II. Material contributions to the Allied war effort caused the lower socioeconomic groups to experience a degree of prosperity hitherto unknown, and the middle-sector groups were encouraged by the idealistic goals of the Allies. The middle sector, in particular, was responsible for the overthrow of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in El Salvador and Jorge Ubico in Guatemala in 1944, the stepping aside of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua in 1947, and the 1948 Costa Rican civil war. Their success was short-lived, however, as dictatorships continued in Honduras and returned to El Salvador and Nicaragua. Efforts for reform, particularly for labor, became nothing more than paper promises.

Until 1947, the United States perceived no threat of international communism to the region. Diplomats in Central America, analysts in the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the region was of scant use to the Soviets as allies or sources of supplies. As a result, the National Security Council saw no need for a unified anticommunist policy because the Soviet threat was only remotely potential and not "immediately serious." The initial Military Assistance Program to Central America stressed security of the Panama Canal, Mexico, and Venezuelan oil, not concern about an international communist threat. At the same time, however, U.S. diplomats in Central America warned that poverty was a breeding ground for communism. (Although lacking concrete evidence, they also speculated that Moscow's agents were in the region.) The existing order would soon be seriously threatened they cautioned.

After 1948, policymakers in Washington echoed these opinions. Secretaries Marshall and Acheson and Assistant Secretary Miller recognized the need for social reform from 1949 to 1952, but the promises of aid from the European Recovery and Point Four programs brought little to Central America.19 From 1952 to 1961 total aid to all Latin America was $2.6 billion, a drastic increase over the $437 million during the Truman years, but the total for the five Central American countries was only $336 million (7.5 percent of the total). The terms under which the aid flowed reflected the management concepts of Eisenhower's advisors. Although the United States assumed high initial costs for technical assistance, the host countries agreed to assume 66 percent of the cost. For the Central American nations, providing sufficient funds proved a difficult task; the amount of money lost to high administrative costs and possible corruption only complicated their ability to meet financial obligations. The major exports of the region were agricultural and were dependent not only on fluctuating world market prices but on the mercy of U.S. tariffs. Significant measurable improvement in the regional economy or social conditions was lacking.20

Communism, however, became the overriding consideration of the Eisenhower administration's policy toward Central America. Although not explicitly identified by Secretary Dulles at Caracas in May 1954, Guatemala was the chief worry. Communists or Marxists became influential in the administration of Juan José Arévalo from 1945 to 1950 and increased their presence after 1950 in the administration of Jacobo Arbenz. The United States had no evidence of a link to Moscow, but the legislative program of both presidents threatened the existing order, including the United Fruit Company. Given Dulles's conspiracy thesis, the United States was able to justify its support of Carlos Castillo Armas to invade the country from Honduras and eliminate communism from the hemisphere. Thanks to the Caracas resolution, the issue was kept within hemispheric bounds. Subsequent military agreements with Guatemala and El Salvador only contributed to the facade of stability in Central America. The issues of constitutional government, disparity of wealth, and social deprivations remained.21

Those issues, plus the fear of Castroism, contributed to John F. Kennedy's warning that it was "one minute to midnight" in Latin America. Kennedy's tolerance of moderately leftist governments and his opposition to military coups was evident in 1963 in Honduras. The United States delayed recognition of Air Force Colonel Oswaldo Lopez Arellano until he made promises to continue the reform programs of deposed President Villeda Morales.22 Meanwhile, the Alliance for Progress, Peace Corps, and Food for Peace programs promised new hope for the region. Coupled with increased grants from the Inter-American Development Bank and Export-Import Bank, the five Central American countries received $644 million in aid from the United States. This amount included assistance to begin the Central American Common Market.23

However, like the rest of the hemisphere, Central America was lost in U.S. policy by the mid-1960s because of Vietnam and the U.S. domestic crisis. The Central American economies were never considered important to the United States, and the threat of communism was viewed as minimal. After 1964, the Communist party was outlawed in all five countries, and the small clandestine groups advocating insurgency were controllable through the efforts of the local militias and civil authorities––all of whom supported U.S. foreign policy. Thus Lyndon Johnson's visit to Central America in 1968 was only window dressing.24

Thereafter, until Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as President in January 1977, the United States gave minimal attention to Central America. Foreign aid to the region decreased by nearly 50 percent. Political dictatorships, except in Costa Rica, with concomitant loss of human rights were prevalent. The economic and social conditions that served as breeding grounds for communism after World War II remained.25 President Carter criticized the Central American dictators for their human rights violations, however, and, in March 1977, renounced military aid to Guatemala and El Salvador for their actions before Congress could single out these countries for aid reduction as it did Uruguay, Chile, and South Korea. But the withdrawal of aid had little impact on human rights: by 1980, for example, Guatemalan violations had actually increased by extremist groups, both left and right, and by the government. The United States has gained little leverage in Guatemalan politics.26

Conditions in Guatemala were soon overshadowed by events in Nicaragua and El Salvador, which caused concern that history would be repeated by soon engulfing the region in conflict. The forty-six-year Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua crumbled in July 1979 to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). From the start, the United States had chosen to deal with the middle-sector groups, which could be traced to the immediate post-World War II era. Identified as the Committee of Twelve, they fell into disarray after the assassination of their leader, Pedro Joaquím Chamorro, in January 1978. Subsequently, the United States failed to mediate a settlement between the committee's successor, the Broad Opposition Front (FAO), and Somoza. Thus, this attempt––the first postwar effort by the United States to deal with a Central American middle sector-––was short-lived. In the meantime, the Sandinistas seized the initiative, increased the violence, and gained widespread support after September 1978. During the following June, the Sandinistas began their final offensive and, after refusing U.S. mediation efforts, caused Somoza to flee the country on 17 July 1979. In Washington, a sense of optimism briefly followed. The Sandinistas gave the governments of Costa Rica, Panama, and Venezuela assurances of pluralism, meaning continuance of the private economic sector in Nicaragua, along with promises of free elections. The Carter administration advanced $8 million in emergency relief and requested $75 million more from Congress for reconstruction.

The reconstruction aid to Nicaragua was never to come. To U.S. observers, the Sandinistas were moving farther left, restricting the private sector significantly, violating the human rights of the opposition, and postponing elections. Events in El Salvador were influencing U.S. policy.27

El Salvador had endured military dictatorships since 1932. As the economy expanded after World War II, so did the middle sector, which, by 1972, was centered in the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). The PDC won the presidential elections in 1972 and 1977 but was denied office by the military. In essence, this center-left group was crushed by the military-landowner alliance. The guerrilla and "popular organizations" that emerged during the 1970s were subjected to the military's repressive measures also. These human rights violations caused Carter to cut military assistance, slash economic aid in half to $10 million, and veto a $90-million aid package through the Inter-American Development Bank. But to no avail. As in Guatemala, violence continued and increased by late 1980. With El Salvador on the verge of civil war, the United States tried in vain to find a communist responsible for El Salvador's problems.28

As Carter left office, he appeared to be willing to accept moderately leftist governments, provided there was no Cuban influence, private property and human rights were protected, and the Central American states agreed not to interfere in one another's internal affairs. At the same time, Congress admitted the bankruptcy of previous policies, yet solutions and a clear policy were not in sight.

President Reagan's bold words were matched by action in Central America. Reagan believed that U.S. power and prestige in the region had dwindled during Carter's administration in the face of Soviet-Cuban expansion. In addition, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community were convinced that U.S. supremacy in the region must be reasserted. Failure to act close to home would only encourage the Soviets to become aggressive elsewhere. New ambassadors, Dean Hinton to El Salvador and John Negropronte to Honduras, reflected these policies. During the next four years, the administration's public statements consistently reflected these views.29

Quick to implement the President's policies, the Reagan administration reasoned that the loss of El Salvador would cause havoc throughout the region. A suggested negotiated settlement, caused by the failure of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) January 1981 offensive, was rejected by the United States because it would have provided for the leftists’ entry into the government. The administration reasoned that this result would have encouraged other regional leftists. Thus, the United States continued to support the Salvadoran government and its plans for agrarian and constitutional reform, while seeking a military solution. For 1981, an additional $25 million in military assistance was provided, the number of U.S. training personnel increased from nineteen to forty-five, and $63 million in economic aid extended. During the following year, Salvadoran troops trained in the United States. However, the assistance did not stem the tide. By late 1983, the FMLN claimed control of most of Chalatenango and Morazán provinces, as well as portions of La Unión and Usulatan provinces. At the same time, human rights violations in El Salvador increased, rather than abated.

El Salvador soon became entwined with U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, which was accused of supplying arms to the FMLN. In addition, the Sandinistas became more restrictive at home, militating against labor organizations and curtailing the press and free speech. Such actions violated congressional requirements for lifting economic sanctions and contributed to Reagan's perception of a Nicaraguan dictatorial regime. Expansion by the Sandinista government into the private sector, increased trade with Communist bloc countries, and the presence of foreign (particularly Cuban) advisors reaffirmed Washington's judgment that Central America was falling under the umbrella of an East-West confrontation.

The United States acted quickly to undermine the Sandinistas. Through the CIA, covert assistance was provided to Nicaraguan exiles known as contras, who were mostly ex-Somocistas. Based principally in Honduras, the contras carried out military forays into northern Nicaragua and subsequently undertook the mining of harbors, burning of crops, and destruction of oil depots. The Reagan administration also tightened the economic noose on the government in Managua. An embargo was placed on Nicaraguan imports, and pressure was placed on international financial institutions not to extend credit.

Honduras did not escape the drift of events. As host to the contras and because its Salvadoran and Guatemalan border areas were havens for guerrillas operating in those countries, Honduras was under the threat of constant military intervention. To secure the country, the United States advanced $253 million in economic assistance by 1983, sent some 400 military advisors, and brought Honduran troops to the United States for training. Beginning in 1983, U.S. military presence in the country increased with the construction of a Green Beret camp At Trujillo, military exercises along the Nicaraguan border, and the use of 5000 troops in the "Big Pine" military maneuvers. All of these activities were designed to impress the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Guatemala and Costa Rica received new consideration. By 1983, the administration moved toward the lifting of the arms embargo imposed on Guatemala in 1977. Costa Rica received increased economic and military defense assistance, as the United States sought to move it from its traditional neutral stance in regional affairs.30

Reagan's policies were not without opposition. Critics charged that the Soviets had no designs on Central America, that U.S. economic sanctions forced Nicaragua to seek trade with the Soviet bloc nations, that military assistance to El Salvador contributed to the increase in human rights violations, that the contras were incapable of dislodging the Sandinistas, and that the administration was ignoring the Contadora peace process. At least one scholar argued that the Central American crisis, viewed from its historical perspective, is a contemporary version of the long struggle for a singular nation comprised of the five republics.31

The debate over policy pitted the White House against Congress. In piecemeal fashion, the legislature chipped away at the administration's approach. On the eve of the 1984 presidential election, Congress finally cut military aid to the contras. The crisis continues, however, and so too, the debate over U.S. policy.

U.S. policy toward Central America mirrors the larger policy issues. Since 1945, the United States has responded to communist advances, real or perceived, largely by military means. The notable exception among U.S. responses was the European Recovery Program.

The Truman administration initiated this policy toward Latin America at Mexico City in 1945, Rio de Janeiro in 1947, and Bogotá in 1948. In each instance, the primary concern was potential external communist aggression. President Eisenhower continued this policy but added a new dimension, the potential danger of internal communist subversion, as illustrated by the 1954 Caracas resolution and the CIA-engineered overthrow of the Arbenz regime in Guatemala that same year. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, while not a military program, was a response to Fidel Castro in Cuba. Nothing, in documents currently available to researchers in the United States, however, substantiates the charge that international communism threatened the region. As late as 1980, the Carter administration failed to find international communism a threat to Central America.

In Central America, as elsewhere, communism and Marxism were intertwined with local nationalism. Diplomats stationed in the region after World War II understood this when reporting that any threat to the established order was labeled communistic by local leaders. Oligarchical regimes ever since continued to suppress alleged communists, and as U.S. interest in hemispheric affairs dwindled after 1966, the facade of stability was acceptable. Communism did not threaten the regime.

Diplomats based in the region after World War II, down through the intelligence analysis of the 1960s, repeatedly warned that the long-term suffering of the masses posed potential danger to the established order. But the Mutual Security Program, Food for Peace, and Alliance for Progress programs did little to improve the quality of life in Central America.

Only recently, first in Nicaragua and later in El Salvador, did the United States attempt to deal with the demands of the broad-based middle sector, that group concerned largely with constitutional and democratic government. This group, along with spokesmen for the underprivileged, had been pressing their legitimate demands since immediately after World War II and had been the leading advocates of nationalism during the 1950s, only to be suppressed by military regimes.

Although Central America undoubtedly has strategic, political, and economic significance to the United States, U.S. policy since 1945 does not substantiate that fact––a factor contributing to the lack of general public attention to the contemporary crisis.

Thus, current policy toward Central America repeats, although more emphatically, the policies of the past. Accordingly, we are told, the world is threatened by international communist aggression, and Latin America in general––and currently Central America, in particular––must be protected. Meanwhile, the demands for social and economic reform and for constitutional and democratic government receive little more than verbal assurances.

University of North Florida, Jacksonville


1. Desmond Donnelly, Struggle for the World: The Cold War 1947-1965 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965); John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Post-War United States National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Louis J. Halle, The Cold War as History (New York: Harper and Row, 1967); Walter LaFeber, America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-1980 (New York: Wiley and Company, 1982); and Adam Ulam, The Rivals: America and Russia since World War II (New York: Viking, 1971).

2. Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, two volumes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1955-56); Bert Cochran, Harry Truman and the Crisis Presidency (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1973); Robert J. Donovan, Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948 (New York: Norton, 1977); and Cabell Phillips, The Truman Presidency: The History of a Triumphant Succession (New York: Macmillan, 1966).

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years, two volumes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1963-65); Peter Lyon, Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1974); John Foster Dulles, War or Peace (New York: Macmillan, 1950); Richard Gould-Adams, John Foster Dulles: An Appraisal (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962); and Townsend Hoopes, The Devil and John Foster Dulles (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973).

4. James MacGregor Burns, John Kennedy: A Political Profile (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1960); Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy (New York: Harper and Row, 1965); Richard Walton, Cold War and Counter Revolution: The Foreign Policy of John F. Kennedy (New York: Viking, 1972); Jim F. Davis, Decade of Disillusionment: The Kennedy-Johnson Years (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975); Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point: Perspectives on the Presidency, 1963-1969 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971); and J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power (New York: Random House, 1967).

5. Coral Bell, The Diplomacy of Détente: The Kissinger Era (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977); Tad Szulc, The Illusion of Peace: Foreign Policy in the Nixon-KissingerYears (New York: Viking, 1978); and Robert T. Hartmann, Palace Politics: An Inside Account of the Ford Years (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980).

6. Jimmy Carter, Keeping the Faith: Memories of a President (New York: Bantam Books, 1982); "America and the World, 1979" issue, Foreign Affairs, vol. 58, no. 3, 1980, pp. 448-774; T .E. Reilly "America’s Mood: A Foreign Policy of Self Interest," Foreign Policy, Spring 1979, pp. 74-86; and Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brezezinski," Guiding Change: An Outline of Goals," Time, 14 May 1979.

7. For a discussion of Reagan’s foreign policy, see Norman Podhoretz, "The Reagan Road to Détente," and Coral Bell, "From Carter to Reagan," in "America and the World, 1984" issue, Foreign Affairs, vol. 63, no. 3, 1985, pp. 447-64, 490-510; William P. Bundy, "The Last Dozen Years: What Might We Learn?" Foreign Affairs, Summer 1984, pp. 1210-37; and Henry Grunwald, "Foreign Policy under Reagan II," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1984/85, pp. 219-39.

8. J. Lloyd Mecham, The United States and Inter-American Security, 1889-1960 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963); Robert N. Burr, Our Troubled Hemisphere: Perspectives on United States Latin American Relations (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1967); and Norman A. Bailey, Latin America in World Politics (New York: Walker and Company, 1967).

9. "Public Speeches 1947-1949, Latin America," on file at George C. Marshall Research Foundation, Lexington, Virginia; Dean Acheson, "Waging Peace in the Americas," United States Department of State Bulletin (hereafter referred to as Bulletin), 26 September 1949, pp. 461-66; and Edward G. Miller, Jr., "Inter-American Relations in Perspective," Bulletin, 3 April 1950, pp. 521-23.

10. Randall Commission, "Study of US Problems and Policy toward Latin America," 1953, on file in Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas; and Milton S. Eisenhower, United States-Latin American Relations: Report to the President (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1953).

11. John M. Cabot, "The Value of Close Hemispheric Cooperation," Bulletin, 27 May 1957, pp. 855-59; and R. R. Rubbottom, "United States and Latin America: Maturing Relationships," Bulletin, 4 April 1960, pp. 519-23.

12. Report of the Delegates, Tenth Inter-American Conference of American States, Caracus, Venezuela, March 1954 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1954).

13. A. A. Berle, "Alliance for Progress," Bulletin, 6 March 1961, pp. 342-44; A. A. Berle, "Alliance for Progress vs Communism," Bulletin, 24 May 1961, pp. 763-64; Adlai Stevenson, "Cooperation between North and South America," Bulletin, 24 July 1961, pp. 139-44; DeLessepes S. Morrison, "The U.S. Position on OAS Consideration of Coups d’Etat," Bulletin, 8 October 1962, pp. 539-41; Edward E. Martin, "U.S. Policy Regarding Military Governments in Latin America," Bulletin, 4 November 1963, pp. 698-700.

14. Thomas C. Mann, "Democratic Ideal on Our Policy toward Latin America," Bulletin, 29 June 1964, pp 95-100; and James D. Cochrane, "U.S. Policy towards Recognition of Governments and Promotion of Democracy in Latin America since 1963," Journal of Latin American Studies, Spring 1972, pp. 175-91.

15. Victor Alba, Alliance without Allies: The Mythology of Progress in Latin America, translated by John Pearson (New York: Praeger, 1965); Simon G. Hanson, Dollar Diplomacy Modern Style (Washington: Inter-American Affairs Press, 1970); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., "The Alliance for Progress: A Retrospective," in Latin America: The Search for a New International Role, edited by Ronald G. Hellman and H. Jon Rosenbaum (New York: John Wiley and Company, 1975). For discussions of the general direction of U.S. foreign policy during the 1960s, see note 4.

16. Ben S. Stephansky, "New Dialogue on Latin America: The Cost of Political Neglect," in The Search, edited by Hellman and Rosenbaum; Jerome Slater, "The United States and Latin America: The New Radical Orthodoxy," Economic Development and Cultural Change, Fall 1977, pp. 747-62; Federico G. Gil, "United States-Latin American Relations in the Changing Mid-1970’s," Secolas Annals, l976, pp. 5-19; and Kalman H. Silvert et al., The Americas for a Changing World: A Report of the Commission on United States-Latin American Relations (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1975). For discussions of U.S. foreign policy during the 1970s, see notes 5 and 6.

17. W. H. Luers, "Inter-American Relations in a New Era," Bulletin, 11 April 1977, pp. 347-50; Terence A. Toddman, "U.S. Security Assistance Policy for Latin America," Bulletin, 2 August 1977, pp. 444-46; Terence A. Toddman, "Approach to Latin American Policy," Bulletin, 31 October 1977, pp. 588-92; Terence A. Toddman, "Foundations of U.S. Policy toward Latin America," Bulletin, 5 December 1977, pp. 815-21; Peter G. Brown and Douglas MacLean, editors, Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: Principles and Applications (Lexington: D. C. Heath Company, 1979); and Lars Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America (Princeton University Press, 1981).

18. Abraham F. Lowenthal, "Ronald Reagan and Latin America: Coping with Hegemony in Decline," in Eagle Defiant: United States Foreign Policy in the 1980s, edited by Kenneth Dye et al. (Boston: Little Brown, 1983); Richard Millett, "The United States and Latin America," Current History, February 1984, pp. 487, 49-53 ff. Paul Sigmund, "Latin America: Change or Continuity?" Foreign Affairs, "America and the World, 1981" issue, vol. 60, no. 3, pp. 628-57; and Howard J. Wiarda, In Search of Policy: The United States and Latin America (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1983).

19. For a discussion of postwar Central American republics, see Thomas M. Leonard, United States and Central America, 1944-1949: Perceptions of Political Dynamics (University of Alabama Press, 1984).

20. Agency for International Development, U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants, July 1, l945-June 30, 1970, A Special Report Prepared for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, l970 (hereafter referred to as A.I.D., Special Report); United Nations, Economic and Social Commission for Latin America, Economic and Social Conditions in Latin America, Annual Reports, l949-1960 (hereafter referred to as ECSOC Reports).

21. Richard Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982); and Richard Immerman, "Diplomatic Dealings: The John Foster Dulles Telephone Transcripts, "SHAFR Newsletter, March 1983, pp. 1-15.

22. "Another Government is Missing," Time, 11 October 1963, pp. 32-33; "Honduras Revolt: Another Blow to U.S.," U.S. News and World Report, 14 October 1963, p. 6; and "Wrecking the Alliance," Newsweek, 14 October 1963, p. 54 ff.

23. A.I.D. Special Report, 1945-1973; James D. Cochrane, "U.S. Attitudes towards Central American Integration," Inter-American Economic Affairs, Fall 1964, pp. 713-91; and David M. Landry, "U.S. Policy and Lessons Learned from the Central American Economic Integration Economic Experience," Southern Quarterly, Fall 1973, pp. 297-308.

24. National Security Council Report 6009, "Capabilities of Latin America As a Supply Base in the Event of a Nuclear Attack on the United States," 27 May 1960, in Lot Files, Diplomatic Branch, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; National Security Council Report 1063/64, "Survey of Latin America," 1 April 1964, in Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library; and "President Johnson Meets with Central American Leaders," Bulletin, 29 July 1968, pp. 109-20.

25. A.I.D. Special Report, 1980; ECSOC Reports, 1970-1977, and Inter-American Development Bank, Economic and Social Progress in Latin America, Annual Reports, 1971-77.

26. Kathleen M. Cohen, Human Rights Policy of the Carter Administration in Guatemala, 1977-1980 (unpublished M.A. research project, University of North Florida, 1983).

27. John A. Booth, The Nicaraguan Revolution (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1982); Harold Sims and Edward F. Lehoucq, Sandinista Nicarauga: Pragmatism in a Political Economy in Formation with Repression (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982); Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua in Revolution (New York: Praeger, 1982); Henri Weber, Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution (Paris: Francois Mespero, 1981); "Nicaraguan Symposium," Bulletin, August 1979, pp. 55-62; Richard R. Fagen, "Dateline Nicaragua: The End of the Affair," Foreign Policy, Fall 1979, pp. 178-91; and William M. LeoGrande, "The Revolution in Nicaragua: Another Cuba?" Foreign Affairs, Fall 1979, pp. 28-50.

28. Enrique Baloyra, El Salvador in Transition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982); Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: Origins and Evolution (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1982); William M. LeoGrande and Carla Ann Robbins, "Oligarchs and Officers: The Crisis in El Salvador," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1980, pp. 1084-1103; and Richard Millett, "Central American Paralysis," Foreign Policy, Summer 1980, pp. 99-117.

29. Thomas O. Enders, "Building the Peace in Central America," United States Department of State Bulletin, October 1982, pp. 10, 1-7; Langhorne H. Motley, "U.S.-Central American Policy at the Crossroads," United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Current Policy No. 572, 2 May 1984; National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, Report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1984); Ronald Reagan, "Central America: Defending our Vital Interests," United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Current Policy No. 482, 27 April 1983; Ronald Reagan, "U.S. Interests in Central America," United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Current Policy No. 576, 9 May 1984; George P. Shultz, "Strengthening Democracy in Central America," Bulletin, April 1983, pp. 4, 37-45; and "Communist Interference in El Salvador," United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Special Report No. 80, 23 February 1981.

30. Margaret D. Hayes, "The Crisis in Central America and U.S. Policy Responses," Current, September 1982, pp. 9, 73-84; Thomas M. Leonard, Central America and United States Policies, 1820s-1980s (Claremont, California: Regina Books, 1985), pp. 66-78; A. Nelson, "Central American Powder Keg," Current, December 1980, pp. 12, 34-43; "U.S. Policy in Central America," The Stanley Foundation: U.S. Foreign Policy Report, October 1983, pp. 48-59; and Jiri Valenta, "The USSR, Cuba and the Crisis in Central America," Orbis, Fall, 1981, pp. 3, 715-46.

31. Atlantic Council of the United States, Atlantic Interests and U.S. Policy Options in the Caribbean Basin (Washington: Atlantic Council of the United States, 1983); William H. Bolin, "Central America, Real Economic Help is Workable Now," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1984, pp. 1096-1106; "Central American Relations/U.S. Policy Options," Center Magazine, July/August 1984; pp. 15-37; Lester D. Langley, Central America: The Real Stakes: Understanding Central America Before It’s too Late (New York: Crown Publishers, 1985); Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America, Changing Course: Blueprint for Peace in Central America and the Caribbean (Austin, Texas: Central American Resources Center, 1984); and University of Miami, Institute for International Studies, The Miami Report: Recommendations on United States Policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean (Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami, 1984).


Thomas M. Leonard (B.S., Mount St. Mary’s College; M.A., Georgetown University; Ph.D., American University) is Professor of History at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville. Previously he hasa been a Visiting Lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Guadalajara, Mexico, and a Fulbright Lecturer at Instituto Juan XXIII Bahia Blanca, Argentina. Dr. Leonard is the author of two books on the political dimensions of U.S.-Central American relations and is a previous contributor to the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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