The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy since Vietnam: Constraining the Colossus

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

III
THE NICARAGUA CASE
THE CONTRA FUNDING
CONTROVERSY

THE CASE STUDY IN CHAPTERS 7 AND 8 LOOKS AT AMERICAN AID TO THE NICARAGUAN contras during the Reagan administration. The first part provides an overview of the history that surrounded the debate about giving aid to the contras. It lays out the different sides of the debate over contra aid, the basic flow of events and policy throughout the era, and the public sentiments regarding involvement in Nicaragua at that time. The years 1981 through 1990 were marked by a series of fierce struggles between the administration and Congress over the issue of contra aid. On one hand, staunchly anticommunist, Ronald Reagan felt that the spread of communism in Latin America must be stopped by all means possible. On the other hand, congressional opposition, led mainly by the Democrats, was worried that the United States would get caught in another burdensome civil war like Vietnam. Reagan sought to increase aid to the contras while the congressional opposition sought to limit it. The balance of power shifted back and forth because of the continual contention of moderate Democrats and Republicans concerned with their electoral calculations.

Overall support for Reagan's policies in Nicaragua was generally low. But, by using anticommunist rhetoric and his political clout, Reagan was at times able to convince wavering representatives to side with him. It is in this contending manner that the debate between the president, Congress, and public opinion over American aid to the Nicaraguan rebels progressed until its end in 1990. It is out of this background that the exploration of the impact of public opinion on contra aid policy arises.

Focusing on the actual decision-making process, Chapter 8 explores the perceptions and choices made by members of the Reagan administration and Congress. The chapter generally address three particular benchmarks: the 1985 resumption of aid to the contras, the Congressional refusal and then approval of $100 million in aid in 1986, and the blocking of additional aid in 1987 following the Iran-contra scandal. It identifies the awareness of public opinion by and its potential impact on such influential policymakers such as President Reagan (especially as articulated by his pollster, Richard Wirthlin), Secretary of State George Shultz, Assistant Secretaries of State Elliot Abrams and J. Edward Fox, and Secretaries of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci. It also explores the awareness about and impact of opin

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