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

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Nicaragua: History, Reagan Policies,
and Public Opinion

INTRODUCTION

This chapter covers the events, policies, and public opinion that surrounded the giving of U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan contras during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (LeoGrande, 1993; Pastor, 1993). The story of American aid to the contras centered on the conflict between the Reagan administration and its Democratic-led congressional opposition. It was within this debate, where the advantage was constantly shifting from one side to the other, that the United States gave or withheld aid throughout Reagan's two terms in office in the 1980s. Getting “communism” out of Nicaragua was of the utmost importance to Reagan, but his inability to convince the American people of its importance marred his repeated attempts at garnering aid for the contras. The lack of public support limited the scope of Reagan's policies. This continual struggle to gain support from Congress and from the American people for aid for the contras marked the period from 1981 until 1990, into the Bush administration. It influenced the decisions made by the government in both the public and covert spheres.

The history of aid to the contras in Nicaragua running from the start of the Reagan administration in 1981 to the election of the Chamorro government in 1990 is a tale of zealous anticommunism amid congressional and electoral politics. An early act of the Reagan administration in 1981 was to end Carter-era economic assistance to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua that had taken power two years earlier in the overthrow of the Somoza regime. Reagan also secretly authorized Central Intelligence Agency covert operations in the region: these included the establishment of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) that came to be known as the “contras.” After contra attacks led the Sandinistas to declare a state of national emergency, the first U.S. press stories about the war appeared in early 1982 (Tyler and Woodward, 1982, p. A1).

For 1981, the administration provided $19 million for covert CIA financial and logistical support for the opposition (Gelb, 1982, p. A1). By mid-1982, U.S. support had transformed the contras into an army of four thousand (Brecher and Walcott, 1982, pp. 42–53). By 1983, they would number seven thousand, and by 1986, approximately fifteen thousand contras were at war with the Sandinistas (Brecher and

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