Public Opinion's Influence
on Contra Aid Policy
This chapter explores the perspectives of President Ronald Reagan and other decisionmakers in the Reagan administration and U.S. Congress about how aware they were about public opinion and its influence upon their actions. Public opinion, party politics, and personal convictions shaped the choices of those who made the policy on giving aid to the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s. The chapter presents the views of former Secretary of State George Shultz and his undersecretaries, J. Edward Fox and Elliot Abrams. It also contains the views of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and of Frank Carlucci, who first served as national security adviser and then as secretary of defense. In addition, the chapter draws important insights from Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin. This look into the thoughts of those who made policy displays a gap between their desires and their ability to affect reality. The administration felt that it could lead public opinion with policy sculpted around the anticommunist beliefs that Reagan held so dearly. This, however, was not the case, as Americans were more influenced by their fear of another Vietnam than their fear of another Cuba and thus consistently opposed intervention in the Nicaragua.
Because of the central role of the Congress in making contra aid policy, the chapter also explores congressional perspectives on such policy in the views of two senators and four congressmen. Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Claiborne Pell (D-RI) were both members of the Foreign Relations Committee. Congressmen Ike Skelton (D-MO), Mickey Edwards (R-OK), Bill Richardson (D-NM), and John Spratt (D-NC) represent a variety of foreign policy backgrounds and perspectives.
This chapter discusses widely how public opinion affected Reagan contra aid policy across the decade. It covers more than the three benchmark periods of the 1985 resumption of aid, Congressional refusal, then approval of $100 million in aid in 1986, and the blocking of further aid in 1987 after the Iran-contra scandal.
On the whole, decision-makers in both the administration and the Congress were aware of public attitudes. A considerable amount of public opposition restricted the administration's plans for sustained and considerable aid to the contras. The congressmen, on the other hand, were less constrained by public opposition or split opinion in their districts; they thus had more latitude for making their decisions.