Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992

Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992

Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992

Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992


In this book, William LeoGrande offers the first comprehensive history of U.S. foreign policy toward Central America in the waning years of the Cold War. From the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua and the outbreak of El Salvador's civil war in the late 1970s to the final regional peace settlements negotiated a decade later, he chronicles the dramatic struggles - in Washington and Central America - that shaped the region's destiny. LeoGrande's central argument is that our Central American policy was driven by the specter of Vietnam and conflicting views on how to avoid repeating that history. Throughout the book, LeoGrande interweaves three principal thematic threads: how events in Central America came to be considered threatening to the United States, how debates within the executive branch over the appropriate response shaped policy, and how conflicts between the White House and Congress constrained presidential options.


When I began this book, I intended to write an account of the domestic opposition to Ronald Reagan's Central America policy, focusing on the Congress. Not since Vietnam had Americans been so bitterly divided over a foreign policy issue as they were over Central America. I soon realized, however, that investigating the domestic debate was like pulling on a loose threadit lead inexorably to other questions.

To understand the political struggle between the Reagan administration and its critics, it was first necessary to examine what was happening in Central America. As U.S. involvement deepened, a tension arose between the instinct of many U.S. policymakers to preserve Washington's traditional hegemony in the region, and the desire of Central Americans to control their own destiny. On this issue, Washington discovered adversaries not only among Marxist guerrillas on the left, but also among military officers and businessmen on the right. Maintaining even tenuous control over allies such as the Salvadoran armed forces or the Nicaraguan contras proved as difficult for Washington as plotting strategy against the Salvadoran guerrillas and the Sandinistas.

In the United States, the tempo of the debate between the Reagan administration and its critics waxed and waned with the rhythms of the war on the ground. As the region's civil strife escalated, Reagan's opponents charged that his policy was failing to achieve its stated objectives; Reagan replied that the critics' caviling tied his hands, preventing success.

I was also compelled to look at how policy was formulated inside the Reagan administration. From the beginning, it was beset by a severe internal schism between self-described "hard-liners" and "pragmatists" who struggled with one another for control over foreign policy in general and Central American policy in particular. On Central America, the hard-liners were inclined toward military solutions, and they bitterly opposed any diplomatic accord that gave Washington less than total victory. For the pragmatists, Central America was not the most important place on the globe, and the wars there were less a test of ideological mettle than a challenge to traditional U.S. security interests. If those interests could be reasonably safeguarded by diplomatic compromise, the pragmatists were willing to pursue it.

The policy differences between hard-liners and pragmatists were often reinforced by rivalries of ambition and personal animosity. It was not uncommon for different officials to describe U.S. policy in hopelessly contradictory ways within a few days--or even hours--of one another. Both camps leaked continually in an effort to gain the upper hand in the internal tug of war. With a president reluctant to resolve conflicts among his senior advisers and notori-

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