A Twilight Struggle by Robert Kagan
Solidarity Not Forever
A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990
by Robert Kagan
Free Press. 90S pp. $31. 50
It all seems so remote today, but in the summer of 1979, with the cold war still very much on, a Marxist-led guerrilla movement, the Sandinistas, came to power by force of arms in the small Central American country of Nicaragua. Over the next ten years, three American Presidents—Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush—found themselves entangled to varying degrees in the ensuing civil war. In the end, the United States succeeded in isolating the pro-Soviet revolutionaries; their dictatorship was finally toppled in 1990 by one of the more improbable expedients ever used to dislodge a Communist regime—free elections.
How this all came to pass is the subject of Robert Kagan’s A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990. As an official in the Reagan State Department who for a time helped carry out U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, Kagan occupied a well-situated perch from which to observe the events that are the substance of his book. A Twilight Struggle is not, however, a policymaker’s memoir but a historical narrative, the product of prodigious research that draws together congressional testimony, press reports, recently declassified U.S.-government documents, and interviews with high-ranking American and Nicaraguan officials. It is unquestionably the most revealing and comprehensive account of its topic we are ever likely to see in print.
The historical events that Kagan presents would make premium grist for any good novelist’s mill. On the American side alone we meet a collection of strange and extraordinary personages: an American President, Jimmy Carter, oblivious as his policies destabilized an entire sector of the Western hemisphere; a deputy Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, blithely wondering aloud whether a “Castroite” government in Managua would really have adverse consequences for the United States; a Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill (D., MA), suggesting that the best way to compensate the Nicaraguan people for enduring 40 years of dictatorship of the Right was to let them live under a dictatorship of the Left; a prominent Senator, Christopher Dodd (D., CT), brazenly defending a Sandinista chieftain’s decision to travel to Moscow in search of aid: “Where did my colleagues expect him to go, Disney World?”; and an obscure but charismatic Marine colonel, Oliver North, who turned the tables on his congressional accusers during the Iran-contra affair and briefly became a national political force of his own.
With such a cast of characters at work, and passions aroused across the American political spectrum, Kagan is surely correct in arguing that far more was at stake for the United States than the geopolitical significance of Nicaragua alone would suggest. In a political atmosphere still clouded by failure in Vietnam, defining American policy toward Nicaragua was, as Kagan writes, part and parcel of a larger struggle, the “battle to define America at home and abroad.”
Jimmy carter was engaged in that definitional battle for only a year-and-a-half before being voted out of office. In that short time, he was profoundly ambivalent in his approach. On the one hand, he was averse to exercising American influence in our hemisphere (or, for that matter, anywhere else)—in fact he had campaigned for the presidency stressing that point. On the other hand, he professed to be alarmed by the Communist rhetoric emanating from Managua. Unsurprisingly, with contradictory impulses driving his policy, Carter, as Kagan shows, settled on a less than satisfactory course; up to the very close of his term his diplomacy consisted largely of a fruitless search for “moderates” within Sandinista ranks.
Ronald Reagan came to office with no such illusions. From the very start, his administration squarely faced the challenge of fighting the Sandinistas in a multi-front diplomatic and paramilitary war. In one theater was the USSR, whose leaders found Nicaragua a useful thorn to push into the side of their superpower adversary. Then there were the Sandinistas themselves, bent on exporting their revolution to neighboring countries like El Salvador. Finally, there was the American home front, where influential elements—in Congress and among the public at large—were doing their best to see the Nicaraguan revolution prevail. In each of these arenas, Reagan, and after him George Bush, scored decisive victories while the Sandinistas and their patrons went from defeat to defeat.
Though the Soviet leadership saw in Nicaragua a vehicle for establishing a second Cuban-style regime in this hemisphere, it hoped to realize this objective on the cheap. From their own ample stocks, the Soviets planned on providing the Sandinistas with secret-police advisers and weapons. Meanwhile, they expected that cash and credit would flow to Managua from those countries in the West where anti-American sentiment was rife. Initially, this approach worked. As Kagan shows, money for the Sandinistas—from sources in Canada, Europe, Latin America, and even the United States—ran into hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
But reliance on aid from both East and West was soon shown to have some strategic flaws. First, Nicaragua’s fledgling command economy performed so inefficiently that the Sandinistas required billions, not millions, of dollars in foreign aid. Then, to create the Cuban-style political order to which they aspired, the Sandinistas found it necessary to engage in widespread violations of human rights. Their depredations not only swelled the ranks of their domestic enemies, but also cooled enthusiasm for the revolution among their West European friends. As foreign contributions declined and Nicaragua’s treasury ran low, the ailing Soviet Union was hardly in a position to repeat what it had done two decades earlier to help Fidel Castro survive: inject a massive infusion of funds.
To make matters worse, by the late 1980’s a ruined economy was not the Sandinistas’ only woe. Reagan was scoring victories in the biggest cold-war playing field of all—the battle with the USSR. His program of rearmament was forcing the Soviet leadership to rethink its ambitions in world affairs; by the late 1980’s, the Soviet Union’s great global retrenchment was under way. This was, of course, far from what the Sandinistas had in mind when they launched their pro-Soviet revolution. Convinced then that the international balance of power was decisively tilting Moscow’s way, they now found themselves at the Russian banquet only in time for lukewarm tea.
Steering Moscow away from third-world adventures was, from Washington’s point of view, only a portion of the task at hand—there were major political engagements to be fought at home. For one thing, an entire cottage industry of activists preaching “solidarity” with the Sandinistas was flourishing at the grass roots. For another, U.S. aid to the contras, the armed anti-Sandinista opposition, became an object of acrimonious attack from liberal Democrats in Congress. And in contrast to the professors and church-based grandmothers who were openly crusading for the establishment of one or more Communist states to our south, many liberal Democrats in Congress were less than straightforward in stating their aims. Their objective, it seems clear, was to do everything possible to keep the Sandinistas afloat while remaining free of any ethical or political taint which association with a Communist tyranny might bring.
On more than one occasion in the 1980’s, the Sandinista army commander, General Humberto Ortega, boasted that “as in the case of Vietnam, we will win this war in Washington.” But, in fact, the Sandinistas lost in the American capital. And, as Kagan’s account conclusively demonstrates, they lost largely on account of the fortitude of one man—Ronald Reagan. Even after a precious share of his political capital was drained away in the Iran-contra scandal (a definitive account of which is presented here), Reagan refused to yield to the Sandinistas and their allies in the United States.
A Twilight Struggle should be high on the required-reading list of those who persist in believing that the cold war ended fortuitously, like a spell of bad weather. The impressive documentation and powerful arguments marshaled by Kagan show that nothing could be farther from the truth.