Murray Polner: Review of Roger Peace's "A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign" (Massachusetts, 2012)


Murray Polner is a regular book reviewer for HNN.

What Roger Peace, adjunct professor of history at Tallahassee Community College, does very well in A Call to Conscience is remind Americans about a largely forgotten past when antiwar religious and secular groups, despite their many differences, dared challenge the Reagan administration’s proxy war in Nicaragua aimed at defeating a left-wing government.

The disparate American anti-Contra groups were fortunate to have many sympathetic Democrats and moderate Republicans eager to see an end to the constant flow of money and weapons to the Contras. They lobbied, wrote, spoke, and demonstrated, even raising the unwarranted fear the U.S. was planning to send in ground troops. “No single group or organization directed this decentralized campaign,” writes a clearly sympathetic Peace, whose detailed account, while hardly nuanced, carefully examines how domestic opponents tried to stop the war. Not all the antiwar groups agreed with one another about every aspect of Nicaraguan Sandinista policies, but all were united by the memory of America’s historic economic and military domination south of the border and its habitual support of repressive and brutal, regimes.

The U.S. occupied Nicaragua from 1912-1933 (save for one year) to prop up the rule of wealthy Nicaraguans and American bankers. From 1927-33, U.S. marines fought forces led by Augusto Sandino before quitting the country. Three years later the Somoza clan emerged and for the next forty-three years they, together with Dominican, El Salvadoran , Guatemalan, and Cuban dictators, formed a U.S. sphere of influence where Dollar Diplomacy ruled. But once Fidel Castro threw out Fulgencio Batista in 1959 the situation became quite troublesome to American presidents from Dwight Eisenhower on.

In 1979 Nicaraguan left-wingers called Sandinistas rebelled, threw out Somoza and his crowd, took power, and named Daniel Ortega as its leader. The next year President Jimmy Carter ordered a series of small and secret actions directed at the Sandinistas, who favored a mishmash of nationalism, liberation theology, socialism, communism and hatred for the Colossus of the North. Nearby, El Salvador’s renewal of its recurrent civil wars, with the U.S. always backing governments “run by right-wing politicians and their death squads,” as Tim Weiner put it in his magisterial Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, did not end until 1992 with an estimated tens of thousands of people killed and more than a million displaced.

In 1982 the Nicaraguan Contra war began, an especially cruel conflict which lasted until February 1990 with the formation of the anti-Sandinista Contras who President Ronald Reagan praised as “freedom fighters.” American conservatives, neo- and otherwise gathered around Reagan, feared a leftist Nicaragua might align itself with Cuba and the Soviet Union, strengthen left-wingers throughout the region, especially in El Salvador, and threaten U.S. business and military interests. In the ensuing years, the CIA built some air bases and mined Nicaraguan harbors, both presumably acts of war. Money for the Contras arrived from the U.S. and the CIA, illicit arms sales, congressional authorizations, and alleged trafficking by the CIA and Contras in cocaine, an accusation which still remains unproven.

The White House began an orchestrated PR campaign to convince the American people that once again freedom was on the line and the nation threatened by communists. This, just seven years after Vietnam. The Contra war, wrote Cynthia Arnson in Crossroads: Congress, the President and Central America 1976-1993 and cited by Peace, became “the single most divisive and bitterly fought foreign policy issue since the war in Vietnam.” That it was. The eight year war cost an estimated 30,000 dead, many more wounded while hundreds of thousands fled from their homes.

Much of the domestic opposition came from Protestant churches and elements of the Catholic Church, many in the latter furious at the murder of priests and rape of nuns in El Salvador by pro-government thugs. The administration, eager to obtain some Democratic Party and American Jewish support the war began leaking faked stories about Sandinista anti-Semitism. They regularly trotted out its big guns. The president, who may well have lied later when he said he knew nothing about the unlawful Iran-Contra deal, accused the Sandinistas of trying “to spread communism to El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and elsewhere.” Peace quotes Secretary of State George Shultz calling the failure to aid the Contras “a shameful surrender- - a betrayal. not only of brave men and women but to our highest ideas and the national security of the United States.” Unmentioned was historic U.S. support for such “brave men” as our recent friends among neo-fascist Argentine generals and Chile’s Pinochet. Nor did the public learn about CIA director William Casey’s confrontational role until published articles by antiwar writers began appearing. When the Iran-Contra scandal broke, Tim Weiner wrote, Casey convinced Reagan that the U.S. wasn’t swapping arms for hostages being held in Iran. Reagan believed him and repeated this in a national broadcast. “Once again,” argued Weiner, whose book won the Pulitzer Prize, “as in the U-2 shootdown, as at the Bay of Pigs, as in the war in Central America the president lied to protect the covert operations of the CIA.”

In the end, we have to wonder again who really shapes our foreign policies. The mass media and today’s social media? Ethnic and racial blocs? Self-appointed financially and politically secure elites in Washington’s ubiquitous think tanks? Globalized corporations? Ideological absolutists creating irrational fears of “enemies”? The president? Congress? Or the “people,” whoever they may be?

Much to Peace’s credit he does not ignore the antiwar left’s internal feuds though he largely ignores exploring in any depth the Iran-Contra deal which involved administration people, Israel, arms dealers and con men, all tied to the CIA and the Contras. Of course, more details about what the CIA has done in Central America will have to wait until some later decade when and if its records are opened for scrutiny. (If the KGB could do it, why not the CIA?)

Meanwhile, we are left to wonder what if anything Americans who fought against the proxy war actually accomplished. Perhaps their pressure may have helped shorten the war but since then popular opposition to our persistent wars has had no lasting effect. Iraq and Afghanistan followed. Iran may be next. And American suspicions and hostility toward Latin America’s left continues unabated.

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