READING William LeoGrande's Our Own Backyard is a distasteful experience. The book is difficult to stomach precisely because it is such a masterly and comprehensive chronicle of U.S. policy toward Central America in the 1980s. That policy, as LeoGrande writes, "occasioned the most bitter domestic political debate since Vietnam," and to read this book is to be reminded of a host of unpleasant and rancorous subjects that one would prefer to forget. Nearly all sides in that debate emerge from LeoGrande's account as hypocritical, and at least some participants emerge as apologists for murder. Our Own Backyard makes the reader squirm as it dredges up memories of dishonest arguments concerning the unsavory friends with whom the United States allied itself and the equally nasty enemies against whom it fought by proxy in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and a former congressional-committee staff member, divides his extraordinarily clear account of American policy into two lengthy main sections, one on El Salvador and the other on Nicaragua. His section on El Salvador is the more interesting and valuable, and the focus of this review, because LeoGrande's is the only comprehensive record of the subject. His chronicle of Nicaraguan policy can't compete in thoroughness with Robert Kagan's 900-page A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990, published two years ago, and furthermore, the most complicated and controversial aspects of that policy have been and will continue to be assessed in works on the Reagan presidency generally and the Iran-contra scandal specifically. In contrast, America's involvement in El Salvador's civil war has not until now been treated as history. To be sure, in the 1980s a number of books took a journalistic or overtly political approach to the subject, but as the very title of the best of these -- Weakness and Deceit, by Raymond Bonner -- illustrates, these polemics were designed to generate more heat than light and don't serve dispassionate reassessment.
Not that LeoGrande doesn't have a point of view (he was and remains a strenuous critic of the Reagan Administration's policies), but in Our Own Backyard, which is based on interviews with many of the key policymakers and on the relatively small number of government papers that have been declassified, his scrupulousness as a historian overtakes his biases, allowing the reader to assess with clarity the policies and debates concerning the U.S. role in El Salvador's civil war. Until scholars are granted access to the hundreds of thousands of pages of still-classified documents, LeoGrande's will probably remain the definitive account of America's part in that murderous conflict.
Few subjects in America's recent foreign policy are richer, as morally unsettling, and better deserving of a chronicler. El Salvador was the site of America's most prolonged and expensive military endeavor in the period between the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf conflict. More important, whereas America's strategy in Nicaragua was rather straightforward -- arm and train a guerrilla force and in other ways subvert the economy and regime -- U.S. policy in El Salvador demanded nothing less than that America effect fundamental changes in that country's authoritarian culture, its political practices, and its economic, social, and military structure.
Such a project used to be called, presumptuously, "nation-building." With the exception of its involvement in South Vietnam, America had never been so deeply and intimately involved in attempting to transform a foreign society that it had not defeated in war and hence did not control. In postwar West Germany the United States inculcated democracy, but it had first destroyed Germany's demons. In El Salvador the United States sought to transform the country while allied with the devil it had to subdue. Whether the geopolitical stakes demanded that involvement and whether letting events take their own course would have resulted in even more atrocities can be debated. What is indisputable is that for a decade American policymakers in Washington and American civilian and military personnel in El Salvador consorted with murderers and sadists.
As LeoGrande's account -- if not always his assessment -- makes clear, this pact with the devil was made not by the Administration of the aggressively anti-Communist Republican Ronald Reagan but by that of the moderate Democrat Jimmy Carter -- ironically, a President deeply committed to emphasizing human rights in his foreign policy. Simply put, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and with Cuban and Soviet influence apparently growing throughout the Third World generally and in Nicaragua specifically, the Carter Administration believed that global containment required the United States to forestall a revolution in El Salvador led by the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), a loose alliance of Marxist guerrilla groups tied to Cuba and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua.
El Salvador was ripe for revolution. Its society, in which a small landed elite dominated an exploited peasant labor force, was grossly inequitable even by Latin American standards. That elite ruled the country in partnership with its guardian, the military, which had a long tradition of bloody repression of dissenters and revolutionaries, whom it tended to view as one and the same. Although the Carter Administration was troubled by the abysmal human-rights record of El Salvador's rightist regime, it feared "another Nicaragua." So when in late 1980 a rebel victory appeared imminent unless the United States provided military and other forms of aid to the Salvadoran regime, Carter chose to assist the Salvadoran government, and thus hesitantly embarked on the policy that the Reagan Administration would later pursue with alacrity.
Not content to keep the radical left -- made up of the FMLN and its allied political organizations -- out of power, the Carter Administration, as LeoGrande correctly emphasizes, firmly and consistently opposed any measures that would have afforded the radicals a significant political voice. This position in essence required a rebel defeat rather than a negotiated solution, since to have been meaningful, a political settlement would have had to entail some sort of power sharing between the FMLN and the regime.
So important did defeating the FMLN appear to be that the Carter Administration justified its military aid by announcing that the regime had made "progress" in the area of human rights, even though the Administration knew that in fact progress was nonexistent. In the year leading up to Carter's decision the Salvadoran armed forces and the right-wing death squads linked to them had killed more than 8,000 noncombatant civilians -- among them four U.S. churchwomen.
THUS by the time Ronald Reagan was sworn in to office, the contours of U.S. policy had already been rigidly established. First, because of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, preventing a rebel victory in El Salvador was regarded as a national-security priority (and the possible "loss" of El Salvador was seen as a catastrophe with enormous political consequences in the United States), which ultimately trumped concern over human rights. Second, "reform" in El Salvador was to be encouraged, but revolution was to be thwarted. And third, to make American aid to a homicidal regime more palatable, its human-rights progress would be greatly exaggerated. Despite the obfuscation engendered by the ensuing decade of bickering between Congress and the Administrations of Reagan and George Bush, and between Democrats and Republicans, this was the outline of what amounted to a bipartisan policy.