Dirty Hands

The success of U.S. policy in El Salvador -- preventing a guerrilla victory -- was based on 40,000 political murders

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

The United States
in Central America,

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.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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