Dirty Hands

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

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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.

Although the Reagan Administration's fundamental policy toward El Salvador didn't differ substantively from its predecessor's, the new Administration did immediately escalate the rhetoric. The new Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, famously declared in the first weeks of the Reagan presidency that El Salvador was the "test case" of the Administration's foreign policy and that America would "draw the line" there against "Communist interference." Although this tough talk aroused considerable concern and criticism among liberals and the Democratic opposition, almost no one realized that the single most important and most terrible development in El Salvador's decade-long civil war had occurred before Reagan assumed the presidency and intensified American efforts to counter the FMLN.

By the time Reagan entered the Oval Office, on January 20, 1981, the guerrillas' "final offensive," launched at the beginning of the month, had failed, even though the Salvadoran regime and military were at their weakest and most divided. The rebels would never again come so close to seizing power. Although the FMLN had made important military gains in the countryside during the offensive, the success of its strategy rested on the ability of its affiliated "popular organizations" -- coalitions of workers', peasants', and students' unions -- to mobilize a simultaneous general strike in San Salvador, thereby crippling the country and forcing the military to spread itself too thin. But whereas the popular organizations had assembled hundreds of thousands of marchers in the capital just a year earlier, the general strike called to coincide with the final offensive failed to materialize, and thus the offensive petered out.

At the time, American officials publicly ascribed the failure of the offensive to the U.S.-sponsored land-reform program, initiated the previous March, which, they argued, had undercut the FMLN's popular support. As a Rand Corporation analyst, I spent two years assessing U.S. policy in El Salvador for the Defense Department. The U.S. military advisers and intelligence officers I came to know all understood that this explanation of the guerrillas' failure was nonsense. They knew that had land reform undermined popular support, it would have had its greatest impact in the countryside, but in fact the FMLN's major setback came in the city. It was not the result of reform but the consequence of the murder of thousands of people in the preceding months by the Salvadoran armed forces and the death squads. With lavish brutality the military failed to distinguish between dissenters and revolutionaries; many of its victims were unconnected to the FMLN, but enough were connected that the guerrillas' political infrastructure was destroyed. The guerrillas simply did not have enough allies left alive in San Salvador to organize a general strike.

In 1982 and 1983 the Salvadoran regime remained on the defensive, but the guerrillas continued to prove incapable of following up their increasing success on the battlefield with the necessary final blow -- an insurrection in the capital. As I was told repeatedly by U.S. military and intelligence personnel who were as clear-eyed as they were aghast, the dirty little secret shared by those determined to prevent an FMLN takeover -- a group that included both the Salvadoran armed forces and the United States government -- was this: the death squads worked. To his great credit, LeoGrande recognizes and repeatedly emphasizes this crucial point.

As the American commitment to El Salvador deepened, the United States grew increasingly determined, for a mixture of altruistic and practical reasons, to put a stop to the carnage. Nevertheless, since the purpose of that commitment was to prevent an FMLN victory, there is no escaping the fact that the success of the U.S. policy was built on a foundation of corpses. A former U.S. military attaché to El Salvador recalled to me that in the middle of one of his many demarches to the Salvadoran high command on the need to stop death-squad killings, a high-ranking officer retorted in a dismissive tone that talk about respect for human rights was a luxury the United States could afford only because of the cold efficiency of the death squads in the early 1980s: "We cleaned up San Salvador for you." The attaché found the argument appalling -- and correct.

But having noted the essential role of the death squads, LeoGrande fails to assess clearly and precisely the related issue of the differences -- and, more important, the similarities -- in the early 1980s between, on the one hand, congressional moderates and "pragmatists" within the Reagan Administration, who insisted that, somehow, defense of the Salvadoran regime be combined with efforts to reform it, and, on the other, the Administration's hard-liners. The latter thought that concerns about reform would only hinder the Salvadoran regime's efforts to defeat the guerrillas. LeoGrande evidently finds the position of the hard-liners -- a group that included Haig, Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, National Security Advisor Richard V. Allen, and Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle -- so distasteful that he fails to pay proper attention to their gruesome logic. In their public praise of the Salvadoran regime the hard-liners were unquestionably dishonest. Privately, however, most of them faced the implications of American policy quite honestly.

They had no illusions that the Salvadoran military was anything but "a bunch of murderous thugs" -- as one of the hard-liners, a rigidly anti-Communist assistant secretary of defense, later told me. But they understood, as did America's Salvadoran clients, that the United States had involved itself in El Salvador's conflict not to ensure that the Salvadorans conducted their war cleanly but to serve what were seen by Democrats as well as Republicans as America's national-security interests. Entertaining no hope of fundamentally altering a highly undemocratic and violent society, these policymakers believed that the most effective way of pursuing America's security objectives in El Salvador was to let the Salvadoran armed forces run their war as they saw fit.

is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a book critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Illustrations by Scott Menchin

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; Dirty Hands; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 106-116.