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.