- Exorcizing the Ghosts of Vietnam: Why the United States Was in Central America
Contemporary histories on U.S.-Central America relations repeat what, by now, is a familiar litany of the shortsighted, hypocritical, and misguided U.S. policies toward its southern neighbors. U.S. ignorance of Central America and the severe consequences wrought on the region’s population by U.S. disregard is not a new revelation for students of Central American politics. Economic interests dominated U.S. policy in that region, leading to military intervention and the inevitable cycle of revolution and counter-revolution. 1 The raisond’être of this imperialist approach was not to “preservestability in the face of revolution, but to create stability out of revolution.” 2
William LeoGrande in his book, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977–1992, continues this revolutionary theme by recasting the debate within the specter of the Vietnam War. This is a fresh and coherent approach to familiar themes: U.S.-sponsored revolution in Central America as a means of confronting communist aggression with total disregard for dynamics in the region. The Vietnam War was relevant to Central America insofar as U.S. military failure in Southeast Asia informed decision-making in Washington on how to counter the Soviet Union. [End Page 256]
The impact of the Vietnam War on U.S. policymaking is an intriguing perspective and one that LeoGrande develops in a restrained, reasoned, and balanced manner. And, it is a proper starting point, though not an ending point, for introducing personalities and underscoring the deep differences, in Robert Pastor’s words, of the two “lenses” of conservative and liberal ideologies in the American foreign policy debate during the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The two ideological extremes in U.S. foreign policy in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s—the Republican right along with the neoconservative Democrats, who viewed Soviet expansionism as a direct threat to American national interest, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, who saw détente as a means of checking that threat—perceived the Vietnam War differently. Both extremes, however, concluded that the United States had badly mismanaged its military participation in the Vietnam War.
In response to the outcome of the Vietnam War, the Republican right—holding to the view that revolution created stability—determined that the United States had to be more aggressive and strategic in supporting allies and “friendly autocracies.” According to the Reagan administration, the Vietnam War marked the beginning of a long list of failures on the part of the United States against the Soviets’ “imperial foreign policy,” among them Communist invasions in Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Iran, Mozambique, and Nicaragua. The United States, so the Republican right argued, had the right to use force to counter Soviet aggression.
The liberal Democrats, on the other hand, rejected the view that revolution created political stability, concluding from the Vietnam War that U.S. military assistance and intervention in Third World wars was misguided. For them, U.S. foreign policy should focus on linking military reforms with economic assistance and rely on active diplomacy as the primary means of communicating U.S. objectives.
Upon assuming office, Carter immediately criticized El Salvador and Guatemala for human rights violations to which the regimes in those countries responded by unilaterally rejecting further U.S. military assistance. Thus, 1978 marks the year that the United States began to lose what influence it had in El Salvador and Guatemala not only with their military institutions, but with their private sectors as well. Whereas that influence was to be completely lost in Guatemala, it was regained in El Salvador when the Reagan administration resumed significant U.S. military assistance. LeoGrande rightly points out that U.S. influence in these countries was negligible at a critical moment (1979–1981) when guerrilla [End Page 257] violence was increasing. And, the private sector elites and the military institutions in both countries were jubilant over Reagan’s election, which marked a significant shift...