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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 126-128

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William M. LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States and Central America, 1977-1992. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. 773 pp. $45.00.

Two decades ago President Ronald Reagan described the struggle for Central America as pitting the forces of good against evil. The "evil ones" were not terrorists from theMiddle East but Marxists in Central America, and of course the United States was the "shining city on the hill." That epic battle faded with the end of the Cold War, but the apocalyptic rhetoric of that debate has returned since 2001 in another guise.

William LeoGrande has brought to life the Central American wars of the late 1970s and 1980s. Some readers might be discouraged by the book's heft and temporal distance from today's world, but they would be mistaken. LeoGrande writes with verve; the book is long but not wordy. He is concise in depicting events, and if he captures too many debates, the reader benefits from learning how the policy evolved and affected the battles in Central America. His profiles of key actors, such as Reagan's first [End Page 126] secretary of state, Alexander Haig, and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, are crisp and colorful. His insights into the causes and consequences of U.S. foreign policy remain valid and helpful in thinking about Washington's purpose today as well as two decades ago.

The book is actually a story of three very unequal countries—the United States, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—and their different battles. Young Central Americans fought and died while older men in Washington engaged in bureaucratic or interbranch politics.

LeoGrande's thesis is that U.S. policy in Central America was the completion of the debate on Vietnam, as conservatives tried to exorcise that ghost and liberals desperately sought to avoid repeating its mistakes. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I fought in many of these battles, first as head of Latin American affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Carter administration and then as an opponent of the Reagan administration; and I currently work at the same university that LeoGrande does.) LeoGrande begins with a critique of the Carter administration's policies. In his view, Jimmy Carter should have demanded the resignation of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in September 1978 rather than ten months later, but he does not explain why Somoza would have acceded to such a demand when still securely in power. Somoza responded to events, not to démarches. In El Salvador, LeoGrande writes, the Carter administration "balked at the Junta's willingness to bring elements of the radical left into partnership with the government" (p.41). The opposite was the case; the Carter administration tried hard but unsuccessfully to persuade the radical left to join the government and not succumb to right-wing provocations. But these are quibbles. The book's real core is LeoGrande's vigorous critique of the Reagan administration's war in El Salvador and its support for the contras in Nicaragua.

The debates within the Reagan administration pitted the pragmatists, who wanted to strengthen the Salvadoran army and the Nicaraguan contras and then negotiate, against the hard-liners, who believed that negotiations would be futile. Democrats in Congress viewed Reagan's solutions—the contras and the Salvadoran army—as the real problem and compelled the administration to moderate its policy. Nonetheless, LeoGrande berates the Congress for failing to stop Reagan and dismisses the centrist officials in Central America as hollow men.

The book benefits from the trove of documents that were declassified as a result of the congressional Iran-Contra investigation. The reader can follow the debates in the National Security Council meetings and observe Oliver North as he proudly shreds most of his documents. In the end, John M. Poindexter, Reagan's national security adviser, saved the president from impeachment by telling Congress that Reagan was not informed of the Iran-Contra decisions. But when...