Bringing It All Back Home
excerpted from the book
Latin America, the United States,
and the Rise of the New Imperialism
by Greg Grandin
Metropolitan/Owl, 2006, paper
Making little distinction between foreign enemies and domestic
opponents, the Reagan administration put in place what one government
official described as a "psychological operation of the kind
the military conducts to influence a population in denied or enemy
territory. The operation unfolded on three fronts.
First, to confront an adversarial press,
tame a presumptuous Congress, and make inroads on college campuses,
the administration orchestrated a sophisticated and centralized
"public diplomacy" campaign that deployed techniques
drawn from both the PR world and the intelligence community. Second,
the White House either loosened or circumvented restrictions placed
on domestic law-and-order surveillance operations against political
dissidents, reviving tactics that the FBI and other intelligence
agencies had used to intimidate the antiwar movement in the 1960s,
tactics that were thought to have been repudiated by the Rockefeller
Committee and other congressional investigations into domestic
covert actions in the mid-1970s. Finally, and most consequentially,
the administration built countervailing grassroots support to
counter what seemed a permanently entrenched anti-imperialist
opposition, mobilizing militarists and evangelicals on behalf
of a hard-line foreign policy. Such a campaign allowed the White
House to go forward with its Central American program. More critically,
it also helped create the ideas and infrastructure that turned
the Republican Party into a mass movement and transformed the
New Right into the dominant political force in America today.
In January 1983, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive
77, creating a domestic interagency task force "designed
to generate support for our national security objectives."
Five months later, the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America
and the Caribbean was born under the direction of Cuban émigré
Public Diplomacy was officially charged
with implementing a "new, nontraditional" approach to
"defining the terms of the public discussion on Central American
policy" and with "unshackl[ing] public perception of
policy from myths and cant. In reality, it was the homeland branch
of [William] Casey and [Oliver] North's "Enterprise"
Revolution in the name of democracy became a marketing device.
Office of Public Diplomacy memos stressed the need to refer to
the insurgents not as "Contras" but as either "new
revolutionaries" or "freedom fighters fighting in the
American tradition." The war against the Sandinistas was
to be called Nicaragua's "New Revolution.
By flooding the media with questionable facts and allegations,
the Office of Public Diplomacy forced Reagan's opponents to dissipate
their energies disproving allegations rather than making their
own positive case for nonintervention. Confronted by government
spokespeople and sympathetic experts ready to rebut unfavorable
coverage, no matter how slight the criticism or how marginal the
source, reporters came to dread the amount of fact checking it
took to cover Central America."
... By offering alternative interpretations,
no mater how farfetched, to discredit charges of atrocities committed
by U.S. allies, Public Diplomacy muddied the waters and made it
difficult, if not impossible, for human rights organizations to
establish the facts of a case.
Public Diplomacy combined the power of psych ops and PR tactics
to blunt the distinction between foreign and domestic policy.
The White House even timed Contra military operations to coincide
with congressional votes on funding. When its actions came to
light, the office was condemned by both the Congress and the General
Accounting Office as, in the words of an excised part of Congress's
Iran-Contra report, "what a covert CIA operation in a foreign
country might do. Nonetheless, the administration considered the
Office of Public Diplomacy such a stunning success that it "initiated"
similar "methodologies" and "operations,"
as Elliott Abrams put it in 1986, "for Southern Africa and
for terrorism issues."
But the White House found that it could
also control the press and Congress with less aggressive measures,
for neither institution was quite as untamed as their reputations
suggested. Aside from a few intrepid reporters in the mainstream
and alternative press, such as Raymond Bonner and Robert Parry,
the media cut the popular Reagan considerable slack. Ben Bradlee
of the Washington Post describes a "return to deference"
on the part of the press corps: "We were dealing with someone
this time who really, really, really disapproved of us, disliked
us, distrusted us, and that [we thought] we ought not give him
any opportunities to see he was right." Bradlee and his colleagues
also responded to a perceived public fatigue with journalists
"trying to make a Watergate out of everything." They
"ease[d] off" the president, allowing him, and his reputation,
to survive the Iran-Contra scandal, which by any sober account
has to be ranked as one of the most egregious presidential violations
of the public trust of the twentieth century.
it was on the front line of the Central American conflicts that
the Pentagon learned how to finesse the news at home by controlling
reporters at the source. Defense strategists had analyzed the
relationship between the press and the military after Vietnam
and concluded that the problem in Southeast Asia was that journalists
had become too independent in developing their own channels of
information. In response, the Pentagon and the CIA granted privileged
access to certain reporters in Central America, laying the groundwork
for protocols that would be developed further in Grenada, Panama,
It was [journalist Raymond] Bonner who broke the story of the
El Mozote massacre, which Washington vigorously denied for over
a decade. Bonner's reporting met with a firestorm of criticism
from the State Department and the Wall Street Journal, leading
the New York Times to pull him out of El Salvador. "We finally
got rid of that sonuvabitch," said one officer delighted
to see him go.
The fallout from the [Iran-Contra] scandal itself had largely
been contained, as the Senate refused to investigate the assumptions
driving the policy and instead focused on procedural violations.
The special prosecutor's inquiry dragged on for years with little
result, stonewalled by the Department of Justice-with John Bolton
taking the lead in playing defense-and increasingly ignored by
a press unwilling to bring down another president. Not only were
those convicted or indicted pardoned, but many of the key players
in the affairs-Abrams, Negroponte, Weinberger, and Reich-went
on to take jobs in George W Bush's administration. The anti-imperial
moment was over.
In August 1979, an intelligence subcommittee of the Republican
National Committee comprised of a group of ex-CIA and Pentagon
officials and headed by Reagan's future NSC chief, Richard Allen,
produced a twelve-page plan that called for the consolidation
of the diverse intelligence agencies into a single apparatus that
would "mobilize" the entire government on behalf of
national security. The plan advocated diluting the Freedom of
Information Act and weakening constitutional protections extended
by the Warren Court. It also sought the removal of prohibitions
against the sharing of information between the FBI and the CIA
and for the creation of "joint teams of officers from both
the domestic and foreign intelligence services." The 1980
Republican platform followed up by criticizing the "ill-considered
restrictions sponsored by Democrats, which have debilitated U.S.
intelligence capabilities." Shortly after Reagan's victory,
the Heritage Foundation likewise issued an agenda for a conservative
government that would abolish the "new restrictions"
that had resulted in "fragmentation of the mission between
several [intelligence] agencies and technical disciplines, as
well as division of jurisdiction between foreign and domestic
Much of this agenda, while today largely
fulfilled in the Patriot Act and subsequent restructuring of intelligence
services, was at the time considered too radical to implement.
But the Heritage Foundation also specifically called for the surveillance
of solidarity organizations that lobbied in support of the "Sandinistas
and other Latin American... terrorists." Here the FBI obliged,
launching in early 1981 an investigation of the newly formed Committee
in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).
The impetus for the CISPES investigation
came from the synergy created by the right-wing public/private
network that revolved around the NSC, CIA, and Office of Public
The bureau found no evidence that CISPES was "acting on behalf"
of the Salvadoran rebels or "any other foreign principle,"
leading it not to call off but to expand its hunt, now under the
rubric of "international terrorism." The investigation
lasted for five years, involved all fifty-nine of the FBI's field
offices, and collected information on over two thousand individuals
and over one thousand groups. It generated 178 spin-off inquiries
that reached into all branches of the anti-interventionist movement,
including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Inter-Religious
Task Force on Central America, the Maryknoll Sisters, the United
Auto Workers, and the congressional offices of Pat Schroeder,
Christopher Dodd, Jim Wright, John Kerry, Lee Hamilton, and David
The FBI defined its mission less as a
criminal investigation than as a battle campaign. It set out to,
as one internal memo put it, "formulate some plan of attack
against CISPES and specifically against individuals who definitely
display their contempt for the U.S. government by making speeches
and propagandizing their cause." Agents observed rallies
and churches, shadowed individuals, and intimidated activists.
Designating CISPES a Soviet-front organization, the bureau forwarded
the names and addresses of its members to the 'White House, the
Secret Service, the Justice Department, and the State Department-not
an insignificant act considering that Oliver North had drawn up
plans to arrest and detain Central American activists indefinitely
in the event of an American invasion of Nicaragua.
The Central American conflict breathed new life into policy lobby
groups, bringing right-wing nationalists together with liberal
anti-Communists-often referred to today as "neoconservatives"
in common cause. Already by the late 1970s, the first generation
of neocons had begun to join with the nationalist right through
ad hoc and standing organizations such as the Committee on the
Present Danger ... They derailed SALT II, raised the alarm over
America's abandonment of Taiwan to embrace China, and demanded
that Washington support Israel and respond forcefully to third-world
Retired general John Singlaub raised millions of dollars for the
rebels, creating a funding network that brought Saudi Arabia,
Taiwan, and South Korea together with conservative financiers
in the United States such as Bert Hurlbut, president of the First
Texas Royalty and Exploration Company, and Joseph Coors, the beer
magnate and financial patron of much of the right-wing activism
that emerged in the 1970s.68 Singlaub organizing work largely
drew on his connections in the Unification Church-affiliated World
Anti-Communist League, of which he was the president. Made up
of "fascists, militarists, [and] right wing terrorists,"
the league dates from the beginning of the Cold War and represented,
according to one of its own members, a "world of ideological
fanaticism, racialism, ignorance and fear which is almost beyond
the comprehension of the average American." One reporter
observed that death squads in Latin America were essentially local
franchises of the league, a characterization at though exaggerated
is not far off the mark.
... preachers like Billy Graham increasingly drew connections
between the crisis at home and the crisis abroad, particularly
in the third world. As did secular neoconservative declinists,
evangelical theologians such as john Price and Jerry Falwell interpreted
defeat in Vietnam as a signal moment of world history in which
the United States stood at the precipice of spiritual collapse.
They pushed the evangelical movement not only to fight what would
become known as the culture wars-the campaign against the Equal
Rights Amendment, abortion, gay rights, and so forth-but to get
more involved in foreign affairs as well.
From the mid-1970s, Christian organizations
would begin to play a more prominent role in international politics,
supporting causes associated with America's resurgent nationalist
right. Some worked with the American Security Council to oppose
disarmament treaties and defend Ian Smith's white government in
Rhodesia. Jerry Falwell and other ministers traveled to Taiwan
and Israel, developing close ties with Prime Minister Menachem
Begin. But it was in Central America, which brought together a
hodgepodge of improbable sects such as Sun Myung Moon's Unification
Church and Pat Robertson's 700 Club, where the New Christian Right
would receive its first sustained international apprenticeship.
At the request of the White House, Pat Robertson used his Christian
Broadcasting Network to raise money for EfraIn Rios Montt, the
evangelical Christian who presided over the Guatemala genocide.
The fact that both the Central American left and their supporters
in the United States drew inspiration from Christianity provided
an ideological challenge to conservatives. In Central America,
the socialism of the revolutionary movements was motivated by
liberation theology-a current in Catholicism that challenged Latin
American militarism and sought to achieve social justice through
a redistribution of wealth-as much as it was by Marxism. Many
high-ranking members of the Sandinista party were avowed Catholics
and even ordained priests. At home, the solidarity movement that
opposed Reagan's foreign policy was largely Christian.
... when Jeane Kirkpatrick remarked that the three U.S. nuns and
one lay worker who were raped, mutilated, and murdered by Salvadoran
security forces in 1980 were "not just nuns, they were political
activists," she was being more than cruel-she was signaling
her disapproval of a particular kind of peace Christianity.
The power of liberation theology, along with other variants of
peace Christianity, resided not just in its political analysis
of global poverty but in its ethical imperative that to be a good
Christian one had to do more than dispense charity; one had to
transform the structural causes of inequality and violence. In
Latin America, nuns, priests, and lay Christians were not only
presenting democracy and capitalism as antithetical values but
turning to revolution as a way to bring about social justice on
Liberation theology threatened to undermine
the New Right's long struggle to affirm unbridled capitalism's
inextricable relationship to human freedom." It was not enough,
therefore, for mainstream Christian conservatives and fundamentalists
simply to discredit liberal religious organizations. They had
to go on the offensive and make the case that corporate capitalism
"mirrors God's presence" on earth, as Catholic theologian
Michael Novak put it.
In other words, well before "political
Islam" became the paramount spiritual enemy for the New Right,
it singled out Christian humanism for attack.
[Novak] dedicated much of his work to refuting liberation theology's
insistence that third-world poverty could be blamed on exploitation
by the first world. Instead of examining economic and political
relations, he contended that Latin America's failure to modernize
must be blamed on indigenous cultural factors dating back to the
Spanish Crown's seventeenth-century counterreformation, which
placed strictures on capitalist development"
As did their mainstream coreligionists,
fundamentalists formulated their free-market moralism as a quarrel
with liberation theology-which they described as a "theology
of mass murder" and the "the single most critical problem
that Christianity has faced in all of its 2000-year history."
They of course dismissed Novak's liberalism but like him saw capitalism
as an ethical system, one that corresponded to God's gift of free
will. Man lives in a "fundamentally scarce world," Christian
economist John Cooper argued, not an abundant one only in need
of more equitable distribution, as the liberation theologians
would have it. The profit motive, rather than being an amoral
economic mechanism, is part of a divine plan to discipline fallen
man and make him produce. Where Christian humanists contended
that people were fundamentally good and that "evil"
was a condition of class exploitation, Christian capitalists such
as Amway's Richard DeVos, head of the Christian Freedom Foundation,
insisted that evil is found in the heart of man. Where liberation
theology held that humans could fully realize their potential
here on earth, fundamentalist economists argued that attempts
to distribute wealth and regulate production were based on an
incorrect understanding of society-an understanding that incited
disobedience to proper authority and, by focusing on economic
inequality, generated guilt, envy, and conflict. God's Kingdom,
they insisted, would be established not by a war between the classes
but by a struggle between the wicked and the just.
Like Novak, evangelicals sought to rebut
liberation theology's critique of the global political economy.
Third-world poverty, according to evangelical economist Ronald
Nash, has a "cultural, moral, and even religious dimension"
that reveals itself in a "lack of respect for any private
property," "lack of initiative," and "high
leisure preference." Some took this argument to its logical
conclusion. Gary North, another influential Christian economist,
insisted that the "Third World's problems are religious:
moral perversity, a long history of demonism, and outright paganism."
"The citizens of the Third World," he wrote, "ought
to feel guilt, to fall on their knees and repent from their Godless,
rebellious, socialistic ways. They should feel guilty because
they are guilty, both individually and corporately."
Evangelical Christianity's elaboration
of a theological justification for free-market capitalism, along
with its view of an immoral third world, resonated with other
ideological currents within the New Right, laying the groundwork
for today's embrace of empire as America's national purpose. In
a universe of free will where good work is rewarded and bad works
are punished, the fact of American prosperity was a self-evident
confirmation of God's blessing of U.S. power in the world. Third-world
misery, in contrast, was proof of "God's curse." David
Chilton, of the Institute for Christian Economics, a think tank
affiliated with the Reconstructionist branch of the evangelical
movement, wrote that poverty is how "God controls heathen
cultures: they must spend so much time surviving that they are
unable to exercise ungodly dominion over the earth."
Mainstream theologians like Novak would
not use such stark terms, yet the sentiment is not far removed
from their logic. "God has made no special covenant with
America as such," conceded the Institute on Religion and
Democracy's mission statement, written by Richard Neuhaus. Nonetheless,
"because America is a large and influential part of his creation,
because America is the home of most of the heirs of Israel of
old, and because this is a land in which his church is vibrantly
free to live and proclaim the gospel to the world, we believe
that America has a peculiar place in God's promises and purposes."
The IRD therefore anointed America the "primary bearer of
the democratic possibility in the world today." Such an opinion
nestled comfortably with evangelical notions of America as a "redeemer
The ties between the White House and conservative groups focused
on Central America were tight and grew tighter still as a result
of their work. Reagan's assistant Faith Ryan Whittlesey presided
over a White House Outreach Working Group on Central America,
which coordinated the efforts of the NSC and CIA with those of
more than fifty private organizations, including Jerry Falwell's
Moral Majority, Pat Robertson's Freedom Council, Phyllis Schlafly's
Eagle Forum, and the Heritage Foundation.
Christian businessmen funded the myriad organizations that worked
closely with the NSC and the Office of Public Diplomacy to sway
public opinion and congressional votes in favor of Reagan's policy
in El Salvador and Nicaragua. They raised money for arms and humanitarian
work and joined with Opus Dei and other conservative Catholics
to form a broad front to counter peace Christianity.
The White House, through the offices of
Oliver North, supervised much of the Christian mobilization. In
1984, the administration made it easier for evangelical groups
to synchronize their activities with USAID. It pushed through
Congress a law that allowed the Defense Department to use its
planes and ships to transport privately raised humanitarian aid
and established a "coordinator for humanitarian assistance."
These measures effectively reversed a 1976 ban that prohibited
the CIA from entering into contractual relations with missionaries.
At the same time as the FBI was launching its "plan of attack"
against CISPES, the Internal Revenue Service was granting tax-exempt
status to Singlaub's Council for World Freedom and other New Right
Central American policy, as well as the
grassroots mobilization that supported it, became the linchpin
that helped hold the Reagan coalition together. Contrary to the
antigovernment rhetoric that accompanied Reagan's rise, all components
of his political base believed in a strong government. The Christian
right, propelled by victory in the fight against the Equal Rights
Amendment, wanted to reorient the state away from promoting and
protecting individualism and secularism to defend family morality,
to overturn Roe v. Wade, and to stop the advance of gay rights.
Neocons sold a vision of America as a world enforcer of liberal
morals. And economic elites, while committed to free enterprise
in the abstract, wanted the government to continue investing in
technology and infrastructure, particularly through expanded defense
spending, and to impose law and order. They all agreed on the
need for a strong foreign policy, either to fight Bolshevism,
to encourage open markets, or to protect overseas interests.
This coalition gave Reagan a tripartite
mandate to pursue an anti-Communist foreign policy, restore traditional
morality, and end the welfare state ...
... New Right activists took seriously the idea of world revolution,
a revolution they saw themselves leading both at home and abroad.
Throughout 1985 and 1986, conservatives, many of them grouped
around the Heritage Foundation, pushed the White House to make
good on its promise to support insurgencies from Cambodia to Laos,
Libya to Angola, Ethiopia to Mozambique, Cuba to Yemen. When no
action was forthcoming, they attacked the State Department and
demanded Shultz's resignation.
They also took matters into their own
hands. From the network built to support the Nicaraguan Contras,
militarists, idealists, and religionists, together with hard-liners
in the NSC, CIA, and Office of Public Diplomacy, moved to extend
operations across three continents. As they did for Central America,
evangelical activists raised money to ship clothes, Bibles, medical
supplies, and guns." Beyond supplying aid and weapons, militants
began to coordinate a "Democratic International" to
fight the "Soviet Empire"-apparently modeled on the
storied Third International of Communism's heyday. In June 1985,
Contra supporter and head of Citizens for America Lewis Lehrman,
heir to the Rite Aid pharmacy fortune, convened a "freedom
fighter" summit in rebel-held Angola that brought together
anti-Communist rebels from Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, and
Laos (the Cambodians were invited but didn't show up) to sign
a unity pact. At a mass rally in a soccer stadium, Lehrman (today
a member of the Project for the New American Century) presented
the rebel delegates with a copy of the Declaration of Independence
and read aloud a letter from Reagan, praising the revolutionaries
including the mujahedeen-as part of a worldwide revolution whose
"goals are [America's] goals."
This transformation of conservative activists
into world revolutionaries entailed adopting an ethics of absolutism,
sacrificing any qualms they may have had about means at the altar
of ends. The violence of counterinsurgent war stoked the fires
of evangelical Manichaeanism, leading FaIwell, Robertson, and
others to ally with the worst murderers and torturers in Central
and Latin America. "For the Christian," wrote Rus 'Wakon,
a fundamentalist activist, "there can be no neutrality in
this battle: 'He that is not with Me is against Me' (Matthew 12:30)."boo
Robertson befriended Guatemala's EfraIn RIos Montt and Salvador's
Roberto D'Aubuisson-who was behind the murder of, among untold
others, Archbishop Oscar Romero, celebrating both men on his Christian
Broadcasting Network. And more than a dozen New Christian Right
organizations, including the Moral Majority and the Pro-Life Action
Committee, presented D'Aubuisson with a plaque in 1984, honoring
his "continuing efforts for freedom."