As the nation pays tribute to Ronald “Dutch” Reagan on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth, media coverage is every bit as laudatory as when he turned 90. I wrote in 2001 about PBS’s fawning tributes on the Charlie Rose show and the Jim Lehrer NewsHour. Then, as now, one of the most glaring omissions was the human cost of his foreign policies. In the interest of filling out the Reagan portrait, let us consider a few regions unfortunate enough to capture his attention, starting with Central America.
In January 1981, the newly inaugurated Reagan inherited Jimmy Carter’s policy of supporting a Salvadoran government controlled by a military that, along with the security forces and affiliated death squads, killed about 10,000 civilians in 1980. In the first 27 months of the Reagan administration, perhaps another 20,000 civilians were killed. El Salvador’s labor movement was decimated, the opposition press exterminated, opposition politicians murdered or driven into exile, the church martyred.
In April 1983, seeking to shore up shaky public and congressional support for continued aid to El Salvador, Reagan went on national television before a joint session of Congress and — with a straight face — praised the Salvadoran government for “making every effort to guarantee democracy, free labor unions, freedom of religion, and a free press.” The Great Communicator/Prevaricator achieved his objective; aid — and blood — continued to flow.
In neighboring Nicaragua, the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship slaughtered perhaps 40,000 civilians from 1977 to 1979 in a desperate bid to hold power. Candidate Reagan was sad to see Somoza go, and once in office his administration turned to officers from Somoza’s hated National Guard to spearhead a “liberation” movement. Known as the contras, they never managed to hold a single Nicaraguan town in their eight years as Reagan’s proxy army, though they were quite proficient at raping, torturing and killing defenseless civilians. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans died in a war that never would have been were it not for good ol’ Dutch.
A common criticism of Reagan is that this self-proclaimed fighter against the scourge of terrorism traded with a designated “terrorist state” — the hostage-holding fundamentalist regime in Iran — to generate funds for the contras after Congress turned off the tap. That’s true as far as it goes. But the contras themselves were terrorists, as were those elements of the Honduran army that the CIA and Ollie North employed to help the contras, as was the notorious Salvadoran air force that assisted in the contra resupply effort. All murdered noncombatants to achieve political objectives. If they were “terrorists” — and if words have meaning, they were — what does that make their paymaster and cheerleader in the Oval Office?
In Guatemala in 1982, the dictator Efrain Rios Montt — an army general and evangelical minister branded by critics the “born-again butcher” — launched his “beans and guns” scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign. The army destroyed hundreds of villages and slaughtered thousands of civilians. Reagan was furious. Not at our blood-soaked ally, but at Amnesty International and others who documented his depridations. Rios Montt was getting a “bum rap,” Reagan whined.
In Southeast Asia, Reagan picked up where President Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski left off in collaborating with the Chinese government to support Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge, which had been driven from power in 1979 by a Vietnamese government that had grown weary of the Khmer Rouge atttacking villages on Vietnam’s side of the border. Along with two hapless non-communist Cambodian guerrilla groups, the ousted Khmer Rouge utilized neighboring Thailand —with the blessing and backing of the U.S. and China — as a base from which to launch attacks inside Cambodia.
A bit odd, Reagan backing communist mass murderers. But he did so for a high-minded principle: self-determination. So strongly did he believe in this principle that he instructed his U.N. Ambassador to recognize the deposed Khmer Rouge, rather than the regime imposed by Vietnam, as the legitimate government of Cambodia.
Alas, it was all an act. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Indonesia continued to occupy East Timor, the island it had invaded in 1975 with the blessing of the Ford administration. In this case, Reagan chose to oppose the Timorese resistance and support the Indonesian occupiers. Hey, what good are principles if they’re not flexible — or disposable?
To give Reagan his due, a crucial difference between the occupations must be noted: Vietnam’s (which he opposed) ended a bloodbath; Indonesia’s (which he supported) constituted a bloodbath.
In southern Africa, Reagan was an enthusiastic champion of South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia and vicious destabilization of Angola and Mozambique. He considered the apartheid government a card-carrying member of the “Free World” and thus worthy of a “constructive engagement” policy. Like Dick Cheney, he dismissed Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as communist terrorists.
Reagan’s African heroes were Zairian kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko and Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. When Savimbi’s horrific human rights record could no longer be denied, even some conservatives who had once sung his praises turned against him. Reagan stood steadfast. He had earlier hailed Savimbi as a “freedom fighter,” just as he had elevated the Nicaraguan contras and the extremist Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan (many of whom are now fighting us in alliance with the Taliban) to “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.”
By providing apologetics, diplomatic support and/or military aid to some of the worst governments, rebel forces and terror-prone proxy armies of the 1980s, Reagan was an accomplice in hundreds of thousands of deaths. That’s a big part of his legacy, and it’s no cause for celebration.
DENNIS HANS is a former adjunct professor of American foreign policy and mass communications at the University of South Florida. His essays on those topics as well as basketball and other matters can be found at http://dennishans.blogspot.com; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.