Our Own Backyard

From The Mason Historiographiki

Jump to: navigation, search

LeoGrande, William. Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America 1977-1992. (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press) 1998.

Carothers, Thomas. In the Name of Democracy: US Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press) 1991.

The drive to promote democracy overwhelmingly defines the language of American foreign policy in Latin America during the twentieth century. The language, however, is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, for a tangled motivational web designed to maintain regional stability and hegemony beneficial to the economic and political interests of the United States.

In Our Own Backyard; The United States in Central America 1977-1992, William LeoGrande explores that web through exhaustive research on the development and implementation of American policy during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, focusing primarily on El Salvador and Nicaragua. Thomas Caruthers's In the Name of Democracy: US Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years focuses on the development of American foreign policy in Latin America from perspective of an insider seeking to evaluate whether the United States influenced the development of democracy in the region positively or negatively. Neither author is an historian. LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C.;Carothers served in the State Department assigned to the Latin American bureau of the Agency for International Development during the Reagan administration.

Their goals in exploring the material differ. LeoGrande intended “to write an account of the domestic opposition to Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy…” (ix), but discovered that understanding the domestic upheaval required examining events and key players in Central America itself, the global context, and the fragmented American political culture that was the outgrowth of the national experience in Vietnam. Our Own Backyard is an exhaustive compendium of primary and secondary source materials piecing together the “last great battle of the Cold War” (ix).

Carothers smaller study nonetheless expands the examination of the Reagan administration’s policies beyond El Salvador and Nicaragua, discussing differing strategies by which the administration sought control and stability in different countries in Latin America under the rubric of promoting democracy. He identifies four policy directions: military assistance, economic assistance, promotion of elected civilian governments and the use of direct or indirect military force.

Each is valuable for different reasons. LeoGrande provides a synthetic narrative of “the whole story” of American machinations in the context of our own country and of El Salvador and Nicaragua. Carothers analysis, although fact-based, more nearly approaches an op-ed piece, focusing more on the conceptual philosophies of foreign policy, what it is, could, and perhaps, should, be. Both are indictments of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy, contextualized within a larger argument about the fragmentation, self-interest, ignorance and superficiality of American policy toward Latin America in general. Undoubtedly there are counterarguments, but not in these books.

Broad Strokes

According to LeoGrande, the Reagan administration’s foreign policy was geared to “recapture the bipartisan unity and self-confidence that were shattered in Vietnam.” (5) This bipartisan unity had been grounded in a unified consensus on the responsibility of the United States as the leader of the free world to counter the reach of the Soviet Union. “Reagan…sought to turn the clock back on US. Foreign policy to the pre-Vietnam era, to an old-fashioned cold war approach in which the United States would accept the need to support unsavory dictators as an inevitable component of the global struggle against Soviet communism” (Carothers, 242).

Reagan’s approach stood in diametric opposition to his predecessor’s, Jimmy Carter. Carter sought to expand détente with the Soviet Union; Reagan intensified Cold War anticommunism rhetoric and policy and not incidentally, developed the largest peacetime military buildup in American history. Carter had operated from a presumption against intervention in other countries and promoted human rights; Reagan renewed alliances with anticommunist regimes, regardless of their record on human rights, and launched military battles against “perceived adversaries.”

Latin America became a focal point for Reagan’s anticommunist thrust. It was a dual-edged sword. The administration’s overriding concern lay in its perception of the growing strength of the Soviet Union and therefore, the accompanying perception of the decline of the power of the United States. “The Reagan administration believed that the armed conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala were proxy wars fought by agents of the Soviet Union and Cuba and that the whole of Central America was a target of Soviet expansionism” (Carothers, 12).

The challenge for the administration lay among divisions in the American political spectrum, roughly divided into three camps: hardliners ready to unleash military might against unstable regimes; moderates, who believed that military policy without economic and political reforms and assistance would not succeed; and liberals, who prioritized human rights and development over assistance to repressive regimes. To bridge American political divides, the administration couched its anticommunist campaign as a campaign to promote democracy in Central America—although the meaning of democracy to the Reaganites often appeared limited to holding elections rather than to extend deep into the economic, political and social structure of the target nation. Congressional liberals (Democrats) and public interest, on the other hand, appear as the “good guys,” insisting on relating foreign aid to democratic progress.

Ironically, LeoGrande’s work is particularly effective at highlighting pitfalls of the American version of democracy, including the failure of Congress to check the executive branch and the reality of the administration’s acting in opposition to the will of the majority of the public. Conversely, however, Congressional pressure forced Reagan to mitigate some hardline policies. To obtain support for aid for the Salvadoran regime, for example, Reagan had to lend support to Duarte’s political party and to pressure for reductions in political executions.

Throughout the Reagan years, policy shifted gradually from the hardliner approach to a more moderate compromise, but as LeoGrande’s account of the subterfuge of the Iran Contra scandal demonstrates, when the administration disagreed with the prevailing tenor of Congress and foreign policy experts, it simply chose to ignore them, promulgating false intelligence reports, sidestepping the American legal system and democratic processes.


Both authors question the effect of Reagan’s policies in Latin America. There are few bones of contention between Carothers and LeoGrande on the broad schematic.

Carothers offers a well-considered analysis of the meaning of promoting democracy. The Reagan administration, and perhaps Americans as whole, he concludes, have a limited sense of this form of government—a sense that limits its meaning and operations to America’s version, rather than thinking “about how the general ideas and principles of democracy might take form in that society, but to assume that the other country should devote itself to establishing the institutional configuration the United States associates with democracy” (Carothers, 248) He points to an inherent tension in America’s Latin American policy. Stagnant, autocratic governments promote discontent; discontent foments political instability and pressures for political change. And the deep fear of the United States government is of populist-based change in Latin America because such change holds potential for upsetting the American economic apple cart in Latin America, so to speak. America has tended to approach this fear through working for gradual change through existing governments, rather than supporting change from the grassroots.

Carother’s answer to his own question about whether the Reagan administration’s policies contributed to the trend toward democracy in Latin America in the 1980s is a “qualified no,” a moderate ambivalence. Yes, United States intervention led to the establishment of civilian rule in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, but this change did not constitute democracy because they did not represent broad-based poltical movements and because the traditionally dominant sectors of these highly class-oriented societies maintained authority and power. Certainly in Nicaragua, Reagan policies harmed the country itself and aggravated internal Nicaraguan problems and divisions.

And perhaps most of all, Carothers questions whether the Reagan administration’s policies had any effect on a groundswell towards democracy that had an impetus of its own throughout the 1980s. In fact, he concludes that “Perhaps the most basic and the most important, lesson is that the United States does not really have much influence of the political evolution of most Latin American countries. …the United States had neither a significant positive role, nor for that matter a significant negative role, in the political evolution of most countries in Latin America in the 1980s” (Carothers 257) Why? “The notion that an external actor can have a profound and lasting effect on that political evolution through some set of relatively short-term diplomatic, economic, or even military means ignores the complexities and realities of how societies are madeup and how they change” (Carothers, 257).

LeoGrande points out that assessments of the success of Reagan’s policy were “as sharply divergent in hindsight as they were when the policy was first formulated” (LeoGrande, 581). Conservatives pointed to the success of military intervention; liberals, to the value of diplomacy. Like Carothers, however, LeoGrande subscribes to the thought that democracy would have happened without American intervention. He states, for example, that the guerillas in El Salvador would have toppled the government in the early 1980s if the United States had abstained from providing aid, and that even a negotiated settlement appeared possible at that juncture.

LeoGrande’s analysis forces the question of whether Reagan’s foreign policy succeeded in erasing the divisions, malaise, and defeatism extant in the American political culture in the aftermath of Vietnam. Certainly, it highlighted the division between conservatives who favor intervention “in other people’s insurgencies,” and liberals who opposed the use of force abroad. LeoGrande attributes failure to Congress as much as to the administration for failing to mobilize. Democrats were ideologically split and despite their partisan majority, their divisions handed votes on military aid to the administration. And in the end, LeoGrande concludes, that like Vietnam, the “Central American crisis ended without policymakers reaching any consensus about how the United States should deal with similar conflicts in the future” (LeoGrande 589).


The Reagan years, perhaps arguably, straddle the fence between history and contemporary affairs. About 25 years have passed since the Reagan administration began—a time frame sometimes considered an official dividing line between history and current events. Certainly, fewer historians have approached the period than have political scientists, international relations and government academics who have assembled opinion pieces, monographs, and other scholarly writing buttressed as were these two authors, by primary source documents and often by the perspective of firsthand experience.

So why are we looking at this era in a history course? Professor Schrag poses this more specific question, “How can scholars can study the recent past and emerge with books that are more than just long op-eds?” Since Carothers set out to write an opinion piece although couched as an objective question, I'd say that LeoGrande offers a better perspective on the possibilities. His work is broad and incorporates opposing perspectives whose points of view are embedded in extensive evidence. And he balances pluses with minuses and errs on the side of ambivalence.

The least supported element of his book, however, to me seems to be the thesis that the Reagan foreign policy objectives in Latin America were a conservative response to Vietnam--although it appears logical by extension of the documented argument that right-wingers viewed Central America as the arena for a continued struggle between communism and democracy. Nonetheless, there's an undocumented chronology there. leeeannghajar, fall 2005

Personal tools