(What is From the Field?  Read the introduction to the current segment to find out more!)


Elise is a senior Politics major, who also studies English.


President Bears ‘Ultimate Responsibility’ For Wrongdoing” was just one of the many headlines circulating the United States in the 1980s. After news of the Iran-Contra Affair broke, there was an endless stream of similar refrains, all echoing the question of what exactly the Reagan administration did in Nicaragua. While the specifics of the US action in Nicaragua is still opaque, valuable information within the history of US interventionism and the Cold War reveals that the executive branch failed to uphold democratic norms in both domestic and foreign affairs during this time.

In the height of Cold War tensions, the United States’ foreign policy took an interventionist approach. The US used interventionism (direct intrusion into another country’s affairs) as early as the 1830s. Beginning in 1832 with the Monroe Doctrine, the US adopted an interventionist foreign policy to achieve a status of power in the international community. The US continued meddling in the domestic affairs of other nations, asserting its political dominance for about a century. However, there was a break from this approach during the 1930s with the Roosevelt Administration.

Rather than engaging with other nations as opponents, President Roosevelt introduced the “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933, which focused on inter-governmental partnership and mutual respect. The former notion of hemispheric hegemony (or “top- dog” status within the Western hemisphere) of the Monroe Doctrine was replaced with this concept of collaboration. Roosevelt’s approach particularly benefitted developing countries within Latin America. Like a “good neighbor,” the US would respect the internal matters of these countries, supporting them in non-intrusive means and respecting their sovereignty. But with the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War in 1945, this hiatus from interventionism was short-lived and it swiftly returned as the main instrument of US foreign policy.

The Cold War was an ideological battle, pitting democracy against communism, and while no direct confrontations occurred between the United States and the Soviet Union, these nations fought by spreading their ideologies around the globe.  As former allies in WWII, what caused these nations to turn into opponents? At the conclusion of WWII, there was a power vacuum in Europe and the Soviet Union strove to fill that newly vacant position of supremacy. Therefore, unlike the US, which removed practically all of its military forces, Soviet troops continued to occupy the lands the USSR had stripped from Hitler. Author and social theorist Michael Warren analyzes the ideology of the Cold War in his book The Rise and Fall of Intelligence: An International Security History. He reports that by 1946, “organs of Soviet state security set about remaking the countries that Stalin had promised his allies at Yalta would be granted self-determination.” Rather than the end of WWII liberating Eastern European countries, it resulted in the replacement of one authoritative leader for another: such countries merely becoming agents of Stalin rather than Hitler.

In order to prevent the spread of Soviet power, the US pledged to economically and militarily support nations threatened by Soviet domination. Tensions continued to increase and by 1949, the US had established a coalition of anti-communist nations, NATO, and the Soviet Union had created the pro-communist alliance, the Warsaw Pact. The US, acting as the champion of democracy and the Western Superpower, entered into a decades-long battle for ideological supremacy against the Soviet Union and thus the Cold War had begun. Interventionism resurged vigorously under the justification of the “Domino Theory.” This theory claimed that if one nation “fell” to communism, surrounding countries were soon to follow. Therefore, the US intervened in even potentially communist leaning countries with extreme measures such as using military force to replace the existing government with pro-US, pro-democracy, regimes.

US interventionism in Nicaragua began when the Sandinista rebel group overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979, replacing the formerly conservative Somoza regime with the left-leaning Sandinistas. The revolution alarmed US officials in the Reagan administration because of the Sandinista’s anti-US sentiment. Johannes Wilm’s article “On Sandinista Ideas of past Connections to the Soviet Union and Nicaraguan Exceptionalism,” explains the Sandinista’s unfavorable view of the US as a response to the immense poverty in Nicaragua. According to Wilm, the Sandinista movement blamed Nicaraguan poverty on the “exploitative, unequal relationship with the United States,” maintained throughout the former Somoza dynasty. The Sandinista government strove to sever the strong ties the nation had with the US, so the new government embarked on an economic policy that forged relations with a variety of nations, including the Soviet Union. By 1982, 20% of Nicaragua’s credit was coming from communist nations.  The US viewed such developments as an open invitation for communism in Central America. In order to prevent Nicaragua from being a Soviet foothold in the Western hemisphere, US forces took action to topple the Sandinistas.

From the inception of the Sandinista’s authority, resistance groups opposed the new left-leaning policies of the regime. These rebels, the “Contras,” strove to return to the conservative principles of the Somoza regime, motivated by such as loyalty to the Somoza family or unhappiness with the economic reform of the Sandinistas. In the opinion of President Reagan, the anti-leftist platform of the Contra movement granted these counterrevolutionaries the status of “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” Consequently, the president led the US effort to support the Contra resistance movement and oust the Sandinistas.

Prior to the Reagan administration, the American public zealously supported the fight against communism. However, by the time of President Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, the public was no longer so supportive of the anti-communism effort. The US had already fought in taxing proxy wars like the Vietnam War and the public fear of communism was waning. However, the Reagan administration steadfastly continued to use interventionist tactics to fight the spread of communism and Soviet power. Although the executive branch’s actions were not aligning with the public’s wishes, Congress was much more responsive and created policies to lessen US involvement in Nicaragua.

In response to the growing anti-interventionist sentiment of the public, Congress made an initial legislative attempt to curb President Reagan’s anti-communist crusade with the first Boland Amendment in 1982. As Edwin Timbers’ piece, “Legal and Institutional Aspects of the Iran-Contra Affair” reports, the amendment prohibited, “the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency from spending funds to overthrow the government of Nicaragua or to provoke conflict between Nicaragua and Honduras.” However, the policy did not have the intended effect as executive agencies continued to support the Contras with loophole methods such as procuring funding from third parties. Congress, undermined by the Executive strategic use of loopholes within the legislation, continued to construct increasingly specified policies and by 1985 there had been five versions of the Boland Amendment. Among the eventual clearly stated prohibitions were funds — including solicited third party and private funds, handled by any U.S. government personnel (For more information on the conflict between the president and Congress, explore Sobel’s 1995 article “Contra Aid Fundamentals: Exploring the Intricacies and the Issues” featured in Political Science Quarterly).

Human rights advocates and journalists continuously opposed the pro-Contra messages of the US government; however, it was not until the infamous Iran-Contra Affair that executive interventionist action was finally halted. After congressional investigatory committees exposed operation “Enterprise”, the “secret operation to supply military equipment and monetary assistance to the Contras,” it was clear that none of the legislation restricting US interventionism was stopping the Executive Branch (For more information concerning the Iran-Contra Affair, read Rubenberg’s article “US policy toward Nicaragua and Iran and the Iran-Contra Affair” in Third World Quarterly).

Following US intervention, both the US and Nicaragua had suffered substantial damages. The US reputation was disgraced in the international community and American citizens’ sense of trust in their government fell tremendously. Additionally, as seen by the 14,000% inflation rate in Nicaragua in 1988, the meddling of the US government created massive economic and social instability. While it would be an overstatement to claim that Nicaragua experienced instability solely due to US interventionism, perhaps the severity and longevity of its economic and social hardships would have been lessened if the nation had fewer external pressures to combat.

As the immense recovery required within both the US and Nicaragua after the Iran-Contra Affair demonstrates, US intervention in Nicaragua during the Cold War was ultimately a harmful ordeal. Interventionism failed to promote democracy both within the US and abroad or support the development of Nicaragua. The threat of communism under the Sandinista regime was insufficient justification for the interventionist policies and actions taken by the Reagan administration, and the procedures in which the executive branch skirted congressional oversight displayed a blatant disregard for crucial democratic values such as transparency and accountability. Refusing to obey the American public’s desire to abstain from meddling in Nicaraguan affairs disgraced the US reputation and perpetuated the instability within Nicaragua.





Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind