The Nicaragua Debate

President Ronald Reagan with Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Ed Meese, and Don Regan discussing the President's remarks on the Iran-Contra affair, Oval Office 1986. Ronald Reagan Library

After five grueling debates within the compass of five months in 1986, the U.S. Congress agreed to President Reagan’s request for military aid for the rebels fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Whatever this decision may herald for Nicaragua, for the United States it signals a further loosening of the constraints that have bound U.S. policy since the trauma of Vietnam. And by sanctioning, at least for the moment, the "Reagan Doctrine," it constitutes a step, albeit a small and reversible one, in America’s continuing search for a global strategy to replace the one—containment—that was shattered in Vietnam.

To win this victory the President had to overcome misgivings about the conduct of the rebels and the CIA, skepticism about the rebels’ prospects, anxiety about the Reagan Doctrine, and public opinion polls showing that most Americans opposed his policies. He won nonetheless by taking advantage of the considerable persuasive powers inherent in his office, and by making good use of the assistance proffered by a minority of Democrats, including some legislators and some activists, who split with their party’s leadership. Above all he won because, when the debate was done, his opponents had failed to offer a compelling alternative policy for dealing with Nicaragua. Nor had they offered, on a global scale, an alternative to the Reagan Doctrine. Fear of "another Vietnam" was their most potent argument, but that fear, however justified and however widely shared, could not in itself generate a policy.


A new Congress will have to consider aid to the "contras," as the rebels are called, again in 1987. Despite the boasts of some rebel spokesmen, a year will not be nearly enough time, nor $100 million enough money, to bring the Sandinistas down. And in 1987 the President’s party will control neither house. Yet, barring some egregious act on the part of the rebels or some violation of trust on the part of U.S. officials, it is not likely that Congress will choose

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