A brilliant and encyclopedic history of the American intervention in Nicaragua. Kagan served in the Reagan State Department and was a midlevel participant in many of the events he chronicles. Without abandoning his dubious conviction that aid to the contras was indispensable to removing the Sandinistas (who actually fell in a democratic election they were convinced they could not lose), Kagan nevertheless has succeeded admirably in approaching his subject from the more detached and objective station of the historian, and his literary gifts make the work appealing despite its oppressive length. His explanation of the Sandinistas' fall stresses the "disorderly mix of policies" that other analysts have invoked to explain the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of South African apartheid -- a synthesis admirably suited to reconciliation among ideological warriors that has the added advantage of probably being true. Americans puzzled by contemporary policies in Somalia and Bosnia in which the exit is the strategy will find ample precedent in the history of American policy toward Nicaragua in this century -- a history shaped, as Kagan argues, "by the tension between the impulse to exercise moral, economic, strategic, and philosophical hegemony and the equally powerful impulse to reject both the responsibilities and the moral costs of such a role."