By any reasonable reckoning of the consequence, Washington’s debate over aid to the contras has been unnaturally shrill. What was at stake, after all, was $100 million in assistance, about one-eighth as much money as the Pentagon spends every day, year round. Obviously money is not the only measure of significance—operating an electric chair is not very expensive, either—but the political claims about the contras were also more modest than the emotions they provoked. The administration did not contend that the aid would be enough to overthrow the Sandinistas. Those who opposed the aid generally said they opposed the Sandinistas too. Yes, doctrinal disagreements were in the air, but compared to anything like a real, European-style clash of values, this was mostly a debate about means, details, proportion. How many old Somocista thugs were still among the contras? How many freedom-loving peasants? Which approach—military or diplomatic—was more likely to pry Nicaragua away from the Soviet Union? Was this a war the contras stood any chance to win?
Taken at face value, then, the disagreements were discrete and containable, but the resulting arguments were anything but restrained. The political and journalistic debate had a rancorous, hyperbolic, and ungenerous tone rarely heard since the fall of Saigon. Patrick Buchanan made the best-publicized comment when he said that Tip O’Neill and the Democratic opponents of aid “stood as co-guarantors with Moscow” of a totalitarian state in our own back yard, but his comments differed from many others mainly in their panache. An editorial in The New Republic of April 7 went so far as to claim that “the liberation of Angola, Afghanistan, and Cambodia would not have one-tenth the geopolitical importance—and psychological importance for other oppressed democrats—that the replacement of the Sandinista regime with a democratic government in Managua would.” By any cooler or more logical standards than those of the contra debate, such an idea would seem laughable. The politics of Southeast Asia revolve around Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, which also colors America’s relations with China. At the most restrained estimate, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has more “geopolitical importance” than anything that could happen between the contras and the Sandinistas.
Even personal relations in Washington, which usually roll on untroubled by differences of policy, showed the strain. Friends disagreed over the contras and did not remain friends. Bitter in-house feuds, so familiar in the 1960s, reappeared. When The New Republic published an editorial enclosing the contras, eleven of the magazine’s eighteen contributing editors, including some very well-known names, wrote a heated letter of dissent. (I almost said “twelve of nineteen,” but one of the letter’s signers, Abraham Brumberg, was dropped from the masthead between the time the letter was written and when it appeared.) Tempers were so frayed and civility had worn so thin that when the letter was published, part of it was buried far back in the letters section, apparently…
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