In this essay I will try to explain and analyse, how the “Vietnam Syndrome” influenced the Reagan Foreign Policy.The case study in this essay is the Nicaragua covert operations, supported by Reagan administrations and CIA.
Nicaragua is a perfect example to explain and understand the Reagan Doctrine, was formulated by Reagan administration at the beginning of the 80’s.
This Doctrine had some common points with Eisenhower Doctrine, like the idea of “Roll Back” was used by Reagan Administration as well, and the promotion of covert operations in the Third world; especially Latin America.In this essay I’m also going to explain the strong opposition that the Reagan Doctrine found within the US Congress, which behaved differently during the years, and the strong opposition among U.S. society influenced by the “Vietnam Syndrome”.Nicaragua was not just a political, and military issue, but Reagan believed it was an ideological issue, Reagan was the political expression of a right reaction. The main aim of Reagan administration was to recapture the global power enjoyed by US before the Vietnam defeat.
So I will write about how and why US intervened in Nicaragua, and why they did not use US regular forces. Then, I will write about the opposition that the Congress and the public opinion made on the Nicaragua issue.In fact, the final aim of this essay is to analyse how the “Vietnam Syndrome” influenced the political decision-making and the consequent action of the Reagan administrations. For the Reagan administration the control of Latin America, and especially Central America, was a fundamental issue for U.S. national security, US economic interest and above all for US credibility around the world.
The past administrations, were uninterested in the affairs of Latin America, especially with the Carter foreign policy, the U.S. had lost credibility and power in the region.So Nicaragua became a fundamental point for Reagan. The defeat of Sandinistas government, would have shown to the world the restored US power.
The Reagan Doctrine intervening in the Third world was based on Proxy intervention in less developed countries through covert operations, lead by CIA. The CIA helped to organize military corps to crush leftist or populist governments.
These efforts were supported by a huge propaganda to show the communist threat. Reagan’s speeches were characterized by a robust rhetoric and messianic vision of US role in the world. This vision of the US role came from the Neocons beliefs which had a big importance in the Reagan administrations.
The Reagan doctrine was a revisitation of Eisenhower’s “Roll Back”. US had to defeat the U.S.S.R they could not have any agreement with the “Evil Empire”. So the Reagan Doctrine was not new, it was a reassertation of the basic Cold war precepts. U.S. had the strength and the duty to conduct secret wars against governments that Washington deemed undesirable.But there are also differences in the Reagan Doctrine. The disdain for international law and institutions, is perhaps the most notable innovation of Reagan era. The main obstacle to Reagan policy, and a direct military intervention with US troops, was the “Vietnam Syndrome”.
On account of the defeat in the Vietnam war, on account of the thousands of young people deaths, U.S. citizens and the U.S. public opinion became critical against any military action that did not show a clear threat to U.S. national security and to US citizens. Many sociologists said, U.S.,after Vietnam, lost its innocence. No longer did U.S. citizens believed that the U.S. interventions abroad were noble or wise. The war in Vietnam, or in other Third world countries, would not have stopped communism and would not have worked to preserve U.S. security.
No longer would the public unquestioningly accept foreign policy justifications at face value, after the Vietnam war the U.S. military intervention should be justificated and calculated. That is why Reagan could not send any regular military forces in Nicaragua to overthrow the Sandinistas government. That is why he declared for a long period that his administration had no ideas of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government.
So the only military options that he had were several covert operations lead by CIA and made by a paramilitary group, the “Contras”.The destabilization program was made by the Contras military operations as well as the end of the economical aid. This program had to incite the political and social opposition to Sandinistas and start a popular uprising.
Using the Contras instead of U.S. regular troops the administration envisioned a low-risk, low-cost war with a military and political payoff.Although Reagan wanted to use regular troops to intervene in Nicaragua and overthrow the Sandinistas, but this option was impossible to carry out, because the “Vietnam Syndrome” was still alive in the mind and hart of the Americans. Just in 1983-84 CIA used its pilots to bomb Nicaraguan infrastructures.
But the Reagan administration efforts to overthrow the Nicaragua government were not made just by military and intelligence actions.Reagan, through his speeches, tried to convince the Americans that Nicaragua was a direct threat to American security, and if the Sandinistas had not been stopped, Communism would have developed in all Latin America. Reagan and his administration did not have a good relationship with Congress. In fact, after Vietnam war, the Nixon administration, and the Watergate scandal, the relationships between the legislative and the executive organs were not good. Congress placed more pressure and a stronger control on the President and the administration, especially about the war and foreign policy issues.Congress had a different behaviour with Reagan administrations, and especially about the Nicaragua issue.
Nicaragua and the Contras issue galvanized the Congress opposition like more than any other event, it provoked the first real crisis since Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.
Reagan has never told the whole truth about Nicaragua, that is why, during the year, Congress had behaved differently.In 1984, the Senate voted for a resolution that rebuked the President for mining Nicaragua’s ports a year before, but a few days before the Senate had voted to provide $21 millions to the Contras.
The relationships between Reagan administration, CIA and Congress were difficult since the beginning. Reagan and CIA tried to conceal the US involvement in Nicaragua, and the Iran-Contras Scandal is the biggest example of this difficult relationship.The most clear example of Congressional opposition was the Boland amendment voted in 1982. This amendment permitted the CIA operation to continue but it banned expenditures for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua or provoking a military exchange between Nicaragua and Honduras.
In 1983, the Congress, which was controlled by Democrats, voted the end of economic aid to Contras, but this resolution did not stop the “secret” economical and strategic aid to Contras.
The administration circumvented the law over and over. Reagan said for many years and many times that his administration had no ideas of overthrowing the government of Nicaragua. US aid could be restored just if the President justified it in a formal congressional report and if it would has been voted by congress itself.
The war had created a “crisis of confidence” between the administration and the Congress, this lack of confidence was not new, it had deep roots, it was born with the Vietnam war and the Nixon “imperial” presidency.The rift was deep, it concerned the American society, and public opinion as well.
One of Reagan’s main aim was to purge the “Vietnam Syndrome” from American minds, and set up a consensus on the Nicaragua issue.
The main Reagan weapon used to join the US citizens and press into Nicaragua war, was a huge propaganda campaign during the years. It was made by rhetoric speeches and a continuous proofs falsification. Reagan created a propaganda ministry, the “White House Outreach Group on Central America” in 1985. The aim of this group was to show that the revolutionaries movements in Latin America were a direct threat to US security and way of life.
But the American government was active in repressing dissent as well, and the citizens with a different view of the Nicaragua issue encountered an official persecution. Reagan tried, and failed, to build a domestic and bipartisan support. So now we can see at the beginning of the 80’s the “Vietnam Syndrome” was still alive in American society, and it was able to lead the political decision making of any kind of administration.In fact, Reagan was not the only and the last president to have been influenced by the “Vietnam Syndrome”, it was still alive at the beginning of the 90’s and it influenced president G.H.Bush during “Desert Storm”.
I think that with 9/11, the US has finally been able to forget and to defeat the “Vietnam Syndrome”, with the war in Afghanistan, but, especially, the war in Iraq is a clear example.The US society was not so impressed when it discovered that in Iraq there was not weapon of mass destruction. More over it has confirmed its “faith” in President Bush one more time.
 J.Young, J.Kent, “International Relation since 1945”, Oxfor University Press, New York, 2004. pp. 564-565
 P.Kornbluh “Nicaragua, the price of intervention. Reagan war against the Sandinistas”, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C. 1987, p. IX.
 P.Kornbluh “Nicaragua, the price of intervention. Reagan war against the Sandinistas”, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C. 1987, p. 52.
 P.Kornbluh “Nicaragua, the price of intervention. Reagan war against the Sandinistas”, cit. p.61.