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Digital National Security Archive (DNSA): Nicaragua: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1978–1990

About this Collection

Nicaragua contains more than 3,000 documents, many of which are recently declassified State Department cables obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Key events covered by the collection range from the outbreak of widespread opposition to the Somoza family dynasty through the Contra war of the 1980s, until the election of 1990 which brought an end to the Sandinista government.

Research Value of the Collection

The Nicaragua collection is unique for several reasons. First, it provides both a comprehensive index and catalog--accompanied by an extensive chronology and set of glossaries--to a centralized record of some of the most controversial foreign policy issues since the Vietnam War. Second, the collection provides one of the most complete set of documents available to the public on the U.S. approach to revolutionary change in the Third World. Finally, these documents are up-to-date (none are more than 13 years old and some were created as recently as 1990), broad-ranging and, until now, virtually unavailable to scholars, researchers and the general public. Indeed, one indication of the exceptional value of this collection is the fact that former Carter and Reagan Administration officials who made and implemented U.S. policy toward Nicaragua have already approached the National Security Archive to gain access to papers--including documents they authored--that they otherwise have been unable to obtain from the U.S. government.

The protracted controversy over U.S. policy toward Nicaragua generated more presidential speeches, more newspaper print and editorials, and more debate in Congress than any other foreign policy issue in recent memory. Moreover, the ideological tenor of the discourse emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill appeared to set a record in terms of sheer volume of rhetoric. The Nicaragua collection provides an empirical foundation from which historians, political scientists, students, journalists and concerned citizens can address and answer the difficult questions regarding U.S. policy in Nicaragua, the Sandinista revolution and the Contras, which will be studied for years to come.

The Nicaragua collection also offers an unprecedented portrait of the U.S. government's response to the perceived threat of revolutionary change in Latin America. In this regard, the first 1,000 documents in the set are particularly noteworthy. They provide a daily, and at times hourly, record of U.S. policy toward the upheaval which ended the reign of longtime U.S. ally, Anastasio Somoza, and brought to power the first guerrilla movement in the Western Hemisphere since the Cuban revolution--the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Students and scholars will find the collection rich in detail on the deliberations, decisions and actions of the Carter Administration as the revolution developed and came to fruition. For example, details of meetings of the NSC's Special Coordination Committee (SCC), the high-level interagency group that oversaw U.S. policy toward Nicaragua in 1978 and 1979, are contained in the State Department's instructions to the U.S. Embassy in Managua. The cables to and from the Embassy provide an in-depth view of crisis-management and the exercise of U.S. influence over a smaller neighbor.

Moreover, the comprehensive collection of cable traffic permits a scholar to be, in effect, a fly on the wall of both the U.S. Embassy in Managua and the inner sanctum of Anastasio Somoza's faltering regime. Of perhaps greatest interest, virtually every secret conversation between the U.S. Ambassador and Somoza from January 1978 when the turmoil began to July 17, 1979, when Somoza fled to Miami, are recorded in these cables, as are Somoza's meetings with other U.S. special envoys. The cable traffic from June 28, 1979, when the new U.S. ambassador arrived in Nicaragua, to July 19, when the Sandinistas marched into Managua, presents a graphic picture of frantic--and futile--U.S. efforts to shape the course of Nicaraguan history.

Diplomatic historians will also find the early cable traffic, as well as later reporting during the Reagan Administration, of particular value for documenting the various activities and functions of a U.S. Embassy in a controversial environment. The collection records a wide range of Embassy duties and reporting responsibilities including the filing of "Sitreps" [situation reports], trip reports, memoranda of conversations, contingency plans, bi-weekly round-ups and press guidances. The cables further reflect the unending series of State Department taskings to the Embassy to host congressional delegations, mediate crises, meet with opposition leaders and present démarches to government leaders.

Regional studies scholars will also find value in the U.S. Embassy reporting on the evolution of social, political and economic programs of the Sandinista revolution. Although biased in part by a hostile U.S. policy, the Embassy cables provide in-depth coverage of the nature and impact of the Sandinista revolutionary program on Nicaraguan politics, the economy, and the society at large, as well as an assessment of why many of the Sandinistas' socioeconomic policies failed. Sociologists are certain to be interested in the field studies and surveys conducted by Embassy personnel in different regions of Nicaragua. Economists are likely to find the Embassy's economic updates of interest, as well as the internal reports of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, which are included in this set. Political scientists will find noteworthy the Embassy's reporting on the ideological components of the revolution and the internal structures of the Sandinista government.

Since the collection spans from the Carter Administration to those of Reagan and Bush, it will allow researchers to evaluate changes, and chart the evolution of Washington's approach to the Nicaraguan revolution under three U.S. presidents. The collection will also enable researchers to measure the official U.S. position on Nicaragua against internal documentation, particularly during the eight-year tenure of Ronald Reagan. All of President Reagan's important speeches and statements on Nicaragua and the Contras are included here, as are the major publications of the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean which was in charge of producing brochures, glossy reports and White Papers attacking the Sandinistas and enhancing the image of the Contras. (For a full collection of the Office of Public Diplomacy's internal memoranda, researchers are advised to consult the Archive's The Iran-Contra Affair: The Making of a Scandal, 1983-1988.) Embassy cables made available here include classified critiques of the public diplomacy reports, as well as detailed analyses of the impact and character of the Contra war.

Finally, the collection of Contra papers in this set will provide scholars, (particularly those who speak Spanish) with a trove of materials that chart the history of the Contra movement, the relationship between U.S. operatives and Contra leaders and the rumblings of discontent from the Contra commanders and soldiers in the field. These papers include rare documents that cannot be obtained anywhere else, among them: the earliest journals of the first Contra organization, the September 15th Legion; FDN contracts with a Miami public relations firm, hired at the direction of the CIA, and the public relations materials generated by that company; Contra handbooks; correspondence among Contra leaders; petitions signed by Contra field commanders demanding the ouster of their leader on charges of corruption; and the negotiating position papers of the Contras as their war came to an end. These materials will allow researchers to evaluate the nature of the Contra movement, its political character and purpose, as well as its close relationship to the U.S. government.