Finally, “These are just poor people, no money, no food, just like Vietnam, and they are just trying to stay alive. They just want peace. They don’t want their daughter getting blown away on the way to teach! Or their sons disappearing. It’s just terrible. I see the same sense of great victimization. The little kids staring wide-eyed and scared. It really hits home the same way as Vietnam. . . . If we haven’t learned something by now about talking rather than fighting . . .”
Senators Kerry and Harkin returned to Washington with a kind of peace plan — Ortega was saying, Cut off all aid to the Contras, engage in bilateral talks with us, and we’ll call a cease-fire and restore civil liberties. Kerry hailed this as “a wonderful opening.” The Reagan administration was not impressed — in fact, it fumed. The State Department made clear that the Sandinistas had to talk to the Contras themselves, not to Washington: “Without such a dialogue, a cease-fire is meaningless — essentially a call for the opposition to surrender. The opposition is asked to accept Sandinista consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist order in Nicaragua.” Secretary Shultz decried “self-appointed emissaries to the Communist regime” in Managua, and said, “We cannot conduct a successful policy when [such people] take trips or write ‘Dear Comandante’ letters with the aim of negotiating.” Henry Kissinger added, “If the Nicaraguans want to make an offer, they ought to make it through diplomatic channels. We can’t be negotiating with our own congressmen and Nicaragua simultaneously.” Senator Goldwater called the Kerry-Harkin trip just “wrong, wrong, wrong.”
In the end, the trip backfired. Not long after the senators left him, Ortega flew off to Moscow, to affirm his alliance with the Soviets. Democratic leaders — Tip O’Neill in particular — were embarrassed.
But Kerry stayed unabashed in his position. He remarked to the Christian Science Monitor, “We negotiated with North Vietnam. Why can we not negotiate with a country smaller than North Carolina and with half the population of Massachusetts? It’s beyond me.” Kerry apparently never recognized the Nicaragua struggle as geopolitical. Referring to his onetime group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he said, “We were criticized when we stood up on Vietnam. . . . But we’ve been borne out. We were correct. Sometimes you just have to stand and hold your ground.” Plus, “my desire to see us negotiate is as patriotic as anyone else’s to see us fight.” (Here he sounds much like the Kerry of 2004.)
Kerry’s thinking on Nicaragua was in perfect consonance with the leftist thinking of the day (and of this day, for that matter); it would have been at home in the Latin American Studies department at Berkeley or Santa Cruz, for instance. Listen to his emotional speech on the Senate floor, delivered upon his return from Managua. Virtually every bromide, every tic, is there.
It is not just the fact that American youth may be called on once again to fight and to die in the jungles and mountains of another Third World country. It is not just that that weighs on my conscience today. . . . It is the fact that the grinding poverty in that area is so real and apparent, the legacy of a brutal dictatorship installed by American force some 50 years ago and which in concert with a tiny economic elite plundered the natural resources of the countryside while more than 80 percent of the population were forced to eke out a meager subsistence for themselves and their families. . . . If there is one guarantee of increasing the Soviet presence in Nicaragua, it will be to force that government into no other choice but that of turning to the Soviet Union. . . . [T]his administration seems to protect American interests by wanting to continue the process of escalating killing . . . Here, Mr. President, in writing, is a guarantee of the security interest of the United States.