It was 25 years ago this month that a remarkable effort took place concerning a small, unremarkable country at the northern tip of South America — Suriname. What happened there was quite significant but has escaped the notice of history, a function of its confidentiality at the time. Now, at long last, the participants have decided to talk. What they are saying needs to be part of the memory of every student of the Cold War and certainly every student of Ronald Reagan.
Here’s the context and what happened: At the start of the 1980s, the Soviets were hoping to have another busy decade of expansion into the third world, and especially into the Western Hemisphere — America’s backyard. The latter 1970s had been alarmingly productive for the Soviets, as they had picked up nearly a dozen “satellites” and friendly puppet regimes around the world, while the United States was hemorrhaging dependable allies like Nicaragua and Iran, which had become foreign-policy nightmares. No doubt, America was losing the Cold War.
That was the world that Ronald Reagan faced, and hoped to reverse, when he was inaugurated president in January 1981.
Quietly thrust into this scenario was a sleepy South American country called Suriname. In 1980, Suriname’s citizens had lost a promising, elected government in a coup by a military thug named Desi Bouterse. This was yet another of those countries that had taken a turn for the worse under the Carter administration, leaving yet another potential crisis for President Reagan to try to manage. By December 1982, Bouterse had gotten violent and dangerous, and was suddenly getting very close to the U.S.S.R. and Cuba.
In the spring of 1983, the Suriname situation continued to be carefully monitored at the CIA by Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, who was DCI Bill Casey’s right arm for Latin America, and by the National Security Council staff of William P. “Bill” Clark. In the eyes of the Soviets, Clark, Casey, and Reagan formed a kind of unholy trinity, constantly out to stop Moscow and halt its dreams of communist expansion around the world. Casey’s CIA was a popular whipping boy for the American Left and for the Soviets, whereas Clark tended to fly under the radar. Nonetheless, Clark was, as noted in a 1983 cover story by the New York Times Magazine, not only “the most influential foreign-policy figure in the Reagan administration,” but “the president’s chief instrument” in confronting Soviet influence in the world, particularly in Latin America.
The Kremlin, of course, knew all of this, and thus did what it could to hush its plans for Suriname.
What were those plans? Clark and Clarridge learned about the various communications and high-level visits between Bouterse’s regime and Cuba, and that the Soviets actually had plans to build a full-scale embassy in Suriname’s capital. The Kremlin had gone so far as to select a building for the embassy and was arranging for full diplomatic representation.
Both Moscow and Havana viewed Suriname as a potentially huge military-strategic outpost. The Soviets relished the possibility of establishing at Suriname their first base in South America, and they and their Cuban comrades were negotiating an arrangement with Bouterse that included various forms of assistance, from political advisers to doctors, teachers, and military equipment.
The South American nation posed the prospect of not only “another Cuba,” but a new Soviet base — a vital proxy of the U.S.S.R. with 386 kilometers of coastline along the strategic Atlantic. In Cuba, the Soviets had bases to stage aircraft for submarine surveillance; this allowed them to track U.S. submarines carrying nuclear missiles. The U.S. subs hid in the south and mid-Atlantic within launching range of all of the USSR. In trying to locate the subs, Soviet aircraft had a limited range from their base in Cuba, a major source of frustration for the Soviet military. Yet, if the Kremlin could secure a foothold in Suriname, its problem of reaching the mid-Atlantic could be resolved. The U.S.S.R. could greatly enhance its surveillance capability. That was only one of the sudden strategic advantages that Suriname could offer Moscow.
Clark reported to Reagan that the focus of his concern was that the Cubans, and through them the Soviets, would establish precisely such a base on the northern tip of South America. Moreover, he wrote in a memo to Reagan, “Because of Suriname’s strategic location, the Cubans and Soviets would have the potential to control the Southern Caribbean and endanger shipping lanes,” including those lanes used for the transit of ships carrying large supplies of crucial commodities like petroleum from Venezuela to U.S. ports in the Gulf Coast.
Clark also warned Reagan that Cuba and the U.S.S.R. were moving to secure an outpost to spread their political influence throughout South America. Recall, of course, that Marxist advances and threats were happening all over Latin America at the time, from Nicaragua to El Salvador to Grenada and others.
It gets worse: there was also a terrorist connection between Bouterse’s regime in Suriname and Muammar Kaddafi’s Libya, the latter of whom at that point was doing his damnedest to try to become America’s chief menace. Further, the American company ALCOA had a plant in Suriname, which employed a notable number of U.S. citizens. Bill Clark and Ronald Reagan were deeply fearful of a potential hostage situation.
In short, Suriname was a very serious matter, even though it had somehow managed to elude press coverage.
How would the Reagan team react?
Students of this period will recognize the many similarities between Suriname and what was transpiring in Grenada, but with one major difference — the outcome: For Suriname, the Reagan administration would not need to opt for the use of U.S. military force.
In late April 1983, Clark, Clarridge, and five others flew a secret mission to South America, paying a dramatic visit to the leaderships of Suriname’s neighbors, Brazil and Venezuela, authorized by Ronald Reagan and not shared with any of the serial leakers within the White House. Discussion was limited to those who needed to know and could be trusted not to blab to the Washington Post.
Clark and crew used Air Force One and in one case (Caracas, Venezuela) literally parked it in the weeds at night. Their objective was to try to salvage this situation with unique, carrot-and-stick diplomacy.
The details of precisely what they did and said are fascinating and cannot be given due credit in one brief article. In short: They pulled it off, without firing a shot. They brokered an arrangement with an extremely helpful and unheralded Brazil, which included several forms of economic aid to Suriname, enough to keep Suriname from going Marxist and becoming a Soviet-Cuban base of operation in the Atlantic.
And then, none of the participants talked about it; they had done their job and now moved on, with no need for adulation or even a pat on the back. That includes Ronald Reagan. Near the end of his presidency, Reagan rightly declared that during his eight years, “not one inch of ground has fallen to the communists.” As he said this, he rattled off some of the nations that were saved, including obvious cases that occupied the headlines, like Grenada, which the United States invaded in October 1983 — six months after an invasion was averted in Suriname. Yet, he was silent on Suriname. He had to be; he had to keep it secret.
Why are we only now learning about this? The key was Bill Clark, and getting Clark to talk. Even though there has always been unanimity that Clark was not only Reagan’s most influential adviser but the one with the best story to tell, he refused to do memoirs, strictly because of his humility and sense of loyalty to Reagan. He was urged to do memoirs by Reagan biographers like Lou Cannon and Edmund Morris, by figures like Cap Weinberger and Ed Meese, by Michael Reagan — you name it. In the end, he finally acquiesced to a biography. One of the reasons he did so was that same sense of loyalty to Ronald Reagan — this time to the historical record on Reagan. He wanted this story to be told for history’s sake, and accurately so. Once Clark made that commitment, the other participants agreed to be interviewed.
There were certain things that Bill Clark knew that he couldn’t and shouldn’t take to the grave. One of these was the secret, enigmatic Suriname incident of April 1983. It is worth pausing now, 25 years later, to consider this remarkable episode, to appreciate what was done, and to begin working it into our histories of the end of the Cold War.
— Paul Kengor is co-author (with Patricia Clark Doerner) of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand. He is professor of political science at Grove City College.