In a viral exchange at a congressional hearing last week, the new congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, who is quickly establishing herself as the most reprehensible member of the House Democratic freshman class despite stiff competition, launched into Elliott Abrams. She accused the former Reagan official and Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela of being complicit in war crimes.
“Yes or no,” she demanded, “would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, if you believe they were serving U.S. interest, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?”
Omar was cribbing from the Left’s notes on U.S. Latin American policy, and doing it badly. She made much of the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. The idea that Abrams is somehow directly implicated in this bloodcurdlingly awful event is completely absurd. He was assistant secretary of state for international organizations in the Reagan administration, then became assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs on December 10, 1981. The massacre occurred the next day. Unless we are to believe the El Salvadoran military unit took his change of jobs as a green light to indiscriminately kill villagers (which unfortunately was not a new practice), Abrams obviously had nothing to do with the massacre.
Nonetheless, the Omar attack is an opportunity to examine the premises of the Left’s narrative on Reagan’s policy in El Salvador, which supports the persistent attacks on Abrams as a “war criminal.” To paraphrase the famous Mary McCarthy line about Lillian Hellman, every word in this narrative is a lie, including “and” and “the.”
In what follows, I rely throughout on Russell Crandall’s book The Salvador Option: The United States in El Salvador, 1977–1992, a fair-minded, factual account that’s a marked contrast to the tendentiously left-wing material that dominates online.
El Salvador Was a Violent Mess Before Reagan Got Involved
First, some background. El Salvador was not a liberal bastion prior to the Reagan administration’s showing up. The political order in El Salvador had long depended on a partnership between oligarchs and the military. Beginning in the 1960s, they fashioned rural paramilitaries to maintain their rule. In the late 1970s, upon increased leftist agitation, these groups began to target alleged subversives in the Church, or as one flyer from a death squad put it, “Be Patriotic — Kill a Priest.”
The country was undemocratic and coming apart at the seams. A former general, Carlos Humberto Romero, stole the 1977 election. His ascension brought more instability, violence, and repression.
Anyone who thinks this situation would have resolved itself easily and peacefully absent U.S. involvement should consider the example of Guatemala. When the Guatemalan government, facing its own Communist insurrection, rejected military assistance from the U.S. in the late 1970s, it didn’t lead to a better outcome, but almost certainly a worse one. “The absence of American advisors,” Crandall writes, “did not prevent the Guatemalan military from launching a genocidal, scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign against Marxist guerrillas — or, more specifically, against the civilian and desperately poor Mayan population believed to be supporting these guerrillas.”
The FMLN Received Massive Foreign Support
Attacks on U.S. intervention always leave out the other foreign players. Havana, Crandall writes, forged the El Salvadoran left-wing groups together into the FMLN and provided “significant logistical, intelligence, strategic, and military assistance.” And Nicaragua lent major support, shipping matériel to the guerrillas by sea and air.
At the outset, Hanoi offered the guerrillas 60 tons of arms. At one point the Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega said in a speech in Hanoi, “We sincerely thank the Vietnamese people and highly value their support for the heroic Salvadoran people.”
Ethiopia and Czechoslovakia also chipped in. None of this, of course, ever brings denunciations of imperialism.
The foreign aid is one reason that the FMLN achieved an astonishing strength of over 10,000 troops by 1983, and as late as 1989 could launch a substantial attack on the capital that aimed, among other things, to assassinate the democratically elected president.
FMLN Atrocities Get No Attention
The guerrillas were nasty bastards who sought to inflict as much physical damage to the country as possible. They started early. “Former leftist militants and guerrillas revealed then and now,” according to Crandall, “that as early as 1970, they were in fact initiating violent acts in what they considered a mostly urban revolution, such as bombings, killing police officers, and kidnapping political figures and businessmen.”
Their methods were brutal, including coerced recruitment, and often self-defeating. In the words of one correspondent in the mid 1980s, the guerrillas handed the government propaganda victories by “attacking unarmed peasants in La Paz province, razing municipal halls in nearly three dozen villages, executing two town mayors and kidnapping several others.” The guerrillas did everything they could to wreck the country. They attacked the country’s most important hydroelectric dam and destroyed electrical towers.
And they carried out truly infamous acts, although they are rarely mentioned now.
In a neighborhood called Zona Rosa in 1985, guerrillas ambushed six off-duty U.S Marines who provided security for the American embassy. They killed nine civilians and four Marines.
In 1991, a U.S. military helicopter was downed by guerrilla fire. The co-pilot died in the crash, then the FMLN executed the surviving flight mechanic and pilot.
Jimmy Carter Began Our Aid to the El Salvadoran Government and Persisted in His Support
U.S. policy in El Salvador wasn’t the invention of the Reagan administration. It basically stayed on the path set out by the Carter administration.
In March 1977, the strongman Romero rejected American military assistance, upset by criticism of his human-rights record. In October 1979, the Air Force carried out a coup. The moderate reformer José Napoleón Duarte, a Christian Democrat and civilian, came to head the junta. The Carter administration supported the government, and it authorized military assistance as Carter was leaving office in 1981.
The Carter administration didn’t end its backing after the assassination of Archbishop Romero on March 1980. It briefly suspended aid after the horrific killing of four American church workers, but with the government seemingly teetering on the brink, it quickly reinstated and augmented the aid.
Were the Carterites “war criminals,” too, or did they just want to avoid a repeat of Nicaragua, where the Communist takeover had done nothing for democracy or human rights? Clearly, the latter.
The Reagan Administration Got the El Mozote Massacre Wrong
It is true that the Reagan administration wrongly minimized the 1981 El Mozote massacre. But this wasn’t out of malice or support for the killers.
U.S. ambassador Deane Hinton doubted the initial reports about the atrocity, since they were aired on the FMLN’s propaganda arm, Radio Venceremos, not otherwise a credible source. Embassy officials couldn’t get on the ground to investigate, according to Crandall, and an inspection from the air was cut short when their helicopter was shot at. When Abrams publicly relayed bad information about the massacre, he was relying on the erroneous reporting from the embassy.
It is true that the perpetrators were troops trained but the U.S., but, as we’ll see, we didn’t train Salvadoran troops to carry out massacres. Far from it.
Democracy Was the Reagan Policy
The Reagan administration backed the 1982 election in El Salvador, and after its success, doubled down on elections. The 1982 vote, which had been threatened by the guerrillas, was a way to show the lack of popular support for the FMLN. Reagan took the opportunity to occupy the rhetorical high ground, telling Congress that “the Salvadoran people’s desire for democracy will not be defeated.”
The Reagan Administration Supported the Moderates
In the 1982 vote, the Christian Democrats got 35 percent, while the right-wing party, ARENA, linked to the death squads, got 26 percent. The U.S. worked to ensure in the aftermath that the ARENA leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson, didn’t take power with the support of minor parties. Under U.S. pressure, the military backed an alternative, Alvaro Magana, who became president.
In the 1984 presidential election, the administration strongly supported the moderate Jose Duarte against D’Aubuisson. In case there was any doubt where the U.S. stood, it denied D’Aubuisson a visa. Duarte ended up defeating D’Aubuisson 54 to 29 percent. The political end of the line for D’Aubuisson came in ARENA’s poor showing in National Assembly elections the next year.
As far as the Reaganites were concerned, it was good riddance.
The Reagan Administration Attacked the Death Squads
In a controversial speech in 1982 to the Salvadoran-American Chamber of Commerce, Ambassador Deane Hinton (mentioned above regarding the El Mozote massacre) said of the death squads, the “mafia must be stopped. Your survival depends on it. The gorillas of this mafia, every bit as the guerrillas in Morazán and Chalatenango, are destroying El Salvador.”
His replacement, Thomas Pickering, spoke in the same key, denouncing the death squads as “murderers, torturers, and kidnappers” who must be held to account and threatened to cut off aid. In a 1983 visit to El Salvador, at a dinner with the president, Vice President Bush used his toast to calls the death squads “a cowardly group of common criminals and murderers.”
The rightists bristled at the criticism, but death-squad activity diminished.
The U.S. Worked to Create a Better Military
The U.S. trained El Salvador military officers outside the country to remove them as much as possible from the influence of the military’s existing culture. Slowly, the U.S. weaned the military from its traditional, malign relationship with the country’s oligarchy. The amount of U.S. aid and the threat of cutting it off gave the U.S. crucial leverage to push reforms.
The U.S. Supported Negotiations
The Reagan policy was a dual track of keeping up the military pressure on the guerrillas while supporting negotiations with them. After an unsuccessful but harrowing 1989 offensive by the FMLN, both sides were ready to deal. The U.S. pressured president Alfredo Cristiani, elected from ARENA in 1989, to get it done. When the two sides hammered out an agreement, the George H. W. Bush administration pledged its support, and indeed poured in resources by the tens of millions to buttress the peace.
The military was dethroned from its leading role in society, among other important reforms, while the FMLN put down its arms and became a political party. Amazingly enough, it worked and the agreement stuck, making Representative Omar’s question to Abrams whether he still considered Reagan’s El Salvador policy a “fabulous achievement” a very stupid one.
The excuse for her is that she’s profoundly ill-informed. More blameworthy are all those people who should know better but spread the big lie about Reagan policy in Central America, and give the likes of Representative Omar their noxious lines to read.
Note: An earlier version of this article misspelled “El Mozote.”