For the first time in a long time, I found myself emotional and angry as I finished this book about the relationship between the United States and the military dictatorship in El Salvador during the small Central American nation’s civil war in the 1980s. I had expected the book to be a tough read and contain many facts that would be both uncomfortable and upsetting. But I admit that I was not prepared for what I learned. This is not the first book I have read or reviewed regarding El Salvador. There are many other books that are very good but take different approaches to the subject matter. It might be fair to say that the other books were a primer for what I was to learn here in this mind-blowing and deeply troubling book by Raymond Bonner, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and current staff writer for the New York Times.
Younger Americans will most likely have no recollection of the civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of El Salvadorans. A friend of mine was born in El Salvador and has told me the story of her family’s departure from the country as government troops surrounding their town. They found refuge in New York before making a home in New Jersey. Although she has never spoken in too much detail about El Salvador, I am sure there are many memories that she has kept to herself from a time in her youth where death was certain but life was not. Those who are old enough to remember the war in El Salvador and the actions both the Carter and Reagan Administrations, will find this book to be a thorough account of what really did happen as America became more entrenched in the affairs of Central America.
To help the reader understand politics in El Salvador, Bonner provides a brief history of the nation, including the settlement of the Pipil Indians and the Spanish colonization which has had long term effects on El Salvadoran society. Coffee became a prized possession and still remains on the nation’s top exports. The plantations, known to the locals as “fincas“, became a hot commodity and later actions by the wealthy upper class backed by ruling officials, set the stage for the adversarial relationship between the peasants and the Government that late reached deadly proportions. The 1932 massacre or “matanza“, is discussed as well, so that readers can understand the long history of repression.
On October 15, 1979, President General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena (1924-2017) was overthrown in a military backed coup that marked a turning point for El Salvador and set the country down a dark path that still reverberates today. At this point in the book, the pace picks up considerably. The administration of Jimmy Carter found itself unsure on how to proceed with El Salvador, a nation of no strategic importance for the United States. Fears of a left-leaning administration permeated the in Washington resulting in policy mistakes that later came back to haunt the United States. Through Bonner’s work we can see how the mistakes developed but more importantly, why. Relying on now declassified cables, other documents released to the public and his time in the country, a clearer picture of what did and did not happen has begun to take shape. And it is a deeply troubling picture of ineptitude and complicity. Or some might simply call it weakness.
On January 21, 1980, Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) took office as the 40th President of the United States and as Bonner show, events in El Salvador took an even darker turn that might cause some readers to revolt in disgust. I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart and what is revealed during the administration of Ronald Reagan forced me to question all that I knew about El Salvador. To be clear, there are no happy endings here but instead, the dark truth about events in El Salvador including the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in December, 1980. The heinous act was portrayed in the 1986 film ‘Salvador‘ by Oliver Stone, starring James Woods and Jim Belushi. in 1989, the film ‘Romero‘ was released starring the late Raul Julia (1940-1994) as the late Archbishop Romero. Both films are powerful but there is far more to the story as told here.
It goes without saying that on all sides there were multiple players and it was no different in Washington and San Salvador. The actions of the military commanders are horrific but what I found to be even more disturbing as I read through the book, were the actions of many in Washington, including elected officials, cabinet members and officials in the State Department. Misrepresentations and outright lies to the American public and Congress, coupled with covert plans to sent military aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which became ground zero in Washington’s battle against the left in Central America. These actions are what would be called deceit. That deception resulted in repeated tragedies that claimed the lives of thousands of people through failed U.S. policy that failed to fully understand El Salvador, Central America and the truth about the influence of communism. The red scare was alive and well and Washington’s justifications for its actions are misguided and repulsive. In the book, the paranoia surrounding it is eerily reminiscent of the mantra endorsed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1907-1957). Bonner provides snippets of public states and cables to drive home the message so that it is loud and clear.
Surprisingly, to date there has never been a full investigation into Washington’s actions in El Salvador. And as the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 (composed of a significant number of deportees from the United States) continue to tear the country apart, investigations into individuals of prior administrations are almost certain to never happen. Many in Washington have made it a point to forget El Salvador but for the its people, the memories of the civil war will never fade. This is their story, told by Raymond Bonner, of hope and disappointment, supplemented by death and terror under a military backed by America and determined to maintain its grip by any means necessary.