Aren’t we mature enough as a democracy to memorialize our leaders with clear eyes? While the nation mourns one of its most popular presidents, it must be truthful in assessing his leadership. The very resolve being celebrated on op-ed pages across the country also led Reagan to ignore and sometimes sanction the brutality being committed in the name of fighting the "evil empire."
David Corn writes a twice-monthly column for TomPaine.com. Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers).
I have a vision. On the day that Ronald Reagan's remains are transported from the U.S. Capitol to the National Cathedral for the funeral services, the hearse will pass 800 black crosses.
Each cross will represent one of the men, women and children who were killed by the Salvadoran military in the village of El Mozote in December 1981. Each would be a reminder that the dead man now celebrated in the media as a lover of freedom and democracy oversaw a foreign policy that empowered and enabled murderous brutes and thugs in the name of anti-Sovietism. Many innocents in other lands paid dearly for Reagan’s crusade.
Throughout his presidency, Reagan made nice with dictators—no matter how nefarious—as long as they parroted his opposition to communism. As soon as he entered the White House, his administration tried to normalize relations with Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, who was responsible for a bloody coup that overthrew a democratically elected (but socialist) government. The Reaganites also cozied up to the fascistic and anti-Semitic junta of Argentina, which tortured, slaughtered and disappeared its political opponents. And don’t forget Reagan’s attempt to woo Saddam Hussein, even after it was known that Hussein had used chemical weapons. (Reagan assigned this task to Donald Rumsfeld.)
Reagan may have pushed for democracy and human rights in the Soviet bloc, but he cared little for these values elsewhere. He dramatically urged the destruction of the Berlin Wall and supported the Solidarity movement in Poland. But he sent money and assistance to regimes that repressed and murdered their people. While visiting Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino dictator, Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, toasted Marcos' "adherence to democratic principles." People lost their freedom or died because Reagan and his lieutenants could not see beyond their ideological blinders and cut deals with miscreants who shared their anti-Moscow mantra. Not only did Reagan embolden torturers and murders, but the CIA—following his order to support the contra rebels in Nicaragua (who were trying to oust the socialist Sandinistas)—worked with suspected drug traffickers. Who said so? Not conspiracy-theory nuts, but the inspector general of the CIA. Years after the contra war, the agency’s IG produced two reports that conceded the CIA had enlisted the assistance of alleged drug runners. At the same time Nancy Reagan was preaching “Just Say No” to drugs.
As I noted in this column a few months ago—when there was a media hullabaloo over a schlocky biopic of Reagan—Reagan was AWOL on one of the important battles for freedom and democracy in the 1980s: South Africa. He defended the racist apartheid government there and claimed—as wrongly as could be—that South Africa had "eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country." And when Republicans and Democrats joined together in Congress to impose economic sanctions on the government of South Africa, Reagan vetoed the measure. In response to that veto, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, said, "Apartheid will be dismantled, and its victims will remember those who helped to destroy this evil system. And President Reagan will be judged harshly by history." Not this week.
The El Mozote episode is, sadly, only one example of violence borne of Reagan’s foreign policy. The troops that did the killing were supported by his administration because they were fighting leftist rebels. A 1992 report produced by a UN-sanctioned truth commission described the awful event:
"On 10 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote in the Department of Morazan, units of the Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children who were in the place…. Early next morning, 11 December, the soldiers reassembled the entire population in the square. They separated the men from the women and children and locked everyone up in different groups in the church, the convent and various houses."
"During the morning, they proceeded to interrogate, torture and execute the men in various locations. Around noon, they began taking the women in groups, separating them from their children and machine-gunning them. Finally, they killed the children. A group of children who had been locked in the convent were machine-gunned through the windows. After exterminating the entire population, the soldiers set fire to the buildings."
The report noted that "the Atlacatl Battalion was a ‘Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalion’ or BIRI,’ that is, a unit specially trained for ‘counter-insurgency’ warfare. It was the first unit of its kind in the [El Salvadoran] armed forces and had completed its training under the supervision of United States military advisors, at the beginning of that year, 1981."
When two reporters—Raymond Bonner of The New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of The Washington Post —reported the massacre in January 1982, the Reagan administration denied it had occurred. Reagan’s point-man on Latin America, Elliott Abrams, told Congress that these reports were no more than commie propaganda. That is, he lied. (Today, Abrams, that lover of truth and human rights, is a staff member on Bush’s National Security Council responsible for Middle East matters.) A forensic investigation conducted in the early 1990s proved that the massacre had happened. And the truth commission’s report noted that "two hundred forty-five cartridge cases recovered from the El Mozote site were studied. Of these, 184 had discernable headstamps, identifying the ammunition as having been manufactured for the United States Government at Lake City, Missouri. ...All of the projectiles except one appear to have been fired from United States-manufactured M-16 rifles."
Thanks to Ronald Reagan, American tax dollars supported the murder of hundreds of El Salvadoran villagers. And the UN-backed commission, after examining 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the Reagan-assisted right-wing military and its death-squad allies. Similar patterns transpired in Guatemala and Honduras in the 1980s.
The El Mozote massacre, though perhaps the largest massacre in modern Latin American history, is a minor footnote in the history of the Cold War, but it is, as writer Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El Mozote , observed, "a central parable of the Cold War." It is also a telling tale of Reaganism. The lives of the people butchered in this small village by U.S.-trained troops were worth as much of that of the man whose body now lays in a casket draped with the Stars and Stripes. Media commentators have been hailing Reagan as heroic, iconic, patriotic and optimistic figure who led an "American life." It was indeed an American life, but one with lethal consequences for others. That is as important a piece of the Reagan story—if not more so—as his oh-so-sunny and cheery outlook.
I doubt the villagers of El Mozote were thinking about Reagan’s wonderful disposition when made-in-the-USA bullets supplied to their killers by the U.S. government, in accordance with Reagan’s foreign policy, were piercing their bodies and ending their non-American lives.