• Stephen M. Walt is apparently trying to clinch his case: that President Ronald Reagan's supposedly illegal war in Nicaragua established a precedent, which, some 35 years later, Russia's Vladimir Putin simply followed by invading Ukraine.

  • Walt's thesis has it exactly backwards. Putin is not channeling Reagan. Putin is channeling his former Communist bosses Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko.

  • The Soviet invasion of the Americas was not done to protect the hemisphere from harm. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua were full Soviet and Cuban proxies seeking the overthrow of a number of sovereign nations in Central and South America, including El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia.

  • The Soviet campaign of terror then was launched precisely to change governments so that various countries would become Soviet allies.

  • The government of Ukraine posed no military threat to Moscow. The "threat" from Ukraine is that its democratic character might "infect" the Russian people.

  • Putin invades Ukraine. On cue, Walt blames America.

Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt, in "What Putin Learned From Reagan," complains that the United States has only itself to blame for President Vladimir Putin's aggression against Ukraine. The professor notes, "Russia's power play for Ukraine takes a page out of the Gipper's playbook," and that Putin's "conduct is not that different from the actions of venerated leaders like Ronald Reagan."

Walt's thesis is that America's support during the Reagan administration for the democratic resistance in Nicaragua, popularly known as "the contras," although unwarranted, was emblematic of what "big powers" such as America do.

He ridicules the idea that there was a threat from a group of "ragtag Sandinistas" in Nicaragua. Nicaragua, Walt explains, was a "tiny country, with hardly any military capability of its own" and at best of miniscule value "as a possible Soviet base."

It is certainly valid, writes Walt, that Russia and Putin have greater reason in 2015 to be concerned with the threat from Ukraine, with its 45 million people, than Reagan had reason to worry about Nicaragua in 1981. Walt explains Moscow's worry as the possibility Kiev might become allied with NATO and thus bring the alliance right up to Russia's border. He claims that "Moscow has more to worry about [from Ukraine] today than the United States did back in the 1980s" from Nicaragua.

Walt then concludes that we should understand that Putin's "actions aren't really that unusual".

Walt seems to forget that on February 20, 1981 the U.S. Supreme Allied Commander in Europe addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee about the Soviet threat and that of its terrorist proxies.[1]

General Bernard W. Rogers warned: "The broader strategic environment contains a menace of Soviet willingness and capability to project military power throughout the globe using proxies in the third world and its own forces in areas contiguous to its borders."

Furthermore, explained the General, NATO was being surpassed in "all categories of war-fighting capability" with a relative decline "of NATO's capabilities versus those of the Warsaw Pact."

Unfortunately, continued General Rogers, security commitments made by the allies were turning into promissory notes, with the result that the "steady accumulation of Soviet military power," with the faltering response of the NATO alliance, placed in jeopardy "our deterrent."

Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), one of the committee's leading Democrats, agreed with the General. Nunn said that the U.S. was playing international poker with the Soviets and trying to "capture aces with queens," which the Senator noted was a losing strategy.

In early 1983, two years later, in a unanimous report from the House Intelligence Committee, all Democrats and Republicans on the Committee concluded that the communist Sandinistas ruling Nicaragua were, along with their political cousins in Cuba and the Soviet Union, financing, arming and providing training for the FMLN terrorist guerrillas in El Salvador.[2]

As explained by University of Virginia law scholar John Moore[3], the Sandinistas and their Soviet sponsors made alliances with the PLO, North Korea and Iran, provided safe haven for countless terror groups, and received massive Soviet arms shipments including Mi-24 Hind D attack helicopters and tanks, part of an initial 700 tons of military equipment sent by Moscow to Managua early in the life of the Sandinista regime.

So terrible were the human rights abuses that 120,000 people left Nicaragua shortly after the Sandinistas came to power. At the UN, the government in Managua voted with the Soviet Union 96% of the time, including voting to remove Israel from the United Nations.

Despite receiving $113 million in aid from President Carter's administration in 1980, the Sandinistas quickly turned Nicaragua into a Soviet client state, and declared in the new national anthem that America "was the enemy of mankind."

Shortly after seizing power, the communist government started building a military airfield in the town of Punta Huete that would be capable of handling top Soviet aircraft, while also training Nicaraguan pilots in Bulgaria on MiG warplanes as early as 1980.

In short, the Sandinistas were full Soviet and Cuban proxies seeking the overthrow of a number of sovereign nations in Central and South America, including El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia. And, contrary to popular belief, and long before taking power in 1979, the Sandinistas had been allied with, armed and funded by the Soviets in their nearly decade-long war of subversion against the people of Nicaragua, a war that killed some 40,000 people.

Although the Sandinistas were but one of a coalition of forces that overthrew Somoza, they eliminated the other elements in the coalition (especially anyone who supported democracy) through violence or threats of violence. They thus completed their seizure of power -- necessary to act as a Soviet proxy in Central and Latin America.

Walt goes further and argues that President Reagan had no constitutional or legal authority to arm the democratic resistance in Nicaragua (DRN). Walt is apparently trying to clinch his case: that Reagan's supposedly illegal war in Nicaragua established a precedent, which, some 35 years later, Putin simply followed by invading Ukraine.

On the contrary, the constitutional case for arming the DRN was set forth by both John Norton Moore and Robert Turner, of the University of Virginia Law School, in a series of articles and essays published between 1985-87.[4]

At issue was what the Soviets and their allies sought to do in South America. It appears their intent was to change radically the legal order that had built the unprecedented peace and prosperity after World War II.[5]

The Soviet terrorist plots included plans to take down governments allied with the United States and the free West -- both in the Americas and Africa -- as a means of controlling the sea lanes through which critical natural resources moved, especially oil. It was these twin threats that the Reagan administration sought to stop.

The gist of the legal case in favor of assistance to the democratic resistance in Nicaragua was that the Sandinista government in Managua was in violation of international law in its support for the terrorist overthrow of the government of El Salvador, as well as for its subversion against Honduras, Costa Rica and Colombia.

The United States was also perfectly within its rights in helping to protect El Salvador's government. In that effort, the U.S. sought to check the unlawful Sandinista proxy war against El Salvador -- a war being directed by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Ironically, during much of the early 1980s, many in the U.S. repeatedly insisted that the Salvadoran rebels (the FMLN) were simple, agrarian reformers seeking social justice for the people of that country.[6] Walt appears to have accepted this narrative.

It is true that a number of charitable, American-based, and often Marxist-oriented religious and relief organizations, joined forces in supporting the FMLN. This support did give the communist guerrillas a false patina of respect and an aura of moral sympathy, which they used to portray themselves as seeking social and economic reform, and not the establishment of another Soviet outpost for subversion.

In 1989, upon visiting El Salvador, a senior government jurist gave this author a folder of documents outlining the use of a safe house run by U.S.-based "Christian Education Seminars," which served as "guides" for visiting members of Congress and others to San Salvador. In December 1988, the Salvadoran police had raided the "safe house" and found tons of weapons buried in round barrels in the frozen ground in the garden and lawn area. The cache included FMLN guns, bombs, mines, grenades, mortars and other weapons. Jennifer Casolo, the woman running the house in the suburbs, claimed no knowledge of the weapons found in the backyard.

The stark black and white pictures of the police raid on the compound showed clearly many wooden barrels filled with weapons. The barrels were opened up with pickaxes during several hours of digging by Salvadoran security forces.

One of the favorite weapons used by the FMLN were landmines they would distribute around the nation's coffee plantations -- coffee being the country's number one export and critical to the nation's economic viability.

Some American media stories would later claim the El Salvador government had surreptitiously entered the "Church" compound and secretly buried tons of weapons in the backyard in a "sneaky" campaign to smear the FMLN.

Missed by much of the news coverage and Congressional discussion of the FMLN was the true nature of the communist rebels. In two hospitals in San Salvador visited during a 1989 trip, I spoke with the families of young children who'd had their limbs blown off by these land mines as they had worked with their family in the coffee plantations to earn enough to eat.

In short, Professor Walt's thesis has it exactly backwards. Putin is not channeling President Ronald Reagan. Putin is channeling his former Communist bosses.

He is taking a page from the Communist playbook of former Soviet General Secretaries Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. These three Soviet leaders directed terrorism from 1978-85 in the Americas. They successfully brought the Communists to power in Grenada and Nicaragua, and seriously threatened Colombia and El Salvador.

Unlike Nicaragua, a proxy terrorist state that was serving Soviet interests and objectives, the government of Ukraine posed no military threat to Moscow. The "threat" from Ukraine is that its democratic character might "infect" Moscow. This "disease" might very well encourage the Russian people to demand an end to the despotic and arbitrary rule by Moscow, marked by the use of bribes to friends and the brutal violence employed by President Putin. Those were still no justification for Putin brutally to attack the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Retaking Ukraine was probably also part of Putin's plan to rebuild the Soviet empire. In that respect, Putin is following the lead of his Soviet predecessors.

Also contrary to Walt's claims, the "separatists" in Ukraine are in fact largely Russian soldiers. They are, however, not acting like the Democratic Resistance in Nicaragua -- overwhelmingly Nicaraguans who wished for a free country.

The Ukraine-based Russian soldiers are seeking to dismember a sovereign nation -- Ukraine -- which threatens no one, and had (many think foolishly) given up its nuclear capability to Russia in exchange for a piece of paper, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russia had promised it sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Democratic resistance in Nicaragua was seeking to stop a regime that was threatening to overthrow sovereign peaceful governments in the region.

There is simply no comparison between the Russian military directing military assaults against Ukraine, and the Nicaraguan "contras" who fought to stop the Sandinistas from terrorizing El Salvador.

Part of Walt's confusion appears to be his view of a supposed moral equivalency between two great powers: the United States pushing "regime change" in Nicaragua, and Russia pushing regime change Ukraine.

The Soviet campaign to overthrow governments in the Americas that were friendly to the U.S., was not waged to protect the hemisphere from harm.

The governments of El Salvador or Colombia -- two countries Moscow terrorized -- were not arming terror groups or trying to overthrow the governments of their neighbors.

The Soviet campaign of terror then was launched precisely to change governments so that various countries would become part of a coalition of Soviet allies.[7]

In particular, the aim of Moscow was evidently to build a coalition of terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army, (IRA), the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the Baader-Meinhof Group, the Vietcong, (the military arm of the North Vietnamese national liberation front), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Red Brigades, all of whom they either created, funded, armed or trained.

Added to this coalition were Soviet client states in Eastern Europe, and such state sponsors of terrorism as Vietnam, Iraq, North Korea, Nicaragua, Cuba, Sudan and Syria.[8]

Walt, in his essay, sought to aim at America, but shot himself instead. So eager was the professor to find fault with America that he fumbled the facts and the law. The facts of 1981 illustrate that the Soviet threat was real. And the law says the U.S. has every right to protect its freedoms.

In so doing, Walt proved Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick correct once again. In her most famous speech, in July 1984 at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, she said of Reagan's political opponents:

"They said that saving Grenada from terror and totalitarianism was the wrong thing to do - they didn't blame Cuba or the communists for threatening American students and murdering Grenadians - they blamed the United States instead. But then, somehow, they always blame America first."

Putin invades Ukraine. On cue, Walt blames America.


[1] Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal year 1982, Part 7, "Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces," Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate.

[2] See John Norton Moore and "The Secret War in Central America and the Future of World Order," Volume 148, #2, Journal of World Affairs.

[3] The American Journal of International Law, Volume 80, #1, January 1986.

[4] See for example "Debate-The ICJ Case on the Merits: Legal and Moral Implications of U.S. Aid to the Contras," with Robert F. Turner & T. Nanda, 6 St. Louis U. Pub. L. Rev. 85 (1987).

[5] See "The Brezhnev Doctrine and the Radical Regime Assault on the Legal Order," in International Security and the Brezhnev Doctrine 73 (CAUSA Publications, July 1985, CAUSA International Seminar Series, vol. 11), International Security Council Conference, June 9-11, 1985.

[6] See for example "Ideological Origins of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front of El Salvador," by Brad Berner.

[7] See especially "Hydra of Carnage: International Linkages of Terrorism: The Witnesses Speak", Edited by Uri Ra'anan.

[8] See "Tripping Through Wonderland with Noam Chomsky: A Response," 8 J. Contemp. Stud., no. 2 at 47 (Spring/Summer 1985); "The Basic Myths of Terrorism," 51 Congress Monthly 17 (January/February 1984); "Terrorism, The Soviet Connection," by Ray Cline and Yonah Alexander and "Reality Be Damned...: Undoing America: What Media Didn't Tell You about Terrorism," by Robert Buchar.

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