Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Central America, National Bipartisan Commission on

Advisory panel on U.S. policy toward Central America, particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua, formed in 1983. The National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, also known as the Kissinger Commission, was chaired by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. President Ronald Reagan created the commission in July 1983. Its twelve members were chiefly conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats, including union leader and AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and former New Jersey Senator Nicholas Brady. Several non-voting senior counselors, including Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. representative to the United Nations (UN), advised the panel members.

The Kissinger Commission was responsible for building a consensus behind the Reagan administration's policies in Central America, a region that many administration officials saw as a major battleground in the Cold War. The White House hoped that the commission would give a bipartisan imprimatur to those policies, which were premised on supporting both the El Salvadoran government against leftist insurgents and anticommunist counterrevolutionaries (the Contras) against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Critics of Reagan's policies argued that Washington was fecklessly applying a politico-military solution to a socioeconomic problem, which was at the core of the Central American crisis.

The commission's final report, issued on 4 January 1984, nevertheless echoed existing policy by recommending continued support in the form of bilateral economic and military assistance to allies in the region. Especially noteworthy was the prevalence in the report of the domino theory. The Kissinger Commission perceived a long-term threat to U.S. security interests stemming from communist expansion in the region. If left to fester, the commission concluded, this threat would present the Soviet Union and its proxies (Cuba and Nicaragua) with an opportunity to export communist revolutions to neighboring states. In keeping with the domino theory, the commission ultimately emphasized the external origins of instability in the region. The report concluded, "Whatever the social and economic conditions that invited insurgency in the region, outside intervention is what gives the conflict its present character."

In February 1984, Reagan called on Congress to appropriate some $8 billion over six years in military assistance, primarily to El Salvador, as part of the commission's recommendations. If such assistance did not stanch the flow of revolutionary fervor to El Salvador, then direct U.S. military intervention would have to be employed, but only as a last resort.

Congress, however, refused to rubber-stamp the commission's findings. In the ensuing congressional hearings and debates over foreign aid appropriations, House Democrats who opposed the administration's Central American policies succeeded in cutting the military assistance package in half. Eventually, Reagan administration officials obtained funding for the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries through clandestine and illegal means, leading to the Iran-Contra Affair several years later.

Kirk Tyvela


Further Reading
Report of the President's National Bipartisan Commission on Central America. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984.; LeoGrande, William M. Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977–1992. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
 

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