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June 4, 1999
Reagan & War Crimes


Some readers might be offended by the thought of us blaming Ronald Reagan for arming and protecting war criminals who inflicted mass murder and genocide on Guatemalans.

But the point of this special report is that the United States invites the charge of hypocrisy when it accuses "enemy" leaders of war crimes, while it turns a blind eye to equally horrific slaughters committed by allies, sometimes guided and protected by the U.S. government.

With release of truth commission reports in several Central American countries -- most recently in Guatemala -- there can no longer be any doubt about the historical reality.

In the 1980s, U.S.-backed forces committed widespread massacres, political murders and torture. Tens of thousands of civilians died. Many of the dead were children. Soldiers routinely raped women before executing them.

There can be no doubt, too, that President Reagan was an avid supporter of the implicated military forces, that he supplied them with weapons and that he actively sought to discredit human rights investigators and journalists who exposed the crimes. While the CIA reported secretly on the massacres, Reagan publicly claimed that the Guatemalan government was getting a “bum rap” on human rights.

It is also clear that the massacres at El Mozote and other villages across El Salvador, the destruction of more than 600 Indian communities in Guatemala, and the torture and "disappearances" of dissidents throughout the region were as horrible as what Slobodan Milosevic's Serb army has done in Kosovo.

But for Milosevic and four of his henchmen, there are war crime indictments. On May 27, they were formally charged with the murders of 340 named ethnic Albanians and the forced deportation of some 740,000 others. Few would dispute that Milosevic and others involved in the “ethnic cleansing” campaign waged throughout the former Yugoslavia deserve their time in the dock.

Yet, for Reagan, there are only honors: his name added to National Airport and etched into an international trade center, even a congressional plan to carve his visage into Mount Rushmore. Accountability requires at minimum a recognition of responsibility.

In the apt phrase of New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner, the 1980s were a time of "weakness and deceit." With his jovial style, Reagan was a principal culprit in that sorry reality.

But worse, the continuing blindness to the U.S. role in crimes against humanity in Central America in the 1980s has brought that weakness and deceit into and through the 1990s, now as a permanent trait of Washington's political class.

Without doubt, it is safer for an American journalist or politician to wag a finger at Milosevic or at the killers in Rwanda or at the Khmer Rouge than it is to confront the guilt that pervaded Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Reagan, after all, has a throng of ideological enthusiasts -- many with opinion columns and seats on weekend chat shows. Nothing makes them madder than to hear their hero disparaged.

To suggest that Reagan should be held to the same moral standard as Milosevic also invites lectures about "moral equivalence," a clever construct of the 1980s that meant, in effect, that the Cold War justified whatever American policy-makers did. One must not equate “our” crimes with “theirs,” a new twist on the old saying that “the ends justify the means.”

Ironically, many of the conservatives who today advocate rock-hard moral values and who deplore fuzzy moral relativism embraced exactly that sort of situational ethic in the 1980s. They did so under the banner of the Reagan Doctrine, which held that battling the Evil Empire sanctified all actions no matter what other moral laws were violated, like some Medieval crusade, blessed by the pope and then sent off to slaughter infidels.

In this context, murder of unarmed civilians was not wrong. Neither were assassinations, torture, genocide, rape and drug smuggling. Indeed, nothing was wrong as long as it was done in the name of winning the Cold War.

It didn't even matter that the Soviet Union was in steep decline before the 1980s. It didn't matter that there never was a master plan for conquering the United States through Central America. It didn't matter that most of the victims simply wanted basic rights that North Americans take for granted.

But even more corrupting in its own way was the slippery refusal to debate the rationalizations openly. While the "moral equivalence" debate captivated some intellectual circles, the Reagan administration's basic strategy was simply to lie. Rather than defending the atrocities, Reagan and his loyalists most often just denied that the crimes had happened and attacked anyone who said otherwise as a communist dupe.

Mostly, this lying strategy worked and spread a pollution that corrupted American political life. By the end of the Reagan-Bush era, the national media no longer put up any fight for these historic truths. The Watergate press corps of the 1970s had evolved into the Monica Lewinsky press corps of the 1990s.

But in our view, there are two important principles here: first, that truth is fundamental to a healthy democracy, and second, that the rules of common decency must be applied to all human endeavors. There are some acts that are simply wrong no matter who does them or why.

Through much of this century, those principles were held by many in Washington. Under those ideals, the United States led the fight against Nazi Germany and established many of the basic principles of international law.

In that sense, this issue’s special report addresses more than President Reagan’s personal guilt. The larger question is whether the United States still has the political capacity -- and the moral integrity -- to confront its own complicity in shameful war crimes committed against the people of Latin America.

During a March trip to Central America, President Clinton did extend an apology for the American government’s hand in the mass murders. He called the U.S. support for the killers “wrong” and vowed that “the United States must not repeat that mistake."

But an apology is not the same as accountability. While no one expects the ailing Ronald Reagan to face a war crimes tribunal, it is time for the nation to face the painful truth about him and his presidency. It’s time to stop the hero worship. It’s time to put aside the sentimentality. Indeed, it's time to take his name off National Airport.

Maybe in that small way, the American people can show that they truly are sorry for what their government did to Central Americans who had done the United States no harm.

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