February 19

This Day in History

Cold War

Feb 19, 1981:

United States calls situation in El Salvador a communist plot

The U.S. government releases a report detailing how the "insurgency in El Salvador has been progressively transformed into a textbook case of indirect armed aggression by communist powers." The report was another step indicating that the new administration of Ronald Reagan was prepared to take strong measures against what it perceived to be the communist threat to Central America.

When the Reagan administration took office in 1981, it faced two particularly serious problems in Central America. In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration was worried about the Sandinista regime, a leftist government that took power in 1979 after the fall of long-time dictator Anastacio Somoza. In El Salvador, the administration was concerned about a growing civil war between government forces and leftist rebels. Brutal violence on the part of the Salvadoran military--offenses that included the 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. missionaries--had caused the Jimmy Carter administration to cut off aid to the country.

In both nations, Reagan officials were convinced that the Soviet Union was the catalyst for the troubles. To address the situation in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration began to covertly assist the so-called Contras-rebel forces that opposed the Sandinista regime and were based primarily in Honduras and Costa Rica. For El Salvador, the February 19 report was the first volley. The State Department memorandum indicated that the "political direction, organization and arming of the Salvadoran insurgency is coordinated and heavily influenced by Cuba with the active support of the Soviet Union, East Germany, Vietnam and other communist states." It thereupon provided a "chronology" of the communist involvement in El Salvador.

In response to this perceived threat, the United States dramatically increased its military assistance to the government of El Salvador, provided U.S. advisors to the Salvadoran armed forces, and began a series of National Guard "training exercises" in and around El Salvador. To no one's surprise, the conflict in El Salvador escalated quickly and charges of torture, kidnapping, and assassination flew from both sides of the civil war. During the 1980s, U.S. military assistance to El Salvador topped nearly $5 billion, but the violence and instability continued unabated. In 1992, the United Nations and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica arbitrated an agreement between the warring factions in El Salvador. A U.N. commission also condemned U.S. complicity in atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military. President George Bush (who served as Reagan's vice-president in the previous administration) discounted the U.N. accusations, but claimed that peace in El Salvador was the product of a vigorous U.S. response to communist subversion in the western hemisphere.

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