Book Review: A True History of the Anti-Contra War Campaign

“The new book by Prof. Roger Peace, A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign, is an important contribution to recording a true history of the era, unsullied by US government and media lies and disinformation. As such, I would recommend it as reading for the Occupy Movement for its lessons on how a decentralized movement can be made strong enough to stop a very motivated president (Ronald Reagan) from sending US troops to invade another country (Nicaragua).

Book Review: A True History of the Anti-Contra War Campaign

by Chuck Kaufman

A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign
by Roger Peace
University of Massachusetts Press
American History / American Studies
302 pp., 1 map
$28.95 paper, ISBN 978-1-55849-932-4
June 2012
The new book by Prof. Roger Peace, A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign, is an important contribution to recording a true history of the era, unsullied by US government and media lies and disinformation. As such, I would recommend it as reading for the Occupy Movement for its lessons on how a decentralized movement can be made strong enough to stop a very motivated president (Ronald Reagan) from sending US troops to invade another country (Nicaragua).

When Peace emailed me that the book had been published, I immediately asked for a review copy. I remembered how much I appreciated his first book, A Just and Lasting Peace, published in 1991. Plus, Peace had interviewed me a couple of times as he was researching this new book; not just me, but 86 other people who had been active in the anti-contra war campaign.

I was a relative late-comer to the Nicaragua solidarity movement, joining the staff of the Nicaragua Network in August 1987 out of disgust at the Iran-Contra scandal in general and Oliver North’s appearance before a fawning Congressional hearing in particular. I’m still doing Nicaragua solidarity work. Nicaragua Network founded the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) in 1998 and became a project of the Alliance. Everything AfGJ does we do through the lens of our experience with Nicaragua in the 1980s.

I knew I would learn a lot about the solidarity movement and the contra aid battles that were before my time, thanks to Peace’s research and writing skills, and I wasn’t disappointed. The book arrived two days ago, and I’ve only reluctantly put it down to do the work they pay me to do.

In my judgment, other books written about the Central America solidarity and anti-intervention movements of the 1980s failed to give proper credit to the secular side of the movement; groups like Nicaragua Network, CISPES, Pledge of Resistance,  SANE/Freeze, and others. Those books made it seem like the movement was almost entirely faith-based. Peace does a good job of writing a history that includes all the significant organizations that contributed, and does an especially good job of including the hundreds of local groups and coalitions that gave the anti-contra war movement its true power. At the same time, I was able to better appreciate the enormous contribution that faith-based groups made to the movement.

Two of the real strengths of A Call to Conscience are the short case studies of local groups and the many back stories of many local and national leaders. I learned things about people like “Wild Bill” Gandall, Aynn Setright, Arnie Matlin, and Jim Burchell, that I didn’t know about them. It was also a bittersweet pleasure to remember Ben Linder, Fr. Bill Callahan, Rev. Lucius Walker, and Grant Gallup, who are no longer with us.

But, Peace’s book is far more than a trip down memory lane for us aging activists. Its history of the anti-contra war movement is as relevant as yesterday’s conference call for those struggling to advance peace and justice today.

All the factors that brought together the anti-contra war movement and all the forces that threatened to drive it apart are still with us. The inside-the-beltway vs. building a grassroots movement strategies, pacifism vs. support for armed struggle, broad movement vs. politically educated movement, solidarity vs. anti-intervention; all these things we face in the equally challenging organizing environment we operate in today.

Actually, I think in some ways we had an easier time back then. Peace documents the speaking tours in the US of Daniel Ortega and other Sandinista leaders. Can you imagine the US government allowing political leaders of its current “enemies list” to freely travel the country speaking to groups throughout the land? Can you imagine groups like the Nicaragua Network, which raised millions of dollars in material aid which we gave directly to the Sandinista government, being allowed to do that in today’s national security environment? Can you imagine 80,000 Americans traveling relatively freely today to Iran to see for themselves what is going on?

A Call to Conscience documents the strategies and tactics that worked and didn’t work. If we’re smart we’ll apply the lessons of both to our organizing today, whether that organizing be Latin America solidarity, Occupy Wall Street, anti-capitalism, or any of our other movements for transformational change.

In the conclusion Peace writes, “The anti-Contra War campaign’s call to conscience was energized by a sense of democratic responsibility for the nation’s foreign policies, a sense of closeness to the Nicaraguan people, and a belief in the possibilities of social change organizing.”  While it may be true that the Central America solidarity movement has faded into the more general Latin America solidarity movement as Peace claims, or that it has spread throughout the US progressive domestic, anti-war, and foreign policy movements, as I believe, there is no question that it played an important role “influencing another generation of citizens and preparing them for future campaigns” as Peace concludes. That makes A Call to Conscience a history worth reading.

(Roger Peace is an adjunct professor of history at Tallahassee Community College. Chuck Kaufman is National Co-Coordinator of the Alliance for Global Justice.)