The year 1988 was an interesting one in the realm of international politics and conflict and unlike the events of today, these were much closer to home. And when the President of the United States was going to make a speech to the American people, lobbying for aid against a Communist regime that threatened peace in the region, no one heard it. The three major networks refused to air the President’s speech. Not in 2018, this was in 1988. Why? They were worried that “the Great Communicator” would convince the American people to go along with his plan.
Central and South America was a hot spot for insurgencies and civil war during the 1970s and 1980s and many in the government were worried that the revolutions would find their way to Mexico, on the doorstep to the United States.
A communist insurgency in El Salvador had resulted in open warfare there for over a decade. The fighting had been going back and forth but the U.S. backed government. But after the early 1980s, the government made significant strides in both the military and political fields. Human rights abuses were down, the military had turned the tide of the war and both sides were finally sitting down for serious dialogue.
Guatemala had a brutal civil war that lasted from 1962 until 1996, the different military strongmen who overthrew one another grew more oppressive than the previous one. The insurgency of the Maya people was initially supported by Castro and the Cuban regime. Both sides resorted to terror and human rights abuses to achieve their aims. But war’s end over 200,000 people were dead.
But it was in Nicaragua where President Reagan was looking to oust the Sandinista junta led by Daniel Ortega. The Sandinistas were leftists promoted by the Soviets and Cubans and they overthrew the dictator, Somoza.
But as soon as they were in power, they cracked down on freedom of the press and began to conduct the same human rights abuses that they claimed they were trying to stop. Initially, in 1979 and 1980, President Carter sought to normalize relations with them and sent them humanitarian aid.
Immediately upon taking office, Reagan ceased aid to the Sandinistas. He sought aid for the Contras a group of former Somoza officers and Miskito Indians who were looking to oust the leftist government. By mid-November 1981, the President had signed National Directive 17 which authorized covert aid and support for anti-Sandinista forces.
Armed conflict between the Ortega regime and the Contras added to the destabilization of the region along with the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. The Contras, heavily backed by the CIA, secretly opened a “second front” on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast and Costa Rican border. CIA Director William Casey was an old hand at setting up covert aid for foreign forces having been a World War II operative of the OSS.
By early 1983, the Contras had launched major offensives against the Sandinistas and with CIA (which was illegal) help, had mined the harbor of Managua. CIA operatives were also helping to stop arms flows coming into Nicaragua.
In late 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias presented a peace plan that was signed by the five Central American presidents. His plan tried to promote national reconciliation, an end to hostilities, democratization, free elections, the termination of all assistance to irregular forces, negotiations on arms controls, and assistance to refugees. It also laid the ground for international verification procedures and provided a timetable for implementation.
Immediately after the Arias plan was signed, Ortega made a beeline for Cuba. But Fidel Castro wasn’t going to offer much as he himself was being squeezed by Mikhail Gorbachev as the death throes of the Soviet Union was already beginning.
While giving lip service to the Arias plan, the Sandinistas were not going to share power with anyone. During a November party conference, the Sandinistas publicly stated that there would never be talks either directly or indirectly with leaders of the counter-revolutionary forces.
Ortega was beginning to lose the war to the Contras and it seemed for the first time, that they may actually defeat the Sandinista Army on the field of battle. But that wasn’t good news to all Americans. Many of the Democrats in Congress actually favored the Sandinistas remaining in power. They hoped that the Soviets would eventually cut off their aid and the US could make them behave as dependents on US aid.
Their argument was that a no vote on contra aid was “a vote for the peace process.”
With debates raging in Congress, Reagan made a vastly reduced aid proposal just before his State of the Union Address. Democrats saw this as an opportunity to defeat it altogether. The Sandinistas, monitoring the events in Managua, sensed a victory in Congress as well and took the opportunity to crack down on opposition parties, having paid stooges pelt offices with rocks and bottles while police stood by and did nothing.
This didn’t sway Democrats however, they were convinced that they had the votes to defeat a contra aid bill. Their final worry…. The President’s appeal to the people which could sway public opinion on the matter.
The three major networks came to the Democrats rescue. The three all decided not to air the President’s address to the people. Only CNN carried it. In 1988, CNN was far from the giant it is today. Most people in the US didn’t have cable, including Washington D.C. so the vast majority of Americans never saw his speech including the entire population of D.C.
The lame excuse at the time was that there had already been enough debate on the topic and yet, all three networks dedicated shows the morning after Reagan’s speech to debate its merits or faults.
Reagan had always been the Republican Party’s best and most persuasive speaker. His inability to reach out to Americans was what he characterized later as “censorship” and “ an unprecedented affront which reveals right where their sympathies lie….with the Communist government of Nicaragua.”
The final vote was 219-211, on February 3, 1988, Contra aid was voted down.
“My fellow Americans, there can be no mistake about this vote. It is up or down for Central America. It is a win or lose for peace and freedom. It is a yes or no to America’s national security.” Reagan’s speech which was not carried by the three networks.
The aid package to the Contra’s debate continued to drag along, but in the end, the Communist junta was ousted by a legal vote in 1990. But for a moment in 1988, the major television networks took a stand together with one party against another. So much of the talk we hear today about a lack of an unbiased press isn’t new. It is history.
This is the speech in its entirety that the majority of the country never saw.