I Remember the 80s ... Differently
Our recent nostalgia for the 80s has mostly obscured the horrors visited on Central America by America’s allies in the Cold War.
I’ve been thinking about the 80s lately.
It is difficult for me to remember this decade accurately, because the American nostalgia machine has turned it into a garish pantomime of big hair, New Wave, and stupid fashion trends. This is how America remembers its recent past: First, we forget it. Then we fill up this hollowed-out shell of memory with trivia. We line up all the has-been celebrities we can find and ask, ‘where are they now?’ We throw in current events from the period—with a dash of celebrity gossip and a pinch of presidential history—and then we bake the concoction into a coherent narrative and serve it up with a snappy soundtrack to a population that is always hungry for a sexier, more exciting version of the past. If you add up all the people who claim to have attended Woodstock, how many millions of Baby Boomers would that be, I wonder? And they’re not all lying, because nostalgia works a lot like hypochondria by producing actual symptoms. Hardcore nostalgics actually remember marching to protest the Vietnam War or seeing David Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour or snorting coke at Studio 54, even if they weren't actually there.
The nostalgia machine remembers the 80s as an out-of-control high school party—big, loud, and dumb. The 80s kids were supposed to have been shallow and non-political, partiers, and philistines, socially unconscious and loving it, the perfect generational foil for the supposedly enlightened and politically awake Baby Boomers. I was a teenager and a college student in the 80s, but I don’t recognize these stereotypes. Maybe I was going to the wrong parties back then, but I remember the 80s differently. I remember caring about the Nuclear Freeze Movement, the South African boycott, and the famine in Ethiopia. I remember the peasant revolutions in Central America and the horrible crimes committed by America’s allies there—the village-wide massacres in Guatemala and the death squad killings of an archbishop and three American nuns in El Salvador. I remember the Mothers of the Disappeared. If you were listening the right music and reading the right magazines, if you belonged to the right churches, if you were watching the news with an empathetic eye, there was a lot for a young person to be outraged about in the 80s.
“You would see Fallout Shelter signs everywhere, with those three iconic black arrows pointed down to the dark places where we were all supposed to gather if the Big War came, a nation of nuclear survivors huddling in ten thousand cold, barren basements, parking structures, and school gymnasiums.”
My awareness of global issues began in the summer of 1979 when I watched the murder of American journalist Bill Stewart on television. Stewart was shot in the head by a Nicaraguan soldier while he was trying to talk his way through a checkpoint outside the capital city, Managua, while his cameraman secretly filmed the shooting from a van parked down the street. The one-minute video was played repeatedly on American television stations that summer. In it, you see a man dressed in a white shirt and white slacks kneeling on the ground. A stiff wind is moving the leaves of trees overhead and driving smoke from a fire across the road. Men in green uniforms are milling around, and the soldier standing nearest to the kneeling man appears to be giving the orders. The soldier says something to the man in white, who then obediently lies flat on his stomach. The soldier kicks the prostrate man in the ribs suddenly, steps back for a moment, then steps forward again and aims the rifle at his head. There is a shot, and the man’s body jerks on the ground and slumps sidewise. You hear a voice in the foreground say, ‘they killed him,’ and the camera pulls up, abruptly ending the video p.
That video flipped a switch in me. After seeing it on television for the first time, I wanted to learn everything I could about Nicaragua. I was working in the town library that summer, shelving books, and I found myself lingering on the second floor near the very small Latin American section. There were two books on Nicaragua, both published in the 1950s and 1960s, but I from them, I was able to learn about a century of American interference, assassinations, coups, Marine invasions, and U.S. military support for dictators. I learned that in 1927, the U.S. helped to install a dictator named Anastasio Somoza Garcia and that his family had ruled the country since then. At the height of their power, the Somoza family controlled 60% of the economic activity of this very poor country and they were worth over $500 million dollars. After a devastating earthquake in 1972, the Somozas siphoned off international relief money for themselves, and this was the final straw for many Nicaraguans. In the early 1970s, many young men joined the Sandinista revolutionaries who were fighting the regime with Soviet and Cuban backing.
I took one of those books home with me and then, using tracing paper, I made my own map of the country from a map in the book. When I finished making the map, I extrapolated from newspaper reports which territories the Sandinistas held, shading them by shading them with an orange colored pencil. In the months of June and July, the shaded regions multiplied. I watched the noose tighten around the capital. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the president, resigned and fled the country, and the Sandinistas finally captured Managua. Somoza tried to seek refuge in the U.S. but was denied entry, so he fled to Paraguay. Fourteen months later, a team of Sandinista commandos slipped into the country and fired a rocket-propelled grenade into his car, killing him and two other people. They called it “Operation Reptile.”
I celebrated Somoza’s death, quietly, in the privacy of my bedroom, but with some ambiguity. There was no one to celebrate with. I didn’t know any Nicaraguans. My friends didn’t watch the news or care about world events. Nearly everyone in my family was Republican, and Reagan, who had just been elected president, was already positioning the new Sandinista government as an enemy of the U.S. But as easy as it was to hate Somoza, I felt vague discomfort over celebrating his death. I had celebrated killings before, but they were make-believe. By the time I was thirteen years old, my friends and I had enacted thousands of deaths in the woods behind our neighborhood. We killed the Sheriff of Nottingham and Adolf Hitler and Attila the Hun. We wiped out entire anonymous armies of Indians in countless skirmishes, and then, to prove that we were not Indian haters, we killed Custer and his men at the Little Bighorn. On any given summer day, our battle cries and plaintive howls of simulated death would mix with laughter and then cascade through the treetops, carefree and effortless, as if we had a million lives to throw away. These were almost always battles in which the underdog triumphed over the forces of evil. But this was different. Somoza’s picture was in the newspaper, a hapless middle-aged man in a light green suit peering timidly out from behind tinted glasses, looking more like my bachelor uncle than an evil dictator.
President Reagan was shot that year, in March, but he survived. I was standing at my locker after track practice when I heard the news, and all I could think to do was to run through the long hallways of my high school breathlessly sharing the news with everyone I met. There was something pure about that moment, an unambiguous sense of purpose that elevated my life through his. Reagan always made you feel like you were part of something bigger, even in his worst moments. He was like that great uncle who you see at family reunions, the one with the too-big grin and the too-black hair who punches you in the arm when he sees you—the impenetrable man—all charm and white teeth. Yow were glad to see him at weddings and funerals because he would teach you card tricks and he told the best stories, and if you hung around him long enough, her would even share a few dirty jokes.
Many years later, as an adult, I realized that Reagan was popular precisely because of the card tricks and the backslapping. Reagan could make you forget about the big nuclear elephant in the room, and this was no small feat, because if you were a smart, sensitive kid growing up in the 80s, you could feel the weight of the Cold War stealing your breath away and invading your dreams. You would see Fallout Shelter signs everywhere, with those three iconic black arrows pointed down to the dark places where we were all supposed to gather if the Big War came, a nation of nuclear survivors huddling in ten thousand cold, barren basements, parking structures, and school gymnasiums. Those signs pointed towards the Sisyphean futility of life after a nuclear war, and to the lie of preparing for such a war. But with sleight of hand, and a quick wit, Reagan directed your gaze away from the nuclear flash to some grand vision of a more perfect America, and most Americans loved him for it.
I managed to hold on to this elevated vision of Reagan until my senior year in high school. When I was eighteen in 1983, my family drove six hours north from New Jersey to Weston Vermont to camp for the weekend near a Benedictine Monastery with several other families from our Church. This was the highpoint of my parent’s brief flirtation with the Charismatic renewal, which had swept through our parish community in the 80s. My parents knew about the monestary because my mother had bought an album of liturgical music titled “Go Up to the Mountain.” On the cover, a large group of monks in gray robes and sandals is standing in front of a line of trees with a beautiful mountainscape behind them. One of the monks is strumming a guitar. For some reason I cannot fathom, this album was an irresistible invitation for my parents to make a pilgrimage to their monastery, so a few weeks after school let out, we drove to Vermont with other families from our Catholic Church. We camped for the weekend near the monastery, and then, on Sunday morning, we all attended a big outdoor Mass to celebrate the Feast of St. Benedict. The monks were there, just like on the album cover, lined up underneath a big blue awning, with their gray cassocks and their guitars and flutes. In front of them were 3,000 people spread out across the hillside—families with lawn chairs and blankets and beach umbrellas; kids in shorts and t-shirts; dads in baseball caps blinking in the sun; mothers shushing their toddlers. The air smelled of grass and mountains, and when the officiating priest raised the Eucharist in both hands above his head, the entire congregation fell quiet. The air was still, except for the long rattle of a cicada, rising and then falling.
back into silence.
The consecration is usually followed by people filing up to take the Eucharist, but the monks broke with tradition that day. Instead, they paused and brought a family out from behind the blue tent—a father, mother, and two girls, one a teenager and the other who looked about seven years old. I remember they were dark-skinned and small standing in front of the line of monks. The father wore a checkered button-down shirt and a John Deer hat. His wife clung to his arm, blinking at the crowd. The priest took the microphone and asked everyone to please refrain from taking pictures. Then he introduced the family, The Father’s name was Felipe and Mother was Elena. They were political refugees from the civil war in Guatemala, he said. The father was a labor leader, a man on the run.
“I asked you to not to take pictures,” the priest said, “because if the Guatemalan government sees photographs of their faces, they will kill their remaining family.”
A long silence followed this announcement.
The priest explained further that the family were political refugees, but the U.S. government would not recognize their refugee status. If they are caught, they would be deported back to Guatemala, where they would almost certainly be killed. Because of this, the monestary was offering them sanctuary.
The Guatemalan family stood at the altar, blinking in the sun, looking humble and embarrassed, while 3,000 people watched them in complete silence. I don’t know what they were feeling, but for the first time in my life, I was ashamed of my own country. I was ashamed that our government would not protect these people, instead forcing them to hide out in churches and synagogues, on the run like criminals, relying on the kindness of strangers. On that day, I thought the Cold War would never end, but I felt a sense of providence as well. It was as if all the reading I had done about the wars in Central America had led me to this hillside, to gaze on the face of this brutal truth about my own country.
I have held onto this feeling of shame well into my adult life. It has survived decades of historical revisionism that has attempted to remake Reagan into a saint by giving him credit for winning the Cold War, but I haven’t forgotten how he did it, by arming thugs and mass murderers in El Salvador with helicopter gunships who then turned these weapons on their poorest citizens, by changing our immigration laws to make it easier to deport refugees from these countries, and by defying Congress to secretly secretly fund a terrorist army that intended to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
America is an ethically consequentialist country. A consequentialist is someone who measures the morality of an action by its ultimate consequences. Consequentialism is how we are able to justify the incineration of entire Japanese cities during World War II, by arguing that it speeded the end of the war. This is how we are able to explain the slaughter of the Civil War to generations of American children, by pointing to the slavery-free country it produced. This is why we are still traumatized by the Vietnam War, because we are unable to find the good outcome through which we can interpret it. The horrors of the Cold War were easy to explain using consequentialist logic. We can point to the fall of the Soviet Union and say, look at their terrible crimes against humanity. These would have been extended across the planet if they had won; so anything we did to defeat them was justifiable.
But moral truth almost always sees the light of day. In the 1990s, after Guatemala’s three-decades civil war between the military government and leftist rebels ended, the country convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to try to understand how more than 200,000 mostly noncombatants were killed in this war. The Commission concluded that 90% of these killings were committed by the army or government-sanctioned death squads. One witness to this commission said, “What we have seen has been terrible: burned corpses; women impaled and burned, as if they were animals ready for the spit, all doubled up; and children massacred and carved up with machetes.” The Commission used the word “genocide” to describe this campaign of terror, because it was directed mainly against the country’s poor Mayan Indian population.
But we knew this in the 80s—those of us who were listening the right music and reading the right magazines, those of us who belonged to the right churches and watched the news with an empathetic eye. Our government knew it too, so when I hear the self-congratulatory talk about how we won the Cold War without firing a shot, my mind drifts back to that Sunday morning in Vermont thirty years ago. Thanks to the Internet, I now know some more details about Felipe and Elena and their five children. They arrived at the monastery in March of 1984, in a caravan of 28 cars from Chicago, wearing masks over their faces to protect their identity during the journey. They had crossed the border illegally that same year, and once in the U.S., they were under the protection of the Sanctuary Movement, a network of more than 100 churches and synagogues that offered sanctuary to Central American political refugees. Felipe was wanted by the army for trying to organize farm workers in Guatemala. He would later say publicly that he had seen the dead bodies of his fellow Mayans with their eyes gouged out and their ears cut off as a warning. He saw a dead pregnant woman whose belly had been cut open by a bayonet. The monastery, invoking the Medieval law of sanctuary—a principle not recognized by the U.S. government—extended sanctuary to Felipe and his family. They lived in a house on the monastery grounds for ten years, and in 1994, the year of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, they were able to safely return to Guatemala.
I recently YouTubed the Bill Stewart murder, to see if I would still feel the same way about it. I found it easily, just a mouse click away. Today, I am less outraged by this video, because I have learned how to channel my anger and sympathy into productive activities. I see in the video a symbolic act. Stewart, dressed in white, represents the soul and conscience of America and that soldier aiming the gun at his head is the manifestation our decades of cynical support for despots and mass murderers. I see the video now as part of my duty to remember the past accurately, because in America, nostalgia is the enemy of historical memory.