“Burning with a Deadly Heat”: NewsHour Coverage of the Hot Wars of the Cold War
Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992)
Background and Context
Since gaining its independence from Spain in 1821, El Salvador has had a turbulent history, marked by brutal regimes and violence. From 1930 through the 1970s, the government of El Salvador largely passed from dictatorship to dictatorship, with leaders occasionally choosing to hold elections that were widely considered fraudulent.48 In this period, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was formed. The FMLN received support from both Cuba and the Soviet Union and would ultimately come to encompass multiple leftist guerrilla groups during the Salvadoran Civil War.49
Tensions in El Salvador increased in 1977 when a fraudulent election brought General Carlos Romero to power.50 In February of that year, crowds that gathered in the capital, San Salvador, to protest President Romero’s electoral victory were met with violence; the military opened fire on the crowd, killing protestors and bystanders alike.51 Once in power, President Romero further cracked down on dissidents by declaring a state of siege and suspending civil liberties. The state also instituted what became known as death squads, paramilitary groups overseen by the Salvadoran Intelligence Agency that murdered anyone suspected of being sympathetic to the left. In 1979, with conflict intensifying in El Salvador, President Romero was overthrown by a military coup, and the group responsible, known as the Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG), took power. The United States, which had existing economic ties to El Salvador and benefited from friendly ties with its government, feared that the left in El Salvador, inspired by the communist revolutions of Cuba and Nicaragua, would overthrow the JRG and establish an anti-U.S. communist government in its place. To prevent that outcome, the Carter administration threw its support behind the JRG, despite the confirmed human rights abuses committed by the Salvadoran military in the name of preventing the spread of communism in El Salvador.52
The Carter administration’s willingness to ignore the JRG’s human rights abuses is exemplified by its response to the killing of four American nuns who were raped and murdered by the Salvadoran National Guard while on a trip to El Salvador in 1980.53 When news of the murder broke in the United States, many Americans called for an end to U.S. aid to the El Salvadoran government. The administration ultimately succumbed to pressure and suspended aid to El Salvador, but the Carter government resumed aid after only six weeks.54
The military violence in El Salvador attracted the attention of the Catholic Church of El Salvador, which condemned the government’s actions. Archbishop Oscár Romero, the top ranking Catholic official in El Salvador, became an outspoken critic of the government and a favorite of the largely Catholic Salvadoran people. On March 14, 1980, Archbishop Romero delivered a sermon in which he called for the military to cease the repression of the Salvadoran people. As he finished his sermon, he was shot dead by a Salvadoran military sharpshooter.55 The assassination of Archbishop Romero sparked outrage among the Salvadoran people. His funeral at the Cathedral of San Salvador, attended by more than 250,000 mourners, was targeted by the military. Bombs were set off inside the Cathedral, and snipers fired at the fleeing crowd, killing between thirty and fifty people. The massacre at the funeral was the last straw for the Salvadoran left. Guerrilla leader Ana Guadalupe Martinez summed up the mindset of the FMLN after the murder of the Archbishop and the subsequent massacre: “We said either we take the struggle into the open, to the mountains, or they will kill us all here in the city.”56 They did just that; the FMLN forces fled to the mountains of El Salvador from where they conducted their guerrilla war against the government.
The increase of guerrilla activity in El Salvador prompted the Carter government to increase aid to the Salvadoran government. When the Reagan administration took over in 1981, the United States increased aid further, hoping to counteract Soviet and Cuban aid to the FMLN.57 However, violence on the part of the El Salvadoran government also increased in the 1980s, raising questions in the United States about whether Americans should support a government committing such flagrant human rights abuses.58 The Reagan administration responded by casting doubt on who was perpetuating the violence and blaming the guerrillas for the rampant murders.59 While no side was innocent of violence in the war and the guerrillas often targeted government supporters, historians today widely agree that the Salvadoran military and its death squads were the culprits in most of the civilian murders.60 The Reagan administration also pointed to the election of José Duarte as President of El Salvador in 1984 as a sign that the Salvadoran people supported the government.61 Duarte had previously been installed by the military as president in 1982, and in 1984, El Salvador held elections for the presidency, although the opposing party, FMLN, refused to participate, calling the election rigged. Duarte’s critics labelled him an ineffective figurehead, claiming that his calls for peace were ignored by the military, which continued to commit atrocities across the country.62
Despite questions of Duarte’s efficacy, the elections in El Salvador gave many Americans the reassurance they needed to continue aid to the Salvadoran government. The aid included money, arms, and the training of Salvadoran troops.63 As a result, many of the members of death squads were trained and armed by the U.S. government, including the members of the infamously violent Atlacatl Brigade. After receiving training from U.S. military forces in 1981, the Atlacatl Brigade went into the mountains to search for guerrilla forces. Instead of finding guerrilla fighters, however, the Brigade came across the village of El Mozote, where it slaughtered the villagers even though they had no clear connections to the leftist rebels. As one of the few survivors, Rufina Amaya, remembered, “I fought for my children. I didn’t want to let them go. I said I would die with them, but they wrenched them from my arms. We heard them killing the children. They killed them at night. You could hear the screams for their mamas and papas.” Despite the eyewitness accounts from survivors and the ruined village, when questioned about the events in El Mozote, the U.S. State Department claimed there was no evidence of a massacre.64
In the United States, congressional concern over human rights abuses in El Salvador resulted in the passage of legislation that required the Reagan administration to certify that the El Salvadoran government was making progress in improving human rights before Congress would approve aid.65 The Reagan administration complied, and aid to El Salvador continued.66 The war went on without significant progress on either side throughout the 1980s. In 1991, the United Nations interceded to negotiate peace between the FMLN guerrillas and the government. On January 16, 1992, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed in Mexico, officially ending the war.67 The army was reformed, a civilian police force formed, and the FMLN turned from guerrilla group to political party.
More than a million El Salvadoran people were displaced during the war, many of whom fled to the United States and were given temporary protected status. Some of the immigrants, facing discrimination and poverty, joined gangs in the United States for protection and survival, and as result, some were convicted of crimes and sent to prison.68 In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act made it possible to deport immigrants who had served a one-year prison sentence, lowering the minimum for deportation from the previous five-year rule.69 The change in the law resulted in many Salvadoran immigrants being deported back to El Salvador; however, the Salvadoran government maintains that the United States did not inform it of the deportees’ criminal histories. Once in El Salvador, the gang members recruited others to their gangs, either through the threat of violence or promise of wealth. Violence skyrocketed in El Salvador after 1996, and today, much like the way it was during the civil war years, many Salvadorans live in fear and hope for a better life in America. In this way, the civil war of El Salvador continues to effect the lives and politics of people in Central America and the United States. (The AAPB exhibit Latino Empowerment through Public Broadcasting includes a section on Salvadoran immigrants to the U.S., many of whom arrived during the civil war.)
Coverage of the Salvadoran Civil War on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and the subsequent NewsHour was primarily dominated by debate over American policy toward El Salvador. Members of Congress were often divided along party lines about whether to support the right-wing Salvadoran ruling junta, which was known to be violently oppressive, or to allow the leftist Soviet/Cuban-supported guerrilla fighters to wage their war without U.S. involvement. Given the contested nature of the proposed aid to the government of El Salvador, the Report often invited guests to debate the issue. Unlike in the coverage of Angola or Nicaragua, the Report brought on mostly American congressmen (typically one Democrat and one Republican) and very few Salvadorans themselves. One notable exception was the NewsHour’s interview with Salvadoran President José Napoleón Duarte.
Representative Gerry Studds (D-Massachusetts) was a frequent guest across the coverage of El Salvador, and he often argued that President Reagan and the Republicans had gotten it wrong: the war in El Salvador was not a result of Soviet intervention but rather the consequence of a brutal regime. On the other hand, the Report also gave ample time to Republican congressmen and representatives of the Reagan government to express their opinion: that the government of El Salvador was improving in the area of human rights and the country needed aid to prevent another Cuban-styled revolution.
The two sides often were unable to agree on basic facts of the situation, leading to some on-air debates that could leave the viewer confused about the truth of each side’s claims, as exemplified in this clip, where a representative of the State Department and a Democratic U.S. senator disagree on which side is perpetuating the violence. As was typical for the show, the anchors of the Report related each side’s argument and then let the viewers decided for themselves which position seemed correct. There also was significant coverage of the Reagan administration’s certification of El Salvador’s human rights record. Concerned about human rights abuses on the part of the Salvadoran government, Congress passed a bill forcing the executive branch to certify that progress was being made to better human rights in El Salvador before any aid would be given. The Reagan administration did so certify, but many congressmen and American experts came on the Report to vehemently criticize the certification as unsubstantiated by the facts on the ground and to debate administration representatives.
Given the general confusion and debate taking place in the United States, the Report and the NewsHour provided their viewers with on the ground footage of the war in order to promote a greater understanding of the situation. The footage primarily aired after 1983 in the longer format NewsHour show, where there was more time for in-depth exposés, but in one notable episode of the Report, the show spent almost its entire thirty-minute episode airing a powerful British Thames Television documentary report. A brief clip, in which a camera crew follows a human rights worker, Armando Paz, as he walks the streets of San Salvador to collect evidence of death squad violence, can be viewed here. (Warning: This clip includes graphic images of violence.) When the show expanded to one hour in September 1983, the NewsHour began to send its own correspondents to El Salvador to assess the situation for themselves. Rather than bringing rebel and government leaders to the United States to be interviewed, the NewsHour went to them, as seen in this segment with interviews of Salvadoran military and guerrilla leaders, filmed in San Vicente province. Correspondent Charles Krause reported from the field on important aspects of the war, covering subjects such as the first free presidential election in 1984, the struggles of refugees, the status of the Salvadoran army, and the violent aftermath of the 1989 elections.
In this clip from 1989, Krause combines the elements that the NewsHour and its predecessor, the Report, do best: interviews and informative, no frills coverage. Krause gives an update on the situation in 1989, a recap of the events of the 1980s in El Salvador, and shows footage that he and his team took on the ground. Counterintuitively, Krause also travelled to the state of Georgia to get first-hand footage related to the war in El Salvador. In an exposé on a U.S. military school that trained Salvadoran government soldiers, the NewsHour provided insight into the extent of American involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War and how that fight, in a way, had come to American soil.