Cold War

Cold War
Cold War

The cold war was the decade-long conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially characterized by its constant tensions, arms escalation, and lack of direct warfare. First coined by author George Orwell to describe a state of permanent and unresolvable war, cold war was applied to the U.S.-Soviet conflict in 1947 by Bernard Baruch, the U.S. representative to the UN Atomic Energy Commission and influential adviser to both Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Both sides often phrased the conflict as one between capitalism and communism, not simply between two states. Picking its endpoints requires some arbitrary choices, but it essentially lasted from shortly after World War II to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Long before even the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there were significant differences between Russia and the West—Russia was a latecomer to capitalism, abolishing serfdom only in 1861—and the transition was an awkward one that created enough ill will to make a radical revolution appealing.

Before the 20th century, Russia’s imperial designs threatened those of Great Britain—a maritime rival—and Spain, which encouraged settlement in California out of fear that Russian colonists would settle the west coast traveling south from Alaska.

In both cases the Western nations may have been exaggerating or misperceiving the extent of Russia’s expansionist interests—just as was likely the case with Western perceptions of the Soviet Union during the cold war.

In the 20th century, the old European empires had lost their power, and the most powerful countries were the ideologically opposed Soviet Union and the United States, with its close ally the United Kingdom.

These were the two world leaders that developing nations would be shaped by and recovering nations would have to ally themselves with. Given the size and power of the countries—with perhaps as an additional factor the youth of their governments, relative to those of old Europe—some historians consider the conflict inevitable.

World War II had broken the faith that the Soviet Union had in the rest of the world’s willingness to leave communist states alone, and so Stalin sought to spread communism to neighboring countries in eastern Europe—Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Poland—but remained uninvolved with communist interests in Finland, Greece, and Czechoslovakia, at least directly.

Winston Churchill was the first to refer to this band of communist countries as the “Iron Curtain,” referring not only to the fortified borders between the capitalist and communist nations of Europe but to the Soviet Union’s protective layer of communist states shielding it from capitalist Europe.

Meanwhile, communism grew in popularity in China, France, India, Italy, Japan, and Vietnam. Very quickly the West began to perceive communist victories as Soviet victories, and communist nations as Soviet satellites, officially or otherwise.

The United Kingdom could no longer afford to govern overseas and in the 1947 partition of India had granted independence to that holding, which led to the formation of the states of India and Pakistan. The United States began increasing its overseas influence as that of the British waned.

For the first few decades after World War II, the dominant focus of U.S. foreign policy was that of “containment”; the U.S. took pains to limit communist and Soviet influence to the states where it was already present and to prevent its “leaking out” to others.

Many believed that, so contained, communist governments would wither and die—in contrast, the domino theory proclaimed that if one capitalist government fell, its neighbors would be next, a proposition that motivated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which was proclaimed a war not just over Vietnam but over all of Southeast Asia, which notably included former British and French holdings.

When civil war broke out in China, the Soviet Union aided the Communists, and the United States armed and funded the Nationalists. The new People’s Republic of China, formed on October 1, 1949, became a valuable Soviet ally, while the Nationalists took control of the island of Taiwan, from where they retained their seat in the United Nations.

The Soviets boycotted the United Nations Security Council as a result, and so were unable to veto Truman’s request for UN aid in prosecuting an attack on the Soviet-supported North Korean forces invading U.S.-supported South Korea. The Korean War that followed lasted three years, ending in a stalemate; into the 21st century no peace treaty had been formed between the two Koreas.

As the lines between the two sides became more clearly drawn, 12 nations formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In response to this and the rearmament of West Germany, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, formed a similar alliance of eastern European states called the Warsaw Pact: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower to Reagan

From President Eisenhower in the 1950s to President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s the guiding light of military spending was deterrence theory, ensuring that retaliation would be swift and extraordinary. The specter of nuclear warfare dominated U.S. consciousness in these decades.

In the 1950s fallout shelters were built in many towns and private homes, and educational film shorts shown in schools included the famous “Duck and Cover,” in which a talking turtle advises children to seek shelter in the event of nuclear war. Many schools and town governments held duck-and-cover drills, which likely served no real purpose except to heighten fears.

Eisenhower openly worried about the inertia of the military-industrial complex as well as escalating military spending. Perhaps seeking to avoid future military conflicts, he was the first to use the CIA to overthrow governments in developing or less powerful nations that were unfriendly to U.S. policy, replacing them with nominally democratic ones.

Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America became more important to the cold war than Europe. In Latin America, the United States had been involved in national politics since the 19th century, but the cold war gave a new lift to foreign policy.

As the increasingly powerful lower classes in many Latin American countries gave rise to a strong left wing and socialist concerns, the United States targeted revolutions and instigated coups against left-leaning governments.

Fidel Castro led the communist revolution in Cuba, only miles from the U.S. coast. The United States responded by dispatching a group of CIA-trained Cuban expatriates to land at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and attempt to oust Castro from power.

The invasion was a significant failure and provided the Soviets with a further excuse to install nuclear missiles in Cuba—balancing out those the United States had installed in Turkey and western Europe.

Only when President Kennedy promised not to invade Cuba and to remove missiles from Turkey—close to the USSR—did the Soviets back down. It is still considered the moment when the two nations came closest to direct warfare.

Berlin Wall

In 1961 the Berlin Wall was built and quickly became the most vivid symbol of the cold war: The 28 miles of wall, barbed wire, and minefields separated Soviet-controlled East Berlin from U.S.-supported West Berlin. Passage across the border was heavily restricted.

Families were divided, and some East Berliners were no longer able to commute to work. About 200 people died trying to cross into West Berlin; some 5,000 more succeeded. It would be nearly 30 years before the wall came down.

By the end of the 1960s the prevalence of deterrence theory had led to a state of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), in which an attack by either side would result in the destruction of both sides. Theoretically such assurance prevents that first strike, which was the logic behind limiting antiballistic missiles.

Talks and, later, agreements on strategic nuclear arms (SALT I and SALT II) began in 1969. President Reagan’s SDI program in the early 1980s would be a significant step away from the MAD model toward the goal of a winnable nuclear war.

The word détente—“warming”—is often used to describe the improvements in Soviet-U.S. relations from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, a time when military parity between the two had all but been achieved. Both nations’ economies suffered—the United States from the expense of the Vietnam War, and the Soviets from that of catching up to the United States in the nuclear arms race. In order to encourage Soviet reforms, U.S. president Gerald Ford signed into law the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in 1975, which tied U.S.-Soviet trade relations to the conditions of Soviet human rights.

The Soviets had lost their alliance with China because they had failed to strongly support China during border disputes with India and the invasion of Tibet. The prospect of facing a Chinese-U.S. alliance—however unlikely it may have seemed to Americans—discouraged the Soviets as much as MAD did, and contributed to their willingness to participate in summits such as those that resulted in the Outer Space Treaty, banning the presence of nuclear weapons in space.

As they recovered from World War II, western Europe and Japan became more relevant again to the international scene, as did Communist China. Especially from the 1970s on, the U.S.-Soviet domination of international affairs eroded. The United States began to come under more frequent and serious criticism for the choices it had made in its opposition to communism, especially for its support of dictatorial or oppressive right-wing governments.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, more and more developing nations adopted the policy of nonalignment. The Middle Eastern nations, their influence bolstered by oil and the increasing consumption thereof, became a particular factor, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which increased oil prices in 1973 by 400 percent, was a leading player in the West’s economic troubles. As more countries joined the United Nations, the Western majority was broken.

In 1979 the secular democratic regime of the shah in Iran—supported by the United States and restored in 1953 with the CIA’s help—fell to an alliance of liberal and religious rebels, who installed the religious leader the Ayatollah Khomeini as the new head of state. Outraged at the involvement of the United States in Iranian affairs, a group of Iranian students held 66 Americans hostage for 14 months, until 20 minutes after President Reagan’s inauguration.

Détente ended as the 1980s began, with the Iran hostage crisis and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Hard-line right-wingers had been elected in both the United Kingdom (Margaret Thatcher) and the United States (Reagan in 1981), and many neoconservatives characterized the détente of the previous decade as too permissive, and too soft on communism.

Just as the United States had come under criticism for its support of certain governments, the Soviets lost a good deal of international respect not only over Afghanistan but also when they shot down a Korean commercial airliner (Korean Air Flight 007, in 1983) that passed into Soviet airspace. The first years of the 1980s saw an escalation in the arms race for the first time since the SALT talks began.

The Strategic Defense Initiative, proposed by the Reagan administration in 1983, was a space- and ground-based antimissile defense system that would have completely abandoned the MAD model. Significant work went into it, seeking a winnable nuclear war, unthinkable in previous decades.

Mikhail Gorbachev

In 1985 the Soviet Politburo elected reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of a generation who had grown up not under Stalin but under the more reform-minded Khrushchev. Gorbachev was savvy, sharp, and politically aware in a way many Soviet politicians were not. The keystones of his reforms were glasnost and perestroika, policies almost encapsulated by catchphrases widely repeated both in the Soviet Union and in Western newspapers.

Glasnost, a policy instituted in 1985, simply meant “openness,” but referred not just to freedom of speech and the press but to making the mechanics of government visible and open to question by the public. Perestroika, which began in 1987, meant “restructuring.” Perestroika consisted of major economic reforms, significant shifts away from pure communism, allowing private ownership of businesses and much wider foreign trade.

Two years after the start of perestroika, eastern European communism began to collapse under protests and uprisings, culminating in reformist revolutions in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Several Soviet states sought independence from the Soviet Union, and Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared independence. The period culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

After years of public pressure, East Germany finally agreed to lift the restrictions on border traffic for those with proper visas. East Germany had little choice but to abandon the wall. They did nothing to stop the Mauerspechte (“wall chippers”) who arrived with sledgehammers to demolish the wall and claim souvenirs from it, and began the rehabilitation of the roads that the wall’s construction had destroyed. By the end of the year free travel was allowed throughout the city, without need of visas or paperwork. A year later East and West Germany reunified.

In 1991 radical communists in the Soviet Union seized power for three days in August, while Gorbachev was on vacation. Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, denounced the coup loudly and visibly—standing on a tank and addressing the public with a megaphone.

The majority of the military quickly sided with him and the other opponents of the coup, which ended with little violence. But it was clear that the Soviet Union would not last—it was soon dissolved, becoming 15 independent states.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union the cold war was technically over, effective immediately, but a “cold war mentality” continued. The United States continued to involve itself in international affairs in similar ways, sometimes being accused of acting like a world policeman—a role the United Kingdom had enjoyed before the world wars.

The apparatus of espionage found new subjects, with the ECHELON system of signals intelligence—monitoring telephone and electronic communication—eventually repurposed for the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Contrary to every expectation, the cold war ended without direct warfare and without the use of nuclear weapons.

La Violencia (1946 – 1966) in Colombia

La Violencia in Colombia
La Violencia in Colombia

Known simply as “The Violence” (La Violencia), the period of widespread political violence and civil war that wracked Colombia from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s (conventionally dated from 1946 to 1966, but also from 1948 to 1958, and 1948 to early 1970s) was rooted in conservative efforts to quell liberal challenges to continuing conservative political dominance, and liberal resistance to the Conservative campaign of persecution and terror. Upwards of 200,000 people were killed from 1948 to 1958, the bloodiest years of The Violence, and perhaps 300,000 people from 1946 to 1966.

The longer-term origins of La Violencia can be traced to Colombia’s long history of internecine political conflict, especially its “War of the Thousand Days” (1899–1902) between Liberals and Conservatives, the longest and bloodiest of Latin America’s 19th-century civil wars, in which some 100,000 people were killed, of a population of around 4 million.

In the shorter term, La Violencia originated in rising Liberalpopulist challenges to oligarchic liberal-conservative rule spearheaded by liberal dissident Jorge Eliécer Gaitán from the 1930s, and especially from 1946. In that year’s presidential election, the Liberal Party split between the left-leaning populist reformer Gaitán and official candidate Alberto Lleras Camargo, permitting a plurality victory by conservative Mariano Ospina Pérez.

In the context of rising popular support for a more open political system, democratic reforms, and more equitable sharing of the nation’s resources, the regime of Ospina Pérez stepped up the persecution of liberals and other moderate elements. Violence exploded after April 9, 1948, when Gaitán, widely considered the leading contender for the 1950 presidential elections, was assassinated in Bogotá.

The city exploded in violence against property, with days of pillaging, burning, and political protesting across the length and breadth of the city, in what has come to be known as The Bogotazo (loosely, “the Bogotá Smash”). Liberal insurrections soon spread across much of the country, including provincial capitals and rural areas.

Conservative elements responded by launching counterinsurgency actions, which by mid-1948 had crushed most overt resistance. Most Liberals withdrew from the government and refused to participate in the 1950 elections, which brought to power the ultraconservative Laureano Gómez (1950–53). Tensions ran high, as many Liberals continued organizing and mobilizing.

With the support of most large landowners, the army and police, the church, conservative peasants, and the United States, the Gómez regime unleashed a reign of terror in city and countryside. The spiraling violence reached into almost every city, town, village, community, and family, with political partisanship at fever pitch and often accompanied by gruesome tortures and murders.

Especially hard hit were Andean coffee-growing regions dominated by smallholding peasants—especially Boyacá, Antioquia, the Satanders, Valle del Cauca, and Cauca. Hit squads and assassins (pájaros, or “birds”) were paid handsomely for eliminating targeted enemies, protected by the authorities and dense networks of supporters. In response, guerrilla resistance armies emerged in many areas, often led by lower-class partisans.

In 1953 the Gómez regime was ousted in a coup led by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who launched a pacification campaign based on amnesty and public works projects. By 1955 the pacification effort had largely failed, and the violence and atrocities continued.

In 1958 a national plebiscite brought to power the National Front, a Liberal-Conservative powersharing arrangement that stemmed much of the violence, which continued to simmer in many areas, often in the form of rural banditry. By 1966, with the regime of Liberal Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966–70), most violence had dissipated.

Still, with the emergence of several left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary organizations, and in the context of the ballooning marijuana and cocaine trade and skyrocketing U.S. military aid in the “war on drugs,” Colombia remained one of Latin America’s most violent countries into the 21st century.


The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) was established in January 1949 by the Soviet Union. It was an organization designed to economically unite all the communist states in the eastern bloc of Europe.

The founding member nations were the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. Albania joined in February 1949, the German Democratic Republic in 1950, Yugoslavia in 1956, and Mongolia in 1962.

Several other communist states—such as China, North Korea, and North Vietnam—were official Comecon observers. Other countries gained membership or observer status in the Comecon. Council sessions were held regularly, and the leaders of member states usually met at least once each year.

Economic policies for all member states were debated and determined at the council sessions. These policies were then implemented through Comecon directives. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Comecon was formally dissolved in June of that year.

The initial charter of the organization stated three main goals to provide broader economic cooperation: “exchanging economic experience,” rendering “technical assistance,” and providing “mutual aid” to all member countries.

The original goal of the Comecon was to establish stronger ties and greater cooperation between the command economies of the Soviet Union and the Eastern-bloc states. The Comecon provided Stalin with yet another way to strengthen his control over the eastern European allies by linking their economic vitality, production, and trade directly to the Soviet Union.

Comecon map
Comecon map

The early years of the organization provided only modest results, such as bilateral trade agreements and sharing of technology between member states. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev attempted to strengthen the organization by proposing that all member states join a centrally planned socialist commonwealth to be run from Moscow.

Smaller member states with less-developed economies and those relying more heavily on agriculture disagreed with this plan for a centralized commonwealth. However, upon his ouster from power in 1964, his attempted centralization of the Comecon and most of his other policies were abandoned.

Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership in the 1960s and 1970s recognized the need for economic acceleration and further industrial and technological development in the Soviet Union and Comecon member countries. The economic and technological gaps between countries in western Europe and those in the Comecon were becoming more evident.

Therefore, the Comecon adopted a new plan in 1971 called the Comprehensive Programme for the Further Extension and Improvement of Cooperation and the Development of Socialist Economic Integration. The basic goal of this program was to emphasize long-term planning and investments in industrial development of all member states.

The Comecon dissolved in 1991. Throughout its four decades of existence, the organization encountered many problems. The dependence of all member states on the economy of the Soviet Union created an unstable and impractical system. The planned economies of the member states did not rely on normal market forces and prices; therefore, the mechanism created a false and inflated economic situation.

When the countries traded and dealt with other states outside of the Comecon, the weakness of their economies became evident. The Comecon never completely fulfilled its objectives because of the difficulties presented when attempting to integrate multiple states’ economies.

Commonwealth of Nations

Commonwealth flag

The Commonwealth of Nations, formerly the British Commonwealth, is a loose cultural and political alliance of former British Empire territories. The idea of the commonwealth continually evolved after its origins in the mid- to late 19th century. The term referred to the settler colonies: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Newfoundland, and South Africa.

But in the 1920s the settler colonies and Britain began to meet in Imperial Conferences, which provided the structure for the later Commonwealth of Nations. The commonwealth shifted from a community of British-populated independent nations to a proposed economic bloc, and finally to a multicultural community of nations.

The concept of commonwealth described the unique constitutional relationship between Great Britain and the settler colonies; Parliament and the Foreign Office presided over foreign affairs that involved the colonies, but the colonial parliaments controlled their own internal affairs. In the 1926 Imperial Conference, the Balfour Declaration acknowledged that Britain and the settler dominions were “equal in status” to Britain.

After the Statute of Westminster in 1931—which gave the dominions of Canada, Newfoundland, South Africa, and Ireland legislative independence—the commonwealth officially became a political organization consisting of the United Kingdom along with its former colonies.

The British tried to make the commonwealth work as a large trading bloc, with trade preferences between the former colonies as well as the formal colonies. Britain’s imports and exports to and from the colonies never amounted to more than a third of Britain’s trade. Also, such countries as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada became more dependent upon the United States for trade, especially after World War II.

Commonwealth map
Commonwealth map

The sudden decolonization of the British colonies in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s created the foundations for the current commonwealth. India’s decision to stay in the commonwealth in 1949 provided a precedence for later nonsettler colonies to join the commonwealth after independence.

In order to keep its political sovereignty while still allowing for cultural ties, India accepted the king of England as the symbolic head of the commonwealth. In 1949, when India accepted the king as the symbolic head of the commonwealth, the British Commonwealth of Nations changed its name to the Commonwealth of Nations, so as not to imply that its peoples were all of British ethnicity.

As a number of newly independent countries applied to join the commonwealth after they gained independence, the composition of the commonwealth shifted from a meeting of predominantly white countries to a multicultural organization.

At the Heads of Governments Conferences in Singapore in 1971 and in Ottawa in 1973, the general consensus was that the commonwealth should be a loose political association of the former British Empire. The Commonwealth of Nations continued to uphold these principals into the 21st century.

As of 2006 Queen Elizabeth II, the queen of England, held the title head of commonwealth. The commonwealth heads of government decide who will be the next commonwealth secretary-general, the official who leads the Commonwealth Secretariat, the decision-making body of the Commonwealth of Nations. Every five years the heads of government elect a new secretary-general at the Commonwealth Secretariat meeting.

Members as of 2006 included Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei Darussalam, Cameroon, Canada, Cyprus, Dominica, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, Trinidad and Tobago, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Contra War (Nicaragua, 1980s)

Contra War (Nicaragua, 1980s)
Contra War (Nicaragua, 1980s)

Within a year of the July 1979 triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution, there emerged a counterrevolutionary (contra) movement against the Sandinista regime. From around 1982 the war expanded to include large parts of the country, especially in rural zones of the north and east, due in large part to U.S. funding, training, equipment, and organizing under the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Combining an internal civil war with an external war of aggression, the contra war was waged by several counterrevolutionary armies that were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguans and millions of dollars of property damage.

By the mid-1980s the war compelled the Sandinista regime to devote around half of the national budget to national defense and to institute universal military conscription. By the late 1980s the latter measure proved widely unpopular among Nicaraguans, as did the economic and human cost of the conflict and the shortages of basic goods caused by the war and the May 1985 U.S. trade embargo.

Most observers agree that the contra war was a critical factor in causing the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in February 1990, effectively ending the Sandinista revolution. It was also central to the Iran-contra affair in the United States, which rocked the second Reagan administration (1984–88).

With the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas and an internationally supervised demobilization process, by the early 1990s the war effectively ended, though armed groups continued to destabilize many rural areas well into the 1990s. It is estimated that the war uprooted some 600,000 people (around 15 percent of the national population) and caused the deaths of 30,000 to 50,000 civilians and combatants.

Small-scale armed resistance to the Sandinista regime by autonomously organized militias began within a month of the FSLN’s takeover, principally in the region north of Jinotega. These earliest contras, calling themselves milpistas (combatants of the MILPAS, or Militias Populares Anti-Sandinistas, successor organizations to the pro-Sandinista Militias Populares Anti-Somocistas, and a play on an indigenous word for “cornfield”), launched their first armed assault against the Sandinistas in November 1979 in the mountains near Quilalí. The MILPAS were generally kinship-based, composed of fewer than 100 members each and rooted in rural dwellers’ long tradition of antipathy to state authority.

During this early period (1979–81), contra organizing also emerged in the borderland zones of Honduras and Costa Rica among exiled Somocistas and National Guardsmen. Like the MILPAS, these paramilitary groups were small in scale and organized principally around personal relationships. By late 1980 some of these exile groups began to receive covert funding from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Argentine military.

In April 1981 elements of the MILPAS and ex-Guardia—dominated exile groups in Honduras formed the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (Fuerza Democratica Nicaragüense, or FDN), under the command of exGuardia colonel Enrique Bermúdez, composed of some 500 troops.

Portraying the Sandinistas as clients of the Cubans and Soviets, in November 1981 Reagan signed a secret order (National Security Decision Directive 17) granting $19 million to the CIA to recruit and train contra forces. On December 1, 1981, he issued a presidential finding calling for U.S. support in conducting paramilitary operations against the Sandinista regime.

Around this time a second contra army was formed in the north, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARN), under the political direction of the Nicaraguan Democratic Union (UDN), and led by exiled businessman José Francisco Cardenal.

Henceforth the contra war rapidly gained steam. In April 1982 a second front was opened in the south with the formation of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) and its military wing, the Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS), based in Costa Rica and commanded by former Sandinista Edén Pastora.

Another largely autonomous armed rebel group formed in the Atlantic Coast region in late 1981, led by Brooklyn Rivera, among disaffected elements of the mass indigenous organization MISURASATA—an organization composed primarily of Miskitu Amerindians and represented in the FSLN’s newly created Council of State.

In the United States, congressional opposition to the Reagan administration’s funding of the contra forces mounted. In December 1982 the House passed an amendment sponsored by Edward Boland (D., Mass.) banning the use of federal funds to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The Reagan administration found legal ways to circumvent the ban.

By 1983 the contra forces had grown to some 13,000 to 15,000 troops, and by 1985 to some 20,000. By this time the contras had committed hundreds of atrocities against Nicaraguan civilians, as documented by the human rights organization Americas Watch and others.

In May 1984 Congress passed a second Boland amendment, requiring an end to all military aid to the contras by October 1. For the next two years, the Reagan administration illegally funneled covert aid to Iran in exchange for Iranian arms shipments to the contras.

By the late 1980s contra armies were active across much of the northern and central parts of the country. In 1988 and 1989 a series of peace accords (notably the Sapoá Accord of 1988) created a framework for contra demobilization.

With the Sandinista defeat in the February 1990 elections, the administration of President Violeta Chamorro negotiated with the leaders of the Nicaraguan Resistance (Resistencia Nicaragüense, or RN, successor to the FDN), culminating in the Disarmament Protocol of May 30, 1990.

Agencies of the United Nations and Organization of American States supervised the disarmament process, which by mid1990 had processed some 23,000 contras, from an estimated fighting force of 170,000, many of whom demobilized informally.

Through the early 1990s armed groups continued to destabilize large parts of the interior, consisting of both ex-contras (recontras) and former members of the Sandinista Army (recompas)—groups that sometimes merged to form groups of revueltos (a play on words meaning both “rebels” and “scrambled eggs”).

By 1992, with the contra war officially ended, as many as 23,000 armed insurgents continued to operate in rural areas, posing severe challenges to governance in the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.