Nonviolence News Story

The Pledge of Resistance: Direct Action Arm of the Central America Peace Movement


By Ken Butigan

 Virtually every meaningful social transformation in the history of the United States has resulted from nonviolent movements that have mobilized grassroots “people power.”   Women’s suffrage, the eight hour work day, steps to curb racial segregation, environmental safeguards, stopping the Vietnam War, limiting nuclear testing — these and many other changes were the direct consequence, not of the caprice of power-holders on high, but of broadly-based networks of ordinary citizens systematically clamoring for a better world and translating this longing into embodied moral and political action.  

The U.S. Central America Peace Movement is a recent example of the power and possibilities of such action.  Beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing into the early 1990s, this movement dramatically alerted American society to war being waged by the U.S. government and its surrogates in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala; fostered among the people of the United States deep misgivings toward this policy; and over time created the conditions for ending this destructive and costly form of military intervention.

 Yet not all U.S. Central America Peace Movement participants or observers would conclude that this movement achieved the above goals.  Participants often felt demoralized because the U.S. government’s strategy of so-called “low intensity conflict” was horrifyingly brutal in its approach and duration.  U.S.-backed death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala, contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, and regular air force and army troops throughout the region prosecuted scorched earth campaigns that targeted civilians and, year after year, undermined the fragile infrastructure of Central American societies.  Tens of thousands of people died and many more were scarred, emotionally as well as physically, for life. 

At the same time, this policy took its toll in the United States as well, where the U.S. government persecuted refugees fleeing from these wars and prosecuted those who stood by them, and where the Reagan and Bush administrations undertook a campaign of surveillance and harassment of U.S. citizens working to end this policy.  In the midst of this ongoing destructiveness at home and abroad, movement participants and analysts alike sometimes felt despair and questioned the concrete value of movement activities, such as nonviolent demonstrations, marches, interfaith services, lobbying, press work or efforts to educate the public.  With the passage of a Foreign Aid bill bankrolling contra guerrillas or the news of a massacre perpetrated by U.S.-trained troops, it was often difficult to gauge whether or not the U.S. Central America Peace Movement was making a difference.

Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (MAP) – and especially MAP’s “Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements” – helped a number of activists working in this movement to assess its impact on U.S. policy and to strategize how to create the conditions for “a just and lasting peace,” as one of the slogans of the time put it.  Using this explanatory model, they were able to evaluate the stage that their movement was in and to assess whether they were meeting the goals and sub-goals of that stage. 

MAP helped some movement participants construct a strategy that built toward a “majority phase” where powerholders were nonviolently pressured to move from maintaining the status quo to breaking with it, resulting in a transformation of policy.  At the same time, MAP helped some peace and justice advocates to gain a perspective of the “larger picture” which revealed both the successes achieved along the way and the stages to come which, if negotiated well, would lead to ending this particularly gruesome form of U.S. military and political intervention.  This grasp of the life-cycle of a social movement, while unable to assuage the pain of knowing that one’s sisters and brothers in El Salvador and Nicaragua continued to face the daily threat of death and destruction, helped demonstrate the way to create the conditions for effective change, and thus often transformed despondency into hope and empowerment.  

With our current vantage point – some five years after the end of this nationwide effort in its recognizable form as a social movement – MAP’s appropriateness as a tool to gauge the life-cycle and effectiveness of U.S. Central America Peace Movement is even clearer.  In this chapter, we will explore how this movement is illuminated by Moyer’s model, including his diagnostic instrument of the “Eight Stages of a Successful Social Movement.”   At the same time, we will examine the ways in which the historical experience of actual people engaged in a concrete struggle might cause us to adjust the model.  In other words, the ultimate judge of the effectiveness of such a  tool is whether it measures up to lived experience, and not whether the lived experience fits the model.

In this spirit, this essay investigates not only MAP’s usefulness for accumulating knowledge about past movements, but also its practical application by the future activist seeking to chart her or his own movement’s direction, goals and journey to successful social change.  

Movement or Movements?

Moyer asserts that large social movements are often composed of a series of sub-movements.  So, for example, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was actually a set of numerous sub-movements concerning public transportation, public facilities, private establishments, voting rights, and housing.  According to MAP theory,  a sub-movement proceeds through the eight stages that MAP describes; when it reaches Stage Eight (“Continuing the Struggle”), it is laying the groundwork for returning to Stage One (“Normal Times”), that is, to advance the struggle for justice by creating a new campaign that can highlight another dimension of the overall injustice or violation.  From Moyer’s point of view, movements or sub-movements eventually come to the end of their life-cycle, but their achievements form a launching pad for the creation of a new movement or sub-movement on the same overall theme.  Metaphorically speaking, his system is not a closed circle as much as a spiral – we return to the same first stage but it is at a higher level because it stands on the foundation and accomplishments of the previous movements or sub-movements.

When considering the struggle to end U.S. war in Central America, it becomes immediately apparent that this movement consisted of several sub-movements.   Broadly speaking, these sub-movements focused on: 1) opposition to systematic U.S. destabilization of Nicaragua; 2) resistance to U.S.-directed war against the people of El Salvador; and 3) ending more than three decades of U.S.-backing for military dictatorship in Guatemala.  Each of these sub-movements contained their own strands.  For example, the Sanctuary movement was a powerful aspect of the effort to end war in El Salvador and Guatemala, while Witness For Peace and Veterans Peace Teams lived among peasants to diminish terrorist attacks carried out by contra troops in the Nicaraguan countryside.  These were among almost countless projects or self-described movements that composed the overall U.S. Central America Peace Movement.

Each of these sub-movements deserves at some point to be analyzed using Moyer’s tools.  Each exhibits a unique life-cycle, and thus displays very context-specific ways in which that life-cycle unfolds.  Moreover, these strands often became both intertwined and distinct at the very same time.  For example, there was a kind of “leap-frogging” that transpired from approximately 1979 to 1990 in the focus and rhythms of the sub-movements responding, first, to Nicaragua and, second, to El Salvador.  While attention was drawn dramatically to Nicaragua in 1979 when the Sandinista army overthrew the U.S. ally Anastasio Samoza in July of that year, focus shifted to El Salvador in 1980 with the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the rape and murder of four North American churchwomen.

Gradually, U.S. sabotage and attacks against Nicaragua gained public attention in the U.S., with a growing focus on U.S. funding for the contra rebels and a punishing economic embargo.  The spotlight did not shine on El Salvador for much of the U.S. population until the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their house-keeper and her daughter in November, 1989, while the visibility of Nicaragua was raised a few months later with the February 1990 elections when the Sandinista government was turned out of office.  In short, each of these sub-movements had particular configurations that were unique but also interwoven temporally with one another.

Rather than focusing on one or the other of these strands, however, this essay will seek to apply MAP to the overall Central America Peace Movement.  This is done first because of the constraints of space but also because, despite these sometimes contending and differing sub-movements, it is nevertheless possible to discern in their totality the broad contours of the overall movement life-cycle which is illuminated and explained by using Moyer’s model.  Given this, I leave to future investigators the application of these tools to the individual sub-movements inherent in the larger U.S. Central America Peace Movement.

The Context: A Growing War with Many Faces

 In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Central America movement slowly began to emerge as a response to U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  The U.S. government backed the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua and then launched a military and economic campaign against the revolutionary Sandinista government that came to power in 1979.  It supported a death squad regime in El Salvador.  Thousands were killed, including Archbishop Oscar Romero.  U.S.-backed counter-insurgency campaigns were carried out in Guatemala, and U.S. bases in neighboring Honduras dominated that country. With the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president in 1981, the war on each of these fronts would escalate dramatically.

Faced with this growing catastrophe in Central America, a relatively small number of people in the mid-1970s sought to organize a response to end this destruction in its many forms.

Stage One: 1975 – 1980

 The problem exists, but the public doesn’t know about it.  Since its proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in the early nineteenth century, the United States has asserted its self-defined right to intervene throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Historians have documented over one hundred examples of U.S. military intervention throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.  This policy – predicated on economic, political, and military interests – continued into the twentieth century under the guise of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick,” Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, and John Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress.  Kennedy’s program accelerated the development of national security states throughout the continent, reinforcing economic relations favorable to U.S. corporations through oligarchic political structures that were buttressed by U.S. military arms sales and transfers.  This policy continued and deepened throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

 If the U.S. public thought about Latin America at all, it conjured up what Moyer calls the “societal myths” conveyed by U.S. powerholders, including that the U.S. was helping its southern neighbors to achieve higher standards of living.  Those who were increasingly aware of the impact of the U.S government’s actual policy – returned missionaries, academics, Peace Corp volunteers, refugees and their North American colleagues – knew that this myth was contradicted by “societal secrets.”  These secrets included economic exploitation and appalling counter-insurgency campaigns directed against the poor.  They knew, for example, the “secret” of campaigns led by the U.S. military in conjunction with the Guatemalan army in the country’s highlands which killed 6,000 peasants in the late 1960s – as well as many other flagrant violations of human rights carried out by the U.S. or its proxies.  

Moyer, drawing on Noam Chomsky’s terminology, holds that in this initial stage a relatively small number of persons begin to perceive the contrast between “official” policies (purportedly claiming to uphold society’s fundamental values of democracy, fairness, justice, equality) and “operating” policies (the actual policies, which in fact violate society’s fundamental values).   In Stage One of the Central America Peace Movement,  concerned persons sought to draw public attention to the cognitive dissonance between these official and operating policies.  Their activity was motivated by concern for those exposed to policies of deaths in Central America and reinforced by the wrenching experience of the U.S. war in Vietnam, which had revealed national myths and operating policies to be both both dubious and enormously destructive in Southeast Asia and within the United States.    

During this period a few scattered demonstrations were held throughout the country about U.S. government policy in the region and a number of solidarity groups began to form.  The efforts of groups supporting self-determination in El Salvador and Nicaragua, although they began to grow (especially in 1978-79 during the Nicaraguan revolution and after the Sandinista triumph), remained relatively small and uninfluential.  They had little impact on the larger public’s awareness of U.S. policy and its consequences for the people of Central America.  Nevertheless, each of these groups engaged in organizational building during this period.  These initially small formations would eventually become the basis for two of the largest Central America Peace Movement organizations: the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and the National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People (NNSNP).

Stage Two: 1978-1983

The failure of established mechanisms of reform.  In Stage Two, movement participants seek to make use of the remedies that exist within the system to change unjust or violent policies.  In some cases, this is as far as a reform movement need go if it persuades powerholders of the illegitimacy of the current policy and, in turn, the legitimacy of the proffered change.  Some policies can, indeed, be changed by simply utilizing the institutional means available, including legislative, executive, judicial or bureaucratic remedies.  However, policies which are rooted in the operative self-identity of the government or society often will not be changed using the official mechanisms. 

In the case of U.S. policy in Central America, the guiding operative principle was that the United States government has the right to intervene militarily, economically, or politically anywhere.  Those seeking to end U.S. war in Nicaragua and El Salvador were contending with both the specific policy and this underlying principle.  Faced with this ideological commitment on the part of the administration, activists found that their attempts to use the mechanisms of reform proved inadequate to the task of ending this intervention. 

During this period the lobbying of Congress and the White House accelerated, especially after the assassination of Romero and the North American churchwomen.  Delegation visits to congressional offices, petition drives, letter-writing and phone-in campaigns were mounted vigorously throughout the United States.  A number of marches, rallies, and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience sought to telegraph to powerholders the growing concern about this policy, especially after 1981 when the newly-installed Reagan administration enunciated a hard-line on Central America, including well-publicized comments by then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig that foresaw large-scale U.S. intervention.  Yet, the wars on all fronts continued to escalate.

These efforts did not succeed in altering U.S. policy, nor did they, by themselves, alert the public to the magnitude of the problem.  However, they prepared the groundwork for the next phases of the movement by 1) making use of mechanisms for change and thus established, because of their inadequacy, the need for the development of a grassroots “people power” movement that would nonviolently mobilize and organize broadly-based political power that the system would, in the end, have no other choice but to deal with and 2) developing organizations to carry out “citizen participation projects” (lobbying, protest, etc.), thus laying the groundwork for broader and more complex forms of organization in future stages.

Stage Three: 1978-1983

Ripening conditions.  In the U.S. Central America Peace Movement, Stages Two and Three occurred simultaneously.   In other words, “proving the failure of established institutions” and “deepening and broadening the movement itself” were two tasks being carried out at the same time between 1978 and 1983.  During this period there was rising discontent with the policy within the growing circles of concerned and knowledge citizens. 

This was due to: 1) objective and escalations of the policy;  2) a frustration that efforts to change this policy had failed;  3) the growing visibility and witness of Central American refugees, due in part to the work of the Sanctuary movement; and  4) the increasing role being played by what Moyer designates “professional opposition organizations” (American Friends Service Committee, Fellowship of Reconciliation, SANE, Mobilization for Survival, etc.) which informed and mobilized their membership on this issue. 

These factors combined to reach and organize a significant number of the people in U.S. society committed to justice and peace.  As nonviolence trainer George Lake puts it, “saturating the social circles” of those oriented toward a progressive agenda marks this stage.  If a social movement only reaches these circles, it will often prove ineffective because, by Moyer’s definition, the goal of social movements is to “win” the majority opinion of one’s society, and it is this majority which in turn will prescribe a just resolution.  Nevertheless, saturating and consolidating these social circles are an absolutely key ingredient in building a successful social movement.  

During this stage, the U.S. Central America Peace Movement was successful in meeting this goal.  Emerging out of these formative years, the issue of peace and justice in Central America became firmly established on the progressive agenda during the 1980s and, for many, ranked equally with the other hotly contested political issue of the decade, the terror of the nuclear arms race.  

Stage Four: 1980-1985

Take-Off.  While it is possible to see the development of the U.S. Central America Peace Movement in terms of the general linear progression described by MAP, in reality this movement was a kind of ballet which moved back and forth between different stages.  Again, seeing these stages as articulating movement tasks rather than a strictly linear development may be helpful here.  This is not to say there wasn’t an unfolding growth marked by different contours; the strength of MAP is the landmarks it alerts us to watch for and integrate in our work, and this applies to the Central America Peace Movement as much as any other social movement.  Rather, it is to stress that these stages can sometimes overlap or even rearrange themselves in response to the historical reality, and that seems to be the case when discussing this movement to end U.S. war in Central America.

While we can see some of this adjustment of MAP in our discussion of Stages Two and Three, this becomes clearly the case when trying to identify Stage Four of this social movement.  The U.S. Central America  Peace Movement possessed a series of “take off” points and what Moyer calls “trigger” events.  I will refer to these as catalytic events.

The first catayltic events were the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in March, 1980 in and the killing of four North American religious women in December of that year, also in El Salvador.  These murders provoked widespread awareness and concern in the U.S. religious community and in the broader public.  Although thousands of people had died in U.S.-backed wars in Central America during this period, these killings dramatized for U.S. citizens the carnage being carried out by a U.S.-funded government and its agents.  Because of the shocking character of these crimes and the way the U.S. public could relate to and personalize the victims, it was not possible for the U.S. government and U.S. media to pretend that they had not happened.  Numerous demonstrations took place across the U.S. and movement organizing took a quantum leap forward.

The second catalytic event was the rhetoric of the newly elected Reagan administration in 1981.  Both hawkish pronouncements and budget appropriations for increased war in the region alarmed the progressive community.   As Christian Smith writes, “The Reagan administration began its first term with a flurry of dramatic public threats and private plans for military intervention in Central America.  Secretary [Alexander] Haig was the point man.  In interviews and press conferences, Haig announced that with the new U.S. policy – in contrast to [President] Carter’s approach – concerns for human rights and social reforms would be subordinated to the issues of security and the fight against “terrorism.”

But, as Mark Falcoff writes, “Almost immediately the president and his secretary of state faced a roar of domestic opposition which caught them utterly off balance.  Congress was flooded with letters, visits, and phone calls protesting the administration’s proposals.”   

The third catalytic event was the public disclosure in 1983 that the Reagan administration had been organizing covert operations against the Nicaraguan government, including the mining of Corinto harbor and the arming of U.S.-trained terrorists known as the contra rebels.  Public outcry led to the passage that year of the Boland amendment, a law Congress crafted to forbid U.S. covert intervention in Nicaragua and to cut off aid to the contras.

The fourth catalytic event was growing evidence in 1984 that the Reagan administration, hampered by Boland, was preparing a military invasion of Nicaragua.  The concern about this possibility was buttressed by the fact that the U.S. had invaded Grenada in October, 1983 using a similar justification for its meddling in Nicaragua: to confront and topple so-called “Marxist governments” in the Western hemisphere.   Fears about such military action – which would likely have left thousands dead and wounded, as the U.S. invasions of Panama and Iraq later did – led to the launching in October, 1984 of a nationwide campaign of coordinated nonviolent direct action opposing this policy entitled the Pledge of Resistance.

The Pledge of Resistance

Although there were many organizations, projects, and sub-movements that advanced the work of the Central America Peace Movement, I will explore the Pledge of Resistance in some detail here because of my familiarity with this campaign and because, as the “direct-action arm of the movement,” the Pledge highlights the qualities of Stage Four in a direct way.

The Pledge was a broadly-based coalition of many large peace and justice organizations which organized people across the U.S. by means of a commitment which they took to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience or legal protest if the U.S. government invaded Nicaragua or carried out escalations of military action throughout the region. Within months 42,000 people took the Pledge.  By 1987, 100,000 women and men across the United States — organized in 400 local groups — had made this commitment to take nonviolent action.  The civil disobedience pledge read: “If the United States invades, bombs, sends combat troops, or otherwise significantly escalates its intervention in Central America, I pledge to join with others to engage in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience as conscience leads me at U.S. Federal facilities…  I pledge to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience in order to prevent or halt the death and destruction that such U.S. military action causes the people of Central America.”  There was a similar pledge for those committed to engaging in organized “legal protest.”

 The Pledge of Resistance was organized to meet two objectives.  First, it sought to deter military action, including a full-scale invasion.  To this end, it worked to create a climate in which tens of thousands of people would publicly withdraw their consent from this policy, thus eroding the political foundation for it.  Second, it sought to create an “emergency response network” to react publicly and visibly to military escalations with nationally-coordinated acts of civil disobedience, interfaith services, vigils, marches and organized communication with policy-makers (via phone calls, faxes, telegrams, etc.).  These actions were designed to convey to the U.S. government and to the wider pubic the growing opposition to this policy and the deepening support for a political alternative.

In seeking to meet these goals, the Pledge was organized on the two mutually reinforcing tracks of national and local work.  At a national level, a group of analysts regularly monitored the situation in Central America.  When it determined that the U.S. was about to escalate militarily — or that it had already done so, often in a subtle and covert way — it alerted the Pledge Signal Group, which then met and decided whether or not to recommend coordinated nonviolent action across the country in response to this increased war-making.  (Members of the Signal Group were located throughout the nation; these discussions often took place on conference calls.)  If the Pledge Signal Group decided to issue a call for action, this “signal” was routed through ten regional coordinators to 400 local chapters.  Primed ahead of time to respond when such a signal was received, local groups could mount nonviolent demonstrations and make phone calls to the US State Department and Congress in a matter of hours or days.  At particularly critical moments plans for massive nonviolent civil disobedience were put into action.

Nationwide coordination — supported by a small national office and a national board consisting, at the beginning, of large organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and, later, Pledge organizers from across the nation — helped sharpen the impact of this protest for government officials and the mainstream press.  It also deepened local activists’ awareness that they were part of a nationwide movement.  

Locally, groups held nonviolent action trainings, organized Pledge-signers into action support groups, staged demonstrations to practice for “the emergency,” and sat down with policy-makers to explain what they were prepared to do if the U.S. escalated in the region.  Moreover, they put in place the infrastructure to sustain their organizations: offices, mailing lists, phone trees, action logistics, media contacts, contingency plans.  They prepared for nonviolent action and, when the moments for action came, they generally carried it out with a sense of dedication and organization.  In short, they had transformed unorganized concern into organized and empowered activity.

Building on the growing depth and breadth of the larger Central America movement, the Pledge began with unexpected vigor.  The San Francisco Pledge, for example, was launched with a “public pledge signing” on the steps of that city’s federal building, where 700 people committed themselves to take nonviolent direct action to resist future U.S. intervention.  Across the U.S., people signed the pledge, took nonviolence trainings, and devised contingency plans — scenarios that pledge-signers would enact if the U.S. government escalated its military action in the region.

In spite of this prolonged burst of energy stretching over several months, Pledge organizers felt increasingly hamstrung by one of the most significant elements of the Pledge itself: its focus on the future.  In the days when the Pledge was first crafted, an invasion of Nicaragua seemed immanent.  The power of the Pledge was centered in its pro-active and reactive capabilities.  However, in that first year, it was unclear which emergency, beyond an outright military landing force storming Nicaragua, would warrant the movement’s activation and mobilization.  It was a painful irony that, devised to respond to the suffering in Central America, the Pledge could only be activated when the “misery index” (as the authors of the Pentagon Papers, that account of another case of U.S. intervention, phrased such things) went up, and went up dramatically.  This was acutely difficult for organizers who, almost daily, received reports of new atrocities in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The dilemma was solved by making the movement’s preparation a very active one, including the staging of a series of nonviolent demonstrations deemed “peace maneuvers” (a conscious counter to the Pentagon’s almost continual war maneuvers in Honduras and off the coast of Nicaragua) that became giant role-plays and rehearsals for the future mobilization.

Finally, in the Spring of 1985 the Pledge was fully mobilized around two issues: the U.S. economic embargo which the government slapped on Nicaragua in May; and Congressional voting on U.S. military and economic aid to the U.S-trained contra rebels.  In May Pledge groups across the U.S. protested the embargo on Nicaragua.  Believing this to be a test by the administration to gauge whether or not the American people would countenance new escalations against Nicaragua, nearly 1,000 people were arrested from coast to coast in Pledge-sponsored events at local Federal buildings.  The following month, an action campaign seeking to stop million in so-called “non-lethal” aid to the contras resulted in hundreds of arrests across the country when Congress passed this measure.

In this section, we have explored how, in the Central America Peace Movement, Stage Four as MAP defines it was in fact comprised of a series of “trigger” events which provoked a number of countering responses from the movement.  In each case, the Central America Peace Movement replied to the escalations of violence and threats of violence with creative and energetic organizing and action.  Through these four triggering moments, the movement found innovative ways to both dramatize and interpret the growing crisis for the U.S. public.  In each case, the U.S. government was taken aback by this newly emerging opposition and thus had to continually adjust its tactics, including carrying out covert action on the one hand and preparing for all out war on the other.  

Stage Five: 1985

Perception of failure and activist burnout.  Although each of the escalations carried out by the U.S. government caused dismay and grief for those seeking to end the threat against the people of Central America, the previous section shows that each also provoked periods of tremendous energy and movement building.  This activity inspired enormous organizational development, group solidarity and cohesion, and dramatic nonviolent actions that at times involved hundreds of conscientious arrests and even jailings.  Nevertheless, in spite of these activities, the war seemed to drag on: more threats were issued, more foreign aid packages were approved, more arms shipments were deployed, more people died.  This led some people to conclude that their efforts – and the efforts of the overall movement – were to naught.  

This is in keeping with MAP’s cautionary tale embodied in Stage Five: that the burst of energy experienced in Stage Four will likely not be enough to make the significant changes sought by the movement; when the movement’s goal is not met, there is often a let-down, a sense of failure and sometimes debilitating paralysis.  This perception of failure can lead to two common reactions.  First, the decision to leave the movement because it is ineffective and unproductive.  Unfortunately, when one person leaves, she often takes two people with her.  Second, the decision to try to escalate one’s action, often by using violent tactics because “they will be more effective,” “they will be taken more seriously,” or “they will force the powerholder to pay a much higher political cost for her or his policies.”  This approach often alienates other movement participants and the larger public.  In this atmosphere of both abandonment and militancy the manic energy of “take off” can quickly be replaced by the depressive energy of “burnout.”  As Moyer puts it, the official line can become “The movement failed.”

A third approach rejects both of these and, instead, affirms what has been accomplished and understands that there is a great deal of work left to create the conditions for real change.

In this section, I would argue that feelings of movement failure are not located in a single “discrete” stage but crop up throughout the life-cycle of a social movement.  Though these sensations are perhaps felt most acutely in Stage Five — coming as it does on the heels of a phase when things seemed so optimistic and there seemed to be a great deal of momentum – they confront the movement participant at each turn.  If, as Moyer suggests, one of the powerholder’s jobs is to make us feel powerless, we are probably going to have to face these feelings at each phase.  Our job as activists is to remind ourselves and others that this is not the case, but despite our best vigilance on this point, we are likely to confront this again and again.

Such was the case in the U.S. Central America Peace Movement.  After each of the four trigger events and the movement’s energetic and creative response, there were periods of desolation.  This was especially true following the passage of the first contra aid package in June, 1985.  In some cases organizing floundered, and virtually everyone felt leaden with the crushing defeat and the sense of the enormity of the opposition.  Some people left the movement, never to return.

This pattern or rhythm of energetic mobilization and subsequent deflation would continue through the life-cycle of the movement.  Fortunately, these periods would usually not last long.  In the summer of 1985 these feelings gave way to renewed energy locally and at the national strategy meetings of the large Central America organizations, including the first Pledge national convention in the fall in Washington, DC.  

Stage Six: 1985-1989

After the first nationally coordinated nonviolent action campaign in the spring and summer of 1985, movement organizers could now better gauge the enormity of the task before them.  Their national strategy meetings reflected the need to broaden and deepen the movement by organizing people beyond the social circles in which they had hitherto worked.  A special emphasis was now put on organizing broadly-based educational campaigns, systematic outreach in the religious community, and an increasing emphasis on “people participation campaigns,” like petitions and lobbying strategies which could include more of the mainstream sectors.  Witness for Peace stepped up its organizing of delegations of churchpersons to Nicaragua, and more press work was accomplished.  At the same time, larger nonviolent actions were conceived to complement and reinforce these other strategies.

During this phase, the movement constructed a “majority stage” strategy aimed at defeating aid to the contras and ending U.S. military involvement in El Salvador.

The Battle over Contra Aid

For nearly three years, the Central America Peace Movement worked to end U.S. assistance to the Nicaraguan contras.  As stated above, the first major mobilization on this policy took place in June, 1985, with relentless activity focused on it at key moments in the congressional funding cycle in 1985, 1986 and 1987.  This effort culminated in the final defeat of military aid on February 2, 1988 — when the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly rejected it by two votes — and in skirmishes the following two years over increasingly smaller packages of so-called humanitarian contra aid.  The defeat of this military aid and the discrediting of the contra program was the result of strenuous grassroots organizing that reached the majority of the American public, as reflected in polls taken during this period which saw steady erosion for the administration’s policy, with some polls showing nearly 70% of the American people opposed to contra aid.  

In addition to direct organizing, this attitude was also shaped by the public disclosure of what came to be known as the Iran-Contra scandal.  This scandal resulted from the administration’s attempt to thwart the Congress’ restrictions on covert war in Nicaragua – restrictions that stemmed from the Central America Peace Movement’s organized grassroots campaigning.  Had there been no people’s movement opposing U.S. war in Central America, there would have been no need from the Reagan administration to conduct a clandestine and illegal war. 


In November, 1986 the White House — maneuvering to control what could have potentially sunk the Reagan presidency — revealed that operatives within the government had been carrying out an illegal covert policy of supplying weapons to the contras using profits from arms sales to Iran.  The Iran-Contra scandal confirmed what activists had long suspected: that in spite of the Boland Amendment, which prohibited the U.S. from making war on Nicaragua, the U.S. was thoroughly behind this activity.

Ironically, the enormous media exposure that focused on the Iran-Contra policy led many people in the Central America movement to conclude that this would spell the end of U.S. military adventurism in the region.  Participation in movement activity began to fall off.  In response, the movement organized new campaigns focused on stateside military sites with connections to the war (for example, Fort Bragg, in South Carolina; an Army Psychological Operations center in Arlington Heights, Illinois; the Concord Naval Weapons Station, in Concord, California) and joined in a large demonstration at CIA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.  

Furthermore, it flexed its capacity to respond virtually instantly to U.S. escalations.  In March, 1988 — after the Congressional defeat of military aid to the Contras — President Reagan deployed 1800 troops to Honduras in an apparent attempt to provoke a Nicaraguan border skirmish and a wider war.  In response, the Pledge organized emergency demonstrations across the United States.  For three days, these nonviolent protests were the lead story on the national television networks, apparently prompting the president to bring the troops home sooner than previously announced.

El Salvador Redux

Armed violence in El Salvador had first awakened North Americans to growing U.S. intervention in Central America, with the assassinations of Oscar Romero and, later that year, of four North American churchwomen.  Although tens of thousands of people were being killed in a country the size of the state of Massachusetts — with Salvadoran soldiers using U.S. weapons under the direction of U.S. advisors — the focus on the Central America movement largely shifted to Nicaragua as the Reagan administration escalated its rhetoric and action toward its government.  

Seeking to redress this situation, the Pledge joined with CISPES to mount a national campaign focused on El Salvador in 1988.  Seventy nonviolent actions were staged in October, culminating in a large nonviolent civil disobedience action at the Pentagon, where 240 people were arrested.  From then on, the Pledge focused equally on El Salvador and Nicaragua.  

During a military offensive launched by the FMLN guerrillas in November, 1989 the Salvadoran military assassinated six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador.  Within ten days, over 1,000 nonviolent demonstrations were held in response to these horrifying killings, with 2,440 people risking arrest (and 1,100 people actually being detained) nonviolently occupying local Congressional offices, military bases, and the White House. 

Under any circumstances, these heinous crimes would quite likely have provoked outrage, especially among the U.S. Roman Catholic population.  But because the Central America movement existed — a movement which, with nine years of experience, had the capacity to field almost instantaneous nonviolent protest in an organized and coherent way — it was able to magnify and dramatize the meaning of these deaths.  Structures long in place — including communities of nonviolent direct action located in every part of the country — contributed to the process of transforming disbelief, anger and grief into means for clarifying and changing U.S. policy in El Salvador. 

During this phase, the Central America Peace Movement succeeded in splitting the powerholders on the question of military aid to the contras and delegitimated the overall contra operation.  This was sharply underscored by the fallout from the clandestine war the Reagan administration conducted against the people of Nicaragua that, when exposed, came to be known as the Iran-Contra scandal – a scandal that was a direct response to the broadly-based movement against this war, for if there had been no visible opposition to the policy, there would have been no need for it to go underground.  At the same time, its activities also laid the groundwork for accomplishing a dramatic change in U.S. policy in El Salvador.

Stage Seven: 1990-1992

Achieving Alternatives.  Success, as Moyer underlines, is a process, not a single, isolated event.  In Stage Seven of the Central America Peace Movement, there was a mixture of both joyful and bitter changes.

In terms of El Salvador, the prolonged and powerful response of the movement to the killing of the Jesuits and their co-workers transformed U.S. policy in El Salvador.   Members of Congress — whose office had been jammed with concerned citizens engaging in civil disobedience following the killings — vowed never to vote another penny for the Salvadoran government.  This sentiment was shared by many on Capitol Hill who had heard from their constituencies that U.S. policy toward that country must end.  Within months, the logjam was broken in Congress, which cut off military aid to the government of El Salvador after pouring over $6 billion into this conflict.  This action rapidly led to a new and authentic peace process which, in turn, produced United Nations-sponsored accords ending the war. 

In terms of the situation in Nicaragua, one might say that the movement to see a “just and lasting peace” has had very mixed results.  The U.S. Central America Peace Movement had played an important role in ending the U.S. war there.  However, in February 1990 the Sandinistas were defeated in a national election heavily influenced by U.S. finances and campaigning.  The war in its previous incarnation ended, but the economic gap, which the government had tried to close, widened to pre-Sandinista levels.  We could say that an alternative was achieved, but only in the barest sense did it reflect the ultimate goal of many in the movement.  The price exacted for achieving the longing of the movement – an end to the killing and the catastrophic embargo – seems to have been an end to a revolutionary experiment that sought to bring a little more humanity into the lives of people who had, more often than not, been treated like oxen for unnumbered years.  

Then again, perhaps this particular stage with regard to Nicaragua is not over.  The Sandinista government was the first revolutionary government in history to voluntarily transfer power at the ballot box, and perhaps there is something in this that bodes well for the future of the country and for the continuation of the struggle for a “just and lasting peace” there and elsewhere.  For this, time may yet tell.

Stage Eight: 1990-present

Continuation.  On March 24, 1990 — the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero — 15,000 people braved a cold and snowy day in Washington to march from the Capitol to the White House to remember the archbishop, to call for an end to U.S. military presence in his war-torn country, and to mourn the Nicaraguan elections which, one month before, had turned the Sandinista Party out of office.  As a Central American village was built in Pennsylvania Avenue, an enormous paper-mache bust of Romero was stationed there, as if the prelate who staked his life on justice and peace was silently contemplating the source of much of the misery of his people — as if a decade later he was gently reminding the policy-makers of this world that love is more powerful than death.  

More than 620 people were arrested that day.  It was the largest single civil disobedience action ever held protesting U.S. Central America policy.

It was also the beginning of a new era.  The Central America Peace Movement would continue to work, in one incarnation or another, for “a just and lasting peace” in the region.  It would also offer its resources in the struggle to address a variety of issues, including Haiti, the Gulf War, immigrant rights, the North America Free Trade Agreement, and a campaign seeking to close the U.S. School of the Americas located at Fort Benning, Georgia, which trains soldiers from throughout Latin America.  Its life-cycle as a movement, however, had begun to change direction, with people beginning to put increasing attention on domestic issues of economic, racial and sexual justice.  It would continue to call for just relations with the countries of Central America, but it would also begin to share its legacy with others seeking to build new movements yearning for the realization of justice and peace.


Over the course of nearly twenty years, tens of thousands of members of the U.S. Central America Peace Movement took part in a political and spiritual walking side by side with the children, women and men of Central America who were at continuing military and economic risk.  This journey, in very broad terms, was the journey of truth which often passes through three phases: first it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and finally it is accepted as self-evident.  Bill Moyer’s “Eight Stages of a Successful Social Movement” offers us a tool to understand this journey with even more precision, illuminating the steps of this particular journey toward peace in Central America, clarifying the ways that this movement built toward a “majority stage,” and dramatizing the impact that this movement had on ending a host of destructive and dehumanizing policies. 

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