Philip W. Travis presents an interesting, if unproven, thesis in his examination of the Reagan administration's antiterrorism initiative. “The Reagan offensive,” he writes, “represented the United States' first modern war on terror,” creating “the structure for an aggressive offensive against states that allegedly sanctioned acts of international terrorism” (p. 154). Other scholars have missed this watershed moment, he argues, because “a majority of the documents relating to the Task Force to Combat Terrorism received declassification only in the twenty-first century” (p. 112). The author also claims that the administration's antiterrorist rhetoric swayed Congress into voting for military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, known as Contras, in 1986. The author makes a genuine contribution to scholarly literature in the dozen pages in which he describes the verbal jousting between Vice President George H. W. Bush's Task Force to Combat Terrorism and the State Department's Office for Combating Terrorism, established in 1972. The latter agency challenged the task force's “loose definition” of terrorism and implied justification for aggressive regime change. Travis recognizes the military utility of the administration's propaganda offensive, which was to create a carte blanche justification, similar to anticommunism, that would allow the United States to intervene in the affairs of other nations without respect to national sovereignty or international law. The author's historical claims nevertheless remain unproven because the study does not examine official rhetoric before or after the 1980s, which would allow for comparison. U.S. leaders, in fact, consistently linked terrorism and communism during the Cold War. The author's claim that antiterrorism propaganda swayed Congress is undercut by a failure to examine the full range of administration rationales, including allegations of Sandinista drug running, notions of “collective self-defense,” and the ostensible need to force democracy on Nicaragua (while ignoring actual democratic reforms). The “promotion of democracy” rationale predominated in the late 1980s and was employed in the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. Largely missing from this study is an examination of the political context in which the administration used “antiterrorism” as a foil for human rights standards. As Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared in January 1981, “international terrorism will take the place of human rights in our concern” (“Excerpts from Haig's Remarks at First News Conference as Secretary of State,” New York Times, Jan. 29, 1981). Senate hearings on Contra atrocities in April 1985 further impelled the administration to elevate its antiterrorism propaganda to drown out negative publicity. Also missing is the influence of the Ronald Reagan–Mikhail Gorbachev summit meetings beginning in December 1985, which diminished the salience of the “communist threat” and fostered greater efforts to replace it. Given the administration's intention to hype “international terrorism” for ulterior purposes, how serious was the terrorist threat in the 1980s? We cannot tell from this study because the author relies on official statements and speeches to tell his story and rarely verifies claims. The book frequently adopts the administration's Orwellian terminology despite describing it as propaganda. Students will likely be confused by the lack of clear definitions. The study also lacks Latin American sources and does not engage the substantial scholarship on the Contra War (1981–1988), state terrorism in Latin America, or counterterrorism. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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