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What You Know and Who You Know: Senator Jesse Helms, the Reagan Doctrine and the Nicaraguan Contras

Andrew Stead (University of York)

This article explores the role played by Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in the development of United States assistance for anti-communist, anti-government rebels in Nicaragua the Contras between 1979 and 1988. Helms, one of the most influential figures in the modern American conservative movement and a leading foreign policy entrepreneur in the post-Vietnam political climate, utilised the traditional prerogatives available to a senator legislative manoeuvres, committee hearings and congressional oratory as a means of expressing public support for the rebels. In private, the senator acted as a point of contact and legitimising force for an extensive network of hard-line anti-communists that included members of his staff, Reagan administration officials, regional government and military figures, and private citizens. This network acted behind-the-scenes to create and then sustain the Contras as a viable fighting force, away from the glare of public, congressional and, at times, even executive attention

Together, these two strands of strategy public and private afforded Helms an important position within the anti-communist community that influenced Contra policy in the period immediately before, and then during, the Reagan administration. This article contends that while the Contras have been indelibly associated with President Reagan and his eponymous foreign policy doctrine, it is critical that wider attention be paid to the power of policy activists outside of the Oval Office and the higher echelons of the national security bureaucracy. Doing so helps illustrate that the Reagan Doctrine had not one, but many authors.

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ISSN 1753-5794