The Grope that Ended a Dynasty

Charlie Wilson, the quiet Congressional backer of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet War who recently passed away, is known primarily for his work in Afghanistan, popularized through the recent film Charlie Wilson’s War. What is not well known is that, before backing the Mujahadeen, Wilson was a strong supporter of the right-wing government of Nicaragua, President Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza.

The Somoza family ruled Nicaragua from the 1930s until the late 1970s, and Tachito Somoza was effectively leader of the country from 1967. Wilson was a strong supporter of the right-wing Somoza, and felt that his strong anti-Communist regime was being undermined by Jimmy Carter’s wishy-washy human rights-focused foreign policy. In trying to cajoul President Carter into supporting Somoza, he fought in the House appropriations committee, and at one point threatened to wreck President Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty if the U.S. did not resume supporting Somoza.

Wilson’s admiration for Somoza was unaffected by his offer of a large cash bribe to Wilson the first time they met in person (which were unnecessary — Wilson was a true believer). And when Wilson set up a meeting between Somoza and an allegedly former CIA operative, in a small party where the booze-was flowing freely, Somoza was initially delighted at the offer of a 1000-man squad of ex-CIA operatives to fight on Somoza’s behalf. But in a drunken stupor, Somoza made the mistake of fondling Tina Simons, a secretary of Wilson who was also his girlfriend at the time. (It was not Wilson but Somoza’s mistress Dinorah, who was present at the meeting, who went into a rage and ripped Somoza from Tina.) The fiasco embarrassed Somoza, who then lost interest in the squad when he heard about the price tag of US$100 million. Wilson was so embarressed by the situation, and in his awkward attempt to hijack US foreign policy after word of the meeting leaked out, that he abandoned his support for Somoza.

The aftermath? Somoza was ousted and exiled to Paraguay where he was assassinated. Nicaragua fell to a revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and President Reagan later authorized the CIA to support the remnants of Somoza’s National Guard, the “contrarrevolucionarios” that became known as the Contras. And Tina Simons ended up testifying against the alleged CIA operative and disappeared into the witness protection program.

Charlie Wilson was embarressed and disgraced by the Somoza fiasco, which left people thinking he was reckless and had terrible judgment. But failure is the mother of success. Wilson learned from this experience: who he should work with in the US government, what was realistic, who he should trust, and the avenues of influence and barriers to success that faced him as he sat in Congress. It was this experience that taught him what to do when going solo on US foreign policy. And that was what lead to Charlie Wilson’s War.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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4 Responses to The Grope that Ended a Dynasty

  1. tdaxp says:

    Good post — thanks!

  2. It’s amazing how, from within the broader context of history, such singular events can change history.

  3. lirelou says:

    Despite the fact that the Carter administration had cut off military assistance funds for the Somoza regime, those contracts already let for training and assistance continued to be honored. By September 1978, the largest contingent of the Latin American students at the School of the Americas in Panama was Nicaraguan. This included a platoon sized commando unit, and a plethora of lieutenants and captains taking various infantry courses. If memory serves, it was the 21st of September when Somoza ordered all his military home to fight the war. It’s only fair to mention that the Sandinistas of that period were a front of three groups that had temporarily come together to oppose Somoza. After victory, the split along ideological lines. Some Christian Democrats within the Somoza ranks later joined the Contras, so no all Contras were former Guardsmen. Somoza received good press within the ranks of the U.S. Armed Forces due to his careful grooming of military officers who could assist his cause. Two Air Force officer analysts from USSOUTHCOM had been wined and dined by Somoza on several occasions, and were effusive in their praise for his regime. They kept telling their bosses that the only way Somoza was going to be overthrown was by being killed in place. He was,they assured anyone who would listen, going to ‘go down fighting’. If anyone wanted the real skinny on Somoza’s military, all they had to do was ask their instructors at the School of the Americas. To my knowledge, no one ever did. For the record, I was one of those Commando trainers. I knew only that some Congressman in Texas was pushing the U.S. government to support Somoza, and I strangely remembered that experience while watching “Charlie Wilson’s War” and never connected the two.

  4. Thomas says:

    This is a great example of how the interplay of nations is rarely based on rational, tactical action and strategic thinking but more often on happy and not so happy accidents and the duplicity of fate.

    This is something that too many armchair analysts often fail to recognize.