With his eye on the longer game, Ronald Reagan hedged against the nativists then filling Republican ranks. Even as his administration was carrying out workplace raids that critics were comparing to Operation Wetback in the 1950s, he bet the party’s fortunes on courting the Latino vote. “Hispanics are Republicans,” Reagan once said, on the idea that they were inherently conservative, “they just don’t know it.” Risking his own backlash, Reagan committed to immigration reform, including some kind of amnesty program for the country’s undocumented residents.

But what to do with the growing numbers of radicalized veterans filling the ranks of white supremacist organizations, with the “watchers” and the vigilantes who prowled the border?

Ronald Reagan’s revival of the Cold War— especially his support for covert action in Nicaragua and Afghanistan— provided a solution. Those wars kept busy the contentious theocon, neocon, and paleocon factions of the New Right, which otherwise might have focused their fire on Reagan’s many domestic compromises with the Democratic establishment. The White House empowered an interagency group of men, headed by Oliver North, to run foreign policy as if it were a revival of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. They called themselves the “cowboys.” Iran-Contra, as the various scandals involving the cowboys became known, was as much a romance as a crime, a bid— and a successful one for a time—to reopen the frontier through counterinsurgency in Central America and elsewhere and to deflect extremists his campaign mobilized outward.

There’s no clearer example of this than the story of Thomas Posey and his organization, the Civilian Matériel Assistance, or CMA, a paramilitary group. Posey was an archetypical backlasher. Already steeped in right- wing Bircher and Klan politics, Posey was radicalized even further by Vietnam and adrift in the post-Vietnam drawdown. Reagan’s call to roll back communism in the third world gave him a chance to get back into action. Operating out of Flint City, Posey helped organize a loose network of Vietnam veterans and National guardsmen, many of them also KKK’ers and Birchers, or Soldier of Fortune mercenaries tied into one or another of the covert ops the White House kept simmering in Africa or Asia.

The main objective of this network was to try to find ways to bypass the congressional prohibition against sending military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, the anti- communist insurgency trying to destabilize the Sandinista government. The prohibition was part of a broader post-Vietnam retrenchment, an effort to limit the White House’s ability to wage unaccountable wars. Posey’s next step was to join with other Ku Kluxers and Vietnam vets to found the CMA, which over the next few years developed close ties with both Central American militaries and their CIA handlers. The CMA raised money to fund Reagan’s Central American campaign and ran weapons and other supplies to the Contras in Honduras and to right-wing death squads in El Salvador. Members of the organization also trained and fought with the Contras in Nicaragua and helped them set up a second front in Costa Rica. By 1985, the CMA, which coordinated its work with Oliver North’s cowboys, claimed thousands of members, the majority of them Vietnam veterans. The group had offices throughout the South, in Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and Mississippi, growing quickly through the region’s many military and National guard bases and VFW meeting halls.

The CMA, though, wasn’t just focused on Central America.

By this point in the mid-1980s, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans were fleeing Reagan’s wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador and traveling to the United States every year, further inflaming the kind of anti-communist white supremacy that animated groups like the CMA. Ku Kluxers, Birchers, and Nazis didn’t see much difference between communists over there, in Central America, and migrants entering here without papers.

So at the same time that the CMA was shipping instructors and matériel to El Salvador and Honduras, it also began organizing vigilantes in Arizona to patrol the border (and to harass “sanctuary” activists, part of a network of church groups helping refugees fleeing Reagan’s Central American wars). This border activism came to national attention just as Congress was taking up Reagan’s immigration reform. On the Fourth of July, 1986, about twenty CMA “border angels” dressed in camouflage fatigues and armed with AK-47s, under the command of J. R. Hagan (a Vietnam vet described as a “repo man and paramilitary buff” who boasted about how many Vietnamese he had killed), captured sixteen mi grants crossing over the border just east of Nogales and held them at gunpoint before eventually handing them over to the border patrol. The national press, including the New York Times, picked up the story, generating widespread condemnation of the vigilantes.

Posey, most likely coordinating his response with his contacts in the Reagan administration, moved to shut down the CMA’s border operations. From the Alabama headquarters of the CMA, he repudiated the operation, dismantled the “border angels,” and expelled Hagan, who would be charged by federal prosecutors with illegal- weapons possession. At the same time, however, the CMA increased its activities in Central America, its members keeping busy by bouncing around the region’s anti- communist capitals, Tegucigalpa, Guatemala City, and San Salvador. The same month Hagan’s border patrol caused a national outrage, the CMA sent a detachment of about a hundred Vietnam veterans to Honduras to train the Contras.

Let’s recap and describe the dependent relationship between foreign war and domestic radicalization in as schematic a fashion as possible: Loss in Vietnam radicalized a generation of veterans, pushing many into the ranks of white-supremacist groups. Ronald Reagan, as the standard bearer of an ascendant New Right, effectively tapped into this radicalization, which helped lift him to victory in his 1980 presidential campaign. Once he was in office, Reagan’s re- escalation of the Cold War allowed him to contain the radicalization, preventing it from spilling over (too much) into domestic politics. Anti-communist campaigns in Central America— a region Reagan called “our southern frontier”— were especially helpful in focusing militancy outward.

But Reagan’s Central American wars (which comprised support for the Contras in Nicaragua and death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) generated millions of refugees, many, perhaps most, of whom fled to the United States. As they came over the border, they inflamed the same constituencies that Reagan had mobilized to wage the wars that had turned them into refugees in the first place. For its part, the White House continued to deflect, venting revanchism outward (back toward Central America and other places in the third world, including Afghanistan).

It was, to say the least, a highly volatile game Reagan and his “cowboys” were playing, one that could only continue as long as the frontier remained open. In any case, the backlash was routed into foreign policy, at least for now.

And the White House was able to move ahead with the Immigration Reform and Control Act. That act beefed up enforcement, including a requirement that employers confirm the citizenship status of their employees, which was applauded by conservative organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform. But it also created a one-time-only five-year path to citizenship for many undocumented residents, which included paying fees, taking a medical exam, learning English, registering for military selective service, and demonstrating no felony and no more than two misdemeanor convictions. Many migrant-rights advocates understood that the act’s retroactive, once-only amnesty was dangerously flawed. The bill set a precedent by conditioning reform on the impossible-to-fulfill promise that the border could be sealed through an expansion of police power. Still, enough Republicans and Democrats came together over the objection of an increasingly vocal nativist caucus to pass the legislation, which Reagan signed into law on November 6, 1986.[*] As a result, an estimated 2.7 million undocumented residents became citizens.

The United States was still “a beacon,” as Reagan said in his farewell address, “a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

Then he Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leaving the United States the world’s lone superpower. It was a long time coming. “America has a hemi sphere to itself,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1813. “Half the globe,” he said. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, at the dawn of the Cold War, pondered how to “create half a world, a free half.”

George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s successor, got the whole thing. And having the whole thing meant there was no longer any divide, not even a moving, fleeting, zigzagging one, between inside and out. “When I talk with foreign leaders about new markets for American products, is it foreign policy or domestic?” Both, Bush answered his own question. The frontier was now everywhere, but borders, in terms of limits, were nowhere. “We saw the frontier beyond the stars, the frontier within ourselves,” Bush said in June 1989. “In the frontiers ahead, there are no boundaries.”

Six months later, in December 1989— a month after the collapse of the Berlin Wall— Bush invaded Panama to overthrow Manuel Noriega, a former ally turned enemy. Eight months after that, he sent hundreds of thousands of troops into the Persian Gulf to begin the liberation of Kuwait, a war that he defined as a self- help intervention. “You know,” he told returning soldiers in March 1991, “you all not only helped liberate Kuwait, you helped this country liberate itself from old ghosts and doubts.”

It seemed, then, that the lingering effects of the dismal 1970s were over, that the New Right project of re-sanctifying the mission was successful, and that the “Reagan Revolution,” having once again pointed what Martin Luther King Jr. once called the “demonic suction tube” of war outward, had achieved a critical realignment.

“Freedom,” by the early 1990s, had become the keyword of a new moral order. In retrospect, the realignment was fragile. Reagan, for instance, got his immigration reform, but it wound up rebounding against the Republican Party, which couldn’t convince a majority of Latino voters that its program of deindustrialization, social services cuts, and promotion of right-wing cultural issues had much relevance to their lives. Most continued to vote Democratic. In fact, perhaps as a result of Reagan’s “amnesty,” the Republicans even started to lose Reagan Country. George H. W. Bush in 1988 was the last Republican presidential candidate to carry California. The Republican Party found itself in a bind. Continuing to lose California would be bad. Losing Texas and Florida, states with demographics similar to California, would be catastrophic.

Some Republicans still believed they could win Latinos over on issues such as abortion and opposition to gay rights. Others, though, began to push draconian anti-Latino policies, including, in 1994, California’s Proposition 187, which denied social services to undocumented residents. The proposition passed and did gather the energies of the state’s anti- migrant forces around the governorship of Pete Wilson. But it too eventually backfired. Wilson was unable to turn nativism into a national movement, and California subsequently became one of the most Democratic states in the country. But Republicans continued their schism, rent between a leadership that imagined the party’s future depending on winning over at least a portion of the Latino vote and a rank and file committed to making the United States as hostile a place as possible for mi grants. As party activists began to put into place race-targeted voter- suppression initiatives and “show me your papers” laws in states like Arizona, they specifically pointed to Reagan’s “amnesty” as a mistake not to be repeated.

Reaganism, as an ideological realignment, hit its stride promising to overcome limits. But it would eventually hit its own limit in the cultural politics of immigration. Before that would happen, though, Reagan’s successors would carry forth the promise: more, more, more.

Excerpted from The End of the Myth: From the Fronteir to the Border Wall in the Mind of America by Greg Grandin. Copyright 2019 by Greg Grandin. Published in March by Metropolitan. All rights reserved.

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