Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has recently ramped up her criticism of her opponent, Bernie Sanders, for his thin foreign policy experience.
But one argument in favor of Sanders’ experience with statesmanship can be found in a series of cardboard boxes tucked away in the Bailey/Howe Library’s Special Collections room at the University of Vermont.
While serving as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont for eight years in the 1980s, Sanders dabbled in diplomacy, writing a series of letters and official resolutions sent to Presidents Carter and Reagan. His chief concern? America’s involvement in a civil war in Nicaragua.
Buried inside the University of Vermont’s Sanders archive is a series of 11 file folders labeled “Nicaragua,” which contains Sanders’ research and writing on the Central American nation. It’s a staggering amount of paper—close to 1,000 pages—and the Nicaragua documents show Sanders to be a local politician with national ambitions who wanted to learn as much about a situation as he could, before reaching a moral decision and acting.
To recap what was happening in Nicaragua in the 1980s: a left-wing group, the Sandinistas, overthrew a right-wing dictatorship and the U.S. began supporting a different right-wing group, the Contras, in order to prevent Nicaragua from falling under the banner of socialism. Bernie Sanders, already an avowed socialist, disagreed with the Reagan administration’s decision to support the Contras, which he feared could lead to a Vietnam-type conflict.
So, in October 1983, Sanders sent this letter to President Reagan, condemning his intervention in the Nicaraguan situation in the “strongest possible terms.” Sanders wrote: “At a time when your administration has imposed horrendous cutbacks to the American people…I am appalled that you are using taxpayers’ money to destroy the government of a small nation.”
Sanders’ letter was answered by a State Department representative a few weeks later, who laid out the reasons for Reagan’s support of the Contra rebels: namely, the Sandanistas had accepted financial and military support from the Soviet Union and Cuba.
In his book, Outsider in the House, Sanders lays out why he, as mayor of a 40,000-person city in Vermont, was so concerned with Nicaragua, a country 4,000 miles away.
“Not only was the war against Nicaragua illegal and immoral, it was an outrageous waste of taxpayer money. As a mayor, I wanted more federal funds for affordable housing and economic development. I did not want to see taxpayer dollars doing to the CIA for an appalling war…this was very much a municipal issue.”
To further show his opposition to Reagan’s intervention, Sanders managed to start a sister-city relationship with Puerto Cabezas, a coastal city in northern Nicaragua.
Eventually, Sanders traveled to Nicaragua in 1985 (at the time, he was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country) to attend a rally for the sixth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. As this old travel receipt shows, Sanders flew Delta to Nicaragua, and sat in coach.
While in Nicaragua, Sanders spoke at a press conference, summing up his reasons for visiting, and supporting the Sandinistas:
The real issue is a very simple one. Does the government of the United States of America have the unilateral right to destroy the government of Nicaragua because the president of the United States and some members of Congress disagree with the Sandinistas?
After returning, Sanders sent letters to the Vermont representatives in Congress: Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Robert Stafford, Congressman Jim Jeffords, as well as former President Carter and President Reagan.
Sanders became well-known for his ties with Nicaragua, and was lambasted in local Vermont media over his support of the Sandinistas. After one local TV station took issue with his trip to Nicaragua, Sanders replied in a fiery letter to the station, shown here:
Speaking to Seven Days, an independent newspaper in Vermont, Jim Schumacher, Sanders’ former campaign manager, explained why Sanders was able to insulate himself against more criticism for this foray into foreign policy.
“Bernie was very good about making sure the city ran well—taking excellent care of the nuts and bolts of city government, like plowing streets, taking care of the parks, funding the police and fire departments, etc.,” Schumacher said.
Criticism of Sanders’ embrace of the Sandinistas may have cost him some support in Burlington, but it didn’t blunt the force of his opinions. Later, he would write a letter addressed directly to the Nicaraguan people, in which he called the Reagan administration’s policies toward the country a “shame beyond shame,” and promised to stand with them in solidarity.
“We wish you well,” he wrote.