Central America in the 1980’s became a focal point for foreign policy during the Reagan administration, as concern over gains by leftist groups, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, led to considerable military support for anti-Communist groups, such as the Contras. Support operations were overseen in part by Oliver North, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel who had been detailed to the National Security Council. He kept matters so close to the chest that most U.S. Foreign Service officers at post almost never knew what was happening. That is, unless they were tipped off inadvertently…
Theodore Wilkinson was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in January 1999. You can also read this Moment on Oliver North.
WILKINSON: I went to Tegucigalpa, Honduras [from 1984-86]….John [Negroponte, Ambassador to Honduras, at left] had a reputation at that point as a proconsul. He had been so designated by Newsweek as somebody who was, in effect, dictating to client-state Honduras and running the war against the Sandinistas with U.S. support of the Contras out of Tegucigalpa. This was an unfair label and false impression.
There was an impression, I think, probably that, at least, among some of the opponents of the anti-Sandinista effort that we were giving Honduras substantial military assistance in return for them allowing the Contras to operate very freely out of Honduran territory.
Several years later when the Iran-Contra scandal became public, Negroponte denied under oath when he was asked to testify about this, I believe, later that there was any discussion of linkage. The Hondurans may have adduced that in order to receive the levels of military and economic assistance they were receiving from the U.S., that they needed to cooperate with us in assisting the Contras. This was never a written understanding or anything that I was a party to.
At any rate, Negroponte handled the Hondurans with grace and did not behave like a proconsul, and I felt comfortable working with him in Honduras….
In Honduras, we had a base. We don’t call it a base; it was a “task force,” from which we were able to conduct limited regional activities at least, like training, search and rescue, or civic action projects in not only Honduras but also in Central America. But also the “task force” was a very convenient way to show solidarity with friends in the region and discourage any meddling by others. The Hondurans were obviously out to attune their foreign policy very closely to our desires. And Negroponte handled them with great dignity and care….
I noticed that other people who came down from Washington tended to behave in a very patronizing way, and we constantly had to modify that and try to tape it over. I remember once when a White House person came down — actually it was a Foreign Service officer on detail at the White House — and was told certain things by the Foreign Ministry which weren’t exactly the way the White House wanted them to be, so he simply sent a report in in which he said what he thought the White House wanted to hear and misquoted the Foreign Minister completely, and I was appalled. It could have easily been written as a footnote – okay, we’ll talk to him again and straighten it out – but no, this is what he said. He distorted the record.
There certainly was a lot of that, and one had to constantly attempt to modify and mollify Washington’s high-handedness. And one also had to take account of what was going on behind our backs. I may be a little bit naive.
I met Ollie North, and Ollie appeared in Honduras with regularity, and he’d go off and meet with the military, and we knew that he was helping orchestrate assistance to the Contras, but beyond that we did not know a great deal about his activities, so some of the things that were being done back in Washington by Ollie and the so-called Regional Interagency Group [RIG] and [State Department Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs] Elliott Abrams and [CIA Senior Operations Officer Duane] “Dewey” Clarridge were almost certainly being done without the knowledge of, I expect, even the Ambassador….
I got a phone call in 1985 — actually I had been there for a year or so — from a tradesman in San Pedro Sula, which is the second city of Honduras in the north, saying that “Your boots are ready.”
And I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember having ordered any boots.” Maybe somebody had given me a pair, why didn’t he just send them up by mail?
And he asked, “Seven thousand pairs?”
And I said, “Oh, thank you very much,” as it suddenly occurred to me that somebody had used my name to order boots for the Contras.