89. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter 1


  • U.S. Policy to Nicaragua

After our discussion on Nicaragua this morning, David Aaron held a meeting with Newsom, Pete Vaky, Tony Lake and Bob Pastor to discuss developments in Nicaragua and options for U.S. policy.2 They worked off of a paper that had been prepared over the weekend by State and NSC.3 We all believe that the situation in Nicaragua is deteriorating rapidly and that Somoza has decided to take steps to suppress the moderate opposition, thus trying to force us to choose between him and the Sandinistas.

In response to your message last week,4 Costa Rican President Carazo suggested the idea of a joint Central American approach to mediate the transfer of power in Nicaragua. We believe this path offers the most promise, and Cy recommends (Tab A), and I concur, that you authorize the dispatch of the cable at Tab B to our Ambassador in [Page 242] Costa Rica instructing him to express U.S. Government support for the proposal.5

As the cable indicates, we believe it is more appropriate for the Central Americans to take the initiative on an issue of special concern to their security, and for us to support them, rather than the other way around. I should point out that the policy which we suggest represents a departure from our current policy of strict and passive non-intervention. But we believe that a multilateral effort at mediation, which is initiated by the Central Americans themselves, and the deteriorating situation in Nicaragua require us to adopt this new approach.


That you approve the dispatch of the cable at Tab B.6

Tab A

Memorandum from Secretary of State Vance to President Carter 7


  • Nicaragua


How should we respond to the deteriorating situation in Nicaragua?


The underlying problem is: when and under what circumstances will Somoza leave power?

The longer this question remains unresolved, the greater the probability of a violent outcome with repercussions comparable to those of past succession crisis in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Chile.

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Nicaragua’s neighbors in Central America are increasingly concerned that their security will be endangered. Nicaragua’s location, and the unique history of our association with the Somozas, put US prestige on the line.

The prospects for an internally-generated orderly solution are declining. Somoza is determined to stay in power, and is out to destroy his legitimate opponents so as to fulfill his prophecy that he is the only alternative to chaos and communism. Despite his great personal skills, I believe Somoza can no longer rally fresh political support to his essentially spent regime or restore business confidence.

The Sandinistas (FSLN) are not strong enough now to seize power, but Somoza can neither eliminate them nor control Nicaragua’s borders. The longer Somoza remains in power, the greater their claim to a share of power in any successor regime. Were Somoza replaced in the near future by an independent government—even a conservative one—the Sandinistas would probably lose their basic appeal and become a marginal splinter group.

The core of the opposition is made up of pragmatic moderates, mainly businessmen fed up with 40 years of corruption and fearful that Somoza’s continuance in power will ultimately destroy them as well. Opposition has multiplied as the Somoza system’s effectiveness has gradually declined. Some members of Somoza’s cabinet, of the governing Liberal Party, and even of the National Guard have begun to consider abandoning him.

Orderly succession by means of the elections scheduled for 1981 would require a prior political opening and electoral reform, neither of which is likely without outside pressure. A transitional succession could take place before 1981 through the election by the existing congress of an interim president, or the formation of a transitional National Unity government.

The civic strife now underway will increasingly undermine the unity of the National Guard and the viability of the private sector, making an orderly solution more difficult with every passing day.

In response to your request for an assessment of the situation, Presidents Perez, Lopez Portillo and Carazo have made clear that they and others are prepared to work for an orderly solution.8 It is also clear, however, that prospects for a moderate outcome hinge on the United States acting in concert with others to bring about such an outcome.

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In light of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Nicaragua, my conclusions are that:

—support for the status quo through Somoza will simply not serve our interests, or those of our allies.

—detached neutrality or disassociation can probably not bring enough pressure to bear to rapidly resolve the crisis;

—The OAS may be helpful over time but cannot act with the speed and effectiveness now required.

The best means to bring about a compromise between Somoza and his legitimate opposition that would ensure an early and orderly transfer of power—and thus end the crisis—appears to be mediation by Nicaragua’s neighbors in Central America.

Therefore, I recommend that you authorize us to tell President Carazo that:

—we support his previously expressed idea that he should consult with other Central American governments to enlist their support for such a mediation effort, and that

—if they accept, we would tell Somoza that we believe he should accept as well.

We have received a further report that Carazo may be showing some growing reluctance about the mediation process, but we believe this is out of frustration, and that he will adopt this approach if we show support.

If this approach is adopted, we will have to be prepared to give the mediators our full support. We do not now contemplate asking Somoza to step down. But the time might come when we would have to urge him to do so as part of a mediated solution.

I believe mediation is in fact in Somoza’s best interests as well as ours, and that Somoza himself may ultimately agree. But until that becomes clear, we are likely to be criticized by some who will argue that we are abandoning a friend in time of need.9


That you authorize the dispatch of the attached cable.10

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 56, Nicaragua: 1/77–11/78. Secret; Sensitive. Sent for action.
  2. Brzezinski met with Carter on September 4 from 8:30 to 8:48 a.m. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary) No substantive record of the meeting has been found. For the memorandum of Aaron’s meeting, see Document 88.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 88.
  5. Ibid. Tab B is not attached.
  6. Following the recommendation, Brzezinski added: “subject to one minor change that I made on Vance’s draft; his memo to you represents a joint position. A page or two on the internal political alternatives will be ready in a day. ZB.” Carter approved the recommendation and wrote “see note” beneath it. Pastor sent an undated memorandum entitled “Politics in Nicaragua: Opposition to Somoza,” under a September 5 memorandum to Brzezinski. According to a handwritten notation, Brzezinski opted to “hold till after SCC or PRC meeting on this.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 35, Nicaragua, 2/77–9/78)
  7. Secret; Sensitive. Carter initialed the top of the first page of the memorandum.
  8. See footnote 2, Document 88.
  9. In a September 3 draft memorandum to Vance, Vaky and Lake presented five options regarding Somoza: 1) detached neutrality; 2) disassociation; 3) support; 4) mediation; or 5) arbitration. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Pastor Files, Country Files, Box 33, Nicaragua: 9/1–12/78)
  10. Not attached. Carter approved this recommendation and added the following notation: “Para 5. Add requirement of early move to democracy. J.” See Document 90.