The genesis of this book was an incident witnessed by the author in El Salvador in 1984. There was civil war between leftist rebels and the US-backed government, whose death squads murdered thousands. The government claimed ignorance of the squads, a position the United States was happy to go along with. What Scott Anderson witnessed was a young woman’s corpse being dumped from a van onto the pavement. She lay on her back in a floral-patterned red dress, bare legs extended, hands tied together on her chest. She did not lie there for long: it was a coordinated dump, and within seconds a military vehicle had pulled up and ‘recovered’ her, thus transforming her into another ‘victim’ of the rebels.
How, Anderson asked himself, had it come to this? ‘How, in the name of fighting communism … had the American government come to tacitly sanction death squads, to support governments that would so brazenly murder its own people?’ How had America, the beacon of freedom and democracy, champion of peoples oppressed by evil European colonisers, contrived ‘to snatch moral defeat from the jaws of sure victory, and be forever tarnished’?
It’s a good question. Anderson locates the answer in the twelve years between 1944 and 1956, the first stage of the Cold War, and in the careers of four men, Frank Wisner, Michael Burke, Peter Sichel and Edward Lansdale. None was widely known beyond the confines of the Washington bureaucracy,