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The Florida Keys War

Part 6


by Chris Oatley



Adapted from material originally posted at


Summary: In the previous five instalments of this series, we dealt with the circumstances that led to the Florida Keys War, the course of the war itself, how Cuba struggled to establish a democratic government in the war’s aftermath, and the war’s impact on US policy in Vietnam and the Sino-Soviet split of the late 1960s. In this instalment of the series we’ll take a look at how the war’s after effects influenced world events during the late ‘70s and early 1980s.


Last Hurrahs: 1977-1981


When Cyrus Vance and President Carter asked Robert Kennedy to accompany them to Beijing for Carter’s historic October 1977 summit with Chinese head of state Deng Xiaoping, Kennedy didn’t hesitate to say yes. Since his brother’s assassination Senator Kennedy had been working constantly to help ease the perpetual tensions between East and West, and he was eager to play a role in ending the 29-year-long estrangement between Beijing and Washington.

The trip to China also provided a good opportunity for Kennedy to take stock of his political career and start thinking about what direction he wanted to take when his current Senate term expired in 1983. Despite the failure of his 1968 presidential bid, he’d never entirely given up hope of one day reaching the Oval Office— and with his surviving brother Edward in disgrace as a result of Chappaquiddick, RFK sensed that he might be his family’s last hope for regaining the presidency.

By the time Carter, Kennedy, and Vance left Beijing six days after the summit began, their work had resulted in the historic Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, the agreement that officially restored diplomatic ties between the United States and China. When the Carter delegation returned to Washington, Senator Kennedy phoned his brother at his Capitol Hill office to set up a meeting between them at the family’s Hyannisport estate in early November at which they would discuss whether RFK should seek a fourth term in the Senate or make a run at the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. 

But three days before that meeting was scheduled to take place, Edward Kennedy got earth-shattering news from a family friend: RFK had been killed in a helicopter crash while en route to New York City for a 60 Minutes interview. In some respects, the wreckage from the crash would prove an accurate omen for the post-Beijing fortunes of the Democratic Party — once the afterglow of the summit had faded, Americans would gradually come to see President Carter as being out of his depth in many respects, and he would be just one of dozens of Democrats to be voted out of office in the next few years…




The first real warning sign that Carter would be a failure as president came in the summer of 1978, when North Vietnam fired Katyusha rockets across the 17th parallel in violation of its 1975 cease-fire pact with South Vietnam. The rocket strikes were a clumsy attempt on Hanoi’s part to intimidate Saigon into cancelling its planned intervention in what was by then an 11-year-old civil war in neighboring Cambodia.

Duong Van Minh had made a great many compromises in order to secure the 1975 cease-fire agreement; for the sake of keeping South Vietnam independent he had acceded to Hanoi’s request to remove American military personnel from his soil and to form a coalition government with leftists who, while not directly connected with the old Viet Cong or with Pham Van Dong’s Marxist regime, did tend to lean noticeably in favor of their ideological program. In return the North Vietnamese government had pledged to pull all NVA units back from the DMZ, terminate material support of the Viet Cong, and maintain a truce with Saigon pending UN-sponsored negotiations to finally settle the question of Vietnamese reunification. 

But when Hanoi learned that ARVN battalions were being readied to cross the Cambodian border to aid the besieged Pnomh Penh government against the battered but still dangerous Khmer Rouge insurgency, any hope of preserving that truce without outside pressure vanished. Vo Nguyen Giap, C-in-C of the North Vietnamese armed forces, ordered three NVA rocket battalions stationed north of the DMZ and within a week of their deployment, Katyushas were being lobbed into the open countryside of Quang Tri and Thua Tien provinces. 

Had Carter acted more decisively, chances are the rocket attacks would have been stopped within days, if not hours. But he and his advisors dithered for two critical weeks while South Vietnam’s ambassador to the UN chastised his fellow diplomats for not doing more to force Hanoi to end the Katyusha strikes. By the time the Carter Administration finally got around to doing something about the rocket attacks, Hanoi and Saigon were rattling sabers at each other once more and the three-year-old truce was on the verge of collapsing.

In the meantime, the Khmer Rouge spread chaos and death across Cambodia, with the worst massacres happening at Pnomh Penh and Kampong Cham.1 As one former Cambodian army officer put in his introduction to an Australian history book marking the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Cambodian civil war: "The Kravanh Mountains(Cambodia’s principal mountain range) turned red with innocent blood."2

It took stiff diplomatic and economic pressure from China to finally motivate North Vietnam to end its rocket broadsides against its southern neighbor. Carter was seen as having done almost nothing to alleviate South Vietnam’s problems— in some  quarters, in fact, he was accused of having made them that much worse. Former California governor Ronald Reagan, increasingly being touted as the most likely Republican challenger to Carter’s bid for a second term, was quoted in a Los Angeles Herald-Tribune interview as saying "Thank God he wasn’t in the White House when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor or Castro tried to invade Key West"3.

As embarrassing as the Vietnam rocket fiasco was for the Carter Administration, it would pale in comparison to the black eye that Washington was about to be dealt in the Persian Gulf… 




In the spring of 1979 President Carter pulled off what even his toughest critics had to concede was one of the finest diplomatic achievements in American history: he mediated a peace treaty that ended three decades of antagonism between Egypt and Israel. Known as "the Camp David pact" because most of the talks were held at the presidential retreat, the treaty led to Egypt becoming the first Arab nation to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel. And it wasn’t just a major international triumph for Carter; it gave him a considerable political boost on the home front too— one New York Times poll released shortly after the treaty was signed listed his approval rating at close to 80%.4

But even as Carter was being lauded for his accomplishments at Camp David, a crisis was brewing in Iran. A month before the Camp David talks ended, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had been expelled from his throne in a dramatic though relatively peaceful uprising spurred in large part by fears that the traditional Persian way of life was becoming extinct in the face of the Shah’s aggressive campaign to Westernize his country. In the wake of his ouster, the revolutionaries had become locked in a heated dispute over what direction the new Iranian government should take; some, like interim prime minister Shapour Baktiar, thought Iran should adopt a secular parliamentarian form of government, but many  others— among them radical Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini –felt this was incompatible with traditional Persian culture. Before long, the Baktiar and Khomeini camps were in direct opposition to one another and it seemed as if Iran was about to plunge headlong into full-scale civil war.

Iran’s neighbor and frequent adversary, Iraq, had also seen a dramatic political upheaval; Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the military dictator who had ruled the country since 1968, was killed in a plane crash near Basra under what were mysterious circumstances to say the least. An ambitious Iraqi army general, one Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, quickly moved to fill the vacuum left by al-Bakr’s demise and was soon making plans to wage war against the Iranians no matter how the power struggle between Baktiar and Khomeini turned out. 

Like many of his fellow Iraqis, Saddam had long been envious of Iran’s prosperity. He was also suspicious about Tehran’s territorial ambitions concerning the Shatt al-Arab waterway, even though Iran and Iraq had signed a 1974 agreement evenly dividing this vital sea lane between them. Once he had crushed the last remaining internal opponents to his rule, Saddam called his top military commanders together and instructed them to begin preparing a strategy for executing pre-emptive attacks on vital military and industrial targets on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq border.

That strategy went into effect in late July of 1979 as Iraqi air and ground forces attacked Iranian oil facilities at Abadan and Khorramshahr, starting the Iran-Iraq war and further aggravating the already intolerable political turmoil within Iran. With their civilian leadership effectively paralyzed by the Khomeini-Baktiar split, the Iranian armed forces were steamrollered by the Iraqis’ blitzkrieg offensive and within two weeks the Iraqis had managed to penetrate almost 300 miles inside Iranian territory. One Iraqi artillery battalion succeeded in getting within firing distance of Tehran before the war was ten days old; its barrages, combined with a constant rain of Scud missiles upon the Iranian capital, struck terror into the hearts of Tehran’s population and stirred up fears worldwide that a new Middle East war was just around the corner.

President Carter made numerous attempts to arrange cease-fire talks between Iran and Iraq, but they came to nothing; Saddam Hussein was determined to fight until he’d won, and the Iranians couldn’t even maintain a cohesive government long enough to give a definitive response one way or the other regarding Carter’s peace proposals.

Then the already grim situation took a sharp turn for the worse. On September 4th, a little over a month after the Iran-Iraq war began, security forces loyal to Baktiar and pro-Khomeini student demonstrators clashed in the streets outside the American embassy in Tehran. At the height of the confrontation, one of the leaders of the demonstration was shot and fatally wounded; just who fired that shot remains unclear to this day, but as certainly as if a signal flag had been raised it sparked off the worst riots in the city’s history. The American embassy was burned to the ground and most of its staff lynched; the Iranian defense, oil, and foreign ministries were sacked; more than two dozen foreign news bureaus and the offices of Tehran’s largest domestic newspaper came under attack; and much of the city’s main airport was laid waste as the rioters stormed its gates.

Through the still-functioning Swiss embassy in Tehran, Carter was able to arrange the evacuation of the surviving US diplomats. But his administration had begun its long and inexorable slide toward oblivion; he was now widely perceived as being too weak to steer the American ship of state through the hazards resulting from the war and the civil unrest in Iran. He wasn’t having much luck on the domestic front either— inflation was wildly out of control, the country was in the midst of an energy crisis, and violent crime had risen to levels not seen in the US since the Prohibtion era.

By the time the 1980 Democratic primary in New Hampshire came around, it seemed to be no longer a question of if but when Carter’s bid for a second term would end. His approval rating had dropped into the mid-20s, his foreign policy was being roundly criticized by Americans of all political stripes, and some pundits were predicting that even if Carter did win his party’s nomination for another term he’d get pasted in the November general elections either by GOP frontrunner Ronald Reagan or Reagan’s main rival for the Republican nomination, former CIA director George Herbert Walker Bush.

Nonetheless, a number of key Democratic figures threw the full weight of their support behind Carter as the primary season wore on. The general consensus within the party establishment was that abandoning the president would send the wrong message to voters and even ran the risk of shattering the Democrats as a viable political party. Therefore, the only choice was to fight tooth and nail to try and get him his second term.

It turned out to be a losing battle; disgust with Carter’s perceived ineptitude combined with the persuasive and hopeful oratory of GOP nominee Ronald Reagan would drive most Americans to vote Republican in the November elections. After two decades in exile, the Grand Old Party was returning to the White House — and America’s friends and foes alike would be faced with a new geopolitical reality.




When Reagan was officially sworn into office as the 41st President of the United States in January of 1981, people immediately searched the text of his inaugural address for signs of the more assertive US foreign policy he’d promised to implement when he reached the Oval Office. They didn’t have to look very hard— in his second paragraph alone the new chief executive warned bluntly, "Those who think that Washington will continue to stick its head in the sand in the face of today’s threats to peace and stability are in for a rude awakening."5

Those words exhilarated his supporters, who considered his forceful approach to foreign affairs a welcome change from the appeasement - minded policies of the Carter era; on the other hand, his critics found them alarming, viewing them as a sign that America had entered an era of belligerency on the world stage.

Three weeks into his first term Reagan got his first opportunity to put words into action. While most of the world’s attention had been focused on the Iran-Iraq war, Soviet forces had invaded Afghanistan in an effort to shore up that country’s pro-Moscow socialist regime, sparking a guerrilla war. Sensing a golden opportunity to undermine Soviet power, President Reagan and his CIA directory, Admiral William J. Casey, contacted Pakistan’s ISI counterintelligence service and struck a deal with them in which the ISI would funnel arms, munitions, and other supplies from the US to the Afghan rebels.

With the new American aid, the Afghan rebels (widely known as mujahideen because most of them belonged to Islamic guerrilla groups) shifted from their previously defensive tactics to a more offense - oriented style of warfare, throwing the Soviets off-balance. Brezhnev, by then in his mid-70s and less than two years away from the heart attack that would eventually kill him, was infuriated by what he saw as an underhanded move by the West and vowed to retaliate by any means possible. 

In the meantime, Reagan and his Secretary of State, George Shultz, worked to bolster US ties with the Caribbean and Latin America; to that end, they invited former Cuban president Reynaldo Ochoa to visit Washington when Ochoa came there on a scheduled public speaking tour in the spring of 1981. Though officially Ochoa had been retired from politics since his second term as president of Cuba expired in 1973, unofficially he still commanded a great deal of influence both at home and abroad— and Reagan understood that this influence would be helpful in enlisting Cuba’s aid to battle resurgent Soviet efforts to set up a foothold in Latin America. On a more personal level, the President looked forward to renewing a long-standing friendship with Ochoa, whom he’d met during his second term as governor of California when Ochoa was speaking at a San Francisco Chamber of Commerce banquet.6

However, the former Cuban president’s visit would end in tragedy; on March 30th, 1981, as Ochoa and Reagan were exiting the Washington National Hotel following a breakfast with a group of Cuban-American Florida Keys War veterans, an unstable college dropout named John Hinckley, Jr. pulled out a revolver and opened fire on the two leaders. Quick-thinking Secret Service agents were able to save President Reagan and his press secretary James Brady, but they were too late to help Ochoa; he was hit twice in the chest and died less than two hours after being shot. The attack shook Reagan to the core and left millions in mourning on both sides of the Florida Straits. Ochoa’s funeral, which drew hundreds of thousands into Havana’s streets, was broadcast live to America from start to finish, with Reagan personally leading the US contingent among the foreign dignitaries who attended the memorial service.




Besides costing him the loss of a friend and political soulmate, the Hinckley attack’s most lasting effect on Reagan was to make him keenly aware of the vulnerability of high-profile people and institutions on US soil. The gun Hinckley held that day could as easily have been wielded by a KGB assassin or Islamic terrorist— and next time it might very well be. Upon his return to the US following Ochoa’s funeral, Reagan began calling for reforms of the country’s intelligence network that would make it easier for the FBI and the CIA to co-operate in handling internal threats to American national security.

With Congress largely in Democratic control at the time, and with memories of the Church Committee scandal still fresh in the public mind, few of Reagan’s proposals made much headway; one idea, however, won substantial bipartisan support— the establishment of a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to guard the nation’s major transport systems against sabotage or terrorism. Founded in June, 1981 as the joint responsibility of the Justice and Transportation Departments, the TSA took over jurisdiction of the Coast Guard and the Federal Air Marshals’ Service.

Two months later Reagan flexed his political and diplomatic muscles again with a show of force directed at Libyan dictator Muammar Khadafy. Since 1973 Khadafy had been asserting that Libya’s territorial boundaries included the entire Gulf of Sidra, an expanse of more than 200 miles off the Libyan coast; most countries, including his ally the Soviet Union, only recognized maritime boundaries of twelve miles. Previous US presidents had done little or nothing to challenge Khadafy’s claims; Nixon had been preoccupied with Vietnam, Ford had had his hands full trying to clean up the mess left behind by Watergate, and Carter had been worried that even token military action against Khadafy might lead to full-scale war with Libya.

Reagan, on the other hand, was eager to confront the Libyan strongman; he ordered a carrier battle group dispatched to the Mediterranean to enforce the traditional 12-mile limit and enlisted the aid of his UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to push for tough economic sanctions against Libya. When Libyan SAM batteries fired on two F-14 Tomcats during a routine patrol, the United States responded by bombing the sites from which the missiles had been launched. A week later, two Libyan fighter jets were shot down after violating US airspace.

The standoff between Washington and Tripoli over the Gulf of Sidra would continue for the rest of Reagan’s first term in the White House and well into his second. But the message sent by his deployment of the carrier group was not lost on Khadafy— unlike previous American presidents, this one was both able and willing to use force to oppose Libya. By the time Reagan finally left office in 1989, Libya had reduced its maritime territorial claim over the Gulf of Sidra from 200 miles to a considerably more modest 35 miles; while still not strictly in accordance with international maritime law, the 35-mile limit at least allowed room for some sort of diplomatic resolution of the territorial dispute.7


Nicaragua Si, Marxismo No: 1982-1984


In 1979, Nicaragua had at last achieved full democracy as 40-year dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle resigned to make way for an elected centrist prime minister and parliament. Shortly after taking office, however, the new government’s survival came into question as a Communist insurgent group led by Daniel Ortega began a guerrilla war aimed at putting a Moscow-style one-party regime in power. The insurgent forces, calling themselves Sandinistas after martyred 1930s revolutionary Augusto C. Sandino, were aided in no small degree by the Brezhnev regime, who saw in them the chance to regain the Latin American bridgehead the Soviets had lost when the Castro regime in Cuba was overthrown two decades earlier. 

Reagan made it clear to his top military and diplomatic aides that subversion of a US ally in Central America could not be tolerated. George Shultz went on a "shuttle diplomacy" tour of eight Latin American states to seek their assistance in battling the Ortega insurgency, while Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, appeared before Congress in April of 1982 to call for a massive increase in US military aid to the Nicaraguan government. That same month, in response to a request by prime minister Eden Pastora, the CIA began a discreet surveillance of Nicaragua’s harbors in an effort to identify those areas through which Moscow was smuggling arms and ammunition to the Sandinista forces.

Critics of US policy in Central America feared that Reagan’s assistance to the Pastora government was just the first step in a long-term course of action that would end only when American soldiers were fighting and dying in Nicaragua’s jungles. One New York Times editorial warned that the Pastora government’s fight against the Sandinistas was coming close to becoming "the Vietnam of the Reagan White House".8

But in reality even the most hawkish members of Reagan’s cabinet were loath to suggest direct US intervention in the guerrilla war in Nicaragua. Memories of the Vietnam debacle were still fresh in the minds of the American public; furthermore, the Soviets were once again rattling their sabers in Europe and hopes for peace in the Middle East, which had been high when the Camp David pact was signed, had been dealt a severe blow as the Iran-Iraq war dragged on and the civil war which had been raging in Lebanon since 1976 entered its most horrific phase yet. Getting involved in a large- scale military operation in Central America at that point hardly made much sense.

However, there were few if any disagreements within Reagan’s inner circle about opposing the Sandinistas indirectly. Even as CIA surveillance teams were setting up shop along Nicaragua’s coast, U-2 recon flights out of neighboring El Salvador were helping the Nicaraguan army track down and eliminate Sandinista hideouts and US Army Special Forces personnel were training Nicaraguan soldiers in the finer points of counterinsurgency operations.




Within a year after Weinberger’s testimony before the Senate, the flow of Soviet arms to the Sandinistas had slowed to a thin trickle. Joint US-Nicaraguan interdiction of these arms was one of the major reasons for this decline; another was that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating for the Soviets and their Afghan Marxist allies, and Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan were being given top priority when it came to the delivery of new weapons.

In the summer of 1983, seeing the handwriting on the wall, the Sandinistas began cease-fire talks with the Pastora government. The long, arduous negotiations lasted more than seven months and were interrupted twice by outbreaks of renewed fighting in the jungles of Nicaragua; eventually, however, a workable peace pact was hammered out and was signed in Washington on February 7th, 1984— just in time for Reagan to notch convincing victories in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primaries as he began his bid for a second term.

Reagan’s re-election campaign came against the backdrop of accelerating internal disintegration within the Soviet Union. The nerves of the Soviet masses had been stretched raw by a plethora of factors: the continuation of the war in Afghanistan, the nearly terminal state of the Soviet economy, the escalation of US-Soviet tensions after the destruction of Korean Airlines Flight 0079 and the Able Archer scare10, and the fraying of what remaining ties existed between the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies. 

Ex-KGB chairman Yuri Andropov, who’d assumed leadership of the CPSU following Brezhnev’s death in November of 1982, was trying to keep the Communist ideal alive in his homeland amidst all the internal and external pressures that threatened to crush it. But his health, which had been poor even before he took up the mantle of CPSU First Secretary, had by now completely self-destructed; less than 48 hours after the treaty ending the Nicaraguan civil war was signed, Andropov died of kidney failure. His passing would prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the crumbling Soviet empire….


To Be Continued




1 The Kampong Cham massacre is vividly and graphically recounted in New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg’s 1982 book The Killing Fields.

2 From the preface to Tortured Land: The Cambodian Civil War 20 Years On, by Professor D.M. Atwell, copyright 1987 by University of Sydney Press.

3 From "Reagan Blasts Carter Handling of Vietnam Rocket Incidents", printed in the August 5th, 1978 edtion of the Los Angeles Herald-Tribune.

4 As reported in the April 6th, 1979 edition of the Times.

5 From the archives of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Santa Barbara, California.

6 At the time they met, Ochoa was on a 12-city US tour to promote business and cultural opportunities in post-Castro Cuba; in particular, the then-Cuban president sought to encourage American moviemakers to film on location in his country— something that Reagan, being a former film actor, supported as a means of not only boosting Cuba’s economy but also increasing Cuban commercial and tourist trade with the United States.

7 "Libya Reduces Gulf of Sidra Claim, Says Willing to Compromise on Territorial Lines" from the October 3rd, 1988 edition of the Washington Post.

8 "Vietnam Redux?", from the op/ed page of the April 23rd, 1982 edition of the New York Times.

9 "Soviet Missile Destroys Korean Passenger Jet", from the August 31st, 1983 edition of the Washington Post.

10 An escalation in nuclear tensions that stemmed from incorrect judgements by Soviet intelligence regarding NATO’s Able Archer exercise in late October and early November of 1983. The Able Archer incident is widely regarded as the closest the world has come to full-scale nuclear war since the Turkish crisis; for more details see



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