Congress had made its view clear with the Boland amendments: The United States government would not support the Contras in Nicaragua. However, the Reagan administration was determined to support the anti-Sandinista fighters. To get funds where they needed to be the administration concocted a complicated scheme involving missiles, Iran, hostages, and Hezbollah. It worked at first, with secret American arms sales leading to the release of an American hostage. However, complications at the Lisbon airport, more hostage taking in Lebanon, and the need for constant secrecy ensured that the scheme wouldn’t last forever.
In the early 1980s the Reagan administration changed how the U.S. engaged with Communism abroad. Instead of following a policy of containment, the U.S. would actively support anti-Communist insurgents around the world. This policy, which later became known as the Reagan administration, positioned the US as the supporter and benefactor of fighters like the Afghan Mujahideen and the Nicaraguan Contras.
However, Reagan’s policy of intervention didn’t garner universal support, especially in light of atrocities committed by the Contras. News of American intervention in Nicaragua angered many in the U.S. In 1982 and 1984 Congress attached amendments to routine appropriations bills that prevented the CIA and State Department from providing funds to the Contras. These amendments, known as the Boland Amendments, prevented the executive branch from taking further action in Nicaragua.
If the administration wished to support the Contras further, they would have to break the law.
The Cold War defined geopolitics for much of the 20th century, often turning local conflicts and regional politics into large, proxy battles between the United States and Soviet Union. In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) successfully ousted Nicaragua’s Somoza regime, ending four decades of dictatorship. Almost immediately after the revolution, though, the remnants of the old regime began fighting back. These new rebel fighters, the Contras, received support from the American CIA as early as 1981.
The revolution set the stage for one of the strangest episodes of the Cold War, the Iran-Contra affair, in which US officials, in the name of supporting rebel fighters in Central America, would turn to cloak-and-dagger deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In 1983 a Soviet satellite system erroneously detected five incoming American nuclear missiles. Stanislav Petrov, the man tasked with reporting the alert to the USSR’s leadership, suddenly had a dire choice: He could do his duty and start a nuclear war, or ignore the report in hopes that it was a false alarm. He chose the latter, and in doing so saved the world.
In 1959 the United States had a secret plan to explode a nuclear weapon either on or near the surface of the moon. The plan was known as Project A119 and the hope was that a nuclear explosion on the moon would kick up a cloud of dust visible from the Earth, and would act as a demonstration of American power and technology. The project was shelved (obviously) and classified for years, and the only reason we know about it now is because Carl Sagan, who was involved with A119, let slip the existence of the plan to nuke the moon on a job application.
While it might sound absurd, the idea of a nuclear demonstration to awe the world was a common idea among scientists in the waning days of WWII and the early days of the Cold War. There were multiple proposals for detonations on desert islands or other, similar uninhabited areas to show off the power of nuclear weapons and, hopefully, impress America’s enemies into submission.
And, it wasn’t just the US. There were also rumors that the Soviets, too, wanted to bomb the moon.