Sunday, January 3, 2021

Theresa Keeley's "Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns"

Theresa Keeley is Assistant Professor of U.S. and the World at the University of Louisville.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the second-to-last page of Chapter 3, “Subversives in El Salvador.” Opening the book to page 99, readers will not know that they are in 1980 in El Salvador and that San Salvador’s archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated just months earlier, in March. The page discusses the growing tensions and violence in the country after Romero’s murder, and uses accounts by U.S. Maryknoll missionaries to do so. Maura Clarke wrote to family in the United States about how death squads targeted “anyone suspected of being in an organization or attached to the Church.” As she explained, the Salvadoran oligarchy aimed “to wipe out the farmers and workers who have organized for change and they do this in the name of fighting communism.” Another Maryknoller, Ita Ford, connected the violence to the United States. In a 1980 October interview, she frustratingly observed, “As a U.S. citizen I’m highly disappointed and mostly outraged by the type of support we’re giving this junta. . . . The government doesn’t represent anybody at this point. It’s fearful to think of the U.S. now training Salvadoran troops and sending in equipment. It’s reprehensible.” But the U.S. State Department saw things differently. It absolved the Salvadoran junta, stating that “the question of government responsibility is not as clear” and stressed that U.S. “long term interest in the area” tipped in favor of continued aid.

Page 99 highlights key aspects of the book’s arguments. First, the page juxtaposes how U.S. Maryknoll missionaries and the U.S. government characterized developments in El Salvador. While Maryknollers stressed how societal inequalities prompted calls for change, and even revolution, the U.S. government saw communism as the source of inspiration. In analyzing this difference of opinion, the book aims to illustrate the relationship between faith and human rights activism. Second, the page mentions how critics condemned U.S. military support as furthering repression in Central America whereas the U.S. government saw it as necessary for fighting the Cold War. Both of these issues raised a larger question present in the debates over U.S.-Central America policy in the late 1970s and 1980s: What role should human rights play in shaping U.S. policy?

At the same time, page 99 is not fully representative. The page discusses El Salvador; the book analyzes U.S. relations with Nicaragua as well. Page 99 briefly mentions the danger people associated with the church faced. It does not mention why or flesh out how liberation theology was a key factor in prompting the poor of El Salvador and Nicaragua to see themselves differently, and then to push for societal change. Finally, page 99 may suggest that the book focuses only on U.S. actors. Although Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns discusses U.S. policy and political debates in the United States, I also aim to show the exchange between Central America and the United States. For example, experiences in Central America shaped U.S. missionaries, which led them to call for change in U.S. foreign policy. Additionally, conservative Central American and U.S. Catholics worked together to further their vision of what the Catholic Church and U.S.-Central American relations should be, while liberal Central American and U.S. Catholics did the same.
Learn more about Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue