In October 1985, a constituent of then-Burlington, Vermont, Mayor Bernard Sanders wrote him a letter to express concern that Sanders’s public praise of the Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua was unwarranted. In view of Ortega’s revocation of “basic human and civil rights,” the constituent, a Mr. Edward Pike, insisted that Sanders should reverse his position on the Sandinistas, as well as rescind the sister city designation of Burlington with the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabezas.
Rather than concede the point that the socialist government of Ortega had gone too far, Sanders pushed back in his reply to Pike, asserting that the Sandinistas’ “temporary suspension of certain civil liberties is considerably more complex” than Pike described and that Ortega did not intend to “allow their enemy the total freedom to defeat them and destroy their government” as Chile had in the prior decade. “President Ortega and the Nicaraguan government have chosen not to follow that example,” Sanders wrote.
To buttress his position, Sanders then invoked several examples from the United States’ own past. Curiously enough, Sanders chose the treatment of American Nazis during World War II as his principal illustration. Sanders wrote, “[D]uring World War II, American Nazi’s [sic] were not given the freedom to publish newspapers or appear on radio in order to advocate the murder of American soldiers.” Sanders does not indicate whether or not he believed this proscription was justified, but rather immediately proceeds to cite the “totally unconstitutional manner [in which] thousands of Japanese Americans on the west coast were herded into concentration camps as a wartime protection measure,” which Sanders presumably found unconscionable. Sanders then cited Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War “actions which limited civil liberties” “in order to preserve the Union,” but leaves his approval or disapproval of Lincoln’s actions ambiguous.
While the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II is almost universally condemned in retrospect, American Nazis publicly “advocat[ing] the murder of American soldiers,” particularly in the middle of a war with Nazis Germany, smacks of treason. That Sanders, an American politician, would compare Ortega and his oppressive Sandinista regime suspending the civil rights of the Nicaraguan people with the United States fighting Hitler or the federal government led by Lincoln battling the Confederacy is baffling.
Despite the lengthy (apparent) justification of the actions of Ortega in his letter, Sanders closes with his insistence that his point is not whether the “Nicaraguan government is a good or bad government or whether Pres. Ortega has done the right thing,” but rather “whether or not United States has the unilateral right to go to war and destroy a government that President Reagan and members of Congress dislike.”
Sanders’s letter to Pike first came to light in a February 3 Josh Rogin column in the Washington Post. Rogin wrote that a “Democratic official associated with a rival campaign” sent him the letter along with other documents from the University of Vermont’s Sanders archive. Rogin summarized Sanders’s response only briefly in his column, writing that “Sanders responded by defending Ortega’s clampdown on human rights, blaming the United States for funding Ortega’s opposition and comparing Ortega’s actions to the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.”
Asked to clarify Sanders’s 1985 comments in the letter, the Sanders’s campaign had not responded by the time this article was submitted for publication. Read the letter below.
Photograph of Bernie Sanders by Bauzen/GC Images. Letter to Bernie Sanders courtesy of the Washington Post.