The American That Reagan Killed

Thirty years ago, Ben Linder was gunned down by the American-funded contras while building infrastructure for the poor in Nicaragua.

Benjamin Linder harvesting cotton in Nicaragua in 1984. David Blankenhorn

By April 28, 1987, the Reagan administration’s training, funding, and arming of counterrevolutionary forces known as the contras in Nicaragua had claimed many victims: thousands of people murdered by death squads, thousands of others who were kidnapped and the tortured, and the still thousands more who lost their livelihoods when they were forced to abandon their homes.

Ben Linder’s death was slightly different. Up until Linder, these casualties had mostly been Nicaraguans — peasants, educators, medical personnel, and other civilians who had the misfortune to live in a part of the world that Reagan considered part a US sphere of influence and thus where human life was expendable. Linder was the first American killed by the same paramilitary forces who were furnished by taxpayer dollars paid by himself and his family, friends, and fellow countrymen.

More to the point, Linder was not just any American. He wasn’t a CIA officer or a soldier or a thrill-seeking young tourist. He was an idealistic, twenty-seven-year old engineer who, ironically, had been trying to do what the Reagan administration had told the public was its goal: lift up a poorer nation from squalor and poverty. Except instead of using guns, Ben Linder’s tool was the basic infrastructure that rural, isolated parts of Nicaragua lacked.

Last week marked the thirtieth anniversary of the day Linder was killed. And while his death created a major firestorm at the time for an administration that had by then already narrowly avoided criminal sanction for its illegal funding of the contras, it’s rarely talked about today. Thirty years after the fact, Linder’s story of unshakeable internationalist commitments, in the face of vicious right-wing counter-insurgents propped up by an American regime unfazed by the murder of one of its own citizens in the name of anticommunism, is still worth remembering.

An Activist to the End

Ben Linder was one of three kids born to David and Elisabeth Linder. He was steeped in activism from a young age. The Linders were a politically conscious family that made a habit of debating politics at the dinner table, taking their kids to anti–Vietnam War demonstrations, and making their living room and spare bedroom available for meetings and traveling activists.

Ben followed in his parents’ footsteps. He became a vegetarian for ethical reasons and was part of a thirty-eight-hour-long sit-in outside Portland’s Trojan nuclear power plant in his final year of high school. Even his decision to study engineering was a product of his political sensibilities: Ben hoped that his skills could be used “for the benefit of the human race,” particularly developing countries. He shunned his classmates’ decisions to put their skills to work doing defense work for firms like Boeing.

Ben was also a juggler and an amateur clown, known for riding his unicycle around the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, where he was a student. In 1980, he notched more than a thousand miles on the unicycle as he rode it from Canada to the Mexican border. Three years later, he was riding it onstage when he was handed his diploma.

In 1983, when he was just twenty-three and freshly graduated, Ben decided to move to Nicaragua, putting his engineering skills to work to aid poor people in the country. Linder traveled there at a time shortly after the Sandinistas, a leftist guerrilla group, had come to power by overthrowing the brutal, US-backed Somoza regime in 1979. The Sandinistas would go on to overwhelmingly win the 1984 general election in what were widely considered fair, free elections.

Soon Ben ended up in El Cuá, an impoverished town in northern Nicaragua that he described upon arriving as “a war zone,” a place with a “siege mentality” where most men walked around carrying guns. For Western eyes, El Cuá was like traveling back in time: no electricity, no running water, no sewage system, no cars. Horseback was the chief method of transportation, and people still used kerosene lamps for lights.

Ben began working on a hydroelectric power plant for the area whose existence could potentially revolutionize the lives of El Cuá’s residents. He became a fixture of the area in the process, known for amusing locals with his circus antics and for the bizarre sight of his riding home on a unicycle in work clothes and briefcase. Children would chase after him, calling him “cirquero” (circus man).

Yet El Cuá was not a safe place to be. The town was a frequent and increasing target of contras, as Ben made clear in letters written to his parents. In 1986, he explained, the contras, weakened by desertions, began making heavy use of landmines. March 1987, the month before Ben’s death, saw a cluster of contra attacks, especially on infrastructure targets — part of a broader contra campaign to make life miserable for average Nicaraguans in an attempt to increase dissatisfaction with the Sandinista government. Their targets included the hydroelectric power plant Ben had helped build, which was successfully defended by ten soldiers. The outcome wasn’t always so good, however — the contras succeeded in destroying a nearby medical clinic, and reduced a nearby agricultural co-operative to ash multiple times, to name a few examples. Many locals were killed.

This was the state of things when Ben and a small crew of locals embarked on an expedition to build a temporary dam on a nearby hill, meant as the first step for a permanent dam that would help power the new hydroplant. Linder, like his companions, was carrying a rifle and wearing a cartridge belt. As they walked over the hill, the group stumbled into a contra ambush.

In the space of perhaps ten minutes, Linder was dead. What exactly happened in that time quickly became a political firestorm some three and a half thousand miles away in the United States.

“I Do Not Consider It Cruel”

One can’t fully understand the reactions to Ben Linder’s death without getting a sense of how deep the Reagan administration’s support for the contras was.

It was Reagan who signed off on a top-secret directive in 1981 instructing the CIA to recruit and support a five-hundred-man force of rebels to take on the Sandinista government. The CIA then trained, armed, and even expressly directed the men who would cut a swath of rape, murder, and destruction across Nicaragua. It provided the contras with manuals for “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare,” which, among other things, suggested “neutraliz[ing] carefully selected and planned-for targets, such as court judges, cattle judges, police or state security officers, CDS chiefs, etc.”

The Reagan administration spent more than $1 billion on aid to the contras over its lifetime, aid that ranged from military equipment to clothing, food, medical supplies, and transport. It was so committed to helping the contras, in fact, that officials knowingly broke the law to help the contras, secretly funneling military aid to them even after Congress made it expressly illegal.

Meanwhile, Reagan himself provided a steady stream of ideological support for the contras. He termed them “freedom fighters” and the “moral equal of our Founding Fathers.” He proclaimed at one point, “I’m a contra too!” When Congress placed restrictions on US support for the contras, he told his National Security Adviser to “do whatever you have to do to help these people keep body and soul together.” As he said to the American public regarding the Sandinistas, there could be no “greater tragedy than for us to sit back and permit this cancer to spread.”

So what happened in the wake of Linder’s death, while disturbing, is also not surprising. The murkiness of what led to the killing of Linder allowed supporters of the Reagan administration’s Nicaragua policy — and those implicated in it— to obfuscate what had actually transpired, and even blame Linder himself.

The contras claimed that they had ordered Linder’s group to halt and put down their weapons, and were subsequently fired upon. In the ensuing firefight, Linder was shot in the head. As part of this narrative, Linder was not only carrying a gun, but he was wearing a military uniform, making him a legitimate target. This version of events was readily accepted by the Reagan administration.

The other version of events, backed up by an autopsy report and eyewitness testimony from those who weren’t contras and weren’t killed, was that Linder had first been incapacitated by grenade shrapnel that had sliced through his legs, and was subsequently shot point blank in the head. In this version, Linder may have been carrying a rifle, but he was in civilian clothes.

Naturally, supporters of the contras went with the first story. In an article titled, “How Innocent was Benjamin Linder?”, conservative weekly Human Events seized on reports that Linder was carrying a gun to push back on the attempt by the Left to “make a martyred hero out of” him. “By no stretch of the imagination could he be considered an ‘innocent,’” the column concluded.

Ben’s family was hit with further insults to injury when they were called to testify in front of Congress just over two weeks out from the killing. A parade of right-wing policymakers proceeded to minimize the death of their son. California Republican Bob Dornan pointed out that there were no Congressional hearings held about two American pilots killed while providing air support to the contras, nor about Marines who had been killed in El Salvador.

“This is a civil war,” he told the Linders. “It is a dangerous area. And young idealists are being killed on both sides.” He went on to add that if Ben had fired on and killed one of the contras who shot his group, “he would have killed a Nicaraguan on Nicaraguan soil who believed he was fighting for democracy and to retrieve his stolen revolution.”

Michael Waller, the director of publications for the Council for Inter-American Security — a New Right think-tank whose members routinely moved into government positions and back — submitted a prepared statement that expressed his condolences to the Linders while telling them their son was a “legitimate military target” and decrying “the selective outrage” over his death. He then rattled off a list of Westerners who he claimed had gone over to Nicaragua for “revolutionary” and “terrorist” training, none of whom were connected to Ben. As the following witness put it, “he does not have the facts to refute what happened to Mr. Linder,” so “he tries to detract from that by smearing the Americans . . . who are going there.”

Elliot Abrams, then the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, put forward a statement stressing that it was the Nicaraguan government that was responsible for the safety of Americans. “In our view, the assistance US citizens provide to the government of Nicaragua strengthens it and helps it deny the citizens of Nicaragua their political rights,” it read.

By far the low point, however, was the questioning by Florida Republican Connie Mack. The following exchange illustrates why:

MACK: I do not want to be tough on you, but I really feel that you have asked for it.

MS LINDER: Asked for it?

MACK: I think that your being here —

MS LINDER: Asked for it?

MACK: It has been less than three weeks since your son died.

MS LINDER: That was about the most cruel thing you could have said.

MACK: I do not consider it cruel. I consider it to be the point.

Mack closed his time by telling the Linders that “the responsibility lay on your son’s shoulders and not of this government.” (Mack later doubled down in the pages of the New York Times, after the newspaper published a report criticizing his treatment of the Linders).

The indignities continued. George H. W. Bush, then the vice president, was questioned by Ben’s brother, John, at a campaign stop, who told Bush that “nobody from the administration that you represent has condemned my brother’s killing.” Bush’s response? “I’m not sure about the facts, but some facts had it that your brother was carrying an AK-47 Soviet-made rifle. And he owned Sandinista uniforms. You see the policy of the United States Government is to support the contras. Your brother was supporting people, out of conscience I’m sure, on the other side, those who are in that Nicaraguan regime. So he made his choice.”

Meanwhile, two Republican congressmen put forward bills a few months after Ben’s death forbidding Americans to travel to Nicaragua to help the Sandinista government.

“Under my amendment, Linder would not go back,” said Robert Smith, whose amendment forbade Americans from traveling to Nicaragua to give the Sandinista government military assistance. “It’s against the law to help the contras, it should be against the law to help the Sandinistas,” he continued (though of course the US government was supporting the contras). “He may have gone down there to build a dam, but he was armed with a Soviet-made weapon. Do you need a Soviet weapon to build a dam?”

Robert Walker, whose amendment banned any “direct help to the communists in Central America,” concurred. “Linder was armed,” he said. “He became a combatant on the side of the Sandinistas.”

During the hearing, David Linder, Ben’s father, had complained about the family’s treatment by the Reagan administration. “I have no evidence that the United States government feels [the tragic nature of his death],” he testified. “We have no record or statement that they have sent us a note of sorrow, condolence, regrets of any kind.”

This all came on top of the fact that on May 3 — not even a week after Ben’s murder — Reagan had renewed calls for another $105 million worth of aid to the contras.

It didn’t matter that Ben and his companions’ possession of rifles was entirely rational given the on-the-ground realities of the area they were operating in. It didn’t matter that Ben had started carrying the gun ever since he had been told that people working on his project had been singled out by the contras. It didn’t matter that eyewitness testimony confirmed he was in civilian clothes, or that he had not been purposefully “sent” by the Nicaraguan government into a dangerous location, but had chosen to be where he was.

It didn’t matter that Ben Linder was an electrical engineer who had only ever wanted to bring basic infrastructure to an impoverished people — a small number of a country full of impoverished people, who had stayed impoverished for decades at the hands of a US-backed right-wing kleptocracy — and spent his spare time riding a unicycle and dressing up as a clown. The distorted, right-wing narrative of Ben persisted. Many of these elements even appeared months after his death in a CIA report, which also called Ben a “political propagandist for the regime.”

The narrative had to persist, in some ways. The alternative was to acknowledge that not only were the Reagan administration’s favorite rebels far from the freedom-loving moral giants they painted them as, but that the United States government may have contributed, as it had in El Salvador several years earlier, to the murder of one of its own citizens — and an idealistic young man at that, whose work in Nicaragua was indistinguishable from the work of the thousands of young Americans deployed in the Peace Corps each year.

“The bullets that were used or the grenades that were used to kill my brother undoubtedly came from the United States,” as Ben’s brother John said at the time.

Ben Linder would have been fifty-seven years old last week, had he not been gunned down on a hillside in Nicaragua thirty years ago. He was a living embodiment of the best of the internationalist spirit of sacrifice for the benefit, not dispossession, of people in other countries under the boot of repression and poverty. Linder also stands as a symbol of something else: the way that the monsters created by politicians and officials quickly move to kill that same animating spirit of democracy and broad prosperity they claim to hold dear.