Labeling Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government "an outlaw regime," President Reagan said Sunday night that the United States must "deny the Soviet Union a beachhead in North America" to maintain U.S. security.
In a nationally televised address seeking public support for $100 million in aid to anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras , just four days before Congress votes on the request, Reagan summoned apocalyptic warnings to bring pressure upon wavering members of the House.
"The question the Congress of the United States will now answer is a simple one," he said. "Will we give the Nicaraguan democratic resistance the means to recapture their betrayed revolution or will we turn our backs and ignore the malignancy in Managua until it spreads and becomes a mortal threat to the entire world?
"Will we permit the Soviet Union to put a second Cuba, a second Libya, right on the doorstep of the United States?"
Fierce Policy Fight
Reagan's 22-minute speech, telecast from the Oval Office, climaxed what has been one of the fiercest foreign policy fights of recent years. While the Administration contends that the Marxist-led Managua regime exposes all of Central America to the threat of Communist takeover, wary opponents in Congress see the aid request as a worrisome drift toward deepening U.S. involvement in a military conflict.
Just hours before the President spoke, White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan predicted that the Democratic-controlled House will approve the aid package, including $70 million in military assistance, when it comes to a vote Thursday.
But another senior Administration official said at a briefing Sunday evening that "we still have some votes to get in the House."
The President, speaking before a map of Central America, brought together nearly all of the arguments his Administration has used in more than four years of supporting the insurgent "freedom fighters" in Nicaragua--from the Sandinista government's threat to its Central American neighbors to a lengthy list of human rights abuses against its people.
'Bought Precious Time'
"With their blood and courage, the freedom fighters of Nicaragua have pinned down the Sandinista army and bought the people of Central America precious time," Reagan said. "We Americans owe them a debt of gratitude. In helping to thwart the Sandinistas and their Soviet mentors, the resistance has contributed directly to the security of the United States."
Administration officials said Sunday that Reagan's personal effort to push the measure through Congress resulted at least in part from the belief that a U.S. success in Nicaragua could force the Soviet Union to reassess its policies in the Third World.
Moreover, they said, Reagan sees the outcome of the debate as crucial to the question of whether the presidency has the "tools and the flexibility" to "bring about the policy ends that we all seek" and has considered the Nicaraguan debate "from the perspective of the legacy he leaves his successor."
Talks Not Abandoned
In his remarks, the President again took pains to emphasize that he has not abandoned efforts toward a negotiated peace in Nicaragua.
"Ten times we have met and tried to reason with the Sandinistas," he said. "Ten times we were rebuffed. Last year, we endorsed church-mediated negotiations between the regime and the resistance. The Soviets and the Sandinistas responded with a rapid arms buildup of mortars, tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships."
Speaking for opponents of the Administration aid package, Sen. James R. Sasser (D-Tenn.) accused Reagan of seeking "to expand the undeclared war in Nicaragua" at a time when "tens of thousands of family farms are failing and hundreds of thousands of young Americans are seeing their student loans being eliminated.
GI Role Seen
"If the President's goal is the military overthrow of the Sandinistas," Sasser said, "he should tell us so, because that goal simply cannot be achieved without direct U.S. military involvement in a long and costly bloody war."
Sasser reiterated what Reagan last week called one of the "slanders" being used in the Nicaragua debate: the charge that "most contra military leaders fought against freedom as members of the (Anastasio) Somoza regime's hated security force," which brutalized the country before the right-wing dictator was deposed in 1979.
As the debate over the aid package has raged in recent weeks, the Sandinista government has been unusually quiet. On Sunday, before the President's speech, the Nicaraguan regime issued a statement charging that U.S. policy is incompatible with the peace efforts of the so-called Contadora Group, four Latin American nations seeking to bring about a settlement of Central American conflicts by diplomatic mediation.
"To suggest otherwise," the Sandinista government asserted, "is to attempt to hoodwink the Congress and U.S. public opinion into supporting a policy of creeping military involvement of U.S. combat troops in Nicaragua and trigger a bloody regional war in Central America."
Reagan said that he will continue his efforts this week to personally lobby for more votes in the House. He is also scheduled to meet today with special envoy Philip C. Habib, who visited Central America last week.
The House will take its vote Thursday after a debate in which no amendments are permitted. The course of debate is less certain in the Republican-controlled Senate, in which the proposal is subject to amendment.
Compromise Talk Shunned
As the often-bitter argument comes to a head, the Administration is continuing to shun talk of a compromise involving its aid package.
But the senior Administration official who met with reporters Sunday evening said there had been discussions with some members of Congress urging that the President unilaterally allow some time to elapse after congressional approval of the aid before it is actually made available to the contras.
One compromise proposed by the Democrats and rejected by the White House called for funds to be put into escrow while efforts to reach a negotiated settlement are pursued.
Reagan, appealing for Democratic votes in the House, likened the situation to the debate 40 years ago over the Truman Doctrine, which was aimed at containing international communism.
"Clearly, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact have grasped the great stakes involved, the strategic importance of Nicaragua," he said. " . . . Now we must make our decision. With Congress' help, we can prevent an outcome deeply injurious to the national security of the United States. If we fail, there will be no evading responsibility, history will hold us accountable."