The Central Intelligence Agency’s Freedom Fighter’s Manual has to be one of the most curious works of propaganda the U.S. government has ever published. The propaganda comic encouraged would-be saboteurs to plant flowers, skip work.
For one, it’s a comic book.
But that’s not the weirdest thing about the Manual. Released during the Contras’ war with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s — it reads more like, well, an instruction manual than a traditional comic book. It’s an odd combination of form and content.
Now, propaganda can appear in any medium, so it’s not a huge surprise that intelligence agencies added comics to their information arsenals in the 20th century. The CIA, its precursors and other U.S. intelligence agencies have been publishing and distributing propaganda comics since World War II.
he Nightmares of Lieutenant Ichi: Or Juan Posong Gives Ichi the Midnight Jitters was one of the first propaganda comic books ever published by a U.S. intelligence agency. This red-and-white comic was intended to inspire Filipino insurgents in their uprising against Japanese occupation and to demoralize the occupying force.
Some of the other better-known U.S. propaganda comics include the CIA’s Grenada: Rescued From Rape and Slavery and the Air Force’s 6th Brigade series, published during the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
But the CIA’s guide to waging a war in Nicaragua isn’t very good. There’s no cohesive narrative in the Manual. And it looks, well, kind of dumb — almost as if it were written for kids, by kids.
In 1979, the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front seized control of Nicaragua from dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in a popular revolution after years of political turmoil and guerrilla fighting.
American Cold War foreign policy relied on the containment of communism, especially in the Western Hemisphere. However, Pres. Jimmy Carter maintained uncomfortable but relatively friendly diplomatic relations with the newly-established government, headed by SNLF activists and guerrilla fighters Daniel Ortega, Moisés Hassan Morales and Sergio Ramirez.
Things changed when Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election. In March 1981, the Reagan administration decided to back the anti-Sandinista rebels known as the Contras.
The Contras were originally composed primarily of former Nicaraguan National Guard members from the Somoza regime. As the anti-Sandinista counter-revolution wore on, the group became more diverse and included Sandinista defectors, drug traffickers and members of several Amerindian cultures angry at government efforts to nationalize their lands.
During the next several years, the United States provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the Contras, with the CIA actually distributing the funds.
The CIA covertly participated in air strikes on Sandinista targets and mined Nicaraguan harbors, but officially the United States was not directly involved in any military actions. The money was not supposed to be used to “overthrow the Nicaraguan government,” according to a 1988 Washington Post recap.
Instead, the Reagan administration intended the money to pay for training, weapons, logistical and tactical support and propaganda — such as the rudimentary comic books with instructions on how to commit quaint acts of “economic sabotage.”
Hence The Freedom Fighter’s Manual. In 1983 the CIA decided it would benefit the Contras, and the broader U.S. campaign to remove the Sandinistas, to publish a how-to sabotage manual for the Nicaraguan everyman. The result was the 16-page collection of black-and-white sketches portraying ordinary people committing casual acts of sabotage accompanied by brief instructions or captions.
This comparatively innocuous little pamphlet should not be confused with the exceedingly sinister 44-page Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare that the CIA released in Nicaragua a year later.
Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare instructed readers on “how to kidnap and kill officials, blow up public buildings and blackmail ordinary citizens,” The New York Times reported when news of that booklet first broke in October 1984. The nature of the content brought considerable heat to the CIA, leading to a congressional investigation.
The Freedom Fighter’s Manual, by comparison, is an innocent and even playful little romp through a world of pranksterish lo-fi sabotage, and we mean “sabotage” in its broadest and most inclusive sense. With entries like the ones that encourage readers to “spread rumors” or “plant flowers on state farms,” it’s sometimes difficult to take the Manual very seriously.
In that regard, the Manual is easy to dismiss as a perplexingly whimsical failure orchestrated by one of the most tenured and well-funded propaganda mills the world has ever known. However, a second look reveals something more complex.
“There is an essential economic infrastructure that any government needs to function, which can easily be disabled and even paralyzed without the use of armaments and costly equipment, with the small investment of resources and time,” the Manual‘s introduction points out.
Those are encouraging words for the aspiring guerrilla of modest means, who is isolated and lacks logistical support. And there’s a hint that even if you get caught you’re probably not going to get in too much trouble, especially if you’re just, say, spreading rumors or planting flowers.
In addition to the “useful sabotage techniques” mentioned above, the first few pages of the Manual also encourage “[a]ll Nicaraguans who love their country and cherish liberty” to participate in subtle acts of civil disobedience. One illustrations declares “come late to work[.] Delay in completing tasks,” and others recommend a saboteur “call in sick so as not to work” and “leave water taps on.”
Those are simple acts that anyone can perform with little fear of serious consequences, but the degree of violence and danger encouraged in the Manual does escalate.
A few pages in, would-be guerrillas are advised to “threaten the boss by telephone,” “telephone giving false alarms of fires and crimes,” “break light bulbs and windows,” “put nails on roads and highways” and “put dirt into gasoline tanks.”
So now our bad employee has become a petty criminal and public nuisance. For the up-and-coming saboteur, that is probably a step in the right direction.
The Manual concludes with instructions on how to pull down telephone lines, how to combine a cigarette and a pack of matches to set a delayed fire … and how to produce Molotov cocktails. There’s a not-so-subtle hint that the latter should be used to attack police stations and fuel depots.
With its unassuming appearance, motivational introduction and gradual progression to providing basic instructions for acts of militant violence, theManual might have served as an effective primer for the timid and anxious would-be rebel.
Think it of as a way of slowly easing a disaffected citizen from armchair protester to full-blown urban guerrilla.
Even if most of the Manual’s readers never completed most of the tasks outlined in its pages, at least maybe the Sandinista government had to deal with a whole bunch of pesky militants running around spreading rumors and planting flowers. And it’s wonderful to imagine some failing officer or bureaucrat somewhere in Managua being tasked with heading the Office of Flower and Rumor Prevention.
The Manual apparently went through several revisions before publication. The Times quoted officer Edgar Chamorro of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force — a Contra group — as saying that the CIA wanted his organization to distribute the comic books but that the illustrations “didn’t look very Nicaraguan” at first.
The NDF found a Nicaraguan artist in Honduras to redraw the cartoons in order “to give a Nicaraguan face to the manual,” Chamorro said. He added that the rebels found a cultural inconsistency with an illustration that suggested stealing mail from mailboxes. “In Nicaragua, we don’t have any mailboxes.”
The Freedom Fighter’s Manual drew less criticism than Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, but it still stirred some political debate. The Times noted that Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, raised the issue of the comic book in August 1984 during a debate over the CIA’s budget.
“People did not believe it was terribly serious then,” Miller said. “Obviously, from what we know now, it may have been a precursor to much more serious things.”
The U.S.-backed Contras never succeeded in overthrowing the Sandinistas militarily, but the leftist party did lose the national elections in 1990, bringing an end to the nearly decade-old civil war that cost an estimated 30,000 lives. The Sandinistas regained political power in 2006.