During the period from 1969 to 1981, that is, from the war with Honduras to the FMLN’s unsuccessful “final offensive,” there occurred in El Salvador a systematic closure of virtually every option for a peaceful, progressive solution to the country’s problems. The result in the subsequent decade has been a long, bloody civil war, largely financed on the government’s side by U.S. taxpayers. Sara Gordon’s new book on the origins of the Salvadoran phase of the general Central American crisis is particularly welcome because it examines the crucial decade of the 1970s in much greater detail than have other recent works.

Drawing on press reports, government documents, manifestos, personal memoirs, interviews, and other appropriate sources, Gordon lays bare the process by which a society—once regarded as one of the region’s most stable and progressive—undertook collective suicide. She handles extremely well the difficult counterpoints between theory and fact and between structure and conjuncture, giving due place, for example, both to movements in the world price of coffee and to changing personal agendas within the officer corps. Her account of the factions within the traditional oligarchy and within the armed forces, and of the precarious relationships among them, is one of the most revealing to be found anywhere.

Although throughout the work Gordon tends to overwhelm the reader with acronyms and statistical data, the theoretical and analytical passages are generally lucid and the narrative stretches are lively and well written. Extensive footnotes and a long bibliography of sources reveal the depth and breadth of Gordon’s research. However, it has still not become customary for Spanish-language publishers to include subject indexes. This omission is particularly unfortunate in a book as rich and complex as this one.

Because Gordon’s work is addressed to an intellectually sophisticated Hispanophone audience, it will not reach nonspecialists in this country. Even so, it is indispensable as a complement to the dated and more general, although otherwise excellent, accounts by Enrique Baloyra and Tommie Sue Montgomery.