A comprehensive history of recent Nicaraguan-American relations, written by a man who helped shape that ""bloody and conflict-ridden embrace."" Kagan, a policy advisor in the Reagan administration, is refreshingly self-critical; ""The ambivalent soul of America has consistently sought the fruits of hegemony in this hemisphere but just as consistently balked at the moral costs of exercising it."" But he is not overly apologetic for the Reagan administration's missteps, which came out of a domino-theory policy of armed confrontation with the avowedly Marxist Sandinista regime in the form of covert action, or what officials called ""the lowball option."" Thanks to the Iran-contra scandal that arose from the use of that option, Kagan concedes, even Republican stalwarts had to recognize that the Reagan doctrine of containment was a failure. Kagan is a little short on addressing the notorious atrocities committed by the contras, but he openly admits their value in destablizing the Sandinista government. He is long on describing the manifold twists of superpower negotiation that kept Nicaragua on the front burner for so many years, for instance the 1987 US-Soviet summit in which Reagan suggested to Gorbachev that the Soviet Union end aid to Nicaragua as a gesture of goodwill, then went on to announce, incorrectly, that Gorbachev had agreed to a unilaterial Soviet withdrawal of military aid--thus undoing much effort to arrive at a diplomatic solution. Kagan credits Costa Rican president Oscar Arias with helping break the impasses in US-Soviet-Nicaraguan relations, which eventually led to a Bush-era restoration of full diplomatic exchange and the establishment of free elections. Leftist critics of American policy will fault some of Kagan's interpretations. Still, this is a welcome and fluent effort to ""address that most contentious of American foreign policies not as an occasion for polemic but as a serious subject of historical investigation.