Even more than its fellow Central American republics, El Salvador was born into 19th century independence from Spain torn by internal conflicts and a turbulence that lasted nearly 60 years. Three subsequent decades of relative calm lasted until the early 1930s, when a peasant uprising led by local communists brought harsh military repression that cost tens of thousands of lives. Those events set the stage for what became a well-entrenched political and economic system putting the agricultural land that is El Salvador's life blood in the hands of a minority oligarchy that ruled indirectly through the armed forces.

It was not until 1972 that civilian politicians posed a serious threat to military government. A politicial coalition led by Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte and Social Democrat Guillermo Ungo are widely believed to have won the presidential elections that year, only to see them taken away through military fraud. Similar electoral violations occurred in 1977, bringing to power Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero. By mid-1979, Romero found himself cut off by the Carter administration for alleged human rights abuses and worried that the successful Sandinista revolution overthrowing Anastatio Somoza in neighboring Nicaragua would spill into El Salvador. His last-minute efforts at reform were unsuccessful, however, and Romero was ousted in an October 1979 coup by reformist Army officers. The government they formed with liberal civilians, however, was soon torn by internal dissension and the growing threat from leftist guerrillas.

Guerrilla activity had been relatively slow in coming to El Salvador, and it was not until the early 1970s that well-entrenched, though small, guerrilla groups had taken on substantial form. By 1974, they had begun a campaign of kidnapings and assassinations that provoked strong repressive military measures against the peasantry. When reforms proposed by the new government in late 1979 were slow to be implemented, and military repression did not cease, the guerrillas used the opportunity to consolidate their disparate factions, recruit new members and launch a war against the government. While the guerrillas, and the numerous dissident civilian politicians that have joined them in opposing the ruling civilian-military junta maintains theirs is a popularly supported movement, the Reagan administration has charged that it is externally controlled and armed by Cuba.