The Reagan Administration’s Central America policy was much on the minds of many Americans at the time of Didion’s visit to El Salvador; to many, the administration seemed, both in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, to be repeating the mistakes that had sunk the United States in the quagmire of Vietnam some two decades earlier. To the administration’s critics, the urge to halt the spread of Marxist regimes south of the United States’ borders was both unnecessary and futile; the conservative Reagan Administration, however, insisted that Soviet influence lay behind the flourishing of Marxist rebellion and cited the Monroe Doctrine as justification for putting down left-wing insurgence.
Joan Didion’s readers already knew, at the time of Salvador, that she was no left-wing intellectual. Right of center in her politics, she was but one of many thinking Americans who found American solutions to the Salvadoran problem misdirected and, to use one of Didion’s favorite phrases, “beside the point.” In the confusion of El Salvador, Didion found a perfect outlet for her formidable powers of observation and cultural criticism; earlier, she had written near-legendary studies of cultural chaos in the essays “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” a study of the San Francisco countercultural movement of the early 1960’s, and “The White Album,” which considers the frantic revolutionary years of the later 1960’s. Both essays share much in common with Salvador: the alienated narrator desperately trying to make sense of a senseless situation, the characteristic sharp observation of minute detail, the darkly comic sense of irony. In 1987, Didion turned her attention to the Cuban community of southern Florida, and the result was a book-length study titled, simply, Miami.