Reagan also said a rebel defeat would open the door for a terrorist base near the southern border of the United States.
"It'd mean consolidation of a privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives just two days' driving time from Harlingen, Texas," Reagan asserted. By an overland route, Nicaragua is about 1,200 miles from Harlingen, on the southern tip of Texas near Brownsville.
Reagan is seeking $70 million in direct military assistance and $30 million in nonlethal aid to the rebels.
He said that the "world is watching to see if Congress is as committed to democracy in Nicaragua, in our own hemisphere, as it was in the Philippines." The contra forces, he said, are confronting "new Soviet weapons, including the same helicopters used to massacre the resistance in Afghanistan."
"If we don't provide our friends with the means to stop the Soviet gunships, Nicaragua's freedom fighters will suffer the same fate as the Hungarian freedom fighters did 30 years ago with nothing to defend themselves against Soviet tanks."
Reagan spoke after a 10-minute private meeting in the Oval Office with Adolfo Calero, Alfonso Robelo and Arturo Cruz, civilian leaders of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO). The opposition includes the contra army known as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), which operates from CIA-built bases in Honduras. As Reagan spoke, Calero sat beside him; Cruz and Robelo sat nearby. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan were also present.
Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said Reagan promised the contra leaders "that we'll go all out to convince Congress on the need for the
funds. There'll be a full-court press."
Speakes said Cruz told Reagan that although negotiations with the Sandinistas were desirable, military pressure was more important. "The only way we will ever persuade them to negotiate is through pressure," Speakes quoted Cruz as telling Reagan.
Speakes said Reagan asked Calero about the morale of the contras and Calero replied, "We go to see them in order to raise our morale. We are then bathed in patriotism and enthusiasm. But we must have a firm U.S. resolve."
After the meeting, Reagan and the contras joined a meeting of 26 conservative leaders, fund-raisers and lobbyists who provided aid privately for the contras after Congress suspended covert assistance in 1984. The group is helping Reagan lobby Congress for the aid package.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State George P. Shultz took the administration's message to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, telling their convention in the capital that if Congress rejects Reagan's request, communism
and terrorism will spread throughout Latin America, U.S. power and prestige will be eroded and the contras will be wiped out.
Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, told reporters, meanwhile, that the contra force "has declined by about 2,000 over the last three months, from 8,000 to 6,000, because of supply problems."
White House officials have acknowledged that the aid proposal faces an uphill battle in Congress. The request is the largest since the CIA began organizing the contras in 1982 with an initial $19.5 million.
Final votes are expected in the House and Senate before the end of the month. The current $27 million in humanitarian aid to the contras runs out March 31.
White House officials have said Reagan may deliver a televised speech to push for congressional approval of the aid package.