The Argentinian Dirty War is the name used by the military junta of Argentina for the period of United States-backed state terrorism in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 as a part of Operation Condor, during which military security forces and right-wing death squads hunted down any political dissidents and anyone believed to be associated with socialism, left-wing Peronism or the Montoneros movement.
I found some internal memos outlining some very interesting conversations between the Argentinian military junta and the White House. Below are my favorite excerpts.
Memorandum of Conversation. Washington D.C., October 6, 1976, 1:00pm
Subject: U.S.-Argentine Relations
- His Excellency Rear Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship of the Argentine Republic
- His Excellency Arnoldo Tomas Musich, Ambassador of the Argentine Republic
- Colonel Repetto Pelaez, Undersecretary General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- His Excellency Federico Bartfeld, Chief, Latin American Division of Foreign Ministry
- The Acting Secretary of State Charles W. Robinson
- The Honorable Harry W. Shlaudeman, Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs
- Mr. Robert W. Zimmermann, Director, Office of East Coast Affairs, ARA/ECA
- The Honorable Edwin M. Martin, Chairman, Consultative Group on Food Production and Investment in Developing Countries, IBRD
After an initial exchange of amenities, and mutual expressions of gratification in connection with the rededication of the statue of San Martin that morning, Foreign Minister Guzzetti conveyed his appreciation for this opportunity to exchange views on certain items of mutual interest.
Guzzetti began the substantive conversation by noting that the military government is now six months old and that its antecedents and current situation are well known. Nevertheless, he said, he wished to express his personal views, especially regarding subversion. In this regard he noted that the government had achieved some success and there are hopes that within three to four months the government will have dealt with the subversive groups. However, he said, Argentina has other problems as well: educational, social and economic; the most important of which is the need to push economic reform.
One of the most important issues facing the government, Guzzetti continued, is the capacity of international terrorist groups to support the Argentine terrorists through propaganda and funds. The armed forces, when they took over in March, found the country destroyed economically and psychologically. It was a country in crisis. But in six months the government is on the road to recovery. The outside world speaks of the Argentine government as rightist and fascist. This is far from reality. Argentina had to face the situation realistically and is trying to find a means to interpret the situation to the outside world. The present regime wishes to establish a democracy; this is the nation’s most important task.
Obviously, he continued, Argentina is now facing a kind of subversive civil war. During this initial period the situation may seem to call for measures that are not acceptable in the long term. The real question, he emphasized, is knowing how long to continue these tough measures and noted that the Foreign Minister had indicated that they might be required for another three or four months.
Guzzetti responded that the outside world must recognize that the terrorist groups have a complex underground structure abetted from abroad. Their destruction will require yet another two or three months. The relaxation of government measures will be gradual and the return to political normalcy will not be immediate. This will require time, and the restoration of the economy will also take time. Argentina is just finishing the first phase of its program but is aware that there exists a certain impatience in the outside world.
The problem is that the United States is an idealistic and moral country and its citizens have great difficulty in comprehending the kinds of problems faced by Argentina today. There is a tendency to apply our moral standards abroad and Argentina must understand the reaction of Congress with regard to loans and military assistance. The American people, right or wrong, have the perception that today there exists in Argentina a pattern of gross violations of human rights. Under current legislation the administration might be prevented under certain circumstances from voting for loans in the IDB, for example. The government is placed in a difficult position. In reality there are two elements that must be considered. First, how long is it necessary to maintain a very firm, tough position? Our Congress returns in January and if there is a clear-cut reduction in the intensity of the measures being taken by the Government of Argentina, then there would in fact be a changing situation where the charge that a consistent pattern of gross violations exists could be seen as invalid.
Guzzetti asked, in relation to human rights, why it is that only one side of that issue receives attention. Nothing is said, for example, when a military official is killed. It is a question of subversive groups who are underground and controlled from abroad. Their existence has important ramifications and requires special actions.
Ambassador Martin noted that he is no longer a USG official but he has talked with many people interested in Argentina and he is convinced that one thing must be achieved if anti-Argentine opinion in the U.S. is to be weakened. People must be provided with convincing evidence that the only terrorism is leftist terrorism.
Acting Secretary Robinson remarked that in 1850, when the State of California was struggling to become established, the official forces of law and order were inadequate. Consequently, the people organized vigilante groups but the U.S. has forgotten this bit of history and forgets that comparable conditions exist elsewhere today.
The Acting Secretary noted that our job is to determine what we can do about this situation. He said we would be remiss if we did not underline again the very serious problem we face with our Congress unless Argentina can properly explain its position and move to a situation in which it is able to soften its countersubversion measures. This will be necessary in order to avoid the concept of a consistent pattern of gross violations, and the changed situation must be perceived by the American public.
Ambassador Martin remarked that if members of religious groups violate the law it is essential that they not simply “disappear.” It should be sufficient to arrest them and bring them to trial.
Acting Secretary Robinson said that it would be helpful if the Foreign Minister were to repeat his views to the Secretary in New York. The United States, he said, is anxious to cooperate with Argentina within the limits imposed by our Congress; the United States wishes Argentina success in its endeavors.
Pause for a moment and think about Ambassador Martin’s comment. He KNEW that the military junta was actively making people “disappear”. Let that sink in for a minute.
The next day, Guzzetti and his team flew to New York to meet with Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.
Memorandum of Conversation. New York, October 7, 1976, 5:15pm
Subject: Secretary’s Meeting with Argentine Foreign Minister Guzzetti
- Foreign Minister Cesar Augusto Guzzetti
- Ambassador to the United States Arnoldo T. Musich
- Ambassador to the UN Carlos Ortiz de Rosas
- The Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger
- Under Secretary Philip Habib
- Assistant Secretary Harry W. Shlaudeman
- Fernando Rondon (notetaker)
- Anthony Hervas (Interpreter)
Foreign Minister Guzzetti: That is not too much. Mr. Secretary, I’m going to speak in Spanish. You will recall our meeting in Santiago. I want to talk about events in Argentina during the last four months. Our struggle has had very good results in the last four months. The terrorist organizations have been dismantled. If this direction continues, by the end of the year the danger will have been set aside. There will always be isolated attempts, of course.
The Secretary: When will they be overcome? Next Spring?
Foreign Minister Guzzetti: No, by the end of this year. With respect to economic steps and the results we have achieved, with your support we have been able to achieve results. The recovery is continuing. We will begin to go upwards. The facts are clear enough.
The Secretary: Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed the better.
The human rights problem is a growing one. Your Ambassador can apprise you. We want a stable situation. We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help.
On economics, we have Harkin. We will do our utmost not to apply it to Argentina unless the situation gets out of control. There are two loans in the bank. We have no intention of voting against them. We hope you will keep our problems in mind. Eventually we will be forced into it.
In effect, the United States gave their approval to the “dirty war” in Argentina in the 1970s in which up to 30,000 people were killed and countless others disappeared.
Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State, urged the Argentinian military regime to act before the U.S. Congress resumed session and told it that Washington would not cause it “unnecessary difficulties”.
At the time of these visits by the Argentinian delegation, the U.S. Congress, concerned about allegations of widespread human rights abuses, was poised to approve sanctions against the military regime.
The White House made sure that the Argentinian government understood that they have friends in Washington that they can count on for support.
I argue that the Argentinian military junta would not have continued to carry out atrocities unless it had the tacit approval of the U.S., on which it was dependent for financial and military aid.
It’s like Kissinger said: “friends ought to be supported“.
Thanks for reading,
FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES, 1969–1976, VOLUME E–11, PART 2, DOCUMENTS ON SOUTH AMERICA, 1973–1976
The National Security Archive: The Dirty War in Argentina