Home

Speaking

Biography

Documents

In the Press

Books


Kissinger and Argentina's "Terrorist Problem"
The Condor Year, Chapter 12

Exclusive: The official involved in the Foreign Affairs exchanges has authored misleading defenses of Kissinger in the past.
William Rogers in 1987 denied existence of cables showing Kissinger undercut his ambassador to Argentina on human rights, but the cables are now published in The Condor Years.

Excerpt from Chapter 12.

Chapter 12: Kissinger and Argentina’s “Terrorist Problem” (Excerpt)
….
It would be naïve to suggest that it was entirely within the power of the U.S. government to prevent the military governments of the Condor countries from killing and torturing their own citizens in their own territory, even if that were an unambiguous policy goal. Likewise, the failure to deliver a clear message to Chile was not the cause of the unprecedented act of terrorism on U.S. soil. But it was certainly the responsibility of U.S. officials to try to stop or limit the ongoing slaughter when the opportunity presented itself.

In this chapter our investigation will reveal cases in which quite the opposite happened. In the first case, Secretary of State Kissinger directly undercut the human rights efforts of his ambassador to Argentina.

Ambassador Robert Hill an unlikely human rights hero. He married into the enormously wealthy W.R. Grace family, whose vast investments and unabashed manipulations of political power in Latin America had made it the stereotype--for Latin Americans--of Yankee imperialism. He was a Republican Party activist who had served in Congress and in several political appointments in the State and Defense Departments under Presidents Nixon and Ford. As ambassador to Spain, he was known as an inveterate defender of Generalisimo Franco.

As Argentina sank deeper into violence in 1976, however, Ambassador Hill responded not with anticommunist ideology and pro-business instincts but with simple moral outrage at the mounting evidence of mass murder surrounding him. When the military coup took place in March, Hill had been in conversations with prospective coup leaders, and had been encouraged by assurances that the new government would avoid the atrocities of the Pinochet takeover in Chile. Indeed, for the first weeks, that seemed to be the case, and the scattered killings that occurred were able to be explained as the work of death squads outside the control of the military junta. In line with official U.S. policy, Hill endorsed the military's goals to bring order and defeat leftist terrorism.

As described in Chapter 9, neither human rights observers nor U.S. intelligence were aware that the military had already begun a program of secret exterminations of hundreds of suspected enemies in the months before the coup. It would be months before the extent of the mass killing would be discovered. The events that destroyed the illusion of a "moderate" military junta were the killings of foreign leaders in Argentina--crimes now known to be linked to Operation Condor--the murders of Uruguayan leaders Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutiérrez, followed quickly by the assassination of former president Juan José Torres of Bolivia.

Hill cabled the State Department in late May that "the time has come for a demarche at the highest level" to call attention to the worsening human rights situation. He received authorization for an urgent meeting with the new foreign minister, Admiral Cesar Guzzetti, and gave him a strong message of U.S. concern. Those who killed Michelini and Gutiérrez and others, Hill said, "seem to operate with impunity are generally believed to be connected with the Argentine security forces. Whether they are or not, their continued operation can only be harmful to the GOA [government of Argentina] itself and cause consternation among Argentina's friends abroad." (1)

The killings only escalated, despite Hill's imprecations. At a subsequent meeting with Guzzetti, Hill got an inkling that his tough message on human rights may have been undermined by a different message from Washington, even before he delivered it. At his September 17 meeting, Hill brought up the murders several weeks earlier of several priests and the discovery of a pile of bodies of suspected guerrillas at the locality of Pilar north of Buenos Aires. Yet Foreign Minister Guzzetti seemed to dismiss Hill's concerns, according to Hill's cable to Washington. (2)

"THE FOREIGN MINISTER SAID GOA HAD BEEN SOMEWHAT SURPRISED BY INDICATIONS OF SUCH STRONG CONCERN ON THE PART OF THE USG IN HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION IN ARGENTINA. WHEN HE HAD SEEN SECY OF STATE KISSINGER IN SANTIAGO*, THE LATTER HAD SAID HE 'HOPED THE ARGENTINE GOVT COULD GET THE TERRORIST PROBLEM UNDER CONTROL AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.' GUZZETTI SAID THAT HE HAD REPORTED THIS TO PRESIDENT VIDELA AND TO THE CABINET, AND THAT THEIR IMPRESSION HAD BEEN THAT USG'S OVERRIDING CONCERN WAS NOT HUMAN RIGHTS BUT RATHER THAT GOA 'GET IT OVER QUICKLY.'”

Hill said he tried to explain that secretary Kissinger surely was not implying insensitivity toward human rights and that "murdering priests and dumping 47 bodies in the street in one day could not be seen in context of defeating terrorists quickly. …What USG hoped was that GOA could soon defeat terrorists, yes. But do so as nearly as possible within the law. I said if any other meaning had been placed on the secretary's remarks, I was sure it was a misinterpretation."

Hill was hopeful he had corrected misconceptions he believed Guzzetti had taken away from his Santiago conversation with Kissinger. There would be another opportunity soon to drive home the message on human rights. Guzzetti said he was traveling to Washington in October, and Hill helped set up a series of high-level meetings, including separate meetings with Kissinger and vice president Nelson Rockefeller. Human rights would be high on the list of talking points.

But when Guzzetti returned from Washington, Hill learned that no such thing had happened. Far from appearing chastened, Admiral Guzzetti was "euphoric" and greeted Hill with an effusive and uncharacteristic hug when they met. The meetings had been a grand success, and Guzzetti had already delivered an enthusiastic report to President Videla. He had encountered barely a word of criticism about human rights but rather "consensus … to get the terrorist problem over as soon as possible."

From Rockefeller, he said he heard, "finish the terrorist problem quickly… the US wanted a strong Argentina and wanted to cooperate with the GOA."

From Kissinger: "The secretary, he said, had reiterated the advice given to him at the Santiago meeting, had urged Argentina 'to be careful' and had said that if the terrorist problem was over by December or January, he (the secretary) believed serious problems could be avoided in the US."

His open-arms reception in Washington "had gone far beyond his expectations." Guzzetti "expressed appreciation that high officials in our government 'understand the Argentine problem and stand with us during this difficult period.'"

Ambassador Hill reported the conversations to Washington on October 19 in a long cable in which he barely controlled his fury.

"GUZZETTI WENT TO THE U.S. FULLY EXPECTING TO HEAR SOME STRONG, FIRM, DIRECT WARNINGS ON HIS GOVT'S HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES. RATHER THAN THAT, HE HAS RETURNED IN A STATE OF JUBILATION, CONVINCED THAT THERE IS NO REAL PROBLEM WITH THE U.S. OVER THIS ISSUE. BASED ON WHAT GUZZETTI IS DOUBTLESS REPORTING TO THE GOA, IT MUST NOW BELIEVE THAT IF IT HAS ANY PROBLEMS WITH THE U.S. OVER HUMAN RIGHTS, THEY ARE CONFINED TO CERTAIN ELEMENTS OF CONGRESS AND WHAT IT REGARDS AS SLANTED AND/OR UNINFORMED MINOR SEGMENTS OF PUBLIC OPINION. WHILE THIS CONVICTION EXISTS, IT WILL BE UNREALISTIC AND INEFFECTUAL FOR THIS EMBASSY TO PRESS REPRESENTATIONS TO THE GOA OVER HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS. HILL." (3)

Hill's angry cable was a rare example of an ambassador daring to criticize Secretary of State Kissinger in an official communication, and his effrontery was not missed in Washington. Assistant Secretary Shlaudeman put the matter on Kissinger's desk within hours. "Bob Hill has registered for the record his concern for human rights in a bitter complaint about our purported failure to impress on Foreign Minister Guzzetti how seriously we view the rightist violence in Argentina," he wrote to Kissinger. "I propose to respond for the record."

Kissinger approved Shlaudeman's response to Hill, which began:

"AS IN OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES YOU HAVE UNDOUBTEDLY ENCOUNTERED IN YOUR DIPLOMATIC CAREER, GUZZETTI HEARD ONLY WHAT HE WANTED TO HEAR. HE WAS TOLD IN DETAIL HOW STRONGLY OPINION IN THIS COUNTRY HAS REACTED AGAINST REPORTS OF ABUSES BY THE SECURITY FORCES…GUZZETTI'S INTERPRETATION IS STRICTLY HIS OWN." (4)

Shlaudeman's clarifications, however, referred explicitly only to his own meeting with Guzzetti. His cable did not challenge Guzzetti’s version of remarks attributed to Kissinger and Rockefeller. He seemed to throw up his hands. *

"IN ANY EVENT, YOU AND WE HAVE LAID IT OUT AS BEST WE COULD. IN THE CIRCUMSTANCES, I AGREE THAT THE ARGENTINES WILL HAVE TO MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS AND THAT FURTHER EXHORTATIONS OR GENERALIZED LECTURES FROM US WOULD NOT BE USEFUL AT THIS POINT."

The futility of the ambassador's lectures could not have been clearer as the toll of atrocities by the Argentine military mounted in the waning months of 1976. Kissinger's State Department was sending both a red light and a green light, and the green light was coming from a higher authority--Kissinger himself. Hill described a "discouraging" meeting with President Videla several weeks before in which the Argentine president put the embassy officials in their subordinate place. Videla repeated Guzzetti's version of his friendly visit with Kissinger and contrasted it to the ambassador's pressing attitude on human rights. Videla then said, according to Hill, "He had the impression senior officers of USG understood [the] situation his government faces but junior bureaucrats do not."

If there were lingering doubts about Kissinger's real sentiments about Argentina’s war on terrorism, they were dispelled after the secretary of state left office and was welcomed by the junta in a private visit in 1978. According to a cable by the new ambassador, Raul Castro, Kissinger met alone with Videla to offer suggestions about how to improve relations with the U.S. government, under President Jimmy Carter, who had placed unprecedented emphasis on human rights. In open meetings with prominent Argentines, Kissinger lavishly praised the Videla government. "He explained his opinion [that] GOA [Government of Argentina] had done an outstanding job in wiping out terrorist forces. But also cautioned that methods used in fighting terrorism must not be perpetuated."

Indeed, Argentina's military leaders had followed Kissinger's recipe for quick, intensive victory in the war on terrorism. The government had moved with all speed. Roberto Santucho and the top ERP leadership were killed in a raid in July. By the end of 1976, the ERP had been eliminated as a guerrilla force, and Montoneros were fleeing the country. More than 4,000 people had disappeared into the military network of secret torture camps. Another 1000 people were killed in military actions in which bodies were left behind and could be identified. Not surprisingly, the Argentine military had ignored Kissinger’s advice to change their “methods” once the war was won. The secret killing continued throughout 1977 and 1978, resulting in 3937 additional disappearances, according to the conservative count of the Sabato commission.

A State Department intelligence report six months after the coup gave this detailed assessment of the war on terrorism that was to merit such high praise from Kissinger: "The most spectacular aspect of the counter-terrorist drive has been the murderous exploits of extralegal, right-wing goon squads. (5) Operating with impunity and usually posing as security officials, the right-wingers are responsible for abducting and/or murdering hundreds of "leftist security risks," including political exiles from neighboring countries, foreign nationals, politicians, students, journalists, and priest. A few actual terrorists probably have fallen prey to rightist vengeance, but the great majority of the victims have not been guerrillas." (6)
(end excerpt)

Notes:

1 Hill demarche on human rights: Buenos Aires 3462, May 25, 1976, "Request for Instructions." State 129048, May 25, 1976, "Proposed Demarche on Human Rights." (Argentina Project).

2 Guzzetti dismisses concerns: Buenos Aires 6130, September 20, 1976, "Other aspects of September 17 Conversation with Foreign Minister. (Argentina Project). Kissinger's conversation with Guzzetti in Santiago was first reported by Martin Edwin Andersen, "Kissinger and the Dirty War," The Nation, October 31, 1987. Andersen's article was based on a memo by Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Patricia Derian, who was told the story by Hill during a visit to Argentina in March 1977. In response to Andersen's article, William Rogers, a close associate of Kissinger's who served as Assistant Secretary for Latin America before Shlaudeman, cast doubt on the story by claiming--inaccurately-- that Hill had never reported his concern about the Guzzetti-Kissinger conversation to the State Department. In a letter prepared for Kissinger and sent to The Nation, Rogers writes: "Hill never told us during the last six months of 1976, while he was working the human rights issue so energetically, that you had misled Guzzetti, or that the junta was under a dangerously misguided impression about your attitude."
* Kissinger met with Foreign Minister Guzzetti during the OAS meeting in Santiago, the same occasion of Kissinger’s meeting with Pinochet described in Chapter 10.

3 Guzzetti euphoric: "Foreign Minister Guzzetti euphoric over visit to United States," Buenos Aires 6871, Octover 19, 1976. (Argentina Project)

4 Shlaudeman response: State 262786, October 22, 1976, "Guzzetti's Visit to the U.S." (Argentina Project). There is a further wrinkle to this exchange. I found another version of the same cable, with a different concluding paragraph. The alternate version, released to an Argentine court in response to a request under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), instructs Hill to persevere in his representations. "We will continue to impress on Argentina representatives here, as we expect you to do there, that the USG regards most seriously Argentina's international commitments to protect and promote fundamental human rights." About Kissinger's views, this version says that Hill should tell Guzzetti to read a recent speech on human rights given by Kissinger to the Synagogue Council of America. No explanation for the radically differing versions could be learned.
* Shlaudeman, referred to the episode in an oral history interview in 1993, when asked about the controversy over human rights policy: "It really came to a head when I was Assistant Secretary, or it began to come to a head, in the case of Argentina where the dirty war was in full flower. Bob Hill, who was Ambassador then in Buenos Aires, a very conservative Republican politician -- by no means liberal or anything of the kind, began to report quite effectively about what was going on, this slaughter of innocent civilians, supposedly innocent civilians -- this vicious war that they were conducting, underground war. He, at one time in fact, sent me a back-channel telegram saying that the Foreign Minister, who had just come for a visit to Washington and had returned to Buenos Aires, had gloated to him that Kissinger had said nothing to him about Human Rights. I don't know -- I wasn't present at the interview." Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, interviewed by William E. Knight, May 24, 1993.

5 Actually, it was the military, not right wingers---quote Chaplain cable.

6 INR assessment: INR Report no. 603, "Argentina: Six Months of Military Government, September 30, 1976. (Argentina Project).



 

Order  The Condor Years directly from The New Press by mail, or On Line. Order other books by John Dinges