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
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.
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
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