Papers Expand on U.S. Role in Guatemala
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 12, 1999; Page A25
As the second-ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala in the late 1960s, Peter Vaky was deeply troubled by American support for the Guatemalan military, then waging a brutal campaign against Marxist guerrillas and their suspected civilian sympathizers.
So, despite the State Department culture of the times – with the Vietnam War raging and the Cold War at its zenith – he took an extraordinary step. On March 29, 1968, shortly after leaving Guatemala, Vaky wrote an eloquent memo condemning his embassy's tolerance of state-sponsored terrorism, which he said targeted innocent civilians and undermined American principles.
"My deepest regret is that I did not fight harder within embassy councils when I was there to press these views," Vaky wrote in the six-page State Department document. "I can in any case understand quite well how easy it is to be complacent and rationalize things."
Vaky's anguish might never have come to light if not for the National Security Archive, a Washington-based nonprofit group that released it Wednesday along with thousands of other U.S. documents relating to Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended with a U.N.-brokered peace settlement in 1996.
Taken as a whole, the documents show that Washington not only was aware of the Guatemalan military's excesses against civilians but continued to support it – sometimes openly, sometimes not – throughout the bloodiest days of the conflict, which killed 200,000 people.
In condemning that policy, Vaky's document stands alone. "I have never seen, in a U.S. document, the baring of the soul you see in Vaky's memo," said Kate Doyle, a project manager at the archive who has worked for a decade to declassify documents relating to U.S. support for anti-communist operations in Central America. "He is clearly tormented by the U.S. complicity but also by his own failure to act while serving in the embassy. You don't find that level of moral and ethical discussion in your standard embassy cable."
Visiting Guatemala on Wednesday during a tour of the region, President Clinton expressed his regret over the U.S. role in the conflict. Clinton said that U.S. support for military forces that "engaged in violent and widespread repression" in Guatemala "was wrong."
In a report issued in Guatemala last month, an independent commission that grew out of the U.N.-sponsored peace process blamed security forces backed by Washington for the vast majority of the abuses committed in the war, including the burning of entire Indian villages, torture, kidnapping and murder.
For years, U.S. officials said they had no direct knowledge of the state-sanctioned brutality. But the newly released documents, including Vaky's cable, show that was not true. "The official squads are guilty of atrocities," Vaky wrote. "Interrogations are brutal, torture is used, and bodies are mutilated."
Vaky expressed the view that the image of the United States in Latin America was being tarnished by its support for repressive governments in the region. "This leads me to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all – that we have not been honest with ourselves," Vaky wrote.
"We HAVE condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged and blessed it," he continued. "We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness. . . . Murder, torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists."
Somewhat to his surprise, Vaky, now 73, was not reproached for his candor and went on to have a distinguished career, serving on Henry Kissinger's staff in the early 1970s before being appointed ambassador to Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela. He retired from the foreign service in 1980 after serving two years as assistant secretary of state for Latin America and is now a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy research organization.
Asked why he wasn't reprimanded for writing the cable, Vaky laughed and said, "Because no one read what I wrote." He acknowledged, however, that any sympathy for his views within the State Department evaporated five months later, when the guerrillas assassinated U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein in Guatemala City.
But Vaky said he knew the memo was right when he wrote it, even though he did not have all the details of the military abuses and U.S. support for the army that the rest of the documents reveal. Vaky said he made his views known even though he was warned by others in the State Department that he would be viewed as soft on communism and sympathetic to those protesting the Vietnam War in the United States.
"I felt we were far too quiescent," Vaky said. "But the worst thing was what it was doing to us, as the United States."
He said that while other people at the embassy may have shared his feelings, the morality of U.S. support for the military was never discussed. "We never debated it as an ethical question," Vaky said in a telephone interview. "The issues were never really posed that way."
But he did pose them that way in his memo. "Is it conceivable that we are so obsessed with insurgency that we are prepared to rationalize murder as an acceptable counter-insurgency weapon?" the memo asked.
Without taking a stand against the military's methods, he warned: "We will stand before history unable to answer the accusations that we encouraged the Guatemalan army to do these things."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company