The administration wishes that everyone would forget about the four American women missionaries murdered in El Salvador on Dec. 2, 1980. It's a losing fight.
Just before the recess, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) blocked a unanimous-consent request by Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) to consider a resolution that would require the president to certify progress on the investigation of the killings as a condition for further military aid to El Salvador. Michel objected on the grounds that he had not been informed that the bill was coming up.
Subsequently, word was out that a notice had been posted in the Republican cloakroom advising members to object any time Barnes tried to get unanimous consent for his resolution.
Michel's press secretary, Mike Johnson, denies that any such notice was posted. It was, instead, put on "the leadership table" because of one objecting member, he said. Johnson has been beset by indignant calls from around the country, from people who refuse to forget about Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clark and Jean Donovan. He heatedly denies that Michel objected to the substance of the bill.
Michel was simply not advised, as he should have been, Johnson protests. "It was a miscommunication, and these people are conducting a cheap campaign against him."
Barnes, chairman of the inter-American affairs subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee, disagrees.
"I assume he was acting on orders of the White House to block it. I can't imagine any other reason for what he did," Barnes said. Barnes brought up the matter again yesterday under suspension of the rules and encountered no opposition.
If Michel was just standing on his prerogatives, no student of the history of the affair can quarrel with Barnes' suspicions about the White House. From the beginning, in its no-questions-asked support of the Salvadoran military, the Reagan administration has tried alternately to discredit the missionaries or ignore them. In the ugliest moment so far, former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. told a House committee that the victims probably got what they were asking for by running a roadblock and exchanging fire with Salvadoran security forces.
Actually, they were shot in the back of the head, execution-style.
The fear, of course, was that the six Salvadoran enlisted men finally arrested--one was subsequently released--will turn in higher-ups and cause an unraveling of the policy. The administration is asking for $60 million, double the amount requested last year, to support the right-wing government recently voted into office and headed by the notorious hit-man, Roberto D'Aubuisson.
Obviously, Reagan would like to be spared the embarrassment of certifying progress in the murder investigation, when there obviously has been none.
Just as obviously, however, members of Congress cannot be expected to go on record as being indifferent to the fate of four U.S. citizens who met death at the hands of a government we subsidize.
Barnes is hoping for a large vote in the House to take to the conservative Senate, where it is said, there are those who think too much has been made of the murders.
One thing that might shame them into a different stance is a film about one of the victims, the lay missionary, Jean Donovan of Westport, Conn. "Roses in December," as it is called because she once remarked on the miracle of them in El Salvador, was made by two independent film producers, Ana Carigan and Bernard Stone, and is narrated by actor John Houseman.
Carigan undertook the project because she read in a Harper's magazine article by T.D. Allman about the "amazement and joy" of Jean Donovan.
"The nuns were special and different, Jean was so extraordinarily human," says Carigan, who is half South American. Her friend Houseman agreed to to lend his majestic tones to the sound track: "If Professor Kingsfield of 'The Paper Chase' was speaking, nobody could dismiss it as the biased product of a couple of left-wing independent producers."
The victims' families agreed to cooperate. The 55-minute film shows a nice, cheerful, Irish-Catholic girl with blond hair and blue eyes, who loved to ride horses, loved the guitar and loved her slender fiance, Dr. Douglas Cable. But she gave up her good job and went to the slums of El Salvador, to its refugee camps, to its rampant injustice and gunfire because, as she told a friend, "I belong there."
The film gently follows her through her short life--she was 27 when she died--telling her story often in her own words. She wrote many letters and kept a diary. Her friends and her brother, Michael, and the young doctor begged her not to go back after a brief vacation in Ireland. They knew that to the military, church workers are revolutionaries, and targets. She assured them: "They don't shoot blond, blue-eyed North Americans."
But they did.
The people who see the film, which will be shown on Capitol Hill this week and over PBS later this month, will find it harder than ever to forget Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clark and Dorothy Kazel.