The Obama administration on Monday released more than 1,000 pages of newly declassified documents relating to U.S. policy toward Argentina’s “dirty war” of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The documents, most from the administration of President Jimmy Carter, reveal a near-constant internal tension between U.S. eagerness to push human rights as Carter’s signature foreign policy issue, and concerns that cutting off aid and trade with Argentina’s ruling military junta could be counterproductive and might push it toward a closer relationship with the Soviet Union.
“When we take actions toward Argentina, which are interpreted as punitive, we not only enrage the right-wing ideologues, we also arouse the business sector and the media in the U.S.,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, wrote in a March 1979 memo to then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
President Obama announced the declassifications in March, on a visit to Argentina that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought the junta to power.
“I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency,” Obama said at the time. An initial tranche of the documents, the same ones as those now made public, were presented to Argentine President Mauricio Macri by Secretary of State John F. Kerry during a visit to Buenos Aires last week.
The State Department released 4,700 pages of its own documents — most of them official communications from the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires — that were ordered declassified by the administration of President Bill Clinton and released in 2002. Others have been released since in response to requests from Argentine judges investigating the abuses of the junta years and to Freedom of Information Act requests from U.S. organizations such as the National Security Archive.
Many of the newly released documents relate to White House policy deliberations and come from Carter’s presidential library in Atlanta. Additional declassifications, from the libraries of former presidents Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, are to take place over the next year. Overall, the records begin in 1975, the year before Argentine President Isabel Perón was overthrown, and end with the restoration of civilian government at the end of 1983.
The seven-year “dirty war” was marked by the disappearance of tens of thousands of people, most of whom were tortured and killed by the military in the name of counterterrorism. While a violent Marxist movement in Argentina was eradicated, most of those purged during the conflict the military defined as “World War III” included student, union, opposition and human rights leaders.
The Monday release, posted on the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “marks an important step forward in the quest for truth, justice and historical accountability,” said Carlos Osorio, director of the National Security Archive’s Southern Cone project.
Earlier document declassifications related to Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador have revealed not only information about how those military governments operated but also the extent of U.S. involvement in supporting them.
The Argentina documents released so far indicate far less direct U.S. involvement and knowledge of the events leading up to the coup and subsequent developments, although previous releases, from the Ford administration, showed significant U.S. sympathy for the junta.
“Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Foreign Minister César Guzzetti in an October 1976 meeting, according to a memorandum of the conversation.
“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. . . . The quicker you succeed, the better,” Kissinger said. Suggesting that human rights abuses were a political problem in the United States, he said that it would be better for the U.S.-Argentina relationship if the situation were resolved “before Congress gets back” in session.
During 1977, Carter’s first year in office, the United States adopted an approach of friendly but increasing concern. A White House memorandum of a meeting between Carter and the junta head, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, began with exchanged pleasantries and Carter’s expression of concern about nuclear nonproliferation — then an issue in the Southern Cone countries of South America.
While he admired the junta’s recent success in “dealing with the problem of terrorism,” Carter said, he hoped that reports of human rights abuses could be addressed.
“The President acknowledged that some of these allegations may be false or exaggerated,” the memo said, “but he felt that in the privacy of the room he could express our concerns” in hopes they would be resolved before they undermined the long and cordial relationship between the two countries.
During 1978, policy vacillated between carrots and sticks, as the administration cut some ties but then restored some, and chafed under congressional mandates to stop arms sales and vote against loans to Argentina by international financial institutions.
“Have we gone too far?” the National Security Council’s Latin America director, Robert Pastor, wrote Brzezinski in an update. “Have we pushed our policy beyond its effectiveness? Are we pushing the Argentines over the edge and jeopardizing our future relationship? Does the terror justify the repression?”
“I, myself, believe that we may have . . . pushed too far,” Pastor wrote.
In early 1979, the State Department told Brzezinski that “there was probably some quantitative improvement” from the previous year in terms of numbers of disappearances, according to a report prepared for Brzezinski. “But the qualitative aspect remained little changed with disappearances continuing at a high rate and torture and prisoner mistreatment common.”
Later that year and into 1980, the State Department and the rest of the administration grew further apart on whether to ease up on the punitive measures toward Argentina. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, leading to U.S. sanctions and an embargo on wheat shipments, which Argentina refused to join, and the Russians had launched several economic initiatives in the South American country.
“Continued improvement in bilateral trade” with the junta government, Commerce Secretary Philip M. Klutznick wrote in a memo to the national security cabinet, “would help offset the Soviet Union’s vigorous effort to expand its trade with Argentina.”
This story has been modified to correct the sequence of events leading to the release in 2002 of State Department documents on Argentina.