Newly released documents have revealed more about Henry Kissinger’s role in Argentina’s Dirty War.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STECHE / ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY
Last March, when President Obama travelled to Argentina to meet with the country’s new President, Mauricio Macri, his public appearances were dogged by protesters who noisily demanded explanations, and apologies, for U.S. policies, past and present. There are few countries in the West where anti-Americanism is as vociferously expressed as in Argentina, where a highly politicized culture of grievance has evolved in which many of the country’s problems are blamed on the United States. On the left, especially, there is lingering resentment over the support extended by the U.S. government to Argentina’s right-wing military, which seized power in March of 1976 and launched a “Dirty War” against leftists that took thousands of lives over the following seven years.
Obama’s visit coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the coup. He pointedly paid homage to the Dirty War’s victims by visiting a shrine built in their honor on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. In an address he gave at the shrine, Obama acknowledged what he characterized as American sins of omission, but he stopped short of issuing an outright apology. “Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for,” he said. “And we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights, and that was the case here.”
In the run-up to Obama’s trip, Susan Rice, the President’s national-security adviser, had announced the Administration’s intention to declassify thousands of U.S. military and intelligence documents pertaining to that tumultuous period in Argentina. It was a good-will gesture aimed at signalling Obama’s ongoing effort to change the dynamic of U.S. relations with Latin America—“to bury the last remnant of the Cold War,” as he said in Havana, during that same trip.
Last week, the first tranche of those declassified documents was released. The documents revealed that White House and U.S. State Department officials were intimately aware of the Argentine military’s bloody nature, and that some were horrified by what they knew. Others, most notably Henry Kissinger, were not. In a 1978 cable, the U.S. Ambassador, Raúl Castro, wrote about a visit by Kissinger to Buenos Aires, where he was a guest of the dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla, while the country hosted the World Cup. “My only concern is that Kissinger’s repeated high praise for Argentina’s action in wiping out terrorism may have gone to some considerable extent to his hosts’ heads,” Castro wrote. The Ambassador went on to write, fretfully, “There is some danger that Argentines may use Kissinger’s laudatory statements as justification for hardening their human rights stance.”
The latest revelations compound a portrait of Kissinger as the ruthless cheerleader, if not the active co-conspirator, of Latin American military regimes engaged in war crimes. In evidence that emerged from previous declassifications of documents during the Clinton Administration, Kissinger was shown not only to have been aware of what the military was doing but to have actively encouraged it. Two days after the Argentine coup, Kissinger was briefed by his Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, William Rogers, who warned him, “I think also we’ve got to expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood, in Argentina before too long. I think they’re going to have to come down very hard not only on the terrorists but on the dissidents of trade unions and their parties.” Kissinger replied, “Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement . . . because I do want to encourage them. I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.”
Under Kissinger’s direction, they certainly were not harassed. Right after the coup, Kissinger sent his encouragement to the generals and reinforced that message by expediting a package of U.S. security assistance. In a meeting with the Argentine foreign minister two months later, Kissinger advised him winkingly, according to a memo written about the conversation, “We are aware you are in a difficult period. It is a curious time, when political, criminal, and terrorist activities tend to merge without any clear separation. We understand you must establish authority. . . . If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”
Argentina’s military forces had launched their coup in order to expand and institutionalize a war that was already under way against leftist guerrillas and their sympathizers. They called their campaign the Process of National Reorganization, or, simply, “el proceso.” During the Dirty War, as it became known, as many as thirty thousand people were secretly abducted, tortured, and executed by the security forces. Hundreds of suspects were buried in anonymous mass graves, while thousands more were stripped naked, drugged, loaded onto military aircraft, and hurled into the sea from the air while they were still alive. The term “los desaparecidos”—“the disappeared”—became one of Argentina’s contributions to the global lexicon.