Moral Low Ground


Declassified Documents Reveal Kissinger Impeded US Effort to Curb Argentine Mass Killings

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Argentine dictator Gen. Jorge Videla

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Argentine dictator Gen. Jorge Videla

The Obama administration on Monday released more than 1,000 pages of newly declassified documents detailing how then-former secretary of state Henry Kissinger obstructed efforts by the Jimmy Carter administration to curb horrific human rights violations being committed by the US-backed military dictatorship in Argentina during that country’s bloody “Dirty War.”

“I believe we have a responsibility to confront the past with honesty and transparency,” President Barack Obama said after handing over the documents to Argentine President Mauricio Macri in Buenos Aires in March, on the 40th anniversary of the 1976 US-backed coup that ushered in a seven-year military dictatorship. The “Dirty War” period was characterized by kidnapping, torture, murder and disappearance. As many as 30,000 people, from clergy, students, trade unionists, journalists and progressive activists to children and even pregnant women (whose babies were stolen), were killed or disappeared. Many of the most brutal regime figures, including the dictator Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, were trained by the US military in kidnapping, torture, assassination and democracy suppression. On the other side of the conflict, leftist militants waged guerrilla warfare against regime forces, killing around 6,000 military, police and other security officers.

On his March visit, Obama added that “democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for, and we’ve been slow to speak out on human rights and that was the case here.”

Having already played an instrumental role in the bloody September 11, 1973 coup that overthrew the democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende and replaced his progressive government with a brutal military dictatorship headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, as well as backing right-wing military regimes throughout the region, Kissinger, then serving under President Gerald Ford, expressed his full support for the Argentine coup plotters in June 1976. In 2004 it was revealed that Kissinger urged the future dictators to act quickly before the US Congress reconvened and that he supported the coup even if it meant that “priests and nuns” and other innocent civilians would be slaughtered.

The newly declassified documents reveal the extent to which Kissinger went to thwart efforts by the Carter administration to place greater importance on human rights around the world, an undertaking that posed great challenges given the US support for some of the world’s worst human rights violators. In December 1975, for example, Ford and Kissinger traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia where they green-lighted Gen. Suharto’s genocidal invasion of East Timor, which resulted in the killing of a third of the population. While the Carter administration was reluctant to press strategically important nations such as Indonesia too hard on human rights, it adopted a “carrot-and-stick” approach where it felt such a policy could be safely implemented.

One memo describes how Carter grilled dictator Jorge Videla, the general who oversaw the disappearance of tens of thousands of people during the “Dirty War,” about alleged human rights abuses during a September 1977 White House visit.

“President Carter ventured a question about the Argentine judicial system, noting that one of the great concerns expressed in the United States is the fact that there are no announcements of the arrest of Argentines or the charges on which they are being held,” the memo said. “President Carter felt that the friendly bilateral relations of over a hundred years were of great value, and he was concerned that this issue could come between the two countries.” A month before Videla’s White House visit, secretary of state Cyrus Vance had personally delivered a list of 7,000 victims of forced disappearance to the general in an attempt to address the sensitive issue.

However, as the Carter administration gently tried to soften the military regime’s oppression, Kissinger, who openly backed the dictatorship, attended the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina as Videla’s personal guest. This infuriated Carter officials.

“His praise for the Argentine government in its campaign against terrorism was the music the Argentine government was longing to hear,” one State Department cable said. Kissinger also arranged a private meeting with Videla at which they discussed Carter’s foreign policy. The US ambassador was not present. Furthermore, Kissinger told the Argentinian Council of International Relations (CARI), a powerful organization comprised of conservative Argentine diplomats, that “the government of Argentina had done an outstanding job in wiping out terrorist forces.”

“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,” US ambassador Raúl Castro wrote in a cable to Washington. “There is some danger that Argentines may use Kissinger’s laudatory statements as justification for hardening their human rights stance.”

However, even within the Carter administration there was disagreement about how to approach the Argentine human rights problem.

“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 US,” warned Carter’s hawkish national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is best known for his efforts to draw the Soviet Union into a Vietnam-style quagmire in Afghanistan that some historians believe hastened the end of Soviet communism.

“Have we gone too far?” Robert Pastor, the National Security Council’s Latin America director, wrote to Brzezinski. “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.”

Argentine Human Rights Secretary Claudio Avruj praised Obama for quickly releasing the US documents.

“We’re surprised by the speed with which the US has delivered this documentation,” Avruj told reporters. “We thought it would take longer.”

“This is a tremendous gesture of declassified diplomacy,” Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst with the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington, DC, told McClatchy DC. “The administration has taken the first step to carry out President Obama’s commitment to Argentine human rights groups.”

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