Newly released records hint at
a horrifying U.S. complicity in dark deeds of right-wing dictators
by Christopher Hitchens
VanityFair.com, December 2004
Sometimes, in spite of its stolid, boring
commitment to lying, a despotic regime will actually tell you
all you need to know. It invents a titanic system of slave-labor
camps, for example, and it gives this network of arid, landlocked
isolation centers the beautiful anagram of gulag. (Adding the
word "archipelago" to that piece of bureaucratic compression
was the work of an aesthetic and moral genius.) The stone-faced
morons who run the military junta in Burma used to call themselves
slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council), which was hardly
less revealing. The Brezhnev occupation regime, imposed on the
romantic city of Prague after the invasion of 1968, proclaimed
its aim as "normalization": a word eloquent enough in
itself to send every writer and artist either hastening across
the border or entering "internal exile." The British
colonial official who thought up the term "concentration
camp" (because, after all, the discontented Boer families
of South Africa needed to be "concentrated" somewhere,
if only for their own good) was an innocent pioneer of this lethal
and revealing euphemism. In the end, the mask will grow to fit
the monstrous face that lies underneath.
A possible exception to this is the word
desaparecido, which was the special new expression that was added
to the bulging, ugly lexicon of terror and dictatorship in the
1970s. In English, it simply means "the one who has disappeared."
But when pronounced in Spanish it possesses, at least to my ear,
a much more plaintive and musical tone. It's as if you could hear
the lost ones crying out, still. It has an awful, lingering attractiveness
to it, which becomes chilly and almost pornographic when you reflect
how long and how loudly they were made to scream before they were
dispatched, and buried like offal or garbage.
I want to write, now, exactly about the
pornography of power. In South America today, the hidden resting-places
of los desaparecidos are being found all the time. New and democratic
governments, assisted by principled lawyers and judges and forensic
investigators, are disinterring and identifying the maimed and
twisted corpses of men and women, and of boys and girls, who were
lost to their friends and families about a quarter of a century
ago. (The critical resource for this and the rest of the story
of Argentina is Martin Edwin Andersen's 1993 book, Dossier Secreto.)
At the same time, in Washington, D.C., the declassification process
for government documents is entering the disclosure phase. And,
in a horrible way that is not being faced, the two excavations
have begun to converge. From the standpoint of their victims,
the death squads of Argentina and Chile were going about their
busy work with the approval-no, the encouragement-of the secretary
of state of the United States of America.
There it was in cold print in the early
fall of 2004, filtered through the comparatively inoffensive bureaucratic
term "Telcon." These were the "telephone conversations"
which Henry Kissinger ordered his State Department subordinates
to record, most often in secret. At the time, he probably thought
they would give him leverage. Now they have returned to haunt
him, and also us. (See the National Security Archive: www.nsarchive.org.)
The most significant of these is dated
June 30, 1976. In it, Kissinger displays tremendous ill temper.
He has just learned of a complaint to the Argentinean generals
about their regrettable habit of making their critics disappear.
How, Kissinger demands to be told, has anyone gotten the idea
that this démarche represents his view: "In what way
is it compatible with my policy?" Addressing his aide for
Latin America, Harry Shlaudeman, Kissinger says, "I want
to know who did this and consider having him transferred."
The person responsible for this atrocity-of
having protested murder and torture rather than having endorsed
and incited it-was the late Robert Hill. I have good reason to
remember Mr. Hill, a very conservative gentleman who had served
several American administrations as a Cold War diplomat, and who
was known for his stoic anti-Communism. Nonetheless, Ambassador
Hill knew enough to know that the Argentinean junta, which had
grabbed power in 1976, was keeping itself in power by illegal
means. There might be a threat from Communist and Peronist subversives
in the country, Hill told Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti, Argentina's
foreign minister, but "murdering priests and dumping 47 bodies
in the street in one day could not be seen in the context of defeating
the terrorists quickly; on the contrary, such acts were probably
counterproductive. What the USG [United States government] hoped
was that the GOA [government of Argentina] could soon defeat terrorists,
yes, but do so as nearly as possible within the law."
You can easily see that this was not an
especially hard-line position on the ambassador's part. But it
was too much for Kissinger, who wanted to transfer him, and went
on to do worse.
Before I explain what the "worse"
was, I must purge my memory of a story that still plagues me.
I possess a photograph of myself, from December of 1977, shaking
the hand of General Jorge Rafaél Videla, who was then the
dictator of Argentina. The picture was taken in the Casa Rosada,
that pink presidential palace in Buenos Aires from which Juan
and Evita Perón had once harangued the masses. General
Videla is now under house arrest in his own country for, among
other things, trading the babies of the tortured rape victims
who were held in his own secret prison. You might want to run
your eye back over that last sentence and appreciate every stage
of it. The Macbeth family had a notoriously hard time getting
the blood off their hands, or shaking the impression that their
hands were still reeking. To this day I wish that I had stiffly
sat down for that interview without the polite grip-and-grin that
I gave to Videla.
Our conversation was horrifying. I asked
him about the desaparecidos, who then numbered about 15,000, according
to reputable international reports. (The true figure is probably
more like 30,000.) He gave me the "shit happens" response
that he had already evolved. People disappear in all societies.
Teenagers run away, cars crash, suicides occur. Moreover, some
panicked subversive elements were in hiding or "underground,"
because they were afraid of the wrath of their former comrades,
whose ranks they had wisely deserted. What could one do? The accusation
that his government was responsible was one that he denied roundly.
(I still remember how he spoke the word rotundamente.)
Well, I had a reply to that, which I had
learned from the desperately brave Madres de la Plaza de Mayo,
the group of white-scarved mothers who assembled every week in
the main square, under the glare of the soldiers with dark glasses
and steel helmets, to display pictures of their missing children.
Even allowing for all that the general had said, and even supposing
that those on the run had never managed to telephone their families
to say that they were still alive, what of the case of Claudia
Inez Grumberg? She was a quadriplegic. She could therefore have
neither become a runaway nor joined a guerrilla group. And many
witnesses placed her last sighting in the hands of General Videla's
police. Hardly abashed, the dictator replied that, if what I said
was indeed true, then the girl must have been guilty of "ideological
crime." Those who attacked the "Western and Christian"
way of life with spoken words and written articles were, he added,
often more dangerous than bombers.
One reads occasionally about the face
of Fascism and all that, but this was the first time that I had
really looked straight down the gun barrel at what was involved.
The regime was openly anti-Jewish and had kidnapped the courageous
editor of La Opinion, Jacobo Timerman. The government's whole
ideology was thoroughly racist and totalitarian. My neck hair
stood up, not just at this obvious realization but at a nasty
glance I received from one of Videla's sidekicks. This thug had
understood that the general had made a stupidly revealing admission.
I had been given a damaging story. I was followed, too, for some
days afterward, and wouldn't happily repeat the experience.
But the general had felt he had to answer
my questions, and his goons didn't feel quite up to menacing me
further, because the whole context had recently changed. Henry
Kissinger was gone. President Carter had appointed an assistant
secretary of state for human rights, Patricia Derian, a true civil-rights
southern belle who had made it clear that the sunshine days for
the regime had passed. She wouldn't stop asking about the whereabouts
of Jacobo Timerman until his Jew-baiting torturers finally gave
up and let him go. The difference made by the change in Washington's
policy was the literal difference, for many Argentinean dissidents,
between life and death.
And the corollary of that cliché
applies. This is what I meant by "worse." Only a few
months before the election of Carter, Ambassador Robert Hill had
spoken mildly to the insufferable Admiral Guzzetti, as quoted
above, about the murdered priests and the cadavers in the street,
before the latter left on a ticklish visit to Henry Kissinger.
When Guzzetti came back, according to Hill in a subsequent cable,
he had stopped being nervous and had become cocky. Having departed
"fully expecting to hear some strong, firm, direct warnings
on his government's human rights practices," he came back
from seeing Kissinger "in a state of jubilation." Guzzetti,
Hill minuted, had become convinced that there is no real problem
withthe USG [United States government] over this issue.
Based on what Guzzetti is doubtless reporting
to the GOA [government of Argentina], it must now believe that
if it has any problems with the U.S. over human rights, they are
confined to certain elements of Congress and what it regards as
biased and/or uninformed minor segments of public opinion. While
that conviction lasts, it will be unrealistic and unbelievable
for this embassy to press representations to the GOA over human
How had Guzzetti managed to walk away
from a chat with the secretary of state with this impression?
And how did the vendor of those privatized rape-babies (the fate
of whose mothers is something you don't really want to think about
for too long) get a smirk on his face when he heard his envoy's
news? That's easy. Kissinger had explicitly told Guzzetti not
that he should slow down the rate of kidnappings and murders and
disappearances but that he should speed it up. Hill's memo to
Kissinger is perfectly plain. Guzzetti was told in June 1976 that
"if the terrorist problem was over by December or January
... serious problems could be avoided in the U.S." Get on
with it, in other words. The number of desaparecidos in Argentina
at that stage has been calculated at 1,022. In October, at the
Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Kissinger told Guzzetti, "the quicker
you succeed the better." The steep and rapid climb into the
tens of thousands was incited. And the sick friendship continued.
Even after he had been retired by the election of 1976, and even
as the Argentinean dictatorship became a skunk among nations,
Kissinger accepted an invitation to be General Videla's personal
guest at the soccer World Cup, hosted in Buenos Aires in 1978.
On that occasion, he chose to publicly sneer at the Carter administration
for its emphasis on human rights. He could give up his role as
a diplomat, but not his career as a one-man death-support machine.
At the same gathering of Latin-American
dictators at which he reassured Guzzetti, Kissinger had also met
with General Augusto Pinochet, of Chile. In a private session,
he promised the man who had abolished civilian rule that the United
States was on his side against the international Communist conspiracy.
The transcripts show another detail: in some ways a more sinister
one. General Pinochet twice makes nasty references to the former
Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier, who had gone into exile
in Washington, D.C., and who was making life hard for the regime
by his lobbying of senators and congressmen. Kissinger says nothing
in reply. Three months later, a car bomb was detonated by a car
stalking Letelier's, creating mayhem during a D.C. rush hour and
killing Letelier and his American secretary. No other dictatorship,
unless you include the Taliban, has ever tried anything so hideous
on American soil. It is now impossible to doubt that the order
for this outrage was directly given by General Pinochet.
True, as has also been established by
equally meticulous inquiries, Kissinger himself was complicit
in the assassination of a Chilean general, René Schneider
by name, on a street of Santiago in 1970. But this is not exactly
tit for tat, since General Schneider was a constitutional officer
opposed to a coup, and so both murders were designed to help General
Pinochet. And both-need I add?-subverted or circumvented the legal
and democratic order in the United States.
Publication of the "telcons"
drew no comment from Henry Kissinger, whose office informed The
New York Times that he was "traveling" and unavailable.
Seeking to improve on this, I sent a written communication and
received a reply from Kissinger's former deputy William Rogers,
who had been present at that meeting with Pinochet, and who desired
me to point out that Kissinger had always publicly opposed death
squads and dictatorial conduct. He also wanted it to be clear
that he had thought both Argentina and Chile were in such chaotic
condition in the 1970s as to make military takeovers justifiable,
if not desirable.
We sometimes like to sneer at the "banana
republic" political culture of Latin America. But here's
how things now stand. Argentinean courts have incarcerated Videla.
The Chilean courts have just lifted the immunity of Pinochet,
who has additionally been accused of using Riggs Bank in Washington,
D.C., to stash a fortune in stolen money and other loot. The families
of the disappeared have begun to receive a measure of justice
and honor. The graves are being exhumed. But these inquiries can
go only so far. Judges in Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Paris have
asked for Henry Kissinger's testimony, since it is only in his
papers and memos that the answers to many vital (and lethal) questions
can be found. He persists in refusing to cooperate. The Bush State
Department, to its shame and ours, continues to say that such
questions should be addressed only through official diplomatic
channels. This makes us complicit in the criminal behavior of
a man who was in his time the (naturally, unelected) chairman
and patron of the international dictators' club. A suit has also
been filed in a federal court in Washington, D.C., by the family
of General René Schneider, charging Kissinger with orchestrating
his killing. Every single paper in the prosecution dossier is
a United States government declassified document.
The Schneider family has standing in this
matter, not just morally, but legally-because of the Alien Tort
Claims Act, which allows non-Americans to seek redress in American
courts. This act dates from the 18th century and was one of the
first laws of the American Republic. The Bush administration recently
tried and failed to have the Supreme Court strike the ancient
legislation down ... If I add that Henry Kissinger was offered
the chairmanship of the 9/11 commission, and declined the honor
only when he realized that he would have to disclose his unsavory
client list at Kissinger Associates, you might start wondering
which country is the real banana republic. While we ponder this
solemn issue, the citizens of neighboring democracies petition
us for simple justice and are contemptuously turned away, and
we earn the distinction of harboring a man who does not travel
anywhere outside the United States without legal advice, and who
now fears even to set foot in the countries he so recently desolated
Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair
contributing editor. His new book, Blood, Class and Empire (Nation),
examines the history of the unique relationship between the United
States and Britain.
Henry Kissinger page