Kissinger and The 'Dirty War'
by Martin Edwin Andersen
The Nation magazine, 10/31/87
Just three months after Argentina's generals
took power in 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave that
country's military a green light to continue its "dirty war,"
according to a State Department memorandum obtained by InterNation.
This document shows that in early 1977 Robert Hill, then the U.S.
Ambassador to Buenos Aires, told a top Carter Administration offi-
cial that Kissinger had given his approval to the repression in
which at least 9,000 people were kidnapped and secretly murdered.
Kissinger, he charged, put his imprimatur on the massive disappearances
in a June 10, 1976, meeting in Santiago, Chile, with Argentina's
Foreign Minister, Adm. C6sar Guzzetti. Both men were attending
the Sixth General Assembly of the Organization of American States,
whose agenda, ironically, had been dominated by the human rights
Guzzetti was one of the most outspoken
advocates of the dirty war. In August 1976 he told the United
Nations: "My idea of subversion is that of the left-wing
terrorist organizations. Subversion or terrorism of the right
is not the same thing. When the social body of the country has
been contaminated by a disease that eats away at its entrails,
it forms antibodies. These antibodies cannot be considered in
the same way as the microbes."
The ninety-minute early morning meeting,
at Santiago's Hotel Carrera, across from the Moneda Palace, came
just three weeks after Hill had urgently warned Kissinger of the
worsening Argentine rights record. A word from the Secretary of
State would have helped rein in the generals. Although a secret
analysis by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and
Research, dated April 5, 1976, noted that "human rights could
become a problem area as the military clamps down on 'terrorism,
" it went on: "To date, however, the junta has followed
a reasonable, prudent line in an obvious attempt to avoid being
tagged with a 'Made in Chile' label. " According to the records
of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, Argentina's foremost
human rights group, by the time Kissinger and Guzzetti met, 1,022
people had been "disappeared" forever. At least another
7,938 met the same fate afterward.
When Kissinger arrived at the Santiago
conference, Hill said, the Argentine generals were nervous about
the prospect of being called on the carpet by the United States
for their human rights record. But Kissinger merely told Guzzetti
the regime should solve the problem before the U.S. Congress reconvened
in 1977. A buen entendedor, pocas patabras ("To those
quick to understand, few words are needed"). Within three
weeks of the meeting a wave of wholesale executions began, and
hundreds of detainees were killed in reprisal for attacks by leftist
guerrillas. The memo- randum shows that Hill believed the responsibility
for this ballooning state terrorism to be Kissinger's.
Hill is dead; Guzzetti suffered lasting
brain damage in a 1977 attack. Kissinger referred inquiries to
former Secretary of State William Rogers, who was with him in
Santiago. Rogers did "not specifically remember" a meeting
with Guzzetti, but added: "What Henry would have said if
he had had such a meeting was that human rights were embedded
in our policy, for better or worse. He'd have said sympathetic
things about the need for effective methods against terrorism,
but without abandoning the rule of law." But Patricia Derian,
Carter's Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, confirmed
the account of Hill's charges and was "nauseated" to
learn of Kissinger's role. Two former U.S. diplomats also corroborate
Hill's own past appears to put him above
suspicion that his charges against Kissinger were politically
motivated. "Hill's biography reads like a satirical left-wing
caricature of a 'yanqui imperialist,"' noted the authoritative
newsletter "Latin America." He was a former vice president
of W.R. Grace and a former director of the United Fruit Company.
Despite five ambassadorial postings to Spanish-speaking countries,
he never mastered the language. Hill was directly linked in testimony
before the U.S. Senate with the planning of the coup that overthrew
the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954.
Before being assigned to Buenos Aires by Richard Nixon, he was
Assistant Secretary of Defense responsible for international security.
Like many others, Hill had greeted the
coup against the outrageously corrupt, incompetent government
of Juan Peron's widow, Isabel, with relief. He was especially
impressed by the military's willingness to crack down on top drug
traffickers, who had been protected by Isabel Peron's inner circle.
By the time of the coup, a siege atmosphere was gripping the U.S.
Embassy; a U.S. honorary consul had been murdered by the left-wing
Peronist Montoneros, and a U.S. diplomat had been wounded by the
Marxist E.R.P. guerrillas. The Ambassador's residence was heavily
fortified; Hill shuttled back and forth under a guard worthy of
Al Capone. Most U.S. businessmen had fled Buenos Aires, fearful
of kidnapping or death. "There are difficult days ahead,"
Hill warned the National Security Council in a secret Country
Analysis and Strategy Paper (CASP) the day before the March 24
coup. "The strategy is essentially one of protecting our
people and property from terrorism and our trade and investments
from economic nationalism during this trying period."
Moreover, human rights did not immediately
appear to be a problem to Hill. The April 5 Bureau of Intelligence
and Research analysis concluded that "terrorism from the
right will be more susceptible to control than that from than
that from the left, because right-wing operatives frequently have
been attached to groups now directly under military supervision."
Less than a month later events had overtaken
any such wishful thinking. On May 18 two prominent Uruguayans
exiled in Buenos Aires were dragged from their homes by unidentified
men. Hector Guti6rrez Ruiz was a former president of the Uruguayan
House of Deputies; Zelmar Michelini, a charismatic former senator.
Neither was involved in armed politics, nor did they belong to
the ultraradical left. Kissinger himself cabled the U.S. Embassies
in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, asking for more details following
reports by Amnesty International about the "brutal detention"
of the pair. Two days later Hill cabled Kissinger that "such
an operation would be extremely difficult if not impossible to
carry out without (government of Argentina] acquiescence. "
On May 20 the politicians' bodies were
found in a car with those of two other people. One of Gutierrez
Ruiz's eyes was poked out, his knuckles were mangled and burns
scarred his front and back. Half his face had been crushed. Michelini
had a bullet through his head. Their killers left leaflets suggesting
the slayings were the work of leftists angered by the victims'
supposed "betrayal" of an Uruguayan guerrilla group.
On May 25 Hill sent a secret cable to the Secretary of State,
requesting instructions. The page-long copy made available to
me was heavily excised, with only the first two and the last lines
Hill wrote: "In view of the general
worsening human rights situation here, I believe the time has
come for a demarche at the highest level. Hence, I request instructions
to ask for an urgent appointment with the foreign minister....
In view of the pace of developments, I would appreciate reply
by immediate cable." Hill's request was approved by Under
Secretary of State Joseph Sisco.
On May 27 Kissinger sent a secret cable,
"Subject: Human Rights Situation in Argentina," to the
embassies in Montevideo and Buenos Aires:
Acting Assistant Secretary [Hewson] Ryan
called in Ambassador Vasquez May 27 to warn him about the growing
concern in the US about the violence in Argentina and the reported
disappearances of individuals. This concern is being expressed
by major universities, the responsible press-such as The New
York Times-and by members of both Houses of Congress, and
is having an unfavorable impact on Argentina's image in this country.
If this continues, it would make cooperation with Argentina difficult,
as happened in the case of Chile.... Ambassador Ryan said there
is concern in the US not only about the arrests being carried
out by the [Argentines] but also about the failure of the [government]
to control the activities of right-wing terrorist groups.
If Kissinger had any lingering doubts
about what was happening in Argentina, they were dispelled by
subordinates such as Hill. Yet his cable is noteworthy for its
blandness; his rendition of Ryan's meeting shows the Argentines
were told outside pressure--not U.S. policy--endangered business
as usual. Two weeks later Kissinger went to Chile.
Hill had quickly realized what was occurring.
The new military regime was not limiting its rampage to the guerrillas,
against whom it used methods that violated every accepted convention
of warfare and the treatment of prisoners. It had embarked on
a crusade against anyone threatening the armed forces' version
of what they called "Western Christian civilization."
Hill's alarm grew as he heard of examples of the horror. Three
priests and two seminarians were murdered by vengeful police;
an American priest and the daughter of a U.S. missionary were
tortured; a progressive Catholic bishop was killed in a staged
"Hill was shaken, he became very
disturbed, by the case of the son of a thirty-year embassy employee,
a student who was arrested, never to be seen again," recalled
former New York Times reporter Juan de Onis. "Hill
took a personal interest. " He went to the Interior Minister,
an army general with whom he had worked on drug cases, saying,
"Hey, what about this? We're interested in this case."
He buttonholed Guzzetti and, finally, President Jorge R. Videla
himself. "All he got was stonewalling; he got nowhere,"
de Onis said. "His last year was marked by increasing disillusionment
and dismay, and he backed his staff on human rights right to the
hilt." This view of events was confirmed by Wayne Smith,
who was Hill's political officer at the time.
It was a troubled, angry Hill who met
in early 1977 with a senior Carter Administration official, eager
to unburden himself about Kissinger's role and explain why the
generals were only partly to blame for the slaughter. According
to the memorandum:
Hill said that he had made arrangements
seven times for a Kissinger visit to Argentina. Each time the
Secretary can- celled. Finally Kissinger decided to go to the
OAS meeting.... In the middle of the meetings, the Secretary wanted
to visit Buenos Aires. This time the Argentines refused because
they did not want to interrupt OAS activities being held in a
neighboring state. Kissinger and Foreign Minister Guzzetti agreed
to meet in Santiago.
The Argentines were very worried that
Kissinger would lecture to them on human rights. Guzzetti and
Kissinger had a very long breakfast but the Secretarv did not
raise the subject. Finally Guzzetti did. Kissinger asked how long
will it take you (the Argentines) to clean up the problem. Guzzetti
replied that it would be done by the end of the year. Kissinger
In other words, Ambassador Hill explained,
Kissinger gave the Argentines the green light. [Emphasis added.]
Later (about August), the Ambassador
discussed the matter personally with Kissinger, on the way back
to Washington from a Bohemian Grove meeting in San Francisco.
Kissinger confirmed the Guzzetti conversation. Hill said that
the Secretary felt that Ford would win the election. Hill disagreed.
In any case, the Secretary wanted Argentina to finish its terrorist
problem before year end--before Congress reconvened in January
In September, Hill prepared an eyes only
memorandum for the Secretary urging that the U.S. vote against
an IDB [Inter-American Development Bank] loan on Harkin [human
rights] grounds. Hill felt that he would strengthen his hand in
dealing with the Argentines. The memo was given to Assistant Secretary
(Harry] Shlaudeman. The latter asked the Ambassador personally
if Hill really wanted to send the memo to the Secretary, who had
already decided to vote for the loan. Shlaudeman suggested that
the Secretary might fire Hill. Hill told Shlaudeman to send the
memo. (Hill's IDB memo was ignored. We voted for the loan, warning
the Argentines, however, that we might not be able to support
future Argentine projects in the IDB unless the human rights picture
When I asked Kissinger spokesperson Chris
Vick about what transpired in Santiago, she said the former Secretary
of State "doesn't have a great deal of memory about events
in 1975 and 1976." She said Kissinger expressed "a great
deal of affection for Ambassador Hill." Asked about whether
they shared the trip back from the Bohemian Grove retreat, she
replied, "Yeah, I guess he was on the plane." Vick also
referred me to Kissinger's public address at the O.A.S. conference,
titled "Human Rights and the Western Hemisphere," in
which Kissinger proclaimed: "One of the most compelling issues
of our time, and one which calls for the concerted action of all
responsible peoples and nations, is the necessity to protect and
extend the fundamental rights of humanity."
The rhetoric, however, was at variance
with accounts of Kissinger's meeting with Guzzetti, with the background
to the O.A.S. speech itself and with the Secretary of State's
attitude once he was out of public office. A U.S. diplomat who
asked to remain anonymous told me he had been told of Kissinger's
green light by Argentine military sources. Wayne Smith, Hill's
political officer, says, "Kissinger told Guzzetti in Santiago,
Look, we have to do these things [speak out publicly on
the rights issue], but don't take it too seriously." Certainly
some of the Latin Americans at the O.A.S. remained unimpressed
by Kissinger's speech. "He said genocide gets you 'adverse
international judgment,"' said one Venezuelan representative
of the social democratic government of Carlos Andres Perez. "Has
he forgotten where he comes from?"
There was a further suggestion that Kissinger's
commitment on human rights was meant for public consumption only.
Robert White, who later became Ambassador to El Salvador, was
deputy representative of the U.S. delegation at the Santiago conference.
He had made a public statement there on human rights, based on
a position paper approved by the State Department. Kissinger sent
him a telegram of reprimand (although he later backed down after
former Representative William Mailliard, the head of the delegation,
sent his own stinging reply to Kissinger). White also had a report
from what he regarded as a reliable Chilean source of a meeting
between Kissinger and Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
"Kissinger told Pinochet he would have to make reference
to human rights in his speech," White told me, "but
that's all he would hear on the subject."
In 1978, long after the Argentine military's
policy of creating massive disappearances had been conclusively
demonstrated, making the country an international pariah, Kissinger
was the guest of Argentine President Videla during the World Cup
soccer competition. The generals used the visit to show they enjoyed
the sympathy of the onetime superstar of U.S. diplomacy. At the
end of the tournament Kissinger held a news conference in which
he criticized the Carter Administration for not understanding
that human rights were a necessary casualty in the battle against
terrorism. He also spent much time in public in the company of
the regime's Minister of the Economy--and David Rockefeller's
friend--Jose Martinez de Hoz. Known as "the Wizard of Hoz,"
his policies were the ideological framework for the murder of
hundreds of labor activists unconnected to the guerrillas.
A firm, principled word from Kissinger
in June 1976 might have stopped the bloodbath in the making. In
the early months of military rule, the armed forces were not un-
aware of international pressure for human rights. Even as late
as the end of 1976, U.S. diplomats learned, Argentina's top military
leaders were still debating the international consequences of
the repression. By the time Jimmy Carter took office, however,
the killing had gone too far for the generals to turn back.
Hill returned to Buenos Aires from the
United States in early September 1976. "The Argentine press
had been saved for him and he sifted through stacks of newspapers,"
the Hill memorandum reads. "He saw that the terrorist death
toll had climbed steeply. The Ambassador said that he wondered--although
he had no proof--whether the Argentine government was not trying
to solve its terrorist problem before the end of the year."
As Hill suspected, the mass execution
of prisoners and suspects became a generalized phenomenon only
after the Kissinger-Guzzetti meeting. More than seventy people,
including the three priests and two seminarians, were murdered
in reprisal for the July 2 bombing of a police head- quarters
by the Montoneros in which a score of people were killed. On August
20, thirty people were executed and their bodies blown up in reprisal
for the assassination of retired Gen. Omar Actis. More than fifty
were executed in response to the bombing of a police station in
the provincial capital of La Plata. Thirty others were slain in
reprisal for an attack on the Ministry of Defense. Forty more
died over the New Year's holiday in retaliation for the killing
of a colonel.
"It sickened me," said Patt
Derian, "that with an imperial wave of his hand, an American
could sentence people to death on the basis of a cheap whim. As
time went on I saw Kissinger's footprints in a lot of countries.
It was the repression of a democratic ideal."
Henry Kissinger page