Newly released U.S. documents obtained by INSIGHT show that in 1976 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger played a key role in assuring Argentina's military rulers that their antiterrorist campaign involving the disappearance, torture and assassination Of at least 15,000 people -- many of whom were not combatants -- would not be criticized by the United States on human-rights grounds.
The documents, which cover events between June and October of that year -- the period of some of the most intense repression in Argentina -- show that the military regime was "convinced that there was no real problem with the United States over the issue." The Argentine foreign minister, Adm. Cesar Guzzetti, drew that conclusion after meetings in October 1976 with Kissinger, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and other top State Department officials, according to a U.S. Embassy cable.
The new documents provide a detailed look at the bitter dispute about U.S. support for a military dictatorship and include a rare example of an ambassador daring directly to oppose Kissinger, one of the most powerful figures in postwar U.S. history.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Hill described Guzzetti as "euphoric" and "almost ecstatic" and "in a state of jubilation" after returning from Washington to report on the meetings to Argentine President Jorge R. Videla. According to Hill, who since has died, "[Guzzetti] said the vice president urged him to advise President Videla to `finish the terrorist problem quickly.'"
Hill, in contrast, showed barely concealed outrage that his superiors in Washington were undercutting his efforts to encourage human-rights improvements. His three-page cable, dated Oct. 19, 1976, had the effect of putting "bitter criticism" of Kissinger's handling of the meetings with Guzzetti on the record, according to a memo by another U.S. official who recommended an immediate response.
Hill quoted Guzzetti as saying Kissinger "had assured him that the United States `wants to help Argentina.' "Kissinger told Guzzetti "that if the terrorist problem was over by December or January, he [the secretary] believed serious problems could be avoided in the United States," according to Hill's cable. A reply to Hill from Kissinger's chief Latin American officer claimed Guzzetti "heard only what he wanted to hear" and had arrived at his interpretation "perhaps [because of] his poor grasp of English."
Hill, in a carefully phrased "comment" ending the cable to Washington, veils his criticism of Kissinger by speaking only in terms of Guzzetti's impressions of the meetings. But, significantly, Hill seems to stress that Guzzetti received the same message from a total of five top U.S. officials in four separate meetings, and Hill does not raise the possibility that Guzzetti misinterpreted what he heard in those meetings.
Guzzetti's meetings in Washington, coming just six months after the coup against the constitutional left-wing government of Isabel Peron, took place at a critical time in Argentina. Before Guzzetti traveled to the United States, Hill forcefully told him that the continuing atrocities could not be defended. In the view of the United States, Hill recalled in a subsequent cable to the State Department, dated Sept. 20, 1976, having told Guzzetti that "murdering priests and dumping 47 bodies in the street in one day could not be seen in context of defeating the terrorists quickly; on the contrary, such acts were probably counterproductive. What the USG [U.S. government] hoped was that the GOA [government of Argentina] could soon defeat terrorists, yes, but do so as nearly as possible within the law."
Guzzetti went to the United States "fully expecting to hear some strong, firm, direct warnings on his government's human-rights practices," Hill wrote after meeting with the Argentine leader upon the latter's return to Buenos Aires. "Rather than that, he has returned in a state of jubilation, convinced that there is no real problem with the United States over this issue. …