Kissinger hindered US effort to end mass killings in Argentina, according to files

Newly declassified files show the former secretary of state jeopardized efforts to crackdown on bloodshed by Argentinas 1976-83 military dictatorship

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger jeopardized US efforts to stop mass killings by Argentinas 1976-83 military dictatorship by congratulating the countrys military leaders for wiping out terrorism, according to a large trove of newly declassified state department files.

The documents, which were released on Monday night, show how Kissingers close relationship to Argentinas military rulers hindered Jimmy Carters carrot-and-stick attempts to influence the regime during his 1977-81 presidency.

Carter officials were infuriated by Kissingers attendance at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina as the personal guest of dictator Jorge Videla, the general who oversaw the forced disappearance of up to 30,000 opponents of the military regime.

At the time, Kissinger was no longer in office after Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the 1977 presidential election, but the documents reveal that US diplomats feared his praise for Argentinas crackdown would encourage further bloodshed.

During his years as secretary of state, Kissinger had encouraged Argentinas military junta to stamp out terrorism. In contrast, Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser, made human rights a cornerstone of US foreign policy and were exerting pressure on Argentinas military regime by withholding loans and sales of military equipment.

The newly declassifed cables show how Kissinger lauded Videla and other officials for their methods during his 1978 visit. His praise for the Argentine government in its campaign against terrorism was the music the Argentine government was longing to hear, says one of the documents.

A state department memorandum from 1978 relating to Kissinger and human rights in Latin America and Argentina. Photograph: Handout
Another diplomatic cable describes how, during a lunch with Videla, Kissinger applauded Argentinas efforts in combatting terrorism and lamented that it was unfortunate many Americans thought Argentina was a soft drink. He said this indicated that Americans are not aware of Argentine history nor of its struggle against terrorism.

Kissinger even held a private meeting with Videla without the presence of the US ambassador to Buenos Aires, Ral Castro, at which human rights and Carters foreign policy were discussed. Videla prearranged it so Kissinger and the interpreter would meet with him privately half an hour before ambassadors arrival, one cable shows.

In another off-the-record meeting with the Argentinian Council of International Relations (CARI) a group of conservative and highly influential Argentinian diplomats Kissinger went even further, stating that in his opinion the government of Argentina had done an outstanding job in wiping out terrorist forces.

US ambassador Castro was shocked by Kissingers behaviour.

My only concern is that Kissingers repeated high praise for Argentinas action in wiping out terrorism … may have gone to some considerable extent to his hosts heads, the ambassador said in a lengthy cable to Washington.

There is some danger that Argentines may use Kissingers laudatory statements as justification for hardening their human rights stance.

A memorandum from US ambassador Castro. Photograph: Handout

Officials in Washington were furious. [Kissingers] praise for the Argentine government in its campaign against terrorism was the music the Argentine government was longing to hear, National Security Council official Robert Pastor wrote in a summary of Kissingers visit for Brzezinski. What concerns me is his apparent desire to speak out against the Carter administrations human rights policy, Pastor fumed.

The newly released documents show that at one stage the Carter administration considered asking Pope John Paul II to intervene with Argentinas military rulers.

A lengthy September 1980 cable marked confidential said that the Church and the Pope have far more influence here than the US government and can be the most effective advocates of a full return to the rule of law.

The cable to US officials in Rome says that the Vatican may be the most effective advocate before the Argentinian authorities, for whom disappearance is still the standard tactic.

The documents do not reveal if US diplomats did approach the Vatican, and the exact role of the Catholic church during those dark years remains an issue of debate: many reports indicate that priests were present during torture sessions. It was not until 2000 that the Argentinian Catholic church finally apologized for turning a blind eye to the repression.

The cables also give a frightening picture of the delusional antisemitism prevalent among Argentinas generals, who were convinced that Brzezinski (a Polish-born Catholic) headed a worldwide Jewish conspiracy against Argentina.

To fight against this perceived conspiracy, the regime kidnapped the successful Jewish newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman. Thanks largely to strong pressure from the Carter administration, Timerman was finally freed, although he was stripped of his Argentinian citizenship and expelled to Israel, where he spoke to US diplomats about the torture he had endured.

Timerman said that the main focus of questioning during his imprisonment was his role as the Argentine leader of an alleged world Zionist conspiracy, states a declassified cable from the US embassy in Tel Aviv.

Another report from Pastor to Brzezinski headed You dont look Jewish relates incredulously how Timerman told US diplomats that much of the Argentine military believe that a world-wide Jewish conspiracy is at the heart of the terrorist problem in Argentina, and that you (Brzezinski) are at the head of that conspiracy.

When Timerman pointed out to his captors that Brzezinski was Catholic, they told him it was simply a ruse, Pastor wrote. They know you are Jewish because they studied the New York City phone book and found that a number of Brzezinskis had Jewish first names! he wrote.

The documents release which had been announced by Barack Obama during a visit to Argentina in March was welcomed by Argentinas human rights secretary, Claudio Avruj.

Were surprised by the speed with which the US has delivered this documentation, he told reporters. We thought it would take longer.

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