Although former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is widely applauded for his human rights agenda in foreign policy, newly-declassified documents related to the U.S. role in Argentina’s Dirty War indicates that the Democrat was fully aware of the junta's brutal crackdown on Leftist dissidents but turned a blind eye–even offering fawning praise at times–and qualified the regime's torture and murder as necessary to combat “terrorism.”
But Carter’s correspondence with Argentina’s dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla — exposed in a cache of more than 1,000 declassified pages — shows that the then-president was more ambivalent toward the dictatorship than previously thought and subscribed to the military regime’s narrative of combatting terrorism, as top aides pressured Carter to prioritize U.S. business interests in Latin America over human rights violations.
Carter met with Videla in Washington during the signing of the Panama Canal treaties in September 1977, more than a year after the Argentine general was installed as president following the 1976 military coup against left-wing President Isabel Peron. In the bilateral meeting, Carter largely focused on nuclear weapons concerns characteristic of the Cold War era and the state of human rights in Argentina.
According to a memo describing the 1977 meeting, “(Carter) stated his admiration for the achievements of President Videla's government in dealing with the problem of terrorism and the reconstruction of the Argentine economy,” which at that time was beginning to plant the neoliberal seeds that would blossom into President Carlos Saul Menem's ruinous economic reforms 15 years later. “He said the study of the achievements of President Videla's government led to the conclusion that the (Government of Argentina) had achieved great strength, stability and influence.” Later in the meeting, Carter expressed “great admiration and appreciation for what President Videla has been able to do for his country.”
Carter also went on to raise human rights issues, saying he hoped the Argentine regime’s “security and strength” would help address such concerns. But Carter also claimed that the U.S. government “did not have a way to assess the many charges of human rights violations.”
At that time, the U.S. government was well aware of the extent of state terror targeting thousands of Argentine civilians, as shown by a 1977 Department of State briefing memorandum. “We still frequently hear reports of torture, especially during the first days of detention,” reads the document. “We understand that the fight against terrorism has been brutal, but torture of prisoners is not acceptable under any circumstances.”
Despite the U.S.-backed rhetoric of terrorism, the government was also aware by 1977 that the terrorism charges used to target political activists were trumped up. “Few who have disappeared since about, mid-1977 … could be considered terrorists or security threats,” reads a July 1977 memo predating Carter’s meeting with Videla by a few weeks. “The security forces have made a significant shift in their targeting practices to draw into the security net a range of non-terrorists associated with the vague and expansively defined political left.”
The same memorandum documented reports of torture during interrogation, disappearances, and lack of official effort to reduce the number of political prisoners, despite Carter’s faith in the regime to do so. The United States did not cut off military aid to Argentina until the following year, 1978.
In a 1977 letter to Videla following up on the Washington meeting, Carter raised human rights once again – however gently – while remaining couched in statements of praise and a narrative in which the junta battled valiantly against terroristic threats.
“We both recognize that Argentina is frequently charged with serious violations of human rights,” wrote Carter to Videla. “You are certainly correct in stating that terrorists have sought to isolate Argentina in their propaganda.”
The documents also reveal that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger actively sought to undermine Carter’s human rights agenda, including during a visit to Argentina during the 1978 World Cup. National Security Council staffer Robert Pastor wrote in 1978 that Kissinger's “praise for the Argentine government in its campaign against terrorism was the music the Argentine government was longing to hear.”
The archival material consistently show that Carter’s government increasingly tried to walk a political tightrope, publicly condemning human rights abuses while extending the military dictatorship kid-glove treatment in private. In a 1979 memo to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Pastor wrote that Argentina’s human rights situation was “the worst in the hemisphere,” and that “increasingly, the people who disappear have vague associations with the ‘political left’ rather than with terrorism.”
But despite the damning evidence, Pastor argued that the U.S. should maintain its “cool and correct posture” toward the country. “When we take punitive steps toward Argentina,” he wrote, “we not only enrage the right-wing ideologues, we also arouse the business sector and the media in the U.S.” He called for the State Department to move away from pressure and sanctions in favor of “mov(ing) carefully.”
Grave human rights abuses continued in Argentina throughout Carter’s administration. Republican President Ronald Reagan would soon reestablish diplomatic ties with Argenina soon after he succeeded Carter in 1981.
The Dirty War disappeared an estimated 30,000 victims between 1976 and 1983 in a campaign of state terrorism that Argentine human rights groups have dubbed a “genocide” against political dissidents. Torture — including electric shock, severe beatings, submerging the head in water, mock execution, and psychological abuse, according to the documents — were widely used in the state campaign of fear and counterinsurgency.
Argentina’s Dirty War was part of the U.S.-backed Operation Condor that propped up right-wing dictatorships across South America and targeted left-wing activists and human rights defenders that challenged the military regimes, disappearing tens of thousands across the region.