What was the US impact on the Dirty War in Argentina?
From 1976 to 1983, over 30,000 innocent Argentinian civilians were “disappeared” by the state for supposedly supporting left-wing communist guerilla groups. This time period was known as the Dirty War, and it was a period of great pain and strife for the people of Argentina. These people were taken from their homes in the middle of the night and never heard from again. Records indicate that they were often tortured and killed, with some reports even mentioning people were thrown out of airplanes in the Atlantic while still alive
This state sponsored terrorism began on March 24, 1976, the day a military coup led by Lieutenant Jorge Rafael Videla overthrew the populist government of Maria Peron. The Peronist government had sometimes sanctioned violence in regard to keeping the peace, but when the military completely overthrew the state it launched an oppressive regime completely centered around state violence against supposed “communist insurgents” (Aguila, 2006). The reality was that many of these subversives or insurgents were just union leaders, or students, or activists, in opposition to the military regime but with no ties at all to guerilla communism. The only crime they had committed was believing in a different set of ideals than the dictators. Many of these people were completely innocent, and yet they were disappeared, never to see their families again. The army and its militarized death squads often also went after the communities, families, and social networks of these supposed “subversives”, under the guise of rooting out communism but really intent on breaking down the structures that had nurtured their opponents, in an attempt to destroy opposition to it in the future as well (Aguila, 2006). So not only were innocent people torn from their communities and brutally murdered, entire communities themselves were ripped apart and wiped out, solely for the crime of raising people that wanted to see a difference in their country.
When people were “disappeared,” they were often actually abducted in plain sight right in front of eyewitnesses. What happened next, however, was purposely designed to confuse anyone hunting for a missing persons whereabouts. They were taken to clandestine concentration camps that were so secret that even after the Dirty War was over, people didn’t know exactly where many of the camps were. In these concentration camps, prisoners would be tortured for an indiscriminate amount of time to see if they would spill communist secrets. The irony is that almost none of these people were actual communist, so whatever information they were tortured for was made up under extreme duress. Once the army had their coerced confession or fake information, a prisoner would either be systematically murdered and dumped in unmarked graves far away from the camp they were killed at, or just pushed back into the horrific state jails for however long the army felt like sentencing them for. This obviously was traumatic for anyone going through this, but for families, there was no closure because they never knew exactly what had happened to their relatives. In this way the military sowed fear and pain among its people, creating a submissive population that they could ruthlessly dominate.
This military coup was not undertaken alone by Lieutenant Videla and his forces. He had the support of an international network of information on suspected communists and subversives that was shared by the military dictators of other Latin American countries, which was also known as Operation Condor, and the backing of U.S training and military aid and advising. Operation Condor was a top-secret network of intelligence that allowed regimes of different countries to work together to suppress as many people as possible. The militaries of the dictators would share information on people, so if they tried to escape from one country into another, that other country would also know to hunt them down. We now know that the U.S directly helped out the military dictatorships, because human rights didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things if these regimes were stopping the spread of communism (Gill, 2018). The United States’ Army Corps directly introduced the idea of “state-sponsored terrorism” and helped train the militaries carry it out. They supported Operation Condor through sharing intelligence and resources; without the U.S the dictatorships never would have had access to the kind of infrastructure needed to pull off such a multinational endeavor. In this way, U.S actions directly supported the genocidal regime of Lieutenant Videla and had a hand in the atrocities of the Dirty War (Crezel, 2011), but also were complicit in the crimes of other Latin and South American dictators.
However, much of the literature surrounding the Dirty War and this time period in South America lacks any real mention of United States Involvement. Many books and articles only speak about the Dirty War in domestic terms, such as the articles Dictatorship, Society, and Genocide in Argentina: Repression in Rosario 1976-1983, the Ideological Origins of the Dirty War: Fascism, Populism, and Dictatorship in Twentieth Century Argentina, the Ghosts of Montes de Oca: Buried subtext of Argentina’s Dirty War, and the book Guerillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina. They only look at the Dirty War in the context of what inside factors in Argentina prompted the beginning of the state sponsored violence. The Ideological Originseven goes so far as to connect the entire affair with fundamentalist Christianity and Nationalism that the author argues had been building in Argentina since the 1920’s, and that the Dirty War represented an uprising that was distinctly Argentinian in its existence. Guerillas and Generalsargues that the people in Argentina were frustrated about their lack of economic opportunity, so they became left-wing guerillas to get their point across. The Ghosts of Monte de Oca is a case study on the psychiatric hospitals that became an easy place for the regime to experiment on helpless victims that nobody would miss, and therefore ridding society of the burden of their care. None of these pieces are wrong or bad. But by looking only at internal factors and actions during this time period, they miss out on everything external that was impacting these regimes from the outside. All of these works only directly look domestically at the Dirty War; there is no mention of outside influences, either from other Latin and South American Nations or the U.S.
There are also many pieces of literature that center around the judicial repercussions of the Dirty War, and how the perpetrators were brought to justice. These articles, like Between the Voices of the State and the Human Rights Movement: Never Again and the Memories of the Disappeared in Argentina, and Justice Beyond Borders: The Operation Condor Trial and Accountability for Transnational Crimes in South America, only focus on proving the point that the military needs to be brought to justice for what they did, because for so long the military was not held accountable for its actions and many powerful actors in the Dirty War retained cushy positions after the downfall of the regime. The military regime had denied any involvement in the disappearances after the dictatorship had fallen, and even suggested that the disappeared had died fighting in a guerilla war against the state, despite the fact that many who died were intellectuals, not fighters. In 1983, President Raul Alfonsin even rolled out the “theory of two evils”, which put the dictatorships and their victims on the same level in regard to violence and guilt in association with the Dirty War (Crenzel, 2011). This all meant that for decades there was never any justice at home for the victims and their families. Therefore, the reasoning of the intense focus is understandable, but it still neglects to call for justice from the U.S, the puppeteers that had been pulling the strings on the whole operation from Washington D.C. Justice Beyond Borders talks about the new transnational trials for Operation Condor, and how for the first-time perpetrators can be charged with crimes that were carried out in other countries. Again, this may bring more justice and closure to the families of the victims, who may have escaped Argentina only to die in another South American country courtesy of Operation Condor information, but none of the U.S bureaucrats who organized the entire system in the first place, kept it updated, or trained the dictators militaries in subversion tactics have ever been put on trial or convicted.
Therefore, by excluding the mention of US interference, these pieces offer up a body of work that is very interesting and well researched, but only partially analyzes the issues they are speaking of. By painting the Dirty War as something uniquely homegrown and Argentinian, we are neglecting to consider the tremendous the U.S had on the chain of events. There is a glaring lack of connection to the international relations between the United States and Argentina, and there are many holes in the arguments made that calls into question whether the researchers had all the facts regarding, say, the reasons Argentina had a Dirty War in the first place, or why so many Argentinians were apparently running around as guerillas.
However, we cannot fault these researchers from not mentioning U.S influence; until the 2000’s, much of the CIA documents regarding Operation Condor and the people involved were classified (McSherry, 2002). Researchers may have had hunches on U.S involvement, but they could never prove it because they did not have the sufficient evidence. The declassification of files from the State Department, the CIA, and the School of the Americas (SOA), has produced a new body of works that looks at the U.S in a more suspicious light, and begins to place more blame for the initial genesis of Operation condor and its continued existence for almost two decades, and the subsequent human rights violations it created, on the U.S. These articles, like Between Cold War Imperatives and State-Sponsored Terrorism: The United States and Operation Condor, Tracking the Origins of a State Terror Network: Operation Condor, From Promoting Political Polyarchy to Defeating Participatory Democracies: US Foreign Policy Towards the Far Left in Latin America, and Dictators, Drugs, and Revolution: Cold War Campaigning in Latin America, all take a harsher look at U.S activity in the region. They begin to notice the connections, that the U.S employed tactics and officers used in Vietnam in counterinsurgency (read: torture, psychological warfare, propaganda, and murder) to train incoming officers at the School of the Americas (McSherry, 2002). These officers learned how to suppress populations for their own gain, and to use torture to extract information from prisoners, then were shipped back to their home countries ready and able to carry out mass atrocities. Never once in their training did these officers learn about human rights or that the military should always fight to uphold the democratic principles of their country, not for their own self gain. Between Cold War Imperativesalso draws attention to the intelligence aspect of Operation Condor, and that the U.S extensively supported the entire network through resources and intelligence. This support went on for the entire duration of the Dirty War, even when reports were coming out from refugees and survivors about the atrocities committed by the dictatorship.
This makes the U.S complicit and an accomplice to the crimes willingly being committed by the South America dictatorships and their militaries. This article is also one of the only ones that begins to speak up about how many at the U.S State Department and the CIA knew what was happening, but their superiors just followed their orders and did nothing. Not just in Argentina, but all over the continent, United States bureaucrats were actively participating in crimes against humanity.
The article that looks the most broadly, and I think is the most helpful in understanding the larger situation, is Political Polyarchy. This article traces the political and diplomatic ways that the U.S supported whichever regime would go along with their current interests. The U.S would back dictatorships that committed terrible crimes against humanity simply because they weren’t communist. Even today, the U.S still supports the moderate candidates that go along with U.S policy, even if that is clearly not what the country wants. This creates the kind of election system where only those who get the backing of the United States can stand a chance at winning, putting U.S interests above the needs of their people. By doing this, Gill argues that the U.S is promoting a limited democracy where only those who agree with the United States are allowed access to power (Gill, 2018).
The reason U.S ideological dominance and persuasion is rarely mentioned in works about the Dirty War is that the U.S government has taken great strides to cover up its actions. Only in early 2019 were memos released showing that the CIA knew exactly what was happening in Argentina, Chile, and many other South American countries under repressive dictatorships. Telegrams from the Department of State and Memos sent internally or to ambassadors paint a picture of a government that knew that crimes against humanity were taking place and turned the other way. The U.S did this for one simple reason: money.
At that time the U.S was a large trade partner with many Latin and South American Nations. These nations had begun to back away from capitalism and switch to socialism, a shift they hoped would benefit all their citizens in a more egalitarian way. A perfect example of how this played out would be the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala. He wanted to institute land reforms to give peasants more wealth, but this would take away the United Fruit Company’s Land. The United Fruit Company was in bed with the United States Government, so the U.S overthrew Arbenz on the accusation of communism and replaced him with a dictator, Armas. We see this same pattern of activity come into play in Argentina and other South American countries, like Chile, during this time period. The U.S and its trading partners knew that a socialist-leaning government would be bad for business; therefore, they began a hemisphere-wide campaign on national security and protecting against communism, because communism was the real threat to their power. This prompted a counterrevolution in Latin and South America against their own governments, who they were now being told were evil communists. When the dictatorship in Argentina took over, it completely restructured the country’s economy to be capitalistic (Aguila, 2006). Business was booming again for the U.S and its trading partners, and as long as the money kept coming the U.S would continue to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses. Of course, to make this look acceptable to the rest of the world the U.S painted this situation as a matter of national security; they had to protect their hemisphere from the evil communists and the only way to do that was to support these regimes that would be sure to keep communists out.
The lack of connection to politics in the sources analyzed is because until fairly recently there was nothing to connect U.S policy to the Dirty War. But now that many documents have been unclassified, we know much more. We know that the U.S continued to provide Operation Condor with information, we know that the U.S knew about assassinations being planned, and those that were carried out, based on information from Operation Condor, we know the U.S suggested the use of psychological warfare on the populace to root out “subversives,” and that they were actively guiding participating Operation Condor countries on the best way to carry out assassinations and not bring attention to it. We know all of this happened in the late 1970’s, when the U.S State Department was still claiming they had known nothing (Zanchetta, 2016). Even with all this information, there is still holes in how much we know. Much of the CIA documents I used for sources had entire paragraphs blacked out. This was probably to distance the CIA from any more implications into the crimes they were complicit in; those blacked out lines may contain CIA or State Department officials acknowledging the murder and torture of innocents but continuing to help Operation Condor.
We may never know the full extent of the U. S’s intervention into Argentina during the Dirty War, because we may never see all of those necessary documents released to the public. However, one can look at the anti-communist propaganda being put out by the United States at that time, and the fact that we were a global hegemon with an immense amount of influence and start to connect the pieces of how the U.S began to subconsciously infiltrate Latin and South American citizens. Without this extreme American influence, one can ask themselves if the Dirty War would even have happened.
The United States further added to their influence into the Dirty War by training military officials at the School of the Americas in the ways of mass murder and torture, then sending them back to their home countries that were in the thick of war and turning them lose on the general population. These officers never learned morals or ethics, or what it means to fight for something. They only learned the most effective ways to kill, to hurt, to inspire fear. The outcome of a state-sanctioned genocide should not be a surprise to anyone.
In these ways, I think the U.S had a tremendous effect on the Dirty War in Argentina. Through a propaganda campaign, the U.S held up the fight against the communists as its number one priority in regard to national security and defense. This changed how many in Latin and South America saw these ideas, specifically the branches of the military who had been indoctrinated by American Special Forces. When these militaries overthrew their democratically elected governments, the United States supported their efforts of suppression despite knowing the terrible crimes being committed, because these regimes were making the U.S money and eliminating the communist threat. Despite espousing ideals of freedom and justice, the U.S in practice only cared about getting what it wanted, despite human causalities that many insiders knew were being facilitated based on U.S help or information. Without the U.S, the dictators may not have even risen in the first place, but if they had they certainly would not have been in power as long, because they wouldn’t have had the solid U.S backing they were receiving. There wouldn’t have been the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, because there would have been no one to carry out mass murders or operate death camps. Argentina wouldn’t still be healing from the scars of the disappearances today. Without U.S interference, Argentina wouldn’t have gotten so Dirty.
Aguila, Gabriela (2006). “Dictatorship, Society, and Genocide in Argentina: Repression in Rosario, 1976–19831.” Journal of Genocide Research,vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 169–181.
Crandall, R. (2007). Dictators, Drugs, and Revolution: Cold War Campaigning in Latin America, 1965-1989 (review). The Americas,64(2), 272.
Crenzel, E. (2011). Between the Voices of the State and the Human Rights Movement: Never Again and the Memories of the Disappeared in Argentina. Journal of Social History,44(4), 1063-1076.
Gill, Timothy M. (2018). From Promoting Political Polyarchy to Defeating Participatory Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy towards the Far Left in Latin America. Journal of World-Systems Research, 24(1), 72-95.
Harmer, T. (2015). The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War: Fascism, Populism, and Dictatorship in Twentieth Century Argentina. Cold War History,15(3), 417-420.
Lessa, F. (2015). Justice beyond Borders: The Operation Condor Trial and Accountability for Transnational Crimes in South America. International Journal of Transitional Justice,9(3), 494-506.
Lewis, P. (2002). Guerrillas and generals the “Dirty War” in Argentina. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
Mcsherry, J. (2002). Tracking the Origins of a State Terror Network: Operation Condor. Latin American Perspectives,29(1), 38-60.
Scheper-Hughes, N. (2015). The Ghosts of Montes de Oca: Buried Subtext of Argentina’s Dirty War. The Americas,72(2), 187-220.
Zanchetta, B. (2016). Between Cold War Imperatives and State-Sponsored Terrorism: The United States and “Operation Condor”. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism,39(12), 1084-1102.