The Carter Administration, Argentina, and Human Rights: 1977-1981

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This piece was published in the Acheson Issue, Volume 11


When tanks and transports loaded with heavily armed soldiers rolled into Buenos Aires early in the morning of March 24, 1976, to depose Isabel Perón and suspend Argentina’s democracy, hardly anyone was surprised. It was a surreal sight, as the military was met with disinterest or outright support by much of the Argentine public. The famed author Jorge Luis Borges spoke for a significant portion of the middle class when he claimed, “[n]ow we are governed by gentlemen.”[1] The major radio stations ignored the history unfolding in real-time, civilians ran errands and went to work, and nobody offered any meaningful resistance. This calm beginning belied the global implications of the military’s coup and the tremendous strife that would grip the country over the next seven years.[2]

The diplomatic clash between the United States and Argentina that followed the coup represented something new in the history of US-Latin American relations and the history of U.S. human rights policy. The Argentine junta that rose to power in 1976 abused human rights in a far more widespread and systematic way than most other military regimes in the region had. It was met by a U.S. administration that claimed to be willing to criticize right-wing allies and advocate for human rights to a far greater degree than any other administration had to that point. Early in President Jimmy Carter’s term, it was possible to imagine that this advocacy would be a catalyst for a broader rethinking of U.S.-Latin American relations. Within four short years, however,  the Reagan administration was collaborating with the Argentine junta to support the infamously brutal Contra paramilitaries in Nicaragua. Carter’s quest to reshape America’s role in the hemisphere seemed to have failed, and business as usual had been restored. Understanding the limits on the Carter administration’s human rights policies in Argentina has significant implications for the study of the American human rights movement.

My research focuses on the structural challenges that the Carter administration faced in its efforts to improve human rights in the wake of the Argentine coup, and I argue that these factors seriously hampered Carter’s efforts to break with the unhealthy patterns that had previously characterized U.S.-Latin American relations, particularly during the Cold War. I choose to take Carter at his word that he truly wanted to fundamentally rethink US foreign policy. Working from this premise, I seek to explore why he was unable to bring about this change in the case of America’s response to the flagrant human rights abuses that followed the 1976 coup. First, I argue that clientelism in the U.S. Department of the State, and bureaucratic intransigence more generally, seriously damaged the implementation of Carter’s policies. Second, I point out how national security concerns in the region took on greater importance in bureaucratic and public discourse during the latter half of Carter’s presidency. These concerns left a weakened and increasingly unpopular Carter administration less able to justify significant human rights pressure on Argentina. My account differs from existing narratives of this process in its focus on the structural factors that influenced the outcome of Carter’s human rights campaign in Argentina. Instead of examining the Carter administration’s policy decisions in-depth, I will focus on how the bureaucratic and political environment in which these decisions were made circumscribed the potential success of Carter’s human rights advocacy in Argentina.

The Roots of the Coup: 1973-1976 

It was evident leading up to the coup that the military was preparing to seize power from the embattled civilian government. The coup of 1976 was the culmination of a years-long conflict against left-wing domestic terrorists and decades of debate about the proper state of Argentine civil-military relations. The immediate seeds of the coup were planted in 1973 when Juan Perón, the infamous messiah-like leader of the peronismo movement, was permitted to return to Argentina following an 18-year exile in Spain that had been forced upon him by the Argentine military. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, two left-wing militant organizations, the Montoneros and the ERP, began to target the military regime that ruled the country at that time. They used violent tactics, such as robberies, kidnappings, assassinations, and acts of terror, to destabilize the military government. They demanded that democratic elections be held and that a peronista candidate be permitted to run for president. After several years of growing violence and calls from civilian political figures to step away from politics, the military decided to allow elections to be held in 1973. Héctor Cámpora, a peronista and a stand-in candidate for Perón was elected, paving the way for Perón’s return to power.[3]

Peronismo was an alliance of left-wing and right-wing populism shakily held together by the persona of Perón himself. The Montoneros and ERP represented a militant leftist strain of peronismo that had hoped Perón’s return would bring back some of the pro-labor policies that had been curtailed under military rule. Upon his return to power, however, Perón made it clear that his sympathies had shifted toward the right-wing of his movement. He publicly criticized the Montoneros and refused to appoint Montonero-approved candidates to government positions. The ERP and Montoneros resumed their violent attacks against government forces shortly after Perón’s return to Argentina, and the violence was only inflamed by a newly formed paramilitary force of right-wing peronista terrorists, the Triple A.[4]

This low-level violence exploded into a significant insurgency following the death of Perón. The militant left and right sought with renewed vigor to dominate the political future of the nation by attacking each other and opposing public figures. Perón’s widow and successor to the presidency, Isabel Perón, proved incapable of containing the violence. 

Isabel Perón declared a state of siege as outlined by the Argentine constitution November 6, 1974, giving the military more latitude to deal with the insurgents. She expanded the freedom of the military to act as it pleased twice over the next two years to great effect. The ERP was critically damaged during the campaign in Tucumán province in 1975, losing 160 fighters out of an organization numbering in the hundreds. The Montoneros were somewhat larger and more threatening, but they were also seriously weakened over the course of 1974 and 1975. The military used the freedom it had been granted ruthlessly. It employed torture, extralegal killings, and persecution of civilians to eliminate what it saw as a subversive threat.[5]

The Argentine military was subject to a variety of influences during its counterinsurgency efforts throughout this period. Its importance in manufacturing and employment along with the isolation of its officers from civilian life nurtured an attitude of self-importance. The military elite tended to view themselves as the most vital, devout, and exemplary segment of Argentine society. This self-importance was further strengthened by the ideological training provided to much of the officer class by the U.S throughout much of the Cold War by administrations of both parties. While this training often included traditional operational instruction, the primary impact was ideological. Argentine officers were told they were an integral component of a global war against Communism and that they must always be hypervigilant for any signs of subversion within their society. These teachings were given to a military class that had already begun to see peronismo, and leftist politics in general, as threats to national unity. Furthermore, French military analysts added doctrinal insights they had developed during their counterinsurgency experiences in Vietnam and Algeria to this ideological orientation. As part of the capitalist alliance during the Cold War, French advisers were keen to support the Argentine military in their fight against leftist forces. With the help of French advisers and books such as Trinquier’s La Guerre moderne, the Argentine military began to develop a decentralized counterinsurgency apparatus that would become infamous for secret abductions and torture during the Dirty War — the military’s name for the violent counterinsurgency it launched against leftists agitators. The result of these endemic and foreign influences was an Argentine military that believed the Montoneros and ERP represented a fundamental threat to the Argentine way of life, and that completely rooting out the insurgency would require a much more forceful set of actions than a civilian government would permit.[6]

Military coups were not particularly rare events in recent Argentine history. The 1976 coup was the sixth since President Hipólito Yrigoyen had been deposed by the military in 1930.[7] Political actors, including the leftist guerrillas, had developed expectations of what coups entailed and strategies for dealing with the new regime. The regime that took power in 1976, however, had far more radical goals than previous juntas. The military now believed that the guerrillas were an existential threat not just to Argentina, but to Western civilization in general. Not a single so-called “subversive” could be allowed to survive. The military had no intention of seizing power to stabilize the immediate crisis and then handing it back to civilians. In fact, the military seized power at a point in the conflict when it appeared that the terrorists were being contained and the crisis was passing.[8] Their main goal was to resolve the guerrilla problem once and for all, by killing every remaining subversive and eliminating what they saw as the root causes of subversion.[9]

After seizing power, the junta acted rapidly to enact its anti-subversion agenda. Applying experience from the Tucumán campaign, it set up a national intelligence network tasked with gathering the names and whereabouts of supposed subversives and vested regionally distributed officers with the authority to strike against subversives. To a careless observer, it may have seemed as though nothing strange was happening at first. Beneath the surface, however, Argentina had rapidly become one of the foremost violators of human rights on the world stage.

The United States and Human Rights in the 1970s

Like every other observer in Argentina and across the world, the U.S. government was aware that the coup was coming. A telegram from U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, Robert Hill, to the State Department in Washington D.C. illuminates just how informed U.S. officials were of the coming coup. On March 16, less than a week before the coup began, Hill recounted that he had met with Admiral Eduardo Massera, the head of the Argentine Navy and the man who would later serve as the strongest voice for expanding the Dirty War in the military junta. Massera reportedly told Hill that, “it was no secret that military might have to step into political vacuum very soon” (sic)

Right-leaning military coups were nothing new in the region, which had transformed into yet another front in the global Cold War. The U.S. foreign policy establishment had developed a set of general practices that structured their response to these sorts of regimes. In the recent past, the executive branch had been perfectly willing to collaborate with the military regimes that had seized power in Brazil and Chile, while ignoring — and at times facilitating — the flagrant abuses that characterized both regimes. The realpolitik of Nixon and Kissinger gave no attention to the internal crimes of allied regimes, provided they continued to support the narrow, realist view of U.S. national interests. More broadly, U.S. administrations, both Democrat and Republican, had shown little compunction in consistently supporting murderous, right-wing leaders like Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and the Somoza family in Nicaragua. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the initial willingness to accommodate the new Argentine regime in 1976 was a sign that the U.S. would once again be either a passive or active accomplice in the flagrant abuses of one of its Latin American allies.

Just as the Argentine military had altered its perceptions of what actions would be necessary to eliminate subversion, the U.S. government in 1976 had changed its benchmarks for what actions it would be willing to accept from its allies. The global human rights movement had profoundly influenced how Americans and their elected representatives by extension thought about America’s role in the world. Mark Philip Bradley points out how the growth of international business, communication networks, and travel in the late 1960s and early 1970s contributed to a more globally cognizant citizenry, especially in Europe and North America.[10]

The American public of the early 1970s found itself particularly open to the ideas of the growing human rights movement. Following Nixon’s exit from office, Congress began to reassert itself in the foreign policy arena.[11] They designated foreign aid as the primary mechanism for enacting a human rights agenda and following several years of vigorous dispute with the Ford administration, Congress passed several key pieces of human rights legislation in 1976. At the same time, the striking campaign against the Pinochet regime in Chile led by Amnesty International and other international NGOs created a clear association in the minds of the public and policymakers between Latin American military regimes and human rights abuses.[12]

It was in the context of a newly reinvigorated congressional human rights movement and public demand for accountability from America’s more repressive Latin American allies that Carter assumed the presidency January 20, 1977. A Washington outsider and devout Christian, Carter promised to restore an element of morality to U.S. foreign policy and build on the congressional model of human rights advocacy. The role of human rights in this process was best encapsulated in his farewell speech to the nation in 1981, when he said, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.”[13] Rather than acting as a power above the bothersome restrictions of the international community, Carter would seek to transform the U.S. into just another nation within the international system, with merely the privileges and all the responsibilities of any other nation. In Carter’s vision, human rights would not be a new tool for merely expanding American power in the world, but rather they would be used to contain American power within the universal ideals of the international community. His personal interest in Latin America, developed during previous travels throughout the region, as well as his desire to reorient U.S. foreign policy away from its all-consuming focus on competition with global communism led him to strongly reexamine America’s role in the Western Hemisphere. 

From the earliest days of the Carter administration, there was a particular focus on the abuses committed by the new Argentine regime. In keeping with Carter’s principles of treating Latin America as “just another region of the world” whose “security value to the U.S. would no longer be exaggerated,” the administration declined to resist congressional mandates to elevate human rights concerns in the area of foreign aid to Argentina.[14] Carter instructed the State Department to continuously report on the abuses occurring in Argentina and appointed a passionate activist, Patricia Derian, to the recently created position of Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. He told American representatives to various international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the IMF and IDB, to vote against loans to Argentina.[15] In February of 1977, it was announced that military aid to Argentina would be reduced from $48.4 million to $15 million due to human rights concerns. Outraged by this public embarrassment, the junta announced it would not accept any aid from the U.S.[16]

From the very beginning of the Carter administration, the stage was set for a diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and the Argentine junta. This tension represented a break from the traditional pattern of U.S. Cold War strategy in Latin America. Argentina was nominally an ally in the fight against Communism, and the links between the militaries of the two countries were well-established. For this reason, Argentina provided an excellent opportunity for Carter to begin his effort to reorganize U.S. policy in the region. His new foreign policy would evaluate partners based on their fidelity to international standards of human rights, rather than purely to U.S. standards of anti-Communism. Such a fundamental shift, however, would face significant obstacles.

Bureaucratic Challenges: 1976-1977

Carter’s inability to effectively utilize the relevant bureaucratic agencies to enact his human rights agenda greatly impeded his goal of restructuring America’s relationship with Argentina, and with the world in general. To achieve his lofty vision of establishing a U.S. foreign policy based on upholding internationally accepted standards of behavior, Carter needed to institutionalize human rights advocacy throughout the agencies responsible for enacting U.S. foreign policy day in and day out. To bring about a change as fundamental as the one he sought, Carter needed to find a way to integrate human rights concerns into the workflows of the hundreds of diplomats, intelligence analysts, military officers and other bureaucrats who collectively create America’s foreign policy. His failure to accomplish this prevented human rights from becoming the catalyst for the radically new foreign policy that he sought.

Resistance from DC

The most prominent agency relating to foreign policy is the State Department, and it was there the Carter administration worked the hardest to institutionalize human rights. By appointing Derian, who had been a close advisor throughout his presidential campaign, to coordinator of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs division at the Department, Carter effectively placed a passionate activist with an impressive history of civil rights advocacy among the leadership at the State Department. Shortly after her appointment, Carter elevated her position to the assistant secretary level, placing her on equal footing with the Department’s highest-level leaders.[17] Derian was acutely aware of the importance of seemingly banal office politics for the fate of her human rights agenda. In a 1996 interview, Derian describes the challenges she faced in attempting to gain respect for her new department in the inflexible and traditional bureaucracy of the State Department. She reports that materials from her department would often not reach the president despite her best efforts. She had difficulty getting face time with the president and other key White House officials in comparison with her peers. Carter, because of his personal relationship with Derian, repeatedly offered her opportunities to utilize backdoor arrangements to gain access. Derian, however, understood the importance of gaining procedural legitimacy for her department by working within the official process rather than relying on her personal relationship with the president. She states that her goal for the human rights agenda was “[t]o get it in the machinery in every possible way so that when I left, I didn’t want it to be Pat Derian’s policy.” She goes on to explain “a lot of time people have a great idea and they do a good job and then they leave and that’s the end of it. It seemed to me that this had nothing to do with me personally. It had to do with the duty to the country and to upholding the law. (…) That was one of the main things, to just get it in there and institutionalize it.”[18] Derian understood that to bring about the fundamental shift that the administration was seeking, it was less important to score specific tactical victories on certain issues than it was to create a State Department where human rights concerns were respected to the same degree as more traditional foreign policy imperatives. Carter’s repeated offers to create back channels for human rights may indicate that he had less of a grasp than Derian on the importance of embedding his agenda within the foreign policy bureaucracy from top to bottom.

Beyond her difficulties in bringing her agenda to the White House, Derian also faced challenges in gaining respect internally at the State Department. For example, Derian’s office was initially not consulted for guidance on key human rights-related issues. Early in her term, Derian describes receiving a telegram about an unspecified human rights issue marked information only. Rather than merely filing it away, Derian decided to write a position memo on the issue and send it to the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, for consideration. She describes how an unnamed State Department employee quickly noticed her memo, and angrily tried to explain to her that Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs “was an information office (…) it’s always been an information office.”[19] From the perspective of this man and likely much of the State Department, it was not the role of Derian and her division to take an active role in shaping policy, but rather to provide background information that could be either used or ignored by more important sections of the Department when making decisions. Although Derian was able to have her memo sent to Vance in this case, this anecdote illustrates the resistance she had to overcome as she sought to carve out a larger role for herself and her division within the Department. Derian was aware of this bureaucratic pushback to her agenda. As she explains, even after the first incident described above, “I do know that there were plenty of cables, which were relevant to our issues, where they tried to go around us. Just a lot of people in there who wanted [my] office (not) to work.”[20]

At times, this pushback was seemingly driven by sexism as much as resistance to the concept of human rights. Derian describes a particularly striking instance when she discovered, “Who does this babe think she is? What does she know about this?” scribbled on the margins of a memo she had sent to the European Affairs Bureau requesting information.[21] While it is outside the scope of this essay to fully examine the gendered perceptions of human rights, it is possible that the association of human rights with the feminine further increased resistance to human rights considerations within the hypermasculine, good old boys’ culture that pervaded the foreign policy establishment during this time. 

The successes Derian had despite the widespread resistance to her role should not be understated. From her 1996 interview, we can see that she played a large role in raising the profile of human rights at the State Department, and her appointment to a seventh-floor office at the Department was an important symbol of the value the Carter administration placed on human rights.[22] On more concrete policy terms, she played a key role in pressuring the Argentine junta for its human rights abuses. She visited the country three times during her term, enduring the regime’s veiled threats while meeting with government officials. Her willingness to listen to the many impassioned pleas from friends and families of the disappeared played a role in lifting the spirits of Argentine activists and gathering key information on conditions in Argentina.[23] But these successes were limited by the resistance Derian and her team encountered within the State Department itself. Without the support of the State Department in Washington, it was challenging to enact the fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy that Derian and Carter were looking for.

Human Rights and Office Politics 

This resistance by large segments of the State Department doubtlessly hampered the implementation of the fundamental shift in foreign policy priorities that Carter hoped to bring about. One clear conclusion of Derian’s account is that it was difficult being a human rights advocate at the State Department during this period. Department staff who chose to align themselves with the administration’s human rights policies risked the ire of their colleagues and being branded as a poor team player. Victories were often circumscribed, and like-minded colleagues were not especially common. In this way, bureaucratic intransigence bred further intransigence. Isolated advocates like Derian were not sufficient to bring about a complete restructuring of U.S. foreign policy. Such fundamental shifts would have required widespread buy-in by key actors across the foreign policy bureaucracy. Without this level of buy-in, Carter’s vision was significantly impeded. 

Carter’s inability to institutionalize human rights advocacy at the State Department from the start of his term placed his human rights agenda toward countries like Argentina on shaky foundations. Derian’s account focuses mostly on the early Carter years, when his administration had the enhanced political capital that traditionally characterizes presidents at the beginning of their terms. As this political capital quickly began to vanish during the crisis-filled second half of his presidency, Carter’s human rights policies faced even more significant challenges.

The National Security Renaissance: 1978-1980

Starting around mid-1978, both the Carter administration and the Argentine junta encountered a changed strategic environment which led the Carter administration to place less and less pressure on the junta. Carter, faced with a growing number of foreign policy crises, could not muster the same level of political capital he had devoted to human rights policy earlier in his term. At the same time, the Argentine junta began to shift the priorities and methods of its Dirty War in such a way that continued human rights advocacy on the part of the U.S. became more onerous. The changing stance of the Carter administration after 1978 illustrates how national security concerns and the public outcry that accompanied them provided a structural obstacle to formulating a human rights-based foreign policy toward Argentina.

Carter Faces a Backlash

The political capital that had allowed Carter to begin implementing his human rights agenda began to rapidly evaporate around the halfway point of his presidency, when Carter suffered a number of serious embarrassments on the global stage. The Iranian Revolution in 1978 overthrew a key U.S. ally in the Middle East and culminated in the infamous hostage crisis that came to define Carter’s legacy for many Americans. The related oil crisis threw lofty foreign policy debates into sharp relief for voters across the country, affecting their wellbeing in tangible ways. The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union further harmed Carter’s reputation in the foreign policy realm; from Washington insiders to regular voters, a broad swath of Americans was beginning to conclude that Carter’s attempts to fundamentally reorganize U.S. foreign policy were, at best, a distraction from the real issues and, at worse, a cause of America’s current challenges. William LeoGrande explains that as Carter’s presidency progressed, “to many Americans, he simply looked weak and ineffectual.”[24] The challenges he faced during the second half of his presidency “appeared to represent a retreat by the United States from the summit of world power.”[25]

This altered global environment was complemented by changes within Latin America and how U.S. policies in the region were perceived by domestic observers. Firstly, the administration received significant backlash for the flagship piece of its Latin America agenda — the Panama Canal treaties. For the Carter administration, these two treaties embodied the hope for a reconsideration of U.S. policy toward Latin America. Whereas U.S. policy in the region had been previously characterized by America’s all-consuming obsession with maintaining its regional dominance, Carter hoped to create a Latin American policy based on hemispheric consensus and respect for the sovereignty of all nations, even small nations like Panama. Carter explains his view on the issue of returning the Canal Zone to Panama in his memoir, saying, “I was convinced that we needed to correct an injustice. Our failure to take action after years of promises under five previous Presidents had created something of a diplomatic cancer, which was poisoning our relations with Panama.”[26]

When it came time for Congress to ratify the treaties, there was an immense outpouring of public opposition, driven by conservatives who felt establishing a timeline for returning the Canal Zone to Panama threatened U.S. security and the prestige of the U.S. in the world more broadly. Natasha Zarensky casts the grassroots opposition to the treaties as a precursor of the New Right movement, and an example of the post-Vietnam anxieties about America losing its preeminent position in world affairs. She points out that the Canal Treaties issue provided fodder for conservative figures — such as Carter’s eventual successor, Ronald Reagan — to publicly criticize the administration’s stance toward Latin America as naive and misguided.[27] Foreign policy analysts like Howard Wiarda made the case that in Latin America, Carter was too busy acting as a moral imperialist through his human rights advocacy and had neglected traditional security concerns in the region.[28]

These critiques exploded into full-throated condemnation in the wake of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in 1978 and 1979. The FSLN, a Cuban-backed, leftist guerrilla better known as the Sandinistas, attacked and eventually overthrew the murderous Somoza family regime that had enjoyed largely unquestioned support from U.S. presidents for decades. Carter, as part of his larger break with U.S. orthodoxy in Latin America, had targeted the Somocistas with a public pressure campaign designed to curtail some of the flagrant human rights abuses that had long characterized the Somoza regime.[29] The decision to target another traditional ally in the region, one facing an existential Communist threat no less, was evidence for conservatives that the Carter administration’s new approach to Latin America represented a threat to U.S. national security. 

These crises changed the strategic priorities of the Carter administration. Facing renewed dangers from Europe and Asia , and increased public scrutiny at home, the administration had less leeway to focus on its pressure campaign against Argentina. Examining accounts from administration figures illustrates the significant shift that occurred as Carter entered the latter half of his term. When questioned about human rights policy under Carter during a 1982 interview, William Odom, an aide to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski focused on military affairs, explained, “I think the Carter administration essentially sailed in one direction for two years and slowly came back around to another direction the last two years.”[30] Carter, himself, also provides some indications about how the foreign policy crises that he faced during the last two years of his administration impacted his work. In his memoir of the presidency, Carter explains how the Iran hostage crisis that gripped the nation for more than 400 days took over his schedule from the moment the embassy was seized in 1979. He explains, “The safety and well-being of the American hostages became a constant concern for me, no matter what other duties I was performing as President. I would walk in the White House gardens early in the morning and lie awake at night, trying to think of additional steps I could take to gain their freedom without sacrificing the honor and security of our nation.”[31] While Carter doesn’t explicitly state that the hostage crisis distracted him from his human rights agenda, it is clear that he was too preoccupied with managing Iran and other foreign crises to devote the same level of attention to human rights around the world, and in Argentina specifically, as he had at the start of his term.

The Internationalization of the Dirty War

At around the same time that Carter began to face intensified pressure, the Argentine military was beginning to change its behavior regarding its human rights abuses. It reduced the number of disappearances within Argentina while ramping up its international operations. The new form that the Dirty War took made it even more difficult for the Carter administration to maintain its advocacy campaign, as doing so would have required a reconceptualization of what human rights meant and a willingness to forgo traditional national security concerns to a nearly unprecedented degree.

In contrast to the first two years of the regime, when the junta had been able to portray itself as under siege by left-wing terrorism, from 1978 onward it was clear to both domestic and international observers that terrorism had been all but eliminated as a serious security threat. By that time, it was clear that the junta was well on its way to ultimate victory over the leftist guerrillas that they had been using as their public justification for seizing power. Arguably, the guerrilla threat had been seriously weakened even before the military had formally taken power. The remaining guerrillas were steadily eliminated by the military’s brutal campaign until by 1978, when the Dirty War began to enter a new phase. During this phase, the imminent threat of domestic terrorism became less of a priority. After the final expulsion of the last Montonero leaders in 1979, the Dirty War was effectively over within Argentina, although not all elements of the junta were completely willing to recognize this fact.[32] Understanding this strategic context casts the supposed improvement in human rights observed by the U.S. government in a different light. Having effectively consolidated its control of the country, the military had less reason to employ the same level of violence and brutality that it had used during its earlier years. 

The military, however, did not rest on its laurels. The national security doctrine that motivated the junta claimed Argentina’s counterinsurgency had been a key battle in a third world war against leftism. It was this belief, along with the links between Montonero leaders and guerrillas in other parts of the hemisphere, that motivated the military to begin exporting the Dirty War with all the abuses that entailed across the region. For the military leadership, geography was an irrelevant consideration in the war against communism. Communism was a transnational force, so their response had to be equally transnational. As Admiral Massera put it, “We have to reconquer the West. But what is the West? Nobody can find it on the map. Today, the West is an attitude of the soul that is not linked with any particular geography.”[33] Armony explains that during this stage of the Dirty War, the junta saw itself taking the necessary steps to eliminate communism in the hemisphere — steps that the U.S. under Carter was unwilling to take. As he puts it, “Argentina, traditionally an aggressive actor in foreign policy, perceived empty spaces left by the Carter administration in the hemispheric anti-Communist conflict and took the opportunity to assume a position of leadership in that struggle.”[34]

The Argentine military began this new, internationally focused, phase of the Dirty War in 1980 by providing key support to Bolivian general Luis García Marquez during the so-called “Cocaine Coup.” Following a series of elections, a left-wing, civilian coalition prepared to assume power in Bolivia in 1980.[35] The presence of a leftist government on their border was distressing for the Argentine junta, particularly since many in the military blamed the campaigns of Che Guevara in Bolivia during the late 1960s for inspiring the formation of the guerrillas that had been their primary antagonist for the better part of the 1970s.[36] To remove the threat of this new government, the Argentine military approached García Marquez and offered military advisors for a coup and hundreds of millions of dollars to replace the U.S. aid that would likely be canceled as a result of the coup. In July of 1980, García Marquez seized power and implemented a counterinsurgency campaign based on arbitrary detention and disappearances. The similarities between his campaign in Bolivia and the recently concluded Dirty War in Argentina were due in large part to the fact that Argentine military and intelligence personnel were heavily involved in implementing the campaign. The Argentines disappeared hundreds of Bolivians and detained thousands more over the course of the coup.[37] In addition to a more satisfactory neighbor, the Argentine military received a portion of the proceeds from the cocaine sales of García Marquez’s associate, the drug trafficker Roberto Suárez Levy.[38]

This money was in turn used to fund further international interventions that built on the junta’s experience in Argentina and Bolivia. The junta formed the Andean Brigade, which Carlos Raimondi, a former captain in the Argentine military, described as “a sort of secret foreign legion whose job was rooting out Communists wherever they happened to be, especially the Montoneros guerrillas and those assisting them.”[39] This force was heavily involved in Argentina’s even more extensive intervention in Central America following the Nicaraguan Revolution. Like the U.S., the Argentine military had traditionally cultivated close relations with the Somoza regime. Since seizing power in 1976, the Argentine junta had regularly invited Nicaraguan military and police leaders to Buenos Aires for counterinsurgency training. Argentina became one of the principal suppliers for the Nicaraguan military, stepping up its commitment over time as the Sandinista threat became more serious and as the Carter administration cut back military aid to the abusive Somoza regime.[40]

The fall of the Somoza regime in 1979 was seen as vindication for hardline elements of the Argentina junta who believed that a forceful, hemisphere-wide response to the subversive threat was required to ensure final victory in the Dirty War. The discovery that exiled Montonero leaders were among the Sandinistas who had toppled Somoza and the 1980 murder of Somoza in Paraguay by former members of the Argentine ERP only further inflamed the junta’s anxieties. Following the fall of the Somoza regime, the junta committed to supporting ex-Somoza paramilitaries through training, aid, and the deployment of advisors as they fought to regain control of Nicaragua. These paramilitaries would go on to become the contras who gained international infamy for their flagrant abuses throughout the 1980s.[41]

In tandem with these efforts in Nicaragua, the Argentine junta also provided significant support to the abusive military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. From 1979-1981, Argentine military personnel facilitated and perpetrated kidnappings and assassinations across Central America, driven by a strategic formulation that intimately linked Argentine national security to the ideological struggles that wracked the region during this period. These operations grew in scope under the watch of hardliners such as the future president and architect of the invasion of the Falklands, Leopoldo Galtieri.[42] These hardliners were even less compromising than the faction led by Videla in their views on returning power to civilian governments and in their relentless pursuit of subversives. From 1979-1981, the hardliners grew in influence and prosecuted the international Dirty War with greater and greater intensity. 

A Weakened Human Rights Policy

The growing intensity of the international Dirty War at the same time as the conflict was winding down within Argentina and the US was facing a rash of international crises in Latin America and the world more generally posed a serious challenge for the Carter administration’s human rights agenda toward Argentina. 

Carter’s Argentina policy had never been formulated with the goal of affecting its international behavior; instead, its focus had always been on the regime’s conduct toward its own citizens within the boundaries of Argentina. Beyond this fundamental challenge in responding to Argentina’s new, more aggressive foreign policy, Carter’s critical stance toward the military junta was rapidly costing more politically throughout the second half of his administration. Both at home and abroad, Carter faced serious pressure to relax his human rights policies toward Argentina. For these two reasons, during this period, the Carter administration gradually softened its stance toward the military junta, despite its continued disrespect for human rights.

We can see the shifting perception toward Argentina through recently released documents first made public as part of the Argentina Declassification Project that finished in 2019. From examining these documents, it is clear that starting around 1978, analysts from across the U.S. government continuously emphasized the improvement of human rights conditions within Argentina itself. A 1978 memo to the Secretary of Defense argues for the removal of the blanket ban on selling military equipment to the Argentine military, stating that “Argentina has taken some positive human rights steps.”[43] A 1978 memo from National Security Council staffer Robert Pastor to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski claims, “[w]hile Argentina still has the worst record in the hemisphere, there has been some improvement in recent months.”[44]

These sorts of ambivalent statements, both giving Argentina credit for the improved human rights situation while continuing to acknowledge that abuses continued, were typical of executive branch communications and reports around this time. Gradually, praise became less qualified, and criticism less forceful, as the dirty war within Argentina continued winding down. The 1980 and 1981 strategy toward Argentina developed by the Interagency Group for Latin America again underscores the junta’s continued improvement on human rights and reported only 33 disappearances in 1980, with only 11 of those being confirmed.[45] Tellingly, human rights are only discussed on the final page of this report. Taken as a whole, these documents indicate that in the second half of Carter’s presidency, there was a general consensus within the executive branch that the administration’s human rights pressure was working, and that a change in tack might be justified.

It is true that during this period, the number of disappearances was dropping drastically compared to the earlier years of military rule. This reduction, however, can largely be explained by the fact that the guerrilla threat had been all but completely suppressed by that point. The stance of the regime on human rights had not fundamentally changed, as illustrated by its international activities in Bolivia and Central America, as well as the fact that it was perfectly willing to employ disappearances in Argentina even during this period of supposed improving behavior. Even by 1978, when the earliest documents discussed above were produced, the junta was working with regimes such as the Somozas that had been labeled major human rights abusers by the Carter administration. It provided training and furnished supplies to these regimes so that they could implement Dirty War-style counterinsurgency tactics in their own countries. By 1980, around the time when Interagency Group for Latin America was lauding Argentina for its improved human rights record, Argentine soldiers were in Bolivia and Central America, directly violating human rights on an international scale.

The foreign policy bureaucracy, however, proved far less willing or able to push Argentina on the human rights abuses its military was committing beyond its borders. One significant obstacle to applying Carter’s human rights policy to a regime’s international actions was the dominant cultural narrative of what human rights abuses looked like. As Patrick Kelly points out, human rights had entered U.S. political discourse through the spectacular violence committed by Latin American military regimes in places like Brazil and especially Chile. These early models of human rights abusers, magnified by NGOs like Amnesty International, colored the understanding of human rights for both voters and policymakers. This association was part of the reason that Argentina became such a focus for the Carter administration while countries like Idi Amin’s Uganda received less pressure, despite their flagrant abuses. Importantly, however, this understanding was developed through widely broadcast images of violence committed by governments against their own people. The enduring image of the Pinochet regime that so influenced American understanding of human rights was the detention center at the estadio nacional. The system of covert, border-hopping death squads that would become known as Operation Condor was further from the public imagination. More broadly, the dominant perception of human rights at the time was that countries had fewer obligations to uphold the rights of those who were not their citizens. We can imagine that given America’s at the time recent record of abuses both in Latin America and the world more broadly, the Carter administration was all too happy to limit human rights discussions to Argentina’s domestic sphere.[46]

America had another reason to overlook Argentina’s international adventures in Bolivia and Central America. Despite any disgust at the junta’s actions, for at least some factions of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, Argentina became a more important part of America’s strategic goals throughout the second half of the Carter presidency. For many analysts across the U.S. government, the Nicaraguan Revolution and its implications for the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere represented a full-blown crisis. Warnings of Cuban aggression had been a consistent theme throughout the Carter administration. A 1977 interagency intelligence memo reported that Cuban representatives were meeting with members of the Chilean leftist group, the Chilean movimiento izquierdista revolucionario, to discuss the group’s operations in Argentina.[47] A 1979 CIA working paper repeats the widespread belief among the Argentine military leadership that “the Cubans control the Montoneros.”[48] A State Department report from the last few weeks of the Carter administration provides an exhaustive overview of Cuba’s activities in the Hemisphere, linking them to leftist organizations from Nicaragua to Uruguay.[49] For Cuba hawks, the rise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua was a stark reminder of the ever-looming threat of leftist revolution in America’s own backyard. Conservatives, embodied by the rising star, Ronald Reagan, even attempted to link the revolution to Carter’s human rights advocacy in Nicaragua. They argued that his pressure had weakened the Somoza regime at a time when it had needed America’s unqualified support against Cuban-supported Communists.[50]

All this unease about Nicaragua and the growth of leftism in Latin America made it more difficult for the Carter administration to justify consequences for the junta’s fight against communism regardless of the brutality of the methods they employed. It was one thing to criticize Argentina for overreaching in their fight against the Montoneros and the ERP — an issue of limited political salience in America and a conflict that the junta would realistically never lose. It was another thing altogether to criticize Argentina for helping a routed traditional U.S. ally stem the rising tide of communism in a country that many thought Carter had handed over to Cuba and the Soviet Union. 

The broader global situation facing Carter also prevented his administration from taking action to curtail Argentina’s international aggression during this period. Argentina had been originally selected as one of the principal targets for Carter’s new human rights policy in large part because, at the beginning of his term, it was a relatively unimportant ally. As détente began to unravel with the invasion of Afghanistan in the latter part of Carter’s presidency, however, unity among the Western world began to return to its earlier supremacy in U.S. foreign policy calculations.[51]

In the specific case of Argentina, late in Carter’s presidency, the U.S. needed to secure the junta’s support for a grain embargo against the Soviet Union to undermine the war effort in Afghanistan after 1979. Argentina was a major supplier of wheat on the global stage, and despite the public anti-communism of the junta, it had been perfectly willing to export its wheat to be a trade partner to the Soviet Union. Argentina was no longer an expendable ally. Its participation in the grain embargo would be a key factor in the success of Carter’s response to Soviet aggression unfolding during a campaign season that saw him facing charges of weakness in the realm of foreign policy. The need to reintegrate Argentina into the anti-communist alliance was another key reason the Carter administration was unwilling to challenge Argentina’s interventions in Bolivia and Central America.

Far from simply refraining from criticizing the international expansion of the Dirty War, late in the Carter presidency, the U.S. began to actively cultivate Argentina as a partner and worked to soothe the junta’s anger following years of what it viewed as unfair persecution. This effort to reintegrate Argentina into the Western alliance culminated in the visit of American Army General Andrew Goodpaster to Buenos Aires in 1980. Visits from senior U.S. military personnel had been virtually non-existent for much of the Carter administration as part of the general cooling of relations. In desperate need of Argentine support, however, the Carter administration was, by this point, willing to treat the junta as it felt it should be treated. The military leadership in Argentina was overjoyed about Goodpaster’s visit. As Guest describes it, the visit “was a major boost for the Junta. An American general was back in Argentina! (…) Symbolically, (…) Goodpaster’s visit was momentous (…) Argentina was again deemed important to American security—vitally important.”[52] Although the visit failed at winning Argentine participation in the grain embargo on the Soviets, it signaled the end of America’s pressure campaign on the junta. A State Department memo on Goodpaster’s meeting with Videla makes it clear that the goal of the visit was to return U.S.-Argentine relations to their state prior to the Carter administration. The memo reports that Goodpaster told Videla, “our goal was to restore relations to a normal level.”[53]

Carter was less willing to challenge Argentina on human rights in 1980 than he had been in 1976 because the political situation facing his administration and the form the junta’s abuses took were vastly different than they had been. In 1976, he was a popular new president with all the political capital that entailed. In early 1980, he was an embattled incumbent preparing to meet the dynamic rising star, Ronald Reagan, in a campaign that would represent a referendum on his presidency. Reagan had an easy charisma that Carter never did. He spoke frankly on foreign policy to voters who were watching a new crisis or embarrassment pop up seemingly every month. He blamed Carter’s human rights policy for undermining key allies and allowing friendly governments to collapse in the face of popular revolution. He argued that Carter did not adequately appreciate the global threat Communism posed. In short, he claimed that Carter’s attempts to fundamentally reshape U.S. foreign policy using the mechanism of human rights was misguided.

Refocusing the human rights enforcement infrastructure on Argentina’s external policies would have been a difficult task even without these political pressures. Dominant perceptions of human rights did not have much space for analyzing a country’s foreign policy through a human rights lens, and Argentina’s actions in Central America had significantly greater implications for U.S. security interests than had their war against domestic guerrillas. The political pressure Carter and his administration faced in the latter half of his presidency compounded the structural barriers to a fundamental reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. As a result of the convergence of these two trends, the pressure the Carter administration placed on Argentina to reduce its human rights abuses lessened over the course of the period from 1978 to 1980. It is difficult to imagine any other realistic outcome, given the structural outcomes the policy faced.


Propelled in part by his forceful critiques of Carter’s attempts to reshape America’s role in the world, Reagan handily won the presidency in the 1980 election. After his inauguration at the start of 1981, he quickly began to implement more orthodox policies toward Argentina, and towards Latin America more generally. His administration negotiated a compromise with Congress to reverse Carter’s suspension of military aid to Argentina and several other Latin American dictatorships contingent on the continuous certification by the administration that there had been a marked improvement in human rights.[54] Under Reagan, the U.S. took an active role in supporting Argentine intervention in Central America, providing funds to the Argentine military to support the training and supplying of right-wing paramilitaries in a preview of the Nicaragua policy that would capture the public’s attention during the Iran-Contra Scandal.[55] America was once again willing to enable flagrant human rights abuses in Latin America without public critique. Four years after Carter’s inauguration, it was clear that his attempts to create a new paradigm of U.S.-Latin American relations had failed.

Reagan’s election, however, was the culmination of this failure rather than its cause. The effort to radically reorient U.S. foreign policy had faced serious obstacles from the beginning of the Carter administration. The foreign policy bureaucracy, particularly the State Department, exhibited a reflexive resistance to Carter’s attempts to include human rights as a key concern in formulating America’s policy agenda. Officials like Pat Derian that vigorously pursued a human rights-based agenda were the exception rather than the norm. This low level of buy-in across the State Department hampered the institutionalization of human rights and placed limits on the possible impact of the initiatives that were implemented. 

Because successes in the human rights policy toward Argentina were generally the result of individual action rather than institutional processes, the Carter administration’s human rights policies toward the junta began to crumble as extraneous factors placed greater pressure on the U.S. During the latter years of the Carter presidency, Argentina’s human rights abuses became more complex, more difficult to explain simply, and more closely linked to U.S. national security. Combined with the number of international crises and the domestic political opposition Carter faced during this period, this change in the form of the Dirty War from 1978 to 1981 prevented the U.S. from advocating for human rights as forcefully as it had done earlier in the Carter administration. Argentina was no longer the expendable ally it had been, and Carter no longer possessed the same latitude to choose his allies as he once had.

Carter’s focus on human rights had been intended to provide a new guiding impetus for American foreign policy at a time when it seemed that the traditional Cold War paradigm was outdated. Structural obstacles prevented it from serving this purpose in the case of Argentina. Instead, human rights were subsumed by the dominant Cold War and became another axis of East-West competition. Despite his initial hostility to the idea of a human rights-based foreign policy, Reagan soon began to use human rights as a weapon against Communists across the world and in Latin America specifically. He argued that Sandinistas and left-wing terrorists were the principal violators of human rights throughout the hemisphere and that for this reason, the U.S. ought to forcefully oppose such movements.[56] Human rights would go on to play a key role in the rhetoric of U.S. administrations going forward, but it has typically not been the predominant strain in foreign policy decision-making that Carter hoped it would be. As the case of Argentina illustrates, structural factors have consistently prevented a human rights-based foreign policy from reaching its full potential.

Works Cited


Andersen, Martin Edwin. Dossier Secreto: Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the “Dirty War.” Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.

Armony, Ariel C.. Argentina, the United States, and the Anti-Communist Crusade in Central America, 1977– 1984. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.

Bradley, Mark Philip. The world reimagined Americans and humans rights in the twentieth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016 .

Brennan, James. Argentina’s Missing Bones: Revisiting the History of the Dirty War. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2018.

Burns, Jimmy. The Land that Lost its Heroes. London: Bloomsbury, 1987.

Burzaco, Ricardo. Infierno en el monte tucumaño: Argentina, 1973– 1976. Buenos Aires: R. E. Editores, 1994.

Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Dickey, Christopher. With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Dinges, John. The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. New York, NY: The New Press, 2004.

Dumbrell, John. The Carter Presidency: A Reevaluation. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Falcoff, Mark. A Tale of Two Policies: U.S. Relations with the Argentine Junta1976-1983. Philadelphia: Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1989.

Forsythe, David. Human rights and U.S. foreign policy. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1988.

Guest, Iain. Behind the Disappearances: Argentina’s Dirty War against Human Rights and the United Nations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Hodges, Donald C.. Argentina’s “Dirty War”: An Intellectual Biography. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Kelly, Patrick William. Sovereign Emergencies: Latin America and the Making of Global Human Rights Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Kirkpatrick, Jeane. Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

LeoGrande, William. Our Own Backyard : The United States in Central America, 1977-1992. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Lewis, Paul H.. Guerrillas and Generals : The ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina, Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2001.

Méndez, J.E., and M. Wentworth. Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights. St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2011.

Novaro, Marcos and Vicente Palermo. La dictadura militar (1976–1983): del golpe de estado a la restauracíon democrática. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2003.

Purnell, Susanna W. and Eleanor S. Wainstein. The Problems of U.S. Businesses Operating Abroad in Terrorist Environments, Santa Monica: Rand, 1981.

Quiroga, Hugo and César Tcach, eds. Argentina: 1976–2006: Entre la sombra de la dictadura y el futuro de la democracia. Rosario: Homo Sapiens, 2006. 

Sheinein, David M. K.. Consent of the Damned: Ordinary Argentinians in the Dirty War. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, 2012.

Simpson, John and Jana Bennett. The Disappeared. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Søndergaard, Rasmus Sinding. Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights: Contesting Morality in US Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Timmerman, Jacobo. Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Verbitsky, Horacio. La última Batalla de la Tercera Guerra Mundial. Buenos Aires: Legasa, 1985.


Armony, Ariel C.. “Transnationalizing the Dirty War.” In In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War , edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser, 134– 68. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008.

Flood, Patrick J.. “U.S. human rights initiatives concerning Argentina.” In David Newsom (Ed.), The diplomacy of human rights (pp. 129-140). Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1986.

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Wiarda, Howard. “Democracy and Human Rights in Latin America: Toward a New Conceptualization” in Human Rights and U.S. Human Rights Policy: Theoretical Approaches and Some Perspectives on Latin America. Ed. Howard Wiarda. New York: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1987.

Journal Articles

Brysk, Alison. “From above and below: Social movements, the international system, and human rights in Argentina.” Comparative Political Studies 26, no. 3 (1993): 259-285.

Cottam, Martha L. “The Carter Administration’s Policy toward Nicaragua: Images, Goals, and Tactics.” Political Science Quarterly 107, no. 1 (1992): 123-46. Accessed March 6, 2021. doi:10.2307/2152137.

Forsythe, David P.. “Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect.” Political Science Quarterly 105, no. 3 (1990): 435-54. Accessed February 23, 2021. doi:10.2307/2150826.

Novaro, Marcos, and Alejandro Avenburg. “La CIDH En Argentina: Entre La Democratización Y Los Derechos Humanos.” Desarrollo Económico 49, no. 193 (2009): 61-90. Accessed February 27, 2021.

Schmitz, David F., and Vanessa Walker. “Jimmy Carter and the Foreign Policy of Human Rights: The Development of a Post-Cold War Foreign Policy.” Diplomatic History 28, no. 1 (2004): 113-43. Accessed February 24, 2021.

Zaretsky, Natasha. “Restraint or Retreat? The Debate over the Panama Canal Treaties and U.S. Nationalism after Vietnam,” Diplomatic History 35, no. 3, June 2011, 535–562,

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Dube, Ryan. “‘Tex’ Harris, U.S. Envoy who Exposed Argentina’s ‘dirty war,’ dies” Wall Street Journal (New York, NY). February 28, 2020, Retrieved April 11, 2021, from

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Agency unspecified. Argentina 1980/1981 Plan of Action and Other Issues. no author. no publisher. The Argentina Declassification Project. No date., P.71

CIA. Cuban Presence and Activities in Argentina. no author. Washington DC: CIA. Argentina Declassification Project, Argentina – Central Intelligence Agency, January 22, 1979.

CIA, Cuban Support for Nationalist Movements and Revolutionary Groups, no author, Washington DC: CIA, Argentina Declassification Project, Argentina – Central Intelligence Agency, July 1977.

United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. Cubas Renewed Support for Violence in Latin America. Ed. Norman Howard. Washington DC: State Department. Argentina Declassification Project, Argentina – Central Intelligence Agency, December 14, 1981

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U.S. Congress, House, An Act to amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Foreign Military Sales Act, and for other purposes, HR 13680, 94th Cong., 1st sess., introduced in House May 11, 1976,

U.S. Congress, House, House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs. Foreign Assistance Legislation for FY 1981 for Latin America: Hearings before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs 96th Cong., 1st sess., March 3, 1980. Argentina Declassification Project, Argentina – Department of Defense (Office of the Secretary of Defense Part 2), Document 13.


F. Allen (Tex) Harris. By Charles Stuart Kennedy, December 10, 1999. Transcript. The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project,

Patricia Derian. By Charles Stuart Kennedy, March 12, 1996. Transcript. The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project,


Telegram 1751 From the Embassy in Argentina to the Department of State. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume E–11, Part 2, Documents on South America, 1973–1976. Foreign Relations of the United States. US Department of State Office of the Historian. 

Telegram 227379 From the Department of State to the Embassy in Argentina. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume E–11, Part 2, Documents on South America, 1973–1976.,benefit%20the%20needy%20people%E2%80%94%E2%80%9D.. Foreign Relations of the United States. US Department of State Office of the Historian. 


[1] John Simpson and Jana Bennett, The Disappeared, New York: Penguin Books, 1985, P.33.

[2] Ibid, P.33-34.

[3] Guest, Behind the Disappearances. P.15-20.

[4]  Ibid, P. 18-22.

[5] Guest, Behind the Disappearances, P.19-20.

[6] James Brennan, Argentina’s Missing Bones: Revisiting the History of the Dirty War, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2018), P. 64-69.

[7] Guest, Behind the Disappearances, P.12.

[8] Paul H. Lewis, Guerrillas and Generals : The ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2001), P.124.

[9] Novaro and Palermo, La dictadura, P.19-25.

[10] Mark Philip Bradley, The world reimagined Americans and humans rights in the twentieth century, (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2016), P.132-160.

[11] David P. Forsythe, “Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy: Retrospect and Prospect.” Political Science Quarterly 105, no. 3 (1990): 435-54. Accessed February 23, 2021. doi:10.2307/2150826.

[12] Patrick William Kelly, Sovereign Emergencies: Latin America and the Making of Global Human Rights Politics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[13] Jimmy Carter, “President Carter’s Farewell Address to the Nation,” Speech, Washington DC, January 14, 1981.

[14] Guest, Behind the Disappearances, P.159.

[15] David F. Schmitz and Vanessa Walker, “Jimmy Carter and the Foreign Policy of Human Rights: The Development of a Post-Cold War Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 28, no. 1 (2004): 113-43, Accessed February 24, 2021.

[16] Guest, Behind the Disappearances, P.164.

[17] Patricia Derian, Interview by Charles Stuart Kennedy, March 12, 1996, transcript, The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project

[18] Ibid, P.31. 

[19] Ibid, P.37.

[20] Ibid, P.38, parentheses in original.

[21] Ibid, P.33.

[22] Ibid, P.33.

[23] Marcos Novaro and Alejandro Avenburg, “La CIDH En Argentina: Entre La Democratización Y Los Derechos Humanos,” Desarrollo Económico 49, no. 193 (2009): 61-90, Accessed February 27, 2021.

[24] William LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard : The United States in Central America, 1977-1992, (Chapel Hill, NC:The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), P.58.

[25] Ibid, P.58.

[26] Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), P.127.

[27] Natasha Zaretsky, “Restraint or Retreat? The Debate over the Panama Canal Treaties and U.S. Nationalism after Vietnam,” Diplomatic History35, no. 3, June 2011, 535–562,

[28] Howard Wiarda, “Democracy and Human Rights in Latin America: Toward a New Conceptualization,” in Human Rights and U.S. Human Rights Policy: Theoretical Approaches and Some Perspectives on Latin America, Ed. Howard Wiarda. (New York: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1987), P.30-40.

[29] Martha L. Cottam, “The Carter Administration’s Policy toward Nicaragua: Images, Goals, and Tactics,” Political Science Quarterly 107, no. 1 (1992): 123-46. Accessed March 6, 2021. doi:10.2307/2152137.

[30] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright, Leslie Denend and William Odom, Interview by James Sterling Young et al., transcript, The Carter Presidency Project, The Miller Center Foundation, February 18,1982,, P.34.

[31] Carter, Keeping Faith, P.347.

[32] Ibid, P.163.

[33] Quote in Horacio Verbitsky, La última Batalla de la Tercera Guerra Mundial. (Buenos Aires: Legasa, 1985), P.30. Translation by me.

[34] Ariel C. Armony, Argentina, the United States, and the Anti-Communist Crusade in Central America, 1977– 1984, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997), P. 36.

[35] Verbitsky, La última batalla, P. 75.

[36] Armony, Anti-Communist Crusade, P.21.

[37] Verbitsky, La última batalla, P. 76-77.

[38] Ariel C. Armony, “Transnationalizing the Dirty War,” In In from the Cold: Latin America’s New Encounter with the Cold War , edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser, 134– 68, (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008), P.150-151.

[39] Quoted in Armony, Anti-Communist Crusade, P.31-32.

[40] Armony, “Transnationalizing the Dirty War,” P. 145-146.

[41] Ibid, P.146-147.

[42] Verbitsky, La última batalla, P.70.

[43] U.S. Congress, House, House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, Foreign Assistance Legislation for FY 1981 for Latin America: Hearings before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs 96th Cong., 1980, Argentina Declassification Project, Argentina – Department of Defense (Office of the Secretary of Defense Part 2), Document 13, P.18.

[44] Robert Pastor to Zbigniew Brzezinski and David Aaron, August 9, 1979, The National Security Council, Argentina: Your Questions, The Argentina Declassification Project,, P.113.

[45] Argentina 1980/1981 Plan of Action and Other Issues, The Argentina Declassification Project, P.71.

[46] Kelly, Sovereign Emergencies.

[47] CIA, Cuban Support for Nationalist Movements and Revolutionary Groups, no author, Washington DC: CIA, Argentina Declassification Project, Argentina – Central Intelligence Agency, July 1977.

[48] CIA, Cuban Presence and Activities in Argentina, no author, Washington DC: CIA, Argentina Declassification Project, Argentina – Central Intelligence Agency, January 22, 1979.

[49] United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Cubas Renewed Support for Violence in Latin America, Ed. Norman Howard, Washington DC: State Department, Argentina Declassification Project, Argentina – Central Intelligence Agency, December 14, 1981.

[50] Jeane Kirkpatrick, “Establishing a Viable Human Rights Policy” in Human Rights and U.S. Human Rights Policy: Theoretical Approaches and Some Perspectives on Latin America, Ed. Howard Wiarda, (New York:American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1987), P.86-93.

[51] Dumbrell, The Carter Presidency, P.200.

[52] Guest, Behind the Disappearances, P.181-182.

[53] United States Department of State, General Goodpaster’s Call on President Videla, no author, Washington DC: State Department, State Department Virtual Reading Room, O-2016-16244, January 1980.

[54] Guest, Behind the Disappearances, P.290.

[55] Verbitsky, La última batalla, P.106.

[56] Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard, Reagan, Congress, and Human Rights: Contesting Morality in US Foreign Policy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).