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Why Obama apologized to Argentina, and why he was right to

President Obama with President Macri of Argentina at a memorial to victims of the "dirty war"
President Barack Obama with President Mauricio Macri of Argentina at a memorial to victims of the "dirty war."
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama visited a memorial to victims of Argentina's "dirty war" on Thursday, where he gave a speech that expressed regret for the role the US played in that country’s period of dictatorship and repression.

"The United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to examine its own policies as well, and its own past," Obama said during the speech he delivered today at Parque de la Memoria, a monument honoring the tens of thousands of people who died during conflict in the 1970s and '80s, in which the Argentine military regime waged a campaign of repression, torture, and terror against its own people in an effort to crush a communist guerrilla movement.

Obama was, unsurprisingly, pretty vague on what role the US played in that conflict. So it's worth revisiting some declassified documents (he promised that the US would declassify more) from that era, which help show what happened: The US actively encouraged and supported Argentina's brutal junta, even going so far as to give it the green light to commit atrocities against its own people.

"If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly"

Obama visits the memorial to victims of Argentina's dirty war
Obama visits the memorial to victims of Argentina's dirty war. Each plaque represents a person killed by the junta, with some left blank to represent those who were never identified.
Argentinian Presidency Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Forty years to the day before Obama's speech, on March 24, 1976, a group of right-wing military officers overthrew Argentina's democratically elected government and installed a military junta led by General Jorge Videla.

Within days of the coup, then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his staff discussed how they could organize "a sensible program of international assistance" for the new regime even though, a Kissinger adviser warned, they should "expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood, in Argentina." To Kissinger, however, supporting the junta was a necessary evil — a way to counter the spread of communism in Latin America.

Only months after the coup, with the expected repression — including executions, forced disappearances, and torture — well underway, Kissinger met with Argentina's foreign minister, Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti, to express support for the new government.

"We have followed events in Argentina closely," Kissinger told Guzzetti. "We wish the new government well. We wish it will succeed. We will do what we can to help it succeed."

Kissinger, as part of this, gave Guzzetti tacit support for atrocities the government planned to carry out in its war on "terrorists" — a term the military regime used to describe not only actual Marxist guerrillas but also anyone suspected of supporting them or having leftist sympathies.

To be clear, the regime was, by that point, already killing people, already torturing people, and already forcibly disappearing those whom it believed to be subversives. Kissinger was aware of this, and indeed, the US ambassador to Argentina, Robert Hill, had been putting pressure on the regime to halt its human rights abuses. But when Kissinger met with Guzzetti, his message was the opposite of Hill's.

"If there are things that have to be done," he told Guzzetti, "you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures."

In other words, the US secretary of state sat down with the representative of a military government that had just stolen power in a coup d'état and told him that if he and his compatriots planned to commit mass atrocities against their own people, they should get right down to it without delay.

A later State Department memo, released by journalist Martin Edwin Andersen, reveals that the junta received that message clearly: They interpreted Kissinger's statement as a "green light" for their campaign of terror against their own people.

The US knew the junta planned on "killing priests and nuns and others"

Within weeks of the meeting, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Harry Shlaudeman briefed Kissinger that Argentine security forces were "totally out of control" and committing "daily waves of murders."

The junta, Shlaudeman said, was planning "to terrorize the opposition — even by killing priests and nuns and others "in order to crush the country's leftist guerrilla movement and those whom it considered leftist sympathizers and supporters."

The military regime applied itself with vigor to executing that plan. It forcibly disappeared or assassinated tens of thousands of people, and made widespread use of torture. A common method of mass execution were the so-called "death flights," in which dozens of prisoners at a time were dragged onto planes, sedated, stripped, and then dropped into the open ocean while still alive.

One of the regime's most notoriously cruel policies was to steal the babies of pregnant women they arrested and executed, allowing regime sympathizers to adopt the children as their own.

And though Argentinians obviously bore the brunt of the regime's crimes, US citizens fell victim to the violence as well. According to analysis by the US National Security Archive, at least six US citizens were murdered by the regime, and others were tortured.

Among the declassified documents is a statement from a US citizen who was arrested and brutally tortured by the regime in October 1976, after being found carrying leftist pamphlets. Her captors beat her severely, sexually assaulted her with an electric prod, and told her that "they'd fix me so I couldn't have children."

But even as all this was happening in the world's full view, the United States did not withdraw its support for the regime. Despite that clear record of appalling human rights abuses, the strategic considerations of opposing the spread of communism during the Cold War won out over human rights concerns.

That did eventually change. When the Carter administration took office, it made human rights more of a priority in foreign policy, including in its relations with Argentina. But by then the damage was done: The regime had taken Kissinger's "green light" as a license to kill tens of thousands of people, and the repressive regime had a firm grip on power. Argentina remained under a military government until 1983.

Obama's speech was a step in the right direction. But he's still letting the United States off too easily.

US Pres. Obama Meets With Henry Kissenger,George Schultz, And Sam Nunn
Obama met with Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office in 2009. They probably did not discuss the time Kissinger gave Argentina's junta the "green light" for the dirty war.
Photo by Michael Reynolds-POOL/Getty Images

In his speech in the Parque de la Memoria, Obama stood before a wall that bears the names of thousands of people murdered by the government we supported, and said that we cannot forget the past, but that by confronting it we will build a better future.

And he's right, but it's a lesson that doesn't just apply to regimes and atrocities that are safely in the past. The United States has still not come to terms with the real lesson of its support for Argentina's military junta, which is that when the US sacrifices human rights in order to further other foreign policy objectives, it eventually ends up on the wrong side of history.

Last year, Vox's Matt Yglesias asked Obama whether he was concerned about the human rights records of US allies such as Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. The president's answer was an unsatisfying dodge. Obama hedged, saying that the US has to press for human rights improvements while also pursuing other national security objectives — to "do both things."

Doing "both things" sure sounds nice. But, as I wrote at the time, that doesn't answer the real question of when it is worthwhile for the US to pursue improvements in human rights at the expense of other objectives.

It seems that it is easier to make speeches apologizing for our failures to live up to our values in the past than it is to make the hard choices to live up to them now, today.

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