U.S. Feared a Nuclear Argentina
Policy: Hoping to win the regime's support for a ban in the 1970s, America curbed its opposition to the 'dirty war,' documents show.
By PAUL RICHTER
TIMES STAFF WRITER
WASHINGTON -- U.S. efforts in the late 1970s to pressure Argentina to
end the torture and killing of leftists were restrained in part by an American
keep the military junta from developing a nuclear bomb, newly declassified U.S. government papers show.
A State Department intelligence report from 1978 said that even while
the Carter administration was stepping up pressure on the Argentine regime
to curb the "dirty
war" against dissidents, U.S. policymakers worried that pushing too hard could jeopardize efforts to convince the junta to join a treaty banning nuclear weapons in
"Argentina's nuclear status and capabilities have forced the United
States to examine carefully the possibility that human rights initiatives
could be detrimental to
continued U.S. influence in the nuclear area," said the report from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. "The U.S. human rights approach to
Argentina has always been tempered by Argentina's potential as a nuclear proliferator."
The report was among 4,677 documents from 1975 to 1984 that were declassified
and released by the State Department this week. The information had been
requested by the families of the regime's victims, human rights groups and governments that are considering prosecuting Argentine officials they accuse of human
Documents disclosed earlier this week suggested a clear difference between
the Ford and Carter administrations in their policies on Argentina. The
documents indicate that leaders of the military regime believed that the Ford administration, which was in office when the junta took power, was not sincerely
concerned about rights abuses.
The papers show that the generals repeatedly dismissed expressions of
concern from the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, saying they knew from personal
Washington that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not object to their campaign against the leftists.
The military government cracked down on insurgents beginning in March
1976 in an effort to end political violence that had racked the country
Thousands of Argentine citizens disappeared in the campaign, which the regime viewed as a war on terrorism.
When Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he stepped up pressure on the
Argentines to halt what his administration saw as gross human rights abuses.
The U.S. cut
back on military and economic aid and began collecting information on incidents of kidnapping, torture and killing.
By early 1978, Carter administration pressure had brought relations
between the two countries to a "nadir," the intelligence report notes.
While U.S. officials
continued to press on human rights issues, their desire to bring the junta around on the nuclear issue complicated the effort.
The report notes that the nuclear arms issue was a major item on the
agenda when Carter met Argentine President Jorge Rafael Videla in September
when Secretary of State Cyrus Vance visited Buenos Aires two months later.
Though the South American nation does not possess nuclear weapons, analysts
say it came close to developing them while the military ruled from 1976
The prospect of a nuclear-armed Argentina was especially unnerving to U.S. officials because of the country's rivalry with neighboring Brazil.
The report says the Argentines had not sought to use the nuclear weapons
issue to win concessions from the U.S. in the human rights debate. Nonetheless,
they "undoubtedly appreciate the bargaining power of their nuclear chip," and predicts that the generals "may attempt to inject it directly into human rights
Carlos Osorios, an analyst at the National Security Archive, a nonprofit
research organization that gathers declassified national security documents,
said the report
shows that the proliferation worries were a "very, very important factor" in shaping U.S. policy at the time.
F. Allen "Tex" Harris, a retired foreign service officer who was closely
involved with the "dirty war" issue while at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos
Aires in the late
1970s, said in an interview that the Argentine nuclear program "was a major concern of the Department of State and the defense establishment" at the time.
Even so, the biggest issue generating debate among U.S. policymakers,
he said, was whether the policy should be shaped by the desire to influence
human rights practices or whether the U.S. should take "a long-term view that it had to maintain good working relations with the military as the only stable entity in
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