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Digital National Security Archive (DNSA): Argentina, 1975-1980: The Making of U.S. Human Rights Policy

About this Collection

Comprising 2,429 documents, this set chronicles the development of U.S. policy as it attempts to deal with the tragedy experienced in Argentina during the critical, formative period of the late 1970’s, which featured a political collapse verging on civil war; a military coup; and massive illegal detentions, torture and kidnappings.

The documents show U.S. officials grappling with human rights violations on a scale never heard of in the Western Hemisphere, underscored by the dramatic disappearance of tens of thousands of people at the hands of the security forces.

The declassified records in this set, most of them acquired by National Security Archive project staff and never before published, illustrate the birth of human rights as a priority in U.S. foreign policy – along with more traditional concerns ranging from the spread of international communism to nuclear proliferation in Latin America.

Research Value of the Collection

This set follows U.S. officials through a series of snapshots, which depict the tragedy experienced in Argentina during this critical, formative period, including a political collapse verging on civil war; a military coup; and massive illegal detentions, torture, and kidnappings. The documents show U.S. officials grappling to deal with human rights violations on a scale never heard of in the Western Hemisphere, underscored by the dramatic disappearance of tens of thousands of people at the hands of the security forces.

The documents give insights into the clash of the divergent U.S. and Argentine policy paradigms regarding human rights in 1977, following the advent of the Carter administration; and how both governments found an accommodation in 1978, leading to a dramatic decline in human rights violations by 1979, and the fading of human rights as an issue in bilateral relations starting in 1980.

The declassified documents in this set, many of them acquired by National Security Archive project staff and never before published, illustrate the birth of human rights as a priority in U.S. foreign policy – alongside more traditional U.S. concerns ranging from the spread of international communism to nuclear proliferation in Latin America. Among the many instructive and colorful vignettes in the collection is the clamoring of the Argentine establishment in early 1976 for an end to the chaos, anarchy, and political violence, which culminated in support for the military coup d’état. By the second half of the year, U.S. officials had taken note that thousands of people were disappearing, and in 1977 the Carter administration began to implement its innovative and vocal human rights policy to stop the military violence.

Some of the unique and revealing records featured are:

  • The memorandum of conversation in mid 1976 in which Henry Kissinger gives the green light to the Argentine generals’ counterinsurgency campaign.
  • The proposal in mid 1977 by Assistant Secretary of State Terrence Todman recommending support for General Jorge Videla’s government.
  • The warning in late 1977 to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that the Videla government was adhering to illegal measures and a clandestine war doctrine.
  • The assessment by Argentine military intelligence unit Battalion 601 that security forces had killed or disappeared more than 22,000 people between 1975 and 1978.

The collection wraps up with the early years of the Reagan administration, showing U.S. officials such as Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams pressing Argentine generals to address the wrenching problem of “children taken from their families during the dirty war” by security forces. Today, these extraordinary records are making headlines as key pieces of evidence in dozens of human rights trials against former military officials in Argentina.

1975-1980

List of 7500