Death & Lies in El Salvador
Margaret O'Brien Steinfels June 14, 2004 - 7:25am
By the time Ambassador Robert White was posted to El Salvador in 1980, he knew full well that politics could be a deadly affair. At age seventeen, he had joined the World War II Navy, and then served in the Pacific. As ambassador to Paraguay in the late 1970s and, earlier, as a Foreign Service officer in several of Latin America’s similarly unsavory dictatorships, he had confronted human-rights abuses, violence, even murder. In El Salvador itself, more than nine thousand people were killed in the year he arrived. But after December 4, when he witnessed the disinterment of four American women murdered by Salvadoran soldiers, his life would never be the same.
Two of the women, Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel, had spent the night of December 1 as the guests of MaryAnn and Robert White at the embassy. White didn’t necessarily agree with the criticism of U.S. policy that he heard that evening from Jean Donovan, but he was not going to stand by and let Salvador’s brutal death squads and their American apologists get away with this atrocity. The experience of December 4 would lead him on an unexpected journey from successful American diplomat to candid critic of U.S. foreign policy.
That journey continues. Last October, White testified in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, about conditions in El Salvador during his time as ambassador. His testimony was part of the evidence brought against General Carlos Vides Casanova and General José Guillermo García, Salvadoran military officers now retired and living in Florida. Under the Torture Victim Protection Act, the two were charged in an unsuccessful civil suit with command responsibility for the abduction, rape, and murder of the four American churchwomen. The plaintiffs were the families of the victims, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan. Photos taken two days after the killings show White, fists clenched at his side, turning from the shallow grave; he is quoted in news accounts saying, "This time the bastards won’t get away with it....The bastards won’t get away with it."
But, they—the colonels, the military, the police, and the oligarchy of El Salvador—did get away with it. Although six National Guardsmen were convicted of the murders in 1984, no one believes they acted independently. García and Vides Casanova, who had tolerated and encouraged those abuses, retained power in El Salvador with the blessings and financial support of the U.S. government and are still fending off lawsuits in the United States. By contrast, Ambassador White, who had flagged the abuses of the military and refused to acquiesce in U.S. military intervention, was forced from the State Department in 1981.
Sitting in his Washington office at the Center for International Policy (CIP) in the spring of 2001, White summons that past, those people and events, with virtually instantaneous recall. A memory for names, faces, conversations, and policy details is among the prized attributes of the effective diplomat. At age seventy-five, White skillfully deploys that asset in recalling the past as well as offering a quick analysis of current U.S. policy in Colombia and Cuba. His light blue eyes are hooded as he remembers the ins and outs of his diplomatic posts in Nicaragua and at the Organization of American States, in Paraguay and El Salvador, and run-ins with Washington powerhouses Jesse Helms and Henry Kissinger. Those eyes open in a steady gaze as he delivers a pithy conclusion or a brief story: "When I was a young officer flying to Latin America, I sat next to Juan de Onis, the New York Times reporter. He asked me who I was and where I was going. I told him I was in the Foreign Service on my way to a new post. He looked at me and said, everyone knows they send the dregs of the department down there. And I said I hear the same thing about the New York Times. We became fast friends."
The former ambassador has described his twenty-five-year Foreign Service career as "failing upwards." "I was fired by the Nixon White House for opposing politicization of the Peace Corps, reprimanded by Henry Kissinger for speaking out on human rights, and finally, definitely dismissed by Alexander Haig for opposing a military solution in El Salvador." A nice conceit, but like many Irish-American Catholics after World War II, White’s whole life could be said to have "failed upwards." He was born September 21, 1926, and grew up, the oldest of five, in Melrose, a working-class town near Boston. Melrose was overwhelmingly Protestant, which, White quips, kept you Catholic. He also recalls in lively detail a strong mother, a tight-knit family, a good parish with able priests, and a friend, David Rice, who shared a love of reading and a penchant for debating the truths of Catholicism. Sociologists often refer to White’s generation as pre–Vatican II Catholics. He is certainly among those who embraced the changes the council brought to the church and its stance toward the world in the 1960s. Nonetheless, he seems to retain all of the instincts of a sturdy pre-conciliar faith.
After his youthful stint as a radioman in the Pacific in World War II, White returned home to Melrose to help support his family. The GI Bill, the ticket of many Catholic veterans to higher education, sent him to Saint Michael’s in Winooski, Vermont, in 1948. Despite what he describes as a "spotty high-school record," he threw himself into the study of history, from the Greeks and Romans to the twentieth century. After graduation in 1952, he studied in England on a Fulbright, returning a year later to attend the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts. "When I was in college many of us were under the delusion that most of the domestic problems of the United States were well on their way to solution. The real challenge was international." A certain "quotient of idealism" led him to apply to the Foreign Service. "I wanted to contribute to making things better. It was one of the few professions where you could do work that was intrinsically interesting—and get paid for it. You didn’t have to live in penury the way you did at universities. And finally, I was more of an activist than a scholar." In 1955, he was appointed a Foreign Service officer and wed MaryAnn Cahill, a field director for the Girl Scouts, who had promised to marry him when he got a real job.
Nothing but Dictatorships
Major cold-war tensions—the war in Korea (1950–53), the Cuban missile crisis (1961), and the Berlin Wall (1961)—dominated U.S. foreign policy as White began his career. He could be described as a cold-war liberal given a reality check in Latin America. "Not to recognize that Russia, the Soviet Union, was a threat to the United States seemed to me to be nourishing illusions," he says. "There was a need to take a stand against communism. There was a need for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, which were enlightened and adequate responses to the challenge. The problem came—and here I have to go into Latin America—in the developing world where we fought proxy wars that really did not need to be fought."
After serving in Hong Kong and Ottawa, in 1963 the Whites and their five children (ages five months to seven years) were posted to Ecuador. The Southern Hemisphere did not normally attract ambitious young Foreign Service officers. But Castro’s effort to export the Cuban revolution was a challenge to what White describes as the "colonial office atmosphere" of the U.S. Foreign Service in Latin America. The Kennedy White House hoped to change all of that by a combination of cold-war strategies and social reform. To that end, the Alliance for Progress was organized in 1961 under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) to bring social and economic change. It proved to be an effective recruiting device for younger career officers who normally would have preferred cold-war hot spots in Europe and Asia. White, eager to put his "quotient of idealism" to work, saw the Alliance as "a framework on the side of progress toward democracy." In retrospect, he concedes that the Alliance "may have been the product of wishful thinking, in effect, asking the elites of Latin America to preside over their own destruction." In any case, U.S. funding for the Alliance gradually evaporated as the war in Vietnam escalated through the 1960s, finally leaving only military aid for counterinsurgency programs.
White saw this process at work in the late sixties and seventies in Honduras (1965–68), Nicaragua (1970–72), and Colombia (1972–75) where, he observes, he "served in practically nothing but dictatorships." The cold-war impulse to support a "primitive anticommunism" made the United States "anti-union, anti-free expression," often opposing local reform efforts inspired by American values. Policies, such as refusing U.S. visas, "made perfectly decent men and women pariahs in their own countries," marking them as unacceptable to the U.S. government. White, along with many of his Foreign Service colleagues, "kept sending back reports advocating less identification with military dictators and more encouragement of democratic forces, who were not necessarily enemies of the United States, but actually drew their inspiration from our leaders and from our institutions. But we lost most of the time."
In Nicaragua and Honduras, White watched with sympathy the development of "third-way" projects, usually Jesuit-sponsored workshops promoting Christian Democratic unions and political parties on a European model. MaryAnn White remembers that one of the first things her husband did in a new country was to make contact with the political opposition by attending their meetings, teaching at the local university, and playing tennis with them. "He pursued any avenue that would provide a dialogue with the opposition. You already knew where the government was." From 1963 to 1976, White did what the best Foreign Service officers do: built relationships with local leaders, observed the intellectual and political tendencies of opposition figures, reported his findings regularly to the State Department. At two points he stepped out of the normal Foreign Service career track, first to serve as Peace Corps director for Latin America (1968–70) and later as U.S. deputy chief of mission at the OAS (1975–77).
The Carter Interregnum
U.S. policy shifted with Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976. The Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights and its embrace of détente gave White and like-minded Foreign Service officers a framework that loosened the straitjacket of anti-Communist policy—but inevitably created tensions both with Latin American countries and in Washington itself. When White was given his first ambassadorial post in Paraguay in 1977, he had an opportunity to probe how committed Washington was to the new human-rights policy in concrete circumstances. "Everybody hated [President Alfredo] Stroessner," he recalls. "When [Secretary of State] Cyrus Vance or [his deputy] Warren Christopher went to the Hill, one of the human-rights-friendly senators or congressmen would ask, 'Can you point to a single place where the human-rights policy has made a difference?' They would all say, 'Paraguay." And indeed, that policy in White’s hands unsettled the regime: he saved the lives of several political activists, helped to preserve a precarious labor movement by diplomatic interventions, and exposed the fact that the Nazi war criminal, Joseph Mengele, held Paraguayan citizenship.
White’s performance in Paraguay earned him the approval of the State Department and the ire of Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). In the fall of 1979, White was named ambassador to El Salvador, which on October 15 had installed a five-man junta headed by a progressive young military officer, Colonel Adolfo Majano. Over the course of the next year, the civilian composition of the junta would go from a coalition of center-left representatives including a businessman and a social democrat to a coalition of center-right representatives with Christian Democrat Napoleón Duarte, made president in December 1980. Despite this shift in composition, the Carter administration believed that the coalition had to be supported. White’s aggressive and very public promotion of human rights and democracy in Paraguay made him the ideal candidate to help foster a moderate democratic regime in El Salvador and forestall a takeover from the left like that of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in July 1979.
But Senator Helms did not want an activist human-rights ambassador in El Salvador and held up White’s confirmation for four months. Finally, on February 21, 1980, the Foreign Relations Committee on a vote of 10–2 sent the nomination to the Senate floor. Helms likened White’s confirmation to "a torch tossed in a pool of oil."
Congressional differences were mirrored in the Carter administration itself. Before leaving for El Salvador, White attended a National Security Council meeting. There, introduced by Secretary Vance, he was given advice by various cabinet officers. "As we were leaving, [National Security Adviser] Zbigniew Brzezinski said, 'Do you want troops down there?' 'No,' I said, 'I think really that’s the last thing I want. I view this as a [situation] that can be solved by political means.' And he kind of just shook his head. There was this perpetual conflict between Vance and Brzezinski on everything," including the priorities the United States should have in Latin America: democratic reform or support of military regimes in the name of anticommunism. So persistent were these differences that by the end of the Carter administration, the foreign-policy apparatus was derisively referred to by friend and foe alike as the fudge factory.
The crosscurrents and tensions in Washington were more than matched by those White encountered in El Salvador. Throughout his tenure, the ambassador had to resist Pentagon pressure, especially from the Southern Command in Panama, to send military advisors. Though White fired the CIA station chief on arriving in El Salvador, he felt he was always having to circumvent the agency’s ubiquitous meddling. A number of Salvadoran military and political leaders were on its payroll. "Duarte was on the CIA payroll," White points out. And so was Nicholas Carranza, head of the Treasury police; "I was truly offended at that—Carranza had the worst record on human rights." White considers that the "CIA had its own agenda and it was not necessarily the agenda of U.S. policy." Even today, two decades later, the CIA’s activities in that time and place remain obscure; unlike the State Department, the agency has not responded to Freedom of Information requests for documents.
The Critical Year
Nineteen eighty was a pivotal year for El Salvador. Would the tiny nation of 5 million people revert to military rule by the extreme right, which had kept it one of the most oppressive and inequitable societies in Latin America? Would it fall to a left-wing guerrilla movement as Nicaragua did in July 1979? Or could it, as the Carter administration hoped, evolve through this junta in a moderate and democratic direction? When White arrived early in March, his assignment was to encourage the growth of a political center and to discourage the flagrant human-rights abuses of the military and the death squads (usually the military in civilian dress), which were driving moderates and leftists into political alliances with the guerrillas. This was the assessment he made in a report that month to Washington: "If the systematic violation of human rights in the countryside does not cease, all the agrarian and banking reforms in the world will not help. Sometime over the course of the next six months, the civilian members of the junta and Colonel Majano will have to insist on the ouster of those in the army and security forces who permit and encourage torturing and killing innocent civilians in a brutal effort to end political action. The extreme right will keep on trying to convince the conservative officers to return to their natural alliance with the rich."
Fostering that center meant that White talked with everyone who would talk: members of the FDR (Revolutionary Democratic Front), Majano, the Christian Democrats, then-Colonel García (the defense minister), the Jesuits at the UCA (University of Central America)—all had a willing conversation partner. But in El Salvador the extremes were extreme indeed. "You had Cayetano Carpio of the FPL (Popular Liberation Forces), a total fanatic," whom White compared to Cambodia’s "Pol Pot left." "Then you had the extreme right represented by the [Robert] D’Aubuisson crew, who would just kill anybody"—and did. White once referred to him as a "psychopathic killer."
U.S. policy had always opposed the left; in White’s tenure the right was criticized as well. In fact, to his mind the right-wing oligarchs constituted the greatest obstacle to the emergence of a centrist government and its effective control of the police and military—an assessment White offered frequently, loudly, and publicly, especially to conservative gatherings. This made life difficult and dangerous, even in the upscale neighborhood of the ambassador’s residence. On arriving at her new home, MaryAnn White recalls opening the door to the garden and being shoved back against the wall by a security man who warned her, "Your neighbors would like to kill you."
In March, at a welcoming party given by the local American association, Mrs. White, listening from the sidelines, heard the man next to her say of her husband, "If I had a gun, I’d kill him." And "it wasn’t just the Salvadorans," she recalls. "There were a lot of the [American] business community associated with the Salvadoran military and oligarchy who were very unhappy at this kind of an ambassador."
Death threats and demonstrations followed. The embassy and the ambassador’s residence came under siege by right and left alike. In April, MaryAnn White’s embassy office (she was evacuation coordinator) was shelled twice by a guerrilla faction with Chinese rockets. In mid-May, White and his deputy, Mark Dion, were besieged for two days by rightists sympathetic to Major D’Aubuisson, who was temporarily jailed for conspiring to overthrow the government. The ambassador recalls with some amusement that Mrs. D’Aubuisson in protest parked her Mercedes across the exit of the driveway. The two diplomats finally broke out in an armored Cadillac amid a contingent of Marines and a cloud of tear gas.
Even though military dictator General Carlos Romero was gone, Salvadorans continued to live in a state of terror. Those who could left the country; those who remained lived under the threat of torture and violent death. In February 1980, D’Aubuisson accused Mario Zamora, the solicitor general, of links to a guerrilla group; a few days later Zamora was seized at home by a death squad and shot a dozen times in the face. Some nine thousand other Salvadorans—peasants, union organizers, political leaders, anyone considered a subversive by men like D’Aubuisson—were murdered in the course of 1980.
That summer, Sally Guttmacher, now professor of health studies at New York University, led a group of U.S. public-health workers to El Salvador to investigate charges that Salvadoran doctors and nurses were killed for treating the wounded, and that the military entered hospitals, seizing patients along with doctors and nurses. The allegations, which turned out to be true, were a violation of the Geneva Conventions. On their arrival, Ambassador White immediately invited the group to the embassy, which Guttmacher remembers looked like a fortress, its interior "a maze of halls and locked doors like a prison." White offered the group assistance, and "he wanted to know where we were going and whom we were meeting with." Guttmacher was suspicious. Today she speculates that she mistook White’s concern for their safety (the U.S. State Department had issued an advisory against travel to El Salvador), and feared that names on their itinerary would fall into the hands of Salvadoran intelligence.
Guttmacher’s suspicions of White proved unfounded, but they were not, given the state of the country, implausible. Journalist Anne Nelson (now director of international programs at the Columbia School of Journalism), who covered El Salvador in 1980 and intermittently through the decade, remembers the bodies on the streets, the nights full of gunfire, and journalists working under death threats. She also recalls how "hard it was to figure things out. Who was telling the truth? Who was lying?" Nelson declares in retrospect, "White had an impossible job."
Amid the fear and paranoia, the chaos and the killings, White worked to sustain the ever-shifting political center. News accounts of White’s modus operandi portray a man who spoke forthrightly and on the record to journalists about the political situation and who pressed the U.S. case, with unflagging energy, to the military, the oligarchy, the politicians, and the guerrillas. He was both aggressive and courageous, refusing to isolate himself in the embassy; nor would he be deterred by the violence and subterfuge around him. In February, the junta had agreed to land-reform measures and a change in banking practices; two right-wing coup efforts were turned back, and opposition party leaders (FDR) continued to talk.
But White’s other goal, stemming the human-rights abuses, proved elusive. The junta’s efforts to curb abuses by the military were met with denial by Defense Minister García. He would concede only that rogue elements in the National Guard might be responsible for some deaths, but insisted against all logic that it was the guerrillas who were killing peasants and workers. This intransigence led over several months to the resignations of the junta’s moderate civilians. At the same time, García gradually transferred progressive officers from San Salvador, the capital, to rural posts, and sometimes abroad. Finally on December 7, 1980, Colonel Alfredo Majano, the head of the junta, was forced out and replaced by Napoleón Duarte, an ambiguous figure who had been fairly elected president in 1972 but robbed of his victory by the military. Now, as it turned out, he was on the payroll of the CIA. The military and the oligarchy refused to accept that a resolution of El Salvador’s problems lay in political and economic reforms and not in gunning down every critic of the status quo. Because CIA records from this period remain classified, there are many unanswered questions about how much this intransigence was sustained, and even legitimated, by the CIA’s involvement with the Salvadoran police and military. If the CIA did not object to these practices, why should García and other military leaders take the ambassador’s admonitions seriously?
White in Action
At Sunday Mass, March 16, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero read from a letter he had written to President Carter urging him to end all military aid to El Salvador. Sitting in the congregation, White felt that Romero was addressing him directly. The following Sunday, March 23, the archbishop called in his sermon for Salvadoran soldiers to lay down their arms, "Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God." In White’s view the sermon struck "at the heart of the Salvadoran social order where the military, in effect, garrisons an unjust society, and takes out either through intimidation or death anybody who is a serious dissenter." Much as White shared Romero’s analysis, he was uneasy at the archbishop’s call: "It seemed to me unlikely that it would have much positive effect and that it had a huge capacity for a negative effect." The next day Archbishop Romero was shot through the heart while saying Mass.
The oligarchy and the military (D’Aubuisson again the lead man) had eliminated a forceful proponent of reform in El Salvador. Shortly after arriving in early March, White had paid Romero a visit. The ambassador arrived in an armored limousine accompanied by an advance car and a chase car. "After we had talked for half an hour, the archbishop said, 'Well, ambassador, why don’t you just come ride with me.' He’s got this Volkswagen. He said, 'God will protect us.' I asked, ’What if he is only protecting you?'"
"So, we joked about that," recalls White, but he had a serious purpose in visiting Romero. "My message was, ’We should work together.’" Was that possible or even likely? The $5.7 million "nonlethal" military aid package (communication and transportation equipment) that White considered his leverage with the military was the subject of strenuous objections not only by Romero but also by the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) and others who favored Carter’s human-rights policy but opposed support for the Salvadoran military. The leverage argument didn’t convince them; rather, the aid appeared to be an endorsement of the military and death-squad violence.
Other Americans were also at Archbishop Romero’s Mass on March 23. Tom Quigley of the USCC remembers Romero processing up the aisle, "a little bit like Christ entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday." He also remembers White going to Communion surrounded by bodyguards. In a memorial Quigley wrote for The Witness (September 1980), he compared Romero’s death to the Passion and death of Jesus, "He is stirring up the people; he has blasphemed against the idols of the state; it is better that one man die; what need have we of further witnesses?" He drew White into his gospel metaphor, "Caesar, too, strutted upon this stage, unwitting and unwilling, perhaps, but present nonetheless. If you let this man go, thou art no friend of the United States." Quigley now distances himself from the comparison: "I made some criticisms that I would take out [of the article] today. I think I got off into a little flight of fancy." Still, his flight of fancy captures the powerful crosscurrents that beset U.S. policy in El Salvador among Catholics as among U.S. policymakers.
The Catholic Church in El Salvador, as in virtually every Latin American country, had traditionally been the ally of the rich and powerful. Now it was a church divided between that alliance and the call of the gospel as put forth by the Latin American bishops at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, by liberation theologians, and by foreign missionaries.
These contending views had consequences for everyone, including American missionaries. On the morning of December 3, 1980, when U.S. Consul Patricia Lasbury in San Salvador phoned Chief of Police Lopez Nuila to report three nuns and a layworker missing, she was asked whether the nuns were in habits. Garcia asked White the same question later in the day. In the Salvadoran military lexicon "good" nuns wore habits, "bad" nuns did not. The women did not wear religious habits. Working with the poor, no less than the dress code, marked them as troublemakers. The military and the oligarchs had "a whole idea of the church as pie in the sky," as essentially concerned with the world to come, observes White. "But now when the missionaries and clergy were turning the people on to their rights as human beings, that was something quite difficult for them to cope with."
White watched these and other tensions develop in his several posts, not simply as a Foreign Service officer, but as a Catholic able to read the ins and outs of church politics and to find in the clergy a rich source of information and insight. "The priests and the bishops of the church in Latin America were almost always very, very well informed. They may have a particular view, but talking to them I found out what was going on. The papal nuncios usually had a very different viewpoint than the local bishops. The nuncios lived in a world where any kind of social conflict disturbed what they see as that tripartite order of the rich, the military, and the church working together."
White believed "that the progressive church had a very important role to play in stabilizing El Salvador, moving it toward a reform that would blunt revolution." Yet even among progressives, White saw contrasting, and sometimes contradictory, tendencies. There were contending versions of liberation theology. "I knew Gustavo Gutiérrez [of Peru], who was an impressive man." He also knew Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., the rector of the UCA "who I thought had gone too far into a Marxist definition of things. I thought [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger had a point when he said that the poor of the Gospels do not equate to the masses of Marx." Though the Nicaraguan Jesuits were instrumental in the Sandinista revolution, that didn’t worry White, "as long as they were people committed to Nicaragua." Other clergy he found more challenging and troubling. "Some of the priests were Basques or Catalans, revolutionaries from birth. This combined with an intellectual anti-Americanism and a very progressive liberation theology—boy, that was a tough mix." Some Americans priests "were sort of knocked out" by that combination, though most "weren’t intellectually up" for the kind of analysis it required. In contrast, White often found reforming local priests "less radical because they were far more deeply immured in the reality of their country."
Such views reflected White’s commitment to a middle way, a centrist, democratic El Salvador. White did not understand himself to be, in Quigley’s metaphor, "a Caesar strutting on the stage." If, unlike Romero, White did not want military aid cut, that was because he considered it his chief diplomatic tool in the struggle to support the moderates and curb the military. But was democracy really possible in a country that had a long history of political violence and limited judicial procedures, and almost no history of democratic practices? White’s predecessor as ambassador did not think it could be done—and fearing for his life, asked to be relieved of his post. In favoring democratic reform but refusing, even more strongly, to countenance another left-wing government in Central America, wasn’t U.S. policy, in effect, ultimately supporting a brutal status quo? A Sandinista-like government was a future that some Catholics saw as the solution to the grinding poverty and inequities of El Salvador. For example, White listened to Jean Donovan, the night before she was murdered, argue that "there were some real reasons for revolution."
The End of the Road
MaryAnn and Bob White had met Dorothy Kazel and Donovan at an American Thanksgiving service in San Salvador on November 20. They invited the two to dinner on December 1 and to stay the night. Kazel, an Ursuline sister, and Donovan, a laywoman, were picking up a group of Maryknollers, including Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, the next day. They came with two other American missionaries, Father Paul Schneider and Sister Christine Rhody. Members of the embassy staff joined them and the Whites for dinner. Mrs. White remembers a lively and friendly evening. "Jean was ebullient and had a great sense of humor, very sure of what she was doing. She challenged Bob directly, 'How can you be working for these schmucks with this policy?' And he replied, 'Look, you have to be practical. If you want to work things out you have to talk about it. You can’t be angry at them. You can’t be insulting.' He tried to explain to her his view of the situation. She wasn’t buying it."
The ambassador saw their differences lying largely in their distinctive roles and purposes. The nuns were in El Salvador "because they had a vocation," he now explains. "They were totally committed to helping poor people. They drew some correct and understandable conclusions about the need for change from their experience working with the poor and with refugees. Were they great political analysts? No. I think they were drawing on their experience." In contrast, White considered himself to be in El Salvador pursuing an ambiguous and difficult political strategy that involved working with a government compromised by its ties to the military.
The fault line in White’s own role became clear in the events that quickly followed that friendly dinner. The next morning, Tuesday, December 2, Defense Minister García came to have one of his regular breakfasts with the ambassador. Meanwhile, Mrs. White had breakfast upstairs with Kazel and Donovan, their overnight guests. And then, she recalls with a sad nod of her head, "I saw them off at about eleven o’clock."
By the following morning (Wednesday), Kazel and Donovan, along with Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, were dead and hastily and secretly buried. On Thursday (December 4), their bodies were discovered and Robert White, despite his counsel to Donovan, was an angry man.
When Ambassador White returned home that day, MaryAnn White remembers him being "very quiet and terribly upset. That evening I asked, ’Can you talk about this?’ He said, ’No, I cannot.’ And, you know, he has never talked about it to me. That was a searing memory. That may actually have been the memory that changed him." In the final calculus, she believes that the deaths "just made him determined that this was not going to happen again." The death of the four churchwomen opened the final chapter of Robert White’s tenure in El Salvador, and as it turned out, in the Foreign Service as well.
The election of Ronald Reagan a month earlier, on November 4, 1980, brought a dramatic shift in events. U.S. policy in El Salvador became a contested arena between the outgoing Carter administration and the incoming Reagan one. Reagan’s election was greeted with noisy enthusiasm among Salvador’s oligarchs; parties and gun bursts celebrated the man who would save them not only from revolution but from reform and from Robert White as well. Reagan’s conservative allies and appointees conjured up the threat of Soviet subversion with El Salvador and Nicaragua on the front lines. Visits from members of the Reagan transition team to El Salvador gave the elite and the military reason to understand that concern for human rights was being downgraded in favor of wiping out the Communists. (As soon as Secretary of State Alexander Haig took office at the end of January 1981, he announced, "international terrorism will take the place of human rights," as the priority of U.S. foreign policy.) The first week in December, shortly after the four churchwoman had been killed, a Reagan transition team critique of Carter’s policy and a "hit list" of U.S. envoys to be removed from their posts, including White in El Salvador and Lawrence Pezzullo in Nicaragua, was leaked to the press. On December 11, Patricia Derian, Carter’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, said that comments by the Reagan transition team had contributed to the murders of the women. On December 13, Senator Helms demanded White’s resignation, calling him "one of the most irresponsible and inept ambassadors that the United States has ever sent abroad." White and Pezzullo entered vigorous protests against this effort to undermine their positions and U.S. policy while Carter remained in office.
Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Salvadoran right had delivered a series of blows designed to cripple the human-rights policy and to force a return to the familiar anti-Communist script. On November 27, six leaders of the moderate-left FDR were seized at a meeting in a Jesuit high school. Their mutilated bodies were found the next day. The four churchwomen were raped and murdered on December 2. On January 4, the head of Salvador’s land-reform program and two American colleagues, with links to the American labor movement and the CIA, were gunned down. In six weeks, the Salvadoran military had wiped out center-left politics, crippled the land-reform program, and given notice that American missionaries and reformers (even those with CIA connections) were not exempt from the tribunal of the death squads.
The Carter administration and its policy of leveraging human rights with military aid was also unraveling. On December 5, President Carter cut off economic and military aid to protest the American churchwomen’s deaths—only to restore it on January 13. Then, just days before leaving office, Carter approved, over White’s objections, $5 million in lethal military aid, including automatic rifles and combat helicopters. This new aid, the president said, was based on State Department assurances that progress was being made in investigating the deaths of the four churchwomen. But the price for the metamorphosis of the Carter policy into the Reagan policy was more than millions of dollars. It required systematic misrepresentation to the U.S. Congress and the American public by the Reagan administration concerning the atrocities of the Salvadoran military, which the U.S. now began to underwrite with increasing amounts of military aid.
White would have none of it: shortly after Reagan’s election, he refused to sign a request for lethal military aid, ostensibly from him but in reality from the Army’s Southern Command in Panama. He also objected adamantly to the State Department’s claim that progress was being made in the investigation of the deaths of the four churchwomen. "As far as I am concerned," he told Juan de Onis of the New York Times (January 22, 1982), "there is no reason to believe that the government of El Salvador is conducting a serious investigation." Subsequent revelations and declassified State Department documents show not only that there was no serious investigation but that a cover-up by the Salvadoran military had been under way from the beginning.
After Reagan’s inauguration, Alexander Haig recalled White to Washington. Twenty years later, White still believes that "had we had a united policy in Washington to achieve a peaceful solution to El Salvador’s problems in 1980–81, it could have been done. It was a tough problem, but not insoluble." And so he tried to convince Haig. "But the Reagan conservatives wanted to demonstrate an ability to crush revolutions. They wanted to say in El Salvador, this is what we could have done in Vietnam, had we not been saddled by reporters, by columnists—all those liberals. I tried to tell Haig, you’re not going to do it, not with the tools available to you, not with the forces available to you." Haig was not interested in White’s analysis. He congratulated the ambassador on doing a fine job in El Salvador and summarily and unceremoniously removed him from his post.
To be yanked like that, without a new assignment in hand, violated established Foreign Service procedures. For the time being, White continued as a Foreign Service officer in Washington, sharing a basement office with outgoing Secretary of State Edmund Muskie. But he was not done with El Salvador. Congressional critics of the new Reagan policy wanted White’s assessment on the public record. He was subpoenaed and appeared on February 25 before the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. He testified that the Salvadoran security forces were the country’s chief killers; that, despite the guerrillas’ call to arms in January ’81, there was little chance of a revolutionary takeover; and finally, that the Reagan administration’s request for $25 to $30 million in military aid would undermine rather than support the civilian government. The decision to testify could not have been easy for White, who saw himself as an insider.
Even today White still argues what he implicitly said to Jean Donovan: "Historically, the only way things have ever gotten done in [U.S.] foreign policy was from the inside, working for change." Working inside, of course, meant "that the respect that really matters is the respect of your colleagues." White believes that he held that respect until he became an active critic of Reagan’s policy in El Salvador. "I felt compelled for ethical reasons to dissent from the policy as it developed. That’s not something that’s really accepted in the Foreign Service. You can do a lot of terrible things. You can go to work as a lobbyist for the country that you were once accredited to, but you can’t dissent." Five months after going public in his congressional testimony, White was "retired" from the Foreign Service.
White’s departure from the State Department did not, however, end his foreign-policy work; instead, it created a far broader portfolio. He joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he began to write and speak out against Reagan’s policy in El Salvador and in Central America. A man who once confined his opinions to cables and diplomatic pouches soon became the master of the op-ed piece and the dissenting public speech. His ability to stay on message shows up in transcripts of radio and TV broadcasts. And despite his far-reaching criticisms, he retains a conviction that the United States has a positive role to play in the world. From a cold-war liberal he has become a liberal internationalist with an abiding commitment to diplomacy as a means of bringing change and a deep skepticism about military power as a tool of foreign policy. "If you’ve got a Pentagon that’s overfunded, and you’ve got a CIA that’s overfunded and the State Department is underfunded, and AID has practically no money, then you’re going to get policies that emphasize the wrong things for a democracy to emphasize."
Since Alexander Haig dismissed him in 1981, White has exercised his considerable skills as a diplomat in policies affecting trouble spots around the world.
• South Korea: in 1985, White, with the knowledge of the State Department, led a delegation of prominent Americans that returned Kim Dae Jung, South Korea’s current president and Nobel Prize winner, from exile in the United States. The group was confronted by Korean police who seized and placed Jung under house arrest.
• Paraguay: in 1986, White and a group of Americans attempted to return Domingo Laino, an opposition leader, to his country. The police clubbed members of the entourage, including Laino and White.
• Haiti: in 1987, White served as an election observer in Haiti’s first free election in thirty years. The process was disrupted by violence and the election was postponed; in 1993, White served as an advisor to the democratically elected and exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the Governors Island Agreement that returned Aristide to Haiti.
• Afghanistan: in 1988, White and former ambassador to Tehran William Sullivan led the first delegation of Americans to the country since the Soviet invasion. President Mohammed Najibullah warned the Americans that the country could become another Iran, if the fundamentalist forces being armed by Washington came to power.
• Colombia: over the last several years, White and his colleagues at CIP have provided in briefings, articles, and their own newsletter a steady and critical analysis of U.S. policy in Colombia, including military aid and the wholesale use of pesticides to curb the drug trade.
• Cuba: over the last decade, White, with distinguished delegations of former diplomats and military officers, has visited the island in an effort to encourage a post-Castro transition to democracy and to urge the United States to ease economic sanctions.
As president of the Center for International Policy since 1990, White continues to try to influence U.S. foreign policy in the form of citizen diplomacy. More than that, he is a witness to the hubris of American power abroad when it forsakes the ideas and principles that contain it at home. That witness appears to be rooted in a sophisticated sense of patriotism and a religious and ethical understanding of the limits to what one may say or do for one’s country.
It is no easy matter to extract from Robert White an extended reflection about his religious faith. Anything resembling "faith sharing" is not a mode that comes readily to a person deeply formed in the preconciliar church. The Whites belong to their local parish in Alexandria where, he pointedly notes, there is very little preaching on social justice. MaryAnn White, having retired from a Girl Scouts outreach project for the greater Washington area, works with Hispanic immigrants.
It is also no easy matter to extract from Robert White an explanation for his public dissent as ambassador and the end of his career in the Foreign Service. Diplomats are the consummate bureaucrats trained and sworn to carry out the foreign policy of their country, shaping their public speech and actions to those ends. The rules are clear: self-discipline, honest reporting in cables, discretion, silence, and acquiescence in policy made by elected leaders. White rejects any grand explanations for his last-ditch stands in favor of the Carter policy, even as Carter was abandoning it, or his refusal to accede to a Reagan administration cover-up in the deaths of the four churchwomen. In an interview published in the Progressive (September 1981) after his dismissal, White summed up his outlook, "Look, I am—or at least I was—a disciplined Foreign Service officer. I don’t go out looking for windmills to joust. And the idea that I’m some sort of martyr—well, I’m not."
Yet, that very sense of himself as a disciplined Foreign Service officer may be what led to his dissent and going public. Add to that a Catholic sense of limits to dissembling and lying—even for one’s country. He describes his transition from foreign-policy supporter to foreign-policy critic as an evolution and not a conversion. The deaths of the churchwomen figure in that evolution, but in White’s view not as directly as others (even his wife) believe. "The deaths had a profound impact; they were a terrible thing." But, he adds, many people were killed and in horrible ways in El Salvador. The decisive step came, White insists, when "people asked me to lie about the facts. And that is where I drew the line."
Talking one way and acting another is, White argues, what ultimately undermines national security. "You have to tell the truth within institutions. Institutions cannot function on lies." During the Reagan administration, White says, there was "a consistent tissue of lies about El Salvador, about Nicaragua, about what we were doing in Honduras, and in Guatemala." There was, in his assessment, "no surer way of undermining U.S. policy than setting up this opposition between the free press and its version of what was happening and the actual policy," a policy shrouded in lies and secrecy that played itself out during the eighties in the duplicity of Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Elliott Abrams.
"The one thing that I felt," White says, "and I think it was due to my Catholic upbringing, was that you had to have some fidelity to truth, to fact, and that lying is destructive."
Related: Romero Remembered and
Bad Neighbor: The Failure of U.S. Policy in Latin America, by Robert E. White
About the Author
Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.