Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Leveling the Playing Field in the Salvadoran Civil War

The Salvadoran Civil War, lasting from 1979-1992, pitted the military-led government of El Salvador against a coalition of five left-wing guerrilla groups known collectively as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).  Combat was vicious and fought by both the government and guerrilla forces without regard for human rights. More than 75,000 Salvadorans lost their lives and an unknown number of people “disappeared” during the conflict.

At first, the United States supported the right-wing military regime, which — though openly committing war crimes, was seen as a bulwark against communism — before adopting a more nonpartisan approach. Secretary of State Shultz asked Thomas Pickering to take over as Ambassador to El Salvador in 1983 when the conflict was in full swing.  Not long after taking the assignment, Pickering was subject to assassination threats from right-wing Salvadoran politicians and later targeted by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who called for Pickering to be removed as ambassador on the grounds of having influenced the outcome of the troubled country’s elections. (Photo: Giovanni Palazzo)

Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Pickering beginning in April 2003.

To read more about Central America, a U.S. Ambassador who resigned over U.S. policy in El Salvador  or civil wars, please follow the links.


“[President Reagan] was spun up in this Cold War concern…that the communist dominoes were going to tumble toward Texas

Thomas R. Pickering, U.S. Ambassador to San Salvador, 1983-1985

Congress, particularly the Democrats, and the public had Vietnam very much in mind then as we moved into Central America. Vietnam had a certainly serious influence on the way people were thinking in the country. It had less influence on the president’s [President Ronald Reagan] concern. (Pickering is seen at left.)

The president was deeply preoccupied with what he saw as the growth of communist penetration. He talked about local issues of under-development and poor governance some, but also to a greater extent he was spun up in this Cold War concern by people around him who were deeply despairing of the notion that the communist dominoes were going to tumble toward Texas; in effect, [that] these small states were becoming communist stepping stones to a full penetration of the hemisphere with the aid and support of Fidel Castro and others.

That seemed to me an exaggeration and ignored many of the problems of these countries – overpopulation, especially in El Salvador, authoritarian, oligarchic- and/or military-dominated regimes, poor economic development, poverty and serious unemployment and human and civil rights violations.

…It was very clear that the guerrilla movement was being supported by Cuba, and Nicaragua played an important role. The FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation) in El Salvador — the grouping of five, as I remember, independent organizations conducting guerrilla warfare against the government, was there and gaining ground.

On the other side, there was a deep fear that we were over-hyping this activity and that we would become extensively bogged down, as in Vietnam. There was widespread concern that we were supporting all the wrong people — the conservative oligarchs and military — whose major role was to insure their continued domination of their country. There was real concerns these people were not particularly politically adept and certainly not very interested in democracy as we saw it — they had committed very serious human rights violations, but so had the guerillas. Much of that was true in El Salvador.

I think that there was in the mind of most of those in the State Department who followed this, the need for what I would call a “robust but balanced” policy. It would be a policy that involved a tremendous amount of focus on economic development, on social change, on democratic development, and certainly fighting against the abuses that were committed in various places either by the military or by the shadowy death squads or by the people in the extreme right who were presumed to be the supporters of, or indeed, the underwriters of this kind of activity. There was at the same time a realization of the need to promote local alternatives in a stronger more adept military which could deal with the military action of the FMLN.

“We, in effect, were providing support to the worst elements in the country rather than the best elements”

A different group, some in the NSC staff and some in the Pentagon, although much less in the Pentagon, maybe a few in the intelligence community – Bill Casey was then the DCI (Director of Central Intelligence) – thought that the only way to deal with this was in fact to stand up the military – to focus all of our attention on the military regardless of the fact that they had been abusive to their own people. They were seen as the only bulwark, the only defense system, between El Salvador and the Rio Grande. Therefore they had to be at all costs supported — backed and supplied.

The Congress was divided down the middle with more people skeptical and questioning every day as, in fact, the policy didn’t seem to be making progress. It didn’t provide answers or a solution to the problem. Things were getting messier and messier. This was aided and abetted by clear efforts on the part of those who didn’t like our policy, including those who opposed our continuing support for the regimes in the region, to develop a strong domestic base in the United States.

Some of those had very strong connections through the Roman Catholic Church to the Liberation Theology Movement. It was basically a very liberal movement in the church that saw progress coming through major changes toward societies which dealt more fairly with their members. They were aligned with the guerrilla organizations in El Salvador through a common purpose to bring about change — and there were priests, some from Europe, who were involved with the FMLN. Others were not; the church was divided.

Many of those groups, particularly after the right wing had murdered nuns, American nuns in El Salvador, were clearly aligned with the need for change. One of my predecessors, Robert White, who was Ambassador at the time of those murders, was rightly outraged by what had and was happening with the collusion of the military and right wing leadership. Bob and I were both graduate school colleagues together so I knew Bob quite well.

Bob felt, as he went from the Carter administration into the Reagan administration, that the policy had changed radically against what we were trying to do. In fact, if you talked to him he would say that we in effect were providing support to the worst elements in the country rather than the best elements. This created a significant domestic backlash against the administration’s ideas. There was extensive debate and a lot of consternation and unhappiness. What to do was not a settled question. 

… About the time I got there in early September 1983 the FMLN began a large-scale offensive. It lasted from September — I got there I think right after Labor Day — until January, in which we may have counted eighty engagements between the guerrillas and Salvadoran military organized units of at least company-to-battalion size.

It was positional warfare. The guerrillas took seventy- to-eighty percent of those particular battles in terms of comparative losses and even destruction or decimation of some of the units. They almost cut the country in half by destroying a key bridge over the Lempa River. It was a very depressing period in which to arrive and see that happening.

“You can tell them the United States wants them out if you need to, but there isn’t any choice”

It showed how hard, if not impossible, it was for the Salvadoran military to be effective in countering these guerrilla activities. Some of them came about through countering small offensive operations planned by the Salvadoran military, but a lot of them came out through ambushes, traps, or over guerrilla attacks against positions held by the Salvadoran military or patrol areas of the Salvadoran military.

As I said, they took down a suspension bridge over the main river bifurcating the country for a time. That was replaced with a causeway and Bailey bridge. But nevertheless they had for a while cut the country in half and left the countryside unprotected and out of government hands. It helped to destroy government morale and a lot of units that were just being stood up to deal with the conflict were badly cut up. They had no real training, poor leadership, little support. The fascinating thing was that for the next two years we had almost no positional warfare. They had exhausted themselves in this effort — they had overstressed themselves…

We had fewer of those things, but concurrently with the guerilla offensive we had a big upsurge in death squad violence, especially in and around San Salvador, the capital …  Almost every day bodies were being found in places where the death squads were known to deposit them. The victims included individuals, some known and some unknown. Many were associated with groups favorable to the FMLN. This was beginning to build up in September and October.

Sometime along in that period, one of those in the shower-in-the-morning-ideas came up, mainly because I was listening to the news and heard that Vice President [George H.W.] Bush was headed to Argentina for an inauguration, and it occurred to me that if we could divert him from Argentina on the way back to El Salvador, we could make good use of him.

Ken Blakeley, my DCM, had much the same thoughts. We had been talking about how we could stop the death squad activity. The idea was do something that would be unusual. We believed he should meet essentially with the military leadership and read them the riot act on the subject. We knew that a number of senior military people understood how to get the message to the men doing the dirty work.

I called Admiral Dan Murphy, his Chief of Staff, and with whom I had worked, and asked him to arrange it, telling him why and what I wanted the Vice President to do. At the same time we prepared a list of five or six of the most dangerous military officers who should be neutralized by being sent out of El Salvador on attaché assignments if necessary. I was going to provide that list to then- President Magana, who had been appointed after a liberal military coup a few years before. He was a central banker: wise, intelligent, trusted, but lacked the power that a popular election can provide.

The Vice President came, previewed with Magana his approach. Some 40 or 50 senior officers, mostly colonels, were present. He and I, along with Stephanie van Reigersberg, his excellent interpreter, were alone in the room with the officers. Basically, the Vice President’s message was clear: death squad activity must stop immediately.

He added, if this kind of activity continues, they could forget about any continuing U.S. military or civilian assistance. Neither President Reagan nor he would be able to help them. The Congress would take away all of the funding. There would be nothing for the military and nothing for foreign assistance if they didn’t end the death squad violence then and there. It was that bad.

…With regard to the list of six military people, we knew or had almost overwhelming reason to believe, [they] were close to if not actually a part of the movement to carry out this death squad activity. Two days before the Bush visit, I went to President Magana and said this isn’t going to be easy, but I had set much of this up with him. I said we need you and the minister of defense to put these six officers in overseas jobs, attaché jobs out of the country.

They wanted to know how they were going to explain it. I said I don’t care how you explain it, you can tell them the United States wants them out if you need to, but there isn’t any choice. This isn’t one you have a choice on; something’s got to be done, and they did it.

I think most of the officers ended up in other Latin American or European countries. They went complaining and moaning about why they were being transferred, and they asked weren’t they patriotic enough and that kind of thing. Why did the gringos pick on them? That got some sympathy from the hard right in El Salvador because they didn’t like the gringos and all that stuff about their alleged nefarious activities.

In any event, that was a rather unique event. Bush had delivered very well a great message. It was excellently interpreted into Spanish to them. They asked a few questions and he basically said this is the way it is and this is the news I have to bring you. We are counting on you to deal with it. It did help.

The death squad violence slowed down and eventually, if not a total dying out, went to pretty much a very low level of activity which was as much as we could achieve by any single action…

“You had a right backlash, you had the movement of left liberation theology, the growth in labor unions and the campesino unions and a movement in the hills in the north to take up arms” 

The country was essentially controlled through a set of activities that historians talk about as involving the control of the fourteen families who were in effect the rulers and shakers in El Salvador. They occupied dominant economic positions — coffee planters, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, industrialists and others who were really at the top of the heap. Their role was basically to make sure the country ran politically in a way favorable to their interests. They used the military — made a colonel the president. [The president] was nominally always elected by the system — with a state -run political party — but always chosen by the oligarchs…

In ’79 an event happened which was important. The military in El Salvador, interestingly enough, came out of the national military academy. They came, in the main, from the lower middle class. They were all young men on their way up and this was a way to fame and fortune in El Salvador for lower middle class young men. They competed to enter the academy and it was an extremely rigorous training institution.

The academy had been very heavily influenced by the Chileans and the Chilean army. It was tough, rigid. It was highly competitive and produced a group of military officers who were very close each in their class year, called “tanda” in Spanish. The tanda groups of military officers were, in the main, close knit, and if they did well and handled their relationships with the oligarchs well, some of them could even get to be president.

A few among the military had been influenced by liberals who came from parties like the Christian Democrats. Others who had gotten into the outside world may have even had some education in the United States. There was a coup by a military junta in 1979 that dissolved the old government and tried to set things on a different more open and liberal course.

In the meantime the left had grown even more radicalized, and so between ’79 and ’82 when there was an election, you had three or four things happen. You had a right backlash, you had the movement of left liberation theology, the growth in labor unions and the campesino (agricultural smallholder) unions and a movement in the hills in the north to take up arms. You also had relationships with Nicaragua and Cuba and the world communist movement helping those taking up arms to do this. You had this reforming movement in the military which actually had control of the government for a while, but it was loose and not very effective in creating real reform.

In ’82, as I remember, we proposed and they agreed to have elections for a constituent assembly which would both write a new constitution and act as a national assembly until something else could be elected. This they did.

People were very concerned that the radical right would emerge with the presidency. The junta and the new assembly had trouble agreeing on a candidate. Deane, in effect, got a fairly distinguished Salvadoran banker acceptable to most factions appointed by the Constituent Assembly as the President in the interim, Alvaro Magana. He was a very decent guy but a man without the necessary political power. He had to be careful in what he did and where he tried to take the country.So I started to work with Magana, with other people when I came, but it was not a situation where you would say that they had an enormously powerful government and where they had unity of views.

They had the hard right wing represented by a party called “Arena.” You had an ‘officialista party’ which was gradually losing its strength but which, prior to the Junta in ’79, had been used as the method of electing the colonels as presidents. There were the Christian Democrats who were in the left-and-center opposition. The rest of the left was underground. These three groups played the major role in political life in El Salvador and continued to contest elections.

“He fancied himself as a counter insurgency expert committed to violent tactics against the guerillas — torture was well within his repertoire”

Before I got there, the U.S. had agreed that there would be presidential elections to follow the elections of the constituent assembly. I can recall [a] fascinating meeting in George Shultz’s office with a large number of people present, in his big outer office, and question being posed by some of the folks present. They were not wrongly worried that basically an election in the near future, maybe January or February, March of 1984, would produce a result with which we really couldn’t live. They saw a bad result would be a win by the hard right or some fractionalization of the country leading to even greater civil war.

George Shultz looked everybody in the eye and said, “Look, we are trying to establish democracy [in] El Salvador. I’m not prepared to consider our role should [we] postpone or negate elections.” He was quite firm on it. It was a tremendously interesting insight into the secretary, because when he got his back up he could be really tough. He was prepared to take the risk.

Shultz asked exactly the right question. He asked the question that all of us had in mind, how can we not take the chance of having the elections, even though we had serious doubts about the outcome, and so we did.

daubuisson2Those elections were, interestingly enough, contested by Napoleon Duarte for the Christian Democrats and by Roberto D’Aubuisson, an ex-major in the Salvadoran army known to have had very strong connections with the violent right. (D’Aubuisson is seen at right.)

I put it that way on purpose. He was someone who was, in his own ideas and maybe in the ideas of Senator Helms, close to Senator Helms and certainly to Senator Helms’ staff, the right choice: firmly anti-communist and committed to violence as the answer to the problem. Helms and his staff visited Salvador frequently and, during the election actually, a member or two of his staff appeared on the platform with D’Aubuisson. I had met with everybody, including him. I had a number of meetings with him, some late in the evening in which he consumed more scotch than he imparted wisdom.

He was an interesting guy; one of those very nervous, very combative, very debate-oriented ex-military officers. He looked rather young when I saw him. He had a bad reputation. He had been trained in the States and then became a kind of military intelligence czar in Salvador. He fancied himself as a counter insurgency expert committed to violent tactics against the guerillas — torture was well within his repertoire. He was associated with the murder of Archbishop [Oscar] Romero and with the death squads. He used his violent associates to build up right wing groups and informal, armed organizations to counter the guerrilla movement who also appeared to be death squads.

He was terribly motivated by this need for militant violence from the right. I think that was some of his appeal to the Senator and the Senator’s staff, who accepted what they liked and set aside the distasteful and stomach-turning aspects of D’Aubuisson’s record.

… [Senator Helm’s staff] were significant players. They visited frequently. They did not ask to visit me, but they all came frequently down to Salvador. They were folks who were extremely sympathetic with our president’s deep concern about the left and the guerilla groups. They played on that with some of the folks in the NSC and the White House. They were concerned about this.

They had adopted the notion that in order to defeat the guerrillas, we had to build up a very strong ideological right-wing element either in the military or outside. D’Aubuisson was the centerpiece of that effort. I think that they had to know about the violent actions of the right-wing organizations — we certainly tried to impress upon them that these people were out of control and were acting in ways that were unacceptable. They preferred to ignore those uncomfortable facts. Their counter argument was that guerrillas were equally bad and therefore you had to fight fire with fire.

“I made a recommendation that if we wanted to be sure to have a level playing field, we had to play a role in some financing of Duarte”

So we had in a sense in that group a very strong sense of advocates for, if not devotees to, the fact that D’Aubuisson was the right man to be running El Salvador. In their view, he would be closest to the president’s policies and he would do it right. It was his charisma and organizational skills and his fairly simple approach to this problem, a zero-sum game, that would provide the answer, and that we were wrong in paying attention to the other people and ideas.

One of the issues that came up very early was the question whether D’Aubuisson and his group were going to, in a sense, out-finance by many, many times the Christian Democratic center-left — whether the election could be bought in that fashion — whether the Christian Democrats under those terms would be able to compete as a result of financial weakness. [The first round of elections took place March 25, 1984.]

We had very quiet, very limited conversations inside the USG [U.S. Government]. I made a recommendation that if we wanted to be sure to have a level playing field, we had to play a role in some financing of Duarte (seen at left.) That we did in a limited way; obviously everything leaks. It leaked to Helms even before the election was over. We weaved and bobbed for a while on the subject.

After the election was over, this all came out. As I remember it was all in the press, so I don’t think I am telling anybody any secrets here. It was a reasonably proportionate amount of money, we thought. It came through the labor movement support and via the campesino union.

I think it played a role in Duarte’s success, but I don’t think it was the critical role. Our feeling was that people of Salvador had to have a choice and they had to have that choice on the basis of a level playing field, rather than on a skewed or biased basis.


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Leveling the Playing Field in …

by Judith Baroody time to read: 16 min