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“Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” — The Tumultuous Times of Juan and Evita Peron

July 26, 1952: The people of Argentina are glued to their radios and fall silent as an official broadcast comes from the Subsecretary of Information:  “It is our sad duty to inform the people of the Republic that Eva Peron, the Spiritual Leader of the Nation, died at 8:25 p.m.

The silence is broken as the sound of sobbing and corks popping ensue. The working-class people of Argentina are heartbroken, and a weeping cacophony echoes throughout the streets. Meanwhile, the wealthy elite sip their champagne privately, toasting to a future free of “the whore.” The sounds of mourning and celebrating reflect both the love and hate that Eva Peron, the wife of Argentine President Juan Peron, inspired in her 33 years. Fast-forward several years to September 19, 1955:  After a decade in power, Juan Peron is overthrown in a coup.

Having incurred the enmity of the Catholic Church, pious Argentines, and students, Juan Peron fled to Spain, forced into exile by the military. Juan Peron had lost his greatest political weapon, his charismatic wife Eva. Her death symbolizes the collapse of the national coalition that has backed Peron for years. How could one woman (and a dead one at that) have such a profound affect on her husband’s political career, on the future of Argentina?  Ernest Siracusa served as a political officer at Embassy Buenos Aires from 1952-56 and later served as Ambassador to Bolivia and Uruguay. John Doherty served as Labor Attache from 1969-73 and was interviewed by James Shea. Here they discuss Evita’s charisma, the failed coup attempt marked by the horrific Plaza de Mayo bombing, and Peron’s fall from grace. He was interviewed by Hank Zivetz beginning in 1989.

Evita la Santa, Eva el Diablo

SIRACUSA:  Peron, after all, had many characteristics and qualities that many Argentines could recognize and identify with even if not support. That was not the case with regard to Evita, however insofar as the upper and middle classes resented, hated and even despised her. Evita’s strength came from organized labor which owed her much as a practical matter, and vice versa. And in addition to the working class men, a form of adulation came to her from working women and from the lowest of the low, servant-class women, who saw in her rise, almost from their own humble status, a sort of fairy-tale hope for themselves and for their future. If Eva could rise so high, couldn’t anyone?

Evita was, as workers saw it, the spiritual embodiment of a deep-rooted revolution which for the first time in Argentine history sought to give them both social and political status and protection from the grievous exploitation to which many of them had customarily been subjected. (As for servant women, my wife and I learned early on in our Argentine experience that really heartless exploitation of such women was not uncommon even by people who could afford to house, feed and pay them well. Many were said to sleep in hallways even without a bed. But we also learned that Eva’s rise largely had put an end to this — hence her status among to lowest — and her death did not end the adoration of her by such people. And the government-backed power given to organized labor doubtless gave factory and other unionized workers a better share than they had been able to win before.

DOHERTY: There were different grades of Peronists there. There were “participationists” and there were hard-liners. The sugar workers up in Tucaman were clamoring for Peron’s return right to the very end. Peron was able to call strikes from exile in Madrid. He was able to pass the word that “I want a nation-wide strike” and there was a nationwide strike, and a nation-wide strike in Argentina was total right down to people working at the race tracks and in the casinos. Peron had that kind of power.

I have an interesting story. The head of the Insurance Workers Union was a man by the name of José Vallegas. He was called a “Peronista sin Peron,” a Peronist without Peron. Actually he had been a Peronist but was no longer a Peronist. He was not even what they called a “neo-Peronist.” Argentina is a wonderful place for a labor attaché to work, because the Argentines are great talkers. You can go into their offices and sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk about things that probably would be secret in other countries. You would get the whole scoop right there, or at least their version of it.

Anyway, I went to talk with Bahias and I asked him to explain to me the “myth” of Peron, the mito of Peron. And he said, “Well, that’s the problem with so many of you foreigners. You don’t understand that it wasn’t a myth; it was real.” And he recounted how when he was a nine or ten year old boy in Resistencia, the only thing he owned was a pair of pants and a rope that he tied them up with. And when the loud speaker came down the country road and said that all boys from nine to twelve were to report to the stadium in Resistencia to participate in the Eva Peron football championship, which is soccer to us, he walked eleven miles. And when he got there, they gave him a shirt with a name on it, and they gave him shorts and shoes which said “campeonato de futball Eva Peron.” And when he finished playing that day, they said, “We want you here every Saturday, and that uniform is yours to wear.” And he said he wore it until it wore out. He was so proud of it that he wore it to school and wherever he went. And he said, “That’s not a myth; that’s real!” And that’s the kind of influence Eva Peron had on poor people in that country. I thought that was a valuable lesson for any labor attaché coming in trying to understand the Argentine psyche and what makes them tick and how a Peronist movement could survive even though the leader had been deposed.

Rocky Relations with the United States

SIRACUSA: The Embassy had considerable difficulty against strong opposition in the Department and even from some nearby posts, in having Argentina included in his South American itinerary. Although Peron was an elected President, there was much bitter feeling against Argentina which was seen as a dictator-led, hold-over Fascist country which deserved to be snubbed by the President’s brother.

Just after we had fought a long and costly war to rid the world of Fascism, Peron (and Argentina itself with which country we had never had warm relations) was especially unpopular. Also, Argentina’s ambiguous role and attitude during the war and Peron’s newly developing, pretentious “Third Position” in the growing post-war struggle between the West and Soviet-Communism was more than adequate basis disapproval and resentment.

In short, Peron and Peronismo; his Mussolini-like but always eloquent balcony addresses to his manipulated union followers mandatorily packed into the Plaza de Mayo; their shouted “democratic” endorsement of his proposals (often rewarded on the spot with a paid holiday-cynically called SAN PERON); and, Evita’s showy exploitation of her “adoring” masses, coupled with her scornful vindictiveness toward all others, made it all hard to swallow as all the things we were opposed to seemed to be reflected in Peron’s character, in Peronismo and in the kind of government he was running. Such antics were by their very nature most distasteful to most Americans.

Also, Peron had the intractable opposition of the American media. If simple antipathy on grounds just mentioned were not enough, Peron had also nationalized one of the great newspapers of the world, La Prensa of Buenos Aires and turned it into a controlled caricature of its former status in the world of journalism. That act, in addition cost the Associated Press one of its biggest accounts. Thus, while the media had plenty of reason to oppose Peron for his affront to democracy and press freedom, the accompanying financial damage to the Associated Press may have added something to the solidarity of all the American media and their unrelenting and determined opposition to Peron.

A Peace Offering

Ambassador Nufer had arrived in Argentina just in the week of Evita Peron’s death and funeral and, although it earned him the criticism of The New York Times, and especially from editorialist Herbert Matthews who was bitterly anti-Peron, Ambassador Nufer felt, after some soul-searching and doubt, that the proper thing was to go and pay his respects. (After all, he said, Peron was human and his wife had died after long suffering).

And so, with Eva Peron lying in state for several days, while tens of thousands of Argentines, (especially the working class and mostly women) passed before her bier, Ambassador Nufer appeared, unannounced and unescorted, and stood quietly and respectfully for a while beside the coffin, much to the surprise of the mourners and especially of Peron whom he had not yet met. (The Ambassador, just arrived, had not yet presented credentials and was therefore without official standing).

That gesture, however, was, I believe, very important in establishing a basis for the kind of personal relationship which Nufer was able to develop with Peron and was a factor in the improvement for a time in U.S.-Argentine relations which later occurred. Peron, apparently, rightly viewed the Ambassador’s act simply as one of human consideration, which it was, and responded to it in kind….

From Death Springs a Fragile Hope

Ambassador Nufer and most (but not all) of his policy-advising staff believed it more important to try to influence Peron toward our side in the developing cold war and felt that with Evita gone there was a chance for a change to our advantage. The thought that Peron absent Evita might be different was an important consideration.

Supporting this estimate was the fact that by that time Ambassador Nufer, helped by his genial personality and vernacular command of Spanish–including an inexhaustible supply of jokes in that language, which Peron enjoyed– and by Peron’s clear appreciation for the gesture which Nufer had made at Evita’s bier, had established a comfortable relationship with Peron in their several official contacts at the Casa Rosada. In these contacts the Ambassador had sensed that Peron would respond to a gesture pointing toward a possible improvement in relationships. On the other hand, a humiliating snub (by the Eisenhowers, President and brother) would surely end that possibility.

In the end the Embassy’s view prevailed and the President’s distinguished educator brother did come to carry out a very effective program of formal and informal (football game at a jam-packed stadium) contacts with Peron, which the Embassy and the Foreign Office had organized.

Through it all, the ambience was correct but not warm, but as the program developed neither was it cold. With Nufer as a skilled interpreter at their sides, the two got along well and established a kind of wary rapport which with some follow-up contact and correspondence, provided the basis for Ambassador Nufer to work toward a considerable change in the way things were going between the United States and Argentina.

In short, Milton Eisenhower agreed with the Embassy that with Evita gone and Peron showing signs of desire for change, the United states should try to develop some influence for better relations and, perhaps, for a better condition for the Argentines. It seemed worth a try with potentially significant benefits against little to loses by failure.

Coincidentally, in the aftermath of Evita’s death, changes were occurring, slowly, in Argentina as well. Although middle and upper class Argentines opposed Peron, increasingly some began to regard him (even if grudgingly) as somewhat the arch-typical, macho Argentine Army officer product of the middle class; and, the waning memory of Evita, whose embalmed remains were jealously guarded at Labor Headquarters, made this all the easier. (Elaborate efforts were reportedly made by Evita’s Labor guardians to embalm and restore her remains – looking, it was said, to her eventual canonization; and, in a country where there was no free press the gossip and rumor mills were constantly fed with the most outlandish, shocking and often ghoulish “details”. But the truth was that no one knew anything.)

Holy Scandal

One of the things that was going on behind the scenes with scant publicity was Peron’s interest in young people,(ostensibly for the political objective of forming future staunch Peronists) but this activity inevitably gave rise to rumor, tentative and then increasingly persistent, of improprieties with young women of high school age.

One can even suppose, perhaps, that what he started as a political objective put him in contact in his widowerhood with some delectable young things and a temptation which he did not have the character to resist. He quickly acquired a reputation for lechery as the country almost overnight began to buzz with rumors of the scandalous goings-on at Olivos. Later it became known that his favorite, one Nelly Rivas, I believe, was then about 15 years old, I seem to recall.

In a country where the Catholic Church was the official religion, where divorce was illegal, and where the women faithfully attended church, even if the men in general did not–except it was said for weddings, baptisms and funerals–this issue rapidly became the straw which broke the camel’s back.

Responding in part to these scandalous rumors and perhaps to other general church-state problems as well, reflecting concern for the intrusion of Peronism in education of the children, (some of the Peronist-indoctrinating children’s books which I saw could in no way have been welcomed by the Church as Peron and Evita were almost deified as role models instead of Mary, Jesus and the Saints) a bold and critical pastoral letter was read in all churches in late November, 1954.

The response was almost immediate–a bitter and emotional speech by Peron attacking the Church. Thus ended the era of good feeling, such as it was, and from then on until the bloody but unsuccessful Navy-inspired coup-attempt in June, 1945, and the final, successful military revolt in August, 1955, leading to Peron’s downfall and exile, everything went downhill on an ever more slippery slope.

Peron’s harsh tirade against the first pastoral letter was responded to by more critical pastoral letters, helping to inspire women especially, and even, timidly, some elements of the press and opposition politicians, to express in varying degrees their disapproval and even defiance. And it is to be supposed that in the bedrooms of military officers, wives became unrelenting in pressuring their reluctant husbands to pull up their moral socks and do something….

Peron vs. the Church

The first significant event after the initial exchange between the Church and Peron happened in early December–I believe on or about December 6 — when a religious gathering was scheduled to be held in the Plaza de Mayo initiating, I believe, the Marian Year [in honor of the Virgin Mary]. This was the perfect cover for political as well as religious expression and the response was striking as the Plaza was filled with a huge, white handkerchief-waving crowd which rivaled those gathered for Peron’s balcony scenes.

The happening was without incident but the message was clear: the people in the name of religion had been emboldened in effect to demonstrate against Peron by supporting the Church, now in open conflict with him. The trend was thus set with additional pulpit-read 11pastoral letters being followed by further Peronist criticism and, of course, by the rumor mill operating at full blast to create ever-increasing tension.

The next critical event happened, I believe, in April or May of 1955, when an even larger Church-sponsored gathering met one Saturday I believe) afternoon in the Plaza de Mayo fronting on the Casa Rosada, the Executive Mansion. From there the silent crowd, all waving white handkerchiefs and many bearing Papal flags, proceeded up the broad, tree-lined Avenida de Mayo to gather and demonstrate, pointedly, in front of the Legislative Palace.

The march proceeded without incident but as the vanguard entered the plaza, a group of younger men bearing the Papal flag hauled down the blue and white Argentine colors from the Legislative flagpole and raised in its stead a large gold and white Papal flag. This gave rise to a highly publicized and embittering incident in which, some time later, after most of the crowd had dispersed and been replaced by a claque of Peronist supporters, the Minister of the Interior, the sinister, much feared, little-known and mysterious Angel Borlenghi, appeared on the balcony, holding aloft the burned remains of an Argentine flag which he charged had been desecrated by the religious demonstrators. The violently aggrieved tone of the outcry against this act and its extensive publicity later given by the docile and directed press served, of course, further to exacerbate the situation. Thus emotions and events proceeded explosively toward their inevitable conclusion.

A Failed Coup and a Horrific Bombing

The balloon finally went up in mid-June, June 18, I believe it was, when the first overt attack against Peron occurred. This was, I believe, a Friday afternoon and right about noon. The Ambassador who had called on Peron briefly that morning at the Casa Rosada mentioned on return that while Peron appeared normal he had sensed uneasiness in the demeanor and movement of others. There was too much abnormal activity, he thought. Nevertheless, there was nothing specific, and he had gone to the airport many miles out of town) to meet someone. Also, the Deputy Chief of Mission and the senior political officer had gone for official lunches in the suburbs.

With everything being quiet, I and a couple of other officers were on the way to lunch at a small Spanish-style restaurant in the Plaza de Mayo. We took the elevator down, the Chancery being on the eighth floor of the Boston Bank building on the corner of the famous Calle Florida and Diagonal Norte, a major artery leading into the Plaza de Mayo, one block away.

As I stepped out of the elevator on the ground floor I ran into an Argentine stringer for Time magazine whose offices were on the second floor and I asked him (the standard greeting in times of tension) “Hola, Carlitos, que hay de nuevo?” — “Hi, Carlos, what’s new?” Carlos answered: “Absolutemente nada, todo tranquilo” — “Absolutely nothing, everything is calm.” And at that very instant, the first bomb hit right out in the Diagonal Norte in front of the Embassy; followed immediately by other explosions farther away!!!

Q: Who was the bomb directed at? At the embassy?

SIRACUSA: No. The bombs (eventually many of them in successive waves) — were intended for the Plaza de Mayo and specifically the Casa Rosada where, obviously, they were hoping to get Peron. (We later learned that Peron sensing or tipped off as to danger had long since departed for parts unknown).

Miraculously, given the sad state of telephones in general in Buenos Aires at the time, our skillful operator got through to Washington almost immediately and had on the line the party I wanted, Henry Holland, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs.

And in this there is an anecdote which I think might be of small historical interest. It so happened that Washington was that day practicing its first nuclear-age evacuation of key officers and Secretary Holland was in the Department’s bunker which I believe was at that time somewhere near Front Royal, Virginia. My first task as it turned out was to convince Henry whom I had known from our previous service together in Mexico City) that my call was for real and not just one of the planned exercises for the day.

I think conviction finally came at last from Holland’s perception of the anger and adrenaline-excitement in my voice, and perhaps from the sound of the next stick of bombs exploding outside. I was too keyed up to be afraid) In any case, when I had reported as much as I could I promised to try to call back in about an hour and then hung up. But that was not to be and we had no further direct communication of any kind for about three days, and neither did anyone else.

As I remember, the outside world after my one brief report got news of Argentine events, such as they were, from Uruguayan reports based on monitored Argentine radio talk. In those days our Embassies were not equipped with the sophisticated means of independent communication which they have today.  (My success in getting through this one call mortified my press friends, not one of whom had been able to file a report before communications were cut off centrally. I still do not know how our operator had managed it so quickly. I suspect that in the sisterhood of operators she had friends in the central offices who did her favors when asked, and hurried that one call through before they pulled the plug.).

That tragic day was, as I recall, supposed to have been observed as some sort of a commemoration of significance to the Navy in which their planes were to have made a symbolic flyover of the city. They departed from their base in La Plata, then called Eva Peron, performed their altogether sinister instead of symbolic mission, and then flew on to Uruguay where planes and pilots were safely interned. Shockingly, it seemed to us, The New York Times’ Herbert Mathews called them heroes.

But to us and I suspect even to some Peron-hating Argentines as well it must have seemed a cowardly act to bomb the heart of their own city, at that moment teeming with innocent civilians, without warning of any kind, in hopes apparently of killing one man. And, although they missed him, they did manage to kill several hundred people boarding their buses and streetcars for home and lunch, just outside the Casa Rosada.

Seeing the burned out cars and bodies when I later ventured briefly into the Plaza was a horrible and tragic shock never to be forgotten. And when next I ventured into the Plaza a day later it was to see the terrible damage done inside the National Cathedral the night before as the Alianza thugs led by Gilleremo Patricio Kelly attacked it and many other churches in a night of savage vengeance, using Molotov cocktails and other weapons to wreak their havoc. When over, it had been a bloody and terrible afternoon and night; and it was a totally indecisive Act I, which settled nothing.

Peron Defeated

In about mid-August fighting broke out again with an Army revolt in Cordoba. This led in but a few days to the toppling of Peron with little or no fighting when Buenos Aires based forces despatched to deal with the rebels declared en route for the other side. Then followed the classic Latin American race for Embassy asylum by principal Peronistas, wrong-side military figures and others. Peron found safety in the Embassy of Paraguay, and most of the others elsewhere. The Minister of Defense was turned away from our Ambassador’s residence as we determined there was no “hot pursuit” endangering his life.

There followed an orgy of vengeance by citizens and elements of the Military, venting the pent up frustration of years of domination and seeking to destroy and obliterate every vestige of Peron, Peronismo, the Justicialist Party and the memory and works of Evita. I remember watching out the same window from which I had observed the Naval planes on their runs, the destruction of an office of the Eva Peron Foundation across the street. Furniture, files, pictures, statues–in short, everything moveable was tossed out of the windows and everything breakable or burnable was broken or burned or dismantled. There was a very destructive Army attack on a labor stronghold just outside Buenos Aires, and one night tanks surrounded and literally destroyed the downtown headquarters of the Alianza hoping, presumably, to get Kelly inside. (He escaped that one but was later captured and imprisoned for a while at least. Years later, it was reported, he escaped to Chile disguised as a woman).

For several weeks Peron was kept aboard a leaky Paraguayan gunboat in Buenos Aires harbor and finally cleared to sail away for Asuncion. On the same day, as it happened, my wife I and our daughter sailed for New York on the SS Argentina, our memorable and eventful three-year assignment to Argentina having been completed.



“An Opportunity Lost”

So to sum up, I considered that a great opportunity had been lost in Argentina. If Peron had been able to continue along the more moderate line he had for a while at least chosen after Evita’s death, and not been derailed by his own character flaws and the pressure of extremist associates which projected into the conflict with the Church, the history of Argentina might have been much different.