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Resigning Over the Conflict in El Salvador

Central America in the 1980s became a proxy battleground as the United States supported right-wing leaders against leftist socialist guerrillas who, in turn, were usually funded by the Soviet Union, Cuba and others.  In El Salvador, the struggle for power took an ugly turn when  Archbishop Óscar Romero, who had openly pleaded for the government and military to end the violence and who was seen as the “voice of the voiceless” to many Salvadorans, was gunned down while celebrating mass in a small chapel in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. Many people, including U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, believed the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government was responsible.

Later that same year on December 2, three American Catholic nuns and one lay missionary (Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel) were kidnapped, raped, and murdered, their vehicle found burning twenty miles away. White and most Salvadorans again suspected the government’s death squads. However, many in the Reagan administration believed that the attack could have been staged to blame the military or that higher-ups were unable to control subordinates who acted on their own. This led to a confrontation between Washington and Ambassador White, who was convinced the Salvadoran military and government were lying. He was eventually recalled, by order of Secretary of State Alexander Haig and when he was not given a suitable onward assignment, he resigned from the Foreign Service, but only after doing a critical interview on 60 Minutes.    

In the following excerpts,  White, who served as Ambassador from March 1980-February 1981, describes his reaction to the events in El Salvador and his eventual resignation. After retiring from the Service, White went on to become a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the President of the Center for International Policy. He was interviewed by Bill Knight beginning in 1992. John  Bushnell served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and disagreed with White’s views on El Salvador. He was interviewed by John Harter beginning 2006. White passed away in January 2015; his Washington Post obituary can be found here.

You can also read about the soldier who recanted regarding Cuban involvement in El Salvador, Bushnell’s experience during the Panama Invasion and Al Haig’s run-in with another FSO over Cambodia.


“The Salvadoran military had consistently tortured and killed people and lied to us about it. And we knew they were lying.”

WHITE:  My last post was El Salvador. I was only there a year from February of ’80 to February of ’81. Here was a situation where the United States was looking at El Salvador through the prism of the Cold War and the contribution of the Salvadorans was supposed to be tranquil while we fought the good fight with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Salvadorans had really suffered enough. The ruling cliques in El Salvador were as blind and as short-sighted and as intransigent as any I’ve come across.

So there was a revolution in swing. It was basically just getting started. My honest belief is that had we taken advantage of the changes — the so-called October 1979 change of government — had we been bolder, had we been more true to our principles, then the revolution might well have been avoided. But the United States government in its foreign policy had never been accused of being a monolith. The differences between the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department were important differences, that were reflected in the embassy when I arrived.

When I went to El Salvador, everyone including the CIA said I would be back in two or three months. They said the end was inevitable, that the revolutionaries were going to take over. I just didn’t believe that. Remember, I had served two tours in Central America, and I had been back in Central America when I was in the Peace Corps and as Deputy Representative to the OAS [Organization for American States]. I probably knew Central America as well as anyone else in the Service. I always believed that there was a negotiated solution to be had. Indeed, I think the Carter emphasis on human rights, on agricultural reform and other reforms and on negotiations could have avoided most of the killing entirely. And I think that in the short time I had there, we were moving importantly in that direction.

The Reagan administration then came in and reversed those three facets of our policy with the result that, instead of emphasizing human rights, Alexander Haig said that counter-terrorism would replace human rights as a priority in U.S. foreign policy. Instead of an emphasis on reform, President Reagan said that reform would have to wait until after victory. And, instead of negotiation, we installed a policy to prevail on the battlefield. We turned this thing into a war….

So I left the Foreign Service over a real issue. The Salvadoran military had consistently tortured and killed people and lied to us about it. And we knew they were lying. We knew who was responsible. We reported to the Department who was responsible for it. Most of the killings occurred in the period between the election of Ronald Reagan as President and prior to his taking office.

We reported all that was going on. I reported that the military had killed the American church women. The military set up a commission at our insistence to investigate the deaths. The commission proved to be a mechanism to protect the military rather than to investigate.

“My view is that the higher-ups in the military were guilty of not being able to control their subordinates in some respects”

Q: What do you recall of the murder of the four nuns?

BUSHNELL:  That’s the next main event in the El Salvador story. The military/Christian Democrat government was implementing a major land reform which was very contentious and trying to make numerous other reforms. The country was becoming more violent with more people being killed — probably normal for such a revolutionary situation. In December of 1980 after the election of Reagan, three American nuns and one American lay missionary associated with the nuns, were kidnapped as they left the main Salvadoran airport, taken to a deserted area, and raped–at least some of them were raped. Then all four were murdered.

At first it wasn’t clear [who was responsible]. We had had problems with staffing the embassy in El Salvador throughout this period. By that time Bob White had arrived in El Salvador as Ambassador, but the embassy was still small and not well staffed. Everyone was suspicious that some group of the National Guard, ORDEN, the Treasury police, or the military was responsible.

But I knew that various guerilla or urban left groups sometimes dressed in military uniforms and committed crimes to try to turn both Salvadoran public opinion, and more important, the outside world against the government. There was, of course, a tremendous uproar in the United States over the murders and demands for action by our government, although no one seemed to specify what action we could take…. Ambassador White immediately accused the military of being responsible….

There were suggestions that we stop what little military training we were providing, but most students had already departed for Christmas vacations at home. We may have cancelled a few training places, but there was not much we could do to pressure the Salvadoran military except to demand that the government/military investigate and punish.

It soon became clear that the military hierarchy either could not or would not move against those responsible even though they probably had a pretty good idea who they were. No one seriously thought this killing was a coordinated operation ordered or approved by the senior, or any, chain of command. But the Salvadoran military had no tradition and apparently no procedures for investigating serious breaches of the rules of conduct…. Almost no murders were ever solved in El Salvador….

Moreover, there were great tensions and divisions in the military which was more a collection of units than a disciplined hierarchical structure. Remember the military was already in turmoil as a result of the 1979 coup; many hard-line senior officers had departed, but many equally hard-line captains and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] were still in their units….

My view is that the higher-ups in the military were guilty of not being able to control their subordinates in some respects, but maybe there would have been another coup if they pushed too far. Who knows just how that military equation worked? At the local level the officers knew who did it, and they were not going to do anything about it….

Q: Did you and Bob White have some different perspectives on this?

BUSHNELL: Bob was more inclined to put the blame on the military institution all the way up the hierarchy. Bob was always anti-military anyway. He condemned the entire military for being involved and, in his view, for setting a climate which allowed people to do this. Maybe at times he even implied that he thought it was ordered from higher up, although I don’t think there’s any evidence that these soldiers were told to kill the nuns. They may have been told to harass them. (Bushnell seen at left)

Ambassador White was from the beginning very outspoken about the military, but aside from cutting some of the little military assistance, it was mainly a matter of the bully pulpit. My concern was that, since there was a delicate balance in this reformist government between the military that supported the government and the military that were sympathetic to the oligarchy, terrible as this thing was, it wouldn’t really help to push on the moderates such that they pushed on the other military and got thrown out. Then you’d have the hard-line military in charge again and no investigation while the economic reforms would be reversed. I guessed that the hard-line forces had the greater power if it came to a showdown….

So if there was a disagreement with Bob White, it was that he thought we should push the moderate military harder….

Q: Did he make any particular recommendations?

BUSHNELL: I don’t recall. He was sort of blocked out of the policy making — I think this was intentional.

“I said, ‘You know, John, I don’t really need a job that badly”

WHITE:  I received a telephone call from the Deputy Assistant Secretary just at the transition time — after the Reagan administration had taken office and after Secretary Haig had been named but before he had been confirmed — saying there was a problem that they were going to have difficulty getting military assistance to El Salvador through the Congress unless we could certify that progress was being made on the investigation into the nuns case.

“We’ve got this problem,” said John Bushnell, then Deputy Assistant Secretary.

I said, “Well, I can see the Department has a problem, but I have to tell you that I don’t have a problem because the problem simply is that I give you the facts… I report to you what has happened.”

Well, it turned out that Bushnell really wanted me to say in a telegram that things were getting better. I said, “You know John, I don’t really need a job that badly. I cannot say that because they are not getting better; they are getting worse. What’s more, unless you take a stand on this, the killing is going to increase. You are going to have case after case after case of torture and murder of everyone who is against the military.”

So over that issue, I went out of the Foreign Service. Frankly it was not a bad issue to go out on. It is always possible to stick around, but I felt this was something that was important and so I left.

Q: Did they yank you?

WHITE: Secretary Haig called me to Washington and he complimented me on the job I had done–particularly on the reporting. He then said, “We are making some changes, one of the places we are going to make changes is in El Salvador.”

I said I understood that. So we were sort of winding down the interview and he said, “By the way, I don’t want you to speak to the press.” And I said, “Mr. Secretary, I have no intention of speaking to the press, but as long as you bring it up you can transfer me but you really can’t fire me. You can but you shouldn’t. You were kind enough to tell me that I had done an outstanding job. Therefore it seems to me that at the same time you announce my leaving El Salvador, you should announce my new position.”

He said, “Well, we really don’t have ourselves all together sufficiently for that.”

I said, “Well, it seems to me you’ve got at least 16, 18, 20 openings. Send me away from Latin America; send me away from human rights considerations,” I said, “if you transfer me as Ambassador to Sweden or some place like that, then I can certainly accept that. Nobody elected me to anything. You are the people who are in charge. But if you fire me, what then you are proclaiming to the world is that I deserve to be fired for  some reason and am not being given an onward assignment.” Secretary Haig said he understood my position, and would see what could be done.

So we had several more conversations at various levels. I’m not sure whether Secretary Haig tried. They claimed he did….

I said, “I am not asking the impossible. If you want to make me Consul General in Hong Kong or Consul General in Berlin, something like that, fine. I am not asking you to pay a big price. I want to be reasonable, but I simply insist that I be treated with respect.”

It soon became clear to me that nothing was going to happen. They wanted me to go into the Inspection Corps. I said I really wouldn’t do that and so I went out of the Foreign Service the same way George Kennan went out:  Under the provision that if you are not offered a position or assignment of equal rank you are automatically retired….

“We’re keeping it calm, and there’s no reason for [White] to go on 60 Minutes. No matter what he says, it’s going to be inflammatory one way or another.” 

BUSHNELL:  Toward the end of December after the…mission had returned but while the nuns’ murder was still a leading news story, I was in my office on a Saturday morning…. I had an urgent call from Bill Rogers, a Republican who had been Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American and Under Secretary of State and was now a member of the El Salvador special mission….

I returned the call, and Bill said, “Do you know Bob White is going on 60 Minutes this weekend, and he’s probably not going to have good things to say about the incoming administration and maybe not even about the outgoing one, you know Bob.”

I said, “That’s news to me, but I’ll see what I can find out.” I called the country director to ask, “Has this been cleared?” He didn’t know anything about it. I called Deputy Secretary [Warren] Christopher and told him.

He said, “Call him up and tell him he can’t go on 60 Minutes. The position is that during this interregnum between administrations we’re not trying to muddy the waters. We’re not battling anything. We’re keeping it calm, and there’s no reason for him to go on 60 Minutes. No matter what he says, it’s going to be inflammatory one way or another.”

I told my people to put through a call to Bob urgently…. I said, “I hear you’re doing a 60 Minutes piece this weekend.”

He said, “Yeah, that’s right.”

I said, “Did you clear that?”

He said, “We don’t have to clear that sort of thing.”

I said, “I have an instruction from the Deputy Secretary that you’re not to do it.”

He said, “What the hell am I going to do? These people are here right now in the next room. I’ve already done half an hour.” …

I said, “Tell them you want the tape.”

He said, “I can’t do that.”

I said, “Your instructions from the Deputy Secretary are not to go on 60 Minutes. That’s your instruction. Do you understand that?” He mumbled something. I don’t know that he agreed he understood, but he certainly understood. He went on 60 Minutes, and he blasted the Salvadoran military.

He said they weren’t investigating the nuns’ killing because the Reagan Administration was coming in. He appeared to try to put the blame for the nuns being killed on the Reagan Administration, which wasn’t even in office yet. It certainly left a bad taste for the outgoing administration, which didn’t make much difference. Fortunately I told Bill Rogers about the instruction to White, and he communicated it to the transition team. Of course, the incoming administration saw Ambassador White as a problem….

Haig called me and said, “Bushy, we’ve got to do something about that asshole in Salvador”

BUSHNELL:  I spent the second half of 1981 and the first half of 1982 fighting the propaganda war in the United States, and that is another interesting story. First I might fill in a few more details. White was the only ambassador I ever personally recalled. I think it was still January when White was quoted in the [Washington] Post and The New York Times saying some things negative about the policies of the new Administration.

Haig called me and said, “Bushy, we’ve got to do something about that asshole in Salvador.”

I asked, “What do you want me to do?”

He said, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to go to the personnel people on this. Call him up for consultations. Get him out of there.”

I called Bob and told him to come up on consultations. He said, “I’ll come in a couple of weeks or so.”

I said, “No, I need you here day after tomorrow.” He came fairly quickly. He knew he was out of there. I think he had one meeting with Haig, which I was not at. I heard a story that Haig offered to make him ambassador in Iceland, which I thought was fairly generous. He didn’t want that….

He sat around for a short time and retired. Then he went on the speaking circuit in opposition to the Administration’s policy in El Salvador and Central America. Over the next 18 months I was several times invited to debate him, but I always declined. I thought such a debate would be not very decorous.

“It was not a happy time to be representing the United States” 

WHITE:  Carrying out the diplomatic mission in El Salvador would have been relatively simple had we had a united policy and a coherent foreign policy establishment in Washington. Instead, you had the Agency with one policy, the Pentagon with another, and the State Department with a third. By this time the Carter administration had lost a lot of its coherence, a lot of its ideals and basically was concentrating on how to get reelected. I have to tell you, it was not a happy time to be representing the United States.

One thing I admire about the Reagan administration was their ability to put coherence into foreign policy even though I thought their policy was totally wrong-headed. At least there was no doubt about what the policy was….

Just my closing thought: if you want to have a professional Foreign Service, you are really going to have to shape up and stand behind Foreign Service officers…. and where was the Foreign Service Association [AFSA]? Where were the people that were supposed to protect people who were not doing anything other than complying  with the ethics of the profession. Stating what the facts were. Reporting…. The Foreign Service Association and others were totally silent as far as I could tell on this issue.

Q: Do we need some kind of prestigious senior counsel of the Foreign Service, presumably a retired officer, to deal with such cases?

WHITE: I agree–an ombudsman committee. Because had the Foreign Service had the courage, they could have played a tremendously important role. You wouldn’t have to confine it to Foreign Service officers but include retired officers and former Secretaries of State, whatever. It just was totally wrong–to order an ambassador, a professional Foreign Service officer, to be fired for doing nothing more than holding to the ethics of the profession. I found that difficult to reconcile with a professional service. And frankly I believe the Foreign Service will continue to pay dearly for this lack of courage.