[News] Argentina’s Military Coup of 1976 - evidence of contacts between the coup plotters and U.S. officials

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Tue Mar 23 11:30:27 EDT 2021


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  Argentina’s Military Coup of 1976: What the U.S. Knew

March 23, 2021
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Coup leaders Admiral Massera and General Videla.

U.S. had ample forewarning of coup plotting, Documents Show

Officials maintained channel of communications with plotters

Ford Administration knew Argentine military planned to commit human 
rights violations

U.S. Ambassador aborted pre-coup visit by a former CIA deputy director

*Washington, D.C., March 23, 2021* - On the eve of the 45th anniversary 
of the military coup in Argentina, the National Security Archive is 
today posting declassified documents revealing what the U.S. government 
knew, and when it knew it, in the weeks preceding the March 24, 1976, 
overthrow of Isabel Peron’s government. The documents provide evidence 
of multiple contacts between the coup plotters and U.S. officials. 
“[Admiral] Massera sought opportunity to speak privately with me,” 
U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Robert Hill reported in a cable sent one 
week before the putsch after meeting with a leading coup plotter. 
“[H]e said that it was no secret that military might have to step into 
political vacuum very soon.”

The documents posted today record the U.S. government knowledge of the 
plotters, their preparations for the coup, and their potential plans for 
what State Department officials described as “military rule for an 
extended duration and of unprecedented severity.” They show that the 
U.S. “discreetly” advised the military more than a month before the 
actual coup that Washington would recognize the new regime.

In the first substantive report to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on 
a “Possible Coup in Argentina,” in mid-February 1976, Assistant 
Secretary of State William Rogers flagged the likelihood of human rights 
violations after a military takeover.   “We would expect [the 
military government] to be friendly toward the United States,” he 
apprised Kissinger. “However, in stepping up the fight against the 
guerrillas, an Argentine military government would be almost certain to 
engage in human rights violations such as to engender international 
criticism. This could lead to U.S. public and Congressional pressures 
which would complicate our relations with the new regime.” 
Anticipating problems with the United States over the repression against 
subversion they would implement, the Argentine “military planning 
group” approached officials in their own foreign ministry to advise 
“as to how the future military govt can avoid or minimize the sort of 
problems the Chilean and Uruguayan govts were having with the U.S. over 
[the] human rights issue.”

Perhaps to discuss that very issue, the documents show that the 
Argentine military sought to meet with Kissinger in advance of the 
coup—an idea discouraged by Ambassador Hill.  On February 13, 1976, 
Hill met with an Argentine-born U.S. businessman named “Mr. 
Carnicero” who informed him that “several high-ranking military 
officers have asked him to arrange a meeting between an appropriate 
military representative and Secretary Kissinger” so that they could 
explain why they needed to take power and seek assurances of prompt 
recognition.  The ambassador rejected that idea on the grounds that 
“Such a meeting, should it become public knowledge, could be 
misinterpreted to the detriment of the officers themselves as well as of 
Secretary Kissinger.” In a revealing passage, Hill reminded the 
emissary that “the embassy has discreetly and through third parties 
already indicated to the military that the USG will recognize a new 
government in Argentina….”

As D-Day for the coup approached, the Argentine military appeared to 
reach out to other influential policy actors. In a mission that remains 
imbued with mystery, FBI and State Department cables revealed that the 
retired director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. General Daniel 
O. Graham, arrived in Buenos Aires just 12 days before the putsch, 
accompanied by arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms and his aides. 
Fearing that the presence of Graham (who had served as CIA deputy 
director before assuming command of the DIA) would spark rumors of U.S. 
involvement in coup preparations, Ambassador Hill urged him to quickly 
leave the country. “I hope this problem has been put behind us,” 
Hill cabled Washington later. “It could have been extremely 
embarrassing at the least, however, and at most very damaging to our 
relations.”  FBI sources reported that the top coup plotter, General 
Jorge Videla, had hoped to have an emissary meet with Graham “in order 
to explore in detail the General’s recommendations concerning the 
public relations aspect of the Argentine Armed Forces projected coup 
d’état against the government….”

According to the documents, Ambassador Hill himself decided to leave the 
country on March 17th before the coup, to counter the expected 
accusations of U.S. knowledge and involvement. “I therefore, believe 
that it is in the best interest of the USG that I proceed with my plans 
as though we had no forewarning,” Hill cabled the State Department as 
he prepared for his departure.  “The fact that I would be out of the 
country when the blow actually falls would be, I believe, a fact in our 
favor indicating noninvolvement of Embassy and USG.”

Just one day before the coup took place, Ambassador Hill reported to the 
National Security Council that Washington needed to be ready to engage 
the Argentine military. “As [this document] is being written, 
Argentina is in a state of flux,” Hill advised the NSC.� “Argentina 
has been one of our principal interlocutors and this is not likely to 
change even under a new government… for no matter who might 
immediately replace Mrs. Peron (if and when she is replaced), the fact 
is that Argentina needs the U.S. certainly as much as we need her… 
[eventually] she will probably come back to political normalcy in 
desperate need of investment. The U.S. can expect to be the first 
country to which the Argentines will turn.”

“There is no evidence that the U.S. instigated the coup,” said 
Carlos Osorio, Director of the National Security Archive Southern Cone 
Documentation Project. “But the United States accepted, and tacitly 
supported, regime change because Washington shared the military’s 
position that the putsch was the only alternative to chaos in 
Argentina.” The documents, Osorio noted, “indicate that U.S. 
officials wanted to believe that General Videla, the coup leader, was a 
moderate. The military dictatorship that followed killed and disappeared 
more than 20,000 people.”


    READ THE DOCUMENTS


document thumbnail

Document 1

CIA National Intelligence Bulletin, “Argentina: Military preoccupied 
with coup prospects,” Top Secret, February 7, 1976.

<https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20519370-01>

1976-02-07

*Source:* Argentina Declassification Project, April 2019

Since December 1975, U.S. agencies had received an increasing number of 
reports about a possible military coup against the shaky presidency of 
Isabel Peron in Argentina. This CIA bulletin reports:

“Recent events in Argentina suggest that the military is getting in a 
position to take over the government, but there is no firm evidence that 
they have made a decision to move yet. Reported discussions in the high 
command no longer focus on whether a coup is necessary or feasible, but 
on how and when it should be undertaken.”

The bulletin identifies top-level military officers placed in strategic 
positions for the coup: the Army chief in Buenos Aires, General Suarez 
Mason; the head of the Federal Police, General Harguindeguy; Navy 
commander Admiral Massera; and Army commander-in-chief General Videla. 
Their names today evoke memories of a seven-year dictatorship 
characterized by disappearances, torture, and murder. All of them were 
eventually indicted and three convicted. Harguindeguy passed away before 
being brought to trial.



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Document 3

U.S. Embassy Buenos Aires, Cable, Ambassador Robert Hill to Acting 
Assistant Secretary for Latin America, “Military Allegedly Wish to 
Send Representative to Meet with Secretary Kissinger,” Secret, EXDIS, 
February 16, 1976.

<https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20519372-03>

1976-02-16

*Source:* Digital National Security Archive

In a highly restricted cable for Acting Assistant Secretary of State 
Hewson Ryan (Assistant Secretary Williams Roger was traveling to 
Caracas), Ambassador Robert Hill reports that an American-Argentine 
citizen named “Carnicero” is trying to arrange a meeting between an 
Argentine military representative and Secretary Kissinger, “… so 
that they can explain the political situation in Argentina.”

“I discouraged Carnicero from going forward with this idea,” the 
Ambassador writes, for “Such a meeting, should it become public 
knowledge, could be misinterpreted to the detriment of the officers 
themselves as well as of Secretary Kissinger. Further, I said, it seemed 
to me unnecessary. The embassy has discreetly and through third parties 
already indicated to the military that the USG will recognize a new govt 
in Argentina ...”



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Document 5

CIA National Intelligence Bulletin,” Argentina: Coup prospects,” Top 
Secret, March 1, 1976

<https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20519374-05>

1976-03-01

*Source:* Argentina Declassification Project, April 2019

This CIA bulletin reports that “A number of key [Argentine] 
congressmen have told the US embassy in Buenos Aires that a military 
coup against President Peron is now inevitable.”

“It appears likely that, in the event of a coup, army Commander in 
Chief General Videla would be named president by a military junta. 
Civilians probably prefer Videla because he resisted early calls for a 
military take-over and is widely considered a man of moderate political 
views.”



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Document 7

FBI Cable, Legal Attaché Buenos Aires to the Director, “Foreign 
Political Matters – Argentina,” Secret, March 15, 1976.

<https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20519376-07>

1976-03-15

*Source:* Argentina Declassification Project, April 2019

In a cable to the director of the FBI, the legal attaché in Buenos 
Aires, Robert Scherrer, reports that an American citizen, Raymond 
Molina, has gathered information from an Argentine military source:

“The Argentine armed forces would oust President Peron between 
Wednesday, March 17, 1976 and Thursday, March 18, 1976 … The Argentine 
military desire close cooperation with the United States.”

Scherrer continues: “Molina was contacted by the legal attaché at the 
specific request of Ambassador Hill. Molina arrived in Buenos Aires 
3/12/76, accompanied by General Graham, former CIA Deputy Director, and 
several other individuals from Washington connected with U.S. senators 
Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.” (Both senators were Republicans and 
known for their conservatism. Helms was from North Carolina and Thurmond 
from South Carolina.)


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Document 8

U.S. Embassy Buenos Aires, Cable, Ambassador Robert Hill to William D. 
Rogers, “Ambassador's Conversation with Admiral Massera,” Secret, 
March 16, 1976

<https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20519377-08>

1976-03-16

*Source:* Argentina Declassification Project, April 2019

U.S. Ambassador Robert Hill describes his Tuesday, March 16, 1976, 
meeting with Argentine Navy chief Admiral Emilio Massera: “Political 
Counselor and I had distinct impression that Massera was talking about a 
coup which will probably come within the next few days, possibly before 
the weekend.” Hill concludes that “every newspaper and magazine is 
now speculating that the golpe [coup] may come shortly, but that is only 
hearsay. The fact that I would be out of the country when the blow 
actually falls would be, I believe, a fact in our favor indicating 
noninvolvement of Embassy and USG. Hence, I intend to depart on schedule 
…”



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Document 10

U.S. Embassy Buenos Aires, Ambassador Robert Hill to William D. Rogers, 
Cable, “Strange Involvement of US Group with Return of Jorge 
Antonio,” Secret, Nodis, Stadis, Eyes Only, March 17, 1976.

<https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20519379-10>

1976-03-17

*Source:* Argentina Declassification Project, April 2019

Ambassador Robert Hill addresses this highly restricted cable to 
Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, William Rogers: 
“I was called on Mar 11 by aides to Senators Thurmond and Helms and 
told they would arrive in Argentina the next day. I urged them not to 
come when they told me Gen Graham (retired Dep Dir of CIA and Dir of 
DIA) was coming with them.”

“I further advised General Graham and his associates that they would 
do well to get out of Argentina as soon as possible. If press found out 
they were here or had any inkling as to why, all hell could break loose.”

Relieved that he has persuaded the group to leave the same day they 
arrived, on March 12, the ambassador adds: “I hope this problem has 
been put behind us. It could have been extremely embarrassing at the 
least, however, and at most very damaging to our relations.




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Document 13

U.S. Embassy Buenos Aires, Cable, Williams Beal to Department of State, 
“Analysis of Argentine Political Situation,” 18 March, 1976.

<https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20519382-13>

1976-03-18

*Source:* Digital National Security Archive

While Ambassador Hill is in Washington, Chargé D’affaires Williaml 
commends the Department of State’s intelligence bureau, INR, for an 
analysis paper on Argentina. He goes on to say that the embassy 
disagrees with the conclusion that “senior military commanders” who 
“at this point appear to be planning a moderate coup and a caretaker 
government,” will be able to see the plan through. Instead, “while 
the caretaker government seems the most likely to emerge initially, the 
dynamics of the situation are such that it may very well give way to the 
second option indicated in the paper -- that of military rule for an 
extended duration and of unprecedented severity.”


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Document 14

Ambassador Robert Hill, “Ambassador’s Overview,” in NSC paper, 
“Country Analysis & Strategy Paper, Argentina,” March 23, 1976.

<https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=20519383-14>

1976-03-23

*Source:* Digital National Security Archive

The day before the military coup, Ambassador Hill knew it was 
underwayand was of the view that the U.S. had to engage the Argentine 
military. In this item prepared for the National Security Council, he 
writes: “As the CASP [Country & Strategy Paper] is being written, 
Argentina is in a state of flux … Argentina has been one of our 
principal interlocutors and this is not likely to change even under a 
new government … for no matter who might immediately replace Mrs. 
Peron (if and when she is replaced), the fact is that Argentina needs 
the U.S. certainly as much as we need her … [Eventually] she will 
probably come back to political normalcy in desperate need of 
investment. The U.S. can expect to be the first country to which the 
Argentines will turn.”

-- 
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