35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

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

Coup leaders Admiral Massera and General Videla

Coup leaders Admiral Massera and General Videla.

Published: Mar 23, 2021
Briefing Book #751

Edited by Carlos Osorio

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

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, and that then CIA director George H.W. Bush briefed President Gerald Ford on a "possible" coup in Argentina almost two weeks before the military deposed Isabel Peron.

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.”