Robert White was the US ambassador to El Salvador from March 1980 through early 1981. It was the bloody beginning of El Salvador's civil war, spanning a time which included the assassination of archbishop Oscar Romero and the slaying of 4 American churchwomen. Ambassador White recently delivered a speech for a conference at the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at the University of Texas, where he reflected on his sojourn in El Salvador and lessons for current world situations. In one passage from the speech, he recounts the Reagan administration's desire not to let the murder of the churchwomen get into the way of more US military aid:
As soon as the administration of President Reagan took office, I received a phone call from the acting assistant secretary informing me that Secretary of State Alexander Haig requested I send him a telegram reporting that the Salvadoran military had initiated a serious investigation into the murders of the American churchwomen and that the investigation was making progress.
Why was Secretary of State Haig demanding such a telegram? Because when President Jimmy Carter learned of the murders, he reacted strongly, cutting off military and economic aid until the Salvadoran government demonstrated a good faith commitment to bring the murderers to justice.
Let us stop for a moment and consider what was at stake. Once Secretary Haig received the kind of telegram he requested, he would use it to overcome congressional skeptics and massive military aid would begin to flow.
All I had to do was send in a telegram stating that the Salvadoran military high command had publicly denounced this senseless crime, that they had established a special high level commission to investigate the crime and that the president of the new commission had said he could promise a quick and satisfactory outcome.
Such a telegram would have been superficially accurate. It would have helped the Reagan administration to advance its new policy and it would have insured my promotion to positions of increasing responsibility.
Now, I am not one who sees every decision as a moral or ethical challenge. Over twenty five years I had developed the necessary elasticity of conscience to function effectively as a diplomat. I had, on more than one occasion, shaded the truth in order to give a policy time to work or had been somewhat less than candid in order to protect secrets.
In this case, however, Secretary Haig was asking me to affirm what I knew to be false, to use official channels to lie to my own government.
Within the hour, I had sent in a telegram stating that my embassy’s reporting over the past six weeks had provided ample proof that the Salvadoran military had killed the four women, that once the bodies had been discovered, the Salvadoran high command had begun a massive cover-up designed to protect the guilty, that there was no investigation under way and that we could expect nothing from the Salvadoran military high command except a continuing cover-up.
Ambassador White was relieved of his post shortly thereafter.
Ambassador White was kind enough to provide me with a complete copy of his remarks which you can read here. Learn more about White's career in the article at this link.He currently serves as the president of the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.