644. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1 2

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  • El Salvador-Honduras Conflict

El Salvador initiated air attacks against Honduras at approximately 1800 hours July 14. Approximately eight Honduran airfields were reported strafed or bombed. There were also reports of ground attacks at several border points with mortar and small arms fire. Reports of incursion into Honduran territory of Salvadoran troops are not confirmed. A Honduran air strike at one port city in El Salvador has also been reported. The Map at Tab B indicates the sites reportedly attacked. Only a few casualties have been reported so far. At midnight July 14 no further air activity was reported, but there was fear of renewed air attacks by both sides at daylight.

The OAS Council met in special session the evening of July 14 under the terms of the Rio Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, and designated a seven-man committee to go to the scene immediately. The committee is composed of the representatives of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Argentina and the United States. The Nicaraguan, as chairman of the committee, has issued a cease-fire call to both the Honduran and Salvadoran governments. The committee, advisors and OAS secretariat personnel will fly to the area July 15. The U.S. Air Force was requested to provide emergency transportation and will comply.

Events Leading to Hostilities

The hostilities climaxed almost four weeks of deteriorating relations which began June 16 after anti-Salvadoran riots swept Honduras in the wake of reports that Honduran soccer fans had been assaulted while accompanying the national team to a World Cup regional playoff in San Salvador. In the aftermath of these riots, Honduran animosity against thousands of Salvadorans living in Honduras resulted in large numbers of Salvadorans [Page 2] fleeing back into El Salvador. More than 20,000 refugees are reported to have crossed the border, and this flow of expatriates aroused Salvadoran nationalism. Sensationalist journalism and rumors inflamed latent animosities on both sides, and some violence against Salvadorans has occurred.

The Salvadoran Government has held the Honduran Government responsible for the conditions which forced their compatriots to flee, and on June 26 broke diplomatic relations with Honduras, charging that Honduras had committed “genocide” against Salvadoran emigrants. Efforts by the Foreign Ministers of Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua to mediate the dispute reached an impasse over this past weekend, largely because of Salvadoran intransigence in refusing to accept the mediators’ proposals for a buffer zone along the border.

Pressures within the Salvadoran military to take some action against Honduras contributed to the tension, and occasional incidents of shooting were reported over the past two weeks, culminating in a series of incidents Saturday and Sunday. This tension erupted in the hostilities which began yesterday.

Basic Issues

The conflict has deep roots of long standing. Some 300,000 or 15% of the Honduran population are Salvadorans who have left their small, densely populated country. Most of the Salvadoran emigrants are undocumented and their presence in Honduras has given rise to latent animosities because of job, trade and land competition. A further source of friction between the two states is their undelineated border, which adds to the pressures of population movement and land squatting. While sensationalist journalism and rumors rather than specific government harassment has been responsible for most of the Honduran violence against Salvadoran citizens, actions such as a new Honduran land reform law prohibiting Salvadorans from owning land in certain areas has inflamed passions.

Added to these long-standing social and economic factors has been the pressure of Salvadoran military officers on the Sanchez Government. Long-standing criticism of the President was quickly converted by public passion into a strong jingoism that the President has been unable to control. Fear of public criticism and the dramatically visible flow of refugees strengthened emotion and nationalism and led to the initial intransigence of the Salvadoran Government during the efforts at mediation, and [Page 3] subsequently to the feel of the Salvadoran military that it had to take some action against Honduras or be humiliated.

The Future

The armed forces of both sides are relatively small and cannot sustain armed action for long. There is small likelihood that the conflict will spread to the other Central American countries. Now that the OAS has supplanted the Central American Foreign Ministers’ mediation efforts, a cease fire may be achieved fairly quickly, although aroused nationalistic passions in both countries will be hard to calm.

Reconciliation will be difficult, however, and the conflict will leave deep scars and suspicions, which can disrupt the course of regional economic and political integration in Central America for some time to come. Latent animosities will continue to exist for some time. Even after hostilities cease, the problems of refugees, the whole immigration question issue, and the dispute over the unmarked border will remain. (The last serious border incident, also resulting in armed conflict, occurred in May 1967).

The long range possibility of an arms race between the two countries is not inconceivable. A more significant side effect is the possibility that Salvadoran President Sanchez may be overthrown. He has been accused by his military of ineptness in handling the dispute, and if Salvadoran military fortunes are poor he may become a scapegoat and be overturned by the military.

What the U.S. Has Done

From the beginning we have sought to support a mediation or negotiated settlement. Our activities to date:

  • —Our Embassies from the beginning sought to provide the two governments with an impartial assessment of developments free of the more sensationalist press play, and to urge the two governments to work out a settlement.
  • —We have supported the mediation of the Foreign Ministers and our Embassies have consulted with them and sought to support their efforts.
  • —A message from you to both Presidents was sent July 8 supporting the mediation and urging that no provocative actions be taken.
  • —We supported OAS secretariat staff support for the mediators, and provided air transportation to get them to the scene this past weekend.
  • —With the failure of the mediation and the convocation of the OAS Council under the Rio Treaty we supported the immediate dispatch of the OAS committee to the scene to work out a cease fire and eventual settlement.
  • —We are members of the OAS committee.
  • —We have supplied air transportation for the committee.

For the present I believe that our best strategy is to give full support to the OAS efforts and to work through the OAS committee to achieve a prompt cease fire, a cooling off period and a negotiated resolution of the dispute. It may be desirable for you to make another personal appeal to both sides in support of the OAS effort at a later point.

Factual data on the two countries is attached at Tab A.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 786, Country Files, Latin America, Honduras–El Salvador Dispute. Confidential. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. Attached but not published at Tab A is factual data on El Salvador and Honduras and at Tab B is a map of the two countries. In an undated and un-initialed memorandum to Nixon, Kissinger reported that on July 15 the OAS Council passed a resolution calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities and “the restoration of the situation to what it was before hostilities broke out.” (Ibid.)
  2. Kissinger reported that El Salvador had initiated air attacks against Honduras. Indicating that the United States had supported mediation throughout the crisis, Kissinger recommended continued support for OAS efforts to achieve a ceasefire and negotiate an end to the dispute.