391. Memorandum From the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Eliot) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

SUBJECT

  • Kidnapping of Ambassador Knox in Haiti

Press accounts have not accurately reflected the position this government has taken in connection with the kidnapping of Ambassador Knox. While an important consideration from the start was the safe release of Ambassador Knox and Mr. Christensen, we also gave very high priority to avoiding a solution which would encourage similar terrorist acts against other diplomatic officials in the future.

For the latter reason, U.S. Government officials (other than Ambassador Knox with a gun at his head) dealing with the Haitian Government and with the terrorists never urged the Haitian Government to release prisoners or to facilitate the exit of the gunmen from Haiti. The furthest we went was to urge that they ultimately, if unavoidable, acquiesce in the “Bangkok solution,” i.e., no release of prisoners or payment of ransom but safe passage out of the country for the terrorists upon release of hostages.

Mr. Macomber, who was sent by Secretary Rogers to Port-au-Prince, made it clear to President Duvalier at the Secretary’s explicit instructions that the U.S. Government would not pay ransom in a situation of this kind. He also made it clear to the Haitian Government that he thought the deal that had been made with the terrorists was too generous (he made this same point to the French Ambassador whom the terrorists asked to act as intermediary). Mr. Macomber would not agree to the use of an American plane, as both the gunman and the Haitian Government had requested, because of the nature of the “deal” the Haitian Government had agreed to (we had quietly placed a chartered American commercial aircraft at Jamaica during the early morning [Page 1022]hours to be available to fly quickly to Haiti if use of an American plane had ultimately been necessary and warranted).

Mr. Macomber also told President Duvalier of Haiti that in the United States Government’s view, any deal made with gangsters who had a gun at the head of the American Ambassador did not have to be honored and he hoped that once Ambassador Knox and Mr. Christensen were safe that if there was any possibility of aborting the departure of the Air Haiti aircraft carrying the terrorists and released prisoners that this would be done. The Haitian Government however apparently took the view that their commitment was to the French Ambassador and the Papal Nuncio who had guaranteed the terrorists safe exit and who had in turn extracted a promise from the President of Haiti that this guarantee would be honored.

After Ambassador Knox and Mr. Christensen were safely released just before noon at the airport, the terrorists and twelve released Haitian political prisoners were allowed to go on board the Air Haiti plane. At this point, they were completely disarmed and operating under the protection of the Papal Nuncio who, with robes blowing, had taken up a position on the airstrip under the nose of the Air Haiti plane. The French Ambassador also stayed by the plane. After the release of Ambassador Knox and Mr. Christensen, and after a brief meeting between Ambassador Knox and President Duvalier, senior Haitians (who with their President had been up through the night) dispersed and could not be reached by Mr. Macomber or our Embassy officials. Unable, therefore, to get Haitian Government officials to consider aborting the flight and reneging on the deal that had been made with the now disarmed bandits, Mr. Macomber personally intervened by telephoning the pilot of the aircraft, an American citizen employed by the Haitian airline, and urged him to find mechanical reasons for not letting the plane take off. The pilot said that the plane was in good condition and that it would be difficult to delay particularly at this late stage when the plane was beginning to warm up its engines for takeoff. He said he would try however to find a credible excuse but doubted he would be able to do so. The pilot returned to the plane and unfortunately after some further delay took off for Mexico.

While this effort was being made by Mr. Macomber in Haiti, Ambassador Armin Meyer in Washington, at the direction of Secretary Rogers, was making a similar effort with the operating head of Air Haiti who was in Miami, and who also had communication with the pilot at the airport in Port-au-Prince.

The Haitian Government ultimately decided to pay a ransom of U.S. $70,000 in lieu of the U.S. $500,000 demanded by the terrorists. At the time the question of ransom was under discussion, the Mexican Ambassador gave assurances that any ransom paid would be confis[Page 1023]cated by the Mexican Government upon arrival and returned to the Government of Haiti.

The Air Haiti plane with the released prisoners and the terrorists flew to Mexico City, where the Mexican Government placed the Haitians in custody and confiscated the ransom.

Since then, we have been in active, high-level contact with the Mexican Ambassador here and also with the Mexican Foreign Minister urging that the ransom be returned promptly and the onward travel to a safe haven of the terrorist group (especially the three who held guns at the American Ambassador’s head for 17 hours) not be facilitated by the Mexican Government. We have had information that the Government of Mexico was anxious to get rid of these people and in order to do so was prepared to allow their onward travel to Chile. Following our démarches, however, the government has held up making a decision for the time being on the fifteen Haitians remaining in Mexican custody.

The Mexican Government had also today formally returned the ransom money to the Government of Haiti.

Theodore L. Eliot, Jr.
  1. Summary: The Department reviewed the circumstances surrounding Ambassador Knox’s release after being held hostage in Haiti, emphasizing that U.S. officials had sought to bring about an outcome that would discourage similar incidents in the future.

    Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files, 1970–1973, POL 23–9 HAI. No classification marking. Drafted by Macomber. In telegram 14530 to Mexico, January 24, the Department instructed the Embassy to express the United States Government’s appreciation for Mexican assistance in securing Knox’s release and its hope that the Mexican Government would ensure the kidnappers were brought to justice. (Ibid.) In telegram 19510 to Mexico, February 1, the Department reported that the Mexican Government would allow the Haitian terrorists to proceed to a third country, probably Chile, despite the United States Government’s expressed desire to see the hostage-takers prosecuted. (Ibid.)