74. Note From the Deputy Executive Secretary of State (Wisner) to Secretary of State Vance1

Mr. Vance:

The issue here2 is whether to take a new look at the enormous backlog of Argentine arms transfer3 cases, with a view toward making selected approvals as an explicit “carrot” for Argentine human rights reform and ratification of the Treaty of Tlatelolco.

Harold Brown has suggested in his letter to you that we do this.4 PM, S/P, ARA, and L agree with Brown’s suggestion and have identified certain categories of spare parts and safety equipment that they think we should approve. These approvals would be given to Argentina with a request for significant human rights reforms to be made before October 1 (the Congressional-mandated cut-off date for further sales to Argentina) and ratification of the Treaty of Tlatelolco before the SSOD. Argentina would be told that no further approvals could be made until these conditions were met.

H also agrees that we should make some approvals, but proposes an alternative method of deciding which to make. There is a “grandfather clause” in the Congressional cut-off legislation which would allow us to go forward with those cases where contracts or LOAs were signed before August 4, 1977. PM, ARA, S/P argue against this approach, because it would allow some large end-item cases to go, which they think should be held, and it would not allow some essential spare parts for items we have recently approved. They also suspect that the total dollar value of approvals made by the H-proposed method might be larger than the categories of cases they proposed for approval.

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HA is very much opposed to any approvals until Argentina has made meaningful human rights reforms. They have a considerable body of Congressional opinion on their side.

Harold Brown has also recommended that we approve training for some 68 Argentine officers. This has already been decided against within the Department,5 but not yet communicated to the Argentines. Opinion is split: one side argues that training is the last thing we should cut off, so long as those involved have not been guilty of human rights violations; the other side argues that training should be cut, at least for now, because of the domestic political controversy about human rights abuses by military officers.

The key consideration is whether our willingness to provide some of these spares as evidence of our continued interest in maintaining good relations with the Argentine military will indeed work to produce any “human rights” benefits in Argentina, or a more tractible Argentine position on nuclear non-proliferation. We have no firm evidence either way, except that they are moving very close to ratification of Tlatelolco right now.6

PM, ARA, S/P, and L believe that with time running out on military sales decisions, this “card” is worth playing. The Argentines may do nothing in which case they will have gotten much-needed spare parts without having to put up anything in advance. But their need for spare parts will continue and they will clearly be mortgaging any prospects for further approvals on our part if they show no response, a point we would make clearly to them in communicating our decision.

Because of the very intense domestic political interest in Argentine human rights abuses, we must be well prepared to explain the rationale behind and nature of approvals on these cases, should you make them. There is a question of whether to consult interested members of Congress before or after making the decision. At any rate, no decision should be announced until after the President’s trip.7

The recommendations are at pp. 6–8. This memo, although long, is the most concise statement yet produced of the issue and the various positions, and it is the only one that has proposed specific solutions. Whatever your decision, someone will be unhappy.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 27, Human Rights—Argentina II. No classification marking.
  2. Reference is to an undated paper entitled “Argentine Human Rights Strategy” that Lake sent to Christopher under a March 6 covering memorandum. Lake wrote that the paper “puts our human rights interests in Argentina in context with other major interests there, and briefly sketches all possible instruments of positive or negative leverage.” Lake noted that the memorandum “is not an action memorandum. Rather, it attempts to set an intellectual framework for subsequent decisions. It identifies broad areas of agreement on appropriate U.S. actions, and one important issue—what to do about the munitions control list—on which we differ.” (Ibid.)
  3. An unknown hand underlined the phrase “Argentine arms transfer.”
  4. Brown’s letter, dated March 17, is in the Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–81–0202, Records of the Secretary of Defense, 1978, Argentina.
  5. See footnote 9, Document 59.
  6. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XXVI, Arms Control, Document 431.
  7. Carter visited Venezuela, Brazil, Nigeria, and Liberia March 18–April 3, 1978.