76. Memorandum From Stephen Oxman of the Office of the Deputy Secretary of State to the Deputy Secretary of State (Christopher)1


  • Argentine Arms Transfer Cases

In view of the recent tragic reports out of Argentina,2 it is not clear that now is the appropriate moment to go ahead with any of the arms transfers which are the subject of the underlying Action Memorandum.3 Castro delivered the demarche on Monday4 concerning the nuns’ deaths. McAuliffe was with him which is good. (The cable reporting the demarche is attached at Tab A.)5 Videla’s response, while sympathetic, is like the responses he always gives, and it does not really change anything.

[Page 258]

Tab 1 of the Action Memorandum sets forth the various categories of cases which are being held up and makes recommendations as to which categories ought to be approved and which delayed.6 While I think some of the suggestions in Tab 1 are logical, I am afraid that by focusing too heavily on the particular cases and categories in question, we could lose sight of the forest.

The core issue in our relations with Argentina is whether we are going to see genuine human rights improvements, and I think we are really at something of a crossroads with respect to that issue. The trend over the last six months has been quite halting: modest improvements punctuated by major retrograde developments such as the murder of the nuns. With the arms embargo7 six months away, it seems to me the time has come for us to sit down with the Argentines and have a rather explicit discussion of the various ways things could develop over the next six months. I think we should explain to them that because of strong views both within the Administration and in the Congress, we are frankly not in a position to go ahead with the large number of arms transfer cases that has accumulated and that the only way to begin to break this logjam is for there to be substantial, authentic human rights improvements in Argentina.

Specifically, I think we should tell them that unless they curtail the irregular detention practices routinely used by the security forces, and begin to charge and try—or to release—those held under executive authority, we will be unable to approve most of these transfers. If there were solid steps in these directions, we would be prepared to be responsive in a “calibrated and sequential” fashion, but if there are only minor improvements, then the status quo will persist.

I am afraid that unless we make this type of approach—and instead simply approve certain categories of equipment and disapprove others—we will send a very mixed signal to the Argentines, provoke considerable confusion and criticism on the Hill, and most importantly, forfeit a good chance to cause human rights improvements in Argentina. When all is said and done, we have, through this backlog of cases, built up a very considerable amount of leverage over the Argentines, and I think it would be a pity to squander it. In general, it is preferable to avoid quid pro quo arrangements in the human rights context, but [Page 259] in this particular instance, given the gravity of the human rights problems and the strength of our leverage, I think it would be worth making an exception.

I have informally discussed my suggested approach with Frank McNeil, and he thinks it is promising.8 A recent cable from the Embassy (Tab B)9 suggests that an approach of this kind would complement domestic pressures building in Argentina for the same types of improvements I have mentioned above. (What I am suggesting is in a sense a variation of the HA suggestion set forth at pages 3–4 of the Action Memorandum.)10 If the course I have suggested seems too problematic, then I would make the following recommendations:

—Categories I.C. and I.D.11 (listed at Tab 1) should be approved. (Indeed, I.D. should perhaps be approved right away, irrespective of my suggested approach. Perhaps the same is true of I.C., but I am less sure.)

—Category I.A.12 should be approved after a month or so.

—Category I.B. (spare parts), which is the big ticket item in this whole package, should be approved in stages over the next few months.

—Category II should be held in part and disapproved in part. (The items in II.B. are probably the best candidates for disapproval.)13

[Page 260]

—Training should be disapproved.

—Congress should be informed as we take the foregoing steps.

Finally, Lucy says in her covering memo that she is asking DOD to give us an accounting of the FMS “pipeline”.14 I see no particular problem with this, although it does single out Argentina, since we have not sought such an accounting for any other human rights problem country. (Note that the FMS “pipeline” is quite different from the “pipeline” referred to by H in the Action Memorandum. Indeed, H’s use of that term is sui generis and misleading. H uses “pipeline” to mean not only signed FMS contracts, which is what Lucy is asking DOD about, and Category I.C. but also any application for an export license or an FMS contract that was received prior to August 4, 1977, the day the Kennedy embargo was enacted. I see no rationale for claiming that applications which we have never acted upon are in any kind of “pipeline”. I think Kennedy’s office simply told H that they could live with such a formulation, and H has dubbed it “pipeline”.)

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 27, Human Rights—Argentina III. No classification marking.
  2. See Document 75.
  3. Reference is to an eight-page action memorandum entitled “Argentine Arms Transfer Case,” dated March 24, from Gelb and Todman to Vance. (National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 13, Human Rights—Argentina IV) No decision is marked on the memorandum.
  4. April 10.
  5. See footnote 6, Document 75.
  6. The four categories recommended for approval were “safety and safety related equipment,” “spare parts and support equipment for items previously supplied by the U.S.,” “items previously approved for sale or financing,” and “items destined for non-governmental users.” The three categories recommended for delay were “promotional activities,” “armaments and accessories” related to lethal equipment, and “other exports or sales not previously approved.” See footnote 3 above.
  7. Reference is to the ban on U.S. arms transfers to Argentina as specified by the Kennedy-Humphrey Amendment. See footnote 5, Document 60.
  8. In an undated note to Oxman, Christopher wrote: “Please prepare a decision, in conjunction with McNeil, in accordance with your recommendation. Establish a role for the military in your program. Training should be an important element.” (National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 27, Human Rights—Argentina III) See Document 77.
  9. Not attached. Reference presumably is to telegram 2234 from Buenos Aires, March 28, in which the Embassy reported: “With the publication of the final lists of prisoners held by the executive under the state of siege power, many in Argentina and abroad will have to face the likelihood that missing friends and relatives must be presumed dead. This will create some political pressures within Argentina, but likely will not have a major domestic political impact. It will also generate pressures and campaigns seeking to force the GOA to render an accounting for the missing. This situation raises the question for the USG of how to react. The Embassy recommends that the USG should concentrate its efforts on the opportunities created for continued progress toward return to the rule of law. While not condoning or pardoning the GOA for its part in the disappearances, we should avoid endorsing demands for an accounting.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780135–0419)
  10. The Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs noted that it was “agreeable to sending a team of officers to support a diplomatic demarche with specific requests that the Argentine Government release or bring to public trial all political detainees, account for all disappeared persons and demonstrate effective control of the presently completely uncontrolled and competing security forces.”
  11. “Items previously approved for sale or financing,” and “items destined for non-governmental users.”
  12. “Safety and safety related equipment.”
  13. For the categories recommended for delay, see footnote 5 above. Category II.B. was “armament and accessories, such as bomb racks and sights, directly related to the lethal capabilities of equipment previously supplied or approved.”
  14. In a March 27 memorandum to Vance, Benson wrote: “This morning I called a meeting of the principals involved” in the question of arms transfers to Argentina, and “no real consensus developed out of that meeting but the basic issues that divide the various bureaus did become crystal clear.” She recommended “that you approve the pipeline cases in principle, recognizing that we lack a full accounting from DOD of what exactly is in the FMS pipeline (we have a fairly good handle on the commercial pipeline).” (National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Deputy Secretary: Records of Warren Christopher, 1977–1980, Lot 81D113, Box 13, Human Rights—Argentina IV)