The use of the term “war” is arguably misguided; “wars” in the traditional sense are fought between two opposing sides for hegemonic gain. The events that transpired in Argentina were not over territorial conflict, nor were they an example of symmetrical warfare. The Dirty War was a single-sided campaign, a desperate grip on political control which determined the lives of the Argentine people between 1976 and 1983. The junta, or military ruling group, was set on extinguishing leftist sentiment and eliminating any trace of leftist forces throughout the state by arresting and executing political enemies. Although many Americans consider these events to be the result of the Cold War, they tell a story of annihilation, suppression, and grief at the hands of the junta.
In 1976, Isabel Perón served as the de facto leader of Argentina following the abrupt passing of her husband, Juan Perón. Much of the public questioned her legitimacy, however, and military officials seized the opportunity to take control of the Argentinian government. On March 24, 1976, a military regime, headed by Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, and Brigadier-General Orlando Ramón Agosti, officially rose to power. That very morning, a chilling message was broadcast on national TV and radio stations informing the Argentine people of the new government and the consequences of political dissidence. As the day continued, hundreds of unionists, workers, and political activists were abducted.
Over the next few years, the military junta dubbed itself the “National Reorganization Process,” and changed the ruling structure of Argentina as its citizens knew it. Throughout the length of the regime, approximately 30,000 people were tortured, abducted, and/or disappeared at the hands of the Argentinian government. Mass kidnappings became an integral part of the junta’s operations throughout the Dirty War, as the group systematically drugged, executed, or threw people out of planes over the South Atlantic.
Furthermore, the junta maintained a covert network of 340 concentration camps, in which political prisoners were subject to humiliating and dehumanizing conditions. Most of the junta’s targets were unionists, students, workers, and other individuals accused of holding ideologies different from those of the government. As the years passed, the harsh realities of the regime became increasingly exposed, and the junta began to target individuals who were responsible for bringing its Draconian tactics to light.
In 1983, the democratically elected government of Raúl Alfonsín took power, implementing swift action to oppose the junta regime. One of Alfonsín’s first acts was to organize the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, which was formed to investigate and address human rights violations committed during the Dirty War. The Commission heard hundreds of accounts from victims of the previous regime, and began to build cases against military officials. The Trial of the Juntas started in 1985, and although 300 people were prosecuted, justice for the victims came to a halt when the military threatened another coup and forcefully enacted the Full Stop Law in 1986. The new legislation provided justification for the majority of the crimes committed under the National Reorganization Process, and only two of the top Commanders were sentenced for crimes perpetrated during the Dirty War.
The fear of left-wing social activism by the junta government must be understood within the context of Argentina’s ideological history. Between 1946 and 1955, and again from 1973 to 1974, President Juan Perón served as the populist leader of Argentina, championing the rights of the common people and achieving a godlike status among the working classes. Today, many modern-day scholars recognize the fascist undertones of Perón’s leadership, noting his conspicuous admiration of Benito Mussolini and the regular use of violent and undemocratic tactics as tools for ideological repression. However, his influence inspired a movement called Peronism, which advocates for a socialist, working-class centric, political environment. Today, many Peronist politicians in Argentina run under the Justicalist party, which remains extremely popular.
At the time of the Dirty War, the populist ideals of Peronism were at their height in popularity, in the form of a widespread movement for social justice. Many left-wing Peronist sympathizers championed the rights of the underprivileged and working classes, which emerged as a challenge to the authority of the junta, and social justice movements occurring across the entire South American continent inspired domestic reformists to take action. As such, the hardlined actions of the military regime were motivated by a desire to suppress the socialist movement that was rapidly growing in power and prominence.
The true victims of the Dirty War were the approximately 30,000 Argentine people who had been abducted and massacred by the junta government, known throughout the state as the desaparecidos. The exact torture methods used varied across the hundreds of military-controlled concentration camps, but several common rules were established: prisoners were referred to using numbers or codes, prohibited from communicating with one another, and restricted from basic needs such as food, sleep, and sanitation. One of the largest and most inhumane detention centers at the time, the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada, was known to electrocute, drown, and remove the organs of its prisoners. Adolfo Scilingo, a navy captain convicted for crimes against humanity during the Dirty War, noted that the Argentinian concentration camps “did worse things than the Nazis.”
Perhaps none fought harder for the return of the desaparecidos than the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, an Argentinian human rights organization composed of women who had lost their children to the junta government. On April 30, 1977, they marched for the first time despite bans against public protests, drawing attention to the fact that the government had virtually erased the records of 30,000 citizens. As the movement grew, the women began to march weekly, drawing significant international attention; despite the claims by the junta that the movement was composed merely of madwomen, they continued to advocate for the lost lives of the abducted.
One factor of the Dirty War that raises important questions, and still remains shrouded in mystery today, is the entanglement between the Argentinian junta and the United States. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was reported to have known about the 1976 military coup in advance; according to released conversation transcriptions, Kissinger told Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti that if the Argentinian government were to commit human rights violations against leftist dissidents, swift action on the part of military officials was necessary. Kissinger’s statements were in line with the ideologies of Cold War era politics and the resolution of the United States to fight against communism.
For the United States presidential administrations of the era, fortifying the capitalist system meant opposing all socialist movements, even when their opponents were military dictators. Although the Peronist regime was more populist than socialist in practice, appealing to nationalist sentiments and engaging in widespread voter suppression, Juan Peron himself inspired widespread socialist thought that lasted into the junta era, and the American government did not want this thought to proliferate. Today, as documents detailing the history of United States involvement in South America are increasingly being released, Americans are beginning to process their country’s grim entanglement in state-sponsored terrorism.
As modern students of international affairs, our awareness of the events of the Argentinian Dirty War is more important now than ever. It is vital to understand the junta’s chilling legacy and its contextual placement in history, especially given the large-scale ideological struggles present during the Cold War. Today, as Cold War-esque relations emerge with the United States and China at the forefront, we as citizens of the world must be quick to note the drastic measures that either state may take in the name of capitalism or communism.
As our world becomes increasingly more globalized, especially in the dawn of the Biden Administration, we must use the history of US-Argentine ties to analyze the placement of these two states on the modern global stage and understand their various motivations in the happenings of world politics. An analytical perspective will allow us to consider the covert roles of foreign regimes in domestic affairs, and continue to hold countries such as the United States accountable.