Skip to main content

by Earl H. Lubensky

The author, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, offers up several reasons why he doubts that U. S. military advisory and assistance programs in Latin America serve U. S. interests. As a retired army reserve lieutenant colonel, as well, he brings a special perspective to the question.Ed.

“On earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).

Peace has been the hope and the battle cry of humankind at least since early Biblical times. In the earliest days of the evolution of the human species, peace may have reigned. When land was abundant and population was sparse, when the Bible exhorted humankind to go out and replenish the earth (Genesis 1:28), disputes over exploitation of territory and settlement of boundaries may have been resolved among primitive bands without human slaughter or bloodshed. With peaceful settlement of disputes in these early times humankind’s first profession, that of diplomacy, was born.

As Whiteman’s Digest of International Law (1973, Vol. 15) indexed, peace may be but the end of war. War itself has much more been the “battle cry” of humankind than peace. Von Moltke called war “a necessary part of God’s arrangement for the world.” Alexander and Julius Caesar must have thought in those terms. But it must have been learned early that an ancient diplomat negotiating hunting territory with a neighbor had also to carry a club or spear in the event of violent action of an adversary, when “God’s arrangement” of war for the world became manifest. When the tribal chief, intent on negotiating the territory his band or tribe needed or wanted, brought along an accomplice to carry the club, the profession of warrior or soldier was born. Peace or victory through use of arms, through coercion, oppression and violence, including death to the enemy, became characteristic of the military profession.

Thus, there developed an early division of labor in society, a dichotomy of the two professions, an essential difference between the associated mind-sets, between diplomat and warrior. This dichotomy became a necessary condition of civilization between these two very early professions of humankind and remained the rule throughout all human existence up to modern times, even up to today!

International law, in effect codifying accepted rules of conduct for warfare and of diplomatic and military relations among nations, developed around this dichotomy. Reams have been written illustrating the evolution of agreement over the rules of warfare and peaceful settlement of disputes, along with the machinery required or used. (Marjorie M. Whiteman in her Digest of International Law, Department of State Publication, 1973, utilized at least four of her fifteen volumes on the subjects related to peace and war.) Early among these efforts at codifying the rules of warfare were the Geneva Conventions of 1864 (adopted by thirty-two governments) and those of 1868. The Lieber code, inspired by President Lincoln and published by the War Department in 1863 during the Civil War, influenced the Brussels Convention of 1874 and the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.

Before these and subsequent actions, conduct of war was more chaotic than later, and was left to the reckless pursuit of victory by different military commanders and political leaders without any consistent rules for treatment of prisoners, civilians or the wounded in battle. Violations of these rules and commission of cruelties in a much grosser way, such as genocide and ethnic cleansing, have since continued, however, proving that peace has come only slightly nearer to being achieved, and that warfare, though somewhat more regularized, must indeed be “a necessary part of God’s arrangement.” At the opening of the twenty-first century we proceed with the hope, or determination, that this is not so!

Indeed there has been evolution reflecting changes and mixes in the opposing diplomatic and military concepts and even in the regulation of the conduct of war and of keeping the peace. Long ago, we already found diplomats negotiating not only peace, but using threats of war and actual military action as tools of diplomacy.

Gunboat diplomacy was a common practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Late in the twentieth century, American diplomats promoted observance of human rights abroad while enlisting the military to enforce those rights, in the recognition that it may take military strength acting in a police role, at least as a deterrent, effectively to enforce observance of human rights and promotion of peace!

The military has been involved since World War II in promoting peaceful enterprises such as “civic action,” especially in Latin America, presumably enhancing the economic development programs of civilian agencies. They have been asked to perform police functions in control of political disturbances and civic violence, even nonviolent demonstrations, as a function of peacekeeping policies.

The acculturation process in the early days of warfare was significant when the victor occupied land and ruled over the lives of the vanquished people, dramatically changing their cultures and societies. But also serving the acculturation process, diplomacy became an important mechanism of cultural change. We have hoped always for the better, but such was not always the case. Much depended on the cultural values of the donor society. We have felt American values were high and could and should carry out military and economic assistance and advisory programs in the post-World War II period in our own interest as well as that of the recipient country. But earlier, the history of U. S. military (Marine) occupation of Caribbean and Central American countries in the early twentieth century, for instance, was not so exemplary.

It must be realized, as many do not, that policy direction, in democracies, must come from the highest level of civilian government. Diplomats, other civil servants, and the military must obey that direction. And the leaders of civilian governments must be able deftly to join the requirements and objectives of the two professional concepts of diplomacy and the military in the overall national interests of their people. Even in the United States this practice often has been observed in the breach, while the military unless reined in tends to go off on its own to pursue its own objectives, generally believing them to be in the national interest. Those objectives coincided in World War II between political leadership on the one hand and the diplomatic and the military on the other. They were often at odds in the Korean War and in Vietnam, but again coincided, I believe, in the Gulf War. In the Korean War, President Truman provided the leadership; in the Vietnam conflict that leadership was lacking.

In my own experience as a Foreign Service officer, serving as counselor of embassies in Quito, Ecuador; Bogota, Colombia; and San Salvador, El Salvador; during the period from 1961 to 1978, I found it often difficult for military officers serving abroad, whether in military advisory and assistance groups or as defense attaches, to serve both the U. S. national objectives of internal security in other countries and observance of human rights in those countries. In some Latin American countries they may still coincide, for example in Colombia where insurgency involvement in drug traffic has become paramount. In other countries, for instance El Salvador, observance of human rights has been a paramount concern.

President Kennedy instituted in 1961, when he took office, a program for internal defense planning involving extensive advisory as well as material assistance to potentially threatened countries in Latin America. Castro had just taken over in Cuba, and expansion of his revolution was considered an outright Cold War threat to stability and democracy in Latin America. Since this adjustment in political strategy coincided with practices already pursued in the post-World War II Cold War, the U. S. military quickly accepted the challenge. Defeat of insurgency became a prime U. S. policy objective both for the diplomats and the military. We, the military and the diplomats, were all Cold Warriors. Establishment of military advisory and assistance groups, and extensive and intensive training programs in country, in the Canal Zone, and in the continental United States were the tools of U. S. policy for combating insurgency in Latin America. There was the belief or at least feeling that the laws of warfare were for wars between nation states and did not apply to internal conflicts or civil strife, thus tactically anything was acceptable as internationally legal measures. Economic development to alleviate poverty and discontent was an important part of the picture.

From 1961 to 1966, during my years as political counselor in Ecuador, the problem at first was ineffective civilian government leadership, typical of the political history of Ecuador. First, to maintain a semblance of constitutionality, the elected president (Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra) was removed from office in 1961, and his elected vice president was placed in office in a “constitutional coup.” This president then became intolerable and an embarrassment as an alcoholic. Some members of both the Ecuadorian and U. S. militaries also believed he had communist tendencies. My close personal experience with the new president convinced me he was not a communist. My relationship with U. S. military personnel indicated to me, however, that the Ecuadorian military was at least emotionally supported by some U. S. military personnel in this belief. The U. S. ambassador at that time ordered U. S. military personnel not to encourage military action, and U. S. personnel thus were inhibited from active involvement. Nevertheless, the result was a military coup, which resulted in the establishment of a military junta to govern Ecuador. Communism and a related insurgency movement, which Castro could take advantage of, were indeed the enemies. The U. S. military shared with political direction from Washington and with U. S. diplomats abroad this sense of and concern over the threat, which was countered with an active U. S. military advisory and assistance program.

Over the years of Ecuadorian independence, the government in control, except for several periods of prolonged authoritarian rule and at times of enlightened rule (Galo Plaza), shifted back and forth from the caudillo (in later years, Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra, five-time president, four by election) to a military junta or dictator. Each stayed in power until the corruption, graft and inefficiency became intolerable, then change to the other took place. An objective, especially for me as political counselor, was what was called “political development.” We developed close relations with political leaders, especially young upcoming leaders, and encouraged them to maintain their political parties viability and to keep them ready again to lead their country when caudillo and military governments came to an end. Although the Ecuadorian government is again in crisis today, there has been up to now a long period, since about 1974, of democratically elected civilian government. How the crisis may be resolved, especially with the indigenous Indian community in protest, remains to be seen.

In Colombia, the local military suffered the threat of at least four different insurgency movements over the years, all with communist and extreme leftist tendencies (Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, and other). Colombia’s history was one of prolonged military dictatorships (e.g., that of Rojas Pinilla in the 1950s) with a long period of severe violence (la violencia) after World War II between liberal and conservative political factions. An uneasy peace was brought about in the 1960s through a negotiated settlement providing for alternate periods of rule between the Conservatives and Liberals. All four insurgencies continued, however, and still exist today in even more vicious forms, with greater intensity of drug traffic centering in Colombia and often, it is said, involving corrupt underpaid Colombia military, as well as insurgents. All of the millions of dollars of U. S. assistance during those thirty years proved useless in my mind, indicating an inefficiency and lack of effectiveness on the part of the Colombian military and of U. S. advice and assistance.

El Salvador was a more severe case of military abuse of power. In 1931 an Indian uprising in the Izalco region was presumed by the Salvadorian military to be communist inspired. The uprising was put down brutally, almost completely eliminating the last vestige of Indian culture in that country. Others took over. To prevent recurrence of this “communist” threat, the military, at least until the 1980s, maintained power through manipulation of the constitutional process, creating the appearance, though transparent, of a persistent democratic process. The reality was a military dictatorship for at least fifty years with the presidential office filled by a “retired” military officer selected by the military establishment. Insurgency was a constant threat to the government, which held it under control through brutal use of force, terror and oppression.

The U. S. military and advisory group provided not only “advice” but also considerable military hardware over the years. When I was assigned there in 1976 as counselor of embassy (deputy chief of mission), I was complimented for getting a post in a peaceful country “100 percent with the United States.” The CIA station had been abolished as no longer needed. When I arrived as chargé d’affaires I recommended it be reinstated to give the embassy capability mainly to learn what threats might be planned by the insurgency against the embassy or its personnel, of course also to penetrate the insurgency to observe and perhaps to influence them adversely. The attitude in the State Department, to my astonishment, was that we should seek such information from the Salvadorian military, which surely knew precisely what the insurgency was planning. After the CIA station was reinstated, the embassy economic counselor was targeted by an insurgency group, and we removed him and his wife from the country in twenty-four hours.

Washington authorities insisted that communist insurgency was completely under control in El Salvador by an effective and efficient joint U. S. -Salvadorian military counter-insurgency program. In pursuit of this program the Salvadorian military government carried out an array of human rights violations, such as night seizures, execution and dumping of bodies by air into the Pacific Ocean, torture of prisoners and detainees, and imprisonment and punishment without due process. The Salvadorian police agencies (Guardia Civil and Treasury Police) were completely under the control of the military and were manned at least at top levels by assigned military personnel. They were equally or even more severely guilty of such human rights violations than the military establishment itself. The so-called fourteen “oligarch” families (actually there were many more than fourteen) were closely allied with the military and military-controlled police agencies and participated in the active “death squads,” and “did in” those considered a threat to land tenure, agricultural production, and “peace” in El Salvador.

This was in 1976 before the newly inaugurated U. S. President Jimmy Carter adopted a vigorous policy of promotion of human rights abroad. El Salvador was considered a prime target. This policy was promoted and pushed by the ambassador, by me especially during a long period (about seven months) serving as chargé d’affaires in 1977 during the absence of a U. S. ambassador, and by the political counselor (William Walker, who later was assigned in the 1980s as ambassador to El Salvador). U. S. military officers (with one or two exceptions in silent protest) serving in El Salvador during 1976 through 1978 continued to pursue counter-insurgency as their principal and overriding objective for the government and the military of El Salvador.

A visiting general from the United States in his contact with the Salvadorian military, according to reliable information I had received, called the U. S. human rights policy a “passing thing.” He was said to have urged continuation of the same measures (e.g., of torture, terror, and assassination, but possibly not directly in these words) that had been so effective, according to both militaries, in quelling or at least controlling the insurgency threat in El Salvador. Another military officer warned me, as I remember his words, probably paraphrased, that we would “rue the day we attempted to push human rights observance down the throats of Salvadorian military, when one day El Salvador would become a communist state allied with Castro Cuba.” Another U. S. military officer took to a “back channel” to complain to his superiors (intentionally without my knowledge as chargé) that our vigorous pursuit of human rights observance was a threat to the U. S. military pursuit of counter-insurgency measures with the Salvadorian government and military.End.


Earl Lubensky
Earl Lubensky

Earl Lubensky, a retired U. S. Foreign Service officer, is also retired from the U. S. Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. Among his posts as a senior American diplomat were assignments in Germany, the Philippines, Spain, Ecuador, Colombia, and El Salvador. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and the U. S. National War College.


Comments are closed.