“Bob is my hero,” said F. Allen “Tex” Harris, three times, to ensure the message got across.
Harris, a mid-level U.S. diplomat, arrived in Buenos Aires in July 1977, and the focus of American diplomats was on Argentina’s and Brazil’s clandestine nuclear programs, he said.
“The Number 1 issue was getting the Argentines and the Brazilians to sign the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which created a nuclear-free zone in Latin America,” Harris said. “But then Jimmy Carter got elected president and that was a game-changer.”
U.S. foreign policy underwent a huge shift for three main reasons, Harris said. The CIA-backed military coup in Chile, which ousted Socialist President Salvador Allende; the fall of Saigon, which soured American support for anti-Communist dictators; and the Watergate scandal, which helped usher into Congress a group of liberal, anti-interventionist lawmakers.
Taken together, these developments served to tie the hands of diplomats abroad, including Harris and his colleagues, who found themselves embroiled in conflict.
“When I joined the Foreign Service, the issue of internal events in another country were off limits to American interests and representations,” Harris said. “We might report on them but not represent local citizens, unless they were Americans.”
After the Argentine military had decided to overthrow “the feckless, corrupt, astrology-led government of Juan Peron and his successor (second wife Isabel),” it hired French consultants who had helped fight pro-independence Algerians and developed an anti-terrorism doctrine, Harris explained.
“They were charged not only with defending Argentina’s borders, but also defending the values of Western civilization: Catholic, capitalist civilization,” Harris said. “They described what they were doing as the first battle of World War III. The problem was they changed their doctrine.”
They quickly ran out of terrorists, who fled the country or bit into a cyanide capsule and died, or were killed in confrontations with the military.
“So they decided that, based on a cancer model, in order to defeat godless communism and terrorism, they had to cut out not only the infected cancerous tumors, but they had to carve out the surrounding supportive tissue in Argentine society.”
That’s when the government started killing Catholic priests who subscribed to Liberation Theology, union leaders, intellectuals and student leaders.
Argentines were profoundly fearful. Many expected to be kidnapped at any time by government militias; others worried they could become targets if they spoke out.
La Opinion’s editor, Jacobo Timerman, was abducted in 1977, imprisoned and tortured, eventually gaining his release but subjected to ongoing house arrest because, among other accusations, he was a self-proclaimed Zionist.
“This was the world that Bob Cox was working in,” Harris said. It was a world in which a newspaper editor was particularly vulnerable.
Nevertheless, Cox continued to publish lists of the missing, condemnations of the violence, the personal stories of bereft mothers and strongly worded editorials (which appeared in both English and Spanish).
“A lot of those (editorials) referenced carefully, artfully, the horrors of what happened in the Dirty War,” Harris said.