On the evening of December 1, 1980, Ambassador Robert E. White and his wife Mary Anne hosted Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan for dinner. Kazel and Donovan were in El Salvador ministering to the poor. White was there trying to stave off revolution by holding together a fragile civilian government under attack from both left and right. The women criticized US policy for supporting a government whose security forces routinely murdered unarmed opponents. White defended it as better than the alternatives. That was the last time Bob White saw the women alive.
The following day, they went to the airport to pick up their coworkers, Maryknoll sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke. On the way home the four were stopped by a squad from the Salvadoran National Guard, notorious for its brutality. Acting on "orders from higher up," according to one of the enlisted men, the soldiers raped and murdered the women, leaving their bodies on the side of the road where peasants found them the next morning and buried them in a shallow grave. When Ambassador White heard that the women were missing, he feared the worst. He was there when their battered bodies were exhumed, and his anger was palpable. "This time, the bastards won't get away with it," he vowed.
White had come to El Salvador as US ambassador nine months earlier on emergency assignment to lead Washington's desperate attempt to halt the country's descent into chaos and civil war. Within the Foreign Service he was known as an outspoken advocate of human rights and social justice. In 1976, he earned the wrath of Henry Kissinger for speaking out against Augusto Pinochet's human rights violations in Chile. Kissinger issued an official reprimand, but backed down when White threatened to resign. As ambassador to Paraguay, White enthusiastically carried out President Jimmy Carter's human rights policy, meeting regularly with opposition leaders and pressuring the government to reform.
Arriving in San Salvador in March 1980, White found a weak civilian government with no control over its own security forces. The military, in league with death squads of the paramilitary right, was murdering suspected opponents by the hundreds. On the left, a coalition of Marxist guerrilla groups was extending its control over widening swaths of the countryside.
Washington's strategy was to rebuild the vanishing political center by ending the military's abuses, pursuing social and economic reforms, and opening a dialogue with the civilian left. To the far right, this amounted to appeasing communism; to the radical left, it looked like an attempt to consolidate the status quo with little more than cosmetic changes. During White's tenure, the guerrillas attacked his embassy with rocket propelled grenades and the paramilitary right racked the compound with machine gun fire.
Despite the near-impossibility of his mission, White was implacable. He resisted the Pentagon's push to restore military aid and he held the government together by warning the military that Washington would not tolerate a rightist coup. He opened a quiet dialogue with the civilian left in hopes of brokering negotiations to widen the popular base of the government. That hope was dashed in November 1980 when a death squad organized and protected by government security forces kidnapped the top leaders of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of trade unions and popular organizations. Their tortured and mutilated bodies were found the next day. "Who am I going to talk to now?" White asked plaintively.