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.
White blamed the surge in death squad killings on loose talk by Ronald Reagan's transition team, some of whom were telling the far-right that Reagan would repudiate Carter's human rights policy and give them the military aid they needed to defeat the communists. White publicly accused the Reagan people of "malice and stupidity," making it harder for him to carry out US policy. No one was surprised when Reagan's Secretary of State Al Haig removed White from his post a week after inauguration. Back in Washington, White testified before Congress and minced no words about the murderous nature of the government the Reagan administration was preparing to back with a large infusion of military aid and advisers. Nor would he pretend that the Salvadoran government was conducting a serious investigation into the churchwomen's murders. Shortly after White's testimony, Haig sacked him from the Foreign Service.
For the next decade, as the war in El Salvador escalated, claiming the lives of 80,000 civilians, White spoke and wrote tirelessly in support of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. When, in 1992, the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) and the government led by the far-right Republican National Alliance (ARENA) finally signed a peace accord, the terms were much like those that White had hoped to broker in 1980. The left laid down its arms to participate in a new, democratic political system; the security forces responsible for so many civilian deaths were abolished, replaced by civilian police; and the armed forces were purged of senior officers guilty of the worst abuses.
Even after the war came to an end, Bob White worked with human rights activists and the families of the churchwomen to hold the perpetrators of El Salvador's atrocities accountable. In 1984, five low-ranking National Guardsmen were convicted of the women's murders, but the investigation stopped there. In 2000, White testified in civil suits brought by the families and other victims against retired generals Guillermo García and Eugenio Vides Casanova, both of whom had settled in the United States after the war. García was minister of defense in 1980 when the women were killed and Vides was commander of the National Guard.
Since 2011, President Obama's Department of Homeland Security has sought to have García and Vides Casanova deported for their role in human rights abuses during the war, and once again Bob White provided critical testimony. "He testified in trial after trial," recalled political scientist Terry Karl, who also worked on the trials. "Through his efforts…we learned who was responsible for the murders of four American churchwomen in 1980; we learned about death squads, torture, and mass killings."
In 2012, Judge James Grimm found Vides Casanova complicit in the killing of the churchwomen, and in 2014, Judge Michael C. Horn found García guilty of blocking the investigation of the murders.
Ambassador Robert E. White passed away on January 13, 2015, having lived a life of integrity dedicated to human rights and the pursuit of justice. In the end, he was true to his word; he didn't let the bastards get away with it.