Golpe de Argentina

LHD-5 Buenos Aires, Argentina July 5, 1966

Arturo Illia stood small in the center of the office that was as big, well, as big as a barracks. He picked up a handful of the evening press -- the front pages choked with words like “Ultimatum” and “Military Demands” and the ever-increasing innuendo of “Golpe Imminent.”

On that Friday, June 17, the Argentine President told me the headlines were baseless, no coup d’etat threatened. “Here we have complete freedom of the press,” he said, “and now we have some excesses that re endangering the nation.”

Eleven days later, after the changing of the morning guard so that the presidential troops sworn to defend him would not be embarrassed, Illia was forced out of the pink-faced government house. The Casa Rosada had reason to blush. It was the seventh golpe de estado since 1930 and the depression-induced instability, which found such resonance in the fragmented Argentine social structure.

That last interview Illia was to offer the foreign press as President silhouetted three ingredients -- the stubborn and brave chief executive, the partly irresponsible national news media, and of course the military -- that would interact on June 28 to transform Argentina unprotestingly from an imperfect democracy into a perfect dictatorship.

Despite the calm acceptance, the crumpling of a constitution does not come simple in this big nation -- or nations, really, the 8 million people around this capital and the 14 million in the provinces. On June 28, eleven days before the 150th anniversary of Argentina’s independence, a hundred complexities were at hand to brew a coup. There was the legacy of an immigrant population which two generations ago found five foreign-born to every native (a high-ranking U.S. diplomat has said he could make no sense of Argentina until he read Barzoni’s The Italians and now he understands it completely. More people in Buenos Aires are of Italian descent than of Spanish). There were other entangling factors: the faulty federalism that always put the rower that counted in Buenos Aires; the richness of the camp, that magic topsoil meters thick which overfed most Argentines to the point that they now dislike merely being well fed; the pride in a capital with the world’s widest boulevard and largest park, and the bitter frustration when the phones fail to work and the peso falls behind and finally out of sight of the dollar. And there is the caudillo tradition, which in modern dress rode up through the decade of Juan Peron before 1955. The drift of the working-class Peronists in a society with higher pretensions is perhaps the greatest complexity, which can only be alluded to here for lack of space, or understanding on the part of the writer.

But the remarkable fact was that in the surface events of the golpe days, the Peronists were as docile as the pensioners on the benches of the Plaza San Martin. The actors those days were the military; their quarry, the President; and the press.

The Military

Ten days before the fateful Monday night and Tuesday morning one could still foresee the coup fever passing. The headlines seemed an attempt to titillate the public rather than a response to the national mood. Newsstands weren’t selling out and the barroom conversation was more on soccer football than on the political score.

That morning Robert Cox, a British newsman resident in Buenos Aires, and I arrived early at the Casa Rosada for an interview with Defense Minister Leopoldo Suarez. The minister had won a good reputation among the advocates of civil rule by helping to keep Illia one-up on the military during the first half of his six-year term.

A member of the cipher-clerk team that stands between all Latin American officials and their public was checking our credentials and asked if the political crisis had brought us. Yes, we said, and what was his appraisal? “The President will be overthrown,” he said. “I give him a week.”

The Defense Minister either was less well informed or less candid. He denied the allegation that the troop commanders had given the government a week to put forth its solutions to national problems. The military had already made clear what was bothering it: claimed Communist influence in the universities, an economic crisis in the sugar-producing northern province of Tucuman, and the inevitable Peronist victory if congressional and provincial elections were to be held freely March 30.

Suarez said that the government naturally was interested in the military point of view and therefore had asked for further exposition. In due time the President would meet the officers. True to its reputation for phlegmatic deliberation, the Illia government hoped to measure out the crisis in shot glasses until it disappeared.

One of the more golpista news magazines, Confirmado, wrote that when Suarez insisted there was no ultimatum despite all the evidence it had printed to the contrary, the editors submitted the case to psychologists. Their diagnosis was schizophrenia, said Confirmado. Such was the tenor of much of the campaign for military intervention.

Suarez’ appraisal of the armed forces which he nominally controlled was that the majority now was disinterestedly loyal to the government. True, the army commander tossed out his theoretical boss, the Secretary of the Army, every now and again. But that was a hangover from Peron’s introduction of the concept that the general outranked the secretary. Suarez said a little wistfully that the problem would be cleared up soon by legislation, which he claimed the commanders concurred in.

But events would soon prove what not many really doubted, that the most powerful and least fettered men here remain the commanders of troops -- the eight chiefs of division and their commander in chief. The navy and air force commanders, relatively less powerful, worked in concert with the army commander to remove Illia, though to be sure they counted on the support of the man they brought to the presidency the next day, retired Lt. Gen. Juan Carlos Ongania.

Ongania, 52, is a former army commander in chief. His departure from active duty had illustrated a variation on the theme of secretary-commander relations. Last December Illia had appointed a younger retired general as army secretary. The then-legalist Ongania took that as a slight, since the lower-ranking man supposedly would command him. Ongania retired in a huff. The first lines of Illia’s walking papers doubtless were filled in at that time.

But the army was then still recovering from a near disaster -- a division within its own ranks at the time of the 1962 ouster of President Arturo Frondizi. The spectacle of Argentine soldiers actually fighting for a change, and fighting each other, was traumatic enough, and it followed the indignity of having to crush a constitutional election that had brought Peronist victories in the provinces. The man who opted for constitutionality in the form that brought Illia’s election was Gen. Ongania. He won the U.S. Legion of Merit for it.

When talk of coup was heard again, many remembered these precedents and believed that the army would act only with the greatest reluctance, and only if it could be sure of unity. Ongania, the only general thought capable of commanding that unity was not saying anything or seeing anyone.

The Argentine version of the Pentagon is a high, huge and equally ugly building set close to the River Plate and looking down upon the Casa Rosada. During the nights before the coup there were few late lights at the headquarters, and the golpistas said this was because the plans long since had been drawn up and needed only a signal. In retrospect it became fairly clear that this was so, although such details, as selection by the military of their government had not been completed. So coldly had the military calculated and so confidently that a representative actually leaked to a news agency, under the most secret circumstances, a timetable of the coup to afford better coverage. The execution was precise and uneventful.

On Sunday, June 27, the excuse came to act, apparently a little earlier than planned. The one troop commander whose allegiance to Ongania was doubted, the commander of the second army based north of the capital, was arrested by fellow officers who said he had met with Peronists. The assumption was that he was trying to rally support for the Illia government.

The next day the army commander in chief, Lt. Gen. Pascual Pistarini, dismissed the errant second army commander. Illia went into emergency consultations in. the Casa Rosada Monday night and the Army set in motion the plan golpe. Apparently some lieutenant down the line had even printed up a statement saying the President had tendered his resignation. He had not. With the tanks rumbling about and booted soldiers on bootless missions to secure all stations against an ephemeral enemy, the golpe produced its sole hero -- its principal victim. At that crucial hour President Illia dared to dismiss the army commander in chief, Gen. Pistarini. The only equivalent in the United States might be if the army chief of staff tried to dismiss President Johnson.

At 1:50 Tuesday morning, an hour after Illia’s announcement, Gen. Pistarini rejected the President’s effort as “totally lacking in value.”

And so it was. In the morning Illia was removed and the junta and later Ongania, after he was sworn in wearing civilian clothes, issued the startling proclamations that set the tone of the new government: the congress was abolished, the supreme court judges dismissed, political parties forbidden, provincial governors and legislatures removed.

A later decree said, “It is equally forbidden for all persons or groups of persons, whether organized or not, to carry out openly and publicly activities which constitute party politics, as well as the use of symbols, slogans, signs and all other significant indications which constitute political action.”

To date the only reported opp6sitiot voiced here to all this was a statement the first day from the rector of the University of Buenos Aires asking students and professors “to keep alive the spirit that will allow as soon as possible the reestablishment of democracy”; a condemnation five days later by the lawyers’ association of the supreme court dismissal; a critical statement by Illia’s retiring party, and eventually Illia’s own words.

What occurred proved the corollary to the power of troop commanders -- in the fragmented Argentine society the one faction the others will not challenge, and will even turn to, is the military. This seems to be independent of the officer corps’ virtues. These men have not proven themselves in either business or politics, although they have dabbled extensively in both (the military operates the steel industry and generals, retired after 20 years’ service or some falling out, pepper the boards of many bigger corporations). Officers who are often of the middle class themselves often show disdain for the middle class, and repugnance for the laborers. But when this military took control, the press was clogged with statements of adhesion from such unlikely sources as the Peronists and the Confederation of Labor they control, along with countless employer groups.

In fact, despite the vaunted antipathy of the army for the Peronists, and the cashiering of the second army commander for being seen in a Peronist’s presence, the new government had made its own pact with the old dictator’s nominal followers. The terms were rumored to include an agreement by the Labor Confederation not to strike for any but economic reasons; some said strikes would be eliminated entirely for two years.

Whatever form the pact took, the Peronists and their General Confederation of Labor fell meekly into line. This, plus a seeming refusal on the part of the new leaders to make even a perfunctory bow in the direction of democracy, were the new elements in this year’s coup. Always in the past a few phrases were tossed to the civil libertarians as their rights were being prorogued. ‘But this time the military planners seem to have taken a position against this concession. There is not yet allusion to succession. The more fervent golpistas are talking of a ten-year reign.

If democracy has not been mentioned, Christianity keeps turning up in Ongania’s cryptic statements. The Catholic is the established church in Argentina. The archbishop lives in a state-provided house, with a stipend. The officer corps is described as a redoubt of Catholic conservativism, and the now leaders have made clear that civilians brought into the government will meet the same standard.

It is expected that civilians will be brought in broadly to soften the government’s military profile. At present the Casa Rosada is crowded with young officers. Often they are mustached and dashing and fit the caricature of the Latin golpista. Many have taken courses at U.S. training centers in the United States or Panama. Others have served time at the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington, during intervals of political disfavor here. Most profess admiration for the officers and professional standards encountered in the United States.

The issue of U.S. military assistance was certainly a factor in the coup, although few would grant it great importance. Last year civilian U.S. aid to Argentina ran close to $10 million, and military assistance was valued at $6.3 million.

Generals and admirals here apply two measures to hardware: its inflow must be equivalent to that provided their counterparts in Brazil, and the goods must in any case be modern enough to fit what most outsiders take to be a rather exaggerated concept of the grandeur of the services.

In the interview while he still held office, Defense Minister Suarez acknowledged a feeling among the generals that they were behind the Brazilians in acquisitions. This he laid to the fact that the U.S. assistance pact signing came late here, in 1964. But it was the navy that was most restless on this count. It had an aircraft carrier, but no modern planes to fly off it, and no catapults to launch them even if they could obtain the planes elsewhere. And to make matters worse, the U.S. military hardware peddlers who failed to render up carrier jets to the navy had at about the same time modified some seemingly ideal U.S. Navy surplus fighters for land-based use, and these they turned over to the Argentine air force.

Suarez implied that his job would have been a great deal easier if the United States had provided sufficient equipment complex enough to occupy the idle hands of his officer corps.

As the United States lingered over the question of recognition of the new government, there was sympathy among some U.S. embassy personnel here for keeping the military aid program in suspension. But few doubted that Argentina’s scarce dollars then would be spent in Europe for the tools of the country’s most celebrated tradesmen, the military. The elite that has the finest schools, the fanciest clubs and the trimmest polo green had now taken up responsibility for all the nation’s welfare. How they would fare at that undertaking was uncertain, but no one doubted that they would take care of their own.

The Former President

One of the things that many Argentines found disturbing about Arturo Illia, 65, was that he never offered a disturbance himself. He spoke rarely in public. He had no press secretary. He had no press following, really. Many admirers thought he was accomplishing through patience all that political realities would allow, but they nevertheless advised him to pay some attention to his image. It was probably with this in mind that he offered Cox and me one of his rather rare interviews in the evening of June 17. For well over an hour, while a visiting U.S. congressman waited in the hall, the President made a gradually more passioned defense of his dispassionate administration.

He offered an excitable nation neither charisma nor circuses, but a development plan and predictability. With the fondness that many an Argentine reserves for his wine or women or beefsteak, Illia cradled his hardbound copy of the national plan. His critics said the country was stagnant economically and they put the blame on him. His reply was the plan. “’Everything is in here, all the necessities of the country,” he said. “And we are progressing rapidly toward accomplishing our goals -- in a balanced way, not rushing off here and there. If they say we have accomplished nothing, I say compare statistics now with those in 1963.”

The figures bore the man out, with reasonable improvement in most sectors and occasionally marked progress, such as the slowed Pace of monetary expansion in the inflationary economy. The plan he took pride in held no great international reputation but it was considered a long way along from the preceding chaotic flux of economic development programming here. Many objective observers believe this is what Argentina needed. But there is little after his election in 1963 to indicate this is what Argentina wanted.

If they elected a white-haired father figure -- he was a former country doctor, as the U.S. press was so fond of noting they seem to have concluded that the father was too lackluster.

“I am not able to concern myself so much with the affairs of the day,” he said, ”but with the goals of tomorrow...there is all this talk of modernism. There is publicity, dealing with facts, and propaganda, dealing with image. It is a matter of money. We could purchase these things ... I have been before my people as party leader and chief of government more than any president of recent years.”

I hear the sound of soldiers, but none are passing by…

Primera Plana 6-14-66

Perhaps this was just the same stubbornness, which had kept him atop the bucking bronco three years, but he refused to acknowledge a true threat to his continuing. Told of the insubordination of the functionary in the government house that very morning, Illia was shocked. He later demanded an investigation that culminated in the firing of the clerk a few ironic hours before his Prediction came true.

Told that a North American news magazine had questioned the constitutionality of his government, Illia was incredulous. In fact, in the election that Illia won, the Peronists and Communists (still of little importance here) were not allowed to run candidates. But the proscription was constitutional. Peron sent word from Spain that his followers should cast blank ballots, and 18 per cent of the voters did. Illia’s party won with 27 per cent under a system of proportional representation that doled out offices among some 200 parties. Illia rightly pointed out in the interview that in a U.S.-style two-way race his percentage would have been far higher.

Nevertheless, no one forgot that Illia’s election was made possible by the sufferance of the military, who wanted a non-controversial civilian whose presidency would allow the army to return to barracks to clean up its image.

If Illia kept a precarious balance at home, he gradually was winning a measure of respect abroad, Chile’s President Eduardo Frei found Illia a good neighbor. They met often and are thought to have found much in common in Frei’s call for Revolution in Freedom and Illia’s more modest attempt to create what he called “a serious plan” for economic advance and social cohesion. Both believed in economic integration and fostered some trans-Andean test projects. U.S. Ambassador Edwin M. Martin felt that Illia and his Peoples Radical Party, after an inauspicious start had learned fast enough to become the one viable force in a sparse field.

But criticism came often from abroad as well, and Illia finally showed that some of it had stung. With a glint of anger in his sad eyes, he declared: “My critics cannot say that I haven’t defended the interests of my country, here or in the world.”

With that we left, and a few days later so did he. According to a published account of those last minutes, President Illia was defiant to the end, frustrating several tries by officers to have him leave voluntarily:

General: In order to avoid violence, I invite you again to leave the house.

Illia: Of what violence do you speak? It is you who are about to loose violence. In the Republic, I have preached peace throughout the country, and concord among Argentines; I have assured liberty, and you have not followed my sermon... You have brought much evil to the country, and you bring more with these acts. The country will always blame you for this usurpation, and I doubt that your own consciences can justify it.

Finally the officer in charge brought up some troops.

Illia: ...Many of you will be ashamed to obey the orders of unworthies who are not even your leaders. One day you will tell your sons of these moments. You will feel ashamed. Now as in the other tyranny, when they came to search us out of our houses, also at daybreak, one hears the same arguments...

Colonel: We will employ force.

Illia: It is the only way you have.

And with that Illia was guided out through a knot of tired newsmen, a few party supporters gathered in protest, and many soldiers on maneuver made disproportionately strong by the automatic weapons they lugged. The old man they were pledged to serve at that point asked for a taxi.

Illia was not taken to Ramon Garcia Island in the ‘River Plate, the usual fate of once presidents. He was allowed to live at the suburban home of Ricardo Illia, his brother. Soon Ricardo was arrested on charges of mishandling documents. Ricardo had also been a member of the official family and the arrest was taken as a warning to Illia not to cause trouble. He had promised a press statement but it was not issued.

A week after the coup I rode out to the end of the capital’s subway -- the clean, quick-running underground that redeems somewhat the Argentines’ notorious inability to run a railroad -- then took a taxi to the Illia refuge in Martinez. A policeman prevented traffic from turning into the street, which was indistinguishable from hundreds of other middle class streets that stretch out forever from Buenos Aires. It might have been New Jersey, but the street was strung with lemon trees instead of sycamores. A few sour newsmen still waited for the drama of escape or denunciation or violence, but all they saw was a thinning file of former cabinet or party officials and friends who signed the policeman’s register and entered to chat with the has-been.

Illia asked me in for his first post-coup interview with a newspaperman. Perhaps this was just because of indifference on the part of the press, perhaps because of pressure. In any case, at that time the former president understood the risks sufficiently that he asked not to be quoted directly. Then he gave a bitter account of the direction taken by those who replaced him.

They had, he said, replaced the republican form of government with a reversion to a sort of tribalism, with the military choosing among themselves a leader without providing for succession. It was no less than a military monarchy, he said, which in abolishing parties and parliament and elections had obliterated the representative governmental tradition. The old Politician from Cordoba Province lamented, too, the destruction of federalism through military takeover of provincial governments.

In our first encounter he had said that the military was evolving quickly into a corps loyal to its government. Now he referred to those who had struck him down as thieves in the night. On the Friday before the coup, he said, he received the commanders’ written pledge of loyalty, and he believed it.

I suggested that his antagonists might react strongly to such criticism but he seemed determined to say the things that no one else was saying, in public at least. He added that after a pause to prove he acted after the passion of the moment had subsided, he would speak frankly and at length directly to his countrymen. But for the present he had said enough. He would wait for the return of his wife from the United States, where she had under gone surgery. Then the two would decide where in Argentina they would remain.

The old man’s words had been so firm and self-righteous and thoroughly quixotic. I wondered then what could possess a society that, seeing its own rules tossed aside, could not even acknowledge the valor of the victim of that drastic change.

The Press

There remains the role of the press in this affair, the daily press that offered scarcely a phrase in defense of Illia after his fall or before it, the weekly press that in its majority hounded Illia to his disaster, and the foreign press which helped that cause if inadvertently.

Buenos Ares’ press reflects the irreconcilables often attributed to the city: it is at once aggressive and cowardly, sophisticated and small-time, proud of its traditions and sometimes ill-disposed to amplify them.

One tradition is the belief that La Prensa is one of the world’s foremost newspapers. In fact it is little more than the usual capital morning sheet of other Latin American capitals, dependent on the U.S. wire services for virtually all of its none-too-extensive foreign coverage. Its local reporting runs long but shows little evidence of focus. Its editorial page is difficult to read and hamstrung with the lingering trauma of its one great fight -- against Peron. His name is never mentioned, so t1h.fat when the page faces a Peronist issue the copy abounds with such circumlocutions as “the former dictator exiled in Spain.” La Prensa chose not to take a stand for or against either Illia or Ongania, although the latter dominated its news columns without benefit of critical editorial judgment.

La Nacion is the other daily nearly a century old and with an international reputation. It seems to have recovered from the suppression of Peron more effectively than La Prensa. But they share the same weaknesses. Unlike most of the papers, La Nacion dealt editorially with the coup in its edition the morning after. But the content did the paper no credit. It referred to Illia as an honest man, then in effect said that he got what he deserved because he was stubborn and lacked an understanding of tie Argentine reality; “In the last weeks, above all, when the country looked for an energetic turn toward execution of the necessary authority, instead of concrete acti3n one encountered from the lips of the ex-leader deluded exhortations to rally round a power that was ever less evident.” One looked in vain for any suggestion that the Argentine people themselves were culpable, or that the military had stepped out of bounds.

In content, vigor and readability, a newer morning paper, Clarin, leaves La Nacion and La Prensa decades in arrear. It not only covers the city, and recognizes the newsworthiness of the provinces, but it maintains a large staff around South America and overseas. It is a tabloid that has grown fat on ads without losing ingenuity. But during the crucial days of the golpe it dedicated the editorial rage to such transcendent issues as sheep raising. The silence finally was broken when the editor, in Europe, sent a multi-part editorial justifying the new regime as the nation’s last hope.

There are other morning papers of less importance plus a couple of inconsequential afternoons -- none offering noteworthy initiatives. The English-language Herald is in no position to take editorial strong stands.

Another layer of offerings decorates the kiosks of Buenos Aires -- the weekly news magazines. Two of these, Primera Plana and Confirmado, have for months outdone each other in a remarkable campaign for military takeover. Each is a slavish style and makeup mimic of Time and Newsweek. Their small staffs offer a soufflé of rewritten wire copy. Both are nationalistic to the point of chauvinism while exuding cosmopolite sophistication. Both have broken all bounds of subjective reporting in their plea for military salvation.

Confirmado actually predicted in its last issue of 1965 that Illia would fall to a golpe on July 1. So it missed only by 48 hours. Furthermore, the enabling act read by the new leaders read like the key paragraphs from any one of a dozen Confirmado cover stories on various generals over the past year.

The campaign began with a cover story interview last August with a snappy, still-young air force commodore, Juan Jose Guiraldes. He called for what he described as Argentina’s one modern sector, the military, to take over the historic task of realizing the nation’s misspent potential. After that story Guiraldes appeared in Confirmado’s masthead as director. With the golpe, he says his task has ended and he will retire from the directorship. Nor will he take a post in the new government if it is offered, he said, because he wants to make clear that personal ambition was not the motor of his campaign. On the night of the golpe, Guiraldes was at home with his seven children, watching “The Fugitive” on television.

Guiraldes’ formula for renovation is submersion of political activity by organized labor or other interest groups as well as by Parties. The interests would be brought together vertically under the central government that with its military efficiency would inspire high standards and increased national output, etc. It all has decided corporative overtones, but Guiraldes denies Fascist leanings.

How influential on, or symptomatic of, the ruling military’s thinking the ideas of Guiraldes will be, remains to be seen. He clearly holds many of the concepts already accepted, but he is looked upon by many golpistas as being without importance. The effect of his campaign, along with that of Primera Plana and another journal of called Atlanta, must surely have been great out of proportion to the combined circulation of probably 100,000. The trumpeting of the coup was accompanied by a merciless ridiculing of Illia personally, as well as fairly frequent swipes at U.S. Ambassador Martin for his “intervention” in speaking favorably of the seated government.

Among the more responsible news magazines is Analysis, which paradoxically was caught on the stands with an issue that said the golpe, had been averted.

There remains the foreign press and in particular the effect, difficult to measure but doubtless important, of two controversial pre-coup reports. An editorial in the New York Times of June 2 and two paragraphs from a report in Newsweek of June 20 received wide publicity in the golpe press and the more responsible dailies as well.

The Times editorial said Illia ran a do-nothing government. “The situation is steadily deteriorating, economically and politically,” it said. “This is why observers watch Dr. Illia with some anxiety, wondering if he will get through to the end of his term in 1969 or come a cropper.” It went on to cite some of the favorable economic indicators but then said, “these assets were more than nullified by an inflation of at least 30 percent in 1968 and an apparently higher rate thus far this year.”

The economic analysis is flatly contradicted by ranking economists of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, who say that the Argentine economic picture was brighter than for years, and brightening. The economic section of the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires drew roughly the same conclusions. And the Times appraisal is also disputed by the newspaper’s own correspondent here, Hy Maidenberg, who says that in his opinion “the economic situation was definitely better.” Maidenberg was a writer for the Times’ financial section before he came to South America.

Newsweek’s article was by Senior Editor Robert Christopher, just returned from a trip through Latin America. In a report on U.S. policy in the entire region he included the following:

“In Argentina, for example, Edwin M. Martin, the able U.S. Ambassador, is currently striving to forestall a military coup against the present regime on the ground that the U.S. ‘has traditionally supported...governments elected by democratic constitutional processes.”

“There are two flaws to this argument: one is that the constitutionality of the present Argentine Government is highly questionable; the other is that a military regime might, in fact, pave the way for restoration of something closer to truly representative government in Argentina...”

Confirmado ran an Associated Press dispatch from New York, which quoted all the relevant words from Christopher. The Argentine magazine also commented on Christopher’s stay in Buenos Aires and said that “After several long sessions of interviews and reporting, Robert Christopher was entertained, the last night of his stay in Argentina, with a dinner given by Commodore Juan Jose Guiraldes. Attending besides the director of Confirmado were Milan Kubic, correspondent of Newsweek in Latin America, an editor of Confirmado and a general of the Argentine Army.”

In his article, Christopher said that “24 hours after I arrived in Buenos Aires three prominent Argentines, including a senior military officer, spent an evening explaining to me why a military coup, might be desirable in their country.”

When first informed of the bent of Christopher’s article, Guiraldes congratulated himself aloud on his success.

Otherwise the foreign press pre-coup comment seemed unexceptionable. The Associated Press was thought by some resident newsmen to have written too forcefully the imminence of a coup. But events proved it out. Other correspondents came when the crisis welled, concluded in stories as late as June 26 that Illia would endure, and prepared to move on. In fact, had the golpe been delayed a day, the correspondents of the New York Times, Time and The Washington Post would have been aboard a plane for La Paz and the Bolivian election and they could not have got back for the story.

Buenos Aires papers did carry some wire service reports of unfavorable foreign reaction to the golpe. The New York Times and Washington Post carried dispatches from here questioning such aspects as alleged anti-semitic acts by the new government, but this material did not receive local echo.

With the Argentine press largely collaborating with the coup or accepting it uncritically, it fell to the newspapers of Uruguay and Chile to raise editorial questions and report disconcerting events. The Montevideo papers were often in adamant opposition, perhaps in part with an eye to the suggestion heard with fair frequency now that the Uruguayan democracy was sliding toward military takeover.

Santiago’s conservative Mercurio noted that the revolt “seems to have caused more concern in Chile than in the neighboring country.” Chilean papers generally blessed their national tradition of a lawful military and sharply condemned the Argentines’ act.

There are no reports of any press control by the new government, although Illia suggested that the awareness of a capacity for such control has silenced possible dissent. If there was no control, there was a striking similarity in the speed with which the Buenos Aires dailies responded to the new regime. This is even more surprising given the usual individualism among Argentines on any subject. At the least the domestic press would seem culpable for failing to raise such questions as the sanctity of institutions like the presidency, congress and the supreme court against disorderly change -- even if they believed, as one must conclude they did, that the disadvantages of such actions were outweighed by the potential benefits under the usurpers.

In its legitimate role of commentary and investigation the foreign press of necessity intervenes in internal affairs of nations, though the extent is always uncertain. It should be noted that the two reports that had probably the most effect here involved statements that were so controversial that the reader could expect more sustaining evidence than he was offered.

The awesome thing about the golpe de estado was that before it came the people talked about it so casually, and when it occurred scarcely anybody protested. In the chemical equation of nations one expects a surge of passions equal to the change being wrought. But in the winter days of Buenos Aires’ June no passion flamed. No shot was fired during the golpe and initially only three souls were arrested. The British Community took an ad in the Herald to advise all members that “the rally planned for Saturday next in the Plaza Britania, to pay homage to Argentina’s 150th Anniversary of its Independence, has been postponed.” An international education conference closed its texts and disbanded. Israeli President Zalman Shazar cancelled a state visit, and the banks shut one day.

Otherwise life was normal, except that the stock market bounded up and the gap narrowed between the official and the black market dollar rates. And a retired officer contended with pride that his identification card was no longer sufficient to buy off a traffic policeman.

The business community seemed to be solidly in support of the new faces. So were some foreign specialists in economic assistance who argued that the land was coming loose for lack of disciplined unity, which a charismatic military man could provide. This was the argument for justifying the military regime in Brazil. The analogy was not lost on the men under Ongania, who is about as charismatic as Gen. Castello Branco. They say the Brazilian was not firm enough at the outset and therefore the country’s rebirth is more painful and less sure. Thus the immediate dissolution here of congress and parties.

But there is real danger; it seems to me, in the reasoning that because Peronism and factionalism had stymied the political system, the country could be put aright by abolishing the system. The caliber of the new leaders will be gauged not by their audacity in trying to wipe the slate clean, but by their willingness to go back and deal effectively with old problems.

A major problem is integration of the Peronists. Right now they are saying that at least they presently have an equal footing with other parties -- all are proscribed. A military man says Peronists are a problem only when they can pull together in an election; in the Labor Confederation they cancel out each other’s factions. He thinks Peronism will be forgot in the surge of nationalism under strong leadership. There are doubts, though, if dissident groups can be melded under a leadership dedicated to denying the largest faction the voice that its number would justify.

One school has always believed that the way to integrate the Peronists would be to allow them the power they earn in votes in the hope that responsibility would mature the old “shirtless ones” into the sophisticates that other Argentines conceive themselves to be. Frondizi tried this and was thrown out by the military; Illia leaned in the same direction ever so slightly, while offering the assurance that he “would not allow this progressive country to shift back to 1955.” The most important reason for the coup probably was the military’s fear that in the March elections Illia would somehow allow Peronists to overcome legal impediments and elect one of their own to the second-ranking civil office, governorship of 3uenos Aires Province. One wonders if the Peronist issue will not be there yet when some restless Argentines start talking to their military friends about another new political solution.

Another basic problem is the economy. The new government feels that the only impediment to economic greatness was the witless failure to exploit the natural riches. But there are those who feel that Argentines fondly recalling the pre-1930 prosperity are doomed to continuing frustration. They say that while enlightened husbandry and farming can keep the cattle herds fat and the grain fields fecund, the nation simply is not as rich as has always been assumed. In this industrial age, Argentina has no iron, not much coal and ill-located oil. It buys copper from Chile (much of it refined in the United States) either because it has little or because no one has ventured off the pampa and into the Andes to find it.

Although the market is good for the agricultural products and may remain so, the emphasis in the future will be on the industry that presently is high coat and highly protected. Economists will watch to see if the infusion of nationalism will adversely affect the Illia impulse toward a start at regional integration.

Not many wise economists make blanket judgments in this city where ships from all over the world come and go as busily as in the port of New York. But most do feel that some stern economic decisions must be made, decisions that ordinarily would be preceded by extended public debate. One can only speculate on the results had the press of this perplexing country led that debate to light instead of setting upon Illia as a scapegoat for failures he was never given the power to avoid. With such problems, one can only hope that the military leadership will mature in office in the manner that the Peronists were never allowed to attempt.

One looks at this grand city and the great country, and the endlessly individualistic population whose sum so far is unequal to the potential of its parts. He hears the former president who was accus6d of taciturnity declare that soon he will speak out to his nation, and the friends of the new president who say that as governments go, this one will be tight-lipped.

One watches and can only wonder.


Mr. Diuguid is a 1965 Alicia Patterson Fund fellowship award winner on leave from The Washington Post. Permission to publish this article may be sought from the Foreign Editor, The Washington Post.

Received in New York July 15, 1966.