White Paper on the White Paper

by James Petras, March 28, 1981


Selections from
The Nation magazine

edited by Katerina Vanden Heuvel

Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990, paper


James Petras's piece was the first analytical review and critique of the Reagan Administration's white paper on Communist Interference in El Salvador, the document used to justify increased American intervention in El Salvador in the 1980s.


The State Department's white paper entitled Communist Interference in El Salvador purports to provide evidence demonstrating:

(1) "the central role played by Cuba and other Communist countries ... in the political unification, military direction and arming of insurgent forces in El Salvador";

(2) that "the insurgency in E1 Salvador has been progressively transformed into another case of indirect armed aggression against a small Third World country by Communist powers acting through Cuba"; and

(3) that "Cuba, the Soviet Union and other Communist states . . . are carrying out what is clearly shown to be a well-coordinated, covert effort to bring about the overthrow of El Salvador's established Government and to impose in its place a Communist regime with no popular support."

The white paper fails to provide a convincing case for any of those propositions. On the contrary, its evidence is flimsy, circumstantial or nonexistent; the reasoning and logic is slipshod and internally inconsistent; it assumes what needs to be proven; and, finally, what facts are presented refute the very case the State Department is attempting to demonstrate. The document, in a word, has the aura of a political frame-up in which inconvenient facts are overlooked and innuendoes and unwarranted inferences are made at crucial points in the argument. In demonstrating this, I will follow the format of the white paper, discussing the sections in order, under their original titles, and making cross-references to material in other sections where it is warranted; for example, when the authors contradict themselves.


The first technique that is employed in the white paper is to conflate what is happening in El Salvador with other alleged examples of Soviet and Cuban military involvement. The political opposition is reduced to a group of extreme leftist guerrillas manipulated by Cuba and in turn manipulating "small, non-Marxist-Leninist parties" in order to deceive public opinion. Opposition activity is labeled terrorist. Journalists who describe the U.S.-backed regime's behavior as terrorist are labeled as witting or unwitting dupes of an orchestrated Communist propaganda effort.

What is most striking about this description of the opposition to the junta Government is the complete absence of even a minimal account of the numerous social, political and civic movements that have developed in E1 Salvador over the past decade, which represent a wide range of political views and social strata This collective omission on the part of the State Department is necessary if one ~s bent upon labeling the opposition as Soviet-Cuban manipulated and if one wishes to reduce the conflict to an East-West military confrontation.

The fact of the matter is that over the last decade an enormously rich variety of social organizations have emerged in E1 Salvador, embracing the great majority of professional and technical workers, peasants, labor and businesspeople Their membership is in the hundreds of thousands and they are an integral part of the main political opposition group, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (F.D.R.). Almost all union members, peasant associations, university and professional people are members or supporters of social and civic organizations that are sympathetic to the front. The white paper clearly falsifies the political and social realities by excluding an account of the social forces involved with the opposition. Moreover, the origins of the opposition are clearly rooted in the social realities of the country-a point which the document admits in Section m in a politically vague and unspecified fashion when it notes that: "during the 1970's, both the legitimate grievances of the poor and landless and the growing aspirations of the expanding middle classes met increasingly with repression."

What the paper fails to acknowledge is that these legitimate grievances" and "growing aspirations" found expression and were embodied in the mass organizations which are the essential components of the opposition groups that make up the F.D.R. The guerrilla movement is part and parcel of a larger political and social movement that has been and is repressed. Its activities stem from social realities of Salvadoran history, which the paper concedes is one of "repression widespread poverty and concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families." Because it is intent on demonstrating that the problem is Soviet-Cuban intervention, the paper fails to examine the crucial relationship between the repressive nature of the state, social inequalities and the growth of opposition and guerrilla movements.

The "Non-Marxist" Opposition

The striking feature of the Salvadoran revolution is the broad array of political forces that have united to oppose this regime-Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberal Democrats, as well as independent Marxist groups and pro-Moscow coalitions. What is particularly unique in the Salvadoran case is the substantial leadership and its popular base of support that has developed among Christian communities. In all areas of social and political organization, a plurality of political tendencies are represented-among peasants, workers, professionals and so on. The attempt by the white paper to reduce the opposition to a handful of Marxist guerrillas manipulating the "non-Marxists" is a crude oversimplification and gross distortion of reality. What is remarkable in the document is the systematic exclusion of any mention of the mass-based Christian opposition, the twenty-eight Christian priests, nuns and community leaders murdered by the regime for their opposition activities. A discussion of these facts would complicate the State Department's job of selling intervention to the U.S. public.

In describing the emergence of the guerrilla forces, the document downgrades accounts of repressive political conditions under the junta. Yet detailed descriptions are available from the Organization of American States, the United Nations and, most comprehensively, from the Legal Aid Commission of the office of the Archbishop of El Salvador, which has compiled a lengthy dossier of the regime's systematic violence against all legal public organizations opposed to it in any way. Churches, trade unions, independent newspapers and peasant co-ops have been assaulted and bombed, leaving almost 9,000 dead between January 1980 and January 1981. The precondition for the growth of guerrilla activity was the closing of political channels by the U.S.-backed regime-not Soviet intervention.

Shortly after the first junta was established in October 1979, and before the rightist military took over, the guerrillas and political opposition groups offered a cease-fire. The rightists in the armed forces responded by escalating the number of assassinations, which touched off renewed hostilities. The decision to seek a military-political solution was forced upon the opposition by the military regime when it murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, and then the seven leaders of the F.D.R. meeting in San Salvador on November 27, 1980. The subsequent purge of the moderate Christian Democrats and reformist military officers from the first Government junta is further proof that political options had been taken away. The white paper overlooks this context of regime violence in order to invent a Cuban-inspired conspiracy and to impute the violence of the regime to its victims. The killings by the military regimes increased from 147 in 1978 to 580 between January and October of 1979 and to 8,952 between January 1980 and January 1981. This increasing reign of terror clearly was instrumental in lowering the rate of popular participation in public activity and swelling the numbers of clandestine groups. Oblivious to this reality, the white paper describes the increase in guerrilla activity as a willful act of the "extreme left."

In its attempt to cast doubt on the opposition's legitimacy, the paper omits any mention of centrist defections from the U.S.-backed junta to join the leadership of the Revolutionary Democratic Front. The shift of a significant body of centrist opinion to the opposition is described disparagingly in the following fashion: "For appearances' sake three small non-Marxist-Leninist political parties were brought into the front, though they have no representation in the D.R.U. [Unified Revolutionary Directorate]." These former Christian and Social Democratic allies of the U.S.-backed coalition had been described by U.S. officials a few weeks earlier as major political forces representing significant reform-minded sectors of Salvadoran public opinion. The fact that the pro-Moscow Communist Party of El Salvador is a marginal political force in the opposition coalition is never discussed by the white paper, nor is the fact that three of the four major leftist groups are critical of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, the paper's charge that Fidel Castro was responsible for unifying the left overlooks the fact that the unity of the leftist forces was under way prior to December 1979 as a result of increasing repression by the regime and pressure from the rank and file of all the groups. The F.D.R. was formed in El Salvador not in Cuba, and was supported and promoted by European social-democratic forces. It was certainly not a product of the alleged machinations of Castro. As the participants stated at the time, the needs of the popular struggle, the limited options open to all opposition groups and the example set by the success of the Nicaraguan revolution were the main impulsions to unity.

Conspiratorial Hypothesis

The effort by the white paper to discredit the F.D.R. by describing it as a "front" disseminating propaganda for the guerrillas systematically ignores the popular support that these groups draw away from the junta, the internal political debates within the front and between the front and the guerrillas and the influence they have had in shaping the program in a reformist direction. The white paper's conspiratorial view requires that its authors overlook the importance of these moderates and their internal and external influence. The paper says nothing about the widespread international support for the front and the isolation of the junta. Indeed, it expands its conspiratorial hypothesis to find Cuban and Soviet-sponsored deception behind the front's success.

The numerous and detailed accounts of repression by the regime compiled by the Archbishop's Legal Aid Commission which have swayed world public opinion are not mentioned; nor are Amnesty International's publicized accounts of widespread systematic torture. In place of careful consideration of these documents, the white paper labels the 10,000 deaths attributed to the junta (13,000 by the time the paper appeared) an "extreme claim" of the guerrilla propaganda apparatus, which is parroted by the Cuban, Soviet and Nicaraguan media. Actually, the principal source of data collected on the regime's repression is nonCommunist, Catholic and respected by most non-U.S. Government sources. In summary, through omissions and distortions, through labeling and simplification, the white paper early on fabricates a case against a broad-based popular revolutionary movement in order to prove "Communist military involvement." . . .


The massive propaganda effort to focus attention on outside Communist intervention is a way of diverting attention from the repressive regime that the United States is supporting. The Reagan Administration's tactic is to win backing for the junta not because of what it stands for (few democratic governments would support a government whose army has killed 13,000 civilians) but to "draw the line" against outside intervention."

The "Progressive" Coalition

The white paper describes the governing coalition that took over after the coup in October 1979 as being made up of progressive civilian and military officers. Yet the great majority of these progressives defected to the F.D.R. or were killed by the rightist faction which is now in control. The "three small non-Marxist-Leninist political parties" that the white paper earlier dismisses as window dressing in the F.D.R. Ieadership are later portrayed as significant progressives when they were in the first coalition. The white paper's inconsistency is apparent in the way it attempts to reclaim the progressive character of the original junta while discrediting the genuine progressives who resigned from it in protest or were pushed out. The systematic purge of the progressives by the rightist faction within the junta between October 1979 and March 1980 is described in the same vacuous, euphemistic language that is used throughout the white paper when the authors wish to cover their tracks: "After an initial period of instability, the new Government stabilized around a coalition that includes military participants in the October 1979 coup, the Christian Democratic Party and independent civilians." The white paper leaves out the purge of the Majano reformists, and the bulk of the Christian Democrats who are now in opposition, along with university faculty and students, Social Democrats and the other forces of reform. It does not say that ultra-right forces deeply involved in repressive actions are all that remain of the original junta that took power in October 1979.

The white paper claims that "since March 1980, this coalition has begun broad social changes." Actually, the number of peasants killed and co-ops that fell under military occupation rose sharply: peasants killed increased from 126 per month in February, to 203 in March, to 423 in July, totaling 3,272 for the glorious year of agrarian reform! The paper then repeats the falsehood that the opposition to this "reform" consists of Marxist-Leninist guerrilla terrorists and the three insignificant non-Marxist-Leninist political parties operating outside of the country. Once again, the authors omit mention of the absence of any political rights in El Salvador, and the state of war that the junta has declared against all opposition.

Extremist Symbiosis

The white paper then proceeds to argue that the Government "faces armed opposition from the extreme right as well as from the left. . . . A symbiotic relationship has developed between the terrorism practiced by extremists of both left and right." This notion has been systematically refuted by the Archbishop's Legal Aid Commission report on repression, which adduces evidence showing that in 1980, 66 percent of the assassinations were committed by Government security forces, and 14 percent were committed by right-wing death squads. Moreover, voluminous testimony, documents and photographs have emerged to substantiate the frequent and close collaboration between the death squads and the regime's security forces. The "symbiosis" causing most of the violence is between the regime and the death squads, not the right and left.

In this regard it is important to note that not one right-wing death squad assassin has ever been apprehended, let alone prosecuted, despite the public nature of most of the killings. This in itself should dispel any notion that the regime is innocent in the activity of the death squads. The Legal Aid Commission study further demonstrates that the bulk of the victims were poor peasants, students and wage workers-the groups in whose names the purported reforms were carried out. In fact the reforms were mere facades for the militarization of the country. The escalation of regime terror against the peasants is the surest indication of this.

The white paper voices concern about the murder and rape of the U.S. nuns, but it fails to mention the fact that the nuns were opposed to U.S. policy, and were murdered by the junta along with more than a score of other church people working for the poor. While the white paper claims to be interested in a complete investigation of these killings, former Ambassador White stated emphatically that Washington has not made any effort to pressure the junta and has effectively collaborated with the regime in covering up the murders-rewarding its perpetrators with additional arms and economic aid.

In one of its more cynical statements, the paper notes that "few Salvadorans participate in anti-Government demonstrations"-implying that they support the Government. The scores of dead protesters, including mutilated and decapitated corpses that appeared in the wake of every protest march, have no doubt had a dampening effect on demonstrations. But to equate a terrorized population with one that approves the Government is a grotesque distortion which only indicates how out of touch this Administration is with the political reality in El Salvador and the rest of the Third World. There is not only an absence of political protest in El Salvador, there is an absence of all forms of political expression; the dictatorship is total. The support for the front and the guerrillas has not diminished-it has gone underground. The white paper's claim that U.S. aid helped create jobs and feed the hungry" is belied by the accounts of Church sources. U.S. economic aid has contributed to massive military corruption; military aid hardens the resolve of the military dictators and increases the rate of killing. U.S. economic aid does not keep up with the massive flight of private capital estimated at more than $1.5 billion during the past year. The collapse of the Salvadoran economy and the massive exodus of refugees from repression in rural areas hardly testifies to the "success" of what the paper describes as the "Duarte Government." The latter is a figment of the State Department's imagination, f. real power continues to be vested within the military-a point emphasized by military official in an interview in Le Monde recently.


The white paper is a thin tissue of falsifications, distortions, omissions and simplifications directed toward covering up increased U.S. support for a murderous regime. It has sought to transform a war between the regime and its people in an East-West struggle and to deny the internal socioeconomic and political role of the struggle. The purpose of these distortions is to mobilize U.S. public opinion behind the new Administration's policies not only in El Salvador but throughout the Third World. The hypocrisy suffusing the white paper is vice's tribute virtue, for it tacitly recognizes that if the truth were presented, the American people would balk at supporting a regime that is rewarded for killing its noblest so and daughters who seek social justice in El Salvador.

Selections from The Nation magazine,1865-1990

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