Toward the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, in late 1979, a military junta in El Salvador consolidated its power following a coup against the previous military government. The ensuing government killings set off El Salvador’s bloody 12-year civil war. The Carter administration supported the coup regime, believing that it offered the best opportunity to stabilize the country and prevent a communist takeover. Carter was caught between his campaign pledge to defend human rights and pressure from his advisers to confront what they portrayed as a growing communist influence in Latin America. The new junta appeared to be open to power-sharing with more progressive forces in El Salvador, and its early administration included a handful of liberal civilian political figures. But the initial administration deteriorated quickly as the liberals clashed with a right-wing military officer and Carter made clear he was against a governing body that included leftist elements. Carter and his advisers argued that including such figures could lead to a Cuba-aligned government taking over, as had happened with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Right-wing forces consolidated their power and began massacring civilians, including repeated killings of Catholic clergy, under the banner of fighting communism.
In February of 1980, Óscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, wrote a letter to Carter after reading U.S. news reports indicating that Carter was going to continue military aid and provide training to the junta. Romero, who was seen as a conservative Catholic before becoming an outspoken critic of the military regime, pleaded with Carter to reconsider his support, writing that “your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression.” The priest implored Carter that if he “truly want[s] to defend human rights,” he must “forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government.” The Carter administration ignored Romero’s pleas. It had already determined Romero to be a problem. National security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had earlier written to the pope urging him to direct Romero to support the military junta. “The Archbishop has strongly criticized the junta and leaned toward support for the extreme left,” Brzezinski complained in his January letter to the Vatican, adding, “We have warned them against such a move.” On March 24, a month after he wrote Carter, Romero was assassinated with a bullet through the heart while celebrating Mass. The operation was ordered by a U.S.-trained retired Salvadoran army major.
During the 1980 election campaign, Ronald Reagan and his running mate George H.W. Bush repeatedly attacked Carter as being soft on communism and not doing enough in Central America. Amid other political setbacks, Carter’s anti-communist posturing in El Salvador was not enough to save his reelection bid: Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide. As a lame duck, however, Carter did briefly cut off all military and economic aid to the junta after three American nuns and a U.S. lay missionary were raped and murdered by Salvadoran National Guard members in December 1980.
With the incoming Reagan administration signaling its intent to resume and increase aid to the military regime, Joe Biden joined two Senate colleagues in issuing a mild challenge to U.S. policy. The senators wrote to President-elect Reagan to say that the assistance should be linked to cooperation in the investigation of the murders. “We fear that the United States may be in the position of supporting a government which … supports terrorism committed by its own security forces,” the letter said. In January 1981, with just days remaining in his presidency, Carter personally authorized an “emergency” delivery of military aid to the Salvadoran junta, including Huey combat helicopters, guns, and ammunition, to “support the Salvadoran Government in its struggle against Marxist terrorism.”
Immediately upon assuming office, the Reagan administration intensified the so-called war on communism in Central and Latin America. In 1981, Biden began blasting the new Reagan administration for refusing to keep the Senate Intelligence Committee informed about U.S. operations, including in El Salvador. “All we get is what they want to tell us,” Biden said. Biden regularly criticized the administration for failing to comply with oversight requirements. “You have to be an investigative reporter to find out anything now,” Biden charged.
In the many Senate committee and floor votes on aid to the junta, Biden held no consistent positions, voting for and against various proposals.
By 1983, as the U.S. became more involved in the mass murder in El Salvador by the day, Biden was publicly saying he was “troubled by the proposed rapid escalation in our military assistance.” While opposing unqualified military aid to the Salvadoran junta, Biden frequently sought to broker compromises to ensure that funding was approved, such as his 1983 “amendment to require that training of Salvadoran troops by U.S. trainers be carried on outside of El Salvador.” Biden at times voiced support for aid to the military dictatorship after the Senate placed some restrictions on the funds. “It would be a tragedy if we cut and run in El Salvador, but I also believe it would be a tragedy if we insisted upon only the president’s way,” Biden said. Salvadoran forces would go on to receive training in the U.S. at the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas as well as at a base in Honduras.
Biden made the issue of preventing U.S. soldiers from actively participating in the war in El Salvador his central focus, warning in 1984, “I believe that the day after [Reagan] is reelected, if he is reelected, we will see American troops fighting in Latin America.”
Archbishop Óscar Romero photographed in San Salvador, El Salvador, in 1979.
Photo: Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images
In 1984, José Napoleón Duarte, the CIA- and Reagan-backed leader of the military junta, officially became president of El Salvador. Duarte was deeply implicated in the mass murder and other war crimes that occurred during El Salvador’s civil war, which had begun in 1979 when the junta first seized power. Biden sang Duarte’s praises after a visit to Congress. “He took the Congress by storm,” Biden said. “I have not seen anyone have as much of an impression on individual senators since Sadat,” a reference to former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
In the many Senate committee and floor votes on aid to the junta, Biden held no consistent positions, voting for and against various proposals. Though it is difficult to summarize his positions, Biden was consistent in his advocacy for assistance with restrictions as well as linking requests for aid to human rights and cooperation with investigations of the murder of U.S. citizens in El Salvador. In the years that followed Duarte’s ascension to the presidency, the military junta continued its murderous rampage. In 1989, six Jesuit priests and two other civilians were murdered in their residence by Salvadoran military forces whose battalion was created in 1980 at the U.S. Army School of the Americas.
By the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992, at least 75,000 people were estimated to have been killed — some 85 percent of them, a U.N. Truth Commission found, at the hands of the U.S-backed government.