Martin Edwin Andersen – Writer. Historian. Strategic Communications Specialist
The Hill story continues to be a crucial example of the importance of those willing to tell truth to power and who see human rights and human dignity as something that necessarily extends to foes as well as to friends, no matter what, or how personal, the threat.
Today, September 30th, 2017, is the centennial of the birth of conservative Republican political appointee Ambassador Robert C. Hill. In his second posting as an Ambassador by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the New Hampshire native tried to convince the ruling families in El Salvador to treat their employees fairly and with dignity, a plea that came two decades before the country was engulfed in civil war. In 1960, Castro elements in Mexico sought to murder Hill–later a brave human rights hero at his last post, in Buenos Aires–before (repeat, before) the Bay of Pigs. As Ambassador to Mexico, Hill was one of the very first to alert Washington about Castro ties to the USSR.
After his appointment as Ambassador by President Richard M. Nixon, Hill curried the favor of young Prince Juan Carlos as Spain slowly emerged from the Franco dictatorship. Following his being named Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under President Nixon, the five-time conservative Republican ambassadorial appointee became, after this death in November 1978, best known for his strenuous efforts to keep the Argentina military junta that took power in March 1976 from engaging in massive human rights violations, as had Captain General Augusto Pinochet in neighboring Chile following the September 1973 coup in that trans-Andean republic. “Hill’s biography reads like a satirical left-wing caricature of a ‘yanqui imperialist,’ noted the muckracking newsletter Latin America. “He has long-standing connection with the United States security and intelligence establishment.”
Yet, the importance of Hill’s human rights advocacy through authentic “quiet diplomacy” with a vicious dictatorship in Buenos Aires, this before the Jimmy Carter human rights revolution, was underscored by Henry Shlaudeman, himself later ambassador there. Shlaudeman told William E. Knight, a oral historian working for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project: “It really came to a head when I was Assistant Secretary, or it began to come to a head, in the case of Argentina where the dirty war was in full flower. Bob Hill, who was Ambassador then in Buenos Aires, a very conservative Republican politician — by no means liberal or anything of the kind, began to report quite effectively about what was going on, this slaughter of innocent civilians, supposedly innocent civilians — this vicious war that they were conducting, underground war.”
Perhaps all the more so in a poisoned Washington, D.C. political atmosphere, the Hill story continues to be a crucial example of the importance of those willing to tell truth to power and who see human rights and human dignity as something that necessarily extends to foes as well as to friends, no matter what, or how personal, the threat.
In the U.S. context, it also shows how these fundamental principles are not “owned” by liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats. They are inherent in our Founding Documents, and in examples reaching back to General George Washington–something Bob Hill appreciated.
Below please find the a Ph.D proposal approved by the History Department of the Catholic University of America. Unfortunately, due to a near-fatal car accident and a series of subsequent human rights scandals at U.S. Southern Command’s William Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHDS) at National Defense University in Washington, the dissertation was never completed. Now, more than ever, the Bob Hill story needs to be told. …
Ambassador Robert C. Hill and the Hidden Contours of U.S. Cold War Policy on Cuba and Argentina
Statement of Background and Problem
Robert C. Hill was the youngest ambassador in American history. Raised in New Hampshire, the once and future businessman worked hard to earn the confidence of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, among others. He did so by cultivating a network of mutual friends and political allies, as well as through hard work, intelligence, discretion and loyalty. Hill ended up serving as envoy in five embassies in the Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford Administrations. Three posts—Argentina, Mexico and Spain—were especially sensitive, as they were focal points of crucial U.S. policy decisions during critical moments in the Cold War. Unlike other ambassadors Hill was neither a career foreign service officer, a well-known political figure, nor for that matter, an intellectual or a contributor of significant political campaign contributions. Nonetheless the political appointee became a quiet but influential voice in foreign policy.
Hill’s example allows for a unique examination of the roles of ambassadors in policymaking, including the limits and advantages of being a political appointee. By focusing on his role during two watershed episodes in U.S.-Latin American relations, my dissertation will shed new light on the State Department’s timely failure to see proto-communist Cuban insurgent Fidel Castro as a security threat; as well as on early U.S. support for an Argentine military regime that had begun to carry out the secret disappearance and death of hundreds, then thousands of opponents. In each case, Hill questioned, and then actively opposed, U.S. policy, but eschewed public confrontation. This dissertation will help fill gaps in the literature about the roles and limitations of ambassadorial diplomacy. It will also examine Hill and his colleagues in the context of their changing roles within American foreign policy, the critical interface of culture with foreign affairs in the making of difficult policy choices, and the re-emergence in the 1970s of U.S. human rights diplomacy.
This dissertation will explore what made Hill effective as an ambassador and the reasons that he was someone to whom senior political, diplomatic and intelligence leaders turned to for advice and counsel and Republican Administrations kept calling back into service. It will also show how Hill—a national security hawk who remained closely tied to the GOP—came to dissent twice from official policy. Hill’s unique biography helps shed light on the potential importance and the historical absence of effective processes for loyal dissent in foreign-policy making, as well as the practical limits of opposition to specific policies, particularly when voiced by political, rather than career, envoys. The dissertation will also provide critical and heretofore under-appreciated context about U.S. policy debates on dealing with Castro and the Cuban insurrection in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and those over the position to be taken in the mid-1970s vis-à-vis the Argentine military dictatorship. The latter case is also examined in the context of a history of problematic U.S. involvement there that dated to even before the post-World War II presidency of Juan Peron.
Diplomatic history focusing on the Cold War continues to be a primary area of interest for historians of American foreign relations. This is particularly the case as they seek to find in the period those lessons that might be applied in contemporary foreign relations. Hill’s story—and its rightful place among American diplomatic biographies—is a largely untold but an important chronicle of diplomacy. It underscores diplomatic biography’s significance to understanding the interface between foreign policymaking and its effects—the purposeful and the unintentional—in distant lands. My dissertation will use a biographical narrative, centering on the time of Hill’s third ambassadorship (Mexico) in the late 1950s through his last diplomatic posting (Buenos Aires) in 1974-1977. It will focus on changing American conceptions of international order and hegemony; the state of bilateral relations between the U.S. and its allies at key moments during the Cold War; the recruitment and promotion of a foreign policy elite; the nature of organizational exigencies within the foreign service, and controversial decisions over human rights diplomacy.
Research sources include the Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training; Hill’s papers stored at Dartmouth College and Stanford University; oral histories of senior diplomats and public officials held in university and presidential libraries; historical and contemporary U.S. and Latin American media coverage; official U.S. government publications; FOIA requests to U.S. federal agencies; audiotapes from the Nixon White House, and English- and Spanish-language academic books and periodicals.
Originality and Contribution
Within diplomatic history, the literature on the careers of ambassadors is largely circumscribed to memoirs, biographies, and scholarly and journalistic articles. Well-done biographies introduce readers to the essentials of diplomatic thought and practice, including the art of negotiation and modes of diplomacy; the personal qualities necessary for successful diplomats; the inner workings of U.S. embassies and foreign ministries. Many of the best are first-hand accounts of diplomacy in action. Yet biographies of U.S. ambassadors who served primarily in Latin America are limited in number, with much of what is available focused on the time before the end of World War II.
Hill’s story is unique in the way it was fundamentally at odds with contemporary news accounts of the issues over which he took his stands. It clashed with subsequent, often consensus, portrayals of the ways cultural ideologies—those critical venues for frequently contested public understanding as well as for the negotiation of political and moral values—were in conflict. As a businessman-diplomat working outside the Foreign Service, Hill’s stand on Cuba belied the anti-communist uniformity of the Eisenhower Administration. His efforts in Argentina as a member in good standing of the national security establishment contradicted both popular culture assumptions and public understanding on the nature, meaning and significance of U.S. policy there.
Hill’s story bridges these and other thematic and temporal gaps in the literature, creating new synergies between cultural history and diplomatic history through the use and interpretation of new and previously unconsidered sources. In Hill’s first dissent, over Cuba, supposedly dominant geo-strategic concerns received tardy attention, the result of official credulity and because they reinforced less sympathetic or less romanticized views of Castro’s revolution. In the second, on Argentina, official wrongdoing went unregistered by the failure of critics inside and out of government to admit the possibility that Hill, as a Republican businessman, was also a principled critic and a key witness for change in U.S. policy towards Latin American dictatorships. My dissertation will show how Hill’s political insider status placed him outside the protective professional channels available to the diplomatic corps in the post-McCarthy period. As such it will raise important questions about the state of ethical dissent and the diplomacy of human rights at a time in American history when these were beginning to undergo a positive re-evaluation.