As U.S. President Jimmy Carter entered the White House in 1977, determined to restore purposeful idealism to U.S. foreign policy, a brutal military dictatorship in Argentina was systematically torturing and murdering thousands of suspected leftists. In his fast-paced, engrossing account, Schmidli chronicles the fierce internal struggles within the White House and the State Department, where political appointees dedicated to transforming Carter’s idealism into concrete policies battled career diplomats accustomed to maintaining cordial relations with anticommunist regimes such as Argentina’s. Schmidli concludes that, despite subsequent policy vacillations, the United States extracted some important concessions from the Argentine junta, saving many lives. More broadly, the Carter team succeeded in institutionalizing human rights in U.S. foreign policy: after some early backsliding, the Reagan administration deemed democracy promotion the core of its Argentina policy, which Schmidli describes as an “unmistakable validation for U.S. human rights advocates’ struggle.” Drawing on declassified documents and personal interviews, Schmidli paints colorful portraits of key players in the policy debates. More interviews of Argentines would have rounded out the picture. But this very valuable study also underscores the vital roles of human rights activists and Congress in laying the foundations for Carter’s diplomatic offensive.
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