It was a moment that fueled a war and helped touch off a decade-long bloodbath in Central America. The conflagration that followed cost tens of thousands of lives and touched millions of homes, one whose flames — mightily fanned from Washington, D.C. — once flickered, at least politically, from the Panama Canal to the Hollywood Hills.
The bodies of three American nuns and one lay worker of the Maryknoll order — Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford and Jean Donovan — were found raped, mutilated and murdered by the side of the road from the San Salvador airport on December 4, 1980.
Two nights before, the four women had disappeared as their van made its way from the airport after two of the women had returned from a trip to neighboring Nicaragua. Fingered as “subversives” for their work among the poor of El Salvador, the four women were pulled over and finished off by a government-linked death squad made up of members of the feared National Guard.
A high tide of blood and repression had been slowly covering the tiny country of 5 million for the entire previous year. A military-civilian junta that came to power promising reform was instead dishing out wholesale murder and mayhem. As a small left-wing guerrilla movement surfaced, the military and ultra-right death squads rampaged through the countryside and the university barrios exterminating hundreds and eventually thousands of real and imagined enemies. Almost 900 political killings took place in just the first two months of 1980.
In March of the same year, nine months before the murder of the nuns, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, a gentle conservative who had been radicalized by the swirling injustice around him, was gunned down as he delivered Mass. His crime was to demand, in what became his final sermon: “In the name of God and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise up to heaven more loudly every day, I ask you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
That repression was already being financed by the waning Carter administration. Closing its eyes to the organized murder perpetrated by the Salvadoran junta, the White House provided $10 million in aid to the regime. Not a very large figure, but one that went quite a way in such a small country. And beyond the direct financial benefit, the U.S. aid was a green light of political approval. Not that the Carter administration had much lust for supporting such a blood-soaked dictatorship. But next door, in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas had just carried out their successful revolution, and Washington felt a palpable fear that the example could and would spread. These were some of the last rattles on the snake of the Cold War.
For a brief historic moment, however, in the immediate aftermath of the rape-murder of the nuns, it looked as though events might take a different turn. While the murder of Romero and the ongoing butchering of the Salvadoran peasantry got little notice in the American media and almost no consideration in public opinion, the atrocity committed against the nuns — American nuns — was just too outrageous to ignore.
Overnight, U.S. policy in El Salvador was thrust front and center into the national debate. As the bodies of the four women were being unearthed from their shallow roadside grave, the visibly shaken outgoing U.S. ambassador, Robert White, vowed that the crime would not go unpunished.
With White’s urging, the Carter State Department immediately suspended all U.S. military aid to El Salvador. A newly approved appropriation was also held up. The question of just what we were doing as a country anyway, smack-dab in the middle of a ruthless Central American civil war, became persistent.
No question but that the killing of the nuns offered an opportunity for the U.S. to play a different, more productive role in El Salvador, that of arbiter and broker for a peace that would have saved an additional 70,000 lives.
But it wasn’t to be. A month prior to the murder of the nuns — in November 1980 — Ronald Reagan staged a resounding victory over the hapless Jimmy Carter. Ambassador White and the relative moderates who staffed the State Department were all lame ducks. Interwoven among the Reaganites were some of the same neocons who make headlines today. Twenty-some years ago they also used the vocabulary of fighting terrorism, but their targets — in the case of El Salvador — were impoverished peasants and outraged students who had fielded a ragtag guerrilla insurgency.
In any case, it’s rather pointless to speculate what the Carter administration might have done to make things different in El Salvador during that 50-day interim between the death of the nuns on December 4 and Reagan’s swearing in on January 20. Pointless, because we already know.
The repression on the ground in El Salvador never abated; it only intensified. In the first days of January 1981, guerrillas from the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) fought back against the ruling junta with a coordinated military offensive.
With just a few days left in his tenure, Ambassador White and, with him, the entire Carter administration, buckled. Washington hard-liners had begun circulating “intelligence” every bit as specious as that used to justify the war in Iraq. The Salvador guerrilla offensive, the intelligence reports falsely argued, was being directly supported by the Nicaraguan Sandinistas next door.