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date: 24 March 2017

U.S.-Argentine Relations

Summary and Keywords

Relations between the United States and Argentina can be best described as a cautious embrace punctuated by moments of intense frustration. Although never the center of U.S.–Latin American relations, Argentina has attempted to create a position of influence in the region. As a result, the United States has worked with Argentina and other nations of the Southern Cone—the region of South America that comprises Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, and southern Brazil—on matters of trade and economic development as well as hemispheric security and leadership. While Argentina has attempted to assert its position as one of Latin America’s most developed nations and therefore a regional leader, the equal partnership sought from the United States never materialized for the Southern Cone nation. Instead, competition for markets and U.S. interventionist and unilateral tendencies kept Argentina from attaining the influence and wealth it so desired. At the same time, the United States saw Argentina as an unreliable ally too sensitive to the pull of its volatile domestic politics. The two nations enjoyed moments of cooperation in World War I, the Cold War, and the 1990s, when Argentine leaders could balance this particular external partnership with internal demands. Yet at these times Argentine leaders found themselves walking a fine line as detractors back home saw cooperation with the United States as a violation of their nation’s sovereignty and autonomy. There has always been potential for a productive partnership, but each side’s intransigence and unique concerns limited this relationship’s accomplishments and led to a historical imbalance of power.

Keywords: United States, Argentina, human rights, World Wars, economics, Cold War, neoliberalism

Distance in a physical and metaphorical sense has separated Argentina and the United States, resulting in tense disagreements over security, economics, and politics. As the United States has worked to further its own idea of hemispheric development, Argentina has tried to take on a similar leadership role in the region’s destiny. The resulting competition for markets and influence has led the Southern Cone nation to deride U.S. policies as antithetical to its own growth and sovereignty, and so it has tried to assert itself in regional and international affairs. Moments of cooperation have occurred periodically as interests and goals aligned. Argentina sought improved economic relations with the United States as European trading diminished in the early 20th century. The Cold War marked a moment of shared concern over the spread of Marxist ideology and the appearance of leftist revolutionary movements. However, these promising occasions gave way to renewed antagonisms as Argentine leaders questioned U.S. intents, seeing the northern giant as interventionist and not truly interested in the well-being of its Latin American neighbors. This seemingly cyclical pattern of collaboration followed by discord has made an impression on the United States, which sees Argentina as rather schizophrenic and unreliable. Therefore the historical challenge has been to find balance between each party’s desire to take the lead and their divergent interests.

Establishing a Relationship: Early 19th Century to 1914

The United States had limited interactions with Argentina during its colonial and early national periods. The Viceroyalty of La Plata—which encompassed present-day Argentina—remained on the margins of the Spanish American empire and therefore minimally developed. Even once South America gained independence from Spain in the 1820s, Argentina grew slowly and so attracted very little interest from the United States. The Southern Cone nation did cultivate close ties with Great Britain in the colonial period, and this initial contact helped that European power became Argentina’s primary trading partner until the 1930s. Perhaps a greater obstacle to establishing any meaningful connection, however, was Argentina’s long period of nation building. The civil unrest during the age of the caudillos (regional strongmen) and the weakness of liberal government and its institutions made internal development the priority. For much of the 19th century, the United States focused on its own internal development and neighboring territories. Western expansion and border disputes with Mexico as well as filibustering expeditions and efforts to strengthen trade relations in the Caribbean basin drew the northern nation’s attention. Accordingly, diplomatic relations between the two nations did not constitute a major concern; full recognition with exchange of diplomatic agents did come to pass until 1844.

Argentina’s situation started to change in the late 19th century. In 1852, federalist forces defeated the caudillo Juan Manual de Rosas, and in the following year they crafted Argentina’s first durable constitution. The Conquest of the Desert, a military campaign in the 1870s focused on removing hostile indigenous groups and solidifying territorial claims, helped set Argentina’s borders and open more land for development. As the state consolidated, liberal leaders sought to legitimize their rule further by finally turning to matters of economic development.1 The availability of arable land and millions of European immigrants provided the raw materials for the nation’s growth; British investors brought in the technology and infrastructure necessary to make full use of those resources. Agricultural products became the source of Argentina’s newfound wealth, and its economy grew exponentially in the late 19th century and into the 20th. Railroads transported tons of beef and cereals from the fertile pampas to Buenos Aires’s ports. New refrigeration technology allowed processors to preserve meat for long voyages to European markets. The amount of agricultural products leaving Argentina made it the world’s breadbasket, as it became the second-largest producer of grains in the world by 1914, trailing only the United States.2 Domestic stability and economic growth increased Argentina’s value and stature abroad. At this time, the popular saying “rich as an Argentine” recognized the nation’s substantial wealth. People spoke of Argentina in the same breath as Australia and Canada, and Argentina was the seventh-richest nation in the world by 1920. This gave the Latin American nation a great sense of pride, encouraging its leaders to assert more aggressively Argentina’s interests on the international stage.

That growing presence drew Argentina and the United States into regular contact but increased conflict as both nations fought for potential markets for their agricultural products. The United States set up a number of tariffs and trade barriers to limit Argentina’s access to U.S. consumers. For example, the United States passed the Wool and Woolens Act of 1867, increasing tariffs on wool imports.3 In this case U.S. congressmen acquiesced to the demands of domestic producers, who saw Argentina’s recent increased wool production as a threat. Direct U.S. investment in the Southern Cone remained limited at this time as well. Great Britain represented the bulk of Argentine trade, accounting for forty-eight million pesos versus ten million pesos from U.S. trade. Regionally American businesses financed telephone and electric industries abroad, including in Argentina.4 Overall, U.S. investment remained minimal, and these early restrictions set a precedent in their relationship.

In addition to the economic situation, Latin American nations saw foreign intervention in the region as a substantial threat. The various iterations of the Monroe Doctrine and gunboat diplomacy demonstrated the lengths to which the United States would pursue its interests, often in violation of Latin America’s sovereignty. At the first Pan-American Conference in 1889, representatives Andrés Bello (Venezuela) and Carlos Calvo (Argentina) introduced a motion to curtail foreign intervention in Latin America. Drawing from previous proposals, this recommendation called for sovereign immunity from external intervention and insisted on absolute equality of each state regardless of size, position, or power.5 The proposed doctrine passed fifteen to one, with the United States as the only dissenter. On the other hand, European powers were equally threatening, and the United States was viewed as key partner in preventing interventions. In 1902 Argentine foreign minister Luis María Drago urged Washington to take a strong stand against the British blockade of Venezuela. Rather than seeing the Monroe Doctrine as exclusively for the benefit of the United States, Drago saw it as a hemispheric policy that was in everyone’s best interests.6 Argentina, in accord with other Latin American powers, attempted to keep in check U.S. unilateral actions and to encourage dialogue and multilateral responses to regional issues.

Matters of security and economics may have been divisive, but racial and cultural perceptions helped the two nations find some common ground. Common themes and experiences helped cultivate a sense of connectedness between the United States and Argentina. Both were large nations covering expansive territories. Both had undertaken violent campaigns to subdue and constrain indigenous groups. Both had built their national images around landownership and agricultural production, though Argentina fell into the Latin American practices of latifundismo and the United States traditionally promoted the yeoman farmer.

Racially, U.S. leaders saw Argentina as distinct among Latin American nations. The wave of immigration that brought millions of Europeans to Argentina from 1860 to 1930 significantly whitened the Argentine population. This shift in culture and demographics set Argentina apart from other Latin American nations, where indigenous and African influence tended to be more visible. Coupled with the country’s temperate climate and agricultural heritage, Argentina appeared appealing and promising to Americans, who saw something familiar and favored. This transformation also led U.S. officials to praise the nation’s potential for development. Whereas abroad Argentines raised public concerns over interventionism, back home they rested assured that the United States would never feel the need to become directly involved in their affairs. After all, Buenos Aires was the “Paris of the South,” and Argentina saw itself as a bearer of civilization in the world. They were not always in complete cooperation, but the United States and Argentina found themselves drawn closer through their own national development and international aspirations.

The World Wars: 1914 to 1955

Conflict in Europe denied Latin American nations their traditional trading partners and opened opportunities for the United States to expand its involvement throughout the region. This was especially true for Argentina. Up to the outbreak of the world wars, Argentina depended heavily on Great Britain as a source for economic development, while opportunities to expand trade and cooperation with the United States remained limited. The devastation of England during the wars put an end to that relatively exclusive relationship and pushed Argentina to seek new trade possibilities with the United States. Security concerns also led Argentina to reconsider this relationship, but leaders did so with caution. Fears of U.S. dominance and intervention made the maintenance of Argentine sovereignty and interests a priority in all interactions.

While Pan-Americanism had been part of U.S.-Latin American relations prior to the world wars, the connection took on a new meaning in the 1910s. At this point, Argentina did not have a substantial navy that could protect merchants, leaving ships vulnerable to U-boat activity in the Atlantic.7 Additionally, Great Britain could not maintain trade with Argentina and increasingly turned to the United States for food and material. In turn, the Latin American nation lost its source of finished goods and industrial technology. At this point hemispheric cooperation held the potential to replace lost markets and products as well as to provide for a common defense. Working with the United States provided reasonable alternatives after losing British support, but the need for an ally did not preclude criticism of U.S. unilateralism.

Argentina made several moves demonstrating its willingness to improve its relationship with the United States during World War I. Government and business leaders steadily cut ties with Germany, mostly by reducing exports to that nation. Officials acquiesced to U.S. pressure concerning Germans living in Argentina by monitoring those communities more closely. Argentina also kept tabs on potential Bolshevik agitators, whom the United States viewed as another potential source of trouble. Argentine officials did not question this action, because they already saw the burgeoning labor class, with a significant portion from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Spain, as a security risk. Radical President Hipólito Yrigoyen drew support from the laboring class, but he did not tolerate unrest, an attitude demonstrated by the events of the Semana Trágica (Tragic Week) in 1919. Violent suppression of a labor protest resulted in fifteen hundred dead, four thousand injured, and much public and private property destroyed. In this case, as with others, Argentina willingly responded to U.S. desires, though often in ways consistent with its own national goals.

At this time, Argentina welcomed its first visit from a sitting U.S. president. President Agustín P. Justo hosted President Franklin Roosevelt in December 1936. With another war seemingly imminent, Roosevelt used the moment to muster greater support for his nation’s position. The American president reminded Argentines that the scourge of war would affect them and that a united front was necessary to protect everyone. For Justo, Argentina had reached a pivotal point in its partnership with Great Britain. Attempts to reconnect after World War I had not returned their trade relationship to its prewar levels. More trade with the United States seemed promising economically and potentially popular among Argentines. During the interwar period, Argentine consumption of U.S. products continued to increase, and in this golden age of Hollywood the Argentine population regularly consumed U.S. films. Unfortunately, that cultural appreciation was not enough to overcome political fears. Justo still found himself caught between private agreement with and public contempt for the United States.8

Roosevelt’s desire for hemispheric support of the Allies strained ties between the two nations, and subsequent events intensified feelings of distrust. Argentina attempted to remain neutral from the onset. This inability or unwillingness to head the U.S. call stemmed from multiple sources. At this time, Argentina found itself in a singular economic situation, because the nation had an agricultural surplus but no market. European nations were closed because of the war, and the United States would not fill the gap. President Roberto María Ortiz maintained trade relations with Germany despite U.S. pressure. Ortiz made it clear that improved trade with the United States would bring Argentina into the fold, but U.S. representatives failed to understand the dire economic realities. By withholding its support, the United States helped seal the Argentine president’s fate. A military coup in 1943 overthrew Ortiz and characterized the deposed leader as weak and incapable of leading the nation.9 The U.S. inability to read the Argentine situation at this moment arguably created bigger issues for their relationship.

Among those officers who participated in the 1943 coup was Juan Domingo Perón, and he was able to capitalize on this moment of upheaval. Perón’s rapid ascent and assertive agenda further challenged the United States. After the coup, Perón held the post of minister of labor, then an insignificant position in the national government. However, it was through the neglected labor class that Perón built a massive, loyal base of support that eventually propelled him into the presidency in 1946. As a populist leader, Perón attempted to lead Argentina down a path more clearly defined by its own needs and, to this end, expanded social programs, nationalized key industries, and promoted his country on the international stage. The latter point meant that Perón still was not going to commit Argentina to the Allied cause. U.S. officials bristled at this defiance. They hoped to use Pan-Americanism to establish a united front in the face of fascism. As a result of Argentina’s provocation, rumors circulated regarding Perón’s fascist sympathies and helped turn Argentina into the hemisphere’s pariah.

U.S. Ambassador Spurille Braden did little to mollify this situation and instead exacerbated tensions. Braden took his post in Argentina in 1945, the year when Perón was running for the presidency, and immediately launched an antagonistic campaign against the candidate. Braden accused the Argentine government of housing Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, claiming to reveal the fascist intent of the Southern Cone state. When Argentine officials refused to comply with U.S. demands to turn over these Nazis and confiscate their property, Braden attempted to apply more pressure. He had the State Department declare Argentina an “ex-enemy” state, meaning that the nation was not eligible for aid and could not participate in hemispheric meetings. Finally, Braden published a scathing account of Nazi activity in the Southern Cone. The “Blue Book” claimed that the Fourth Reich was organizing in Argentina at the behest of Perón. Rather than cow Argentina into cooperation, Braden’s actions simply verified U.S. interventionist tendencies in the eyes of the Argentine republic.10 Running with the simple slogan “Braden or Perón,” the latter soundly won the presidential election, which could be read as a referendum on Argentina’s relation with the United States. This Latin American nation would not unquestioningly follow the American line.

The recall of Braden from his post did not immediately calm the situation; in fact, antagonisms continued as U.S. officials turned their attention from fascists to communists. Perón’s international position evolved to become the Third Way, whereby Argentina would not align exclusively with either the United States or the Soviet Union. The president wanted his nation to become a leader in Latin America and to free the region from the dominance of larger powers.11 Argentina did not cut relations with the United States, but at the same time, the nation did not limit its options for potential partners.

The unwillingness to support the Western cause once again frustrated U.S. officials, but at the end of the war they were far more concerned with rebuilding Europe. The Marshall Plan directed substantial resources and financing to Europe in the postwar years. Argentina viewed that economic focus as suggesting a general lack of concern for Latin America. In response, Perón promoted his Third Way and explored the possibility that the Soviet Union might become a major trade partner. The Soviets were not in a position to provide what Argentina needed, but the United States still felt slighted. Under the Marshall Plan terms, U.S. officials put strict limits on the products that Europe could import from nations other than the United States. Great Britain also put an end to the convertibility of sterling, meaning that Argentina’s reserves in England could not be withdrawn to help with the worsening economic situation back home.

Aside from the long-term economic and political impacts, this experience with Peronism colored U.S. popular perceptions of Argentina for decades to come. Tales of Nazis hiding in Argentina stoked the fires of distrust, and events like Mossad’s arrest of Adolf Eichmann in a Buenos Aires suburb in May 1960 verified the problematic politics of the Southern Cone nation. The figure of Evita became an international curiosity as scholars questioned her intent as Perón’s wife and confidant. In later years, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber further solidified Evita’s questionable persona in the musical Evita.12 All of these pieces together led the United States to see Argentina as unreliable and respond in ways that marginalized the Southern Cone nation. The U.S. response to these grand public behaviors only exacerbated Argentina’s internal problems, further undermining democratic traditions and economic growth.

The Cold War: 1955 to 1983

Argentina’s internal situation deteriorated drastically in the latter years of Perón’s administration as inflation, economic stagnation, and corruption chipped away at the president’s popularity. His time in office ultimately ended with a coup in 1955. His overthrow helped renew a sense of cooperation between the United States and Argentina. The military regimes that came to power in this period tended to be like-minded with U.S. officials. Their conservative policies and anticommunism brought Argentina in line with hemispheric security goals championed by Washington. Civilian interludes occasionally brought tension, as was the case with President Arturo Frondizi, and economic policies continued to be a source of conflict. However, the regular presence of military regimes made Argentina a reliable ally despite the increasing use of repression and the violation of human rights.

In the wake of Perón’s ouster, the Argentine military took immediate steps to bring their nation back in line with U.S. policies. Under de facto president General Pedro Aramburu, Argentina ratified the Organization of American States (OAS) charter in 1956 and became a member of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank shortly thereafter.13 Such actions showed a willingness to cooperate with international bodies through which the United States wielded great influence. Domestically, the military clearly demonstrated a desire to break from the recent past by outlawing the Peronist party and silencing its outspoken remnants. In return for these gestures, the United States extended various credits and loans to Argentina, actions that helped prop up the country’s economy for the time being. This sudden about-face gave the United States hope that Argentina would use its influence among Latin American nations to support the U.S. agenda throughout the hemisphere.

To some extent, the election of Arturo Frondizi in 1958 provided for a continuation of what the military started. Frondizi’s time in office was defined by his agenda of desarrollismo (developmentalism). The new president reversed many of the economic nationalist policies that Perón had initiated, most notably limitations on foreign investment. He removed barriers for foreign businesses and capital and privatized many nationalized industries, such as oil. Opening the nation allowed for a new wave of industrialization focused on finished products. In this way, Argentina’s economy began to shift away from rural agriculture and to urban industry. The populations of Buenos Aires and many of the secondary cities exploded at this time, as people relocated from the countryside in search of jobs. Desarrollismo completely redirected Argentina’s potential, very much to the benefit of the United States.

While appreciation for U.S. products and culture never went out of style, the increase in industrial output as well as the prominent presence of foreign investment provided new opportunities for consumption. Argentine women favored U.S. clothing trends at this time, especially blue jeans emblazoned with American brand names.14 The nation may have been known for tango, but American jazz was just as popular. With rapid urbanization came increased car ownership in Argentina, and the United States met the growing demand. The postwar car craze in the United States hit a lull, but the slow recovery of German and Japanese automobile industries meant greater competition internationally. Auto companies saw great opportunity in nations like Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, which became the main sites of Latin America’s car boom. Ford, Chrysler, and GM produced more 40 percent of automobiles for the region in the 1950s and 1960s.15 Markers of U.S. culture became much more visible and dominant throughout this period.

To shore up relations further, President Dwight Eisenhower visited Argentina for a state visit. Frondizi had recently visited Washington, a first for an Argentine president, and Eisenhower felt compelled to return the favor in February 1960. The U.S. president used this opportunity to improve the U.S. image after Vice President Richard Nixon’s disastrous visit to Latin America in 1958. Eisenhower also wanted to push his Argentine counterpart to support sanctions against Cuba. Frondizi needed this external support to strengthen his administration’s image and policies. The president felt trapped between polarizing elements in Argentina as detractors on both sides of the political spectrum criticized his leadership. He hoped an extension of aid and public approval from the United States would placate the extremes.16 For both men, the visits did not meet expectations. Angry demonstrators greeted Eisenhower’s motorcade in Buenos Aires, and Frondizi did not voice support for the U.S. position on Cuba. Frondizi’s popularity fell even more, and his party lost terribly in the elections held one month later.

Arturo Frondizi did much to realign Argentina, but he, like many Argentine leaders before him, refused to acquiesce completely to the U.S. agenda. The desire to make clear Argentina’s sovereignty remained, and in this case Cuba was the breaking point. Frondizi did not approve of communism, but he also recognized that the Cuban people had largely supported their country’s revolution, making it a clear demonstration of the general will. As such, he did not support sanctions against the island nation. More broadly, he felt that projects like the Alliance for Progress, introduced in 1961, constituted a better way to fight communism. Frondizi maintained his stance at the 1961 OAS meeting in Punta del Este, Uruguay, but his ultimate undoing was meeting with Ernest “Che” Guevara in secret at the presidential residence. Argentine intelligence found out, and Frondizi was deposed on March 29, 1962.

By this point, the military, having assumed the position of kingmaker, decided to become king. Latin America’s armed forces increasingly subscribed to the National Security Doctrine, which colored how military leaders saw national and world events unfolding. Members of the armed forces came to view civilian governance as completely corrupted and incapable of providing the stability necessary for national development and security. During the Cold War, development took on new importance as efforts to keep communism at bay depended largely on economic growth and political stability. The military’s mission centered on the security of the state, and if civilians could not perform accordingly, then the armed forces had to intervene.17 Additionally, the generals in charge saw themselves as above partisan politics and free of squabbles that held elected officials back. This apolitical identity along with a thorough dedication to the safety of the nation led Latin American militaries to assume control of the state as never before. From the 1960s to the 1980s, right-wing military regimes appeared throughout the region, and most enjoyed some measure of support from the United States, which was eager to provide financial and material assistance as well as training in counterinsurgency techniques.

This wave of militarism swept through Argentina and drew mixed reactions from the United States. In 1966, General Juan Carlos Onganía ushered in the Argentine Revolution and took advantage of U.S. support in fighting “exotic ideologies.”18 He asked for help via the Military Assistance Program, which provided tens of millions of dollars in military assistance and equipment. He also attempted to stamp out leftist activity in a number of places. Onganía ordered authorities to rid the national universities of subversives and to quash labor activism. While he received some assistance from the United States, his usefulness proved to be short-lived. Leftist guerrilla organizations increased their activity and brazenness in defying his revolution, leading to his forced resignation in 1970. Despite his professed anticommunist stance, American leaders wondered if the Argentine military could respond adequately.

The failed return of Perónism in 1973 did little to calm the situation, as many had hoped it would. Juan Perón died on July 1, 1974, less than one year after returning to the presidency, and his wife and successor, Isabel Perón, prove incapable of leading the nation and bridging its many divisions. In response, the military intervened once again, on March 24, 1976. The repression that began under the Onganía regime now morphed into a massive state terror apparatus intent upon destroying subversion in all of its forms. The new regime’s agenda, dubbed Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (Process of National Reorganization), included kidnapping, torturing, and murdering from ten thousand to thirty thousand citizens from 1976 to 1983. This “dirty war” targeted not just members of the guerrilla organizations but also journalists, professors, students, friends and family members of the guerrillas, and anyone accused of dissent. They all became the “disappeared” (desaparecidos), whose exact whereabouts and fates remain unknown.

This clear violation of human rights tested ties with the United States, which sent Argentine officials mixed messages. President Jimmy Carter embraced human rights as a cornerstone of his foreign policy and saw Latin America as a place where his policy priorities could have a pronounced effect. With Argentina, Carter imposed sanctions prohibiting military assistance until the human rights situation improved. International organizations also put pressure on the junta to end its repression and account for the disappeared. However, other members of the U.S. government and armed forces condoned the regime’s actions. Declassified documents reveal how U.S. officials like Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and then secretary of state from 1969 to 1977, approved of this anticommunist agenda. According to State Department documents, Kissinger told the Argentine generals, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”19 Additionally, President Ronald Reagan lifted the sanctions put in place by Carter, once again sending a clear message of support. Certain members of the U.S. government felt sympathy for the Argentine situation and saw the repression as necessary to shore up regional security. Carter’s human rights agenda still had to overcome fears of leftist subversion, which proved stronger once Carter left office.

While they were divided on the military’s human rights record, U.S. officials presented a more cohesive response to the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. The invasion was a last-ditch effort by the Proceso leadership to retain power by rallying Argentine nationalism. In challenging British control of the South Atlantic Islands, the military hoped to divert attention from the worsening economy and louder calls for democracy’s return. The generals chose to see U.S. approval as more far reaching than intended and banked on the northern giant’s support in this conflict. This expectation became nothing short of a gross miscalculation. The United States saw greater value in its relationship with Great Britain and so sided with Margaret Thatcher instead of the Proceso regime. The war was a disaster for Argentina and hastened the end of the military dictatorship. The event made clear the limit to how much the United States valued Argentina.

For these two nations, the Cold War both brought them together and pushed them apart. The United States could count on Argentina to be a bulwark against communism in the Western Hemisphere. The conservative regimes that came to power after Perón would allow neither a soft approach to subversive actions nor any remotely leftist agenda. However, that uncompromising position drew both nations into a dark place where respect for democracy and transparency gave way to unrestrained fear at a great cost of human life.

Neoliberalism and the New Left: 1983 to the Present

The return to democracy presented several familiar challenges for U.S.-Argentine relations. As Argentina restored democratic practices and attempted to heal from its recent trauma, the nation struggled with astounding foreign debt, as did many of their Latin American counterparts. Despite the fiscal problems, the United States and Argentina worked together closely, especially during the presidency of Carlos Menem in the 1990s. The two nations renewed a sense of peaceful cooperation as Argentina demonstrated its commitment to economic recovery and a U.S. vision of hemispheric security. However, the exact architecture of the implemented economic policies became a source of frustration for Argentina. Once again, Argentines saw the threat of outside intervention in its domestic policies, leading officials to react. The neoliberal policies of Washington came to be viewed as the source of Argentina’s continuing woes into the 2000s. In response, the government shifted left, as did many other Latin American nations at this time in an effort to break away from U.S. dominance.

Raúl Alfonsín’s presidency, from 1983 to 1989, was mostly marked by efforts to impose a state of functioning order and transparency. The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparación de Personas, or CONADEP) carried out a thorough investigation of the human rights abuses of the Proceso regime and tried the leading generals for crimes against humanity. The trials sought to create an account of the tragic events and to move past this violent episode, but many Argentines felt as though CONADEP’s work did not resolve the situation. Beyond human rights, Alfonsín had to deal with a looming economic crisis in the form of foreign debt. The Proceso leaders and their predecessors borrowed heavily from foreign sources, saddling Argentina with overwhelming obligations. Efforts to curb inflation ultimately failed, and the modest steps taken to loosen regulations did not improve Argentina’s prospects.

Carlos Menem, Alfonsín’s successor, took up the challenge upon entering office in 1989. Menem saw an opportunity to use U.S. assistance to improve his nation’s prospects and so made quick moves to strengthen Argentina’s relationship with the United States. First and foremost, he embraced neoliberalism and enacted sweeping reforms aimed at restructuring and opening the economy. Alfonsín took a slow approach to privatization, but Menem moved at breakneck speed, privatizing several industries as well as public services.20 Second, Menem followed the U.S. lead on security matters rather than striking out on his own path. To show willingness to cooperate, Argentina withdrew from the Non-Aligned Movement in 1991. The nation also contributed troops to UN peacekeeping missions and security efforts in the Gulf War, Cyprus, Croatia, Mozambique, Rwanda, the Sahara, Cambodia, Haiti, and Central America. Menem’s changes in domestic and international policies fostered closer economic relations with the United States. U.S. investment grew from two billion dollars to twelve billion dollars from 1990 to 1997. Exports increased by fivefold over the same period.21 By the end of his first term in office in 1994, Menem had made Argentina into a cooperative partner, not a potential source of conflict.

The late 1990s saw an abrupt change, however, as the Washington Consensus proved detrimental to long-term stability and growth. For many Argentines, their president’s actions drew their nation too close to the United States; foreign minister Guido Di Tella described the alliance as “carnal relations,” seeing this intense cooperation as problematic and inappropriate. The faltering economy and accusations of criminal activity by Menem seemed to support this assessment. Convertibility, the pegging of the peso’s value to the dollar, proved unsustainable. The plan had reduced inflation to zero, but several negative side effects took their toll on Argentina. The cost of labor was high compared with that of other Latin American nations, meaning that products had a harder time competing on the open market. Foreign debt also continued to climb, reaching $150 billion by the end of Menem’s presidency. As the Argentine economy crumbled, the nation looked as weak and ill-managed as its Latin American counterparts in the eyes of the United States. Menem took several bold steps to distinguish Argentina and prove his nation’s ability to cooperate. Unfortunately, the debt crisis affected Argentina as it did other Latin American nations and undermined all efforts to stand out.

The New Left and the Kirchners

With the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001 and subsequent upheaval in power, Argentina joined other Latin American nations in a new age. Much of the blame for the region’s debt was placed on the United States, specifically the Washington Consensus, for subverting each nation’s economy. This consensus encouraged developing economies to remove government controls and put in place policies that favored foreign investors. Many Latin American leaders blamed these policies for the crushing debt their nations accumulated and once again sparked vigilance against potential American intervention, setting much of Latin America against the hemispheric powerhouse. At the same time, the United States turned its attention away from hemispheric matters after the terrorist attacks of September 11 and dedicated its efforts to the war on terror in the Middle East. International developments and internal realities have once again widened that gulf between Argentina and the United States.

Argentina found potential in this new reality by becoming part of what has been dubbed the New Left. This New Left has embraced many populist policies of old as well as some socialist approaches, but without the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s and 1970s leftist movements. President Néstor Kirchner, elected in the wake of the debt crisis in 2003, aligned with such leaders as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), and Evo Morales (Bolivia). His wife and successor, Cristina Fernández Kirchner, preserved these relations and drew closer to other emerging economies, especially China. This has sparked a new period of development for Argentina as it has paid much of its external debt and sought new avenues for growth outside of its partnership with the United States.22

The extremes of cautious cooperation and bitter divisions continue to define U.S.-Argentine relations, as the recent presidential elections in November 2015 might indicate. As the new president, Mauricio Macri, takes power, Argentina seems poised to enter into a phase similar to that of Frondizi and Menem, wherein the nation may see economic controls loosened and become more open to foreign investment. The New Left alliances built by the Kirchners may not hold the same potential for Macri, who has already moved to remove currency controls.23 This recent election underscores the boom-or-bust nature of U.S.-Argentine relations, as the pendulum swings once again in the opposition direction. At this time, American leaders wait to see what kind of partnership to expect in this new period.

Discussion of the Literature

Studies of U.S.-Argentine relations have evolved over the years as scholars have sought to balance the perspectives of both sides. In doing so, historical analysis has given greater insight into the realities Argentina faced over time and how those realities affected their interactions and decisions. Additionally, this approach highlights the uniqueness of Argentina in terms of Latin American relations.. Being removed from the typical theaters of interaction—the Caribbean and Mexico, in particular—gave Argentina the benefit of remaining free of direct intervention. At the same time, distance made the nation appear more foreign and to some extent insignificant.

General histories of U.S.-Latin American relations add to scholars’ understanding of this particular nation, but Argentina-specific histories highlight the need to break down the region and see the uniqueness of each individual entity. One of the best-known studies dedicated to U.S.-Argentine relations is Joseph Tulchin’s Argentina and the United States: A Conflicted Relationship. As the title suggests, Tulchin sees the two nations as frequently at odds and unable to come to a mutually beneficial understanding. This broad interpretation, which certainly has evidence to support it, has recently been challenged in David M. K. Sheinin’s Argentina and the United States: An Alliance Contained. Sheinin agrees that conflict has regularly risen between the two nations, but those moments do not change the fact that throughout they maintained a steadfast working relationship. Sheinin also includes topics not found in Tulchin’s more traditional history, such as cultural exchanges and the concern over Argentina’s nuclear program. These two works represent the most comprehensive overviews focusing on the dynamic between the two nations.

Argentina’s relations with other powers further highlight the tensions that have underscored its connections with the United States. The Southern Cone nation has sought out other powerful nations in the hope of countering U.S. dominance throughout the region and asserting its own sovereignty. Certain studies have examined Argentina’s relations with Great Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century, while more recent works look to the nation’s seemingly contradictory attempts to foster a connection with the Soviet Union. Many of these histories provide an illuminating contrast to Argentina’s relationship with the United States. They draw attention to the ways in which the Southern Cone nation attempted to keep U.S. influence in check even when their interests coincided.

As these studies frequently argue, Argentina sought to maintain its autonomy and sovereignty, and other scholars have picked up this point through more focused, discrete events. Ariel C. Armony’s Argentina, the United States, and the Anti-Communist Crusade in Central America. 1977–1984 highlights the military regime’s efforts to train Nicaraguan Contras long before Reagan took up that charge. The edited volume Argentina/United States of America: Presidential Meetings in Argentina examines the visits of U.S. presidents, seeing them as singular moments between heads of state. In such works, it becomes clear how Argentina sought to act according to its needs and beliefs, not blindly following or wantonly challenging. At the same time, the intersection of common goals does shine through in these studies.

Perhaps the greatest addition to the historiography has been from declassified documents concerning the last military dictatorship (1976–1983). Peter Kornbluh and John Dinges have written extensively on these documents, which show the complicated response of U.S. officials to human rights violations and repression. By showing the different approaches to policy implementation, it becomes clearer how and why Argentina’s leaders saw the United States as a steadfast ally in the fight against communism.

Primary Sources

Where to begin one’s research on U.S.-Argentine relations depends on the period in question. For any given time, traditional venues for diplomatic historical research still remain an excellent starting point. The United States National Archives houses material from the State Department and so gives insight into U.S. actions. On the Argentine side, the Archivo General de la Nación houses the records of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Biblioteca del Congreso contains archival documents on congressional matters as well as secondary sources and various periodicals not readily available outside of Argentina.

Research on more recent events can be difficult, especially for the last military regime. For the Proceso period, archival records are limited in Argentina, as the military limited record keeping on the Dirty War. Groups like the National Security Archives have added significantly to scholars’ understanding of diplomatic affairs by peeling back the veil of secrecy that typically shrouds dealings between nations. As such, researchers have confirmed long held suspicions, clarified reasoning behind actions and decisions, and complicated our understanding of who makes decisions. The National Security Archives provides this insight for the 1970s and early 1980s.

For Argentine sources on the same period, scholars should look to human rights organizations such as Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) and the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo. Documentation from the state is thin but not completely absent. The Argentine government grants access to state materials after thirty years have passed; as such, much of what is available on the Proceso period can be found at the Archivo Intermedio, a branch of the Archivo Nacional. Finally, the military’s own archives remain a source, but a recently discovered cache of documents in the Air Force’s headquarters detail the Proceso regime’s activities from beginning to end. The national government has started digitizing these sources and making them available online.

Further Reading

Allison, Victoria. “White Evil: Peronist Argentina in the US Popular Imagination since 1955.” American Studies International 42.1 (February 2004): 4–48.Find this resource:

Armony, Ariel C. Argentina, the United States, and the Anti-Communist Crusade in Central America. 1977–1984. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1997.Find this resource:

Brands, Hal. Latin America’s Cold War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Di Tella, Guido, and Donald Cameron Watt. Argentina between the Great Powers, 1939–46. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Domínguez, Jorge I. Contemporary U.S.-Latin American Relations: Cooperation or Conflict in the 21st Century? Hoboken, NJ: Taylor & Francis, 2010.Find this resource:

Falicov, Tamara L. “Hollywood’s Rogue Neighbor: The Argentine Film Industry during the Good Neighbor Policy, 1939–1945.” Americas 63.2 (October 2006): 245–260.Find this resource:

McPherson, Alan. Intimate Ties, Bitter Struggles: The United States and Latin America since 1945. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006.Find this resource:

Norden, Deborah L., and Roberto Guillermo Russell. The United States and Argentina: Changing Relations in a Changing World. New York: Routledge, 2002.Find this resource:

O’Brien, Thomas F. Making the Americas: The United States and Latin America from the Age of Revolutions to the Era of Globalization. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Rapoport, Mario. “Argentina and the Soviet Union: History of Political and Commercial Relations (1917–1955).” Hispanic American Historical Review 66.2 (May 1986): 239–285.Find this resource:

Rosendo, Fraga, Robert Potash, Carlos Ortíz de Rozas, and V. Manuel Rocha. Argentina, United States of America: Encuentro presidenciales en Argentina = Presidential Meetings in Argentina. Buenos Aires: Editorial Centro de Estudios Unión para la Nueva Mayoría, 1999.Find this resource:

Sheinin, David M. K. Searching for Authority: Pan Americanism, Diplomacy and Politics in US-Argentine Relations, 1910–1930. New Orleans, LA: University Press of the South, 1998.Find this resource:

Sheinin, David M. K. Argentina and the United States: An Alliance Contained. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Smith, Peter. Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Tulchin, Joseph. Argentina and the United States: A Conflicted Relationship. Boston: Twayne, 1990.Find this resource:

Vannucci, Albert P. “The Influence of Latin American Governments on the Shaping of United States Foreign Policy: The Case of U.S.-Argentine Relations, 1943–1948.” Journal of Latin American Studies Vol. 18.2 (November 1986): 355–382.Find this resource:


(1.) Peter Smith, Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 74–75.

(2.) José C. Moya, “A Continent of Immigrants: Postcolonial Shifts in the Western Hemisphere,” Hispanic American Historical Review 86.1 (February 2006): 11.

(3.) David M. K. Sheinin, Argentina and the United States: An Alliance Contained (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 27–28.

(4.) Thomas F. O’Brien, Making the Americas: The United States and Latin America from the Age of Revolutions to the Era of Globalization (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007).

(5.) Smith, Talons of the Eagle, 77.

(6.) Sheinin, Argentina and the United States, 33.

(7.) Joseph Tulchin, Argentina and the United States: A Conflicted Relationship (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 34–35.

(8.) Rosendo, Fraga, Robert Potash, Carlos Ortíz de Rozas, and V. Manuel Rocha. Argentina, United States of America: Encuentro presidenciales en Argentina = Presidential Meetings in Argentina (Buenos Aires: Editorial Centro de Estudios Unión para la Nueva Mayoría, 1999), 27.

(9.) Tulchin, Argentina and the United States, 81–83.

(10.) Sheinin, Argentina and the United States, 84–86.

(11.) O’Brien, Making the Americas, 203.

(12.) For more on Perón’s impact on US popular perceptions, see Victoria Allison, “White Evil: Peronist Argentina in the US Popular Imagination Since 1955,” American Studies International 42.1 (February 2004): 4–48.

(13.) Tulchin, Argentina and the United States, 111.

(14.) Valeria Manzano, “The Blue Jean Generation: Youth, Gender, and Sexuality in Buenos Aires, 1958–1975,” Journal of Social History 42.3 (Spring 2009): 657–676.

(15.) O’Brien, Making the Americas, 254.

(16.) Rosendo et al., Argentina, 37–40.

(17.) Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies, The Politics of Antipolitics: The Military in Latin America, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 8–9, 307–312.

(18.) Sheinin, Argentina, 126

(19.) Kissinger to the Argentine Generals in 1976: "If There Are Things That Have to Be Done, You Should Do Them Quickly," National Security Archives.

(20.) Sheinin, Argentina and the United States, 196.

(21.) Rosendo et al., Argentina, 102–103.

(22.) Jorge I. Dominguez, Contemporary U.S.-Latin American Relations: Cooperation or Conflict in the 21st Century? (Hoboken, NJ: Taylor & Francis, 2010), 105–107.

(23.) “President Mauricio Macri Lifts Argentina’s Capital Controls,” Financial Times, December 17, 2015.