Argentina and the National Security Doctrine: State Terror for State Security? By: Nathalie Chaar


Introduction: An Authoritarian Turn  

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, military-run dictatorships took control of the majority of Latin American countries (Rosigno, 2015; Zoglin, 1989). This period was marked by human rights abuses committed by governments against large parts of their populations. For instance, during Argentina’s dictatorship from1976 to 1983, large parts of the population were routinely tortured and killed by state agents (Pion-Berlin, 1983). In order to understand this regional shift to authoritarianism and state repression, it is important to look at the dominant military ideology of the period. In the late 1950s, the majority of armed forces in Latin American countries underwent an “intense restructuring” of the theoretical backgrounds that shaped their military strategies (Rosigno, 2015, 148). This shift was influenced by a growing fear of the spread of communism. This fear intensified after the successful installation of a communist government in Cuba following the 1959 Cuban Revolution (Rosigno, 2015; Pion-Berlin, 1988). The dominant ideology being taught in Latin American military academies during this period quickly became the National Security Doctrine (NSD). Understanding NSD gives an important insight into the motivations behind the actions of these dictatorships, as well as the consequences of these regimes on human rights protection and individual freedom. This will be done by looking at the origins of NSD and its subsequent development in the Argentinian context.  

The Origins of the National Security Doctrine  

While it eventually became synonymous with the region, NSD was not actually developed in Latin America. Its spread can be traced back to the involvement of both French military officers and American espionage agencies, namely the CIA, in Latin American military training centers. In the 1950s, France developed counterinsurgency tactics in response to colonial wars in both Algeria and Vietnam (Carlson, 2000; Pion-Berlin, 1983). The officers that took part in France’s efforts to quell anticolonial forces developed very distinct views on these revolutionary groups. Rather than frame them as nationalists who were fighting for the independence of their countries, officers saw them as “instrument[s] for a larger and more ominous movement against Western civilisation and its ideals” (Pion-Berlin, 1983, 99). Specifically, they saw them as enemies who were working in the interests of the international communist cause and whose goal it was to undermine the foundations of Western culture (Carlson, 2000). Moreover, these threats were made even more foreboding by the prevailing belief within NSD that these enemies could easily dissimulate themselves in society. This meant that threats to the state could come at any time, from anywhere, and that military strategy must always be prepared to crush these “subversive elements” (Crenzel, 2011, 1064; Calvo, 1979). This framework was propagated throughout the region when French military officers were welcomed at numerous military training academies. In Argentina in particular, institutions such as the Escuela Superior de Guerra (High Warfare Academy) began teaching this doctrine starting in 1958 (Rosigno, 2015; Carlson, 2000). The CIA supported these teachings, and would also support Latin American military coups d’état in the 1970s and 1980s as a part of their anti-Communist strategy (McSherry, 1999).  

NSD: Core Components and Mutations  

NSD bases its theoretical framework on three main doctrines: counterinsurgency, geopolitics and development (Pion-Berlin, 1988). As mentioned above, counterinsurgency frames internal enemies as representative of outside threats to the nation. Therefore, from this perspective, internal “subversives” had to be dealt with using “military action” and “campaigns of state violence” Pion-Berlin, 1988, 388; Osiel, 2001). This means that armed forces gave themselves a wider breadth of acceptable actions to use against any individuals or groups in society that they viewed as threats, including torture and summary executions (Rosigno, 2015).  

Geopolitics is a field which deals with the power dynamics between states. Geopolitical theorists argue that states are in “endless competition” with one another (Pion-Berlin, 1988, 388). Because of this competition, states are constantly trying to exert their strength against other states. However, within NSD, the relationship is flipped. The distinction between external and internal threats is blurred and militarization comes to affect relations both within and outside the country (Pion-Berlin,1988; Gatti, 2014; Rosigno, 2015). In fact, during the height of authoritarian rule in Latin America, many authoritarian governments were more concerned with internal threats than external ones. Governments would often collaborate to exchange citizens who were fleeing violence, which made seeking asylum from political violence almost impossible (Pion-Berlin, 1983). Therefore, geopolitics is present in NSD, but the threat is framed in a different way.  

Development is also an important part of NSD because military leaders felt that communism thrived when a country was underdeveloped. However, while they focused on the importance of infrastructure and industry, they ignored social justice and were generally distrustful of poor people (Calvo, 1979; Gatti, 2014). NSD is an elitist ideology that sees democracy as creating conflict and inefficiency, and sees the armed forces as being the only ones able to lead a country in turbulent times (Zoglin, 1989). Therefore, development was understood as a safeguard against communism through industrialisation and militarization, rather than through addressing the concerns of a country's most vulnerable citizens (Pion-Berlin, 1988). In fact, poor citizens were often victims of state violence because they were seen as hostile and dangerous to the social order (Calvo, 1979). All three of these subdoctrines were important in the development of NSD throughout the region and were incorporated in each country in diverse ways. The Argentinian case illustrates how the influence of NSD led to transformations in the realm of state repression and terror.  

NSD in Argentina: The Proceso de Reorganización Nacional and the “Dirty War”  

In 1976, a military coup d’état overthrew Argentina’s democratically-elected president Isabel Perón and installed a military junta (Zoglin, 2015). This junta was made up of three high-ranking officers from the three branches of Argentina’s military: Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla of the army, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera of the navy and Brigadier-General Orlando Ramón Agosti of the air force. These military leaders argued that the democratic government was inefficient in addressing Argentina’s economic problems and that they had allowed left-wing “subversives” to thrive in an uncertain political environment, echoing fears central to the NSD (Zoglin, 1989; Pion-Berlin, 1983). They called their rule the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (National Reorganisation Process, PRN). The goal of the PRN was to root out any potential left-wing or communist dissidents, in order to optimize the efficiency and security of the country (Carlson, 2000; Pion-Berlin, 1983). What was hidden behind this argument of efficiency of the PRN was the brutality of the state terror that would accompany it (Gatti, 2014; Crenzel, 2011). The junta was extremely paranoid and deployed police, military and paramilitary forces against segments of the population seen as threatening. This included trade union workers, intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, students, poor citizens, priests etc. (Crenzel, 2011).   

State terror was enforced systematically. The country was divided into five “Defence Zones”, each of which was controlled by “Zone General Commander” (Rosigno, 2015, 149-151). Within these zones, there was further division into “sub-zones, areas, and sub-areas" all of which set “a fine grid of control over the territory and its population (Rosigno, 2015, 149). This subdivision allowed for repression to be carried out in a systematically. A major invention of the Argentinian military government was the practice of forced disappearances. This is a process through which suspected dissidents were kidnapped by state agents at night and brought to one of 340 clandestine detention centers (CDCs) in the country. In these CDCs, kidnapped citizens were tortured and killed and their bodies disposed of (Zoglin, 1989). It was a process of literally making people disappear without a trace in order to silence their critical voices (Gatti, 2014). This form of extrajudicial killing is particularly brutal because families were unable to get any information on the whereabouts of lost members, since the perpetrators of the violence were state agents (Zoglin, 1989). It is estimated that between 9,000 and 30,000 people were victims of forced disappearance (Crenzel, 2011; Pion-Berlin, 1988). This process of mass torture and killing by the state was referred to by the junta as the “Dirty War”; a war which they saw as brutal but necessary for the maintenance of social order (Pion-Berlin, 1983; Carlson, 2000). Forced disappearances are an Argentinian military invention that fit within their interpretation of NSD. The junta was extremely paranoid and intolerant of criticism. Since they saw themselves as Argentina’s saviours, any threat to their power became a threat to the security of the nation, and any amount of force, no matter how brutal, was then justified to crush opposition (Pion-Berlin, 1983).  


Conclusion: The Ultimate Contradiction of the National Security Doctrine   

The irony of NSD and its manifestation in Argentina is that it “undermined the very goals it sought to address” (Zoglin, 1989, 266). In their effort to defend national security, the military government created a process of “institutionalization of terrorism by the state,” in which thousands of citizens were victimized and killed (Zoglin, 1989, 267; Gatti, 2014). The security of citizens was sacrificied in the junta’s paranoid attempt to root out all dissident voices (Gatti, 2014). NSD, in its contradictory logic, claimed to protect Western values while simultaneously crushing democratic free speech and individual rights. In NSD, we can see an example of an ideology which at its core contradicts its primary goals, and which is at the root of state sponsored terror and repression.  


Reference List  

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