In the late 1970s and 1980s, Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship disappeared over 30,000 people, using death squads trained by the US as part of the now infamous Operation Condor. The victims were held in secret prisons, savagely tortured, and murdered. To this day, many families do not know the fate of their loved ones. In this episode of The Chris Hedges Report, former Buenos Aires Herald editor Robert Cox joins the show to recount his experiences reporting on the disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
Robert Cox is a British journalist who served as editor and publisher of the Buenos Aires Herald, an English-language daily newspaper in Argentina. Cox became famous for his criticism of the military dictatorship; he was also targeted by police forces and was detained and jailed, then released after a day. During this time, he received multiple threats against his family; eventually, Cox and his family left Argentina in 1979 and moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he became an editor of The Post and Courier. In 2005, the Buenos Aires legislature recognized Cox for his valor during the dictatorship.
Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show, The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.
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Pre-Production: Kayla Rivara
Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Chris Hedges: In the fall of 1980, I was a second year student at Harvard Divinity School. I intended, like my father, to become a Presbyterian minister. But I was by nature a writer and a news junkie who devoured at least two newspapers a day. I’d already published freelance articles in papers such as The Christian Science Monitor. I could not, however, reconcile the social activism of my father, who was involved in the Vietnam antiwar movement and the civil rights movement with the supposed neutrality and objectivity demanded by American journalism.
It was then that I met Robert Cox, the former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, who was a Nieman fellow for the year at Harvard. Bob had reported on the crimes of the Dirty War in Argentina, which saw some 30,000 Argentines disappear by military death squads in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The victims were held in secret prisons, savagely tortured, and murdered. Many families to this day do not know the fate of their sons, daughters, siblings, and spouses. Bob received frequent death threats in a climate where some 60 Argentine journalists were also kidnapped by the military and disappeared. He fatally accepted that he too would be killed, which he said gave him a strange kind of comfort and continued to doggedly persist in making public the names of those who had disappeared and the anguish of their families.
In his example, I saw that journalism did not have to be divorced from morality. That while the truth was always paramount and should never be twisted to serve one side or another, we have an obligation as journalists to give a voice to the vulnerable, especially those who are being silenced and persecuted by the powerful. I took a leave from Divinity School to study Spanish at the language school run by the Maryknoll Society in Bolivia and report on the heinous dictatorships in Latin America. I covered the Falkland War from Buenos Aires for NPR, and then, after returning to get my degree from Harvard, left for El Salvador, where I would spend the next five years reporting on the conflicts in Central America.
The last piece of sage advice Bob gave me before I left for Bolivia was to take with me the four volumes of George Orwell’s collected essays, journalism, and letters, which became my secular Bible. A new film, Messenger on a White Horse, available on Amazon, documents Bob and his wife Maud’s heroic stand in Argentina. Joining me to discuss his experiences in Argentina, the documentary, and what it means to be a reporter is Bob Cox.
Just before we begin, I can’t say enough how important you were for me, and a model that I carried with me throughout the next 20 years that I was overseas. Not just me, Stephen Kinzer and all sorts of other reporters feel the same way. You really held up for us what it means to be a reporter, especially in societies where there is tremendous amounts of oppression.
I want to begin with Andrew Graham-Yooll’s very fine book, A State of Fear. He also worked with you at the Buenos Aires Herald. And it chronicles that period up to the 1976 coup when the military took over, because I think it’s an important component to understanding what came next. Can you describe that climate that led up to the coup?
Robert Cox: Well, you had so much violence every day that… And nobody was taking any notice of it. And we decided to just publish a list of people being murdered by one side or another in a kind of underground war that was going on prior to the actual coup itself. It was just unbelievable, because there was so much violence. And the newspapers, they did two strange things. Anyway, later on, it was a different thing. But at that time, they’d hide it all away. Until the moment came when working with the military, the press went in and started to emphasize the violence that was coming from the left, when there was violence from the left and the right. It became almost unlivable at that time, so people were prepared for anything. And as Argentine, you had a tradition of military coups, which were… In those days, you talked about a soft coup and a hard coup. Most of Argentina’s coups had been soft coups. They literally came in, painted things a bit and cleaned things up, and called elections. And so much the same kind of thing was expected this time.
Chris Hedges: Yeah, you had underground groups, the Montoneros, and these were left-wing radical groups, and constant kidnappings. When that coup took place in 1976, the army chief of staff, Videla, under Isabel Perón, took power. In the documentary, it shows that even the Buenos Aires Herald, even people like you saw the coup as a kind of relief.
Robert Cox: Yeah, we thought that at least they would stop the killing. They’d stop the killing which was going on on both sides. That they would restore law, and that they would operate within the law, bring the people responsible for the violence to justice. That’s what we really prayed for. Quite honestly prayed for.
Chris Hedges: How long did it take you to realize that this was not what was taking place? That the military was now aggressively kidnapping and disappearing, or I should say that very few of the some 30,000 victims, I think a thousand or something have been identified, many of them were taken in what they call death flights. They were drugged and dropped into the ocean. I’ll let you tell the story about the crematorium you and Maud… I mean, it’s an amazing story. Did you realize gradually or…? Talk about that process.
Robert Cox: Well, to begin with, we clearly got an idea that things were not going to be the way we hoped they would be. Because the first thing that happened was that we were instructed by the military having taken over that we were not allowed to report any acts of violence, any disappearances, without official backing. That was the first indication. And then it was known, but you didn’t know quite what was happening. Then with Andrew Graham-Yooll, as it happened, Andrew got a letter from an old couple who knew his father. They tried to tell him that something terrible had happened, but they couldn’t quite explain it. The reason they called him was because they published a death notice in the newspaper, a funeral notice, and there was a slight mistake in it and they wanted to correct that.
Realizing what was happening, we went out to see them. There, the confirmation was unbelievable. Because what we discovered was that their son-in-law, who was running a chemical laboratory there, was taken away. He went quite correctly in a way to begin with. And he was found later on more dead than alive, having been tortured so badly. Then we heard the story, and we discovered that on that… Rather, later I discovered that particular place they had just taken people quite without… On the day of the coup, they stopped everyone in the street and asked them for their papers and identity cards, and just took people away en masse. And it was later on that I heard that, in fact, what had happened is that they then routinely tortured everybody.
When people are tortured, they’ll say anything at all. I’m encapsulating a bit because I became very close friends with the secretary of the [inaudible] an Irish priest, Kevin [inaudible], who I knew was Kevin Monsignor [inaudible]. And he had called me one day later on and said, Bob, come, you must come quickly. I must tell you about this. This man came into me and said, I want to confess to you that when I was taken away, they tortured me. And they said, [foreign language] which was the slang to say, give us 10 names of people in the guerilla organization. He thought, what do I do? I’ve got to stop this. And he gave 10 names of the most respectable people he could think of, thinking that nobody would think that they could possibly be a member of a terrorist organization or guerilla organization.
And they all disappeared, he said. It was all around you at that time, but you couldn’t quite be certain of it. I don’t know what to say exactly that… But one had to go on producing a newspaper. And both Andrew and I, we decided that we found a way of asking for habeas corpuses, which gave us some kind of cover. It wasn’t really. And we stopped doing it later on. But we decided we just had to report what was happening. Because fairly early on, too, we discovered that journalism could save lives. We could save lives if we could quickly get something into the newspaper that would make the military halt or stop.
Quite quickly, people were coming to us. We didn’t have to go out anymore. As I was going out beforehand to understand what was quite exactly going on in the incident that you mentioned, where with Maud, we heard that they were burning bodies in the crematorium at midnight. From midnight onwards into the nighttime. And we went out and saw the smoke coming from the chimneys of the crematorium. It was exactly what was happening.
Chris Hedges: How long did it take you to realize how extensive the torture centers… Because it was quite a vast apparatus. What is it? Upwards of 300 clandestine centers. And of course they were disappearing, not left-wing guerillas. They were labor leaders, student activists, journalists, as I mentioned. How long did it take you to realize how extensive it was?
Robert Cox: The thing is, when I look back now and check up, I found that we did report very early on, much earlier on than I had thought. But we could only report what we could actually confirm because I was always worried that the military would try and entrap us in some way, either by coming with some phony story that would then show us up. I think this is what remains with me all the time. It was so obvious what was happening, but people managed not to see it. I think that is what worries me so much. I found myself haunted, too, by Hannah Aaron, who said there were so few people who cared in Germany. In this case, there were so few people who were honest enough to see what was happening.
Now, it was not easy. And early on I realized that when people see something… [seeing] somebody dragged away and thrown into a car, and then the car screams off, and they have machine guns [inaudible], and they threaten everybody on the way to this unknown place, and somebody sees that. To begin with they expect to see something in the newspaper, or on television the next day, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing. And that’s what happened. The military controlled television, radio, but there were some independents. And then the major newspapers were free. They could do what they want. They could have made a decision the very beginning, as we made a decision that we’ve got to somehow tell our readers what’s going on. And they didn’t. They worked with the military. That’s what it amounted to.
Chris Hedges: The Buenos Aires Herald, which was an English language paper, although there is a large English speaking community in Argentina – I think the number’s about 100,000 if I remember correctly – But you were alone, and you were also, you did publish your editorials in Spanish. In the documentary, somebody goes to change a tire or something in the garage, and there’s one of your editorials in Spanish up on the wall. But you took on this outsized importance for, and especially the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, these courageous mothers who protested because their children had been disappeared. You were alone, largely, doing this. I’m wondering if that experience at that time made you rethink your role as a reporter or as a journalist?
Robert Cox: Well, what I discovered early on is that we could save lives, that journalism can save lives. Made me realize how important journalism is. Now, these were very special circumstances, and I did have a lot of support to begin with. It was underground support, but there were some heroes of that time.
Tex Harris, an American diplomat who was sent down to watch the military regime, because at that time they were trying to come up with a nuclear weapon, and that was his job. And when he came down, he was horrified by what he saw. He went to Plaza de Mayo one day and handed out his card to all the mothers that he met there and said, come to my office and tell me. He opened the doors of the embassy, I suppose, because he was such a fine man. He eventually was taken off and his career could have absolutely ended, but he was the first one to take down names and take down the names of the missing. And so he had something like 10,000 names of disappeared people on card indexes in his office, helped by a German woman, actually. A German extraction.
Chris Hedges: Well, this was under the Carter administration where there was some sympathy with Patt Derian in charge of human rights. And then of course you shifted to Reagan, and that’s when Tex Harris was shuttled off to AID or something. I just [crosstalk].
Robert Cox: [crosstalk] a lot of pressure before then. Was actually before then, but pressure from business interests in the US who wanted to go on selling arms to Argentina.
Chris Hedges: I just have to say, Tex Harris saved my career. You probably don’t know that.
Robert Cox: I didn’t know.
Chris Hedges: He was moved to AID, and a man of, of course, great moral probity and courage. There was a war in the Reagan administration against reporters who were covering and writing about the atrocities committed by the military in El Salvador. And they framed me, accusing me of falsifying a story. Did a pretty good job of convincing – I was writing for The Christian Science Monitor at the time – The editors that that story was falsified. And suddenly the foreigner got a call from a guy named Tex Harris, and he explained who he was. He said, I want to tell you everything your reporter wrote is true. This is a campaign to crush him and stop his reporting. It absolutely saved my career. I was a young freelance journalist.
Robert Cox: Yes. Oh, Tex was a magnificent human being, glorious person. Absolutely wonderful. Somebody like him… Well, we knew, of course he would talk to the CIA. He talked to the FBI guy. So he knew pretty well everything. The CIA and FBI were in touch with him. But he never gave me those kinds of details. But what we did was work together when we could see that there was somebody that we could possibly save if we could get something into the newspaper about them, and give them some kind of foreign, say… Something that has to be truthful, obviously, but say they had studied at Harvard or whatever. It could be anything, anyway. But the idea was to alert the diplomats of the democratic countries, who would then start asking the military about them, and that would make the military worried about things. Well, Tex was just magnificent at that time.
Chris Hedges: You say you realized you had to go to diplomatic parties, which you hated, but those kinds of connections for the reasons you just pointed out were vital.
Robert Cox: Very vital, because I could interest them in these cases. What has been forgotten now is there’s a tendency in Argentina to make guerillas sound heroic, and to forget, and to argue that all the missing were heroic guerillas. And they weren’t. There were lots and lots of innocent people picked up, people were taken away because their name appeared in the address book. At that time you had address books. The address book of somebody who was possibly involved. We will never know that, because the military decided they were not interested in finding out who could be guilty of some kind of crime or not. They were just interested in disposing of people they thought suspicious.
Chris Hedges: There’s a heavy cost that you, Maud, ultimately your children, pay. Talk about the kind of pressure they put you under.
Robert Cox: I think I ignored it, really. They used to follow me all the time, and I used to play it out as if it was a Hitchcock film, because I insisted on just living a normal life. I think it probably was very risky when I look back on it, but I think it might have helped me. Because I think they couldn’t understand who I was and why I was. Then I would go to work, I would go on the bus, and the guy would follow me, and there’d be a fellow reading a newspaper and he’d drop his newspaper and jump on the bus if I got on the bus a bit earlier. All kinds of things happened. One day they loosened all the bolts on the front wheel of a car, fortunately we were coming back from the country where I was with all the children. The car was packed with all our kids, and we suddenly saw the wheel rolling away in front of us.
These were just odd things that happened. Telephone would ring. We got used to those kinds of things, they were constant. And we had a game that we used to play. They used to call up the newspaper, and we’d say, we don’t expect… We have this time, and you can phone up with these questions, trying not to laugh it off because it wasn’t a sort of gallows humor or anything like that, but to keep sanity, really.
Chris Hedges: And yet there was a realization. In the documentary, they talk about one reporter who carried a razor. You yourself said that you came to accept that you would probably die, but you didn’t want to be tortured.
Robert Cox: Yeah. With Jim [Nielsen], who wrote editorials with me. Great person. And fortunately, this is something that I think is important. He was of the right people. I’ve given up even deciding with myself whether I’m right, left. I don’t think I’m any of those things. And I always thought journalists shouldn’t be any of those things. They shouldn’t be right, left. They should just try and be outside politics in that way. And he said to me one day, well, Bob, I’m not going to let them take me. And he showed me, he had this cut throat razor, this old-fashioned cut throat razor. I suppose he thought he’d do so much damage they’d have to [kill him]. I had all kinds of ruses that I thought I would carry out. I would get into an elevator and stop the elevator between floors.
I mean, I wasn’t foolish in that way, but I did decide that it was a bit like… I said to myself, well… I don’t know, even if I really did think this, whether or not. But it’s something that I gave myself to carry on. I said to myself, Well, your first time on an airplane, you’re frightened. The second time it’s the same. And the way to get over it, any kind of fear you have of flying – I did suggest this to people, but nobody picked me up on it – Is to say to yourself, this flight that I’m going to go on is going to crash. Knowing that it’s going to crash you don’t worry about it anymore. So essentially that’s what I did, every day I expected it.
And every day that went by, it was a victory. It was great. Until they went after my kids and my wife. Well, I mean, they tried to kidnap her, and God knows what was… They were madness. That was a time of enormous madness and I still have not been able to put it into a frame that makes any sense. The madness started unnecessarily, I think, absolutely unnecessary. The situation in Argentina could have been worked out. It’s a complicated country.
Chris Hedges: Well, it reverberates today. I want to talk about your childhood. It is brought up in the film. You were in London during The Blitz. Most, I think, many of the children in London were shipped out into the country, but somehow you managed to stay behind. It draws parallels between living in London during The Blitz, I guess you were seven or eight or something, and that experience in Argentina. Can you talk about that?
Robert Cox: Yeah. A friend of mine once said to me, he had a good war. It was Andrew Graham-Yooll. He said he had a good war in Argentina, because he went there to cover when the Argentine military made the big mistake of invading the Falkland Islands, as the British called them Malvinas [inaudible]. He had a good war. As a child, we were happy. We were a happy [inaudible]. and the people were too. And I came across something of that in Argentina, because suddenly we got supported, the newspaper. Very small, I mean, we could be swatted like a fly to begin with. And then we became important, and people would read the newspaper just to know something of what was going on. And so we suddenly got people advertising who had never advertised before. And we saw the, in a way, traditional advertisers of the newspaper, the multinational companies, withdrew their advertising from us.
Not quite the same, because we did feel very alone. We’d see people who were friends of ours, and they’d cross to the other side of the street. I’ve heard this so many times now I realize that it must be universal, if you become a suspicious person in some way. And I became a suspicious person because by that time I was supposed to be a communist to begin with. They had me down as an imperialist. Fortunately, the Navy man who was a murderer, an unbelievably evil man, believed that I must be CIA, and actually said to the American ambassador, Bob Hill. Bob Hill told me later on. He said, when [inaudible] said to me, I know he’s CIA, Bob Hill said, I put an expression onto my face as if to say, oh, it might be true. And that might have helped in a way. It might have helped.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk, you go back, they have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There’s a very poignant moment in the film where you break down, you can’t speak. Can you talk about what it was like to return to Argentina and speak about these crimes, this state terror that you covered?
Robert Cox: What I keep going back to is this business that people did not care that they, in a way, knew, they didn’t know everything. It wasn’t written down there or they couldn’t read it or see it. Everybody knew in a way what was happening. I remember meeting a Brazilian diplomat and talking, as I did to everybody that I met, about what was going on in Argentina. And he’d sort of dismissed it and said, but what I don’t understand is the children, how they… What they did when they picked up any young woman. And some of them were pregnant. And if they were pregnant, they allowed them to have their children in the most appalling conditions. And then when the child was born, they killed the mother, the young mother and those young… The grandmothers. Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo were formed by these women looking for their grandchildren. That, I think, is the most horrific side of it.
But the other thing is that Nazism, and these people were in a way Nazis [inaudible]. I was lucky that I went to one of the so-called legal jails, not the clandestine prisons. And when you enter that after being stripped, you see in front of you, covering a huge wall, enormous wall, a huge swastika. And underneath it, Nazi [Nationalisma]. They used to play Hitler’s speeches to cover the sounds of people being tortured. As I got to know more of the military, they boasted. They thought that they were leading the Third World War against international communism. And they also had plans to invade Chile, eventually Brazil. I mean, lunacy got into their heads. They hadn’t fought a war for a hundred years until then. And then the war that they did fight, this Dirty War, gave them delusions of grandeur for a while. But you can’t understand how they could be like that, because they should be so ashamed of themselves.
And some of them were. One day, the colonel, I got to know him quite well, because I used to go to the government house because they would complain about the stories that we were writing. And I said, look, I’m not interested. Just let these people appear. I won’t publish a word about it. It’s fine. I’ll give you a list of these people who I know you’ve got. And so tell us where they are and what’s going to happen to them, and that’s fine, there won’t be anything else. And then he said to me, but did you know? Ah, we call them our centurions. These are these poor guys who have to go out and do these terrible things. And when they go back, he said, they can’t kiss their wives and they can’t touch their children. He honestly expected me to be sympathetic to him, not realizing, of course, that echoes exactly what the SS were told. They were told you are doing glorious things, but you can never tell anybody about it.
Chris Hedges: Great. We’re going to stop there, Bob. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.