THE ROMERO FILES
recently leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador sheds light on the prior Salvadoran government’s machinations to enlist the Vatican’s assistance to discourage international investigations of Archbishop Romero’s assassination, historic embassy cables reveal U.S. intelligence insights on Archbishop Romero himself. A dozen cables obtained by George Washington University and posted on its National Security Archive show that the U.S. State Department believed that Archbishop Romero, at first, “played a critical and most constructive role on behalf of moderation and peaceful reforms,” but the Embassy had soured on Archbishop Romero by January 1980, when diplomats began to perceive that the Archbishop was giving up on the Junta that came to power in a reformist 1979 coup in favor of a popular uprising. The Carter Administration reassessed its views at the time of Romero's death in March 1980.
In 1979 and 1980, several U.S. Embassy cables analyzed Romero’s sermons with attention that would make a theology student blush. For example, an October 11, 1979 cable entitled “The Archbishop and the Military,” was entirely devoted to analyzing Romero’s October 7, 1979 sermon. Similarly, a December 17, 1979 cable entitled “Archbishop Strongly Urges Agrarian Reform,” focused on Romero’s December 16, 1979 sermon (a sampling: “Archbishop Romero devoted approximately half hour of ... homily to strong endorsement of agrarian reform, stating that he was speaking not as technician, but as pastor to his flock. He quoted Second Vatican Council at length in support of agrarian reform and quoted Pope John Paul II to effect that over all private property lies a social mortgage”). By the time the Embassy reported on Romero’s March 23, 1980 sermon (“Stop the Repression!”), the reports had grown decidedly ambivalent, even airing the views of Romero’s detractors: “A police station was allegedly attacked from a church, a priest was accused of subversive activities, Radio Havana stated that the Archbishop supported insurrection ... the armed forces accused the Archbishop of refusing to help a policeman who was tortured inside a church.”
In a draft Jan. 1980 letter to Pope John Paul II, the Embassy had concluded that, “Impatient with the pace of progress of the moderate Revolutionary Governing Junta led by the Christian Democratic Party and reformist military officers, and increasingly convinced of an eventual victory by the extreme left, the Archbishop has strongly criticized the Junta and leaned toward support for the extreme left.” The draft letter, however, admitted “frequent and frank dialogue with Archbishop Romero and his Jesuit advisors” and, when Archbishop Romero wrote to President Carter in February, calling for a halt to U.S. military aid to El Salvador, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s response offered a conciliatory tone. “The great moral authority of the Church,” he wrote, “and your uncompromising defense of human rights and dedication to non-violence convince me that our shared values can be the basis of a cooperative effort in search of peaceful solutions.”
After Archbishop Romero was killed, the Carter Administration praised his work. “Archbishop Romero spoke for the poor of El Salvador,” a White House statement said, “where their voices had been ignored for too long. He spoke for change and for social justice, which his nation so desperately needs. Terrorism cannot silence the message of compassion of the Archbishop. It cannot and should not intimidate those who seek social justice and democracy.”