02.05.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy In Memory of Ambassador Robert E. White

Mr. President, on January 13, 2015, the country lost one of its most courageous diplomats, Ambassador Robert E. White.  He was 88 years old.

I knew Bob White, who graduated from my alma mater, Saint Michaels College in Vermont, in 1952 – nine years before I did.  I admired him greatly. 

He had the qualities that every American diplomat should possess: outstanding intellect, unimpeachable integrity, extraordinary courage, and a devotion to the ideals and values of his country.

In the 1980s during the civil war in El Salvador, the United States steadfastly supported the Salvadoran army despite abundant evidence that some of its elite units were functioning as death squads, arbitrarily arresting, torturing, and murdering civilians suspected of supporting the FMLN rebels. 

Unlike some other U.S. officials who turned blind eyes to the heinous crimes that were being committed in the name of fighting communism, Ambassador White refused to remain silent. 

He publicly condemned the Salvadoran military and their right-wing backers who were implicated in atrocities like the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the massacre of four American church women.   

For speaking out, Bob White paid dearly.  He was ridiculed by conservatives in Congress and summarily removed from his job by then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig.   

A January 15th obituary in the Washington Post describes Bob’s life and career.  As I was reading it I could not help but wonder how things might have turned out differently if the powers that be during the 1980s had listened to him. 

How many lives might have been saved if the Reagan Administration, rather than firing Bob in 1981, had recognized the truth of what he was saying and instead supported negotiations to end the war in El Salvador? 

Instead, the war dragged on for another decade, costing the lives of many tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians.  The tide only started to turn in 1989 after the cold-blooded murder of the 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, at the University of Central America – a crime that top-ranking army officers tried to cover up. 

It was thanks to the late Congressman Joe Moakley and his then-staff aide, and now a congressman, Jim McGovern; Bill Woodward; and Salvadoran investigator Leonel Gomez, whom I also came to know and respect, that the plot was uncovered and the killers identified.

During this time I talked often with Bob and learned even more about those involved.  After talking with him I went to El Salvador and met with that country’s chief investigator.  As he described the so-called investigation it just confirmed Ambassador White’s suspicion.  I told the Salvadoran investigator and press that they were conducting an obvious cover-up.

As I left El Salvador it was so obvious that rather than shamelessly removing Ambassador White from his post, how much better things might have been if the State Department had recognized him for the true patriot that he was, and treated him as an example of what other U.S. diplomats should emulate. 

After leaving the Foreign Service, Bob went on to head the Center for International Policy where he continued his advocacy for human rights, defending the ideals and championing the causes he believed in, right up to his death. 

I would like to think that all of our Foreign Service Officers aspire to follow in the footsteps of Bob White.  I hope they will learn from his example.  If they do, the United States will be better served and the world will be a better place.

I ask unanimous consent that the Washington Post obituary, and an article about Ambassador White by Margaret O’Brien Steinfels in Commonweal Magazine, be printed in the Record.

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