Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Ronald Reagan, Deane Hinton, and “Fake News” in The New York Times

by Elliott Abrams
April 1, 2017


The term “fake news” is no doubt over-used these days, but there is such a thing. Indeed, there is even such a thing as a “fake news” obituary. A prime example of distortion and false reporting can be found in the obituary this week of Deane Hinton.

Deane Hinton was a superb and widely-honored American diplomat. He died last Tuesday at age 94, and The Times accurately reported that “Mr. Hinton, a plain-spoken economist, served as the United States ambassador to El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama, as well as Zaire and Pakistan, under four Republican presidents beginning in 1974.” I had the honor and pleasure of knowing Amb. Hinton when I served in the Reagan administration.

The Times uses the obituary to tell a false tale and defame Ronald Reagan. Here is how the Times obituary begins:

Deane R. Hinton, an American career diplomat who was rebuffed by the Reagan administration over his accusations of human rights abuses by Salvadoran security forces and right-wing “death squads,” died on Tuesday….

The Times has been reporting this now for thirty-four years, since Amb. Hinton left El Salvador. A 1983 story said the same thing (and presumably was the basis for this part of the obituary). That story also reported that Hinton would be replaced by a Reagan friend. In fact he was replaced by a very senior career diplomat, Thomas Pickering, who was later ambassador to Israel and to Russia and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. I recall very well the selection of a replacement for Hinton, in which I may have played a part. William Clark, who had been Deputy Secretary of State and was then National Security Advisor, asked my advice. When we discussed a new ambassador to El Salvador, Clark’s exact question was, “who is the best Foreign Service Officer?” There was no desire to find someone “soft” on death squads, nor any ideological test.

The Times has a line it wishes to sell. The Reagan administration, you see, was indifferent to human rights abuses in El Salvador and to death squad killings. Hinton wasn’t, so he had to go.

That is a complete falsification of history.

Take for example this paragraph in the Times obituary:

In his official reports, Mr. Hinton accused Salvadoran soldiers of being responsible for unexplained killings, including that of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980, in which the right-wing leader Roberto d’Aubuisson was said to be complicit. Reagan nevertheless certified that the Salvadoran government had made significant progress in reducing human rights violations and that it therefore qualified for American aid.

Note that the archbishop had been killed in 1980, and Hinton was reporting on abuses in 1983. “Reagan nevertheless certified” progress is a bizarre line; why could there not have been progress in three years, and under a new American president? In fact the archbishop was murdered in the Carter years, yet Carter did not cut off aid to El Salvador. He did not cut it off when Archbishop Romero asked him to do so, and he did not cut it off after the Archbishop’s murder.

Neither did the incoming Reagan administration in 1981, but we did do something else: we undertook a forceful human rights program designed to stop death squad killings and help the country emerge from military rule. This helps explain why the Christian Democratic party won the 1982 legislative elections (in which 1.5 million Salvadorans voted), why Jose Napoleon Duarte was elected president in 1984, and why Duarte undertook a significant land reform program. Death squad killings reached their highest points in 1980 and 1981, but as Reagan strategy began to bite they began to fall in 1982 and 1983, and especially under Duarte in 1984 and after. In late 1983, then-Vice President Bush was dispatched to San Salvador to read the riot act to the military, and all these pressures from Washington had an effect.

The 1983 State Department “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” reported that “The level of political violence remains high, but noncombatant deaths have declined steadily since a peak in 1980.”

The 1984 report quantified this:

The brutal phenomenon known as ‘death squad’ assassination activity has not been completely extirpated but has declined dramatically….The best indicative data show civilian deaths to have declined from a level of 444 per month in 1981 and 298 per month in 1982, to 139 per month in 1983 and 46 per month for the second half of 1984, since Duarte took office.

So, death squad killings reached their high point under Jimmy Carter. The Reagan administration was determined to stop them, and managed by 1983 (after two years in office) to reduce them by two-thirds and by 1984 to reduce them by ninety percent. That is why the administration certified progress in human rights–and it gives the lie to the statement by the Times in the Hinton obituary that despite the 1980 murder of the archbishop, “Reagan nevertheless certified…progress.”

One might well ask, why refight this old war? Indeed, why–why did the Times find it necessary to use Deane Hinton’s obituary to do so? The Times’s story is that Hinton cared about human rights and Reagan did not. That is completely false, and the story of El Salvador shows it.

Deane Hinton was a wonderful man, a great colleague, and a superb ambassador who spent a lifetime serving his country. And Ronald Reagan was a great president under whom there were remarkable advances for human rights in Latin American and around the world. Let’s leave it at that.

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  • Posted by Christopher R Hinton

    Perhaps the term “fake news” is not overused as much as it is inappropriately assigned.

    Mr Abrams claims, “the Times uses the obituary to tell a false tale and defame Ronald Reagan.” It appears to me, that Mr. Abrams has used the obituary to tell his own false tale.

    In his memoir, Amb. Hinton recounts remarks made to the American Chamber of Commerce on October 29, 1982 which had been cleared in advance by the Dept. of State; ” Since 1979 perhaps as many as 30,000 Salvadorans have been MURDERED, not killed in battle, MURDERED…[My] message is simple. El Salvador must make substantial progress in bringing the murderers of our citizens, including those who ordered the murders to justice, in advancing human rights; and in controlling the abuses of some elements of the security forces. If not, the United States, in spite of our other interests, in spite of our commitment to the struggle against communism, could be forced to deny assistance to El Salvador.”

    The NYTimes and Salvadoran press reported on a wide range of reactions to these comments. To deny that there was some consternation expressed by officials in the White House by defaming the NYTimes, appears to me to be an effort to rewrite and sanitize the Reagan Administration’s role in providing political cover and financial support, howsoever it may have been done indirectly or inadvertently, to the “Death Squads” of the El Salvador Civil War. Would such defamation constitute a genuine attempt to promote fake history? Let us recall what President Reagan most famously said in response to questions hurled across the rose garden at him as he carried out his duties. His answer, and I quote, “Mistakes were made”, though directly applied to questions regarding the Iran-Contra Affair, serves as an answer equally well here.

    Mr Abrams declares “The Times has a line it wishes to sell.” He claims that line is “fake” news and an agenda to write “fake” history by defaming the Reagan Administration. Surely any history, fake or otherwise can be seen to defame someone. Efforts to rewrite history must themselves defame someone else.

    Mr Abrams notably writes, “Deane Hinton was a wonderful man, a great colleague, and a superb ambassador who spent a lifetime serving his country. And Ronald Reagan was a great president under whom there were remarkable advances for human rights in Latin American and around the world. Let’s leave it at that.”

    Yes, let us leave it at that, and never forget history. There may be profit for some in the production of “fake” news and “fake” history, but the burden of the costs are shared by all.

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