His was one of the first and most credible voices to criticize human-rights atrocities by a Salvadoran regime that the U.S. was backing. And it cost him his career as an American diplomat.
Robert E. White, a former ambassador who became an outspoken critic of some of his government's policies, died Tuesday in Arlington, Va., according to the Center for International Policy, a think tank where he worked. He was 88.
The cause of his death was bladder and prostate cancer, his family said.
In the years following his dismissal by then-President Ronald Reagan, White became an active champion for bringing Salvadoran perpetrators of heinous crimes to justice.
White served as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador from 1979 to 1981. In an era before WikiLeaks, he wrote fiercely worded top-secret diplomatic cables to Washington, telling the Carter administration it had misjudged the conflict in El Salvador and was backing the wrong side: a corrupt government that portrayed itself as an important bulwark against communism. But the Salvadoran government's self-description — not White's entreaties —— was what Washington wanted to hear.
"In El Salvador, the rich and powerful have systematically defrauded the poor and denied 80 percent of the people any voice in the affairs of their country," White wrote in a cable dated March 19, 1980, and declassified nearly 15 years later.
"A revolution is now underway and we are one of the principal actors. There is no stopping this revolution; there is no going back. We can influence the course of events, however, and try to guide it into channels that will benefit the Salvadoran people…."
White believed it was a fundamental error of American policy in Central America to see homegrown conflicts in a Cold War prism and to blame the events in El Salvador on the machinations of Havana or Moscow, instead of on the rampant injustice and poverty plaguing the small country.
"I think we should stay out of other countries' civil wars," he told Newsday in 2000.
"The campesinos of Latin America are among the most conservative people in the world, and when they rise up, it's a very serious thing, because they're the most patient, long-suffering people, because they know that every time there's change, they lose," White said. "So, it takes the heaped-up injustices of decades for them to go into revolution. And when that happens, we should never overemphasize outside factors."
White, who had also served as ambassador to Paraguay and in other posts in Colombia and Nicaragua, became passionately connected to two of the most notorious cases in El Salvador's civil war: the 1980 rape and murder of three American nuns and a female church lay worker, and the assassination of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot by a sniper as he said Mass.
White had dined with two of the slain women the night before they drove to an airport to pick up the other two women. All four were intercepted on the road by, as it was eventually established, military men, who raped and killed them and dumped their bodies in a field.
He later recalled seeing a Salvadoran army training film that described "good nuns" as those who wear habits, and "bad nuns" as those who wear slacks and work with the poor.
White personally oversaw the exhumation of the bodies when local peasants found them. Years later, he testified at the trial of two military commanders implicated in the murders.
He also repeatedly denounced, at congressional hearings and in news conferences, the involvement of Salvadoran Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson in the formation of death squads that eliminated dissidents and any perceived enemies of the regime — including Romero, who had begun to speak out on behalf of the poor and against abusive military actions.
White called D'Aubuisson, who went on to found the political party that ruled El Salvador for two decades, a "pathological killer."
What perhaps galled White more than the crimes themselves was the refusal of administrations in Washington to acknowledge them and, instead, to perpetrate years of cover-up.
White became president of the Center for International Policy in 1985, where he continued his advocacy.
"He testified in trial after trial: through his efforts and his wonderful cables, we learned who was responsible for the murders of four American churchwomen in 1980; we learned about death squads, torture, and mass killings," Terry Karl, a political science professor at Stanford University and expert witness in prosecutions of Salvadoran military officers, wrote in a tribute to White.
"Instead of engaging in cover-ups and apologies for the Salvadoran Armed Forces, the allies of the U.S. government at the time, he had the courage and honesty to report what was actually happening in that country," she added, noting that his candor put an end to his career.
White is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Maryanne Cahill; three children; and three grandchildren. Two of his children died before he did.