October 15, 1979 COUP! Now What? Leaving El Salvador 1979 -1980 Part Two


In an ACTION Memorandum, dated October 16, 1979, (DNSA-GWU Collection: El Salvador: The Making of U.S. Policy 1977 – 1984:  Item Number ES00248) Washington staffer Bill Reese responds to to LAC Regional Director Paul Bell’s, request for suggestions. The memo is entitled: “Some Thoughts on El Salvador, prior to October 1979 Coup.” Reese identifies himself as “Your Devil’s Advocate” but his concerns and suggestions are very serious. Reese argues that there is a need for “contingency plans” beyond just evacuation.  He appears to me to be most concerned with the issues of Peace Corps Trainees. He writes:

2. November PST – STOP. Transferring out PCVs in Oct-Nov to place new Vs in February? The Fall 80 Vs in February will be at their weakest, as all new Vs are that early on:

–less than good Spanish

–new jobs

–no housing, or at best a new neighborhood

–less than full cultural adaptation

In short, new Vs by nature do not have the normal “support systems” more veteran Vs enjoy. I’d venture to say that El Salvador Vs will need all the support systems they can get.

Reese concludes his memo:

6. Departure Inevitable? I have heard several people say we have anything from 9 to 15 left before El Salvador explodes. The Fall PST group would COS in February 1982. Is it worth placing them? It will complicate future evacuation, adds to further transfer needs, drains already short PC staff resources, etc. To back off on the Fall 80 PST is not to close out. If the situation improves, again, we can gear up for quick T entry via Central Ag.

LAC Director Paul Bell receives another memorandum from staff in Peace Corps El Salvador also dated October 16, 1979. Dexter Katzman, CDO/ES writes, “Some Thoughts on our Options in El Salvador.” (DNSA/GWU Collection: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977 – 1984. Item Number: ES00249).  He outlines five potential situations:

#1  “Unrestrained Civil War” Katzman argues that all Peace Corps personnel would have to be removed, in this case.

#2  “Imposition of Long-Term Martial Law” Katzman thinks that “While the Peace Corps could continue to function in such a setting, it would be probably find its programming freedom sharply curtailed and Volunteer morale significantly diminished.”

#3 “Increased Terrorism” In this case, he writes, “Risks would be great indeed and we would need to be ready at all times to reassign or evacuate personnel on very short notice.”

#4 ” Modest Improvement”      Katzman characterizes this possibility as the one that would “probably also be the one most favorable to the limited role that the Peace Corps could play.”

#5:  “Continuing Irresolution” Katzman would  see that the “Peace Corps would continue to be able to function at current levels.”

Finally, Katzman states;

“There is one final point that I feel important to make.  Some sort of fairly firm agreement between the Peace Corps and the Department of State must be worked out shortly. This will mean that the decision-making responsibilities of each will be clear and clearly communicated to the other.  I see this as necessary in light of our experience in Nicaragua and in light of a continuing confusion regarding the impact that physical safety and/or short-term foreign policy considerations (ought to) have our presence in El Salvador.”

These memos highlight major problems confronting Peace Corps decision makers.

In a cable from Paul Bell to Bill Sykes, Rose Hayden, Leticia Diaz, Marco Kapr (DNAS-GWU Collection: El Salvador: The Making of U.S. Policy 1977 – 1984:  Item Number: ES00281) November 6, 1979, one decision is made.


On December 12, 1979, Deborah Loff was at the San Jacinto Market in San Salvador, the capital, where she worked to educate women vendors about health and nutrition. She and the market manager  were taken captive and held in the market’s administrative office. The Time Line for decision-making collapses.

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