Activists wait outside a courthouse where 18 former Argentine military officers were sentenced for human rights abuses in October 2011.
PHOTO: brian byrnes/cnn
Activists wait outside a courthouse where 18 former Argentine military officers were sentenced for human rights abuses in October 2011.

Story highlights

Before Argentina trip Obama pledged to declassify docs related to country's "dirty war," says Martin Andersen

Andersen: It was an important gesture, but must be followed by substantive action, not window dressing

It is estimated more than 20,000 Argentines were killed during the "dirty war" between 1976 and 1983

Editor’s Note: Martin Edwin Andersen covered the 1985 mini-Nuremberg trials of the “dirty war” generals in Buenos Aires for Newsweek and the Washington Post and is the author of “Dossier Secreto: Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the ‘Dirty War’” (Westview Press, 1993).

(CNN) —  

Leading up to President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Argentina this week, his administration dropped a mini-bombshell: The U.S. government would begin declassifying documents related to Argentina’s “dirty war,” the period between 1976 and 1983 when more than 20,000 citizens—known as “the missing” (“desaparecidos” in Spanish)—were secretly detained and tortured and murdered, their bodies never recovered.

Visiting Argentina on the 40th anniversary of the March 24, 1976, military coup that marked the beginning of that period was a political gamble—much less perhaps than his journey to the Castros’ Havana—but a gamble nonetheless.

Martin Andersen
PHOTO: Martin Edward Andersen
Martin Andersen

It was a watershed moment in a relationship that has been fraught for decades, in part because of a disturbing narrative of collusion between U.S. intelligence agencies and the Argentine military establishment which carried out the killings. Whether the narrative is true or not is almost incidental to its overwhelming power in Argentine society.

As so often happens in diplomacy, Obama was forced to strike a delicate balance on this trip.

For example, accusations of the involvement of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger loom large in the dirty-war narrative, though Kissinger has denied them.

01:46 - Source: CNN
Trump, Obama depart inaugural ceremony
Donald Trump Obama depart US Capitol vo_00001902.jpg
PHOTO: CNN
Donald Trump Obama depart US Capitol vo_00001902.jpg
Now playing
01:46
Trump, Obama depart inaugural ceremony
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
00:45
Inaugural crowd sizes: Trump v. Obama
US President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois on January 10, 2017.
Barack Obama closes the book on his presidency, with a farewell speech in Chicago that will try to lift supporters shaken by Donald Trump's shock election. / AFP / Joshua LOTT        (Photo credit should read JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois on January 10, 2017. Barack Obama closes the book on his presidency, with a farewell speech in Chicago that will try to lift supporters shaken by Donald Trump's shock election. / AFP / Joshua LOTT (Photo credit should read JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:02
President Obama's best speech moments
PHOTO: pool
Now playing
02:00
President Obama leaves Oval Office
US President Barack Obama, speaks about Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a news conference with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in the East Room at the White House August 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. Later this evening President Obama will host a State Dinner for Prime Minister Loong and his wife Ho Ching.
PHOTO: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama, speaks about Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a news conference with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in the East Room at the White House August 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. Later this evening President Obama will host a State Dinner for Prime Minister Loong and his wife Ho Ching.
Now playing
01:09
Obama commutes federal sentences
PHOTO: White House Pool report
Now playing
00:45
How the Obamas spent MLK Day
Joe Biden Medal of Freedom
PHOTO: CNN
Joe Biden Medal of Freedom
Now playing
01:48
Biden receives Presidential Medal of Freedom
Now playing
01:09
Obama: You made me a better president
Obama tears up
PHOTO: CNN
Obama tears up
Now playing
02:00
Obama tears up talking about Michelle
President Obama in Chicago, January. 10, 2017.
President Obama in Chicago, January. 10, 2017.
Now playing
01:27
Obama lists US accomplishments during his term
obama laughs at his own jokes sg orig_00004321.jpg
obama laughs at his own jokes sg orig_00004321.jpg
Now playing
01:06
Watch Obama crack himself up
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
02:37
2 Obama speeches: 12 years apart, similar tone
fort lauderdale airport shooting obama sot tsr_00005621.jpg
PHOTO: ABC
fort lauderdale airport shooting obama sot tsr_00005621.jpg
Now playing
01:16
Obama: 'Vladimir Putin is not on our team'
PHOTO: cnn/getty images
Now playing
03:00
Obama urges Dems to defend Obamacare legacy
President Barack Obama speaks on counterterrorism at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida on December 6, 2016.
PHOTO: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks on counterterrorism at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida on December 6, 2016.
Now playing
02:35
Obama takes action before Trump takes office
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 16:  U.S. President Barack Obama answers questions during a news conference in the Brady Press Breifing Room at the White House December 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. In what could be the last press conference of his presidency, afterwards Obama will be leaving for his annual family vacation in Hawaii.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 16: U.S. President Barack Obama answers questions during a news conference in the Brady Press Breifing Room at the White House December 16, 2016 in Washington, DC. In what could be the last press conference of his presidency, afterwards Obama will be leaving for his annual family vacation in Hawaii. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:07
Obama designates two new national monuments
PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
Now playing
00:48
The Obamas' cutest moments (2016)

And yet, in public speeches Obama steered clear of mentioning Kissinger or addressing his alleged role. His silence on the subject was deafening.

But Obama also extolled certain Americans who took huge risks to expose the atrocities of the dirty war. Obama praised Patt Derian, the assistant secretary of state for human rights under President Jimmy Carter – who raised the alarm inside the State Department – and Tex Harris, the courageous U.S. Embassy officer who documented human rights abuses and identified the missing. The President should be commended for recognizing these heroes.

01:46 - Source: CNN
Trump, Obama depart inaugural ceremony
Donald Trump Obama depart US Capitol vo_00001902.jpg
PHOTO: CNN
Donald Trump Obama depart US Capitol vo_00001902.jpg
Now playing
01:46
Trump, Obama depart inaugural ceremony
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
00:45
Inaugural crowd sizes: Trump v. Obama
US President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois on January 10, 2017.
Barack Obama closes the book on his presidency, with a farewell speech in Chicago that will try to lift supporters shaken by Donald Trump's shock election. / AFP / Joshua LOTT        (Photo credit should read JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois on January 10, 2017. Barack Obama closes the book on his presidency, with a farewell speech in Chicago that will try to lift supporters shaken by Donald Trump's shock election. / AFP / Joshua LOTT (Photo credit should read JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:02
President Obama's best speech moments
PHOTO: pool
Now playing
02:00
President Obama leaves Oval Office
US President Barack Obama, speaks about Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump during a news conference with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in the East Room at the White House August 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. Later this evening President Obama will host a State Dinner for Prime Minister Loong and his wife Ho Ching.
PHOTO: Mark Wilson/Getty Images