“Operating under the potential and real dangers of both political and physical fire, U.S. Armed Forces personnel designed and carried out a program to help build the Salvadoran Armed Forces from a small, ill-equipped and poorly led force to the point where it is now well on the road to becoming one of the finest fighting forces in Latin America.”
~ Mr. David Passage, charge d’ affaires, U.S. Embassy San Salvador, Memorandum to U.S. Southern Command CinC
Passage, whose duty station was the embassy in San Salvador, goes on to point out that U.S. Military Group (MilGrp) personnel “have been shot at” and “that they are high priority targets for enemy attacks.” According to the memorandum, then-ambassador Thomas Pickering “specifically requested to be associated” with the recommendation that a Joint Meritorious Unit Award (JMUA) be authorized to those members of the MilGrp assigned and attached and who served for over sixty days in any capacity between January 1, 1981, and June 7, 1985. “The Military Group has been paid the ultimate compliment,” wrote Passage. “The Communist-backed guerrillas have publicly ascribed to them the fact that the guerrillas are losing their war. No commendation can be written that is so credible a testament to their effectiveness.”
The “Double Nickel”
“Congress and the administration had agreed to this limit with little discussion or rancor. This was something like a handshake deal. When some members attempted to write it into law, they failed. This seems like the way policy and politics ought to work. Honorable individuals of two branches of government and two parties decide what the issue is — we want to avoid creeping from training and advice to full-scale involvement à la Vietnam. How do you do it? You keep the numbers too small to get into real trouble. What size is that? The 55-man limit, in which so many put so much stock (and many thought was the law of the land) was arbitrary and had been reached in offhand fashion.” (El Salvador in the 1980s: War by Other Means by Donald R. Hamilton, 2015)
In 1981, fifteen Green Berets were deployed to El Salvador. They were selected for their linguistic abilities and training expertise. The composite team under the command of then Captain David Morris was stationed in the Republic of Panama with the then forward deployed 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Gulick. Their mission? Train the struggling Salvadoran Army’s first immediate reaction battalion, the Atlacatl, at Sitio del Nino just twenty miles from San Salvador.
However, this was not the first time U.S. Special Forces had interfaced with the Salvadoran military. American advisers began working alongside Salvadoran military units in 1962 when the first mobile training team (MTT) was deployed to conduct a counterinsurgency/civic action/psychological operations survey. On June 30, 1972, the 8th Special Forces Group, preceding the 3/7th in Panama, was deactivated. It then became the 3/7th which would carry out the bulk of upcoming MTTs to El Salvador, specifically from January 1, 1981, until the United Nations brokered Peace Accord in February 1992.
Dr. Todd Greentree was a junior political officer with the U.S. Department stationed at the embassy in San Salvador during this period. In May 2021, Greentree shared his assessment of the political/military situation in El Salvador during his tenure there. “Saigon had fallen just a few years earlier,” he points out. “But after Nicaragua, the U.S. was not going to lose another country to the Soviet Union and Cuba in Central America. President [Jimmy] Carter found aiding the Salvadoran government extremely distasteful, and his ambassador, Robert White, was an emotional human rights crusader, especially after the four churchwomen were raped and murdered [by Salvadoran troops] on his watch.
“Yet it was Carter who authorized lethal assistance to the Salvadoran military in one of his last decisions before leaving office in January 1981. Reagan inherited El Salvador as [his] first foreign policy crisis. He eventually embraced counter-insurgency but was initially more concerned to reassure Americans that El Salvador was not going to become another Vietnam.”
Forced to appease public opinion at home, the Pentagon devised a plan to establish a limit on Special Forces advisers to serve in El Salvador. As fifty-five advisers were already stationed and working in El Salvador the decision was made to preserve the funding already in place. The Pentagon told both the President and Congress, when asked, that fifty-five in-country advisers/trainers was a satisfactory number. After that the manpower ceiling was “etched in stone,” according to a former MILGRP commander. In 1979, funding for the growing civil war in El Salvador stood at $12 million dollars. By 1982, this amount had increased to $80 million. Mission requirements (i.e., a military victory over the communist insurgents) increased, as well. The guerrilla forces fighting under the banner of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) were proving to be far more organized, better funded, and trained by Cuban, Nicaraguan, North Vietnamese, and East German advisers than originally anticipated. “No one wanted to take the chance of seeing the increased aid cancelled,” offers a former MILGRP member. “It was obvious more advisers were required to carry out the additional taskings, yet the limit of fifty-five would not be challenged.” It was believed that requesting additional advisers would invite disaster. Political and social push-back was growing in the United States, fueled by the negativity of the Vietnam war still fresh in the minds of many Americans and the 5th Column of Marxist organizations and social activists groups in the United States.
The peace movement ramped back up to mount protests against U.S. aid to El Salvador
“The War Powers Act and the Reagan administration’s careful avoidance of its triggers guided military action in El Salvador in two critical ways. First, it created the 55-man limit on the size of the MILGRP. Although this limit never had the force of law, it became an informal but honored deal between the administration and Congress: Keep it at 55 and we the leadership will not seek a confrontation over the War Powers Act. The second was the administration’s pledge to Congress that U.S. military personnel “will not act as combat advisors, and will not accompany Salvadoran forces in combat, on operational patrols, or in any other situation where combat is likely.” This second pledge defined the operational boundaries for U.S. personnel.” (El Salvador in the 1980s: War by Other Means Donald R. Hamilton, 2015)
The “Double Nickle,” as the Green Berets serving in El Salvador self-described themselves, became a tripwire limit for the Congress to demand adherence to. Fortunately, there was a way around the “55” and the Pentagon used it almost immediately.
“No American invader will leave El Salvador alive”. Leaflets like these were commonplace during the war and American Special Forces advisers were at the top of the guerrilla hit list.” (Author collection)