May 13, 1938 – Feb. 23, 2020
Every Thursday afternoon in the late 1970s, they protested silently in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo: Argentinian women whose young-adult children had vanished into the torture chambers of a military dictatorship bent on eradicating all dissent.
And every few weeks, the desperate mothers were joined by an incongruous figure: a prodigiously tall American diplomat who handed out business cards and invited them to tell their stories.
Franklyn Allen “Tex” Harris ’60 was a midlevel foreign-service officer whose insistence on documenting thousands of political kidnappings and murders infuriated Argentina’s rulers, annoyed his superiors, and damaged his career. Ultimately, however, his principled truth-telling inspired a generation of American diplomats and helped reorient U.S. foreign policy away from the single-minded anti-Communism of the Cold War and toward a commitment to democratic reform.
“For a very long time, he was the model of how to stand up for American values in human rights,” says Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union. “The idea that our foreign policy has to represent who we are as a people — he was really very passionate about that.”
Harris’ career took him to Venezuela, Australia, and apartheid-era South Africa; in Washington, he worked on arms control and refugee aid and helped publicize early research on threats to the ozone layer.
But his posting to Argentina in 1977–79 left the deepest mark. The military junta that had seized power a year earlier had begun abducting, torturing, and murdering anyone suspected of left-wing sympathies. At Harris’ insistence, the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires opened its doors to relatives of the disappeared and imprisoned. His notecard database eventually documented 14,000 cases.
“We felt that someone was listening to us,” says Isabel Mignone, whose 24-year-old sister disappeared in 1976. “He would transmit the information to Washington.”
The work carried risks. Three times, Harris was accosted by armed men. And when his reports spurred the Carter administration to cool relations with Argentina, embassy colleagues grew frustrated. Harris’ performance reviews suffered, and for five years, his career stalled.
“His boss told me that the State Department needs good, gray men,” says Harris’ widow, Jeanie, “and Tex was anything but a good, gray man.”
In 1984, however, journalist Bill Moyers recounted Harris’ story on television, sparking complaints about his treatment and a State Department reassessment that rescued his career. For years, the department screened the Moyers piece during training for new diplomats, as a case study in constructive dissent.
Harris was a big man in every way, an exuberant, gregarious personality who stood nearly 6 foot 7 and loved good food, good wine, and good company. “One of the rules I had was you can’t invite more people than we have chairs,” Jeanie Harris says. “But he didn’t always follow that one.”
Although Harris retired in 1999, he was a news junkie to the end and, just a week before his death, was helping analysts process recently declassified documents about U.S. involvement in Argentina.
“The joy of being a diplomat is that you are up close and personal with history, and then your actions can change history,” he said in a 2016 interview. “You play a small role, but it’s one that you can look back on with a certain amount of pride.”
Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in Princeton Junction, N.J.
Watch a video of Tex Harris discussing diplomacy with the Foreign Policy Association.