"Better that people insult me for a year and applaud me for a century, rather than the other way around." So said Argentina's President Carlos Menem last year when he imposed a severe austerity program on his country that mocked the populist traditions of his own Peronista party.
Today Mr. Menem is being insulted more than ever, this time for his pardons for the top military leaders who directed the "Dirty War" of the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that dark period, more than 9,000 civilians suspected of leftist and liberal sympathies simply disappeared, the victims of kidnappings, murder and torture by those armed with the authority of the state. No other event of recent Argentine history -- not even the disastrous, failed attempt to seize the Falklands from Britain -- so grieves the nation's soul.
Mr. Menem can scarcely be surprised to hear himself denounced by human rights activists for what he considers is an act of courage in the interest of national reconciliation. Perhaps the protests, which drew 40,000 demonstrators before the presidential palace Sunday, will subside before another year passes. This was the case when Mr. Menem released 280 persons (mostly junior officers up to the rank of colonel) in October 1989. But he has to wonder whether the Argentine military will ever really accept civilian authority and the democratic process, which is the only way he can earn a century's applause.
No sooner had ex-Gen. Jorge Videla, Argentina's military ruler from 1976 to 1981, been released than he demanded "the Army's vindication and the reparation of military honor." Mr. Menem shot back that such behavior creates unrest and asked just who would bestow vindication.
Nonetheless, the president could hardly duck the fact that the military establishment had never apologized for its depredations. Nor could he deny that his pardons -- though promised during his winning 1988 campaign -- had come less than a month after the army high command had cooperated in putting down a right-wing uprising Dec. 3, two days before President Bush's visit to Buenos Aires. Was this a payoff? Or had Mr. Menem set a precedent in which the military, for the first time, had obeyed a civilian president's orders to fire on comrades? Like all other aspects of Argentina's anguish, there are no hard-and-fast answers. Argentina cannot forget its history, nor should it.
Without condoning these pardons, the United States should continue to wish Mr. Menem well. He has done much to put the economy in order, to uphold global finance and trading rules, to mend relations with Britain, to support the U.S. initiative in the Gulf and to reduce his country's isolation.