Leftist Salvadoran guerrillas, emboldened by the Marxist Sandinistas’ success in neighboring Nicaragua, had been trying to overthrow the country’s ruling junta. But Mr. Hinton was determined. He encapsulated his mission this way: “Save the economy, stop the violence, have the elections and ride into the sunset.”
But after an election campaign in which fending off far-right candidates was at least as demanding as subduing leftist insurgents, Mr. Hinton gave a more modest goal: “We were not going to let it become a Marxist totalitarian state.”
In a speech in El Salvador in October 1982, he also delivered an ultimatum, saying El Salvador must make progress “in advancing human rights and in controlling the abuses of some elements of the security forces,” or it would lose American military and economic aid.
He denounced El Salvador’s legal system and far right, which he blamed for thousands of murders.
The speech had been cleared by the State Department but not, apparently, by the White House. Presidential aides were quoted as saying afterward that “the decibel level had risen higher than our policy has allowed in the past.” The administration was particularly uncomfortable with Mr. Hinton’s use of the term “death squads.” He was told to refrain from any further public criticism of rights abuses.
In his official reports, Mr. Hinton accused Salvadoran soldiers of being responsible for unexplained killings, including that of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980, in which the right-wing leader Roberto d’Aubuisson was said to be complicit. Reagan nevertheless certified that the Salvadoran government had made significant progress in reducing human rights violations and that it therefore qualified for American aid.
In her 1983 book “Salvador,” Joan Didion wrote that during a lunch with Mr. Hinton, “it occurred to me that we were talking exclusively about the appearance of things, about how the situation might be made to look better, about trying to get the Salvadoran government to ‘appear’ to do what the American government needed done in order to make it ‘appear’ that the American aid was justified.”
In June 1983, Mr. Hinton said he was exhausted and resigned.
At the same time, Reagan replaced Thomas O. Enders as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. Mr. Enders was believed to have been open to a negotiated settlement of the Salvadoran civil war, while the administration preferred a military victory.
White House aides were quoted at the time as saying that Mr. Hinton and Mr. Enders were being replaced in favor of a team more responsive to Reagan’s policies.
A peace treaty signed in 1992 ended the war in El Salvador, and the guerrillas morphed into a political party.
Deane Roesch Hinton was born on March 12, 1923, in Missoula, Mont., to Col. Joe Hinton, who served in both World Wars, and the former Doris Roesch. He attended Elgin Academy, a prep school in Illinois, and served in World War II as a second lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps in Italy.
He completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago, did graduate work in economics and attended the National War College, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Harvard University.
He was married three times, to the former Angela Peyraud, Miren de Aretxabala and Patricia Lopez.
He is survived by Ms. Lopez and 12 children: Christopher, Jeffrey, Deborah Ann Hinton, Joanna Peyraud Hinton and Veronica Jean Hinton from his first marriage; Pedro Arrivillaga, Guillermo Arrivillaga, Miren Arrivillaga de Aretxabala, Maria Louisa Arrivillaga Reglemann and Juan Jose Arrivillaga from an earlier marriage by his second wife; and Sebastian Lopez Hinton and Deane Patrick Hinton from his third marriage, as well as 13 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Mr. Hinton joined the Foreign Service in 1946 and served in Syria, Kenya, France, Belgium and Guatemala. He was designated a career ambassador, retired in 1994 and wrote a memoir, “Economics and Diplomacy: A Life in the Foreign Service” (2015).
Besides his stint in El Salvador, he served in Zaire under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford; in Pakistan under Reagan; in Costa Rica under Reagan and President George Bush; and in Panama under Mr. Bush.
As an ambassador, Mr. Hinton, a cigar-smoking poker player, gave advice bluntly but insisted that he avoided meddling in the affairs of foreign governments.
This made it all the more surprising when he was deported from Zaire in 1975 because of what was supposedly an American plot to murder President Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr. Hinton offered a rebuttal.
“Total nonsense,” he said. “My defense always was that if I’d have been out to get him, he’d have been dead.”