On September 14, 1970, a deputy to then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger wrote him a memo, classified SECRET/SENSITIVE, arguing against covert operations to block the duly elected Chilean socialist Salvador Allende from assuming the presidency. “What we propose is patently a violation of our own principles and policy tenets,” noted Viron Vaky. “If these principles have any meaning, we normally depart from them only to meet the gravest threat to us., e.g. to our survival. Is Allende a mortal threat to the U.S.?” Vaky asked. “It is hard to argue this.”
Kissinger ignored this advice. The next day he participated in a now-famous meeting where President Nixon instructed CIA Director Richard Helms to “save Chile” by secretly fomenting a coup to prevent Allende’s inauguration. When those covert operations failed, Kissinger goaded Nixon into instructing the entire national security bureaucracy “on opposing Allende” and destabilizing his government. “Election of Allende as president of Chile poses one of [the] most serious challenges ever faced in this hemisphere,” says a newly declassified briefing paper Kissinger gave to Nixon two days after Allende’s inauguration. “Your decision as to what to do may be most historic and difficult foreign affairs decision you will have to make this year…. If all concerned do not understand that you want Allende opposed as strongly as we can, result will be steady draft toward modus vivendi approach.”
Had Washington adopted a “modus vivendi approach,” it is possible that Chileans, indeed citizens around the world, would not be solemnly commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. In the United States, the meaning of this anniversary is, understandably, overshadowed by the shock and tragedy of our own 9/11. But Chile reminds us that the topics of debate on US foreign policy today–pre-emptive strikes, regime change, the arrogance of unilateral intervention, unchecked covert action and secrecy and dishonesty in government–are not new. From the thousands of formerly classified US documents released over the past several years, the picture that emerges strikes some haunting parallels with the news of the day.
Chile, it must be recalled, constitutes a classic example of a pre-emptive strike–a set of operations launched well before Salvador Allende set foot in office. Nixon ordered the CIA on September 15, 1970, to “make the economy scream” and to foment a military move to block Allende from being inaugurated six weeks later, in November; the Chilean leader had yet to formulate or authorize a single policy detrimental to US interests. “What happens over [the] next 6-10 months will have ramifications far beyond US-Ch[ilean] relations,” Kissinger predicted in a dire warning to Nixon only forty-eight hours after Allende actually took office. “Will have effect on what happens in rest of LA and developing world; our future position in hemisphere; on larger world picture…even effect our own conception of what our role in the world is.”
As in the distorted threat assessment on Iraq, this was sheer speculation–unsupported, indeed contradicted, by US intelligence. In August 1970 CIA, State and Defense Department analysts had determined that “the US has no vital national interests within Chile,” and that the world “military balance of power would not be significantly altered” if Allende came to power. But an Allende victory would create “considerable political and psychological costs,” including “a definite psychological advance for the Marxist idea.”