Why in 1973 did Chile’s democracy, long considered the crown jewel of Latin America, turn into Augusto Pinochet’s murderous regime? Why did the United States, which helped Pinochet seize power from Salvador Allende, support the violent dictator for nearly two decades? Scholars answering these questions have usually focused on the threat posed by Allende, the first elected Marxist head of state, to Chilean and US business interests and to the cold war foreign policy of the United States. But recently declassified documents, along with the reissue of Patricia Politzer’s Fear in Chile: Lives Under Pinochet, suggest that the Chilean counterrevolution, however much shaped by immediate economic and political causes, was infused with a much older, more revanchist political spirit, one stretching as far back as the French Revolution.

Edward Korry, who served as US ambassador to Chile between 1967 and 1971, greeted Allende’s election in 1970 as if the sans-culottes were at the gate. Before all the votes were in, he smelled the “stink of defeat” and could hear “the mounting roar of Allendistas acclaiming their victory” arising “from the street below.” Although no guillotine blade had yet dropped, material declassified by the United States over the past couple of years shows that Korry fired cable after cable back to Washington, warning of “the terror” to come and citing Baudelaire to brand Allende a “devil.”

It may seem bizarre that an LBJ-appointed Democrat would pepper his diplomatic missives with the overheated prose of French romanticism. After all, critics have charged cold war liberals, such as Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, with employing a dry calculus in deciding the number of casualties needed to defeat Communism. But Korry was no bloodless bureaucrat. In fact, in both tone and content, his writings were remarkably similar to those of the illiberal Joseph de Maistre, the arch-Catholic reactionary who launched violent, intoxicated attacks on the French Revolution. By injecting medieval Catholic orgiastic mysticism with the revolutionary zealotry of his contemporaries, Maistre offered a compelling alternative to earthly promises of secular justice and political participation. He was the first who understood that if a counterrevolution was to be won, it would be necessary to win the “hearts and minds” of what would come to be known as the masses.

As fervidly as Maistre hated la secte of Jacobins and eighteenth-century rationalists, Korry disdained Allende and his Popular Unity followers, and largely for the same reason: Where Maistre rejected the idea that people could be governed by enlightened principles, Korry dismissed as “dogmatic and eschatological” those who believed that “society can be structured to create paradise on earth.” And both men reserved their strongest scorn for the pillars of the old regime–church, army and state–because, either for reasons of ineptitude or corruption, they had failed to see and to confront the evil before them. Lost in a “myopia of arrogant stupidity,” the elites and officials who had allowed Allende to come to power were a “troupe of fools and knaves” leading Chile to the “marxist slaughter-house.” It is as if Korry saw the revolution as divine retribution against a decaying polity. “They should be given neither sympathy nor salvation,” he said of the weak-willed ruling party.

Echoing Maistre’s observation that republican rule is ill suited to protect society against revolutionary fanaticism, Korry complains in his cables about a gracious political culture that places no brake on Allende’s determination: “Civility is the dominant characteristic of Chilean life. Civility is what controls aggressiveness, and civility is what makes almost certain the triumph of the very uncivil Allende.” Neither the military nor the outgoing president, Eduardo Frei, “have the stomach for the violence they fear would be the consequence of intervention,” Korry wrote to Washington. The Communist Party, in contrast, Korry warned, was “that most clear-minded and cohesive force in Chile…. Allende is their masterwork in Latin America and they do not lack for purpose or will.”

Korry worked to strengthen domestic opposition to Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, yet he also opposed Henry Kissinger’s plot to provoke a military coup (which led to the murder of Chilean Gen. René Schneider). Instead, he advocated patience, confident that, with encouragement, internal dissent would eventually oust Allende. Again, remarkably akin to Maistre, Korry felt that restoration had to come from within rather than be imposed from without. He had faith that time favored his position; that the revolutionaries, in their effort to build a society that ran against human nature, would soon exhaust themselves; that rumor and chaos, unavoidable spawns of popular rule, would fuel an irresistible counterwave that would sweep them from power.

In fact, CIA destabilization strategies, both in Chile and in other Latin American nations, seem to draw directly from Maistre’s restoration scenario, which relied on counterrevolutionary determination to generate dissension. Rumor acts as the cat’s-paw for fear, poisoning commitment, corroding solidarity and forcing an acceptance of inevitable reaction. In Chile the CIA, in a cable dated September 17, 1970, set out a plan to

create the conviction that Allende must be stopped…. discredit parliamentary solution as unworkable…surface ineluctable conclusion that military coup is the only answer. This is to be carried forward until it takes place. However, we must hold firmly to the outlines or our production will be diffuse, denatured, and ineffective, not leaving the indelible residue in the mind that an accumulation of arsenic does. The key is psych war within Chile. We cannot endeavor to ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come within Chile. Therefore, the station should employ every stratagem, every ploy, however bizarre, to create this internal resistance.

After the end of World War II, when demands for social democratic reform swept the continent, a series of coups and political betrayals successively radicalized and polarized social movements. The Old Left gave way to the New, and calls for reform climaxed into cries for revolution. By the late 1960s, Latin American military elites and their US allies knew, as Maistre knew two centuries earlier, that a simple changing of the guard would no longer be enough to contain this rising tide: “We are talking about mass public feeling as opposed to the private feeling of the elite,” wrote the CIA about the intended audience of its “psych war” in Chile. The Latin American military regimes that came into power starting in the late 1960s combined terror and anti-Communist Catholic nationalism to silence this revolutionary roar. As Gen. Oscar Bonilla, who helped Pinochet install his seventeen-year dictatorship, put it, “What this country needs is political silence. We’ll return to the barracks when we have changed the mentality of the people.”

Patricia Politzer’s Fear in Chile: Lives Under Pinochet recounts, through fifteen first-person testimonies gathered in the mid-1980s, while Pinochet was still in power, how his dictatorship did just that. By 1973, the United States had succeeded in its stated goal of extinguishing Chilean civility and igniting political passions. It seemed to many that their country had become ungovernable. Chronic shortages of basic goods, violent conflicts, political impasses and swirling rumors of coups and invasions wore Chileans down.

Nearly all of Fear in Chile‘s witnesses begin their accounts with the coup, and they all convey the exhaustion and confusion of the moment. Andrés Chadwick Piñera recounts his lonely sadness at hearing of Allende’s death while his middle-class family, wife and neighbors celebrated. Sympathetic to the revolution, he burned his books and eventually made peace with the regime. Even the most committed became disoriented. Raquel, a student member of the Communist Party, recalls the uncertainty of revolutionary leadership, which told members to first do one thing, then another. Blanca Ibarra Abarca, a shantytown community leader, became “furious” after listening to Allende’s radio message broadcasting news of the coup. She wanted “to do something, to fight,” but was paralyzed by “pain and impotence.” Manuel Bustos Huerta, president of his union, called a meeting but “no one knew anything…some people said we should go home, and others said we should take over the factory. Finally, after much discussion, we decided that people should go home.” (Maistre wrote, nearly 200 years earlier, of how confusion would replace revolutionary resolve with resignation: “Everywhere prudence inhibits audacity…. On the one side there are terrible risks, on the other certain amnesty and probable favors. In addition, where are the means to resist? And where are the leaders to be trusted? There is no danger in repose.”)

At times the polarization described by Politzer’s witnesses seems absolute. While many wept upon hearing news of Allende’s death, others bonded in anti-Communist solidarity: “Everyone from the block got together in a neighbor’s house to celebrate…. Everyone brought something and it was a very joyous occasion.”

But it is where the testimonies intersect, often at unexpected junctures, that Fear in Chile reveals just how deep and popular both the revolution and counterrevolution were. Blanca Ester Valderas and Elena Tesser de Villaseca recount radically different experiences and backgrounds. Valderas is a poorly educated rural woman whose husband was murdered in Pinochet’s coup. Under Allende, after growing weary of following her husband through a series of dead-end jobs, Valderas joined the Socialist Party and was appointed mayor of her town. Even after the coup, when she was forced to change her name and go into hiding, she continued in politics, working with Chile’s nascent human rights organizations. Tesser de Villaseca is a well-to-do “Pinochet diehard” who untiringly organized women to bring Allende down, even though she denies that either she or her husband is “political.” Nor did she return home after Pinochet took power; instead Tesser de Villaseca and her friends threw themselves into myriad social welfare organizations aimed at making Chileans “a sound race again, to make the country healthy.” Despite the different historical consequences of their actions, both women used politics as an avenue of upward human mobility, to escape the restraints of family and to influence civic life.

In Costa-Gavras’s movie Missing, which, while not mentioning Chile specifically, depicts Pinochet’s coup, the first repressive act shown is of soldiers pulling a woman off a bus queue and cutting off her slacks, warning her that in the new nation, women do not wear pants. Many of the voices in Fear in Chile recall similar acts of violence: men who had their long hair shorn; women who were ordered to wear skirts; a worker who was arrested and tortured for being “an asshole” and not acting sufficiently submissive to authority. Notwithstanding Allende’s supposed alignment with the Soviet Union and his threat to economic interests, acts like these illustrate that the real danger of the Chilean left was not that it undermined secular liberal democracy but that it promised to fulfill it, to sweep away the privilege and deference of patriarchy and class. “It was as if we had suddenly returned to a past era,” recalls the wife of an Allende functionary in recounting her dealings with male military officers who, prior to the coup, she’d treated as friends and equals.

For many, Pinochet realigned a world that had spun out of control, and the power of Politzer’s book is that it takes seriously the concerns of his supporters. Pinochet remained popular because he satiated the desire of many Chileans for both order and freedom. He haunts the pages of Fear in Chile like Maistre’s powerful but distant sovereign, who “restrains without enslaving.” As one of Pinochet’s supporters put it, “I believe in a democracy in which certain general objectives are submitted to a vote; after that, each matter should be handed over to experts capable of realizing those objectives. In a family, for instance, where there is a health problem, you don’t have a democratic vote about what steps to take.”

It is this image of a family that is constantly invoked by followers of the regime to symbolize a just society, a family with Pinochet as the wise and strong father (“I adore Pinochet,” says Tesser de Villaseca. “I adore him because he is a superhuman person who is also sensible and worthy”) and his wife, Lucía, as the empathetic mother (“an extraordinary woman,” says a Pinochet colonel, “who has created a volunteer corps in Chile that should be an example to the world. She’s like a diligent little ant who works in different areas and also collaborates well with her husband”).

Pinochet’s success in generating a degree of popular legitimacy ultimately rested on violence and terror. By the time he left office, in 1990, his regime had arrested 130,000 people, tortured 20,000 others and, if the killing that took place during the coup is included, murdered between 5,000 and 10,000 Chileans. Fear not only led people to burn their books, drop out of politics, go into hiding and exile and switch allegiances, but allowed those who supported the government and dreaded a return to anarchy and conflict to justify murder: “I don’t have any special knowledge about DINA [Pinochet’s intelligence agency, responsible for a good deal of the terror], but if they were really out to find people working against democracy, people who didn’t hesitate to kill to achieve their goals, I think what they were doing was good. I’m not one of those who don’t believe that there were disappeared persons,” says Carlos Paut Ugarte, an economist who returned to Chile following Allende’s overthrow to work in Pinochet’s government.

From Edmund Burke to Jeane Kirkpatrick, it has been the lie of modern counterrevolutionary thinkers that, against totalitarian abstractions, they defended historical actuality. The status quo is what should be, they say, and any effort otherwise leads straight to the guillotine or the gulag. But Pinochet’s god, father and homeland were no less utopian and intangible than the just nation that Allende and Popular Unity hoped to build–the difference being that Pinochet had guns and the United States.

In his day Maistre was optimistic that restoration could be brought about with little violence. “Would it be argued,” he asked, “that the return from sickness to health must be as painful as the passage from health to sickness?” Writing before the great counterinsurgency terrors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he can be excused his sanguinity. But Korry, too, liked to draw on historical analogies to make his case, and he has no such excuse. “There is a graveyard smell to Chile,” he wrote immediately after Allende’s election, “the fumes of a democracy in decomposition. They stank in my nostrils in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and they are no less sickening today.”

It is too bad Korry couldn’t escape the prison of his own abstractions and draw a lesson from a more relevant historical referent: Indonesia in 1965, where anti-Communist government agents slaughtered, as the United States watched, hundreds of thousands of its citizens. After all, the analogy was not lost on the CIA, which dubbed Pinochet’s coup “Operation Jakarta.”