Chile, 9/11/73

Chile, 9/11/73

Declassified documents reveal the US government’s role in the Pinochet coup.


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.”

Indeed, the recently declassified record reveals that what really bothered the White House was not what actions a narrow, distant country that Kissinger had once disparaged as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica” could take but the fact that Allende could establish a model for democratic socialist change. As Kissinger informed Nixon on November 5, 1970, the “example of [a] successful elected Marxist gov. in Chile would have [an] impact on–and even precedent value for–other parts of the world, especially Italy…similar phenomenon elsewhere would in turn significantly affect world balance and our own position in it.” When the President convened his National Security Council the next day to discuss how to “hurt” Allende and “bring him down,” he made this point: “Our main concern in Chile is the prospect that [Allende] can consolidate himself and the picture presented to the world will be his success.”

The story of US efforts toward regime change in Chile is well known. Since Allende was democratically elected (with a margin of victory that far exceeded George Bush’s edge in Florida), operations needed to be covert, and plausibly deniable. For three years the CIA engaged in a destabilization campaign in Chile–what CIA Director William Colby described in secret testimony as “a prototype or laboratory experiment” to discredit and undermine an elected government. Covert ops consisted of political action to divide Allende’s coalition; massive propaganda operations aimed at disrupting the economy and discrediting the government; covert funding of opposition political parties, including those agitating for a coup; and contacts with the Chilean military.

By necessity, these operations were accompanied by rampant official deception. When Allende was brought down by a vicious military coup led by General Pinochet on September 11, 1973, Kissinger testified later before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the intent of the United States was not to destabilize or to subvert [Allende] but to keep in being [opposition] political parties.” Kissinger also testified that Washington was maintaining a “neutral” policy toward the incoming junta. In reality, within forty-eight hours of the coup, a cable went to the embassy with this secret message for Pinochet: “The USG wishes [to] make clear its desire to cooperate with the military junta and to assist in any appropriate way.”

Washington had worked to destabilize a democratically elected government; now US officials rushed to help a cutthroat dictatorship consolidate its rule–with full knowledge of the atrocities it was committing. “I think we should understand our policy,” Kissinger admonished his top aides as reports of mass slaughter flowed into Washington in the several weeks following the coup: “However unpleasant they act, this government is better for us than Allende was.” But when the CIA covert operations were exposed a year later by Seymour Hersh in the New York Times, US officials publicly defended their actions on the grounds that their policies were intended to preserve democracy in Chile, not foster a climate for a coup. This was, submitted President Gerald Ford in one of the most famous official statements regarding US intervention against Allende, “in the best interest of the people of Chile and certainly in our best interest.”

Pinochet murdered more than 3,100 Chileans, disappeared 1,100 and tortured and jailed thousands more. He closed the Chilean Congress, banned political parties, censored the press and took over the universities. Through decree, the barrel of the gun and the touch of the electrode he imposed a seventeen-year dictatorship that became synonymous with human rights abuses at home and terrorist atrocities abroad–including the 1976 car-bombing that killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC.

According to declassified memos and cables, at least some US officials acknowledged that the regime was neither in the best interests of Chile nor of the United States. Defense Intelligence Agency analysts compared Pinochet’s secret police, DINA, to Hitler’s Gestapo. “A documented case can be made for the proposition that the current regime in Chile is militaristic, fascistic, tyrannical and murderous,” one State Department intelligence analyst reported in early 1974. Washington’s support for the Pinochet regime, another State Department official wrote in a memo to the Assistant Secretary for Latin America a year later, “is one more reason why much of the youth of this country is alienated from their government and its foreign policy.” “In the minds of the world at large, we are closely associated with this junta, ergo with fascists and torturers,” according to Richard Bloomfield. “Chile is just the latest example for a lot of people in this country of the United States not being true to its values.”

That is, perhaps, the only positive aspect of the legacy of US policy and operations in Chile. Along with concerns about Vietnam, public and Congressional anger over events in Chile generated a national debate about the corruption of American principles in the making and the exercise of US foreign policy. The Kissingerian disregard for Pinochet’s abuses incited the mobilization and institutionalization of the human rights movement as we know it today; indeed, during the mid-1970s, Chile became the battleground of the first major fight between Congress and the executive branch over making human rights a criterion in US foreign policy. Similarly, revelations of CIA intervention in Chile contributed to a dramatic national re-evaluation of the propriety of such practices and to the first Congressional hearings on covert action. The public reaction to US policy in Chile reflected widespread alarm over the abuses of power and secrecy inside the executive branch and a demand that US conduct abroad return to the moral precepts of American society.

Thirty years later, public fears over government secrecy and deception are pervasive once again. To be sure, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan differ in many ways from the US intervention in Chile; and the security threat of terrorism, as opposed to the non-threat of Allende’s election, is real, as we know from our own 9/11. Even so, in the wake of September 11, 2001, the lessons of September 11, 1973, demand to be remembered, as US foreign policy becomes further removed from the values, morality and real national interests of the American public. As Secretary of State Colin Powell was forced to concede when questioned about Chile on the eve of the invasion of Iraq: “It is not a part of American history that we are proud of.”

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