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.