Kissinger & Chile: The Myth That Will Not Die
The 30th anniversary of the coup d’etat that deposed Chile’s Marxist president Salvador Allende has come and gone, but not without a burst of accusations of American complicity with—if not responsibility for—that event. Even before the commemorations had gotten under way, Secretary of State Colin Powell took it upon himself to apologize for the U.S. role in Chile, though in terms so vague as to leave many wondering exactly what he was referring to.
The fact that the coup itself took place on the very same date—September 11—that the World Trade Center was destroyed by a sensational terrorist attack in 2001 was a coincidence too fraught to be overlooked. In an editorial titled “The Other September 11,” the New York Times, with characteristic condescension, reminded its readers that “our nation’s hands have not always been clean” and managed to suggest a smoking gun (“the United States . . . laid the groundwork for [the coup] and supported the plotters”) without actually producing one. The foreign press was more categorical. In Le Monde, the flagship daily of anti-Americans worldwide, a front-page cartoon on September 11 depicted a plane about to hit the World Trade Center. But the roles of villain and victim had been grotesquely altered: the twin towers were labeled “Chile,” the plane “USA.”
The name invariably linked to our Chilean involvement is that of Henry Kissinger, today the leading survivor of the Nixon administration and at the time the evident architect of much of its foreign policy, first as National Security Adviser and then as Secretary of State. The case against him has been before the public for several years now, most notably in an article by Christopher Hitchens in Harper’s that was subsequently reproduced in Hitchens’s book The Trial of Henry Kissinger and then repeated with a wealth of lurid detail in a BBC “documentary” in which Hitchens appears as prosecutor-in-chief. In addition to his supposed role as the intellectual author of the coup, Kissinger has been accused in both film and book of responsibility for the murder of General René Schneider, commander-in-chief of the Chilean army—that is, of homicide. The sons of the late general, egged on by political sympathizers in Europe and the United States, have even filed suit against Kissinger in hopes of recovering substantial damages for their father’s death.
Chilean politics past or present is not a particular specialty of Americans, even Americans normally well informed about world affairs. What people know—or think they know—about that country is often a digest of newspaper headlines and of vague allegations, rather than substantiated facts. But neither is Chilean politics a specialty of Christopher Hitchens, the New York Times, or Le Monde. As we shall see, their interests would appear to lie largely elsewhere.
The starting point for the Chilean drama was a presidential election that took place in September 1970, three full years before the military coup whose anniversary was recently marked. There were several candidates. One—Salvador Allende, a socialist and avowed Marxist running in coalition with the Communist party—came in first, with 36.3 percent of the vote. Within a razor’s edge behind him was former President Jorge Alessandri, the candidate of the Right, who received 34.9 percent. Radomiro Tomic, of the ruling Christian Democrats, came in third with 27.8 percent.
Such presidential elections, with no candidate receiving an absolute majority, were common in Chile. The constitutional procedures of the day specifically mandated that, instead of a runoff between the two leading candidates, the winner was to be selected by the Chilean congress, scheduled to meet several weeks hence. Although the legislature was not strictly required to opt for the front runner, firm custom suggested that it would do so. What raised the stakes in the 1970 race was the presence of Allende himself, a man with strong Soviet-bloc and Cuban connections and even more sinister associations within Chile’s far Left. Consequently, between the election on September 4 and the congressional vote on October 24, Chile was awash in rumors and plots, most of them related to efforts to block Allende’s accession to power.
In Washington, meanwhile, President Richard Nixon was hardly pleased by the prospect of an Allende presidency, and was taking steps to prevent it. This much has been a matter of public record for nearly 30 years. The primary sources are two reports by a committee led by the late Democratic Senator Frank Church of Idaho, one entitled Alleged Assassination Plots of Foreign Leaders and the other Covert Action in Chile, 1963-1973 (both published in 1975). The findings of the Church committee exonerate the administration of unlawful activity—a noteworthy fact in light of the circumstances that both the chairman and the majority of the members (and, even more, their staffs) were unremittingly hostile to the Nixon White House and anxious, if possible, to find embarrassing linkages between it and events in Chile.
There is another primary source as well. In 1998, the Clinton administration was moved by the arrest in London of Allende’s successor, the dictator Augusto Pinochet, to order the (heavily redacted) declassification of some 17,000 official U.S. documents relating to the period. The most important of these have been placed on the website of the National Security Archive—a left-wing organization not to be confused with the U.S. National Archives. They also form the basis of a new book by the Archive’s Peter Kornbluh, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, released this past September 11.1
Great things have been claimed for the Clinton declassifications. Thanks to them, Christopher Hitchens has been able to boast that in his book “I produce [government] documents that plainly show the orchestration of a plot to murder General René Schneider.” Likewise, he remarks, in the suit filed by the general’s family, “every paper for the prosecution is a declassified document of the U.S. government.” In fact, however, the Clinton declassifications are less rich in information than the findings of the Church committee, which was able to examine the documentary record in its unexpurgated form and also to interrogate the participants under oath. Nor do the Clinton declassifications contribute anything particularly useful to the case against Kissinger. Some of them actually corroborate the findings of the Church committee, and, what is even more ironic, support Kissinger’s own version of events as laid out in the relevant volumes of his memoirs.
That version is itself buttressed at points by other information, especially transcripts of Kissinger’s conversations with relevant figures in Washington and elsewhere. Some of these conversations took place by telephone. Records of Kissinger’s telephone exchanges, covering the entire span of his government service, are now in the process of being released—they form, for instance, the primary basis of his new book, Crisis, dealing with the Yom Kippur war and the end of the Vietnam war. All of them have been given by him for inclusion in the Nixon Library. Although the records relating specifically to Chile are not yet in the public domain, they will be before long, and he has kindly let me review them in advance.
First and foremost, these transcripts establish that Chile was not an important part of the then-National Security Adviser’s daily diet. This point is crucial, not least because in the BBC film we are continually being told that Kissinger micromanaged every detail of American foreign policy. While that may have been true for subjects of high geopolitical import, Chile was not one of them. In fact, during September and October 1970—which is to say, between the Chilean election and the congressional vote—the telephone record reveals a Kissinger preoccupied with a full-blown Middle East crisis, Vietnam, a Soviet submarine base in Cuba, the Black September plane hijacking, Nixon’s planned visit to Europe and to the Sixth Fleet, the defense budget, and the Pugwash conference on U.S.-Soviet relations, but with Chile only slightly. Thereafter, there is nothing at all until June 1973, when he and Nixon discuss a failed military revolt against Allende, and then no further references until after Pinochet’s assumption of power with the September 11 coup.
But this is not really surprising. During much of the Allende presidency, Kissinger was in Paris, Moscow, Beijing, or other locales of far greater importance to the U.S. than Santiago. And even when the subject was again broached at the time of the coup, Kissinger was principally concerned with the possible resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew and preparations for his own confirmation hearings as Secretary of State.
This is hardly to say, however, that the telephone documents are uninformative; far from it. In what follows I shall be drawing freely on them as well as on other pertinent sources to reconstruct the true course of events.
President Nixon was indeed deeply distressed at the prospect of an Allende presidency in Chile, and on September 15, 1970, he summoned Kissinger, Attorney General John Mitchell, and CIA director Richard Helms for a meeting in the Oval Office to discuss the matter. As Helms’s notes of the meeting reflect, Nixon was determined to “save Chile” from Allende “even if the chances [were] one in ten.” At this meeting there was even loose talk about spending $10 million to provoke a coup, and “more if necessary.” Helms remonstrated with the President that Allende would in all likelihood be chosen by the Chilean congress and that only a “slight possibility” existed of a move by senior elements of the country’s military to block his confirmation. “Moreover,” Helms recalls in his posthumous memoir, A Look Over My Shoulder (2003), “I noted that the [CIA] lacked the means of motivating the military to intervene.” But the President was unmoved: “Standing mid-track and shouting at an oncoming locomotive,” recalls Helms, “might have been more effective.”
Convinced that a conventional military uprising was still not possible in Chile, the CIA, acting with the approval of the 40 Committee—the body charged with overseeing covert actions abroad—devised what in effect was a constitutional coup. The most expeditious way to prevent Allende from assuming office was somehow to convince the Chilean congress to confirm Alessandri as the winner of the election. Once elected by the congress, Alessandri—a party to the plot through intermediaries—was prepared to resign his presidency within a matter of days so that new elections could be held.
The particular charm of this ploy was that an Alessandri presidency, even if it lasted a mere 24 hours, would render outgoing President Eduardo Frei eligible to run again, this time in a two-headed race against Allende. (Chile’s constitution, then as now, prohibited consecutive terms.) Under those circumstances, Frei—a Christian Democrat and still the most popular of modern Chilean presidents—could be reasonably expected to defeat Allende fair and square.
This plot, known colloquially as the “Alessandri” or “Rube Goldberg” gambit, required two things to succeed. Frei had to agree to play the role assigned to him, and he would also have to persuade his own followers in congress to cast their votes for Alessandri. Both obstacles proved insurmountable. As Ambassador Edward Korry’s cables from Santiago show, though Frei was deeply troubled by the prospect of an Allende presidency—accurately predicting that it would end in “blood and horror”—he was extremely reluctant to lend himself to a perversion of Chile’s electoral traditions. And even had he been amenable, he would have been unable to persuade most Christian Democrats in Congress to vote for a conservative like Alessandri, no matter how brief his putative rule. For, by 1970, Frei’s party was already leaning considerably further to the Left than Frei himself; its official candidate, Radomiro Tomic, had precipitously recognized Allende as president-elect on election night.
In the meantime, even as the U.S. embassy in Santiago was pursuing the “Alessandri gambit,” an alternative line of activity was being looked into by the CIA station in Chile. This policy, later labeled Track II (to distinguish it from the constitutional coup), involved finding a general or generals who, if President Frei and the Christian Democrats would not play the role assigned to them, would overthrow the outgoing government, dissolve the congress, and send the president into temporary exile. Then the interim junta would call elections (at an unspecified but presumably early date) in which President Frei could return and run against Allende.
Or something like that. Nixon’s instructions to the CIA were simply to forestall Allende’s inauguration; he was not interested in the details, or apparently in the kind of government that would emerge in Allende’s place.
The search for a military man brought the CIA station into contact with General Roberto Viaux, who had been cashiered from the Chilean army in 1969 for leading a revolt against the Christian Democratic government (ostensibly in protest over military salaries and benefits). Since his dismissal, Viaux had continued to conspire, but with larger ideological and political objectives in mind. In early October, by which time Track I had run out of gas, he informed his CIA contacts that he was planning another coup and asked for a sizable drop of arms and ammunition.
Apart from the fact that (according to Helms) the CIA thought Viaux a bit “far out,” the notion that a group of senior army officers required foreign arms to stage a coup did not inspire confidence. After subsequent discussion, the CIA decided Viaux was not a good bet, though it kept him on a long leash, disbursing some cash and even taking out an insurance policy on his life. Another group of generals was eventually selected for the task at hand. Before it could act, however, a roadblock had to be removed.
The chief obstacle to Track II was General René Schneider, commander-in-chief of the Chilean army. His view, simply stated, was that since the politicians had gotten the country into the mess in which it found itself, the politicians would have to find a way out. This position he maintained sturdily throughout September and October in the face of almost daily representations by retired officers, politicians, and businessmen begging him to “save the country” either by supporting a constitutional coup or by some other means. As General Carlos Prats, his second in command, has reported Schneider’s words to him at the time, “the politicians are maneuvering to push the army into an adventure. They should understand that we are not so stupid as to not realize that they want to ‘use’ us, some to preserve their political unity, others as a ‘trampoline’ for Viaux.” When Schneider proved intransigent, the intermediaries tried to persuade Prats, again to no effect. The architects of Track II then focused on circumventing Schneider by kidnapping him and sending him to neighboring Argentina for a season while the political situation was adjusted.
As far as Kissinger (and, for that matter, the White House) was concerned, Viaux had been told to stand down, and that was presumably the end of active American coup-plotting. As Kissinger told Nixon by telephone on October 15, reporting on a meeting with Thomas Karamassines of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere division, “This looks hopeless. I turned it off. Nothing would be worse than an abortive coup.” The President responded, “Just tell him to do nothing.” The next day, CIA headquarters cabled its station in Santiago that although “we are to continue to generate maximum pressure” toward a coup, “a Viaux coup . . . would fail” and Viaux should be warned “against precipitate action.” The message was delivered through an intermediary, leaving the CIA with the pious hope that once its wishes had been made known, Viaux would respect them.
Unfortunately, the cashiered Chilean general was pursuing agendas of his own. The kidnapping itself, which took place early on the morning of October 22, was badly bungled. Schneider resisted by extracting a handgun from his briefcase, provoking his abductors—mostly young and inexperienced—into shooting first, wounding him in four vital areas. Viaux’s people panicked and took flight, some discarding their arms near the scene of the crime. The general was rushed to the capital’s military hospital, where he died three days later.
Much has been made of the fact that between October 15, when Kissinger ordered the Viaux coup “turned off,” and the death of General Schneider, the CIA station in Santiago continued to make preparations for a Track II-type coup. Thus, at some point in mid-October three submachine guns and some tear-gas canisters and gas masks were shipped to the Chilean capital through the U.S. diplomatic pouch and passed to Colonel Paul Wimert, an American military attaché, who in turn gave them to officers representing General Camilo Valenzuela, head of the Santiago garrison. This was the group that had intended to kidnap General Schneider. The exchange occurred at two in the morning of October 22; but before any use could be made of the weaponry, General Schneider lay dying in the hospital.
Eventually, the machine guns were returned unused to Wimert, who discarded them in the Pacific Ocean. A Chilean military court subsequently found that Schneider had been killed by handguns, and the Church committee concluded that these weapons “were, in all probability, not those supplied by the CIA to the conspirators.” The committee also noted that an unloaded machine gun had been found at the site of the killing, but professed itself “unable to determine whether [it] was one of the three supplied by the CIA.” Schneider was therefore killed by conspirators who, although in contact with the CIA, were acting against its direct instruction, and apparently without its logistical assistance.
Just why the Chilean kidnapping plot went forward after Kissinger issued orders that General Viaux be “turned off” is not clear. Possibly it was because Nixon’s express desire to prevent Allende’s accession was so emphatic that Colonel Wimert and other CIA personnel felt somewhat at liberty to go ahead on their own. Kissinger, at any rate, seems to have been unaware of the second plot—that is, the one for which the three machine guns were sent down. In 1975, after testifying before the Church committee, Karamassines phoned the National Security Adviser and reported that he had been “asked . . . if I cleared everything in advance with you. I said no, you were too busy.” In the same conversation, Kissinger remarks that, although he did not know about the second plot, he might have approved it. Then he adds: “I thought that after we turned off that one thing [the Viaux plot], nothing more had happened and in fact that other thing [the Schneider kidnapping] had happened.”
In short, deplore as one might the interventionist intentions of Nixon, Kissinger, and the CIA, the fact remains that General Schneider was murdered as the result of a botched kidnapping attempt, which—as far as the White House was concerned—had been disavowed and ordered shut down a full week before it happened.
Even more has been made of a CIA cable dated October 16 instructing the Santiago station to tell Viaux that, although he was to stand down, he should “preserve [his] assets” and would “continue to have our support” if he joined forces with others either before or after Allende’s inauguration and amplified his political planning for the future. In fact, Viaux played no future role whatsoever in Chilean politics. He was arrested almost immediately after Schneider’s murder and sentenced by a military court to a long prison term. In August 1973, he was released and sent to Paraguay; neither he nor any of the officers involved in his plot was involved in the September 11 coup. When he finally returned to Chile, six or seven years later, the Pinochet government offered him no special consideration.
Neither Hitchens’s book nor the film upon which it is based takes note of a crucial fact: namely, that the Schneider debacle had precisely the opposite effect of what was desired by the CIA and the Nixon administration. It transformed its victim into a martyr of the “constitutionalist” traditions of the Chilean army; it encouraged other constitutionalist officers to support an orderly transfer of power to the new Allende administration; it brought General Carlos Prats, another officer of firm constitutionalist leanings, to the head of the army; and it discredited right-wing cabals both inside the army and out.
It is strange that this outcome should go unremarked by critics who profess to care for Chile and who should presumably take comfort from it—but, given their invincible biases, perhaps it is not so strange after all.
Kissinger has been charged with criminal responsibility not just for Schneider’s assassination. He has also been charged with criminal responsibility for Allende’s overthrow and death three years later.
The CIA’s October 16 cable contained another passage that is quoted with much relish in the BBC movie The Trials of Henry Kissinger, even though there is no indication that Kissinger ever saw the document. In it, the CIA enunciates its
firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. . . . [E]fforts in this regard will continue vigorously. . . . We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource.
In the movie, these highlighted words are immediately followed by horrific images of the events of September 11, 1973, which included the bombing of the presidential palace, the arrest and torture of hundreds of dissidents, and the accession to power of an unusually cruel military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet. As it happens, however, the quotation and the events depicted on the screen collapse two completely different moments in U.S. policy and in the history of Chile.
In the fall of 1970, Nixon certainly talked tough, at least in private, telling Kissinger by phone on October 15 that if Allende were to take office, “I am not going to do a thing for [Chile],” and that if he dared to nationalize U.S. property, “then we cut him off.” Not surprisingly, a National Security Council memorandum (November 9, 1970), drafted several days after Allende’s inauguration and released in the Clinton declassifications, called for a “correct but cool” public posture toward Chile while at the same time “maximiz[ing] pressures on the Allende government to prevent its consolidation and limit its ability to implement policies contrary to U.S. and hemispheric interests.” Specifically, the memorandum advocated eliminating financial guarantees for U.S. private investment in Chile; terminating existing guarantees where possible; bringing “feasible influence” to bear at multilateral lending institutions; and offering no new commitments of bilateral economic aid. (Humanitarian aid was to be considered on a case-by-case basis.)
Meanwhile, however, an “options paper” on Chile (November 3, 1970), sketching how these policies were to be implemented, included two provisions not mentioned in the memorandum. The first was “to give articulate support, publicly and privately, to democratic elements in Chile opposed to the Allende regime by all appropriate means.” The second was to “maintain effective relations with the Chilean military, letting them know that we want to cooperate but that our ability to do so depends on Chilean government actions.”
The former provision laid the groundwork for the transfer of at least $6 million in covert support to non-Marxist political parties, newspapers, radio stations, and other groups during the Allende period. Thanks to these transfers, Allende found it impossible to eliminate his political competition by confiscating the sources of their funding or by intentionally bankrupting independent newspapers or radio stations through politically inspired strikes. Without the American subventions, Chile’s pluralistic political system—including an independent press and electronic media—would in all probability have disappeared long before General Pinochet and his associates overthrew the government and installed a dictatorship of their own. As for the latter provision, it merely outlined a “business-as-usual” relationship with the Chilean military while saying and doing nothing to encourage the military’s involvement in politics.
The documentary evidence is thus unambiguous: the most serious charge that can be levied against the Nixon administration is that it contemplated economic sanctions against Chile at a time when Allende had yet to lay a hand on American investments in the country and was still making payments on Chile’s debts. But even that envisaged policy was never truly implemented. In spite of Nixon’s decision to end all bilateral assistance not already committed, new appropriations—however token in proportion to the past—were authorized during every year of the Allende government. Even after the increasingly bankrupt country defaulted on its debts to the United States in November 1971, “old” U.S. loans continued to be disbursed, amounting (according to one U.S. Treasury estimate) to $200 million for 1971 and 1972; nor was humanitarian aid withdrawn. Though Chile nationalized American holdings in the copper industry in 1971 without making a satisfactory arrangement for compensation—pushing the U.S. government-funded Overseas Private Investment Corporation to the brink of bankruptcy—the notorious Hickenlooper Amendment (requiring a suspension of aid to any country that expropriates U.S. property without payment) was never invoked.
Besides, Chile’s default constituted a de-facto relief measure for the Allende regime, amounting in 1972 alone to $243 million—an effective transfer of resources greater by many orders of magnitude than that tendered to the Frei administration at a time when the latter was supposedly Washington’s “showcase” in Latin America. In addition, Allende was able to tap new sources of credit in Western and Eastern Europe—in 1972, somewhere between $600 and $950 million. As a key functionary of his finance ministry would recall, by mid-1973 “Chile had rebuilt and diversified its system of external finance” and by June of that year had obtained short-term credits amounting to $547 million. To this should be added the fact that between November 1970 and September 1973, Chile was able to draw slightly more than $100 million from the International Monetary Fund, presumably over the protests of U.S. representatives there.
The one area where U.S. aid increased threefold during the Allende period was military assistance. If this sounds sinister, two crucial facts should be borne in mind. First, the aid relieved pressures on the Chilean budget, allowing money that would otherwise have been used for weaponry and training to be diverted to improved housing allowances and other amenities for the uniformed services. Second, Allende himself welcomed this assistance, which permitted him to boast, truthfully, that Chile’s armed forces were better off under a Socialist-Communist government than under its Christian Democratic predecessor. Indeed, to the end of his regime President Allende saw the armed forces as an element on the chessboard to be used and manipulated for his own political purposes.
What, then, brought about the September11, 1973 coup? The real causes must be sought in the devastating collapse of the Chilean economy that took place during the Allende presidency, as well as in Chile’s increasingly polarized political environment.
On November 4, 1970, Salvador Allende assumed the presidency in an atmosphere of euphoria and even good will almost unimaginable in retrospect. Apart from his own four-party coalition (Popular Unity) headed by the Socialist and Communist parties, the new president could count on the “critical support” of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), which historically had questioned the possibility of social change in Chile through peaceful electoral means. More important still, he took office, as we have seen, at a time when the leading opposition party, the Christian Democrats, was anxious to compete for the labels “progressive” and even “revolutionary.” After his inauguration, Allende met with the Christian Democratic leadership in an atmosphere of good humor and camaraderie; the chief of the delegation even urged the president to “help us be good allendistas.”
Instead, intoxicated by ideological triumphalism, Allende’s people did everything they could to split the Christian Democrats, luring the party’s left wing over to the governing coalition while wreaking political vengeance on the rest. As Allende supporters seized factories and farms throughout Chile, Christian Democratic workers were dismissed and their union leaders refused access to the premises. Political discrimination even extended to nonpolitical individuals for family reasons; the son of President Frei, an engineer, found himself in difficulty when his workplace passed into the hands of government “intervenors.”
The net effect of these actions was, paradoxically, to discredit the “collaborationist” leadership of the Christian Democrats and bring about its replacement with more conservative figures. By 1973, the party had been pushed into a tactical electoral alliance with the Right, a development that would have been unthinkable three years earlier. In March 1973, in the last parliamentary election held under Allende, the combined Christian Democratic-Conservative list won a thumping 56 percent of the vote.
These and other ominous shifts in political allegiance were hugely facilitated by Allende’s domestic economic actions—including the harassment of small business, planned dislocations in the country’s food supply, and the uninhibited printing of unbacked currency. The constant threat to independent operators led to a major trucker’s strike in 1972, which then spread disastrously to other sectors of the economy; tampering with the country’s distribution system produced widespread shortages of food; and the flooding of the country with paper money ended in uncontrollable inflation.
One result of the ensuing chaos was that Allende found himself relying heavily on the military just to remain in power. Several times he was compelled to ask flag officers to serve in key ministries; in the final phase of the regime, General Prats was functioning as his minister of interior. These innovations introduced enormous stresses within the armed forces; Prats’s growing closeness to Allende—it amounted to a kind of ideological seduction—undermined his own position in the military, and in August 1973 he was forced to go into voluntary exile in neighboring Argentina.
By that time, Allende’s problems had become so acute as to merit notice once more by the President of the United States. The immediate occasion was a failed military plot against Allende that had been quashed by loyalist troops. Nixon and Kissinger discussed the matter by telephone on July 4, 1973. Not surprisingly, the President expressed regret that the coup failed (“if only the army could get a few people behind them!”). For his part, Kissinger told the President that “we had nothing to do with it.” Both agreed that the prospect of flag officers leaving the Chilean cabinet was bound to deepen the crisis and put Allende in an even more disadvantageous position.
For the next two months, no further phone conversations took place between Kissinger and the Nixon White House on the subject of Chile. Not until the events surrounding the September 11 coup did they resume.
Within hours of that event, the prestige American press was circulating rumors to the effect that Washington had had prior word of the plot. On September 13, for example, the New York Times carried a headline—“U.S. Had Warning of Coup, Aides Say”—leading readers to infer that knowledge possessed by Washington and deliberately withheld from the Allende government had spelled the difference between its survival and its demise. In fact, however, as Ken Rush, a White House aide, said to Kissinger on that same day, “What [Assistant Secretary of State Jack] Kubish told me was that we knew nothing about it; that we had not been told about it and it came as a complete surprise to us.” Rush added: “I didn’t know that a coup was coming at any particular date. We’d been hearing coup rumors for about a year.”
Kissinger was better informed than the White House. A few days before the coup, Ambassador Nathaniel Davis had been recalled to Washington, not to discuss Chile per se but to be looked over as a possible candidate for a high State Department post. As he walked into Kissinger’s office, he was asked immediately about the possibilities of a coup. The recorded transcript of their conversation was reproduced by Kissinger in his memoir, Years of Upheaval (1982). “In Chile you can never count on anything,” the ambassador said, “but the odds are in favor of a coup, though I can’t give you any time frame.” Kissinger: “We are going to stay out of that, I assume.” Davis: “Yes. My firm instructions to everybody on the staff are that we are not to involve ourselves in any way. . . . Our biggest problem is to keep from getting caught in the middle.”
Davis’s “information” was no secret. The truth is that every cat and dog in Chile knew a coup was coming at some point in September 1973, and so did Allende himself. The only questions were who would lead it, who would replace Allende, and what ideological tendency would prevail once the government was dissolved. During a private lunch with the president a few days before his departure into Argentine exile, General Prats himself warned Allende that he would be overthrown within the next ten days. When the president asked whether Prats’s ministerial replacement, General Augusto Pino chet, would remain loyal, Prats said he thought so but that the issue was irrelevant. “Even the most constitutionalist of officers,” he later recalled telling the president in this most bizarre of exchanges, “will understand that a division within the armed forces would mean civil war.” In effect, officers would either respect the decision of the coup-makers or be swept aside.2
Contrary, then, to what the film The Trials of Henry Kissinger suggests, there was no straight line between the events of 1970 and the coup of 1973. Rather, conscious choices by Allende and his own people drove the military into action that it would normally have been disinclined to carry out. This was certainly the impression conveyed, for example, by a U.S. naval attaché who cabled a few days after the coup that the “decision to remove the Allende government was made with extreme reluctance and only after the deepest soul-searching by all concerned.”
As for President Nixon, he was evidently pleased—how could he not have been?—but exhibited no sense of complicity with the coup-makers themselves. As he said on the phone to Kissinger on September 16, “Well, we didn’t—as you know—our hand doesn’t show on this one though.” To which Kissinger replied, “We didn’t do it.”
The United States did play a role in Chile, though not precisely the one ascribed to it. It attempted—unsuccessfully—to forestall Allende’s confirmation by the Chilean congress. But once he was in office, the thrust of U.S. policy shifted to sustaining a democratic opposition and an independent press until Allende could be defeated in the presidential elections scheduled for 1976. To the extent that this opposition was able to survive under extraordinarily difficult economic circumstances—winning control of the Chilean congress in March 1973—one might even credit the Nixon administration with preventing the consolidation of Allende’s “totalitarian project” (to use the apt expression of Eduardo Frei).
What then followed—a right-wing dictatorship that crushed not merely the Allende regime but Chilean democracy itself—was not and could not have been predicted, partly because of the military’s own apolitical traditions and partly because, by mid1973, the opposition to Allende was dominated by forces of proved democratic provenance. To the contrary, Washington’s presumption—that in the 1976 elections, if they were allowed to take place, the opposition would win decisively—was amply supported by the facts. It was only the savagery of the subsequent Pinochet dictatorship that in hindsight altered the historical picture.
As the years passed, the contumely into which Allende and his associates had deservedly fallen in Chile at the time of their overthrow came to be neutralized, then canceled out, by martyrdom. Then, too, the undifferentiated contempt with which the military subsequently treated all political forces except those on the far Right threw together people who in August and September 1973 had been ready to face off in a kind of civil war. In that sense, General Pinochet—in spite of himself—may be considered the unanticipated progenitor of the Socialist-Christian Democratic coalition governments that have governed Chile from 1989 to the present.
The Allende regime also benefited retrospectively from its evident association with the old democratic order; it had, after all, been elected. How much longer it would have remained part of that order, which it was busily undermining, must remain a matter of controversy. But to the day of its demise, it enjoyed a marginal legitimacy that would elude its military successor. In this respect, too, Pinochet and his associates played an unexpected role—rescuing for Allende and his government a place in Chilean history they did not earn and to which they could not otherwise have looked forward.
Such are a few of the pesky but all-important details that “revisionists” like Hitchens and the makers of The Trials of Henry Kissinger are at pains to avoid, if indeed they were ever aware of them in the first place. Those who mourn the loss of a Marxist regime in Chile are free to denounce the adversarial efforts undertaken by Nixon, Kissinger, and the CIA, as are the legions of marchers with their placards equating American officials with Nazis and mass murderers. Those, like the editorialists of the New York Times, who are indifferent to the uses of anti-Americanism are likewise free to join the chorus. But anyone with a serious concern for historical truth—or for the long-term survival of democracy in Chile—or for the reputation of the United States and the policy it endeavored with honor to implement during the tortuous decades of the cold war—might well be moved to reexamine the record.
1 New Press, 551 pp., $29.95.
2 Prats’s memoirs are of particular interest because they were written in exile at a time when he had become, post hoc, a virtual partisan of the Allende regime and was seen by many as a potential challenger to Pinochet’s military government. They were completed just before he and his wife were killed by a car bomb in Buenos Aires planted by Pinochet’s secret police, but remained unpublished until 1985 when book censorship was ended in Chile.