Commentary Magazine

The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende, by Nathaniel Davis

Clean Hands

The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende.
by Nathaniel Davis.
Cornell University Press. 480 pp. $24.95.

This past March, after Ferdinand Marcos left the Philippines, President Reagan dispatched a message to Congress declaring his opposition to right- as well as left-wing tyrannies. He followed it with an unprecedented step, sponsoring a condemnation of Chile's military regime before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Though the White House publicly denied it, this represented a substantial change in policy. Donald Regan, White House Chief of Staff, later underlined the President's message when he was asked on television if the U.S. intended to topple General Pinochet's government. “Not at this moment, no,” he replied.

Nathaniel Davis was the U.S. Ambassador to Chile from 1971 to 1973, when the coup occurred that toppled Salvador Allende and resulted in his violent death. He was therefore present at the creation of the military regime that is now proving an embarrassment to the Reagan administration. His political memoir is a conscientious, detailed, and informative account of Allende's presidency, his fall, and the U.S. role in both. As an apologia pro vita sua of sorts, it also reflects Davis's determined quest to find out what really happened in Chile while he was the U.S. Ambassador there. In the process, Davis provides insights into the nature of Chilean politics that ought to be useful to contemporary policymakers now struggling publicly with the dilemma of Pinochet's Chile.

Davis argues, in brief, that the fall of the Allende government owed little or nothing to U.S. actions. The Chilean economy collapsed more because of the regime's mishandling of it than because of any campaign by the U.S. government and the multinational corporations. What is more, Davis says, the 1973 coup was an exclusively Chilean affair and Allende was not murdered but committed suicide.

Davis has a hard row to hoe in making his case, after the 1975 revelations of the Church Committee about the pre-accession shenanigans on the part of the U.S. (These had included not only a plan, rejected by Davis's predecessor Edward Korry, to bribe Chilean Congressmen, but also the botched kidnapping of the army's commander-in-chief, an inconveniently strict constitutionalist, which resulted in his being mortally wounded. Three submachine guns were smuggled into the country for the kidnapping via the U.S. diplomatic pouch.) Despite the backdrop, however, few fair-minded readers will come away from The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende without knowing that they have just spent their hours with a truthful man. This is not just because the author's straightforward integrity touches every page but also because his analysis of what really happened in Chile between the autumns of 1971 and 1973 has real consistency.

It reveals three constants. One is the U.S. desire to appear clean. Immediately after Allende's inauguration, the National Security Council directed that the U.S. pursue policies designed to hurt the Chilean economy, prevent Allende from consolidating his grip on the country, and limit his ability to act against U.S. interests. At the same time, it insisted that the U.S. maintain a correct public posture to avoid providing Allende with an external target. As is often the case, the wish to appear honest, together with the lack of any effective options but the dire and dangerous, limited what could be done behind the scenes. The second constant is the Chileans' idea of acceptable political behavior. These pages draw for us a cumulatively striking portrait of a people whose independence and parliamentary traditions made them shrink instinctively from violating constitutional rules. At every turn men would appear who followed those rules in preference to parochial self-interest. The third constant is the steady aversion of the Ambassador himself to “dirty tricks.” These three inhibitions set the parameters within which those who wished to see a Chile without Allende could operate.


How much of what happened to the Chilean economy during Allende's presidency can be laid at the door of the U.S., either government or corporations, acting openly or secretly? The economy did not begin screaming the first year, as President Nixon wanted, though it did whine a bit. This was certainly not the CIA's doing, however. Davis shows in detail how circumstance, together with domestic mismanagement of a morass of financial problems caused by the regime's political composition and its Marxist economic policies, resulted in economic and, eventually, political collapse.

In the early days, when the rich began fleeing the country, taking their money with them, and stocks slid along with sales of some durable goods, while the black market expanded, the Marxist government countered with some vigorous Keynesian pump-priming. This quick fix, together with establishment of a rural dole and initiation of a land-reform program, did help for a time. By September 1971, though, the inflation rate, running until then at a steady 15 percent, started to accelerate. Job creation ironically caused labor discipline to sag and in July the coal miners, railroad workers, and copper miners went on strike. These strains, as well as a one-third drop in the world demand for copper during 1971 and the government's spending spree, meant that by November nothing remained of the $350 to $450 million in foreign reserves that Allende had inherited from the years of high copper prices. The government therefore resorted to a drastic expedient: it declared a moratorium on its interest payments on the national debt.

At the heart of these problems lay nationalization. Used as a political tool by the socialist ideologues in Allende's coalition, who wanted to destroy private enterprise and the forces of reaction, it ravaged private business and industry. Forced into bankruptcy by price and credit controls, these then fell cheaply into the hands of the state. What is more, the expropriated industries, once nationalized, were mismanaged by administrators appointed for political reasons in a crony socialism at least as inefficient as its capitalist counterpart. The radical Left continued to press for nationalization even when it meant economic decline and, soon, political disorder. Within seven weeks of taking office, Allende had proposed a constitutional amendment to nationalize all of Chile's mines and on July 11, 1971, the Congress unanimously adopted his proposal. It provided for compensation within thirty years at not less than 3-percent interest. But the President could, and on September 28 did, decide that profits since 1955 had been excessive, despite the fact that the corporations had faithfully obeyed the laws of this democratic land. On October 11, a week after Davis was sworn in as new Ambassador, the Chilean Comptroller announced that Kennecott and Anaconda would get no compensation at all for their huge mines.


By the beginning of 1972, therefore, the new government had shaken international confidence with its moratorium on national-debt payments, created irreconcilable disagreements with the U.S. over its nationalization-without-compensation, and begun to alienate even its own electorate through the domestic effects of its policies. In the by-elections, candidates of Unidad Popular (the leftist coalition headed by Allende) suffered substantial defeats. Inflation was negating higher wages, there were shortages in goods, land reform was making less progress than under the former government of the Christian Democrats, private industry was collapsing, and the nationalized sector was falling increasingly into the red. The national deficit expanded and the tax base shrank while the government frantically printed money in an attempt to control the political consequences of its economic policies. These worsened through 1972 as the inflation rate first doubled (in August), then jumped another 50 percent (in September), bringing the official increase in the consumer-price index to 100 percent for the first nine months of 1972. Riots and further strikes broke out, including a particularly violent and costly one by the nation's truckers.

This mess was not the fault of the U.S. At the UN later, Allende would blast ITT for having tried to prevent his inauguration, which was true, and accuse the multinational corporations generally of attempting to undermine his economy. This was less fair, for they could legitimately protest that they had not set out to do so, but rather had been forced to respond to the government's mismanagement. The bankers, too, had cut but not eliminated credit to the country because Allende had stopped servicing the national debt. His own action had increased the risk of lending capital to a regime that was weakening its economy by refusing to pay compensation to the private industries it was forcibly nationalizing. The startling fact is that, in April 1972, U.S. policy-makers, more concerned with their image than with destabilizing Chile's economy, gave the country $200 million in relief from its creditors. Indeed, it received more disbursements from public international sources under the Unidad Popular regime than in any comparable period of its history. As a result of all this help, by September 1973 when the coup came, Allende's Chile was running the highest per-capita debt in the world.


The U.S. did not need to intervene to weaken Allende's position. In November of 1972 he himself made it obvious how worried he was about the economic and political situation by inviting three military men into his cabinet. One, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Carlos Prats Gonzales, he made Minister of the Interior. This man was another strict constitutionalist who was reluctant to see himself and his colleagues from the other services drawn into the political arena. Their entry seemed necessary to hold the country together and Prats ended the truckers' strike by promising not to nationalize the industry. Given the Marxist direction in which the government was moving, these actions were at best cosmetic. Allende's invitation to the officer corps to play a political role probably resulted, as Davis suggests, in overcoming the military's natural inhibition against involvement in any coup.

On the economic front, Allende was doing no better. He wanted another quick fix and the future appeared to depend on what the Communist world might do for Chile. He had announced in July that he intended to turn to Eastern Europe for loans. At the end of November, leaving Prats in charge, he set off for Moscow, stopping on the way in Algeria to declare his support for the PLO. Even this avowal did not help him secure the $500 million dollars in hard currency that he sought to shore up his crumbling economy. The Soviets, ever cautious about their investments and entanglements, advised him to seek an accommodation with the U.S. on the issue of copper compensation and offered him $200 million in credits, not cash. They evidently questioned Chile's future and, while they were willing to help, they were not about to pick up the tab.

The leftist ideologues in his government now added to Allende's difficulties. They had Chile openly tilting toward East European educational models in ways that could not possibly have been pinned on any U.S. efforts to destabilize. A reform “to inculcate the values of socialist humanism” in the schools brought the Catholic Church into the fray for the first time, as it too joined the opposition and began to thunder against the regime. In the March by-elections the opposition parties registered 56 percent of the vote, less than the two-thirds required for impeachment proceedings but enough to convince the military members of the cabinet to leave the government.


Tension had now risen so high on so many fronts that some eruption of violence seemed inevitable, even in Chile, the longstanding democracy deeply committed to constitutionalist ways. More and more people, the Christian Democrats among them, were coming to believe that their problems could not be settled at the polls. The movement to launch a coup spread very gradually through the military, beginning among officers at the colonel level and later being taken seriously by the generals and admirals. While economic and political grievances played their part, the driving force was fear. After the March elections, the military watched with growing apprehension the increased flow of arms from Cuba and Eastern Europe to the leftist paramilitary forces in areas of Chile in effect controlled by the extreme left wing, not the government: parts of the countryside, shantytowns organized into militarized hamlets, and the worker-ruled industrial belts. Seeing their enemies grow stronger, the armed forces concluded that time was against them.

Events that summer removed the constitutional obstacles to military action. The Chamber of Deputies declared that Allende was acting outside the law and seeking total power. Before the end of August, the Congress and the Supreme Court had repudiated Unidad Popular's claim to legality. Following the lead of their civilian colleagues, the military also began distancing themselves from Allende's regime. On August 23 the generals expressed their dissatisfaction with the government in a vote of no-confidence against their commander-in-chief, General Prats, whom they saw as having joined the other side. Prats resigned and was replaced immediately by his deputy, General Augusto Pinochet.


Allende's political and economic troubles, inextricably entangled, came to a head during the first week of September. A second costly and violent truckers' strike had broken out in late July, and now the taxi drivers came out too, along with most professionals and about 125,000 shopkeepers. In a last-ditch effort to hang onto the reins, Allende decided privately to have a national plebiscite. On September 9, that expedient, if ever it could have worked, was compromised by a speech delivered by the Secretary General of Allende's own Socialist party, Carlos Altamirano Orrego, in which he denounced the forces of reaction, refused to deal with them, and threatened to destroy them with “the force of the people, their industrial commands, their peasant councils, their organization.” Until that moment there were still those among the senior officer corps who were dragging their heels; despite his subsequent denials, evidence from impartial sources reveals that General Pinochet was one of them. The speech, however, confirmed the military's worst fears and that very day they scheduled their coup for September 11. In the early morning hours, while working on the speech that would announce the plebiscite he hoped would save him, Allende received word that the coup had begun.

From 9:30 A.M., first with guns, then with tanks, the armed forces attacked the Moneda Palace. The first aerial assault, just before noon, made further resistance impossible. The alternatives were surrender or death. One of the doctors in the President's entourage describes how Allende, as he walked in the final procession leaving the Moneda to surrender, withdrew to a separate room, placed under his chin the muzzle of an automatic rifle given him by Fidel Castro, and blew out his brains.

Within days of Allende's suicide, the Left invented and spread abroad the story that the military had murdered him. Despite her early statements to the contrary, his wife eventually joined their ranks, as did Fidel Castro. The media helped weave a tangled web of fact and fiction that reinforced the tale. With the attention to detail of a classical philologist, Davis traces the origins and course of this fabrication and makes as convincing a case as possible that the doctor's version of events is correct. He labors to reconstruct reality from the available evidence but he labors at a disadvantage. The carefully reassembled jigsaw puzzle he places before his reader lacks a central piece: Allende's body was buried the day after the coup and none of the twenty-seven photographs taken of it has ever been made public.


Does Davis convince us also of his view that the U.S. played no real role in this coup? After thorough digging, he and the Church Committee were able to unearth only one attempt at “dirty tricks” during his ambassadorship. It began just before his arrival, but came to fruition while he was in office without his knowledge. CIA officers in Santiago sent documents, including a forged letter, to a Chilean officer outside the country in an attempt to convince the military that the police investigative forces were in league with the Cubans against them. The effects of this operation are not traceable, but both the Committee and Davis seem satisfied that it was the last of its kind.

The covert measures Ambassador Davis permitted consisted solely of funneling some $2 million a year to the moderate opposition (mostly the Christian Democrats and the National party) and to the free press. He thought it justified to work covertly to keep Chile an open society but drew the line at underhanded operations designed to destabilize or disrupt it. Even the reader who instinctively believes that the U.S. should not bribe Congressmen, inspire violent kidnappings, or deceive its friends in a foreign country comes away from this book wondering whether Davis should not have been more troubled by the prospect of Allende, unimpeded, consolidating his Marxist grip on the country.

The Ambassador derides President Nixon's concern over the geopolitical importance of having a second Cuba in Latin America. Apparently Nixon took seriously the warning of an Italian businessman that Allende's victory would mean a “red sandwich” between Chile and Cuba. On hearing this, Davis quips, “It would have been quite a Dagwood Special: four thousand miles of heterogeneous societies and regimes would lie between those two slabs of Marxist pumpernickel”—a good line but not an adequate response to the legitimate, long-term security concerns of the U.S. and its regional allies.

It would be more difficult for Davis to take the moral position he does against covert intervention in Chile if the Chilean military had not acted and a Marxist regime with ties to the Soviet bloc were now operating in South America. What that part of the world would look like at this point is of course a matter of speculation, but Davis never confronts the issue. An elected Communist president in the U.S. sphere of influence (even one elected by only a third of his countrymen) is the nightmare of any believer in democracy. The perennial problem of how clean you can keep your hands in a dirty world endures because statesmen and administrators have a moral obligation to preserve our interests abroad, as well as to remain true to our domestic principles.

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