A Critical Study
1.0 Introduction: Chile’s Coup and American Foreign Policy
On 11 September 1973, the military forces of Chile staged a coup d’état which toppled the government of socialist president Salvador Allende. Chile had long been one of the most stable of Latin American democracies and its military had traditionally avoided interference in political matters. By the time of the coup, however, conditions in the country had deteriorated to such a degree that military action in some form had been widely anticipated for reasons which will be discussed in the following pages. I will also examine the unique character of the Chilean events and the rôle played by the United States’ government and intelligence community, both at the time of the coup and in the preceding years. It is the actions of the United States, and the context within which those actions appear, that are the primary focus of this paper.
Following the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. had long seen itself as the legitimate defender of the Western hemisphere against the influence of foreign powers and had, since the mid-19th century, frequently intervened in the internal affairs of Latin American nations in furtherance of its own economic and ideological agenda. This paper hopes to explore American intervention in Chile and its part in fostering an atmosphere conducive to a coup. With the intention of properly situating the events in Chile within the context of American foreign relations, we will first examine the nature of covert action as a tool of Cold War foreign policy, and establish a framework for understanding its application in the specific case of Chile.
1.1 Covert Operations and International Relations
Covert actions and covert operations are terms used to describe the pursuit of American foreign policy goals through clandestine means. This usually involves the direct intervention of the U.S. intelligence community in the affairs of other nations; such intervention is, for reasons that should be obvious, usually a closely-guarded secret from both the nation being targeted and from the American people.
These operations can be seen as a sort of ‘third option’ available to foreign policy planners—a middle ground betwixt open warfare and direct diplomacy. Dr Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to Presidents Nixon and Ford, once remarked in an interview that ‘[w]e need an intelligence community that, in certain complicated situations, can defend the American national interest in the gray areas where military operations are not suitable and diplomacy cannot operate’.1
Despite such interventions having a long history in American policy, especially as regards the Western hemisphere, the Cold War with the Soviet Union dramatically accelerated the institutionalisation of the approach. In the specific case of Chile, economic intervention was publicly justified as defending American interests from Soviet aggression, and military and covert intervention privately justified in the name of promoting ‘stability’ in the Third World. The language used in such cases, and the nature of the ‘aid’ offered to other nations, had been largely defined in terms of Cold War ideological necessity. In his essay on Cold War rhetoric, Philip Wander shows that the nature of American foreign aid—always predominantly military in nature—had ‘changed… from arms designed to protect countries from external aggression to arms designed to suppressinternal uprisings’ and to increase the power that police and military forces in the Third World can exert over the civilian population.2
Robert L. Scott, in his introduction to the essay above, tells us that ‘keeping a bulwark against communism often has been interpreted as necessitating cooperation with authoritarian governments on the grounds that these will be staunch opponents of anything seen as Communist intrusion.’3 U.S. support for the Pinochet coup in Chile can be seen as one phase in a decades-long attempt to check the expansion of Soviet influence and the attendant ideological threat. The 1960s and ’70s saw a long string of apparent Soviet ‘victories’ in the race for global influence and hegemony. This essay will examine the nature of U.S. involvement in the Chilean coup and place it within the context of this Cold War competition.
2.0 Background Context: The Chilean Democracy
Jacobo Timerman, publisher of La Opinión from 1971 until his arrest in 1977, speaks romantically of the Chilean people, telling us that they ‘regarded their cultured and well-ordered country, once the most stable democracy in Latin America, as a European nation. To them, Chile was “the England of the South.”’4 If such a portrait is wholly accurate, the events of 1973 would be very hard to explain. However, this sunny appraisal of Chilean society—as attractive as it might be in hindsight—does not adequately address the many challenges facing the nation in the 1960s and ’70s.
Having experienced lengthy periods of republican rule, and very little of the military involvement that characterised so much of Latin America, Chile may indeed have seemed stable—on the surface. Beneath the upper-class sheen of the growing urban élites was the grinding poverty that the poor in neighbouring countries would have recognised all too well. Indeed, Notre Dame professor Fredrick B. Pike, in his study of U.S.-Chilean relations, quotes French writer André Bellesort as stating that in 1923
Chile, although appearing to be politically the best organized of the Latin-American republics, was undermined by the presence of a lower class so miserable, so bereft of hope, that it had neither sufficient energy nor class consciousness to aspire toward improvement.5
The last period of military rule, from 1927-1931, had been a conservative reaction to the social restructuring of Arturo Alessandri’sLiberal Alliance. It broke down in the wake of the world-wide financial catastrophe known as the Great Depression. The Library of Congress’ Country Guide for Chile cites League of Nation figures to assert that ‘no other nation’s trade suffered more than Chile’s from the economic collapse. Unemployment approached 300,000, almost 25% of the work force.’6 Following the Depression, Chile experienced steady economic growth, but was hampered by high levels of illiteracy and infant mortality. Pike’s study indicates that ‘the real income of all groups in Chile grew approximately 40 per cent between 1940 and 1953’, but that the ‘[d]istribution of this income… worked to the disadvantage of lower-class manual laborers. These workers, comprising roughly 57 per cent of the active population,won an increase in effective remuneration of only 7 per cent.’7
From this potent mix of working-class resentment and income disparity arose the first signs of class consciousness in Chile. The Socialist Party, founded in 1933, exploited the economic conditions of the Depression to spread its message of equality and to radicalise the working poor of Chile. Pike tells us that
the lower-income sectors were not, after all, serene: they established the short-lived Socialist Republic in 1932; they flocked to join socialist and communist organizations throughout the 1930’s; and in the 1938 presidential elections they helped achieve victory for the candidate of the Radical-Socialist-Communist party alliance.8
Examining the electoral politics of the decades to follow demonstrate that the expansion of the left’s influence in Chile was not to be as short-lived as its periods in power, and that the labour and left-liberal movements would continue to draw a steady support within a system which Pike describes as ‘semifeudalism’.9
2.1 Socialist Agitation in the 1960s
With poverty endemic in the growing urban centres of Chile, the left expanded its political base and duelled with a well-funded right for the votes of the middle-class. A union of the major leftist groups placed Salvador Allende on the 1958 presidential ticket, where he drew a respectable 29 per cent of the vote. According to the Library of Congress,
[i]f it had not been for the 3 percent of the votes snared by a populist defrocked priest, the 15 percent won by the Radicals, and the low percentage (22 percent) of women casting ballots for Allende, the Marxists could easily have captured the presidency in 1958, several months before the Cuban Revolution.10
Pike also points out that, with Allende within 35,000 votes of Alessandri, the 40,000 votes taken by Father Antonio Raúl Zamorano ‘would probably have been cast for Allende.’11
As working-class literacy levels (and hence enfranchisement) rose, the left grew ever stronger. Pike tells us that as of ‘the March 1961 congressional elections, the [Popular Action Front] registered a greater increase in voting strength than any other Chilean political organization.’12 The left was further strengthened when Eduardo Frei’s government ‘revised electoral regulations, lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen and giving the franchise to people who could not read (about 10 percent of the population was illiterate).’13 However, Chilean politicians had also long shown a tendency to ‘subordinate ideology to electoral considerations’14, and the Socialist ticket accordingly took a more conciliatory stance with regard to the middle-class, thus further widening its appeal.
Allende’s presidential platform involved the slow implementation of socialist reforms within a democratic Chilean state. He called his approach ‘la vía chilena al socialismo‘ (‘the Chilean Way to Socialism’). His campaign called for the nationalisation of large industry (such as copper mining, Chile’s greatest export); an extension of the educational programme of president Eduardo Frei Montalva; reforms within the health care system; agrarian reforms and land redistribution; a moratorium on foreign debt payments; and a progressive tax policy that included the expropriation of ‘excess profit’.
It was this ‘attention to economic and social rights, which implied great restrictions on private property rights, [which] helped trigger U.S. active opposition’15 to his election. In the 1964 presidential election, the CIA spent more that $2.6 million in support of the successful candidate. According to the Church Report, the result of a Senate Select Committee investigation of U.S. involvement in Chile, ‘more than half of the Christian Democratic candidate’s campaign was financed by the United States, although he was not informed of this assistance’.16 Two other parties received funding that year, making it extremely difficult for the cash-strapped Socialists to compete. Despite the alliance of the major right-wing parties and their superior funding, the left coalition under Allende still drew some 39 per cent of the vote.
2.2 The 1970 Presidential Election
In the 1970 election, the CIA again poured money in to support conservative parties and candidates, but this time no specific candidate was favoured. The total commitment was also much smaller, which allowed the Socialists to achieve a far better showing in the close campaign.
The Political Database of the Americas, hosted by Georgetown University, gives the following vote break-down for the election of 1970:17
Total Votes: 2,943,561
Salvador Allende Gossens 1,066,372 36.29% (Popular Unity)
Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez 1,050,863 35.76% (independent conservative)
Radomiro Tomic 821,350 27.95% (Christian Democratic Party)
Allende’s razor-thin plurality meant that the election would have to be decided in the Chilean Congress. Close elections had happened several times in Chile’s past, and each time the Congress had simply affirmed the right of the candidate with the most votes to take office as President. This time, however, the winning candidate was not acceptable to Washington.
The CIA first ‘tried to bribe the Chilean Congress to block Allende’s election’,18 hoping that the position would fall to the runner-up. Lacking a popular mandate, it was then expected that Alessandri would immediately resign and call for new elections. Congress refused to support this plan and voted to confirm Allende after he had agreed to sign a ‘Statute of Constitutional Guarantees’, intended to allay fears of a Marxist dictatorship. With Allende thus pledged to uphold the sanctity of the Chilean Constitution, the path was at last cleared for him to assume the office of President and begin the implementation of his socialist programme.
3.0 Actors and Stakes: In the National Interest
The 1970 election in Chile set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the assassination of Allende and the destruction of the Chilean democracy. Each of these events were driven by a sense of urgency on the part of the agency responsible—each felt compelled to act for their own reasons and the situation cannot be said to have been under the control of any single party. There was more at stake in this election than any single actor or ideological position could account for.
For the U.S. government, Chile was another Cold War battleground—another place to fight the spread of Marxism-Leninism and to protect liberal capitalism. For the socialists in Chile, the fight was a matter of democratic principle, which may help to explain Allende’s refusal to arm his supporters in the event of a coup. For the Chilean upper classes, this was a matter of survival. For all parties concerned, it was clear that something had to be done. Allende took power and began his work to reform the Chilean economy, beginning the only truly successful year of his term in office with the nationalisation of the copper industry and other major foreign enterprises. How did the other players respond?
3.1 The American Response: Cold War Policy and the Nixon Administration
Narrowly winning the chaotic and divisive 1968 presidential election, Richard Milhous Nixon had campaigned on a platform of ‘law and order’ and was a dedicated and outspoken anti-communist. This history as an opponent of Marxism is often cited as the reason for his success in re-opening mainland China to US business and governmental relations after two decades of diplomatic isolation, as a liberal politician could more easily have been denounced for negotiating with the communist régime in Beijing.
The celebrated mission to China aside, the Nixon administration pursued a policy of combating communist and Marxist states and movements around the world which, in addition to the escalation of the war in Indochina, extended into South America and the republic of Chile. The Church Report tells us that:
On September 15, 1970—after Allende finished first in the election but before the Chilean Congress had chosen between him and the runner-up, Alessandri—President Nixon met with Richard Helms, the Director of Central Intelligence, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger and Attorney General John Mitchell. Helms was directed to prevent Allende from taking power. The effort was to be conducted without the knowledge of the Departments of State and Defense or the Ambassador.19
Helms’s notes for the meeting, recording Nixon’s position on Chile, leave little to the imagination: ‘1 in 10 chance perhaps, but save Chile! Not concerned risks involved. No involvement of embassy. $10,000,000 available, more if necessary. Full-time job—best men we have… Make the economy scream. 48 hours for plan of action’.20
In his controversial book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens notes that in a ‘famous expression of his contempt for democracy, Kissinger once observed that he saw no reason why a certain country should be allowed to “go Marxist” merely because “its people are irresponsible”.’21 That ‘certain country’ was Chile.
Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis tells us that
[t]hroughout the Cold War, the United States had claimed to oppose communism, not because it was revolutionary, but because it denied freedom of choice. Should a people ever freely elect a government of that persuasion, the argument ran, Washington would respect that judgement. Thus, Nixon acknowledged early in 1971 that although Allende’s election was “not something that we welcomed, . . . that was the decision of the people of Chile, and . . . therefore we accepted that decision. . . [F]or the United States to have intervened—intervened in a free election and to have turned it around, I think, would have had repercussions all over Latin America that would have been far worse than what has happened in Chile.”22
He continues by quoting Henry Kissinger who, in an annual foreign policy report noted that
[w]e hope that governments will evolve toward constitutional procedures. But it is not our mission to try to provide—except by example—the answers to such questions for other sovereign states. . . . [W]e are prepared to have the kind of relationship with the Chilean government that it is prepared to have with us.23
Given the meeting that had taken place just the year before, and the constant efforts of the administration within that time to undermine the Chilean economy, this statement of Kissinger’s is quite revealing. Choosing Machiavellian Realpolitik over honest exercise of representative government, the American administration has shown the extent to which Cold War justifications and the strategy of containment at all costs had consumed foreign policy by this time.
At stake in this election, and the subsequently attempted subversion, is an entire pattern of behaviour, founded in Cold War rhetoric, and placing the defence of capitalist values above democracy and the rule of law. Gaddis explains the conflict thus:
Kissinger’s position on Chile, as on Eurocommunism in Western Europe, was that the United States could accept only a certain range of political outcomes, even if produced by democratic means. The American commitment to diversity did not extend to the acceptance of governments that might in some way upset the balance of power. As Kissinger acknowledged to his staff at one point: “We set the limits of diversity.”24
Drawing on quotes taken from Kissinger’s own memoirs, Noam Chomsky points out that Kissinger
defends his efforts to subvert Chilean democracy on the grounds that the “anti-Allende vote” in 1970 was 62.7 percent (653). He notes, however, that the Christian Democratic vote (approximately equal to Allende’s) went to a left-wing candidate “whose program differed from Allende’s largely on procedural points and in his sincere dedication to the democratic process” (665). Thus the vote for Allende’s program was actually two-thirds.25
The major threat to the ‘balance of power’ seen in the Chilean election was not overt Soviet aggression, or a lack of democratic choice, but the implementation of a national policy of internal development that removed global finance from a dominant position in the economy. Indeed, the economic contexts were in the forefront of decision-making on the part of all players in the Chilean coup, as this paper will demonstrate in section three below.
In dealing more narrowly with the political issues involved, Gaddis’s own analysis indicates that a ‘more likely explanation is that. . . if [the coup was] allowed to proceed unopposed, [it] would have produced changes in the status quo that might have appeared to shift the balance of power.’26 He quotes Kissinger, in a statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as saying that ‘the appearance of inferiority—whatever its actual significance—can have serious political consequences.’27 The timing of the coup is an important factor in American decision-making, as a string of apparent ‘victories’ under Khrushchëv and Brezhnev had placed the Nixon administration in a far more difficult position with regard to the ideological confrontation betwixt market forces and state socialism.
However, Joseph Nogee and John Sloan remind us that
…Allende’s road to socialism—and the United States’ reaction to it—engendered enormous financial needs that could not be satisfied internally. The Soviet Union was willing to satisfy only a portion of those needs and was not willing to subsidize the Chilean experiment to the same degree it aided the early years of Castro’s regime.28
With an economy already in critical condition by the start of his administration, Allende set out to implement a programme of central planning and industrialisation without the necessary capital or international support the Chilean economy needed to survive. Blinded by his ideological commitment to Chile’s long-term prospects for independent development, he failed to recognise the fragility of the system he had inherited. Furthermore, the stated unwillingness on the part of an over-extended Soviet Bloc to provide Chile with significant financial and technical assistance left Allende at the mercy of a United States that was determined to see his experiment fail. This economic vulnerability would prove to be his, and his government’s, undoing.
3.2 The Chilean Response: Government, Business, and Military Leadership
The new government was headed by Dr Salvador Allende Gossens, whowas born in Valparaíso on 26 July 1908. He was a medical doctor by training, but had been a politically active Marxist throughout his career. He helped to found the Chilean Socialist Party in 1933 and later entered the senate under the Socialist banner. Having run unsuccessfully for the presidency three times, he had little hope of attaining the office, but his commitment to both the cause of state socialism and to the democratic traditions of Chile impelled his continued efforts.
David P. Forsythe, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, points out that ‘Allende was in fact a moderate in the context of Chilean politics, however revolutionary that position may have appeared to U.S. leaders. Allende was consistently committed to political rights’29, despite efforts in both Chile and the U.S. to paint him as a radical Marxist determined to establish a Soviet-style dictatorship in Chile.
As noted by Chomsky above, support for elements of Allende’s platform was far greater than might be expected, particularly with regard to expansion of Chilean economic independence. One of his first proposals upon entering office was a constitutional amendment aimed at nationalising the large copper mines ‘which were jointly owned by large United States firms and the Chilean state.’30 These copper interests, which accounted for a large percentage of Chile’s export income, were taken over by the state in a measure which the Chilean ‘Congress approved unanimously’ on 11 June 1971.31
Despite initial government successes, antipathy within the upper classes and the business community—accustomed to dealing with foreign corporate interests—was especially problematic. Indeed, it is the opposition amongst the bourgeoisie and upper classes that we must turn to in order to understand the domestic impetus for the 1973 coup. Syracuse University sociologist Richard E. Ratcliff tells us that the coup
was led by the top ranking generals and admirals rather than by lower officers. Judging just from biographical sources, the junta leaders are closely related to wealthy families in Chilean society. In general the top levels of the officer corps of the military appear to be dominated by close relatives of wealthy upper and upper middle class families.32
Destined to become a key player in the events of 1973, Augusto Pinochet hailed from just such a privileged background. His appointment by Allende to succeed the retiring Carlos Prats as Commander-in-Chief of the Army was to prove a critical blunder, though the logic seemed sound at the time. Allende had thought that he could trust Pinochet because of the latter’s public reputation as a ‘vacillator’; it was thought that Pinochet would not be willing to take the final and decisive steps toward armed rebellion. Writing in 1974, Kyle Steenland, professor with the State University of New York at Buffalo, was already arguing that Pinochet’s ‘position as a vacillator can … be seen to have been a clever ploy which effectively deceived some of the left.’33 Hindsight would appear to bear this early assessment out.
The connexion betwixt Pinochet and bourgeoisie business concerns would be made clear in the months immediately following the take-over, as this paper will address below. At this point it is only necessary to document the relationship betwixt the commercial classes, the military, and the conditions for the 1973 coup. In their study of military involvement within governments throughout Latin America, Michael Lowy and Eder Sader point out that in the case of Chile, it was
[t]he inability of the bourgeoisie to forge a social force capable of defeating the left within the context of representative democracy and the incapacity of the left to overcome the bourgeoisie reaction [that] opened the way for a military solution.34
3.3 Foreign Capital: American Business Involvement in Chile
In keeping with the standard business model operative within the Third World, U.S. multinational corporations were active throughout most sectors of the Chilean economy. The Library of Congress’ Guide tells us that
[a]fter displacing Britain as Chile’s most important economic partner in the 1920s, the United States faced a period of German competition in the 1930s and then reasserted its economic dominance in the 1940s. That economic domination would last until the 1980s.35
Allende’s government inherited a decaying system of currency over-regulation, meagre growth rates, increasing dependence upon foreign capital, and ‘a stagnant economy weakened by inflation, which hit a rate of 35 percent in 1970.’36
The Church Report discusses the apprehension felt by many American companies regarding the election of Allende, who had made clear his intention to ‘bring under Chilean ownership service industries such as the national telephone company, which was at that time a subsidiary’37 of International Telephone and Telegraph, Inc. (ITT). The report makes it clear that U.S. multinationals such as ITT were closely engaged at every stage in the attempted subversion of Chilean democracy. The case of ITT is explored in some detail and a description given of the relationship betwixt it and the Central Intelligence Agency. Whilst the CIA’s involvement with ITT from 1963 to 1973 is the ‘most prominent and public example’38, it is far from an isolated case. U.S. multinationals were used to fund opposition parties in the pre-Allende years and during the years of his presidency. In all, at least $650,000 was donated by ITT and other American corporations to the 1970 campaign of Alessandri, and the CIA was kept informed of each transaction (though it did not actively assist).39
Widespread fears of the socialist programme of industrial nationalisation made the participation of these business interests understandable, but the close contacts and co-operation they managed to establish with the CIA is indicative of the priorities being followed by Washington in this period of Cold War ideological rigidity. As Chomsky and Edward S. Herman demonstrate in The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, human and democratic rights
have tended to stand in the way of the satisfactory pursuit of U.S. economic interests—and they have accordingly been brushed aside, systematically. U.S. economic interests in the Third World have dictated a policy of containing revolution, preserving an open door for U.S. investment, and assuring favorable conditions of investment.40
Perhaps the greatest impact of U.S. government and corporate involvement in the 1970 election was the ‘“scare campaign” [which] contributed to the political polarization and financial panic of the period.’41
4.0 Key Decisions and Interactions: 1970-1973
The election of Allende and the character of his administration sparked a chain of events that led to a bloody coup and a twenty-year dictatorship, replete with political murders, torture, and the suppression of civil liberties. Most of the conditions that precipitated the coup have been outlined in the sections above, leaving us to examine the actual events themselves. Throughout this section, U.S. and Chilean activities will be addressed in parallel and the reasoning explored to a limited extent.
4.1 The Attempted Coup
Having failed to arrange for the defeat of Allende through constitutional means, the U.S. government seamlessly shifted to a policy of direct engagement with dissident elements within the Chilean military in hope of fomenting a coup. The meeting betwixt Nixon and Helms referenced above led to the creation of a CIA project, Operation FUBELT, aimed at toppling the Allende government by force. In a secret cable sent from the deputy director of plans for CIA, Thomas Karamessines, to the CIA station chief in Santiago, Henry Hecksher, Nixon’s policy for Chile was laid out in very precise terms:
It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to 24 October but efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date. We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG and American hand be well hidden.42
This policy led CIA to develop a relationship with disgraced former general Roberto Viaux and his supporters. Their previous attempt at a coup in 1969 had ended in dismal failure and they had little support amongst the Chilean military. Despite second thoughts from the White House regarding their chances for success, the Viaux group nonetheless received substantial cash payments (all told more than $70,000 to Viaux, and a similar total to his principal ally, captain Arturo Marshal). They also asked for, and received, ‘sterile’ machine guns (id est, untraceable weapons lacking serial numbers), which were delivered to them using the U.S. diplomatic pouch. It goes without saying that this use of diplomatic channels is considered illegal.
It had been determined that for any coup attempt to succeed, the Chief of Staff for the Chilean military, general René Schneider Chereau, would have to be removed. Despite his private antipathy to the Allende platform, Schneider had publicly stated that the military had no Constitutional rôle in governmental affairs, which served to inhibit any potential military involvement in a coup d’état. The elimination of general Schneider was intended to bring the Chilean military under the control of elements more readily disposed towards the overthrow of the Allende government. On the Viaux group’s third attempt, they finally managed to kidnap and murder the general. This was ‘the first major political killing in Chile since the death of Portales in 1837.’43
The U.S. Senate later ruled that the machine guns supplied by the U.S. were not the ones used in the assassination. This is meant to exculpate the U.S. from complicity in the general’s death, the rationale being that the conspirators had stated an intention to kidnap the general only. What they planned to do with him afterwards was apparently never discussed with U.S. officials, though the reasoning behind the request, and delivery, of untraceable weapons is difficult to account for if kidnap is the sole objective.
That the assassination back-fired, and Allende confirmed by the Chilean Congress, is not surprising given the limited support the conspirators themselves enjoyed within the military. What should be surprising is the American response to the failed coup, one which had apparently been disavowed shortly before being attempted. Citing, of all things, ‘humanitarian concerns’, the U.S. government secretly handed over $35,000 in ‘hush money’ to those involved in the plot. For the moment, U.S. involvement would remain unacknowledged, but active support for a military take-over of the Chilean government continued.
4.2 The Forms of Covert Action and the Failures of Domestic Oversight
When a particular policy such as the one above has been determined to be in the United States’ national interest, the most expedient method might seem to be the use of military force. If a nation is a strategic threat, such force is easily justified under the national security stance taken by successive administrations during and following the Cold War. Such direct action is not always desirable or feasible, however. It has occasionally transpired that a threat perceived by the Executive is not seen as such by the Legislative, making an overt operation impracticable. Under these circumstances, and recalling Kissinger’s description of ‘grey areas’ within which the intelligence community may operate, covert action is frequently called for.
According to Loch K. Johnson, professor of political science at the University of Georgia, ‘no form of covert action is used more extensively than propaganda’.44 This usually involves the direct creation and distribution of materials favourable to U.S. interests, such as leaflets and press releases, and frequently takes the form of clandestine involvement in foreign public debate. The CIA is used to funnel money into the hands of the political opposition and to purchase or manipulate the media in a variety of ways.
The CIA provides a flood of supportive but unattributed propaganda, distributed through its vast network of media “assets” (paid agents): reporters, newspaper and magazine editors, television producers—the whole range of personnel in the print and electronic media.45
This material makes the case for whatever policy objectives are then in vogue in Washington, and frequently serves to undermine the political interests of parties seen as antithetical to U.S. goals for the region. Political propaganda has increased in power and scope since its inception in modern form during the First World War. Scholar Holly Cowan Shulman, in her volume on World War II propaganda, notes that ‘popular democracy and the mass media [have] transformed it from a minor activity into an instrument of total warfare.’46 Propaganda extends well beyond the government itself and into the private sector, with Chomsky quoting Walter Lippmann as describing ‘a “revolution” in “the practice of democracy” as “the manufacture of consent” [becomes] “a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government”.’47
Another common approach is that of economic strangulation. This can take many forms, from blockades such as that enforced against Cuba, to industrial and infrastructural sabotage such as that used in the covert war against Nicaragua in the 1980s. Economic sanctions can also have a disastrous effect on a nation’s ability to support itself, as seen in the case of Iraq where the cut-off of vital supplies may have contributed directly to the deaths of tens of thousands, and increased the population’s dependence upon the dictator Saddam Hussein, whose food distribution network was acknowledged by the UN to be more efficient than any replacement they could devise.
More direct methods are also used, such as aircraft surveillance for insurgent forces and the targeted assassination of political enemies. In these latter forms, the principle of ‘plausible deniability’ becomes critically important. For such operations to succeed, the upper reaches of government must be shielded from public criticism—this is guaranteed by creating the impression that senior policy makers are, on paper if not in reality, ignorant of the details of U.S. strategy in the target nation.
As we will see, almost all of these methods featured prominently in the years following the failed coup attempt in 1970, and later on in the successful operation in 1973. U.S. support for, and involvement in, the military take-over of Chile, whilst not as direct as in some other noteworthy cases, was implicit from the start and essential to the junto’s success.
Given the similarity that many covert operations bear to outright, albeit undeclared, warfare, one might be tempted to assume that Congress would take a leading rôle in the development of policy and oversee its implementation. Instead, Congress has followed a fairly consistent policy of surrendering their right to dictate the use of American forces to wage war and has seldom engaged in substantial criticism or oversight of executive activities. As Columbia law professor Lori Fisler Damrosch has pointed out, ‘the War Powers Resolution of 1973 does not apply to covert actions: Congress made a conscious choice to exclude them from the Resolution’s coverage.’48 When such actions have gone awry, occasionally sparking a Congressional investigation, these activities have seldom resulted in significant policy changes or (more importantly) posed impediments to future actions.
Damrosch goes on to conclude that the ‘effect of the congressional choice to exclude covert operations … is that the Executive is free to conduct such operations, subject only to the less onerous conditions of the intelligence legislation that took shape shortly after enactment of the Resolution’.49 These restrictions merely involve a presidential decision that such actions are ‘important to the national security of the United States’50 and require that such actions be reported to Congress. This reporting can be done at any reasonable date after the actions have taken place and is viewed solely as a notification, not as a consultative requirement. Under these provisions, the Executive need not secure congressional permission before engaging in limited wars against foreign powers, a significant watering-down of the Constitutional rôle of the Legislative branch.
The increased power of the Executive in this regard was, at the time of the Chilean coup, invested in Kissinger’s ’40 Committee’, whose express purpose was ‘to exercise political control over covert operations abroad.’ The Church Report notes that
[i]n addition to exercising political control, the 40 Committee [had] been responsible for framing covert operations in such a way that they could later be ‘disavowed’ or ‘plausibly denied’ by the United States government—or at least by the President.51
In this way, the hand of the Executive was concealed and senior administration official protected from any political fall-out resulting from covert actions abroad. With this added layer of bureaucracy, the democratic accountability of the U.S. government was significantly reduced.
4.3 Economic and Political Foundations of the 1973 Coup
Much has been said to down-play direct U.S. involvement in the 1973 coup that toppled the Allende government and ended democracy in Chile. Such statements consistently miss the point—by actively encouraging a military take-over, and by providing a substantial part of the the material support needed to make it happen, the U.S. government bears a measure of responsibility for the events of 1973 and after. In David Forsythe’s words,
one cannot meet clandestinely with military officials and urge them to use force against an elected president, then credibly disclaim any responsibility for the subsequent violent coup, even though it was carried out by others. Covert violent action to overthrow a government may assume a leading or supporting form. When it takes the latter, it is still intervention.52
In the three years betwixt the failed coup of 1970 and the successful one in 1973, the United States acted aggressively to encourage the Chilean military to revolt. Military aid was dramatically increased and joint manoeuvres were undertaken with the Chilean Navy. The Church Report tells us that during this period
the CIA rebuilt its network of contacts and remained close to Chilean military officers in order to monitor developments within the armed forces. For their part, Chilean officers who were aware that the United States had once sought a coup to prevent Allende from becoming president must have been sensitive to indications of continuing U.S. support for a coup.
By September 1971 a new network of agents was in place and the [CIA] Station was receiving almost daily reports of new coup plotting.53
American money entered more than just the military. The Church Report shows that more than $13 million dollars was spent by Washington on clandestine activities in Chile betwixt 1963 and 1973.54 This money was used to support politicians, to produce and disseminate propaganda, to influence mass media, to bribe government officials, and to interfere in public institutions and private sector enterprises (such as labour unions and businesses).
It is useful as well to understand the close economic dependence of Chile upon the United States. The Church Report shows us that U.S. direct investment in the Chilean economy accounted for 2/3 of the 1970 total and that U.S. corporations played a significant rôle in many critical areas of the economy (e.g., by controlling the production of upwards of 80% of all copper, which alone accounted for 4/5 of Chile’s foreign exchange earnings). Even with increased courting of other nations for investment, Chile depended in large measure upon the U.S. throughout the Allende years, and the steep drop in the availability of commercial credits, ‘from around $300 million during the Frei years to around $30 million in 1972’55, drastically curtailed the Chileans’ ability to procure spare parts for vital industrial machinery.
Unlike that seen in all other areas, military aid to Chile continued as normal during the Allende years. In fact, the steep drop-off of military aid following the Pinochet take-over has often been held up as an example of successful diplomatic pressure on the part of the U.S. Congress. This later reduction is, according to Chomsky and Herman, ‘misleading, since the high rate of military aid under Allende reflected U.S. support for the right-wing military in the interests of counter-revolution—economic aid to the civil society declined precipitously under Allende’.56
Having done everything possible to impose and maintain economic pressure on the Allende government, and working assiduously to court the favour of right-wing elements within the Chilean military, the events of 1973 could hardly have been a surprise in Washington.
4.4 Key Events of the 11 September Coup
As stated in the introduction, the coup finally erupted on 11 September 1973. Actually, military arrests of leftists began the night before. Steenland tells us that ‘[i]n the weeks before the coup, the government was so weak that it was completely unable to enforce the law. It had lost control of the situation. … A coup was in the air, and everyone knew it.’57
It began in Valparaíso with the open revolt of the Naval forces stationed there. Allende initially had reason to believe that the revolt was limited to the Navy in that city, but soon learnt otherwise. The participation of the Army was crucial to the success of the coup. The ‘Air Force and Navy had been willing and eager for a coup for many months, but the Army had been blocking the path.’58 The decisive element in Army participation had been the appointment of Pinochet, and his dedication to the coup had been concealed until the very last moment.
The military take-over quickly spread to other cities, as leftist leaders were arrested en masse and communications and administrative centres were surrounded. Resistance was sporadic and ineffective, with no organised attempt by the government to arm the workers to defend their peacefully-won revolution; in this way, a protracted civil war was averted and Pinochet’s work greatly simplified.
This was the result of a deliberate policy position and does not reflect a lack of support amongst the working class. Salvador Allende had consistently resisted efforts within his administration to develop contingency plans to protect the government in the face of the widely-anticipated coup. In fact, on the morning of the coup, Allende made a radio address which specifically asked the workers not to rise up against the rebellious military. Steenland believes that perhaps ‘the left would have won a civil war even if it had begun to arm itself in late 1973, after the abortive June 29 coup. Perhaps the military would have divided had a coordinated civil resistance been led by the leftist parties.’59 In any event, Allende had refused calls to arm the workers and the left was defenceless against the military when the attack finally came.
Allende himself refused to resign or surrender. Facing the certainty of defeat, Allende chose to make a heroic stand before those who would betray a democratically elected government against the wishes of the people. His last public address came only hours before his death, just before the military cut off his last radio links.
This will surely be my last opportunity to address you… My words have neither bitterness nor deception. They should stand as a moral castigation of those who have been traitors to their oaths… Standing at a historic point, I will repay with my life the loyalty of the people…
Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!These are my last words and I have certainty that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I have certainty that, at the least, I will be a moral lesson to castigate felony, cowardice, and treason.60
He and many of his closest supporters then blockaded themselves in the presidential palace. In the ensuing battle, Allende was killed. The official report issued by the military junto indicated that he had committed suicide with a machine gun. It is possible that he was shot by Chilean military officers, but perhaps equally likely that he chose suicide over being captured.61
4.5 American Involvement in the 1973 Coup
Direct U.S. involvement in the events of 1973 is difficult to pin down. The Church Report concludes that no American assets were directly involved; until more papers are de-classified, or Kissinger and Nixon’s papers finally recovered and released, we will be unable to piece the entire story together. Two items bear mentioning, however.
Steenland tells us that according to an underground news agency in Chile, Agencia Arauco, ‘four U.S. pilots flew a WB57 (a weather model of the RB57 spy plane). . . over Chile at the time of the coup and coordinated communications for the Chilean military’.62 The presence of this aeroplane in the region has been confirmed, but its mission remains shrouded in confusion.
The second is the probable involvement of U.S. Naval Intelligence. Steenland opines that
most observers feel that it is hardly coincidence that the Chilean navy was involved in manoeuvres with the U.S. Navy (Operation Unitas) just when the coup took place. In fact the Chilean fleet steamed out of Valparaíso to participate in joint [manoeuvres], only to turn around and come back to initiate the coup.63
5.0 Outcomes: The Pinochet Dictatorship
Given the disastrous condition it had reached as a result of the isolation enforced throughout most of the Allende years, healing the economy was understandably a high priority for the new military government. Under Pinochet,
Chile was transformed gradually from an economy isolated from the rest of the world, with strong government intervention, into a liberalized, world-integrated economy, where market forces were left free to guide most of the economy’s decisions.64
Capitalism and oligarchy were to be the guiding principles of Chilean economic policy, as the upper class interests which sponsored and supported the coup reaped the greatest share of the benefits. Ratcliff tells us that
[t]he junta also moved with enthusiasm to welcome the re-entry of foreign capital into Chile. In this respect the new military leaders simply ignored the nationalistic sentiments which are strong not only on the left in Chile but also among most middle class groups which had opposed Allende. Moreover, as one part of the plan to “reconstruct” the economy around private ownership and “free enterprise,” the junta also announced its willingness to discuss paying compensation for the copper resources which had been nationalized under the Allende government with unanimous support from the Congress controlled by the opposition parties.65
In this way, the new Chilean government achieved international recognition and support, and foreign trade increased dramatically, spurring a slow but steady economic recovery from the lows experienced at the end of the Allende era.
Not all changes in the nation were as positive. Having swiftly achieved mastery of the nation, the military proceeded to outlaw free speech, political parties, and meetings of greater than three persons; even long hair was banned. According to Steenland,
[w]ithin a few weeks it became apparent that this coup was different than most in Latin America, and that the military was engaged in widespread brutality, torture, and murder. Those who had foreseen a coup controlled by the Christian Democrats, with moderate and sophisticated repression, had been wrong. The repression was arbitrary and generalized.66
Lowy and Sader assert that ‘[t]he level of violence of the September 11 Chilean coup can be explained in terms of the characteristics of the enemies that had to be brought down.’67 Concentration camps were soon set up and tens of thousands of Chileans disappeared in systematic purges.
Steenland notes that ‘the United States clearly felt that Chile could become another Brazil’ and that it ‘understood that the military would be a far-right dictatorship’.68 However, the setting up of such camps and the carefully orchestrated terror campaigns and mass murder make the case of Chile’s coup more akin to that of Indonesia than Brazil. Just as with Argentina, the parallels with Nazi Germany also cannot be overlooked. Pinochet’s government worked aggressively to exterminate all opposition and to destroy the left, and the U.S., rather than simply looking the other way, actively aided and abetted these policies. Herman reminds us that in regard to
the Chilean massacres of 1973-1974, probably in excess of 20,000, William Colby, then CIA head… explained to a congressional committee in late 1973 that the ongoing mass murder by the Chilean junta was a “good” thing, as it was “rooting out Marxist influence” and reducing the possibility of a civil war which might otherwise have taken place.69
Murder was far from the only thing citizens had to fear under the new régime. A police state with a repressive internal security force was soon engaged in mass arrests and interrogations—sessions which ‘converted most human beings into sobbing, broken, and submissive puppets under the control of the interrogator masters’, in the words of journalist John Dingesin his dramatic exposé The Condor Years. He continues graphically to describe the sort of abuses prisoners faced:
Humiliation was total. Manacled to a metal bed frame, naked and spread-eagled, with electric current delivered to their most intimate and sensitive body parts, victims lost all physical control. Sphincters released, muscles cramped in spasms. The entire body quivered and shook in waves of violent seizures. Hangings, dunkings, asphyxiation, beatings, rapes, and mock executions were variations on the basic routine. Some prisoners were run over with trucks. This was real-life horror with sweat and smells and screams, cracking bones and the gushing of every manner of human effluent.70
The face of the government which replaced the Chilean republic was a hideous mask which concealed a reality as brutal as any yet seen in Latin America.
5.1 The American Response to the Coup in Chile
To say that the U.S. welcomed the events of 1973 would be to understate dramatically. The fact that such an occurrence had been actively sought for some time gave the Pinochet coup instant credibility and support. Forsythe reminds us that ‘the Nixon team had made it clear that anti-Allende violence [had] US support and that a new military government would be quickly rewarded with diplomatic recognition and foreign assistance.’71
Where this recognition becomes troubling is in the immediate aftermath of the coup and in the continuing association with Pinochet’s government following the revelation of systematic abuses of human and civil rights. Most of these were simply ignored and the issue was seldom discussed in the United States. The American media, in fact, almost universally ‘took the position that there [was] not a scintilla of evidence of U.S. participation in the coup.’72 This was achieved by focussing upon the plans in the final days prior to the coup, with the years since Allende’s accession to power and the background of U.S. involvement in that period ignored. The European press of the time was not so coy, and was from a very early date far more outspoken with regard to human rights abuses under the Pinochet junto.
When public pressure in the United States had mounted and could no longer be discounted, Kissinger made a public show of upbraiding the Pinochet régime for its human rights record in a meeting of the Organization of American States, held in Santiago in 1976. The language used was unusually strong, but must be seen in context to be understood; had the United States meant to stand behind the condemnation issued in Kissinger’s address, the meeting would likely have been held somewhere other than Chile. Indeed, after having denied the conversation for years, we now have access to a full transcript of Kissinger’s audience with Pinochet, excerpted in Dinges’s book, and which included ‘private assurances of friendship, admiration, and support’73 from Kissinger and the Nixon administration toward the Pinochet régime.
Human rights were clearly intended to take a back-seatto political necessity as dictated by Cold War ideology. Kissinger’s expression of ‘sympathy’ for what Pinochet did to save Chile from communism was enough to cover up for some of the worst atrocities in Latin American history. The recent HincheyReport on CIA activities in Chile notes that
[d]uring a period between 1974 and 1977, CIA maintained contact with Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, who later became notorious for his involvement in human rights abuses. The US Government policy community approved CIA’s contact with Contreras, given his position as chief of the primary intelligence organization in Chile, as necessary to accomplish the CIA’s mission. . . .
By April 1975, intelligence reporting showed that Contreras was the principal obstacle to a reasonable human rights policy within the Junta, but an interagency committee directed the CIA to continue its relationship with Contreras.74
We also know now that the U.S. had early knowledge of the ‘Condor’ programme that Pinochet developed in conjunction with the military governments of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. This union of the various states’ intelligence operations allowed for greater international reach and flexibility, which extended to its use in targeted assassinations of political opponents on foreign soil. This capability was ably demonstrated in the case of the Orlando Letelier murder, which took place in broad daylight in Washington, D.C. The car bomb that killed Letelier and two American citizens was intended to silence an outspoken exiled critic of the Pinochet government.
In light of the revelations in recently declassified documents75, American complicity in, or implicit approval of, Condor’s operations throughout Latin America is clear enough. Through extensive advance knowledge of operations and a consistent policy of non-intervention, the actions of Pinochet and his fellow dictators received the tacit approval of successive American administrations. The Pinochet junto was, in fact, an excellent example of the distinction Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick made betwixt authoritarian and totalitarian governments. The latter are almost always communist, and are to be aggressively challenged by official policy; the former, given their economic structure, may be constructively engaged in the hopes of slowly reforming them. The key element here is capitalism—so long as business interests are free to operate in a given state, the repressive nature of that state’s government is not a significant factor in the formation of U.S. foreign policy.
6.0 Conclusion: Unanswered Questions
The Chilean coup of 1973 toppled a stable democracy and ended the Chilean military’s long-standing tradition of non-interference in the affairs of government. The restoration of democracy in Chile, and the current efforts to bring Pinochet to justice for his crimes, are encouraging developments. However, one suspects that there is little enough hope for a full accounting of the events of those years. The U.S. government has done its part to discourage the investigation and proposed prosecution of Pinochet, perhaps fearing that Kissinger’s part in those events would be revealed. The current American rhetoric on the spread of ‘freedom and democracy’ around the world would also be open to a more direct challenge on the basis of our none-too-impressive record thus far.
U.S. involvement in the 1973 coup is by this point unmistakable. An extensive campaign of subversion was undertaken and millions of dollars funnelled through CIA contacts towards anti-democratic ends. Propaganda targetingthe Popular Unity government was produced at U.S. taxpayer expense and then disseminated throughout the Chilean media through the use of bribes and paid assets within news organisations. The CIA engaged in long talks with elements of the Chilean military, consistently spurring them towards the overthrow of a government and constitution that they had sworn an oath to uphold. When the long-sought coup finally emerged, it was ‘greeted with great warmth and protectiveness by Washington’ and ‘U.S. personnel actually helped in the writing of White Papers justifying and explaining these constructive developments.’76
As the United States moves forward into a new century, many questions about her international relations record remain unanswered, in this episode and in countless others like it. The onus now falls to the current generation, to increase their knowledge and awareness of the past, so that in the exercise of their civic responsibility they can do their part to see that episodes such as this do not stand as the most prominent historical legacy of American power in the world.