Kissinger and the South American Revolutions

Aldo Marchesi
René Rojas

In the mid-1970s, fanatical dictatorships viewed South America as the forefront of a third world war in the fight against communism. Henry Kissinger endorsed this crusading spirit — and unlike in Vietnam, he accomplished his objectives there.

Henry Kissinger with Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. (Wikimedia Commons)

Although the arrival of Henry Kissinger signaled a rupture in American foreign policy along with domestic political shifts, the change was not as keenly perceived in Latin America. Nevertheless, Kissinger would ultimately close a political cycle that began in the early 1960s in South America.

Salvador Allende was the antithetical embodiment of Henry Kissinger’s Latin America policy. Three years before Kissinger assumed a leading role in foreign policy, Allende had warned of the problems a left government in the region might face. In 1966, the future president of Chile gave an almost prophetic warning, laying out how the Latin American left viewed US foreign policy:

The Johnson Doctrine constitutes for the Chilean people, as for all the countries of Latin America, an explicit declaration that imperialists will respond with violence to any popular movement that has any chance of coming into power. This has made the Chilean popular movement — which has achieved notable gains expanding and deepening democracy in our country — clearly realize that the United States will use force to prevent it from accessing power by democratic and legal means.

It also means that, consequently, we have an obligation to intensify our struggle; mobilize the masses, link anti- imperialist actions to the everyday demands of the population: strikes, land occupations, collective mobilizations, and the awareness that we will meet with opposition from reactionary violence and we will oppose it with revolutionary violence. It will be the people of Chile and our country’s conditions that will determine what method we use to defeat the imperialist enemy and its allies.

Based on these arguments, Allende called for the creation of an “initiative aimed at permanently connecting and coordinating the anti-imperialist actions of the Latin American people.” Allende, the most clear-sighted representative of the legal road to socialism, outlined the dilemmas facing the whole of the region’s left forces. They were confronting a power that evinced an increasingly explicit will to oppose any center-left or left movement vying for power, be it through institutional or revolutionary means. What Allende called the Johnson Doctrine was the justification formulated by the United States to intervene against democratic forces in the Dominican Republic’s conflict in 1965, which appealed to the alleged threat of communist dictatorship.

In 1964 the United States backed the Brazilian coup d’état, which laid the groundwork for a cycle of military dictatorships that, under the ideological mantle of national security, devastated South America and implemented brutal forms of dealing with political opponents. The repression unleashed against dissidents intensified and culminated in 1968 when systematic torture methods taught by American advisors were denounced. Accordingly, the Brazilian dictatorship installed a type of political regime involving an explicit alliance between national elites and the US government.

The Johnson Doctrine arrived after the last possible convergence between Latin American developmentalists and US reformist sectors that promoted urban, social, and agrarian reform initiatives during the first years of the Alliance for Progress. The end of the Alliance for Progress meant that the initiative of the much-needed “revolution in freedom” promised by Kennedy no longer enjoyed the support of the United States, and that the empire was tilting toward authoritarian military governments that promoted conservative modernization models.

In 1968, a mere two years after Allende’s denunciation of the Johnson Doctrine and his call for anti-imperialist coordination, a US State Department document concluded that revolution in Latin America did not pose a serious threat in the short run, since in the countries where there had been insurgency movements (Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela), the national governments had succeeded in containing them with the help of the United States.

This, however, did not mean that there were no chances for a revolution in the continent in the long-term: “Certainly within the next decade — we see conditions developing throughout the area which will be much more conducive to revolution.” The document’s forecast for the next decade included developments that did materialize in the Southern Cone in the following years. It concluded that the “Castro-style insurgency” would no longer be the predominant form of insurgency and that primarily urban movements would emerge given the continent’s demographic changes. The report suggested that while such movements would vary in terms of sectors involved (militaries, members of the clergy, university students, workers), their ideologies (Marxist and nationalist) and their political strategies, they would all have a common feature: “a nationalistic, independent attitude with strong overtones of anti-US sentiment.”

The failures of the Alliance for Progress and the emergence of more powerful and diverse popular challenges to US control of the region set the stage for a hardening of the Johnson Doctrine and decisive clashes that would reverberate far beyond the hemisphere. The Kissinger years corresponded to a period that saw the expansion in South America of a diversity of revolutionary ideas embraced by an assortment of political actors (military, guerrillas, center–left politicians, unionists) and arising from different ideological traditions (Marxism, populism, Christianity).

A 1969 summit of Latin American foreign ministers issued the “Viña del Mar Consensus” that implicated world powers in perpetuating the region’s underdevelopment. More radical still, the 1973 assumption of Hector José Cámpora as president of Argentina raised the prospects of a Lima-Santiago-Buenos Aires-Havana axis as an alternative to American hegemony. This axis portended a moment of major transformation in the region.

As the military regimes in Bolivia and Peru strayed from American influence, they began proposing a program of social transformation linked to the nationalization of natural resources and agrarian transformation. In Chile, the left coalition that pursued socialism by peaceful and legal means inspired coalitions in nearby countries, such as Uruguay’s Broad Front (Frente Amplio). Peronism’s nationalist tradition seemed to be adapting to the new historical circumstances amid a series of powerful urban insurrections in Argentina like the Cordobazo. It proposed new forms of social and political mobilization in opposition to the dictatorship, which led to the radicalization of the Peronist movement that returned to power in 1973.

Initially Latin America was not a priority for the Nixon administration. The Rockefeller Report, however, pointed to growing malaise against the policies of the United States and offered the promotion of American investment as one possible solution.

The first proposed policy consisted of improving bilateral relations on a case-by-case basis. According to historian Tanya Harmer, in 1969 Kissinger told the Chilean chancellor of Frei’s Christian Democratic government that “history has never been produced in the south.” But a year later, a series of events would force him to reconsider. “The consolidation of Allende in power in Chile, therefore, would pose some very serious threat to our interests and position in the hemisphere, and would affect developments and our relations to them elsewhere in the world,” warned Kissinger, who then anticipated a domino effect that could swing through the inter-American system and even reach Western Europe. Brazil, firmly under military rule, was the main American ally in what many analysts at the time called a “counterrevolutionary strategy,” aiming to halt the region’s transformation.

The Kissinger years saw the emergence of military dictatorships, which, supported by civil society’s conservative sectors and legitimated by ruling class discourses, defended a modernizing economic project with a conservative slant. These regimes elaborated systematic practices of state terrorism and persecution of political opponents in the national, regional, and even global arenas.

For example, Operation Condor, established by the region’s military forces and jointly conducted with the United States, murdered dissidents and illegally transferred prisoners across countries. Its broad aim was to annihilate the various political movements for change. Some emblematic victims of this operation shed light on the heterogeneity of the dictatorships’ enemies. They included Chilean Edgardo Enríquez, leader of the MIR (Revolutionary Left Movement), a radical organization advocating armed insurrection; Carlos Prats, a constitutionalist liberal Chilean general and former Bolivian president; General Juan José Torres, a nationalist; the former Uruguayan center-left senator, Zelmar Michelini; the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz; and Allende’s foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, killed in a car bombing in the United States. These targeted individuals illustrate the fierce opposition to the range of reform projects in the region.

The factors that enabled the rise of such operations were latent before Kissinger’s arrival in government. Local conservative sectors’ growing preferences for authoritarian solutions, the militaries’ training in a national security doctrine that brought together French and American counterinsurgency methods, including attendance in the School of the Americas, along with Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department backing, were all already in place by 1969. But what declassified documents reveal is an unprecedented, direct and explicit involvement by Kissinger in these processes, even in their more repressive dimensions.

Toward the mid-1970s, an unprecedented ideological fanaticism led the dictatorships to view South America as the forefront of a third world war in the fight against communism, while the United States was perceived to be the rearguard. This crusading spirit, which justified all kinds of atrocities against political opponents, began to bear domestic political costs for US Republicans worried certain officials of the Department of State.

In July 1976, Harry Shlaudeman, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, warned in an extensive report of the dangers of this ideological radicalization. “This siege mentality shading into paranoia” in which “some talk of the ‘Third World War,’ with the countries of the southern cone as the last bastion of Christian civilization . . . . The broader implications for us and for future trends in the hemisphere are disturbing.” The report ended on a sarcastic note: “How to end the Third World War,” and offered a series of proposals to “bring them back [the dictatorships] to our cognitive universe.”

Kissinger, while aware of the threat, continued to empathize with the crusading spirit of the Southern Cone’s militaries. At the June 1976 Organization of American States (OAS) conference, when criticism of the Chilean dictatorship surfaced from the American political scene and from some of the region’s countries, Kissinger had a private meeting with Augusto Pinochet in which he conveyed his firmest support: “We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”

These gestures expose Kissinger’s intimacy with the regimes’ terror. He did not seem worried about reining in the militaries’ fanatical crusade; rather, he endorsed the violent practices perpetrated by the dictatorial states. His support may explain why these repressive dictatorships were so ruthlessly “effective.”

By 1976, the concerns described in the 1968 State Department document appear to have been resolved. The pattern of revolutionary projects from the 1960s had faded — the movements were defeated, their leaders killed, missing, exiled, or imprisoned. Kissinger was also battered by the experience. His leadership had been undermined as a result of his involvement in the region.

But unlike in Indochina, in this part of the world Kissinger had accomplished his objective. The revolutionaries and their ideas, which had so challenged American hegemony, had disappeared from public arenas, and many who had survived these battles later became victims of state terror. Now that the revolutions had been defeated, the empire could show its more benign face and offer assistance through the human rights policies promoted by President Jimmy Carter’s renovated administration.