In late winter of 1971, six months after the election of Allende and the Popular Unity (UP) coalition led by the Communist and Socialist parties, Nixon extolled America’s defense of democracy and self-determination. He gravely proclaimed to Chile’s ambassador that “[t]he path represented by the program of your government is not the path chosen by the people of this country, but we recognize the right of any country to order its affairs.” Not to be outdone, Kissinger explained that the US government “did not wish in any way to interfere with the internal affairs of Chile,” adding that the country’s unprecedented reform process was “worthy of great admiration.”
Even by the standards of American policymakers’ duplicity, Kissinger’s cynicism stands out. As is well known, and was understood at the time, immediately after Allende won the presidency and inaugurated the Chilean road to socialism, US elites began a campaign to make the underdeveloped country’s economy “scream.” Kissinger-the-realist simply refused to idly “watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” But even the northern giant could not remake Chilean history just as it pleased.
US meddling in Chilean politics was not new. In 1948, Washington’s influence had contributed to the liberal president Gabriel González Videla’s decision to turn on his Popular Front allies and persecute Communists. On that occasion, prominent militant Pablo Neruda, the Nobel prize-winning poet, was lucky enough to save himself after a dangerous escape across the Andes.
A quarter century later, the United States again flexed its muscle to rein in the region. Kissinger led the campaign to crush Allende’s democratic strategy for radical reform. Efforts to defeat the UP culminated in the September 11, 1973, coup, which ushered in human and social catastrophes that few, even among the coup plotters, could have imagined. Allende and Neruda would not survive. Nor would the thousands of workers and activists who were assassinated or disappeared by Pinochet’s regime of terror.
Kissinger’s obsession with toppling Allende was not driven by an unreflecting defense of US corporate interests. After all, Washington had learned to accept nationalizations throughout the region, and after the coup that toppled the UP government, the largest expropriated mining interests remained under Chilean state control. Nor did his preoccupation stem from fears over Soviet or Cuban expansionism. Following the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviets ceded Latin America as an unchallenged sphere of US influence; indeed, throughout the Allende years, as Kissinger and the US foreign policy establishment knew, Moscow was not going to let Chile’s road to socialism spoil its détente with the United States.
Kissinger mapped out a strategy to bring down the UP because Allende’s policies and the movements behind them posed a threat to US domination of Latin America. As the region was in upheaval, with all stripes of nationalists, populists, and radicals challenging the US-led order, American elites did not hesitate to brandish the full array of aggression — whether open or covert, partisan or economic, civilian or military — to topple democratically elected leaders, support dictators, and facilitate mass state terrorism. And while it is most likely that the coup and the slaughter it ushered in would have occurred without US intervention, Kissinger’s actions to destroy Chile’s democratic revolution are revealing.
The Bloody Tracks of Chilean Socialism
By the time Chile’s workers and peasants rose to stare down local elites and the hegemon to the north, Latin America, in the eyes of US global planners, had become a decisive arena in the “mortal struggle to determine the shape of the future world.” Globally, American postwar foreign policy consisted of an expansionist push sold as Soviet containment. In the western hemisphere there was something genuine about containment, but it had little to do with Soviet meddling. Instead, new homegrown challenges to US dominance had to be suppressed.
Following the Cuban Revolution, and particularly after the failure of the Alliance for Progress, sovereign development models featuring profound reforms began challenging the US-led regional capitalist order. Allende and the UP represented the most radical of the proliferating threats. Washington intervened to preserve a commercial system that organized markets, capital flows, resources, and political forces into an arrangement that sustained US supremacy. But growing industry gave workers’ movements expanding organizational capacities, which took on unpredictable militancy and autonomy.
Allende had come dangerously close to winning the presidency in 1958, a mere decade after the Videla administration betrayed radicals and labor. With elites divided between two candidates, his new communist-socialist front lost the plurality by less than three percentage points. Six years later, as the workers’, student, shanty, and peasant movements surged, business parties came together to back the third-way capitalist program of the Christian Democrats; with reluctant support of the traditional landed and conservative elites, Eduardo Frei Montalva’s modernizing “revolution in liberty” campaign handily won the popular vote, 56 percent to 39 percent.
Yet even against a unified business class, the shortcomings of capitalist development propelled the rise of workers’ parties. In the pivotal 1970 elections, after Frei’s policies — which included substantial land reform, labor protections, and increased national participation in mining — went too far for capitalists yet not nearly far enough for the working poor, the UP surprisingly came out ahead of the split Christian–Democratic (CD) and oligarchic National Party candidates, with a 36 percent plurality.
The national security advisor and his boss could not contain their rage. No longer was Chile the harmless “dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica” in the irrelevant “southern portion of the world from the Pyrenees on down,” that Kissinger had dismissed. Chile acquired unparalleled strategic primacy. As a national security memo requested by Kissinger himself elaborated, this was not due to any “vital national [economic] interests within Chile.” Nor, as the same memo concluded, was it driven by fears that “the world military balance of power would … be significantly altered by an Allende government.”
The problem was the volatile grassroots militancy behind the UP. Reasserting American domination in Chile involved not only dealing with Allende and the UP on diplomatic and institutional levels; bringing the country back into the fold of inter–American capitalism then meant confronting a particularly independent and mobilized working class. With Washington facing concurrent nationalist challenges in the region, Kissinger was determined to squash the Chilean democratic revolution, lest the dogged radicalism of the country’s powerless classes resonate across its borders. But he did not enjoy a completely free hand. For three years, Kissinger’s interventionism was conditioned by tensions between the popular agitation to shape and deepen Allende’s reforms and UP’s politicians, who favored a measured and negotiated approach.
Kissinger’s brightest contrivance was to preempt Allende’s inauguration in order to avoid a clash between popular Chilean aspirations and Washington’s designs for the region. With the NSC’s approval, the CIA funneled money into the CD campaign, hoping that, despite business fractures, public opinion could be frightened away from looming Bolshevik totalitarianism. The $2.6 million pumped into the elections proved useless, though, so the State Department and the NSC turned to more sinister tactics. At the urging of top Chilean business leaders, Nixon and Kissinger, removing all restraint on covert US involvement, approved the CIA’s “firm and continuous policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.” Efforts to topple Allende would be ongoing if necessary, but “it would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to the 24 October … utilizing every appropriate resource … implemented clandestinely and securely so that USG and American hand be well hidden.” Kissinger thus set in motion two strategies to impede Allende from assuming office.
The first step involved buying off legislators to persuade them to vote against Allende’s late October confirmation in Chile’s Congress, as per required convention in plurality outcomes. The idea was to force new elections in which Frei could run again. When this failed, owing largely to CD discord and the brave announcement of a pro–Allende vote by the party’s losing left-wing presidential candidate, the second course authorized by Kissinger kicked into gear.
The CIA now conspired to sabotage the impending inauguration extra-legally by instigating a coup. The aim was to overturn normal legal procedures by creating an atmosphere of fear and panic. Unable to find capable collaborators, the Santiago station left planning in the hands of fringe officials, without solid ties to business or to leading military sections. Their botched kidnapping ended up killing the constitutionalist commander-in-chief, René Schneider Chereau, bloodying Santiago’s streets. For the moment, the “firm and continuous” commitment to topple Allende receded from view.
Subversion, Sabotage and Sedition
The embarrassing failure to block Allende’s inauguration gave the UP political and programmatic room to maneuver. American covert incompetence had forced Nixon and Kissinger into resuming a cooperative public stance, the latter reassuring ambassador Orlando Letelier — a close Allende advisor who, six years later, was blown to pieces on the streets of Washington, DC in a Condor terror network car bombing — that the United States desired coexistence. With the United States bogged down in the taxing Indochinese conflict and regional challenges emerging in Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Peru, Allende confidently pursued socialist reforms and expanded his support base.
His first order of policy was to nationalize the country’s mines. Much like a petro-state, Chile is totally dependent on copper. At the time, Chilean copper supplied roughly one- seventh of global production, and by 1970 accounted for over three-quarters of the country’s export earnings. Most production was in the hands of transnationals, which made a killing avoiding taxes. Since Frei’s reforms had failed to put the resource to use for national development and well-being, the UP enjoyed a broad consensus in favor of nationalization. But substantial changes to the copper industry could jolt the structure of US-led regional capitalism.
Unable to prevent nationalization of the mines and later stung by Santiago’s influential diplomatic stroke in reestablishing ties with Havana, Washington was determined to impede any further successes. Having extended his time frame for toppling Allende, Kissinger set in motion three strands of destabilization: secret support for the anti-UP opposition, economic strangulation, and infiltration of the armed forces.
As Nixon smoldered for having to momentarily accommodate those “ingrate Latins,” Kissinger funneled more cash into the opposition’s upcoming electoral campaigns to reverse Allende’s initial triumphs. The State Department and the CIA understood that business elites remained reluctant to pump money into the fractured opposition, but by helping to produce a solid showing of the center and right parties in the 1971 local elections, Kissinger aimed to nurture a domestic political force that would take the lead in subverting democracy.
He was disappointed. Allende’s coalition increased its backing to almost 50 percent, consolidating popular support for the Chilean road to socialism. The time had come for the NSC to take the gloves off and deploy more reliable methods. The State Department decided to intensify its unspoken blockade of the gaunt southern country while simultaneously deepening its influence among Chile’s armed forces. The former would be accomplished by choking Santiago’s access to multilateral credits, loans and trade preferences. The latter consisted of consolidating conspiratorial networks and, through generous materiel and funding packages, generating dependence on US foreign policy planners.
Growing mobilization and radicalization, however, shielded Allende from the mounting offensive. Not only was the UP able to handily achieve copper expropriation, which even the far right did not dare oppose, it also redistributed national income heavily toward the working class, intensified land reform, and placed key areas of production and distribution under state and popular control. Strong grassroots approval and organization gave the president the confidence to adopt in September 1971 a compensation formula for expropriated mines. By calculating repayment according to excess profit assessments, it concluded that copper giants Kennecott and Anaconda actually owed Chileans!
Chile’s popular militants and movements had met the imperialist onslaught with effective resolve. In the regional arena, a surging Allende was anything but bashful. Taking note of Nixon’s China rapprochement and Soviet détente, the Chilean president and his advisors, though skeptical of public American amenability, successfully lobbied to host the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Allende spent months rallying the Global South to join Chile in rejecting US “diktats” and forging an independent and progressive development course.
Eventually, Kissinger’s machinations to sabotage the economy and sow instability and treason began burrowing beneath the UP’s favorable balance of forces. At the end of 1971, while the Treasury Department conveyed the rage of expropriated transnationals (and those fearing similar losses) and pushed Nixon to adopt a uniformly punitive policy, Kissinger continued to urge caution. But his trepidation had nothing to do with actual “realist” accommodation. He simply feared that open retaliation against Third World nationalists would aggravate widespread global anti-Americanism.
To buy time, Kissinger began a back-channel dialogue with Letelier before unleashing decisive aggression. His waited for a reversal in the living standards of the UP faithful and for a friendlier regional alignment prior to mercilessly turning screws. The opportunity to defeat Allende’s challenge began crystallizing in the latter part of 1972, when domestic and international fights over the speed and scope of reforms came to a head.
Amid falling global copper prices, the US financial blockade, and paltry Eastern bloc aid, domestic investment strikes began maiming the economy. The opposition had overcome its differences just as intensifying UP polarization levied self- inflicted wounds. Against the backdrop of dwindling export revenues, a rising deficit and an inflationary spiral, the CIA was able to covertly funnel American dollars with elite Chilean money into a devastating truckers’ strike. With elite opposition divided, Kissinger found it difficult to coordinate funding that could trigger the chaos needed to lacerate the improved material realities of workers, the urban poor, and middle layers. Then, the opposition rallied behind a shared determination to topple the UP once and for all and caused a $200 million dent in an already fragile economy.
As professional and business strikes spread over the limits to UP’s nationalization policy, overt discord with Washington intensified over debt rescheduling negotiations in Paris. The Nixon administration formally linked American goodwill to Chilean backtracking in the mining compensation. But the tension went beyond corporate disputes; US recalcitrance was subsumed under the objectives of “overall relations with Chile.” That is, quarrels over compensating American businesses were the means to the greater end of destroying Chile’s socialist experiment. Accordingly, Nixon prolonged US participation in the Paris talks to exacerbate the country’s woes.
Kissinger’s caution was turning into optimism that economic strangulation was finally producing the background conditions necessary for united elites to topple Allende.
Disappearing the Workers’ March
The UP entered 1973 in deep trouble. Industrial output had contracted and foodstuffs had shrunk by a quarter. With a trade deficit ballooning to almost $450 million, Washington’s credit blockade made it impossible for Allende to close the gap. Ultimately, shifting and intensifying Chilean class struggle formed the decisive backdrop to Kissinger’s schemes. General polarization helped elites who, facing the possibility of class extinction, overcame their differences to vanquish the UP threat.
With the Right and business class reconverging, Allende’s program, and the growing popular tide that carried it, hit a wall. Amid ongoing working class mobilization, disagreements over how to confront the UP’s existential dilemmas tore the coalition into opposing camps. Popular forces not only stiffened elite recalcitrance; their divisions all but guaranteed workers’ defenseless once the onslaught came.
At the end of 1972, the class conflict was temporarily attenuated from above by the state and by workers from below. Factory employees set up powerful parallel institutions, networked factory and neighborhood assemblies called cordones industriales to guarantee production, distribution, security, and even military preparedness in the face of the elite offensive. Meanwhile, Allende restored a semblance of order by bringing the military into his cabinet. Both solutions carried new risks: the popular grassroots initiative fueled intra-UP polarization and encouraged the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) to push for a showdown; the double-edged decision to make top military men the arbiters of the Chilean road to socialism would likewise contribute to the catastrophic denouement within a year.
By the March 1973 parliamentary elections, Kissinger was convinced that demoralized workers would turn against their government; the additional $1.6 million he released to “optimize” the opposition’s campaign reassured him further. Even with their parties and movements now irreconcilably polarized, however, popular sectors continued to defend Allende, giving the UP 44 percent of their vote. Realizing that the poor were not ready to trade power for bread, Washington foreign policy elites finally converged on the idea of a decisive coup. Whereas the CIA’s Santiago station chief urged direct intervention, Kissinger maintained reservations about the army, the military’s crucial branch. However, these tactical restraints were easily ironed out in the pursuit of a strategic consensus around violently bringing the UP to heel — and he at last had a cohesive pro-coup domestic force with which he could play ball. The CD and the far right had also formed the Democratic Confederation (CODE) alliance, which subsequently won a majority.
Eventually, schemes approved by Kissinger began to bear fruit. The CIA remained in the dark about Augusto Pinochet’s commitments as the future dictator, just as it had no influence over the premature June Tanquetazo putsch. And though it remained frustrated by what it viewed as the top brass’s indecision, it continued to weave the network of plotters who aimed to marginalize the constitutionalist brass and eventually “save” the country from the Marxist “cancer.”
After the conspirators drove out constitutionalist Carlos Prats, who would also become a Condor victim when his booby-trapped car exploded in Buenos Aires, he was replaced with the taciturn general. Pinochet fell under the influence of the CIA-groomed commanders; as army chief, he would later use his pivotal position to outmaneuver his junta peers and concentrate power in his hands.
The stage was set for the denouement that everyone now expected. In late August, the CODE congress members voted eighty-one to the UP’s forty-seven in favor of a resolution inviting authorities “to put an immediate end” to “breach[es of] the Constitution … and ensuring the Constitutional order of our Nation.” The coup plotters had their green light and Allende had run out of options. The CDs, whose senators were now colluding with the military, rejected all overtures for a negotiated resolution, while divisions within the left impeded the pursuit of any coherent initiative. All, including Kissinger in Washington, sat back to wait for the inevitable.
With his own party now joining the MIR in its calls for armed confrontation, Allende’s last gasp, a planned plebiscite on new elections — an institutional abdication — was preempted by Pinochet’s eleventh-hour decision to join and lead the plotters. When Pinochet, a day after receiving Washington’s blessings, made his move, the UP was paralyzed by its strategic disagreements. By contrast, led by the army, elite opposition was seamlessly coordinated.
Allende was convinced the coup attempt would be a momentary setback. In his final speech, immediately before the presidential palace was bombarded and he ended his life rather than be taken by the military, he forecast:
They may possibly crush us. But tomorrow will be for the people, for the workers, because humanity progresses toward the conquest of a better life… Foreign capital, imperialism, jointly with reaction, created the climate for the Armed Forces to break with tradition… privileged class guilds [acted] to defend the advantages that a capitalist society confers onto a small minority… [But] much sooner rather than later, the great Alamedas will again open up for free Man to march through in order to build a better society.
Allende’s final prediction was far off the mark. The repression that ensued was ruthlessly methodical, as foretold by the ominous “Remember Jakarta” signs that had begun appearing across the capital. The national security advisor was instrumental in shaping and approving CIA backing for the junta’s plans for “severe repression to stamp out all vestiges of Communism in Chile for good.”
As a memo to Kissinger tallied, hundreds of militants, as well as labor and student activists, were killed in the days following that September 11, and many more were rounded up and tortured. By the end of the decade, over 4,000 were either killed or disappeared, and tens of thousands had either passed through the regime’s concentration camps or been forced into exile.
Though Chileans didn’t suffer the death toll of neighboring Argentina, and thankfully escaped Indonesian levels of mass state murder, the layer of worker activists that had powered Chile’s emancipatory march was wiped out. And with radical and popular organizations smashed, nothing could stop the sweeping institutional and economic changes that entrenched a new powerlessness among workers and the poor. The country would suffer almost forty years of dictatorship and neoliberal democracy before movements again filled the streets.
Naturally, Kissinger was jubilant. More than any other regional development, the desired outcome consolidated a trend that had begun with the 1970 coup in Bolivia and was further advanced by the Uruguayan coup in June. Within a year, the “dirty war” was underway in Argentina even before the coup against Perón’s widow.
Six years after his bald lie to Letelier, Kissinger traveled to Santiago and told another obvious untruth. Yet the day before his OAS speech expressing US concerns over widespread human rights violations, he admitted the deception to the “friendly” dictator, assuring Pinochet that “we are not out to weaken your position.” The speech, he explained, was mere spectacle for public consumption. In reality, Washington would defend and provide cover for the regime. “We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende. Otherwise… there would have been no human rights.”
Attributing the defense of human rights to Pinochet was typical Kissinger Orwellianism. But he was right about one thing: the coup was the product of Chilean elites and the military. Had they remained divided, American intervention would likely have failed, no matter Kissinger’s strategic clarity or abandonment of restraint. Conversely, once elites reunified, the dynamics of domestic class struggle would have produced the coup, even without effective US meddling. Still, Kissinger got what he wanted: the Southern Cone was much safer for US-led capitalism and Washington had dealt with the most unwieldy challenge to its regional supremacy.