1. Interventions in the 1960s
2. Presidential Campaign of 1970
3. Assassination of General Schneider
4. CIA Secrecy in Assassination Plots
5. CIA Involvement in the Schneider Assassination
6. Attacks on the Allende Presidency
7. The Coup of September 11, 1973
In 1995, the CIA unveiled a new policy of openness regarding its past covert operations, and began to declassify thousands of documents pertaining to these activities. This could be a smokescreen tactic whereby the agency, by confessing to small crimes, attempts to add credibility to its denial of involvement in major atrocities. We will examine the relevant documents on CIA activities in Chile that were released in 2000, not only to determine facts of the CIA’s involvement in toppling the Allende government, but also to assess the credibility of declassified documents such as these.
The agency’s self-report on “CIA Activities in Chile” (2000) purported to seek answers to three questions: (1) whether the CIA was involved in the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973; (2) whether it was responsible for the subsequent accession to power of General Augusto Pinochet; and (3) to what extent the CIA was involved in human rights abuses in Chile. In response to all three questions, the agency absolves itself of any wrongdoing, while claiming it would have acted differently under modern standards for agent behavior. Released at a time when several nations were clamoring for the trial of General Pinochet, these documents served to defend the agency from being implicated in his crimes.
The agency attempts to establish an aura of credibility for its report by acknowledging various acts of political subversion prior to the coup against Allende. These revelations help us at least understand what tools the agency had at its disposal, prior to judging whether any of these means were actually used to remove Allende. The report describes acts of political and economic manipulation, and limited military aid. The details of these operations can tell us much about how the CIA shaped and re-adjusted its Chile policy.
Covert U.S. operations in Chile date back at least to the Kennedy administration. We know from other sources that President Kennedy was a proponent of virtually any means, including assassination, to prevent a country from turning Communist. In a taped conversation (April 7, 1971, 9:52 p.m.), President Nixon candidly told Rev. Billy Graham that Kennedy “murdered Diem,” thereby precipitating a major escalation of the Vietnam conflict. A 1950 CIA manual (available in the National Security Archive at George Washington University) is similarly blunt in characterizing assassination as “murder” that is “not morally defensible”, concluding that it should not be attempted by the “morally squeamish”. This manual also notes that assassination orders ought to be kept as secret as possible, with no paper trail. Since the agency answered directly to the President, any presidential orders for assassinations would be verbal, so we can learn about them only from insider testimony. The paperless method of ordering covert operations weakens the importance of CIA claims that it could find no evidence in its records of U.S. involvement in the death of Allende (and similar disavowals of other acts). Written evidence does acknowledge some covert activities, such as support of the Chilean Radical Party and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) beginning in 1962.
Support of non-socialist political parties did not have the same level of secrecy as a potentially embarrassing assassination or coup attempt would. This is evidenced by the involvement of the Department of State and the U.S. Ambassador to Chile, who requested a one-time payment to the Democratic Front, in an effort to split the Socialist Party. In a more critical operation, the Department of State (and the Department of Defense) would have been kept uninformed, to maximize secrecy and minimize culpability. This protocol is espoused in CIA documents in order not to compromise other agencies with ethically or legally dubious activities. For the activity in question, the methods were not sufficiently extreme to require maximum clandestineness. U.S. support was in the form of funding and training media personnel to promote anti-socialist propaganda and rally support for non-socialist parties. These actions were ethically questionable, but not of a nature that could result in U.S. criminal prosecution.
In 1964, the CIA spent $3 million to prevent Allende from winning that year’s election. According to the agency, this money was used largely for anti-leftist propaganda, and was critical to the election of the PDC’s Eduardo Frei. We may note that the authors of the 2000 report have no difficulty in confessing to having fixed an election, and frankly declare that Frei’s victory “was a milestone in the CIA’s Chilean election effort.” From this, we may reasonably infer that the agency would have little motive in concealing its manipulation of later elections.
Not content with Frei’s success, the U.S. authorized a new campaign in 1965 to control the outcome of Chile’s congressional elections. This operation was to be conducted by the CIA in collaboration with the ambassador to Chile, indicating that orders must have come from the White House, as in the previous year. At any rate, it is difficult to believe that President Johnson could have long remained ignorant of these actions, or that the two departments would have collaborated without higher approval. The operation was completed successfully in June.
From 1965 onward, the CIA conducted continuing propaganda activities in Chile, purchasing advertisements in the mass media to turn public opinion against the political left. In 1967, this project was expanded for the first time to cover explicitly anti-Communist themes, in response to the threat of a Soviet presence. This change reflects not only the beginning of the CIA’s policy failure, but also reveals that previous manipulations of Chilean elections were not directed against a specifically Soviet or Communist threat, but against any form of socialism. We might interpret these earlier activities either as a paranoid overreaction to Communism, or as a pragmatic desire to secure foreign investments and prevent the nationalization of industries. If it is the latter, we can easily view the post-1967 phase as a rational extension of previous policy, only now Soviet intervention posed the main threat to foreign capital in Chile. Soviet action, in turn, may be readily explained as a response to extended U.S. activities in Chile.
In 1968-69, the political left made gains in Chile, triggering an escalation of CIA propaganda activities. As with all such actions since 1964, this campaign was authorized by the “303 Committee”. There have been no Freedom of Information Act releases of documents identifying precisely what this committee is and does, but a basic outline can be gleaned from other released documents, such as the Church Committee report of 1975 and the CIA’s 2000 report on Chile. The 303 Committee was a small group within the National Security Council responsible for obtaining higher authorization for sensitive covert operations. In 1955, John Foster Dulles created a “Special Group” in the Security Council to authorize covert operations. Also known as the “5412 Group”, this was renamed the “303 Committee” in 1964. The President chairs the Security Council, which is composed of cabinet officials. Legally, an order from this committee ought to have presidential approval, but presidents such as Kennedy and Johnson claimed the CIA sometimes acted without their orders (these self-exculpatory claims should be viewed skeptically). In July 1968, the 303 Committee approved covert actions (by means which are unspecified in declassified material) to promote the success of political moderates in the 1969 congressional elections. Despite the U.S. regarding the operation a success, both the far right and far left gained seats, representing long-term troubles for Frei and other moderates.
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The CIA fought an uphill battle against the Chilean left in the late 1960’s, and was slow to recognize the failure of its policies. It conducted operations to its own satisfaction from 1965 to 1969, yet the facts on the ground belied claims of success. This was increasingly obvious as Salvador Allende, a Marxist, became a leading candidate in the presidential campaign of 1970. The “40 Committee” (as the 303 Committee was renamed) instructed the CIA to attack the leftist Popular Unity (UP) coalition in order to divide the left and allow a non-Marxist candidate to emerge on top. By August, it was clear that this “spoiling operation” would not succeed, so more drastic measures were considered by the Nixon administration. Two courses of action, dubbed Track I and Track II, were pursued simultaneously until Allende’s victory in October.
Track I was a political initiative that sought to re-elect Frei by corrupt, yet constitutional, means. Since Allende did not win an absolute majority of the popular vote, the constitution required that the Congress confirm the election in a runoff between the two leading candidates. Track I prescribed that the CIA and the U.S. embassy should ask Frei to persuade conservative congressmen to vote for the second-ranked Alessandri. Alessandri would then resign, enabling Frei to run against Allende in a new election. This convoluted plan had several possible points of failure, but it never got past the first stage, as the Congress approved Allende’s victory by a vote of 153 to 35 on October 24.
Track II considered the possibility of supporting a military coup to prevent the accession of Allende. Here, for the first time, the CIA report identifies a direct presidential order. On September 15, President Nixon “instructed the CIA to prevent Allende from coming to power or unseat him and authorized $10 million for this purpose.” He stipulated that the CIA should act without the knowledge of the State Department or the U.S. military. This procedure is consistent with the extremely sensitive and highly illicit nature of the operation.
The CIA began to implement Nixon’s directives by gathering intelligence and disseminating propaganda. The agency increased its contacts with Chilean military officers, and also sought “insights” from “the military of a foreign government”. The unnamed government was likely that of Argentina, since the ruling junta had been fighting leftist guerrillas for several years, and Nixon was known to have a close high-level relationship with this government. The warmth of this relationship is evidenced by Nixon’s taped conversation with General Lanusse a little over a year later. South American military governments were important agents in the war against socialism, but the CIA could at best merely influence these governments with financial incentives. The agency often depended on military cooperation in order to obtain useful intelligence, and to do the real work of fighting if that were necessary. Highly covert operations such as coups and assassinations did not involve the U.S. military, so foreign soldiers had to be trained or funded. Political propaganda was the CIA’s other weapon of choice, and this was employed against Allende through major newspapers. The agency also sought to shape the opinions of the Chilean clergy, and to use Frei’s military influence to form a new government independent of Allende.
Frei would not attempt to incite a coup, so in October the CIA took matters into its own hands, directly contacting members of the Chilean military and national police “to convince them to carry out a coup.” Although the CIA report stated earlier that the Departments of State and Defense were to be kept out of the loop, somehow the U.S. Embassy’s Army Attaché was placed under the “operational control” of the CIA, and used to deliver highly sensitive messages about the coup plot. It is unclear how this was achieved without revealing the coup attempt to other departments of the U.S. government. More likely, some officials in the Departments of Defense and State did have knowledge of the plot, but were not involved in the decision-making process and instructed not to take any active role in the implementation of the operation.
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The CIA’s testimony becomes shakier when it discusses the assassination of Chile’s top military commander, General Rene Schneider Chereau. Since Schneider was a firm advocate of upholding the Chilean constitution, the CIA and other coup plotters agreed that he had to be removed. The CIA maintains that the general was to be abducted, and they “have found no information” that the general was to be killed. As discussed earlier, this statement is technically accurate, but weak, as an assassination order would not be documented. The agency would have us believe that kidnapping the general was necessary to the success of a military coup, yet leaves us wondering what could be done with the general after a successful coup. In fact, the general was deliberately assassinated by coup conspirators, though it would be difficult to gather this from the CIA’s testimony.
According to the agency, a group led by retired General Roberto Viaux Marambio “carried out an attempted abduction against General Schneider that resulted in his death.” This characterization is wholly at odds with known physical facts released in the Chilean press at the time. Schneider’s automobile was rammed by another vehicle, and soon surrounded by five individuals. One of these used a tool resembling a sledge hammer to break the rear window, and shot the general, critically wounding him in the spleen, the left shoulder, and left wrist. Whatever the original plan of the conspirators may have been, the actions of Schneider’s killers were clearly those of assassins, not kidnappers. The CIA’s false depiction of the Schneider assassination is designed to corroborate its abduction theory, which in turn is designed to remove any hint of criminal implications. The agency is quite willing to admit to orchestrating coups, but takes absurd measures to avoid acknowledging even oblique involvement in an assassination. Schneider’s elimination surprisingly had an effect opposite to what the conspirators intended, as the military rallied behind the constitution and allowed Allende to take office.
The CIA admits that it had supported General Viaux’s group, but conveniently asserts it ended its support of Viaux shortly before the Schneider killing. Contact was first made with Viaux on October 9, and shortly thereafter the CIA forwarded a request to Washington on his behalf for weapons, tear gas, and other supplies. Supposedly, CIA Headquarters rejected the proposal and offered no support, on the grounds that the group “had no chance of carrying off a successful coup”. The CIA Station in Chile informed Viaux’s group of the decision in meetings on October 17-18, and they in turn were told that the coup would take place on October 21-22, beginning with the “abduction” of General Schneider. Thus, on October 22, the Viaux group “acted independently of the CIA” in its assassination of the general.
If the CIA ended its relations with Viaux’s group, we may reasonably ask exactly how they intended to prevent Allende from assuming office on October 24. The Station remained in contact with General Camilio Valenzuela, who led a group “judged to have the capability to carry out a successful coup.” On October 22, the CIA gave this group three submachine guns and eight to ten tear gas grenades, which were later returned unused. Valenzuela’s group also intended to “abduct” Schneider, but they were preempted by Viaux’s men.
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Students of U.S. foreign policy may find this story familiar: the CIA toys with the idea of forcibly removing a political figure, then decides against it, but some independent actor conveniently steps forward and does the job for them. This is the fiction proposed by the Church Committee for the murder of Diem, mirroring its account of the Schneider assassination. In fact, the committee’s 1975 report on assassination plots concluded that the CIA had orchestrated numerous conspiracies to kill foreign leaders, but not once did they successfully assassinate anyone. Naturally, plots can fail, as the survival of Fidel Castro amply demonstrates, but to suggest that all of them failed defies credulity and portrays the agency as international Keystone Cops.
Diem, at least, was assassinated by the U.S. government, according to Nixon in his private conversations. When allusions to Diem’s murder were released in the Pentagon Papers, Nixon saw an opportunity to smear the Kennedys. On August 11, 1971, presidential aide Charles Colson commented that it would be difficult for Averell Harriman (ambassador under Kennedy) to explain “why he didn’t get Diem out of Vietnam when he had the chance”. Nixon claimed he “knew what the bastards were up to”, and sought to get all of the Diem material declassified. Despite his blatant political motivations, the tapes show no doubt in Nixon’s mind about the truth of the matter. He insists on the release of the material even against the protests of Henry Kissinger. On September 18, Ehrlichman indicated that the CIA is sometimes unanswerable even to the president:
There’s some CIA stuff on the Bay of Pigs, apparently, that they will die first before they give us that, I understand. There’s also some other stuff…but getting to it is like that big black block in Mecca, you know. If we could just get a friend in the hierarchy over there who would let us in…
Nixon was not to be deterred, and he invoked his full presidential authority against CIA Director Richard Helms.
I consider it a top priority that I want the Diem story. Also on the Bay of Pigs thing, just – I want an order to Helms and [deputy CIA director Robert] Cushman that for my purposes, not for public release, I am to have the Bay of Pigs story. Now that’s an order. And I expect it in one week, or I want his resignation on my desk. Put it as coldly as that. The Bay of Pigs story, the total story. Tell him I know a lot about it myself…. I will not brook any opposition on this. I’ve screwed around long enough. I’ve told Henry [Kissinger] and he has really dropped the ball on this.
Richard Helms was a Johnson appointee, re-appointed by Nixon in 1969, who understandably wanted to withhold the Bay of Pigs embarrassment. The limits of presidential power are astonishingly displayed through Helms’ successful resistance of Nixon’s ultimatum. More than a year later, Nixon still did not have the files, and Helms kept his job until the president refused to re-appoint him in February 1973. By then, Helms had proven that the CIA could openly defy a president to protect its secrets.
Even with a new CIA director, obtaining sensitive documents remained extraordinarily difficult. On March 28, Nixon again demanded the release of the files on the Bay of Pigs “and the whole Diem thing. Now the war is over and we’re not going to take Henry’s crap. Henry’s a little bit involved in that himself. That’s why he doesn’t want some of it declassified.” Whatever one may think of Nixon’s scruples, it is clear that Kissinger at least had previous involvement in a political assassination. This background, combined with his prominent national security role, makes it extremely likely that Kissinger would have been kept abreast of any assassination attempts in Chile. He would also fiercely resist any attempts to reveal such a plot, even to the president.
The preponderance of evidence provided by the White House tapes suggests that Nixon would probably not have known much about covert operations in Chile. Nixon seems to have had an awkward, tense relationship with the intelligence community, and even with members of his own staff, such as Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig. Power politics, not personal affection, motivated the appointment of Henry Kissinger, who was a favorite of Nelson Rockefeller and had never been a Nixon supporter. Kissinger was widely considered to be indispensable because of his extensive political connections throughout the world. He had served as a consultant for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and often mediated Soviet-U.S. negotiations. Nixon could ill afford to dispose of him, even if he had a mind to do so. Haig, a military man, was also problematic for Nixon, particularly when politics clashed with the military culture of secrecy. On May 13, 1973, Nixon personally asked Haig to declassify the Diem plot. The order was apparently ignored, for the next day Nixon fumed, “I want the Diem, and the Bay of Pigs totally declassified, and I want it done in forty-eight hours. Now you tell Haig that. It’ll drive him up the wall, too.” Evidently, the Department of Defense was by no means kept in the dark about assassination attempts such as that on Diem.
As observed in the Church Committee report, covert operations follow principles of secrecy that seek to confine knowledge and culpability to as few parties as possible. Although an assassination attempt or coup might be conducted by the CIA, some members of the Department of Defense must also be advised of the activity if they are to provide support. In Chile, military involvement was needed in order to lend arms to coup plotters, and to provide personnel who could transmit sensitive messages. In South Vietnam, Diem ironically pleaded to Henry Cabot Lodge for Marines to protect him from imminent assassination. Haig learned this tale from Lodge’s assistant (who was also an aide to Vice President Johnson) and related it to Nixon (May 13, 1973). The Church Committee found that this culture of “plausible deniability” enabled senior staff to wash their hands of any wrongdoing, as they issued directives for covert operations through circumlocutions. Special committees such as the 5412/303/40 Committee acted as “circuit breakers” to relieve the president of the need to explicitly order covert operations. Such a command structure is designed to minimize accountability, and has been effectively used by organized crime syndicates.
Within the executive branch, intelligence is guarded jealously by each agency, usually with the unverifiable pretext that such release would compromise national security. Richard Helms testified to the Church Committee that the plausible deniability doctrine prevented CIA officials from reporting covert operations to the President. Thus, even though the Committee found that Central Intelligence Director Allen Dulles authorized an assassination plot against Patrice Lumumba of Congo in 1960, they found no evidence of authorization from Presidents Eisenhower or Kennedy. This finding cannot be considered a verdict of innocence, due to the appalling lack of accountability in command and control.
Plausible deniability is essential to any “covert operation”, which is military jargon for an action that cannot be easily attributed to the responsible party. The coup or assassination attempt itself is a very public act; the “covertness” lies in hiding U.S. involvement. Returning to the Schneider case, the CIA has prepared a scenario that plausibly denies its involvement in the assassination. There were several groups plotting to abduct or kill Gen. Schneider, so the CIA claims to have been backing the one that did not perform the deed. As the Church Commission noted regarding the Castro assassination attempts, these were conducted so that there was no way of distinguishing US-backed plots from those that did not have CIA involvement. Thus we really have nothing other than the CIA’s word to establish the absence of involvement with the Viaux group at the time of the assassination. We must compare this testimony with external evidence, such as the fact that the Viaux group made no attempt to abduct Schneider, only to kill him directly.
The agency takes care to address another piece of evidence which does not fit well with their scenario: a payment of $35,000, an exorbitant sum in Chile, to a member of the Viaux group in November 1970. The report explains that this payment was made in order “to keep the prior contact secret, maintain the good will of the group, and for humanitarian reasons”. The last justification is utterly risible, given the agency’s unscrupulous behavior shortly before and after this incident. Political concerns routinely trumped humanitarian considerations, as evidenced by the support of anti-constitutional coups and the subsequent policy of economic sabotage. Keeping the contact secret makes sense, regardless of whether the CIA was involved in the assassination, but there would be little reason to maintain the good will of the group if the CIA had already decided not to support them. This in turn raises the question of why the CIA denied the Viaux group support, when they would later make a payment that far outstripped the cost of weapons required for a coup. Supposedly the Viaux group was incapable of carrying out a successful coup, yet this inept bunch was given greater financial support than the Valenzuela group, which the CIA did deem to be capable of success. This makes little sense, and the $35,000 payment remains a glaring oddity, inconsistent with agency claims to have stopped supporting the Viaux group. The payment would have been ineffective as hush money, since General Viaux and several co-conspirators had already been captured. These generals were retired and given lenient sentences by the military high command in exchange for their silence, since they could implicate other groups. Valenzuela’s group naturally denied any involvement in the Schneider assassination.
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We may gather some tentative conclusions about the CIA’s involvement in the Schneider assassination. First, the agency did advocate a military coup, entertaining the proposals of several groups, all of which involved the elimination of General Schneider. Given our knowledge of how covert operations are conducted, it is probable that the CIA did not explicitly order the assassination of Schneider, but through circumlocution made known that it would support a coup in the aftermath of such action. The CIA would have no particular interest in keeping Gen. Schneider alive, as his presence would threaten the legitimacy of any new military commander-in-chief. The actions of the Viaux group were those of assassins, not kidnappers. The general and his chauffeur were surrounded by five men and their vehicle; the assassins could have easily made an abduction attempt if that was their intent. Viaux and several other generals took the blame for this attempt, and received light sentences in exchange for not implicating others. It is possible that the CIA-backed Valenzuela group was involved in the assassination, despite its denial. It is also possible that the CIA did continue to support the Viaux group, with the understanding that they would be compensated after the fact. Thus there are two possible channels by which the CIA might have materially aided the Schneider assassination. In any event, it is clear the CIA had made clear to numerous military officers that it would not look unkindly upon the elimination of Gen. Schneider, and that a successful coup would be warmly received. Aniceto Rodriguez, secretary-general of Allende’s party, was therefore on solid ground when he identified the CIA as the “moral author” of the assassination. (New York Times, October 26, 1970)
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Despite the successful murder of Schneider, the CIA’s mission to thwart Allende’s accession to the presidency failed. The military publicly affirmed its commitment to the constitution regardless of political ideology, and did not stand in the way of Allende’s election and inauguration. The CIA had been willing to violate the Chilean constitution and the personal safety of an inconvenient leader in order to prevent Allende from rising to power. We should not be surprised if they would later pursue comparable extremes in order to remove him, but for the time being, a military coup was no longer a viable option. Allende was inaugurated on November 3, 1970.
President Nixon convened a National Security Council meeting on the morning of November 6. Attendees included the new Vice President, Gerald Ford, as well as Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State William Rogers, CIA Director Richard Helms, Gen. William Westmoreland and Gen. Alexander Haig. Convinced that Allende would “try to create a Socialist state,” the council considered whether it would be better to show overt hostility to the Allende regime, or to adopt a hostile posture less publicly. The possibility of seeking a modus vivendi with the Allende government was dismissed by all. Secretary of State Rogers opted for a hostile stance that was not publicized:
Private business and the Latin American countries believe that we have done the right things up to now. If we have to be hostile, we want to do it right and bring him down. A stance of public hostility would give us trouble in Latin America. We can put an economic squeeze on him. He has requested a debt rescheduling soon – we can be tough. We can bring his downfall perhaps without being counterproductive.
Rogers candidly admits that U.S. foreign policy was driven by private business interests, so he seeks a solution that will not harm U.S. business interests in Latin America. Socialism is feared because it will eliminate the possibility of economic penetration. This utilitarian attitude toward Latin American nations permeates the rest of the memorandum.
President Nixon was open to pursuing punitive economic measures against Chile, such as selling U.S. stockpiles of copper in order to devalue Chile’s copper exports. Before Allende’s inauguration, Nixon had instructed Helms to “make the economy scream.” Now, he reiterated that the U.S. should “give him cold turkey” economically. The U.S. would also seek international sanctions against Chile.
Nixon was also concerned with the example that Chile would set for other Latin American nations if it successfully defied the U.S. “[I]t gives courage to others who are sitting on the fence in Latin America. Let’s not think about what the really democratic countries in Latin America say – the game is in Brazil and Argentina.” The Nixon administration supported military juntas in the latter two countries, being more concerned with projecting U.S. power than with democratic ideals. “I will never agree with the policy of downgrading the military in Latin America. They are power centers subject to our influence. The others (the intellectuals) are not subject to our influence.” Nixon actually preferred military governments in Latin America, as they were more easily controlled by the U.S. Thus Nixon recommended putting more money into fostering military relations.
If the attitudes of the administration expressed thus far seem to be patronizing toward Latin America, Nixon was even more explicit:
This is not the same as Europe – with Tito and Ceaucescu – where we have to get along and no change is possible. Latin America is not gone, and we want to keep it. Our Cuban policy must not be changed. It costs the Russians a lot; we want it to continue to cost. Chile is gone too – he isn’t going to mellow. Don’t have any illusions – he won’t change. If there is any way we can hurt him whether by government or private business – I want them to know our policy is negative. There should be no guarantees. Cut back existing guarantees if possible.
The administration clearly regarded Latin America as the United States’ “turf”, which it intended to keep. The punitive measures against Chile are therefore to be understood in this context. Allende’s “crime” was refusal to submit to U.S. interests. It mattered little that Allende was popularly elected, while the U.S. supported military juntas. Allegiance to the U.S. was more important than deference to local popular sovereignty.
The U.S. waged economic warfare against Chile shortly after Allende took office, terminating financial support of the government. As Allende expanded social welfare programs and reduced unemployment, he nationalized industries that had been under foreign ownership, most notably the lucrative copper industry, which had been owned almost exclusively by U.S. companies. The Anaconda Copper Mining Co. (ACM) alone controlled two-thirds of the industry, and was known to bribe politicians into supporting their interests in keeping wages and working conditions low, while allowing the price of copper and rate of extraction to be determined by the U.S. This blatant exploitation was resented by all Chileans, including conservatives, so Allende had broad support when he introduced a constitutional amendment to nationalize the copper mines, and this was unanimously approved by a conservative majority congress on July 11, 1971, proclaimed the National Day of Dignity. U.S. companies demanded compensation for loss of ownership, but Allende presented a detailed financial accounting of fifty years of exploitation showing that the ACM, in fact, owed compensation to Chile for underpricing her material and human resources and manipulating her laws. The Nixon administration halted all foreign aid, exports, and credit to Chile, while U.S. copper companies blocked the sale of Chilean copper in Europe. Chile’s trade revenue was further crippled by a fall in the price of world copper (from $66/ton in 1970 to $48/ton in 1971), as predicted by Nixon. Economic warfare against Chile was supplemented by a CIA-funded “destabilization” plan to provoke strikes by trade organizations.
The U.S. spent over $6.5 million on covert operations during the Allende period, supporting political opposition parties, sharing military intelligence, and promoting anti-government propaganda.El Mercurio, a right-wing newspaper chain, was funded by the U.S. government and several copper mining companies in order to attack the Chilean government in print. The CIA resumed funding the Christian Democratic Party of Eduardo Frei in 1971, as well as the National Party and Democratic Radical Party in 1972. The CIA was aware of several coup plots, but the consensus in the Nixon administration in October 1972 appears to have been opposed to actively supporting a coup, understandable in view of recent failure. Instead, the covert operations were intended to destabilize the regime and sustain the opposition so that the U.S. could exploit new developments, such as a coup or new election (scheduled for 1976). The CIA directly interacted with several coup plotters, but its agents were instructed to gain intelligence only, not to assist in a coup, at least as late as the end of 1972, when coup plotting escalated. On August 21, 1973, the 40 Committee authorized a dramatic increase of an additional $1 million in funding for opposition parties, just weeks before the coup would take place. These opposition parties advocated allowing the Chilean military to become cabinet members, and the CIA was authorized to encourage this motion.
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Although the CIA denies any direct role in instigating the coup of September 11, 1973, it admits having learned of the coup one day earlier from a Chilean military officer requesting assistance. The request was forwarded to Washington, but the CIA denies any involvement in the coup beyond gathering intelligence. Even if this is technically true, which we cannot verify due to an incompleteness in the released documents, the CIA certainly did nothing to discourage the coup and much to embolden the plotters. The Nixon administration made clear its opposition to the Allende regime, and took covert measures to sabotage the economy and support the political opposition. Funding of these programs increased markedly in the weeks before the coup, as the ascent of General Augusto Pinochet to the head of the armed forces made a military coup more likely. If the U.S. government did not want a coup to occur, they chose an exceptionally poor moment to increase financing for the opposition. It is far more likely that the U.S. behaved consistently with its “plausible deniability” standard, actively desiring and encouraging a coup, but stopping short of direct material aid to the plotters themselves, to avoid a repeat of the fiasco of 1970. A unified Chilean military did not need foreign material support to overrun the presidential palace, but it did need a broad base of political support for its actions. This was provided by the U.S. covert propaganda and sabotage campaigns against the Allende regime. In this way, the U.S. did support the coup materially, though indirectly. The U.S. certainly would have welcomed any change of government that toppled Allende, but Nixon’s earlier cited conversations reveal a preference for military governments.
Shortly after the coup, in which the presidential palace was stormed, and President Allende shot himself, according to the testimony of two doctors, Kissinger and Nixon shared their glee in the exchange on September 16, at the same time revealing that the U.S. did in fact support the coup:
K: The Chilean thing is getting consolidated and of course the newspapers are bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.
P: Isn’t that something. Isn’t that something.
K: I mean instead of celebrating – in the Eisenhower period we would be heros.
P: Well we didn’t – as you know – our hand doesn’t show on this one though.
K: We didn’t do it. I mean we helped them. _____ created the conditions as great as possible (??)
P: That is right. And that is the way it is going to be played.
The allusion to the Eisenhower period refers to the more direct U.S. involvement in the Guatemalan coup of 1954, among other aggressive covert operations orchestrated by the Dulles brothers. For our purposes, this conversation clarifies that the U.S. knowingly aided the coup, abstaining from more direct involvement out of concern for how to defend the action politically. The consolidation of the “Chilean thing” referred casually to the mass imprisonment of over 100,000 Chileans and execution of 2,000-3,000 dissidents, driving the rest of the leftists underground. On September 13, Pinochet dissolved the conservative majority congress, overreaching any popular mandate the plotters may have had among those dissatisfied with Allende.
The pre-coup CIA file on Pinochet was released only with heavy censorship, with all narrative sections blacked out. The 2000 CIA report claims that Pinochet was “not a coup plotter, but apparently willing to concede to a coup”, consistent with recent statements by high-ranking former members of the Chilean military. Pinochet would later claim that he was the chief architect of the plot. While Pinochet was initially part of a military junta that would rotate the presidency until elections were restored, he soon consolidated his power and by March 1974 he declared there was no longer a need for elections. CIA covert operations continued until June 1974, when Pinochet’s unquestioned dictatorship made political propaganda campaigns unnecessary.
Pinochet began a mass privatization of the economy, including public pensions, and paid indemnities to U.S. copper companies, as the copper mines remained nationalized, with 10 percent of profit supporting the military. He agreed to pay the debt accumulated under Allende, and soon resumed normal relations with the U.S. business community, though several Western European nations would not recognize the regime. The U.S. government offered millions of dollars in aid to the Pinochet regime, and shared intelligence with his officers, while turning a blind eye to their human rights violations. In fact, the U.S. would have a long, productive relationship with Pinochet, as with other military regimes in Latin America, to coordinate a campaign to suppress socialist movements and make Latin America safe for foreign business. The regime prospered, American business prospered, but the people of Chile suffered under oppression and poverty, including many of those conservatives who had called for a coup.
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The CIA’s account of its activities in Chile reveals how the government's idea of truthfulness is heavily informed by the notion of “plausible deniability.” In terms of physical facts or direct citations of conversations, it would be difficult to find any blatant falsehood in the CIA’s report, yet the agency’s disavowals of direct involvement in coups, assassinations, and human rights violations strains credulity and contradicts the amoral atmosphere revealed by the Nixon tapes. Were it not for the fortunate accident of the availability of these materials, the covert operations would have been perfectly executed. This should cause us to view the self-exculpatory professions of later administrations more skeptically, as their documents have not been declassified, and they are less likely to have left a rich library of tape-recorded high-level conversations. On the contrary, when events in other nations fulfill U.S. objectives a bit too conveniently, we may reasonably suspect a covert operation at work.
Covert operations present a special problem for the historian, making it difficult to determine the agents and motives of major historical events, and corrupting source documents with a culture of “plausible deniability”. The same “ends justify the means” mentality that motivates covert operations and dirty wars also inspires a contempt for truth and honesty in disclosing the government's true level of involvement. The U.S. government is willing to spend millions of dollars and years of effort to influence political outcomes, yet modestly downplays its influence at the critical moment. The CIA will not speak too boldly about its role in toppling Allende for the same reason they refused to release the Bay of Pigs documents to Nixon. Long after the principal actors are dead or retired, the crimes of the past can create credibility problems for the agency of the present, possibly precipitating calls for greater oversight or limited powers.
The very essence of covertness is the evasion of accountability, which is why even if all documents were declassified, there would remain gaps where strictly oral communications and mutual understandings conveyed intentions. Written records of covert operations are deliberately incomplete, frustrating the historian’s task of telling a complete story, and exploiting the public’s willingness to give its government every benefit of the doubt. All too often, the public dutifully complies, so that even in cases like the Allende affair where the real facts are available, hardly a dent is made in the popular myth of a morally benevolent foreign policy.
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See also: U.S. Policy in Iraq | Causes of the Soviet Collapse
“A Study of Assassination.” Declassified CIA manual.
Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, CIA Manual, 1983. Released version revised in July 1984 to remove approval of psychologically coercive interrogations.
Church Committee Reports. 1975-76.
Kornbluh, Peter. The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. New Press, 2003.
“Chile and the United States: Declassified Documents relating to the Military Coup, 1970-1976”, National Security Archive, George Washington University.
Transcripts of Nixon Tapes
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