The myth that the United States toppled President Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973 lives. In 1975, a Senate subcommittee headed by Frank Church -- a stalwart Democrat and no friend of the Nixon administration -- determined that there was "no real evidence" of U.S. support for the military coup or for an earlier botched kidnapping by Chileans that ended in the death of Army Chief of Staff Rene Schneider. A more recent CIA study confirmed these conclusions. No evidence to the contrary emerged from the 24,000 Chile-related documents declassified by the Clinton administration.

There is, in short, no smoking gun. Yet the myth persists. It is lovingly nurtured by the Latin American left and refreshed from time to time by contributions to the literature like Peter Kornbluh's The Pinochet File and Kenneth Maxwell's review of that book, "The Other 9/11" (November/December 2003).

Both Kornbluh and Maxwell recognize that it was the Chilean military that stormed Allende's presidential palace on that September 11 three decades ago; neither alleges direct U.S. participation in the coup. Still, although they do not go as far as the excitable critics who fire off wild charges of international criminal intent, both purport to make what Maxwell calls "The Case Against Kissinger."

Kornbluh and Maxwell echo the traditional claim that the United States "destabilized" Chile. Kornbluh says that the United States created a "coup climate." Maxwell asserts that Washington "engineered" the overthrow; as "for the coup itself," he writes, "there is no doubt that the United States did all that it could" to bring Allende down.

Hardly. It was no secret that President Richard Nixon opposed Allende and was unenthusiastic about the prospect of another Marxist regime in the region -- not surprising given that this was during the Cold War. But to claim that the Nixon administration "did all it could" to topple Allende is an injustice to regime-changers in the U.S. government, past and present. A cursory review of history suggests that had Washington done "all it could" in Chile, it would have attempted an assassination (Castro and Qaddafi: unsuccessful; Lumumba and Diem: successful), an invasion (Panama and Grenada), an armed attack by mercenaries (Iran and Guatemala), or an attack by the U.S. military (Iraq). Nothing close to such measures was deployed against Allende.

Even in the more gentlemanly arena of economic pressures, the U.S. effort against Chile pales in comparison with its no-holds-barred sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and Libya. What the United States did in Chile, from Allende's inauguration in 1970 until his violent downfall at the hands of the Chilean military three years later, was a pinprick by comparison. Washington funneled $6 million in secret subsidies to the opposition press and parties (which Allende was trying to shut down). Washington tried -- and failed -- to block the restructuring of Chile's foreign debt. Washington reduced bilateral aid (although Allende found relief by unilaterally shutting down debt-service payments and opening lines of credit with other, friendlier nations). And it counseled international financial institutions to reduce their lending (although the World Bank needed no persuading: Chile was bankrupt). That was it.

If $6 million in support for the opposition and a reduction of bilateral aid brought Allende down, while other, far more robust attempts at regime change have failed, one might conclude that Allende's was a remarkably fragile regime. And indeed it was: Allende made it so. Kornbluh, Maxwell, and others inflate his martyrdom by saying he was democratically elected. This is a stretch. Allende won with a less-than-resounding 36 percent of the popular vote in 1970; nearly two-thirds of those who went to the polls voted against him. By 1973, he had frittered away even this flimsy base of support. What is even clearer, though, is that he was no democrat once in office. Indeed, Allende set out to destroy his country's democratic tradition. His government was set on "the Leninist demolition of the 'bourgeois' state," as the former Chilean Communist Roberto Ampuero put it recently in The Washington Post. "[Allende] cast aside our democratic system in order to try to replace it with a system ... that had already failed in Eastern Europe, Asia, and in Fidel Castro's Cuba."

Allende ruined the Chilean economy as well. His term opened in 1970 with crowd-pleasing, budget-busting welfare payouts. He nationalized the foreign-owned copper industry, ordered sharp wage increases, and imposed price controls. These measures triggered a consumption binge, and within months Chile had eaten its seed corn of capital. Inflation took over. Imports and consumption collapsed. Unemployment, destitution, and anger followed. By 1973, the economy was "screaming," as Nixon had hoped it would, but not because of Nixon, Henry Kissinger, or the CIA.

Such was the reality in Chile. Nathaniel Davis, the U.S. ambassador in Santiago at the time, later said that thanks to Allende's madcap economics, there was "progressively less Chilean institutional viability to 'destabilize.'" Nor was it the United States that did the "destabilizing," "undermining," or "engineering." According to a document of undoubted authenticity appended to his memoirs, Kissinger made clear to Davis days before the 1973 coup that "we are not to involve ourselves in any way. ... Our biggest problem is to keep from getting caught in the middle."

The guardians of the myth prefer to see the United States as just that -- "in the middle." For them, the U.S. diplomatic record is quite enough to prove that Nixon and Kissinger, up to their necks in Watergate and Kissinger's confirmation as secretary of state, were also manipulating the turbulence in Chile. There is not one word in Kornbluh's chapter on Allende's time in office about his disastrous economic policies, his attack on Chile's democratic institutions, or the wave of popular resentment that swept the Chilean military to power. The critics see only the American text, not the Chilean context.

The mythmakers' case for U.S. responsibility for the 1973 coup, built as it is on what U.S. officials were saying to each other, is circumstantial at best. So they buttress it with references to events both before and after Allende's presidency. Maxwell, echoing Kornbluh, points to the 1970 murder of Schneider, as if to show U.S. responsibility for the coup three years later. Schneider was killed by a band of rabid Chilean nationalists. Maxwell says that the United States "approved" and "planned" their effort. The facts are otherwise. In September of 1970, the Chilean Congress rejected a parliamentary maneuver to block Allende's inauguration. Cia operatives in Santiago then began to canvass a move by the Chilean military. But the CIA quickly backed off. The military, which three years later had a different view, refused in 1970 to intrude on the constitutional process. The CIA so reported to Kissinger, then national security adviser, and on October 15, 1970, he ended U.S. involvement in the anti-Allende plotting. Kissinger later told the president, "This thing looked hopeless. I turned it off. Nothing could be worse than an abortive coup." But, according to the Church Commission's report, when CIA operatives relayed the turn-off instruction to the Chilean army, the plotters responded that they were going ahead anyway. (Kissinger proved prescient: the result of the abortive coup was precisely the opposite of what the United States desired.)

Maxwell goes on to say that the United States "did little to rein in Pinochet thereafter," implying that this also confirms U.S. responsibility for 1973. But the record is otherwise. Maxwell and Kornbluh give little weight to the stern human rights warning Kissinger delivered directly to Pinochet at their only meeting, in Santiago in June of 1976. (Full disclosure: I was there, as Kissinger's undersecretary for economic affairs and, as some of Kornbluh's documents suggest, his human rights gadfly.) They dismiss Kissinger's statement, made in an address to the region's foreign ministers, that the regime's human rights violations "[had] impaired our relationship with Chile and [would] continue to do so." And they skip lightly over Kissinger's personal order to the four U.S. ambassadors in the Southern Cone to tell the heads of their respective governments that political assassination and human rights violations would irreparably damage their relations with the United States and cost them dearly in aid. Despite what Kornbluh and Maxwell claim, Kissinger's warning was delivered in robust fashion to the Argentine president -- there are cables to prove it, although Kornbluh does not reprint them -- and probably to Pinochet's underlings in Santiago. In any event, after Kissinger's meeting with Pinochet there could have been no misunderstanding as to Washington's views on state-sponsored political assassination. The relationship with Chile (and the other Southern Cone countries) went into a deep freeze in the remaining months of Kissinger's term as secretary of state -- and under President Jimmy Carter as well.

Finally, Maxwell cites a maddeningly ambiguous cable from Kornbluh's collection as somehow relevant to an ominous "third event" in "the case against Kissinger": the June 1976 assassination of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier by Chilean agents in Washington, D.C. This is mischievous nonsense. Kissinger had nothing to do with the cable. So far as the record shows, he never saw it. The cable was not a Washington instruction to the field. It was not sent to Santiago. The bomb had already been strapped to the underside of Letelier's car when the cable, whatever it meant, was sent. It could not conceivably have been a link in the chain of causation leading to Letelier's death.

But it is of such stuff that myths are made. The evidence of U.S. responsibility for Allende's downfall is thin indeed, but the myth lives on, with unfortunate consequences. It eats at the good name and image of the United States in "that vast external realm," an image that needs no additional blemishes right now. In Latin America, it reinforces the instinct to blame Washington and to seek the redress of grievances there rather than at home. And in the United States, the Chile myth teaches contemporary interventionists that regime change works. It affirms the view that other countries are objects, blank slates on which Washington can write as it wishes. With U.S. power so overwhelming and the instinct to alter foreign regimes so strong, this is a dangerous message indeed.


William Rogers overreaches. His comments do not help his cause, and his assertion that my review is "mythmaking" that is "lovingly nurtured" by the left revives the innuendo characteristic of an epoch one hoped was long past in public debate. Its employment here, however, has the merit of demonstrating that Kornbluh's dossier of declassified documents cuts very close to home. I was not, in any case, seeking a "smoking gun." What I did do was provide a fair summary of the evidence Kornbluh presented. It is for readers to decide how effectively the argument for complicity is made (or a jury, if the suits brought by the families of Schneider and Letelier ever reach court).

It is certainly true that the Chilean Communists were no Thomas Jeffersons; that Allende bears much of the blame for the Chilean economy's tailspin; that Chilean society was bitterly divided; that the Chilean armed forces, not those of the United States, overthrew Allende; and that this story cannot be told only in terms of U.S. involvement. I said so very pointedly in my review. But to claim that the United States was not actively involved in promoting Allende's downfall in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary verges on incredulity.

Rogers has had a long and distinguished career that includes a substantial engagement with Latin American affairs, and I have the utmost respect for him. I regret that, in his evident irritation, he often conflates the opinion of the book's reviewer with that of the book's author and attributes implicit meanings that exist in his mind but not in my text. The "case against Henry Kissinger" is not of my invention. What I provide is a synopsis of the principal accusations made against Kissinger, since they form the core of the book I was reviewing. I could hardly have ignored them. Many of Rogers' assertions and specific rebuttals (which form, in effect, a counter-reading of Kornbluh's book) are best answered by Kornbluh himself. I would be happy to avoid a hornets' nest, but since Rogers also attributes opinion to me -- and in very overheated language -- let me deal directly with specifics.

First, here again we see the tired claim that Allende's having received only 36 percent of the vote somehow diminished his democratic credibility and justified the coup. Even Mark Falcoff, a friendly historian recently granted privileged access to Kissinger's telephone transcripts from the 1970s, argues that this was a result of how the Chilean political system worked. In 1975, following the first democratic elections in Portugal after the left-wing military coup there, Kissinger and company belatedly designated Mário Soares as the Western anticommunist hope; his political party received 38 percent of the vote. In both cases, evidently, the interpretation of statistics has far more to do with ideology than with democracy.

As for Kissinger's June 1976 speech to the Organization of American States (OAS) in Santiago and his August 1976 demarche on Operation Condor, the evidence is clear. Yes, Kissinger made his human rights speech, but he had personally assured Pinochet that he was giving it for U.S. domestic consumption. Let me quote directly from a "document of undoubted authenticity" as to what Kissinger said privately to Pinochet on that occasion: "The speech is not aimed at Chile. I wanted to tell you about this. My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world, and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government which was going communist." (The record shows that Assistant Secretary of State Rogers was present during this conversation.)

The central point regarding Kissinger's demarche, meanwhile, is that it was not delivered, out of concern that it would upset Pinochet. In the 27 days between the sending of Kissinger's cable and the assassination of Letelier, Kissinger's instructions (to warn Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina not to follow through with planned international assassination) were not carried out in the most critical case -- Chile. It is a cruel coincidence that on the day before a car bomb killed Letelier, the ambassadors were told "to take no further action." This declassified cable is reproduced in full in Kornbluh's collection (Chapter 6, Document 17). It is specifically headed "Operation Condor" and is addressed to "secstate washdc." These are facts, not questions of opinion, much less of mythology.

The point is that this was a tragedy that might have been prevented. Other assassinations of opposition figures planned by Condor in Europe were in fact prevented because the United States tipped off the governments in question (France and Portugal) in advance. And George H.W. Bush, then director of the CIA, personally warned a Democratic U.S. member of Congress that he was a target. But by then, even Kissinger had recognized that a monster had arisen and needed to be contained. It was this that led to the change in U.S. policy.

Finally, it is very odd to claim that discussion of these questions is intended to encourage U.S. interventionism. Precisely the opposite is true. The explicit intention of Kornbluh and others who diligently research these cases is to point out the dangers of a Manichaean world view, how it leads to the use of allies with very bloody fingers.

Kornbluh's dossier also shows how agonizing Kissinger's policy decisions often were for those professionals who had to carry them out -- and how well aware these professionals were of the moral dilemmas they faced. Among them, notably and honorably, was William Rogers. In anticipation of the 1976 OAS meeting in Santiago, Rogers, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, had written in his briefing paper for Secretary Kissinger that Chile had become "a symbol of right-wing tyranny." He advised, "Like it or not, we are identified with the regime's origins and hence charged with some responsibility for its action. This accents our strong interest in getting the goc [Government of Chile] to pursue acceptable human rights practices." We know that Rogers took this position thanks to the very declassified documents that Kornbluh publishes in his dossier and that Rogers now seeks to discredit.

Rogers' loyalty to his former boss and current business associate is commendable, but it was not reciprocated at the time. In closed meetings with Patricio Carvajal, Pinochet's foreign minister, Kissinger said, "The State Department is made up of people who have a vocation for the ministry. Because there are not enough churches for them, they went into the Department of State." (With respect to human rights, he told Carvajal that he "did not intend to harass Chile on this matter.") Rogers has said that when he was invited by Kissinger, soon after Nixon's resignation, to run the Latin America bureau, "I also told him I'd heard rumors that the U.S. government had destabilized Chile through the CIA. I said that if there were any covert operations going on during my watch I would resign and denounce the operation." But Condor did go on during his watch.

There is a way to clear the air. Some countries have established "truth commissions" to look into such matters. In the United States, however, the record has been extracted painfully, like rotten teeth. Accusations of "mischievous nonsense" do not help. Whether or not these difficult legacies should be buried or debated is, of course, a matter of judgment. Rogers evidently believes they are best left undisturbed. My own belief is that we should seek to learn from the past if we have the wisdom to do so.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now