Washington D.C., September 4, 2020 – “Chile voted calmly to have a Marxist-Leninist state, the first nation in the world to make this choice freely and knowingly,” U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry dramatically reported to Washington in a cable titled “Allende Wins” on September 4, 1970. “[W]e have suffered a grievous defeat; the consequences will be domestic and international; the repercussions will have immediate impact in some lands and delayed effect in others.”
On the 50th anniversary of the history-changing election of Salvador Allende in Chile, the National Security Archive today posted a selection of previously declassified documents recording the reaction of U.S. officials to the first democratic election of a Socialist leader in Latin America, or elsewhere. Since the early 1960s, U.S. policy makers had dedicated tens of millions of dollars in overt aid and covert actions to preventing the popular head of the Chilean Socialist party from being elected. Allende’s victory set in motion a furious effort, ordered by President Nixon, supervised by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and implemented by the CIA, to destabilize Chile and undermine Allende’s ability to govern—an effort that set the stage for the September 11, 1973 military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,” Kissinger famously told his top aides.
Before the election, U.S. officials believed that the CIA “spoiling operations”—covert propaganda efforts to undermine Allende’s popularity before the election—would succeed. In a confidential conversation with Chile’s Christian Democrat President Eduardo Frei on the evening of September 3, 1970, Ambassador Korry predicted that the conservative National Party candidate, Jorge Alessandri, would defeat Allende in a three-way race. When Frei asked who would win, according to Korry’s report on their meeting, “I replied that I believed Alessandri would gain no less than 38 pct, that Allende could not realistically hope for more than 35 pct and that [the Christian Democrat candidate, Radomiro] Tomic might surprise the Marxists by squeezing in second, thus making it a tighter all round race.” In fact, Allende narrowly defeated Alessandri with 36.3 percent of the balloting; Tomic came in a distant third.
Ambassador Korry filed no fewer than eighteen election-day reports on the September 4 balloting. Report number 1 suggested a “very large” turnout “without incident,” with Chileans so committed to voting that hospital patients were being “brought to polls on litters, some appearing to be indulging in their last rite….” As Allende’s narrow victory became apparent, however, the tone of Korry’s reporting changed from humorous observation to angry denunciation of Chile’s political culture for creating the conditions for, and then civilly accepting, Allende’s democratic election.
When his cable, “Allende Wins” was first declassified more than 25 years ago, the second paragraph was entirely redacted. But a more recent declassification for the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series revealed that the censorship was not intended to safeguard sensitive national security information, but rather to hide the melodramatic and abjectly insulting nature of the ambassador’s opinions. “We have been living with a corpse in our midst for some time and its name is Chile,” reads the redacted graph. “The decomposition is no less malodorous because of the civility which accompanies it. Chileans could as usual chatter endlessly on television and radio and in the early hours today as if nothing had changed and the screen switched from variety shows to roundtables of politicians pontificating as foolishly as ever. Chileans like to die peacefully with their mouths open.”
Even before the votes were fully counted, Allende’s election triggered a series of covert U.S. contingency plans designed to block his inauguration. Since no candidate had won a plurality of the balloting, the strategy focused on influencing the October 24, 1970, vote of the Chilean Congress to ratify the winner—through bribery and economic disruption, and a possible military coup. On the day of the election, Kissinger’s office reviewed a TOP SECRET/EYES ONLY CIA planning paper for the “40 Committee” which approved covert operations. The CIA initially saw “no chance that any action by US can influence [Chilean] Congressional vote to defeat Allende”—a position that Nixon and Kissinger refused to accept. The next day, CIA headquarters transmitted a cable to its station chief in Santiago asking for an assessment on “chances of overturning an Allende’s victory.”
Proposals to covertly intervene in Chile’s political affairs did prompt a brief debate inside the Nixon administration. Viron “Pete” Vaky, a State Department official assigned to Kissinger’s office, argued that efforts to bribe Chilean congressmen, if exposed, “would be disastrous, this administration’s Bay of Pigs.” Wimberley Coerr in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research also used the “Pigs’ Bay” analogy in presenting his “personal view” on “Post-September 4 Operations.” Coerr argued that “subornation” of Chile’s internal political system was “beyond the pale” and “would hurt our prestige and effectiveness in Latin America (not to mention the United States Government’s reputation with its own citizens) even more than did Pigs’ Bay.” Secretary of State William Rogers also expressed his concern about “getting caught doing something.” “After all we’ve said about elections,” Rogers stated in a phone call to Kissinger, “if the first time a Communist wins the U.S. tries to prevent the constitutional process from coming into play we will look very bad.”
Both Nixon and Kissinger rejected these arguments as well as the broader State Department position that the U.S. should establish a modus vivendi with Allende and bolster the opposition in the next presidential election in 1976. On September 12, they discussed Allende’s election on the phone. “Does State want to give [Chile] aid?,” Nixon asked. “Let Alicande [sic] come in and see what we work out and work out opposition to him,” Kissinger responded describing the State Department position. “Like against Castro? Like in Czech?,” Nixon responded. “The same people said the same thing. Don’t let them do that,” the President instructed Kissinger.
Three days later on September 15, 1970, Nixon gave an explicit order to CIA Director Richard Helms to foment a military coup in Chile in order to prevent Allende’s inauguration.
“These documents remind us that Allende’s election was a turning point, not only in Chilean and Latin American history but in United States and world history,” noted Peter Kornbluh who directs the Archive’s Chile Documentation Project. “A half century later, the Nixon administration’s imperial response to Allende’s democratic election continues to resonate.”
As additional 50th anniversaries of the various elements of U.S. covert operations in Chile arrive in the coming weeks and months, the National Security Archive will continue to post records that illuminate these historic events.