The Chile Coup -- The U.S. Hand
by Peter Kornbluh
iF magazine, Oct. 25, 1998
Since 1970, the Nixon administration had worked to de-stabilize
the elected government of Socialist Salvador Allende. The CIA
had laid the ground work for the coup d'etat. In view of Pinochet's
recent arrest, the following article looks back a quarter century
at the U.S. role in the political violence that shook Chile.
Twenty-five years ago, tanks rumbled through the streets of
Chile, terrified civilians were lined up before firing squads
at the National Stadium, the elected president was dead.
Yet, at Richard Nixon's White House, the events were a cause
for celebration, a culmination of three years of covert operations,
propaganda and economic sabotage.
Newly declassified U.S. government records put Washington's
role in the Chilean coup in sharper focus than ever before. The
papers also shed light on corners of the story that previously
had been suspected, but not proven.
The documents describe how an angry Nixon demanded a coup,
if necessary, to block the inauguration of Marxist Salvador Allende
following his victory in the 1970 Chilean elections.
The documents reveal that an early coup plan -- known as "Track
II" -- continued through the assassination of pro-constitutional
Chilean Gen. Rene Schneider, who was gunned down by military plotters
on Oct. 22, 1970. The fuller documentary record contradicts the
long-standing claim by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
that "Track II" was shut down a week before Schneider's
After Allende's inauguration, Nixon did not give up. The documents
detail what his administration did to make the Chilean economy
"scream," how the CIA spread "black" propaganda,
and how Washington finally goaded the Chilean army into the coup
The Chilean coup leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, held power
for the next 17 years, relinquishing control in 1990 only after
arranging immunity for himself and his top generals.
Until Oct. 16, Pinochet had escaped all punishment for his
actions which left thousands dead and Chile a bitterly divided
Yet, at the start of the Chilean tragedy almost three decades
ago, the U.S. government wasn't even sure that Chile was important
to American national interests.
Except for some multi-national corporations which had mining
and other business interests, the sliver of a country embedded
between the towering Andes and the Pacific Ocean was barely known
to most Americans. But the CIA began alerting Washington to the
rise of Allende's leftist Popular Unity coalition in 1968. By
1970, the CIA warned that Allende was poised to win the largest
bloc of votes in Chile's national election.
At the time, the Vietnam War was President Nixon's biggest
headache. Chile was more a nuisance, although Nixon feared Allende's
victory might erode the image of U.S. strength.
On March 25, June 27 and Aug. 7, 1970, then-national security
advisor Kissinger chaired meetings of the "40 Committee,"
a high-level inter-agency group. The committee ordered covert
operations to "denigrate Allende and his Popular Unity coalition,"
according to one historical CIA summary.
But the State Department questioned the alarmist fears. State
reported to the White House on Aug. 18, 1970, that "we identify
no vital U.S. national interests within Chile."
In a 23-page report, State added that Allende's election did
not even present a unique set of problems. "In examining
the potential threat posed by Allende, it is important to bear
in mind that some of the problems foreseen for the United States
in the event of his election are likely to arise no matter who
becomes Chile's next president."
Nevertheless, the U.S. ambassador to Chile and other senior
Nixon officials saw a regional crisis -- and a blow to Washington's
international prestige -- if an avowed Marxist won a fair presidential
election in South America.
Ambassador Edward Korry began sending frantic, minute-by-minute
commentaries about the last days of Chile's 1970 campaign. Korry's
cables became known inside the State Department as "Korrygrams"
because of their unusual language and undiplomatic opinions.
On election day, Korry sent no fewer than 18 updates. He reported
that he could hear "the mounting roar of Allendistas acclaiming
their victory" from the streets. Korry wrote: "We have
suffered a grievous defeat."
The next three weeks, Korry flooded Washington with lurid
reports alleging a communist takeover. In one cable, he announced
that "there is a graveyard smell to Chile, the fumes of a
democracy in decomposition. They stank in my nostrils in Czechoslovakia
in 1948 and they are no less sickening here today."
Allende's victory also sent Nixon into a rage and started
the president's men plotting how to stop Allende's inauguration.
Cables focused on a scheme to derail formal ratification of Allende's
victory by Chile's congress on Oct. 24, 1970.
According to one idea, the congress would defy the electorate
and pick the runner-up, Jorge Alessandri, "who would renounce
the presidency and thus provoke new elections in which [outgoing
president Eduardo] Frei would run."
On Sept. 12, Korry and Assistant Secretary of State John Richardson
met secretly with Frei at the presidential palace. While much
of the conversation remains classified, Korry reported that Frei
saw only a "one in 20 chance" to stop Allende, but added
that he could not "afford to be anything but the president
of all Chileans at this time."
Despite the odds, Nixon ordered the CIA to try. The covert
action to reverse the results of the Chilean election -- by political
or military means -- took the code name, "Project FUBELT."
On Sept. 16, CIA director Richard Helms informed his senior
covert action staff that "President Nixon had decided that
an Allende regime in Chile was not acceptable to the United States,"
according to one declassified CIA memo.
"The President asked the Agency to prevent Allende from
coming to power or to unseat him," Helms added. The CIA had
48 hours to present an action plan to Kissinger.
Soon, the CIA was pressuring Frei. "CIA mobilized an
interlocking political action and propaganda campaign designed
both to goad and entice Frei" into the "so-called Frei
re-election gambit," according to a declassified "Report
on CIA Chilean Task Force Activities." The scheme had "only
one purpose," Helms told the NSC: "to induce President
Frei to prevent Allende's [formal] election by the congress on
24 October, and, failing that, to support -- by benevolent neutrality
at the least and conspiratorial benediction at the most - - a
military coup which would prevent Allende from taking office."
The election gambit was known as Track I.
The back-up plan for a military coup was called Track II.
The CIA inducements to Frei included offering substantial sums
of money to his "re-election" campaign, bribing other
Christian Democrats outright, and orchestrating visits and calls
from respected leaders abroad.
To influence Frei through his wife, the CIA instigated the
wiring of telegrams to Mrs. Frei from women's groups in other
Latin American nations.
Other mailings to Frei included CIA-planted news articles
from around the world about Chile's peril. The articles were part
of a covert "black" propaganda campaign which, the CIA
boasted, resulted in at least 726 stories, broadcasts and editorials
against an Allende presidency. Despite these labors, the Frei
"re-election gambit" failed, as Frei refused to have
the Christian Democrats block Allende's ratification.
"Frei did manage to confide to several top-ranking military
officers that he would not oppose a coup, with a guarded implication
he might even welcome one," Helms reported to Kissinger.
But "Frei moved quickly away from" the incipient
putsch when right-wing coup plotters assassinated Gen. Schneider
on Oct. 22, 1970, one CIA cable said. Schneider had insisted that
the military accept the will of the people and respect the Chilean
U.S. complicity in Schneider's murder has long been a touchy
point for senior Nixon administration officials.
Kissinger went to great lengths to distance himself from the
assassination, both in testimony to Congress and in his memoirs.
Kissinger claimed that CIA coup plotting was "turned off"
at a meeting on Oct. 15 -- a week before Schneider was murdered.
CIA deputy director of plans Thomas "Karamessines carried
from his Oct. 15 meeting with me an instruction to turn off General
[Roberto] Viaux's coup plot and a general mandate to 'preserve
our assets' in Chile in the (clearly remote) chance that some
other opportunity might develop," Kissinger wrote in the
White House Years.
But a declassified "top secret" memorandum of that
Oct. 15 meeting undercuts Kissinger's account. At the meeting
with Karamessines and Gen. Alexander Haig, Kissinger was quoted
as demanding "that the Agency should continue keeping the
pressure on every Allende weak spot in sight -- now and into the
future until such time as new marching orders are given."
Kissinger also demanded tight secrecy around the coup plotting.
"Dr. Kissinger discussed his desire that the word of our
encouragement to the Chilean military in recent weeks be kept
as secret as possible, "the memo said.
"Mr. Karamessines stated emphatically that we had been
doing everything possible in this connection, including the use
of false flag officers, car meetings, and every conceivable precaution."
The next day, a secret "eyes only" cable from CIA
headquarters to Henry Hecksher, CIA station chief in Santiago,
revealed that Kissinger's marching orders were relayed to the
"It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown
by a coup ... prior to October 24," the cable read. "But
efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date.
We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end
utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these
actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the
USG [U.S. government] and American hand be well hidden,"
the cable continued. "Please review all your present and
possibly new activities to include propaganda, black operations,
surfacing of intelligence or disinformation, personal contacts,
or anything else your imagination can conjure which will permit
you to continue to press forward toward our [deleted] objective."
While undercutting Kissinger, the records back the 1975 testimony
of the CIA's Karamessines. He told a congressional investigation
that "Track II was never really ended. What we were told
to do was to continue our efforts. Stay alert, and do what we
could to contribute to the eventual achievement of the objectives
and purposes of Track II."
After Allende's inauguration on Nov. 3, the CIA continued
working toward a military coup.
The geo-political rationale was outlined in a CIA postmortem
dated Nov. 12, 1970. It noted that "Dr. Salvador Allende
became the first democratically-elected Marxist head of state
in the history of Latin America -- despite the opposition of the
U.S. Government. As a result, U.S. prestige and interests are
being affected materially at a time when the U.S. can ill afford
problems in an area that has been traditionally accepted as the
The highlights of "Project FUBELT" were cited in
both the newly released CIA documents and in papers uncovered
by the 1975 congressional inquiry.
Covert funds were funneled into Chilean congressional campaigns;
CIA agents stayed close to disgruntled Chilean military officers;
to keep the military on edge, the CIA planted false propaganda
suggesting that the Chilean left planned to take control of the
armed forces; and the CIA secretly poured $1.5 million into one
of Chile's leading newspapers, El Mercurio.
But the CIA covert operation was only one leg of what U.S.
officials called "a triad" of actions toward Chile,
according to National Security Decision Memorandum 93. A second
leg was "correct but cool" diplomatic pressure and a
third leg was the "invisible blockade" of loans and
credits to Chile.
For years, historians have debated if such a blockade existed,
or whether Allende's socialist economic policies led to the loss
of economic credit. But the new NSC records show conclusively
that the Nixon administration moved quickly and quietly to shut
down multilateral and bilateral foreign aid to Chile.
At the Inter-American Development Bank, the NSC simply informed
the U.S. representative that he did not have authority to vote
for loans to Chile.
A secret report -- prepared for Kissinger several weeks after
Allende's inauguration -- said, "the U.S. Executive Director
of the Inter-American Development Bank understands that he will
remain uninstructed until further notice on pending loans to Chile.
As an affirmative vote by the U.S. is required for loan approval,
this will effectively bar approval of the loans."
At the World Bank, U.S. officials worked behind the scenes
to ensure that Chile would be disqualified for a pending $21 million
livestock improvement credit as well as future loans. In addition,
the president of the Export-Import Bank agreed to "cooperate
fully" with Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American
Affairs Charles Meyer on the discontinuation of new credits and
guarantees to Chile.
The Nixon administration also moved to isolate Allende's government
diplomatically around the world. Secret strategy papers were drawn
up by an inter-agency working group in early December 1970. The
papers reported on "USG consultation with selected Latin
American governments ... to promote their sharing of our concern
The mix of economic sabotage, political propaganda and army
prodding worked. Allende found himself confronted by growing disorder
and soaring inflation. At every turn, his policies encountered
On Sept. 11, 1973, amid the mounting chaos, Chile's military
struck. In a classic coup d'etat, the army seized control of strategic
sites throughout the country and cornered Allende in his presidential
offices. He died in a fire-fight, apparently shooting himself
in the head to avoid capture. \
Nixon officials were ecstatic over the coup. "Chile's
coup de etat was close to perfect," stated a "SitRep"--
situation report -- from the U.S. military group in Valparaiso.
The report, written by Marine Lt. Col. Patrick Ryan, characterized
Sept. 11, 1973, as Chile's "day of destiny" and "Our
CIA records detailing clandestine operations after the coup
remain highly classified. But the "40 Committee," chaired
by Kissinger, immediately authorized the CIA to "assist the
junta in gaining a more positive image, both at home and abroad,"
according to documents previously revealed by the Senate Intelligence
As part of those efforts, the CIA helped the junta write a
"white book" justifying the coup. The CIA financed advisors
who helped the military prepare a new economic plan for the country.
The CIA paid for military spokesmen to travel around the world
to promote the new regime. And, the CIA used its own media assets
to cast the junta in a positive light.
The reality in Chile was far different, as the U.S. government
knew. Only 19 days after the coup, a secret briefing paper prepared
for Kissinger -- entitled "Chilean Executions" -- put
the "total dead" from the coup at 1,500. The paper reported
that the junta had summarily executed 320 individuals -- three
times more than publicly acknowledged.
Despite the carnage, U.S. officials described the scene with
soaring rhetoric. "Now that they are in fact again a 'country
in liberty' no obstacle is too high, no problem too difficult
to solve," stated the Navy section of the U.S. military group
in a situation report on Oct. 1, 1973. "Their progress may
be slow, but it will be as free men aspiring to goals which are
for the benefit of Chile."
To help, Nixon opened the spigot of economic aid. Three weeks
after the coup, the Nixon administration authorized $24 million
in commodity credits to buy wheat -- credits that had been denied
to Allende's government. The United States provided a second $24
million in commodity credits to Chile for feed corn, and planned
to transfer two destroyers to the Chilean navy. The aid flowed,
although Assistant Secretary of State Jack Kubisch reported to
Kissinger that junta leader Pinochet had ruled out "any time
table for turning Chile back to the civilians." Chile's record
as South America's pre-eminent democracy was coming to an end.
But even the CIA's best propaganda could not hide the reality
on the ground. The coup's brutality was drawing worldwide condemnation
and prompting worries at the White House. "Internationally,
the Junta's repressive image continues to plague it," stated
a Kissinger briefing paper on Nov. 16, 1973. Reports of mass arrests
-- by then, U.S. intelligence put the number at 13,500 -- as well
as summary executions, torture and "disappearances"
were reaching the world press.
The administration fretted about an image problem in the United
States, too, because two Americans -- Charles Horman and Frank
Terruggi -- were among those executed at the National Stadium.
Their deaths constituted a "difficult public relations situation,"
one cable reported on Oct. 21, 1973.
The Kubisch report to Kissinger cited "heavy" media
criticism and congressional inquiries on the two executions. In
February 1974, Kubisch delicately raised the American deaths with
Chilean Foreign Minister Manuel Huerta, according to a newly declassified
memorandum of the conversation. The topic was broached "in
the context of the need to be careful to keep relatively small
issues in our relationship from making our cooperation more difficult,"
the memo said. But the first wave of executions was only the start
of atrocities in Pinochet's Chile. Human rights violations kept
complicating U.S.-Chilean relations, especially after Nixon's
Watergate resignation in August 1974.
By 1975, human rights advocates were challenging the Ford
administration's continued support for Pinochet. A confidential
NSC memorandum dated July 1, 1975, revealed a mutiny even inside
the U.S. Embassy.
"A number of officers in the Embassy at Santiago have
written a dissent," according to the memo prepared for national
security advisor Brent Scowcroft. The dissent was "strongly
supported by the Policy Planning office in ARA [State's Latin
American division], calling for cutting off all economic and military
assistance to Chile until the human rights situation improved."
The memo said the embassy staff was overruled by then-Ambassador
David Popper who wanted to continue support for the junta while
making stronger protests on human rights. Popper met with the
Chilean minister of economic coordination, Raul Saez, on April
6, 1975, to discuss the concerns. Popper said "the most difficult
problem we had in our embassy had to do with allegations of torture,"
according to an embassy cable. "The root of the problem seemed
to me to be the absolute power of DINA [Chile's intelligence service]
to do whatever it desired in detaining and handling suspects."
Saez replied that "he had remonstrated with Pinochet
about DINA, so far without much success . The minister then blamed
"fascist advisors to the junta" for the atrocities.
But the declassified documents portrayed DINA as anything but
a rogue agency. Rather, it was an intelligence service which served
at Pinochet's personal command.
On April 15, 1975, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reported
that since the decree "establishing DINA as the national
intelligence arm of the government, Colonel [Manuel] Contreras
has reported exclusively to, and received orders only from, President
By summer 1975, human rights abuses forced the Ford administration
to edge back from the Chilean junta. Pinochet requested a visit
with President Ford in August, but White House officials feared
the meeting "would stimulate criticism domestically in the
United States and from Latin America." The NSC instructed
Popper to "discourage it by saying that the President's schedule
was already full."
In 1976, U.S.-Chilean relations received another jolt when
DINA agents traveled to Washington and exploded a bomb under a
car carrying former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and two
Americans. Letelier and one of the Americans, Ronni Moffitt, died.
A federal investigation traced the bombing back to DINA and
some Cuban-American accomplices. A Senate investigation linked
the Letelier bombing to a program of cross-border assassinations
known as Operation Condor. That operation had attacked Pinochet
critics in Spain, Italy and Argentina as well as the United States.
But Pinochet and his coup makers would avoid prosecution at
least in Chile. Before gradually returning the reins of government
to civilians in 1990, Pinochet engineered an amnesty for himself
and his senior officers. Only DINA chief Contreras was sentenced
to seven years in prison, for his role in the Letelier bombing.
In his defense, Contreras insisted that he was just following
While the newly released documents answer some mysteries about
the covert U.S. policy toward Chile, other questions await additional
declassifications. Still-secret records could clarify Pinochet's
responsibility for Operation Condor as well as the CIA's knowledge
about the state-sponsored terrorism and the CIA relationship with
Many of the secrets are -- or soon will be -- more than 25
years old. At that age, they fall under President Clinton's 1995
Executive Order mandating full declassification of national security
secrets with few exceptions. The secrets also could clarify who's
to blame for deaths of foreign nationals, the case now under way
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