The Pinochet File

September 25, 2007

We all have different ways of taking notes on books we read. As a historian, I’ve used the same technique for decades. Important material gets underlined; new material or a particularly elegant analysis merits a star in the margin; the outstanding stuff that I certainly want to return to is rewarded with a large check at the top of the page. When I finished Peter Kornbluh’s new study of U.S.-Chilean relations between 1970-1990, I had created veritable constellations in the margins and a clutter of check marks at the tops of many pages. The Pinochet File is a decisive contribution to the literature both in terms of the archives it has mined and for what this new documentation tells us about U.S. policy and its executors, a term I use advisedly.

Individual scholars and organizations—NACLA being one of the first—have long investigated Washington’s responsibility for the destabilization and overthrow of the Salvador Allende government. The research in this area has focused on four main issues: the Nixon administration’s attempt to prevent Salvador Allende from taking office, and its subsequent destabilization of the Allende government, particularly attempts to “make the economy scream,” as Nixon colorfully phrased it; U.S. support for the 1973 military uprising that led to Allende’s death and the destruction of his government; and finally, Washington’s support for the venomous Pinochet dictatorship and his efforts, known as “Operation Condor,” to systematically extend his terror to three continents. Diligent researchers have offered some important, if incomplete, answers to these questions. It’s not that researchers could not make both a specific and persuasive case about the U.S. role in fostering and supporting terrorism in Chile. Rather, we lacked the details to know conclusively both why Washington was so interested in destroying Allende and how the various actors went about that task. The Pinochet File, which offers us access to foundational documentation previously sequestered in classified U.S. files, provides answers to these questions.

The first accomplishment of Kornbluh’s work, then, is the effort he and the Washington-based not-for-profit National Security Archive put into securing the release of more than 24,000 classified U.S. government documents. That it took the better part of three decades to obtain the documents—hidden to prevent embarrassing Washington policymakers, rather than because they compromised U.S. security—should raise significant questions to all who argue that the open flow of information is at the basis of a vigorous democracy.

What, then, does this significant volume, which features analytical chapters followed by several reprints of documents, add to our understanding of this period? Most literature prior to The Pinochet File has traced the basic lines of U.S. operations in Chile, but those events are more fully documented and described here, often with new information that sharpens our understanding of events. Kornbluh’s meticulous examination of the documents permits a “fly-on-the-wall” vantage point as “Washington” and the “Nixon administration” are disaggregated into the most important actors. Yes, U.S. “policy” favored the overthrow of Allende, however, the most telling parts of the book are not necessarily the contemptuous approach that President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger took towards the elected government of Chile, but that their own advisors reminded them of the moral and legal bankruptcy of their actions. “What we propose is patently a violation of our own principles and policy tenets,” Viron Vaky, Kissinger’s top aide on Latin America responded when the latter first proposed fomenting a coup against Allende. “Moralism aside, this has practical operational consequences…. If these principles have any meaning, we normally depart from them only to meet the gravest threat to us, e.g., to our survival. Is Allende a mortal threat to the U.S.? It is hard to argue this.”

The abundant documents ultimately reveal two powerful, often obsessive individuals, Kissinger and Nixon, who have identified Allende as a provocation that must be removed, not just regardless of principles, policy tenets and morality, as Vaky suggests, but of U.S. interests themselves. It is yet another strength of The Pinochet File that such insights inexorably lead the reader to deliberate on events that transpire some 30 years later as another compulsive set of powerful leaders pursue new targets.

This same pattern carries over to the immediate post-coup period when the Nixon administration shapes its support for the incoming military regime. Faced with widespread reports that Pinochet was using extreme levels of brutality to consolidate his rule, Kissinger went to great lengths to insure that the U.S. government would take no action that could be perceived by the dictator as “displeasing.” The CIA had provided substantial support for nominally democratic opposition political parties during and before the Allende government. But Nixon and Kissinger would cancel this support after the coup since the junta “naturally would ask what the hell we were doing” if it was discovered.

Kissinger insisted that the Pinochet regime had become a pariah state not because of its appalling human rights record, but rather because it was “pro-American.” When he fumed that Allende was a worse human rights abuser than Pinochet, it fell to his Assistant Secretary of State, William D. Rogers, to enlighten him. “In terms of freedom of association,” Rogers countered, “Allende didn’t close down the opposition party. In terms of freedom of the press, Allende didn’t close down all the newspapers.” Kissinger continually warned off his subordinates from raising such issues that might irritate the dictator, all the while the State Department was awash with evidence that Pinochet and his secret police force, the DINA, had begun to export terrorism outside of Chile. For Kissinger, it was all about who gets to make the rules, and here Kornbluh’s documents allow us to contemplate some unsettling parallels.

Pinochet targeted individual supporters of Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, but he also targeted the Christian Democratic Party and other political parties he considered complicit in upholding a democratic political system that permitted Allende to be elected in the first place. His contempt was against a political system in which a socialist could gain enough support to carry him to the presidency.

Kissinger’s dislike of democratic processes can be seen in these documents to be equally troubling, if not as violent—at least in terms of the implications for the United States, although not for Chile. As the U.S. Congress began to move towards conditioning aid to Chile on human rights reform—what one Kissinger aide called the “silly human rights question”—the Secretary of State insisted that he would not yield to Congress on what he called “matters of principle.” After all, he cautioned, “If it [a human rights induced aid cutoff] happens in Chile now, then it will be Korea next year. There isn’t going to be any end to it.” It’s fair to say that all Secretaries of State will contend with Congress on some aspects of their policies. Yet with Kissinger’s memoranda before us, we can now read his visceral dislike of Congress for interfering with “his” foreign policy. One can hear in these documents the elitist exasperation of a Harvard professor who is forced to offer up his pearls to what he considers ignorant congressional swine. But one also catches the more troubling notes of a bureaucrat who has placed his own convictions above both Congress and the Constitution. And, once again, it is not hard to find the echoes of that attitude in Reagan’s decision to carry on his war against the Sandinistas regardless of legislative proscriptions, or in the actions of the present administration.

The Pinochet File is an important book, important as the product of a 30-year effort to secure the historical record of U.S. policy towards Chile, important in its evidentiary disclosures and discoveries, important in its careful analysis, and important in the light it sheds on contemporary policymaking in Washington.

Steven Volk, former NACLA research director and long-time NACLA board member, is a professor of history at Oberlin College.


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