Apologising for the Chilean coup

Issue: 126

Nathaniel Mehr

Alistair Horne, Kissinger’s Year: 1973 (Orion Books, 2009), £20

Grace Livingstone, America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror (Zed Books, 2009), £18.99

The reviled Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who came to power in a US-sponsored coup in 1973 and remained in power until 1990, died three years ago this December. In a new book examining the political career of US secretary of state Henry Kissinger during that tumultuous year, British historian Alistair Horne has sought to rehabilitate Kissinger’s reputation. The book has met with the approval of Kissinger, who has personally endorsed it.

In his chapter on the Chilean coup, Horne offers the reader a revisionist, highly sanitised account of the episode, often in Dr Kissinger’s own words, unmediated by any serious critical reflection. Indeed Kissinger’s memoirs are quoted with such frequency as to create the impression that in endorsing the book Dr Kissinger has acquired a sort of autobiography by proxy. To begin with, there are the standard submissions made in mitigation of the US campaign to destabilise Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government: it had been only a few years since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; Allende was voted in with a small majority and many Chileans were not behind his socialist vision.

So far, so relatively unremarkable for a writer unsympathetic to the Allende government and its Marxist-inspired project. It is in his treatment of the coup itself that Horne makes a complete break with any semblance of academic credibility, descending into a brazenly one-sided polemic. In the first place, the account of the seizure of power is just half a page long and makes no mention of the murders in the Santiago Stadium and the systematic campaign of state repression that followed, as though the coup were simply a question of taking out Allende himself at the presidential palace.

There follow several pages of justifications disguised as explanations. The gist is that primary responsibility for the coup lies, not with the US policymakers who endorsed it, or even with the generals who carried it out, but with Allende and the socialists themselves for, Horne blandly explains, “Fear breeds terror”, ie Allende frightened Chile’s generals into seizing power, shutting down democracy in the country and killing and torturing thousands. Horne denies direct CIA involvement in the actual seizure of power by Pinochet on 11 September 1973—a position that is credible enough on the basis of the declassified documents—but neglects to consider the extent of the US role in creating conditions favourable to a military coup.

The mountain of evidence on this subject has been widely available for some time. In her new book, America’s Backyard, Grace Livingstone looks back on over a century of US interventions in the region—her brief section on the Chilean coup of 1973 provides more detail in five pages than can be found in the entirety of Horne’s anodyne chapter. By cutting bilateral aid, export-import bank credits and credit from the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank, the US effected an economic boycott which severely undermined Chile’s industrial capacity, providing the basis of much of the political unrest of the 1970-73 period. In the meantime, a $7 million CIA kitty was dedicated to funding opposition groups and anti-Allende propaganda.

The money went towards a variety of anti-Allende publications and broadcasts: the ailing right wing daily El Mercurio was given a $1.5 million cash injection to stay afloat. It subsequently provided a crucial rallying point for anti-Allende campaigning. The US also increased economic aid to the Chilean military. The CIA passed on fabricated evidence of Cuban espionage to the Chilean high command to encourage it to move against Allende, subsidised a newsletter directed at the armed forces, and compiled operational intelligence on how best to carry out a coup. The agency received advance notice of the coup plans, kept in touch with high-level military contacts up until the day of the coup, and sent a message of support to the junta as soon as its success was assured. The CIA’s role in the assassination of the Chilean army’s chief of staff, General Rene Schneider, in October 1970 was especially significant—Schneider was a constitutionalist who was viewed as a major obstacle to a successful military coup.

The memory of the murdered president, who died fighting in his palace, is held in high esteem by many across the
world—something Horne considers “ridiculous” and comparable to the public hysteria in Britain following the death of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, in 1997. This, he asserts, has led to an outrageous conspiracy on the part of a “vast industry” of scholars which has unfairly targeted the US government—and Kissinger in particular—in their attempt to seek justice and accountability for the victims of Pinochet’s terror. Horne arrogantly dismisses an undifferentiated “human rights coterie” as hypocrites for choosing to focus on Chile at the expense of other US foreign policy decisions which have had even graver human rights implications. By contrast General Pinochet is treated sympathetically, his personal honesty and his regime’s economic record praised “whatever might be said about his human rights record”.

It was, in Horne’s analysis, “history” that was responsible for the Pinochet coup, arguing that it “moves in strong swings of the pendulum; a violent swing producing a violent reaction”. The agency of the Chilean generals and senior US policy makers is denied, supplanted by the vague notion of the coup as a reflexive, almost inevitable response, to the socialist project of the Allende years. Horne treats the various 21st century attempts to bring Kissinger to justice with affected bemusement—a “barrage against Kissinger”, a sustained and inhumane hounding of an elderly statesman which, he somewhat presumptuously suggests, holds little interest for Chileans themselves. He rounds off his defence of Kissinger by complacently reminding the reader that “nothing has ever come of these various charges.” The moral of this particular story is if you want an impartial account of Henry Kissinger’s political life, don’t buy one approved by Henry Kissinger.