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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

My Evening With Augusto

Half a century after the event, conservatives should reflect on the 1973 military coup in Chile and draw lessons for a modern America First foreign policy.

Santiago,,Chile,-,October,17,,2013:,Collage,Of,The,Newspapers
Credit: Dmitry Chulov

Background chatter echoed in the ambassador’s reception hall, forcing me, a greenhorn American diplomat, to lean in closer. My elderly questioner spoke Spanish in a high, almost squeaky, voice with a heavy Chilean accent. The one-way conversation was friendly and warm, even avuncular: “How long have you been posted to Santiago? Have you enjoyed excursions to Viña del Mar, our beautiful beach resort? Did you travel yet down to see Chile’s incredible mountains, lakes, and forests in the south? When are you going next to the country’s great port city of Valparaiso?”

The friendly chit-chat was over after a few minutes, as a relaxed General Augusto Pinochet, bedecked in his grey tunic and accompanied by a discreet military aide, quietly worked the room. 

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I was struck by Pinochet’s unassuming manner. His immense pride in Chile was no surprise, but his unpretentious personal style contrasted starkly with the intense vilification from his many enemies, who not only constantly denounced Pinochet as Latin America’s worst dictator, but had actively tried to assassinate him.

Many Chileans are marked by a polite reserve that separates them, for example, from the flash and bravado of their Argentine neighbors across the Andes. In that style, Pinochet neither expected nor created any pomp and circumstance at the small cocktail gathering. On that particular evening, he acted as though he were with old friends, happy to put aside past differences in dealing with the gringos to enjoy good conversation and fine Chilean wine. 

It was 1995, the beginning of Chile’s austral winter, and U.S. Ambassador Gabriel Guerra-Mondragón—President Clinton’s man in Santiago—had decided that, after years of the State Department giving Pinochet the cold shoulder, a bit of a personal rapprochement might ease some anti-American tension in the ranks of the Chilean military and among the general’s conservative political allies. At that moment, the bilateral relationship was focused on a free-trade deal, and all American diplomacy really wanted from Pinochet was to help nudge him towards the exit door off Chile’s national stage.

Pinochet was then in his 70s, having grudgingly but peacefully given up the Chilean presidency after the referendum that ended his rule in 1990. Even after having served 16 years as dictator, Pinochet still had won 43 percent of the referendum vote from Chileans who wanted to keep him in power. Defeated by the ballot box, the general moved out of Santiago’s famous La Moneda presidential palace, but continued serving as comandante-en-jefe of the Chilean army. By the early 1990s, Pinochet doubtless thought he was in the final senior statesman phase of a long career of service to his country. 

But his was not to be a quiet retirement, as Pinochet’s many enemies, both in Chile and abroad, would launch a ceaseless prosecutorial criminal campaign to put him in the dock. He died in 2006 in Santiago, under house arrest, facing hundreds of criminal charges.

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This September marks the 50th anniversary of Pinochet’s 1973 coup against the Marxist President Salvador Allende. With half a century of hindsight, we see an event that has not only been intensely researched and written about, typically by left-leaning historians, but one that still calls for fresh and thoughtful reexamination. Better understanding of Pinochet’s coup can help inform contemporary American foreign affairs, particularly on the wisdom of Washington’s direct intervention in countries to advance the U.S. national interest.   

For international leftists and most American liberals, the Chile coup story is long settled, and it is one of Yanqui arrogance, meddling, and human rights abuses. For them, Washington’s support for the Pinochet regime represents the classic example of a major U.S. international blunder, a Cold War intervention that served only to overturn a legitimately elected government and install a ruthless dictatorship. It made Washington, in their blame-America-first Weltanschauung, principally responsible for Chile’s tragedy.  

The Left’s retelling of the Pinochet drama is choreographed with many of their favorite bad actors: President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and the CIA. Later, even the likes of Milton Friedman and his “Chicago Boys” arrive on the stage to implement neoliberal capitalism. Rarely do the leftist historians fault the Marxist radicalism of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and their revolutionary efforts to turn the Western Hemisphere into “two, three, many Vietnams.”

Today, looking back with Cold War fury long past, a modern America First analysis must ask when, if ever, is a major Chile-like U.S. intervention justified?  Such questions are abstract and hypothetical, of course, and real scenarios are highly dependent on actual circumstances, but surely the answer with hindsight is that such interventions for America Firsters must be rare and extraordinary. They always bring about massive unintended consequences, and demonstrate that Washington planners, however well intended, rarely control events as they play out.

America First policy has learned much from American reversals in recent decades. Today, U.S. interventions, along the lines of Chile in 1973, are justified foremostly in responding to direct foreign threats coming from territory geographically near to the United States. Such a foreign policy tradition is nothing new, long anchored in the Monroe Doctrine. President Herbert Hoover and Senator Robert Taft also advocated the same approach, calling such a U.S. security policy focused on the Western Hemisphere “continentalism.”

To intervene or not in Chile was a close call. There is a strong case that some action from Washington was justified. Yet even that conclusion must be weighed against the fact that, as we will examine, Pinochet likely would have launched a coup without any push from the Americans.

Given Cold War Realpolitik, I would suggest that today’s America First practitioners, had they been in Washington making foreign policy in 1973, would have approved of the Nixon-Kissinger response. Given the unique circumstances, most conservatives, even today, would say the U.S. needed to provide some kind of active support to the anti-Marxists in Chile. At the time, the threat from Fidel Castro’s Cuba had the potential to set wildfires across Latin America.  

Our hemisphere was vulnerable to insurgency. In 1967, Bolivian security forces had killed Che Guevara and successfully contained Castroism with only modest U.S. assistance. Chile’s fall into Havana’s orbit, brought about by Allende’s narrow victory in the 1970 election, represented a real new threat in the Americas and was an extraordinary challenge given Cold War dynamics. 

Allende’s playbook of course drew great inspiration from Castro’s revolution, and the impact of clandestine assistance that Havana funneled to Chile is an ignored chapter that needs more attention even today. But Allende’s operational plan of slower revolution was less Cuban and much more comparable to the Chavez-Maduro model that has in recent years destroyed Venezuela. Throughout 1970–73, Allende undermined the country’s established social norms while implementing radical policies that devastated Chile’s economy, with inflation reaching 300 percent.

Nixon-Kissinger had given instructions to pass the word that Washington would support the Chilean armed forces in overthrowing Allende’s government. The CIA station in Santiago, however, actually recruited and partnered with incompetent plotters who brutally botched the job; overthrowing the government in a country like Chile was not easy. Moreover, U.S. analysts had written off Pinochet as an Allende regime loyalist. 

Of course, Pinochet picked up the word on the street that a putsch would be blessed by the gringos, and that fact may have influenced his decision to act. He then led the armed forces that successfully struck against Allende on September 11, 1973. Almost assuredly, the Chilean general and his allies would have undertaken the coup even without the blessing of the United States, and arguably even if the Americans had opposed it.

Pinochet never danced to Washington’s tune, and his coup was never about doing what the United States wanted.  The proximate cause of the coup was always Allende’s disastrous effort to impose Marxism on Chile. Chilean patriots did not need a phone call from Kissinger to act to save their country. They knew even better than Washington policymakers the nature of Allende and his Marxist movement. 

Although his defenders maintain that Allende was not a fanatic, the Marxist president took his own life in the coup, using an AK-47 given him by Fidel Castro. Allende’s defenders further argue that he came to office democratically (true, albeit with a bare plurality); they stress that he wanted to work within the constitutional system to change Chile. That point is arguable, as Allende dispossessed Chilean property owners of all stripes, convincing a majority of Chileans of the era, except those on the extreme Left represented by the socialist and communist parties, that “reforms” were going too fast and dangerously in the wrong direction.

It is doubtful that Pinochet ever read much Edmund Burke, but some of his compatriots did, and they were rightly convinced that Allende was carrying out an illegitimate, revolutionary power grab, dressed up by faux constitutionalism, that would fundamentally change Chile—and likely bring about civil war.  

Chile’s quandary from that dark time is a version of a real dilemma for constitutional democrats everywhere, including Americans, to ponder. What is the appropriate conservative response to radicals who gain control of governmental institutions through legitimate means and then unleash social and economic revolution, all the time claiming they are respecting the very institutions they are destroying? (Here at home, to what extent is the Biden administration employing those very tactics?) 

There is no doubt that Pinochet did much good, particularly in the beginning, by dealing a death blow to Castroism in the Andes, but it is also true that he later became a liability to the anti-communist cause. While Pinochet always defended his extreme actions by saying Chile was in a civil war in 1973, requiring forceful martial law measures, there is no doubt that his security forces often gravely overreached, causing unnecessary human tragedy.

It is also a misreading of history to assert that American support for the general’s coup makes Washington responsible for all the Pinochet regime’s later excesses. Pinochet was never a U.S. puppet, and he acted independently on many things. The general tenaciously held on to presidential power long after American leadership—even under the Reagan administration—wanted him to leave La Moneda. The Pinochet regime’s later brutality, typified by Operation Condor and the Letelier killings in Washington, cannot fairly be seen as inevitable results of the original Nixon-Kissinger decision to intervene. 

One key lesson is that ambitious U.S. foreign policy is rarely as effective in pulling puppet strings and orchestrating events as both many of its proponents and detractors like to think. What can go wrong will go wrong. This Andean tragedy, first brought on by Allende and Castro, was, in the end, a sad example of how even Chilean patriots could be corrupted by unchecked power.