By Kenneth MaxwellForeign Affairs
There are two types of what Theodore Draper called "present history." The first is based on documents and testimony accessible to all historians: assertions and interpretations can be checked, verified, and contested on the basis of fact rather than speculation. Both Draper and, in his own way, I. F. Stone were brilliant practitioners of this kind of history and demonstrated that, despite the best (or worst) intentions of bureaucrats to hide or distort the record, much could be found in the public domain if diligently sought after. The second approach to writing about contemporary history is based on anonymous "sources" and self-interested "leaks." Here, much depends on the credibility of the authors; but in the right political climate, such writing can be powerful enough to bring down a president, as it did with Watergate. And over the past two decades, heavily redacted, "secret" government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act have been added to its menu.
Both approaches have their weaknesses, and neither is as new as might first appear. The Draper method -- by abjuring the fragments exhumed from a government's dark places -- risks underestimating the role of the clandestine actions that were often at the center of the ideological and geostrategic struggles of the Cold War. History by self-interested leaking of documents or the use of anonymous sources, however, tends to produce narratives that are self-justifying, on the one hand, or indictments, on the other, and to exaggerate the importance of covert operations. Again, there is a long history of both genres: Winston Churchill the historian was a master over many volumes at preempting the assessment of Winston Churchill the statesman, and Henry Kissinger is doing what Churchill did for his own epoch and his own historical place within it by releasing weighty tomes on his White House years and other topics.
But, as Isaac Newton taught us, actions produce reactions. So it is entirely within the established pattern that 30 years after the Yom Kippur War and the bloody coup in Chile -- at just the moment when Kissinger himself publishes a book about his unquestionable diplomatic skill in confronting grave crises in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, grand stages where issues of war and peace and nuclear confrontation were handled -- Kissinger's critics have revived the case against him over U.S. actions in Chile on his watch, doggedly seeking out forensic linkages to establish his role, as national security adviser, and that of his president, Richard Nixon, in undermining and engineering the overthrow of a democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. Peter Kornbluh, in his troubling dossier, sets out to piece together this less elevated story.
The Case Against Kissinger
The crux of the case made against Kissinger rests on three events in particular: the assassination of Chile's chief of staff, General Rene Schneider, in 1970; the extent of U.S. complicity and active involvement in the September 11, 1973, coup against Allende; and the assassination in Washington, D.C., of Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean foreign minister, in 1976. The first and last cases, according to the record Kornbluh has uncovered, have odd similarities. Schneider's elimination three years before the coup was regarded as essential by the Nixon administration, since Schneider was a strict constitutionalist and therefore an obstacle to U.S. efforts to promote a military intervention before Allende could take office. The general was killed in a kidnapping attempt that the United States knew about, approved of, and had even assisted in planning. A week before the kidnapping was to take place, however, Kissinger discouraged the plot. As he told Nixon at the time, he had "turned it off."
The killing of Schneider, it seems fair to say, was not what the Americans wanted (although the CIA had warned of such an outcome), but was, as the saying now goes, "collateral damage." The planned assassination of Pinochet's critics living abroad under Operation Condor -- an international state-sponsored terror network set up by the Pinochet regime (in consort with Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and, later, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador) to track and eliminate opponents -- was also known to U.S. intelligence operatives and reported to the White House. Policymakers even knew that a Chilean assassination team had been planning to enter the United States. Kissinger intervened a month before the killing of Letelier, ordering that the Latin American rulers involved be informed that the "assassination of subversives, politicians and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad ... would create a most serious moral and political problem." This demarche was apparently not delivered: the U.S. embassy in Santiago demurred on the ground that to deliver such a strong rebuke would upset the dictator. The U.S. ambassador to Chile, David Popper, wrote to Washington, "In my judgement, given Pinochet's sensitivity regarding pressures by the usg [U.S. government], he might well take as an insult any inference that he was connected with such assassination plots." On September 20, 1976, the State Department instructed the ambassadors "to take no further action" with regard to the Condor scheme. Letelier and his American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, were killed the following morning.
As for the coup itself, there is no doubt that the United States did all that it could to create the conditions for the failure of Allende and his government. But, as in most such cases, it was the locals who made the coup itself. And although the United States did little to reign in Pinochet thereafter and certainly, as these documents make clear, knew much more about the atrocities committed in Chile than was admitted to at the time or later, the causes of the violence in Chilean society are to be found more in Chilean circumstances than in the intent of manipulators in Washington. What is truly remarkable is the effort -- the resources committed, the risks taken, and the skullduggery employed -- to bring a Latin American democracy down, and the meager efforts since to build democracy back up. Left to their own devices, the Chileans might just have found the good sense to resolve their own deep-seated problems. Allende might have fallen by his own weight, victim of his own incompetence, and not become a tragic martyr to a lost cause.
Kornbluh, who has put together several collections of declassified documents on key U.S. foreign policy crises, led the campaign to declassify more than 25,000 closely held records on U.S.-Chilean relations through the National Security Archives, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization that he helped establish with the support of several U.S. foundations. This effort, he says, is part of an ongoing international campaign "to hold Pinochet and his military responsible for the murder, torture and terrorism committed during his regime."
These are not, of course, just matters of historical curiosity. Pinochet, after all, was held under house arrest in London in 1998 under just such charges filed by the Spanish investigating judge Baltasar Garzón. In fact, the release of the documents in this book resulted from that watershed event, a high point in the campaign by human rights activists and victims' families to hold repressive leaders responsible for their actions. Now, lawsuits are pending or threatened against Kissinger himself for complicity or foreknowledge of the plots that led to the assassination of Schneider in Santiago in 1970 and, closer to home, the shocking car bombing in 1976 that killed Letelier and Moffitt 14 blocks from the White House.
Kornbluh's bill of particulars and the supporting documents he has uncovered confirm the deep involvement of the U.S. intelligence services in Chile prior to and after the coup. In outline, this story has been known for many years and will be no surprise to Chileans. The extent of the involvement was originally hinted at during the Senate hearings conducted by the late Frank Church in the mid-1970s. The scope and nature of these clandestine activities are significantly amplified by the documents released in the extensive declassification ordered by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and 2000 and reprinted in Kornbluh's book. These documents include: transcripts of top-secret discussions among President Nixon, Kissinger, and other cabinet members on how "to bring Allende down"; minutes of secret meetings chaired by Kissinger to plan covert operations in Chile; new documentation of the notorious case of Charles Horman, an American murdered by the Chilean military and subject of the movie Missing; comprehensive documentation of the Letelier case and the extensive CIA, National Security Council, and State Department reports surrounding it; and U.S. intelligence reporting on Operation Condor. All these sources, however, are extensively redacted -- that is, sensitive parts of them, especially those from the CIA, have been blacked out.
What the Boss Wanted
Kissinger's response to Kornbluh's charges will undoubtedly be twofold. On the general level, he will argue that Chile and its problems were marginal to the larger concerns the Nixon administration was facing in the Middle East and South Vietnam, not to mention Watergate: Nixon and his would-be Metternich were fully engaged elsewhere with "big" events. On the narrow, legalistic level, the claim will be that the dots in the Schneider and Letelier cases cannot be joined because of the undelivered demarche, in the case of Letelier, and Kissinger's counterorder, in the case of Schneider. These are arguments best left to lawyers, not historians. On the question of the impact of "larger" concerns, however, there is one inconvenient detail: chronology. War broke out in the Middle East on October 6, 1973, almost a month after the overthrow of Allende on September 11. As late as October 5, as Kissinger points out in his new book, Crisis, the CIA had reported to Nixon: "The military preparations that have occurred do not indicate that any party intends to initiate hostilities." So it can hardly be argued that Allende's downfall came as a surprise to policymakers in Washington because their attention at that particular moment was focused elsewhere.
On Kornbluh's side, what is lacking in the forensic approach (and it is a weakness of much writing on U.S. diplomatic history) is location in time and space. We see only the U.S. side of a story that is at least two-sided, if not multifaceted. The pursuit of declassified documents tends to exaggerate this tendency, so that intramural bureaucratic paperwork takes on a life of its own. Very little of the complex political and social history of Chile in the 1970s enters here; nor do we see the roles of many other actors beyond the Chilean military, U.S. clandestine operatives, and their political masters. Chilean society was at the time highly mobilized on the left as well as the right. All the Chilean political parties -- from Communist to Christian Democrat -- received and welcomed outside support, much of it clandestine. The Soviets and the Cubans had their own involvements, and the international left held Chile as a potential model. So it was not only Nixon and Kissinger who looked into the Chilean mirror and saw what they wanted to see; others did too, and from different angles.
If anything, both sides were guilty of knee-jerk reactions prompted by Cold War phobias. U.S. methodology in Chile was not that different from the tactics used to remove regimes from Guatemala City to Tehran deemed dangerous to the geopolitical status quo. Kissinger defenders may be right in asserting that this was not high on his agenda. But the outcome might have been better if he had paid greater attention to the details instead of leaving them to "old hands." In the end, what have persisted through the decades to haunt him are the "marginal" cases: Timor, Angola, and Chile; the old triumphs against the Soviet Union are barely remembered by a generation for whom the days of Cold War threats are long gone.
But what is very clear in all of this is that the coup in Chile is exactly what Kissinger's boss wanted. As Nixon put it in his ineffable style, "It's that son of a bitch Allende. We're going to smash him." As early as October of 1970, the CIA had warned of possible consequences: "you have asked us to provoke chaos in Chile. ... We provide you with a formula for chaos which is unlikely to be bloodless. To dissimulate the U.S. involvement will be clearly impossible." The Pinochet dictatorship lasted 17 long and brutal years. According to the Chilean Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, its victims numbered 3,197. Thirty years after its initiation, the coup of 1973 remains deeply etched in collective memory. It is unlikely that this book will be the end of the story.
More Information on Henry Kissinger
More Information on the Rogues Gallery
More General Analysis on US Military Expansion and Intervention in Latin America and Caribbean