Nixon on Allende: “Kick ‘em in the ass, OK?” | 5 October 1971 Conversation No. 584-003
The military coup in Chile on September 11, 1973 stunned the world, not just for the images of tanks rolling through the streets of Santiago, but also because of Chile’s long-standing history of civilian rule. In the weeks that followed, there were reports of violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by the new military government under Augusto Pinochet’s leadership, which circulated along-side rumors that the coup had been orchestrated by the CIA and supported by the U.S. government. Relations between the U.S. and Chile had been fraught since the October 1970 election of socialist Salvador Allende. Under Allende’s leadership, Chile had become a vanguard of the international left as it sought a new path to socialism in the late Cold War. Equally, Allende symbolized the threat of communist insurgency for the staunchly anti-communist governments of the region, particularly the United States. Although the CIA did not directly plan the 1973 coup, the White House made abundantly clear its support for an overthrow of the Allende government and facilitated an environment that made the military takeover possible, including material support to opposition groups in Chile. Throughout Allende’s three-year presidency, U.S. covert operations and economic manipulations enflamed polarizations within Chilean society and ultimately contributed to Augusto Pinochet’s seizure of power.
As early as 1964, the U.S. government identified Salvador Allende as a threat, spending over $3 million in aid programs and CIA covert actions to build Chilean support for Eduardo Frei, Allende’s opponent, in 1964. In 1970, the Nixon administration also funded CIA activities in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Allende’s election. Fears about communism and regional instability framed President Richard Nixon’s response to Salvador Allende’s rise to power. Although communist threats in Southeast Asia had drawn U.S. attention away from the region in the past decade, Latin America’s proximity to the United States heightened its importance in the late Cold War. Nixon emphasized the idea of a “special relationship” between the United States and other countries in the hemisphere, and viewed the U.S. ability to preserve order and protect its interests in the hemisphere as crucial to its image and credibility as a great power. Moreover, the Nixon administration believed that instability in the Western Hemisphere would make it harder for the United States to impose order further away. Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger sought a policy to check what they saw as the growing influence of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary, anti-American influence in the region, while also avoiding direct military intervention that had marred U.S.-Latin American relations in the past.
The Nixon administration viewed Allende’s successful election as a multifaceted threat to U.S. interests in the region and globally, and subsequently shifted its resources to developing an extensive strategy to destabilize and discredit the Allende government. This October 1971 conversation between Treasury Secretary John Connally and Nixon—revealing in blunt language the U.S. intentions to undermine Allende’s government—was part of the thousands of hours of meetings and phone conversations that Nixon secretly recorded between 1971 and 1973. Connally and Nixon discuss the financial maneuvers taking place between the United States and Chile. Chile’s nationalization of key industries, such as copper, enraged U.S. corporations heavily invested in the country. Connally and Nixon express indignation at Allende’s recent decision to not compensate U.S. copper companies for nationalized property and charge U.S. corporations almost $700 million in taxes. Connally presents this announcement as a provocation by Allende, charging “The gauntlet’s been thrown down to you on Chile.” Nixon responds by reassuring Connally “we are going to play very rough with him,” and tasks Connally with coming up with a plan to pressure Allende financially.
In addition to the economic problems Allende’s nationalization programs posed to U.S. interests, Nixon viewed Allende as a significant ideological challenge, encouraging socialist ideas of governance, and exacerbating anti-Americanism. Repeatedly, Nixon and Connally comment on the danger of letting Allende “get away with it,” that is, overtly challenging U.S. power and national interests. At a moment when the U.S. administration was feeling overcommitted globally and with a failing war in Vietnam, Allende’s intransigence clearly exposed Nixon’s insecurities about U.S. power in the international sphere. Nixon expresses his desire to make an example of Allende, and Connally adds, “you will make your point to prove, by your actions against him, what you want, that you are looking after American interests.” Nixon agrees saying “You know you’ve always said, ‘Let’s find somebody in this world we can kick.’” Nixon continues, “we should make a helluva case out of him.”
Perhaps most striking from the conversation is the open speculation about facilitating Allende’s removal. Nixon tells Connally “I’ve decided we’re going to give Allende the hook,” and Connally concurs that “he’s an enemy,” and the best hope for U.S. interests is “to have him overthrown.” This bald language about the removal of a democratically-elected foreign leader was followed up with action, at the Treasury and beyond. The administration identified and implemented a range of economic measures designed to pressure and weaken Allende domestically and isolate Chile in the international community. In addition to economic pressure, the U.S. spent over $8 million on covert operations between 1970 and September 11, 1973, bolstering internal opposition and weakening Allende’s ability to govern. These programs included aid to opposition parties and groups, and support for the military, and funding of propaganda campaigns. Allende’s overthrow set a precedent for programs like Operation Condor, a campaign of repression and state terror against political opponents by military dictatorships in Latin America in partnership with U.S. intelligence. U.S. support for Allende’s removal and the subsequent military regime fit a larger pattern of U.S. covert intervention for military governments in the name of national security throughout the Cold War.
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