Most Americans subscribe to a core set of ideals and values including democracy, liberty, and equality. We point to the Declaration of Independence as a daring experiment to mold a country that could serve as a beacon of hope for millions who desired a new chance at success, and we strive to carry forward these ideals into the modern world. All too often, however, we watch our government act on behalf of corporate interests, oil resources, and “stability” on the world stage instead of the principles that we claim to cherish.
One of the best examples of our leaders leaving behind American ideals to actively enforce their misguided will on other countries is “the other 9/11”: the Chilean coup of September 11th, 1973 that deposed President Salvador Allende and installed Augusto Pinochet as leader of Chile. As the US continues to consider the merits of involvement in the affairs of other nations, it is important to look to the events in Chile to remember that we are perfectly capable of acting as a destructive force on the world stage — in opposition to democracy, human rights, and everything we stand for as Americans.
The 1970 democratic election of Salvador Allende came in spite of a sustained covert CIA operation, dating back for more than a decade and involving extensive propaganda and intimidation, to prevent his rise to the presidency. Almost immediately following Allende’s victory, President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger demonstrated a joint, renewed effort to undermine the Chilean leader in any way possible. The Nixon administration believed that a weak response to Allende’s election as president would embolden third-world efforts to challenge American economic domination and would put a dent in US credibility as a superpower. Entirely absent from this calculation was any respect for the democratic values that underlie our nation.
Nixon, Kissinger, and the CIA threw everything they had into the effort to disrupt the democratic foundation of Chile, including bribing Chilean congressmen, funneling untraceable machine guns to violent individuals, and directly encouraging and providing funds to men involved in the assassination of the pro-Allende commander of the armed forces, General René Schneider. The Chilean people responded by rallying behind their president in the face of an assault on their constitution and democracy from outside forces.
President Nixon then initiated an unrelenting covert effort to create turmoil so that Chileans would come to the conclusion that, in Nixon’s words, “military coup is the only answer.” He began by instructing the CIA to place propaganda in newspapers, radio, TV, and within the military. To implement a virtual economic blockade, the Nixon administration pressured US representatives of the World Bank to manipulate the country’s monetary qualifications, placed a political pawn as head of Inter-American Development Bank to reject loans and credit to Chile, banned the US Agency for International Development from loaning money to the nation, and forced the Exim Bank to hand Chile an unwarranted ‘D’ credit rating. Allende had little power to stand up to the concerted might of the United States, and the targeted campaign against the country inevitably led to economic catastrophe and political chaos. Many of the Chileans who took to the streets to protest the economic conditions blamed their president for their troubles without realizing that the US was the real culprit.
On September 11, 1973, using the country’s newfound turmoil as an excuse for action, the Chilean armed forces, led by Augusto Pinochet, surrounded the Chilean presidential palace La Moneda. As the president issued a radio address to the country, military aerial bombers and tanks assailed his palace. Salvador Allende was later discovered dead after shooting himself in his office. In the days following the coup, the new military leadership arrested tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom were tortured and executed, and began implementing a neoliberal economic agenda with the full support of Nixon and his allies.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of the coup, we should recognize that the US actions in Chile were anything but an anomaly. Our country’s repeated willingness to cast aside our ideals in favor of far less admirable goals represents an alarming trend that directly contributes to distrust abroad of our motives as a superpower. Unwarranted foreign involvement has only served to worsen our national security by engendering the type of sheer hatred involved in attacks such as the better-known 9/11 of 2001. Until we are willing to apply our founding principles to our foreign policy, we will continue to be treated as an enemy rather than a friend of freedom.