By coincidence, Greg Grandin has a piece on Allende and Chile in the new issue of the London Review of Books. It sets out very clearly why so many on the right saw Allende as such a profound threat.
And then came Allende, horn-rimmed, jowly and looking a little too well lived to be a revolutionary. An avowed Marxist who was also an avowed democrat, he was at odds with Kissinger’s bipolar world. He was neither raw nor cooked. ‘I don’t think anybody in the government understood how ideological Kissinger was about Chile,’ an aide at the National Security Council once said. ‘I don’t think anybody ever fully grasped that Henry saw Allende as being a far more serious threat than Castro. If Latin America ever became unravelled, it would never happen with a Castro. Allende was a living example of democratic social reform in Latin America. All kinds of cataclysmic events rolled around, but Chile scared him.’ Seymour Hersh, drawing on a conversation with another NSC staffer, wrote that what Kissinger feared most about Allende was not his winning the presidency but that at the end of his term ‘the political process would work and he would be voted out of office in the next election.’ Socialism, much less Marxism, could not be seen to be compatible with electoral democracy. In early September 1971, Allende wrote to Nixon, asking him to bring to an end Washington’s ‘economic and financial coercion’, perhaps hoping to appeal to the president’s Quaker conscience:
The greatest defence of the legitimate rights and aspirations of small countries such as mine lies in the moral strength of their convictions and actions … The harsh reality of our country – the hunger, the poverty and the almost complete hopelessness – has convinced our people that we are in need of profound changes. We have chosen to carry these changes out by means of democracy, pluralism and freedom; with friendship toward all peoples of the world.
But Nixon was the kind of Quaker Herman Melville warned against: ‘Quakers with a vengeance’. He couldn’t say Allende’s name without sputtering a curse. Just a few days after Allende’s election, Nixon’s CIA told its Santiago operatives to use ‘every stratagem, every ploy, however bizarre’, to provoke a coup. Time was short, Langley said, so they should ‘telescope’ history. Otherwise, the campaign would be ‘diffuse, denatured and ineffective, not leaving the indelible residue in the mind that an accumulation of arsenic does. The key is psych war within Chile. We cannot endeavour to ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come from within Chile.’
Some, including Falcoff, argue that the White House hoped for an interim liberal government and couldn’t have predicted the brutality of the Pinochet regime. This is false. Harmer stresses that Washington ‘wanted authoritarian rule patterned on Brazil’s dictatorship and a war against the left as the only remedy to reverse the damage done by Allende’s presidency’. Washington was concerned that ‘Chilean military leaders were not Brazilian enough, either in terms of their readiness for repressing the left or in their ideological sense of a mission.’ They needn’t have worried.
Harmer dispatches two myths favoured by those who blame the coup on Allende himself. The first is that his commitment to democracy was opportunistic and would soon have been abandoned. ‘One might even,’ Falcoff writes, ‘credit the Nixon administration with preventing the consolidation of Allende’s “totalitarian project”’. The second is that even if Allende wasn’t a fraud he was a fool, unleashing forces he could not control – for example, the left wing of Popular Unity, and the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, which was further to the left of Allende’s coalition and drew inspiration from the Cuban Revolution, Cuba conceived here as a proxy for Moscow.
Harmer shows that Allende was a pacifist, a democrat and a socialist by conviction not convenience. He had an ‘unbending commitment to constitutional government’ and refused in the face of an ‘externally funded’ opposition ‘to take a different non-democratic or violent road’. He invoked history to insist that democracy and socialism were compatible, yet he knew that Chile’s experience was exceptional. During the two decades before his election, military coups had overthrown governments in 12 countries: Cuba in 1952; Guatemala and Paraguay in 1954; Argentina and Peru in 1962; Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and again Guatemala in 1963; Brazil and Bolivia in 1964; and Argentina once more in 1966. Many of these coups were encouraged and sanctioned by Washington and involved subverting exactly the kind of civil-society pluralism – of the press, political parties and unions – that Allende promoted. So he was sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution and respected Castro, especially after he survived the CIA’s Bay of Pigs exploit in 1961. And when Allende won the presidency, he relied on Cuban advisers for personal security and intelligence operations.
But Cuba’s turn to one-party authoritarianism only deepened Allende’s faith in the durability of Chilean democracy. Socialism could be won, he insisted, through procedures and institutions – the ballot, the legislature, the courts and the media – that historically had been dominated by those classes most opposed to it. Castro warned him that the military wouldn’t abide by the constitution. Until at least early 1973 Allende believed otherwise. His revolution would not be confronted with the choice that had been forced on Castro: suspend democracy or perish. But by mid-1973, events were escaping Allende’s command. On 11 September he took his own life, probably with a gun Castro gave him as a gift. The left in the years after the coup developed its own critique of Allende: that, as the crisis hurtled toward its conclusion, he proved indecisive, failing to arm his supporters and train resistance militias, failing to shut down congress and failing to defend the revolution the way Castro defended his. Harmer presents these as conscious decisions, stemming from Allende’s insistence that neither one-party rule nor civil war was an acceptable alternative to defeat.
A photograph of Allende taken during his last hours shows him leaving the presidential palace, pistol in hand and helmet on head, flanked by bodyguards and looking up at the sky, watching for the bombs. The image is powerful yet deceptive, giving the impression that Allende had been at the palace when the coup started, and was beginning to organise resistance to it. But Allende wasn’t trapped in his office. He’d gone there earlier that morning, despite being advised not to, when he heard that his generals had rebelled. The Cubans were ready to arm and train a Chilean resistance and, Harmer writes, ‘to fight and die alongside Allende and Chilean left-wing forces in a prolonged struggle to defend the country’s revolutionary process’. But Allende ordered them not to put their plans into operation, and they listened: ‘The Chilean president,’ Harmer says, ‘was therefore far more in control of Cuba’s involvement in his country than previously thought.’ He also rejected the idea of retreating to the outskirts of Santiago and leading an armed resistance: in Harmer’s assessment, he committed suicide rather than give up his commitment to non-violent revolution.
You’d think such a man—non-violent, procedural, constitutional, on principle—would be the darling of libertarians, at least as they often define themselves and their ultimate commitments (to the rule of law and so forth). You’d be wrong.