On September 11, 1973, the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was ousted in a military coup headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet of the Chilean army. It was a watershed in the history of Chile, breaking with the country’s democratic tradition and unleashing a military reign of terror that lasted for 15 years, when a plebiscite finally removed Pinochet from power and restored democracy to Chile. In the aftermath of the coup, some 40,000 people were arrested and incarcerated without due process of law or trial. Thousands of them were tortured, raped, or executed.
What was the justification for the Chilean coup, which the U.S. government had encouraged and supported? National security, of course, specifically the threat of communism.
As a self-avowed Marxist, Allende was an ardent believer in socialism. Once in power, he began nationalizing businesses and industries, instituting and expanding social-welfare programs, imposing wage and price controls, and using the power of the government to attempt to equalize wealth and regulate and manage Chile’s economy.
Even worse from the standpoint of Richard Nixon, the CIA, and the Pentagon, Allende was strengthening his close relationship with Fidel Castro, the self-avowed communist who was still in power in Cuba despite the many efforts by the U.S. military and the CIA to assassinate or oust him.
Allende’s election was the U.S. national-security state’s worst nightmare. Now there were two communist leaders in the western hemisphere. In the minds of U.S. officials, especially those in the Pentagon and the CIA, the “dominoes” in America’s part of the world were falling. For U.S. officials, Allende’s election constituted another grave threat to U.S. national security. Something had to be done. As Nixon’s national-security adviser Henry Kissinger put it, “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible.”
So the CIA went into action. Interfering directly in the internal affairs of another nation, this one some 5,000 miles from the United States, the CIA encouraged the Chilean congress to prevent Allende from assuming the presidency. When that effort failed, the agency undertook actions designed to create economic chaos within the country, with the aim of producing the conditions for a military coup. Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream.”
Allende’s socialist and interventionist measures, combined with the CIA’s efforts to create economic chaos, succeeded in throwing the Chilean economy into a deep tailspin. Strikes paralyzed commerce, and mass demonstrations began filling the streets.
The U.S. government, relying on its close relationship with the Chilean military, encouraged a military coup, one that would oust the democratically elected president from power and install a pro-U.S. military dictatorship in his stead.
Standing in the way of the coup, however, was the commander in chief of the Chilean army, Rene Schneider. He opposed a coup and said that the Chilean military would comply with the constitution of the country
The U.S. national-security state refused to tolerate such recalcitrance. U.S. officials conspired with Chilean military officials to neutralize Schneider by kidnapping him, removing him from the scene.
During the kidnapping, Schneider was shot and killed. U.S. officials played the innocent, claiming that they had no intention of killing him. They had only wanted him kidnapped. It was a ridiculous position. U.S. officials were as responsible for Schneider’s murder as the driver of a getaway car in a bank robbery is for murders that his coconspirators commit in the course of the robbery.
Anyway, U.S. officials couldn’t have been too surprised over Schneider’s murder: it was only ten years after the U.S. national-security state conspired with South Vietnam’s military to oust that country’s civilian president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and replace him with a brutal military dictatorship headed by Gen. Duong Van Minh.
John Kennedy expressed shock that Diem had been executed during the coup. Given that Kennedy had approved the regime change, however, he was as morally culpable for Diem’s death as the soldier who actually did the shooting.
Once Schneider was gone, there was nothing in the way of a military coup. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean people learned the hard way why a standing army constitutes a grave threat to a nation’s democratic processes.
Headed by Pinochet, whom Allende had appointed to replace Schneider, the Chilean military attacked the presidential palace and, it is no surprise, took control of the government. Refusing to be taken captive, Allende committed suicide.
Pinochet’s forces immediately swept across the land to establish “order and stability.” Some 40,000 people were rounded up and incarcerated. People were carted away to secret prisons and military dungeons, where they were tortured, raped, or executed — or “disappeared.” No one got trials because, as Pinochet saw it, he was engaged in “war” — war against communism and communists.
Lurking in the background were both the U.S. military and the CIA — the core of the U.S. national-security state — whose officials were ecstatic over what was happening. There, in Chile, the “good guys” were smashing the “bad guys” and, unlike America in its war against the communists in Vietnam, suffering minimal casualties. Suspected communists in all walks of life were being ferreted out by military and intelligence forces, which were free to fight communism without having one hand tied behind their backs. No need for search warrants, arrest warrants, Miranda rights, criminal-defense attorneys, due process of law, jury trials, or any other such technical nonsense. After all, this was a wartime problem, not a criminal-justice problem.
In fact, the mindset guiding Pinochet in his war against the communists, a mindset that fully reflected that of the Pentagon and the CIA, would in many ways be mirrored by the mindset of U.S. national-security state officials some 40 years later, when George W. Bush declared his “war on terror.”
In the initial days of the coup, two young Americans — Charles Horman and Frank Terrugi — were taken into custody by Chilean officials. Their crime? They were leftists who believed in what Allende was doing — that is, attempting to help the poor with social-welfare programs, equalize wealth, and manage the economy. Since the fear of communism was as pronounced as the fear of terrorism would become three decades later, Horman and Terrugi were swept up along with thousands of others who held leftist political views.
They were both quickly executed. No trial. No preliminary hearing. No due process. Just murdered. Of course, in the minds of military officials, it wasn’t murder at all. It was war, a situation in which killing the enemy is legal and where laws against murder don’t apply.
For years U.S. officials pretended they had no knowledge about what had happened to Horman and Terrugi. It was all a lie. Some 25 years after the coup, the State Department released a document admitting that the CIA had played a role in Horman’s execution. Even though the document didn’t mention Terrugi, the CIA had probably played the same undefined role in his murder as well.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of the U.S. national-security state’s participation in the murder of these two young Americans, which was a watershed in its history. The U.S. national-security state knowingly, deliberately, and intentionally took out two American citizens, confident that no one could or would do anything about it.
Were there any U.S. grand-jury investigations or indictments in the murders of Charles Horman and Frank Terrugi? Was there a congressional investigation into their killings? Do we even know the names of the CIA agents who participated in their executions? Do we know exactly what role the U.S. national-security state played in their murders? Do we know whether Nixon or other high U.S. officials authorized the hits?
The answer to all those questions is no, which is absolutely astounding. The Congress’s and criminal-justice system’s inaction reveals the omnipotent power that the military and the CIA had achieved over the American people some 25 years after the formal adoption of the national-security state.
It is no surprise that the CIA continues to steadfastly refuse to declassify tens of thousands of records relating to U.S. participation in the Chilean coup. Its justification? National security, of course, the same justification it relies on in its continued refusal to release critical documents relating to the Kennedy assassination some 50 years after that watershed.
Recently, almost 40 years after the murders of Horman and Terrugi, a Chilean judge issued a criminal indictment against a former U.S. army officer, Capt. Ray E. Davis, who was commander of the U.S. Military Group at the American embassy in Santiago at the time of the Chilean coup. The charge? Conspiracy to murder Horman and Terrugi. It’s what the United States should have done a long time ago. It’s what the United States should still do.
To deal with the communist threat, Pinochet embraced a policy of assassination that would be embraced many years later by U.S. national-security state officials to deal with the threat of terrorism. Operating through the intelligence entity DINA, a secret police intelligence force that would partner with the CIA to fight communism, the Chilean military embarked on a program of assassinating suspected communists, not only within Chile itself but also in other countries. The assassination program was similar to the one that the U.S. military and CIA would adopt many years later in their post–9/11 war on terrorism. Among the suspected communists assassinated was a former army general named Carlos Prats, who opposed the Pinochet dictatorship from Argentina.
Murder in America
The most famous of Pinochet’s and DINA’s assassinations, however, was that of Orlando Letelier, who had served as minister of foreign affairs, interior, and defense in the Allende regime and who was openly opposing the Pinochet dictatorship in Washington, D.C. In 1976 he was assassinated by a group of anti-Castro Cuban exiles headed by an American named Michael Townley, a DINA agent who had formerly worked as a CIA operative.
Oddly enough, the U.S. Justice Department considered Letelier’s killing a murder rather than an act of war in the war on communism. Grand-jury indictments for criminal offenses were issued against the Cuban exiles and Townley. For planning and orchestrating the cold-blooded murder of Letelier and his young American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, Townley served a grand total of 62 months in jail before being released to the U.S. government and its witness-protection program.
A Spanish judge recently issued an indictment and arrest warrant against him for the 1976 kidnapping and murder of a Spanish diplomat, Carmelo Soria, who was working in Chile.
While national security was used to justify U.S. attempts to oust Allende, the obvious question arises: what danger to the United States was Allende’s embrace of a combination of socialism, interventionism, mercantilism, and fascism? Sure, such policies would naturally cause economic damage to Chile, but why was that a concern of the U.S. government?
Had Chile attacked the United States or even threatened to do so?
No. Like Fidel Castro, Mohammed Mossadegh, and Jacobo Arbenz, Allende was guilty of nothing more than being a popular foreign ruler who, owing to his belief in statism, was leading his nation into economic and financial disaster. It was the U.S. government, under the flag of national security, that was the aggressor against Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, and other nations.
Unfortunately, the national-security mindset did not end with the Cold War. The mindset would resurge with a vengeance, at least for the American people, when the war on terror replaced the war on communism.
This article was originally published in the February 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.