Ten years ago today, the government of Salvador Allende was overthrown. The Chilean president died, and the "Chilean way" to socialism ended. Did actions of the U.S. government cause this result? Or was it mainly actions of the Chileans themselves? I believe the second possibility comes closer to the truth. But no discussion by the American ambassador in Santiago at the time of the coup can fail to address the first possibility.
I am not claiming that attitudes toward Allende at the highest level of the U.S. government were benign. They were not. In the CIA "Track II" operation during the weeks before Allende took office in 1970, the United States launched a profitless, reprehensible and abortive covert action in support of a preventive coup.
These machinations were pursued at White House direction behind the backs of responsible U.S. policy officers, including the secretaries of state and defense and the then U.S. ambassador, Edward M. Korry. The result was not the bringing down of Allende but a closing of ranks behind him and the successful inauguration of his regime.
Allende pronounced his indictment of America in his celebrated U.N. speech of December 1971. He accused "imperialism and its cruelty" of a "financial-economic blockade . . . oblique, subterranean, and indirect."
There was a grain of truth in his description, but his central charge--that Chile was being strangled by the denial of essential credits--was not the case. Counting new extensions of credit from East and West, drawdowns on exchange reserves and the rollover of Chile's debt repayment obligations in which Washington acquiesced, his government was able to acquire more credit and relief than any predecessor.
In 1971 and 1972, Kennecott Copper went to court all over Europe to attach and thereby deny payment to Chile for copper, its vital source of foreign exchange earnings. But the effort did not succeed. Chile continued to sell its copper at world market prices. It was also able by and large to acquire the spare parts and other imports it could pay for.
Another controversial U.S. action was the CIA's covert financial support of opposition parties and media. The effect was to counter Chilean governmental efforts to drive the opposition out of business, not to cripple Allende's Unidad Popular (UP) government and the pro-government press. Both sides had money to spend in the crucial 1973 congressional elections, and the UP coalition, while still a minority among the voters, increased its congressional strength. This result was not "destabilization."
The U.S. Senate's Church Committee found there had been no U.S. policy to finance or fund the "march of the empty pots," the two truckers' strikes, or the other disruptive demonstrations and strikes. Nor was there evidence of U.S. participation in the plotting that led to the 1973 coup.
For what my own personal testimony is worth, the Church Committee found the truth. We did not do those things, and it was not U.S. action that brought Allende down.
It was, I believe, Chilean action. The institutional, democratic transition to socialism--the "Chilean way"--was never effectively tried. The left extremists in the UP coalition produced a hybrid government capable neither of applying their own revolutionary prescriptions nor of traversing the pluralist, constitutional road. The UP government was at war with itself, and Allende's ambivalence left that conflict unresolved to the end.
Allende had extraordinary human qualities. A right-wing opponent found him "an old-style politician . . . loyal . . . in private . . . unaffected and nice. . . . I never saw him act with deliberate ill will. . . ." I often thought of him as "the happy warrior." Yet he had some of the qualities of Hamlet: ambivalence, indecisiveness, unwillingness to live with the consequences of his decisions.
Ultimately Allende was unwilling to act decisively against the extreme left, even when concessions to it resulted in reneging on other commitments. He had a "flexible wrist," an ability to slither through situations and be all things to all men--at cost to steadfastness and even truthfulness. He lost, one by one, the indispensable supporters of the Chilean way.
The then-dominant left wing of the Christian Democrats was prepared to support the UP government when it could as it came into office in 1970. The Christian Democrats negotiated a statute of democratic guarantees in return for their essential vote for his congressional confirmation. But the statute was honored in the breach, with Allende's consent and connivance.
The president brought the Left Radicals into his government in 1972. A Left Radical minister of justice, thinking he had the president's support, negotiated a key agreement regulating nationalizations. The extremists objected, and Allende gave in, repudiating his minister.
Chile's Catholics were led by a benign cardinal primate willing to walk the second mile. But Allende allowed his education minister to announce anti-Catholic educational reforms, which enraged church leaders and all Catholics, including religiously committed military officers.
In Chile the communists were "moderates," particularly in economic policy. They advocated "going slow" in the headlong nationalization drive of Allende's ministers of economy and agriculture. Allende fired his minister of economy as a sop to the communists, but did not effectively change policy. Production plummeted.
Most important, Allende never chose between faith in the loyalty of the military hierarchy and reliance on extra-legal, para-military leftist forces. He cultivated the military but undermined that relationship by encouraging the arming of extremist militias.
By August 1973 it was clear to everybody that the Chilean way was reaching a dead-end.
Just as so many of the world's progressives believed that the Spanish Civil War defined "anti-fascism" and posed the issues of World War II, many politically aware people around the world reacted to the Chilean coup as a melancholy verdict on Eurocommunism, constitutional leftism, and the capacity of the United States to tolerate reformist left-leaning regimes.
The emotional stake so many people had in Allende's success accounts for much of the venom that permeated the subsequent recrimination. Allende had to succeed, because of what he stood for. If he failed, that failure could not have had indigenous Chilean roots.
The history of U.S. actions in Chile exposed basic dilemmas of American foreign policy and its domestic premises. The role and limits of covert actions remain central in our foreign policy debate. There is the additional, continuing conundrum of whether the United States should take an activist approach to world politics or reduce its commitments. As in a Chinese opera, everybody must wear a white face or a red one, and the villains and heroes must not change roles.
American foreign policy has lost its gyroscope in recent years, and the Chilean experience was an important factor in that loss. We emerged more cynical, resentful, pessimistic and withdrawn.
At the same time we have succumbed to a kind of selective historical amnesia. The Chilean experience became part of what is almost a national Freudian burden. We should perhaps heed the great Viennese teacher's advice. To liberate ourselves from the suppressed tyranny of the past, we must first understand it and measure its reality.