Seeing Red: Nixon and the 1970 Presidential Election in Chile

Salvador Allende (center) in 1970 with his Cabinet. ( Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional)

Salvador Allende (center) in 1970 with his Cabinet. ( Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional)

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post was published here. The author has given us permission to republish his piece.

Given the political atmosphere that surrounded the 1970 Chilean presidential election, and even the global tensions of the Cold War at the time, the initial outrage that United States President Richard M. Nixon expressed at the nomination of Chile’s leftist candidate, Salvador Allende, is easy to grasp.

After all, Nixon had been elected to the Senate 20 some years prior to Allende’s victory, and a much younger Nixon had established himself as a prominent anti-communist, garnering national attention.

Then, there was Allende: 1970 Chile’s newly, democratically-elected Marxist president, a man who had campaigned under the auspices of a left-leaning party called Unidad Popular (UP). Allende’s party was comprised of a largely diverse electoral bloc of leftist factions, including Chile’s Socialists and Communists. From the outset, the significance of the Allende victory seemed to portend for Chile, at least, a democratic realization of the revolution that many had hoped would midwife a future of democracy, pluralism and liberty. Despite the fact that a leftist cohort of fractious political groups was able to achieve this, Nixon’s rage about the 1970 Allende presidential victory in Chile hardly comes into focus if one assumes that the election alone was enough to make Nixon holler “that sonofabitch … that bastard Allende” deep inside of White House walls. No. In fact, unless the Allende election gets ramified further, much of the significance of this critical point in Latin American history risks obscurity. Parsed a bit more, what likely incensed Nixon most about the Allende victory was that the historic event marked the crossing of a critical political meridian for the Chilean Communist Party, and, very plausibly, Communism in general. Ultimately, however, Nixon’s decision to intervene and force the toppling of Chile’s democratically-elected Allende government was incredibly megalomaniacal and imperialistic.

A Well-Oiled Machine

At the time, Chile’s Communist Party was considered not only the largest but also the best organized and most disciplined communist faction within the context of Latin America. Despite the fact that for four decades Allende had been a committed political proponent of la vía parlamentaria in Chile, or a peaceful and democratic “road to socialism” in his country, the Marxist president’s seemingly inevitable democratic revolution may not have incited Nixon quite like the prospect of an eventual victory for the Communists, who had thrown their support to Allende in keeping with their longstanding commitment to strategic political opportunism. For years, the Communists in Chile had committed to an approach akin to an orthodox Leninist strategy, which set them along a “long march through the institutions”—including their participation in the democratic nation’s political system and the election of Allende.

This, the Communists had hoped, would allow them to take power and enact revolutionary alterations to the country’s political landscape without an armed insurrection or a civil war. Communist participation in the 1970 elections via the UP bloc was thus a tactical move during a democratic, and even nationalist, stage of their revolution. They had moreover hoped it would lead to the isolation of Chile’s capitalist élites and the onset of socialism, or a “dictatorship of the masses” perhaps styled after the Soviets.

Allende shared much in common with the Cuban and Guatemalan revolutionaries that had come to power before him. This gave Nixon great pause. Like the Central American and Caribbean revolutionaries, Allende had himself attributed the underdevelopment and poverty of his nation to a predatorily exploitative “symbiotic alliance” between the Chilean ruling class, the bourgeois oligarchs, and American private interest. So, when Allende and the UP stood together and denounced Chile’s imperialists, ruling class, national and foreign reactionary interests, and the national and foreign major capitalists (who conspired to puppeteer the country like economic marionettes), they effectively denounced the privileged 10 percent of the country that had a monopoly on half the nation’s income.

Frankly, the success of the UP was a denunciation of an entire system that had relegated most Chileans to privation, scarcity, or utter indigence. It was a system that deliberately marginalized its people. The remedy, as Allende and others had promulgated, was to reject Chile’s position as capitalist country whose social sectors, industries, and markets were all dominated by, and subservient to, foreign capital. Pedro Vuskovic, Allende’s first minister of economy, described the state’s mandate plainly: “…to destroy the economic bases of imperialism and the ruling class by putting an end to the private ownership of the means of production.”

Both Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, shared an aversion to utopian designs. They also espoused an indifference towards Latin America, save general concerns over regional Communist infiltration. One report to the president carried out by New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and a team of economists, politicians and development experts found that the United States had “allowed the special relationship it [had] historically maintained with the other nations of the Western Hemisphere to deteriorate badly,” blaming a host of mistakes which included but were not limited to special interest groups, a lack of earnest partnership with countries, unrealistic rhetoric, and a general air of paternalism.

Oddly enough, Rockefeller cited Latin America’s inability to fetch equitable prices for the raw materials they traded as analogous to the situation that Americans found themselves in at the time of the Continental Congress in 1776. Rockefeller and his team advised working with dictators, especially in recognition of “the specific forms or processes by which each nation moves toward a pluralistic system will vary with its own traditions and situation … the United States cannot allow disagreements with the form or the domestic policies of other American governments to jeopardize its basic objective of working with and for their people to our mutual benefit.” In concert with Rockefeller, Nixon admitted the US would “deal realistically with governments in the inter-American system as they [were],” understanding all along that America would make a habit of working with hemispheric strongmen and dictators despite moral misgivings.

The Nixon Administration’s decidedly ‘pragmatic’ approach to inter-American relations included one telling feature that would encompass Allende’s affinities with Cuba and Castro. It would also reveal the extent to which Nixon loathed Communist encroachment in the region, especially in Chile by way of the Allende victory. Nixon had paid such close attention to Castro’s support for Latin American revolutionaries that Kissinger underscored the US president’s concern for Castro as something of “a neuralgic problem.”

Actually, when Nixon took office as president, he employed the CIA to ramp-up anti-Castro and sabotage efforts. And in an escalation of their own, Castro and the Cubans used the Sino-Soviet split to their advantage: When Cuba asked for support, Moscow answered the call and worked on plans to build a submarine base in Cienfuegos harbor circa 1970.

Concurrently, in Chile, further advancement of the presumed Communist incursion incited heavy CIA expenditures in order to influence the outcome of national elections. The CIA failed yet again, and Allende emerged victorious with 36 percent of the vote amid a three-way split. Just prior to the election, Allende and the Frente Acción Popular, or FRAP, and later the UP, had assailed capitalism and imperialism as its combined Socialist-Communist platform. The FRAP had denounced Chile’s industries, which they claimed did not serve the needs or the interests of the national majority. Commenting on the matter, the CIA asserted that “of all the Latin American nations, Chile [offered] the Communists their best prospects for entering and potentially dominating the government through the electoral process.”

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Nixon’s Cuba

Even before Nixon, President Lyndon B. Johnson had funneled massive economic resources to the 1964 Chilean presidential victor, Eduardo Frei. However, the country did not perform well under Frei, and six years later, Allende would win in 1970 with more than a third of the national vote.

The U.S. Ambassador to Chile Edward Korry observed, “It is a sad fact that Chile has taken the path to communism… It will have the most profound effect on Latin America and beyond; we have suffered a grievous defeat; the consequences will be domestic and international.” Kissinger claimed that Nixon had personally underlined this very sentence, which was already italicized in his copy of Korry’s wire. Kissinger, too, had warned the president that “Chile could [have ended] up being the worst failure in [the Nixon] administration—‘[its] Cuba’ by 1972,” which clearly implicated the Communists in Chile.

Santiago-Washington relations soured when Allende assumed the presidency. Chileans erected statues to Communist heroes like Che Guevara, and Allende entered into diplomatic relations with ruling Communist juntas in Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam, even welcoming certain elements of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. Then, without compensation, the Chilean state nationalized major industries and, perhaps most noticeably, large U.S. holdings in the copper industry.

Allende defended these moves, signaling the incredible profits that firms had been allowed to exact as justification for the appropriation measures. Specifically, the ITT firm (International Telephone & Telegraph, formerly) called on Nixon to set aright the situation in Chile, which had rendered their property appropriated without “prompt, adequate, and effective” restitution. Nixon would employ the CIA to once more allocate millions of dollars to fuel covert operations against Allende. It is no small coincidence that ITT had contributed greatly to Nixon’s re-election campaign, or that the American war in Vietnam drove high prices for copper in Chile. Infamously, Nixon vowed to “make the [Chilean] economy scream” while at the same time assisting Chile’s military in order to foment affinities and procure a future coup.

That Nixon facilitated the ousting of Allende via collusion with the Chilean military and Allende’s political enemies comes as no surprise to students of the American war in Vietnam. Though Nixon never clarified for the American public quite how he would handle the imperialist war, he nonetheless promised a return to peace internationally, and to civility, domestically. Nixon had previously supported the U.S. presence in Vietnam to buffer “an expansionist China,” which paralleled his subversive efforts in a potentially Communist Chile. Ironically, both Nixon and Kissinger agreed that any aims for ending the war beyond the scope of peace would not suffice. “Any other solution may unloose forces that would complicate the prospects of international order,” stated Kissinger. Nixon added, “The true objective of this war is peace… It is a war for peace.”

Nixon the Crook

If Vietnam were a referent for Nixon’s anti-communist agenda, and if Chile had a peaceful, democratic election, how could Nixon possibly —in the history of his participation in the Cold War— have sought international order and stability, let alone peace?

Surely, what Nixon meant by “peace with honor” in Vietnam was he believed he would succeed where his predecessors failed, and just as likely, he felt the same about preventing Chile from become his “Cuba.” As for Nixon’s meddling with Chilean democracy, historians may argue that Nixon would have benefited greatly from an earnest evaluation of the civil unrest in his own country. When a clamorous group explicitly demonstrated against the Nixon government, revealing distrust and plans to sabotage state war efforts abroad, endearing that selfsame group of Americans to public officialdom might have informed Nixon’s actions on Chile greatly.

At the same time, Nixon might have shown the Communist world that democratic elections did not threaten America’s national security. Yet such a message might have conveyed that the U.S., despite contentious reactions to Communism, was sustained by the lifeblood of a truly secure democracy.

However, American democracy at the time was in many ways unstable. Nixon was an underhanded and self-interested man who made no such decisions and sent all kinds of terrible messages. He chose subversion, effectively closing off his presidency from the public and other segments of the government, revealing the deep insecurities that undergirded Washington’s take on international affairs.

Nixon ultimately invested in a method of international politicking that did little more than lend credibility to the already widespread distrust of the publics that greatly despised America’s crusade in Vietnam as well as Latin America. This is the part of his legacy that lives on today, and it is a forceful reminder to Americans about the extent to which the state is willing to go to secure both its international supremacy and the property of the capitalist elites.

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Mateo Pimentel is a sixth-generation denizen of the Mexico-United States borderland. Mateo writes for political newsletters and alternative news sources. He also publishes in academic journals. Mateo has lived, worked and studied throughout Latin America for over a decade. He is a graduate student at Arizona State University and composes and records music in his free time. He tweets from @Mateo_Pimentel.

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