Saturday, October 22, 2011

Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and a Tragedy in Chile

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe President Richard Nixon and his chief foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger’s strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union and China and the bloody consequences of that strategy in Chile.

The 1973 Energy Crisis revealed the limits of American global power, as did the continued U.S. frustrations in Southeast Asia. As mentioned before, President Richard Nixon wanted to be an architect of the world order, and he and his chief foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger, would later take credit for strategic planning they claimed not only ended American military involvement in Vietnam, but also opened diplomatic relations with China and achieved a more peaceful relationship with America’s chief Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. In fact, Nixon’s foreign policy represented less a well-planned global strategy than a series of at-times skillful improvisations in response to rapidly shifting global events.

From the beginning, the key player in Nixon’s foreign policy was national security advisor Kissinger. Later elevated to secretary of state by Nixon and kept on by Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, Kissinger saw himself as a hard-bitten pragmatist. His Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany in 1938. Highly intelligent, Kissinger received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1954, and became a professor of government and international affairs there the same year. He impressed Nixon with his sharp mind, his pragmatism and the sweep of his vision for American foreign policy.

Both Nixon and Kissinger saw the major lesson of Vietnam as that the United States could no longer “bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, [and] oppose any foe” as President Kennedy famously vowed in his inaugural address in 1961. Nixon saw a clear American victory in Vietnam as already impossible by the time he took office in 1969. Early on, the White House unveiled the so-called “Nixon Doctrine” in which the United States would rely on allies such as Japan, and unsavory regimes such the white supremacist apartheid government in South Africa, the dictatorship ruling Pakistan, and the Shah’s ruthless monarchy in Iran to bear more of the responsibility for checking the spread of communism. Key allies would be protected by America’s nuclear shield, but other nations would be expected to “assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for [their] own defense,” as diplomatic historian William Bundy puts it.

A balance of power between the Americans and the Soviets became Nixon and Kissinger’s obsessive priority. Human rights and self-determination in the developing world did not enter into their calculations. As part of the Nixon Doctrine, American sales of fighter planes, tanks, radar, anti-aircraft weapons, and other military hardware to American allies escalated dramatically in the Nixon years from under $2 billion to more than $15 billion. Pro-American nations like Iran and South Vietnam would control some of the largest militaries in the world, forces armed with some of the most sophisticated weapons. In the early 1970s, with Washington’s encouragement the Shah of Iran spent $35 billion of that nation’s oil revenues upgrading and expanding the military, mostly on American-manufactured weapons, even though life expectancy in Iran was only 50, childhood mortality remained high, and six out of every ten Iranians remained illiterate. In many American client states, health and education took a back seat to the larger needs of the American Cold War.


The Nixon Doctrine would claim human rights victims around the globe. Chile represents one heart-breaking case in point. On September 4, 1970, a Marxist, Salvador Allende Gossens, won a democratic election for the presidency of Chile, a mineral-rich nation whose border snakes along more than half of South America’s Pacific coast. Chile had been one of the most stable nations in Latin America since the writing of its 1839 constitution, a country generally ruled through an ostensible democracy controlled by a small elite. Chile was of interest to the United States primarily because of its rise as the world’s leading producer of copper, used in building motors, generators, cables and wires. By the late twentieth century, two American mining companies dominated Chile’s copper industry and International Telephone and Telegraph controlled Chile’s phone services.

Allende, the leader of Chile’s Socialist Party, rose to political prominence in the 1960s. “Despite Chile’s relatively prosperous position among South American nations, millions of its people lived in desperate poverty, and this genuinely moved Allende,” wrote journalist Stephen Kinzer. He advocated peaceful revolution, through democratic elections. In other words, Allende was not another Fidel Castro, the communist dictator of Cuba, and he was unlikely to take his country on a path of dictatorship and subservience to Moscow. American policy toward Latin America, however, shifted dramatically under Nixon and Kissinger. While the Kennedy and Johnson administrations supported what they considered “the democratic left” and backed land reform that would benefit the region’s poor and working class, Nixon threw his weight behind the wealthy businessmen and military strongmen he saw as more reliable stalwarts against communist expansion. IT&T and other companies that gave money to Nixon’s 1968 campaign asked for the president’s help in preventing Allende from taking power, and Nixon obliged, asking the CIA to instigate a coup. In addition, many in Chile’s business community and military were fiercely anti-communist and had convinced themselves that Pinochet would destroy their country and they happily accepted the outside assistance Nixon provided.

The CIA encouraged military leaders to overthrow their democratic government. After Allende was sworn in as president in 1970, American companies conspired to not fill orders for spare parts, which forced the closing of factories operating in Chile. Millions were paid to bribe journalists to spread false information that Allende planned to ration food and seize private homes. American foreign aid agencies, the Export-Import Bank and the Agency for International Development, also refused any further assistance to Chile.

Nevertheless, Allende stood up to American pressure and persuaded the Chilean Congress to nationalize the copper industry and then the national phone company controlled by IT&T. The CIA’s destabilization campaign, however, began to wreck Chile’s economy and weakened Allende’s government by 1972. The CIA successfully recruited Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet to lead a military coup, which toppled the Allende regime on September 11, 1973. Using American weapons and money, soldiers seized control of police stations, government buildings, and radio stations. Rebel airplanes, believed flown by American pilots, fired rockets into the presidential palace. Pinochet’s military dictatorship later claimed that Allende committed suicide rather than surrender, while others say he was murdered.

In the first days of the Pinochet dictatorship, approximately 13,500 civilians were arrested. “Thousands ended up in the two main football stadiums in Santiago,” wrote journalist Naomi Klein. “ . . . Inside the National Stadium, death replaced football as a public spectacle. Soldiers prowled the bleachers with hooded collaborators who pointed out ‘subversives”; the ones who were selected were hauled off to locker rooms and skyboxes transformed into makeshift torture chambers. Hundreds were executed. Lifeless bodies started showing up on the side of major highways or floating in murky modern canals.”

One of the victims was the left-wing Chilean folksinger Victor Jara. Soldiers broke the performer’s hands to deny him his ability to play the guitar and later shot him 44 times. In the days immediately after the coup, the Pinochet regime executed 3,200, imprisoned 80,000 and forced 200,000 more to flee. Many Chileans who survived torture reported that unidentified persons who spoke English with American accents oversaw their brutal interrogations. By the year after the coup, 1974, Chile’s economy shrank by 15 percent and unemployment, which had been 3 percent under Allende, skyrocketed to 20 percent. By 1988, Chile’s economy stabilized but 45 percent of the population had fallen below the poverty line. This was the Nixon Doctrine in action. Allies were rewarded for being anti-communist, even if they were brutally anti-democratic and poorly served their people.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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