America’s Dirty Wars: Latin America in the 1970s


On September 11, 1973, a military coup overthrew the Chilean President Salvador Allende Gossens, who was a democratically elected Socialist. That day marked the beginning of a military dictatorship that lasted until 1990. Chile, with two brief exceptions, had been under civilian constitutional rule since 1833, making it one of Latin America’s strongest and most stable democracies. There is considerable debate about the US involvement in the coup. The CIA worked hard to undermine Allende at the request of President Richard Nixon. In the Cold War environment, where, according to the US government, nothing was worse than being a communist, it is not surprising that the US government would find a socialist with communist connections to be a threat to US national interest. The US government had also had policies related to Latin America since the 1800s and considered it part of their sphere of influence.

United States Involvement in Latin America Prior to the Cold War

The Monroe Doctrine was one of the earliest United States doctrines that dealt with foreign affairs. In 1823, President James Monroe warned the European powers that Europe and the Americans were heading in different directions and that they should no longer interfere in the New World. This doctrine essentially said that the Western hemisphere was the United States’s domain. The US became even more involved in 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt decided that the US had the right to police Latin American countries, not just prevent outside intruders.

President William McKinley, in the 1890s, said that it was the US’s duty to establish colonies and help oppressed people. The US’s first attempt at building a formal empire came in the form of the War of 1898, otherwise known as the Spanish-American War. The war began with a revolution in Cuba against the Spanish. Cuba was of great economic and strategic importance to the United States. The Spanish fared terribly in the war, losing within four months of the US entering the war. The US decided that Cubans were not fit to rule themselves and refused to guarantee Cuban independence. The US created a protectorate that allowed them to involve themselves in Cuba’s internal affairs and have two sites for US naval bases.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Good Neighbor policy to help promote stability in Latin America through commercial and financial arrangements. FDR sent an ambassador to Cuba when it experienced another revolution, but refused to use military force. In 1934, an agreement with Cuba ended its status as a protectorate. The Good Neighbor policy also allowed for reduced tariffs for countries on an individual basis. This was applied to Latin America, encouraging them to import US finished goods and export agricultural products.

Latin America and the Cold War

Latin America became a priority again in the 1950s due to the Cold War. The Cold War was a conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. After World War II, the US and the Soviet Union were the two major superpowers left. They both wanted a sphere of influence in the world. The US believed that their influence should continue to include Latin America. Ideological differences also played a role. The US was a capitalist country and the Soviet Union was a communist country. The world was trying to determine which system would prove to be the dominant ideology. The US determined that containing communism would be in the best interest of their national security. The policy of Containment was initially focused around the Soviet Bloc and Asia. Communism had spread from the Soviet Union to China, North Korea, and several Eastern European countries within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The US feared a domino effect, which would allow communism and Soviet influence to continue to spread through the world. The US saw Soviet influence in Latin America as a threat because of Latin America’s proximity to the US and because Latin America had always been under US influence.

Any political instability within Latin America became fertile soil in which communism could grow. In 1958 Vice-President Richard Nixon was attacked by an anti-US mob while visiting Caracas, forcing the administration to address the unrest in Latin America. In Cuba, Fidel Castro gained power. While many Cubans admired the US, they also blamed them for suffering under an oppressive dictatorship for nearly twenty-five years. The dictator granted favors from US corporations like the International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT). While Castro lead two failed revolutions, he succeeded on his third attempt, entering Havana in January 1959. Leaders in Washington attempted to convince Castro to maintain the relationship between the US and Cuba. Castro refused because he wanted Cuba to be independent from US control. He approached the Soviets because he believed that relationship could get Cuba freedom from the US. When Cuba entered an alliance with the Soviet Union, the US responded by cutting off diplomatic connections with Cuba and essentially creating a trade embargo against the country. Fearing that other Latin American countries would follow in the path of Cuba, the Eisenhower administration became actively involved in the Americas. In a switch from their previous tactics, they encouraged representative government and supported moderate reformists. They decreased military aid to dictatorships that needed the help to remain in power and increased aid programs. This change would form the basis of John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress.

In the following audio clips, Nixon addressed the state of Latin America in 1971. Nixon and the director of the CIA, Richard Helms, discussed Cuba and whether loosen the restrictions on the country would be a bad decision. They connected Cuba with Allende gaining power in Chile and reinforced their need to remain strict. Nixon also stated that he felt the Catholic Church in Latin America had failed Catholics. Starting in the 1950s, the Latin American Catholic Church shifted its views towards liberation theology, which focused on aided the poor over the rich. Nixon, like many people including those in the Vatican, saw the Latin American Catholic Church’s behavior as a form of Marxism.

Nixon also spoke on how Latin countries, both in Europe and Latin America, required an authoritarian government. He wanted to avoid any social revolutions, like the Cuban Revolution, because they posed a threat to US interests.


Source: Oval Office, 462-005; March 5, 1971; White House Tapes;

Why was Nixon opposed to a more liberal Catholic Church? What role did Nixon want the Catholic Church to play? Did Nixon’s views on democracy in Latin countries contradict the values of the US and why do you think that?

US Government Foreign Policy

Three federal agencies made most of the decisions relating to Chile: the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council. The State Department ran the embassy in Chile and advised the President on possible actions the US could carry out. Edward Korry was the ambassador from 1967 to 1971 when the US had its greatest involvement in Chile. The State Department worked to encourage US interests within Chile, causing them to oppose Allende. The CIA was in charge of gathering intelligence about Chile. As time progressed, the CIA became more involved in covert actions to prevent Allende from gaining power. The National Security Council was the other major group involved in determining policy towards Chile. The National Security Act of 1947 established the NSC. The NSC was part of the Executive Office of the President and its members worked with the President to determine foreign policy. The NSC played an especially large role in determining policy in Chile during the Nixon Administration.

While there had already been tensions between the various government agencies, they increased significantly when Nixon became president. Unlike many previous presidents, Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, had experience in foreign policy. Neither of them trusted the CIA and they believed that the State Department was weak. They believed that the NSC should determine foreign policy. When Allende won the popular vote in 1970, Kissinger saw that as a failure by the State Department and decided the NSC should determine US policy in Chile.

The Alliance for Progress

JFK proposed the Alliance for Progress in 1961 with the goal of decreasing poverty, illiteracy, and disease from Latin America through reforms while encouraging democracy. The US promised low cost loans to Latin American countries, but they needed to see results to justify spending that money. The US searched for a test country and decided on Chile. The US considered Chile ideal because it had a long history of democracy and social reforms. Chile also struggled with inflation and international commodity prices affected its primary export, copper, drastically. Chile’s agriculture was inefficient and movement into the cities resulted in large slums. Chile received the most money from the US in the Alliance for Progress because it was the test ground. By 1962, the US gave Chile program loans on a regular basis, allowing the Chilean to increase tax collection and begin land reforms.

US Involvement in Chile Prior to 1970

In the 1950s, the CIA embedded itself in both the Chilean Communist and Socialist parties. The US intelligence community had plenty of details about Allende, but the US government didn’t see him as a threat until he nearly won the Chilean presidency in 1958 . He ran for president in 1958 as a member of the Popular Action Front (FRAP), a group that included the Chilean Communist and Socialists parties, and was polling well, so he was the first potential threat of a powerful pro-Soviet government in the Americas, because that happened before Castro took power in Cuba in 1959. Chile was a multiparty elective democracy, which resulted in presidential elections that included more than two candidates. The election in 1958 was close with Allende only losing to Jorgé Alessandri Rodríguez, a member of the conservative Democratic Front,  by 3.3 percent in a three-way election. Under the Chilean constitution, if no candidate receives over half the vote in the popular election, Congress votes between the top two candidates to decide who becomes president. While the Constitution allows Congress to elect either candidate, tradition dictates that the candidate who received the most populars votes in elected by Congress. In 1958, Alessandri won the presidency. Alessandri met with Eisenhower and discussed creating strong, anti-communist propaganda for Chile to discredit the FRAP so that they would have a difficult time attempting to get elected.

In 1961, the CIA began increasing their intelligence gathering in Chile in response to the fear that the Communist and Socialist parties might gain power. Allende was a Marxist socialist . As far as the US government was concerned being Marxist meant he could be influenced by Moscow because they were also Marxist . Allende sought a democratic election which made him a bigger threat to the US. The US would find it difficult to oppose a democratically elected president because the US supports democracy. Other Socialist countries became Socialist through revolutions, which were easier for the US to oppose. US officials saw Allende as another Castro, and if Chile, one of the most powerful Latin American countries, the one that was getting the most US assistance , could go Marxist, what would prevent other countries from following their lead.

There was overt US government involvement in Chilean politics, primarily through the Alliance of Progress. And, covertly, the 5412 Special Group, a group designed to address concerns relating to communism in Chile, approved “nonattributable” assistance to Eduardo Frei’s Christian Democrats multiple times in 1962 and 1963 for the 1964 presidential election. Then the US government decided to actively work against Allende’s campaign. Following JFK’s assassination and LBJ becoming president, the CIA began funding the Democratic Front’s (DF) candidate, Julio Durán Neumann, because he would work best with the US business interests, and, with a leftward lean, might take votes away from Allende. Unfortunately, after the DF lost to the Popular Action Front (FRAP) in a deputy election, Duran stayed in the race but resigned as the DFs candidate, leaving the US government to support Frei. The PDC sought US assistance with Frei’s campaign. The US provided his campaign with $1 million. They also planned to bribe Conservative and Liberal Parties to support Frei and preventing a third candidate through bribes. The CIA was even prepared to buy votes. The State Department decided that they wouldn’t use bribes. They did spend $1,250,000 more to work to defeat Allende. Then they spent another $500,000 on Frei’s campaign. Allende could still win, so the CIA asked the Chilean army what they would do if Allende did succeed. The response was “nothing”. Assuming no party was subverting the Chilean constitution, the military didn’t have a role in politics. In the 1964 election, Frei did win the majority. Whether that’s due to US involvement is up for debate, with the CIA claiming a major role in Frei’s success.

The CIA also got involved in the 1969 congressional elections. The 303 Committee, the group that replaced the 5412 Special Group, approved in budget of $350,000 with the goal being to elect moderates. But propaganda became the dominant theme of the CIA campaign. They used all forms of mass media to spread their anti-communist propaganda. Once again, several candidates elected met with the CIA’s approval, but it’s hard to tell if the CIA actually had an impact.

Allende Wins the Election

The US Intelligence Board, which used information from all of the various intelligence departments in the US government, published a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Chile in January 1969. In it, they predicted the 1970 presidential election would likely be a three-way race between the Popular Unity candidate, who would probably be Allende, the PDC’s candidate, Radomiro Tomic, and the independent Jorgé Alessandri. With three candidates running it was unlikely that any of them would win the majority so Chilean congress would have a run-off vote. The NIE reported that Congress would probably select whoever won the most popular votes and the armed forces would do nothing to prevent Allende’s presidency if he were to be elected.

At the beginning of the election, the CIA did not support a particular candidate. Alessandri had a better chance of defeating Allende than Tomic did, but several factors prevented the CIA from actively supporting him. The CIA and State Department saw Alessandri as a right-wing politican who thought that the multiparty system and Chilean Congress had outlived their usefulness. If Alessandri attempted to eliminate either of those structures, Chile would be an authoritarian state, either under him or the military. If the military took over the US government thought it would be a leftist regime and if Alessandri remained in power, the CIA worried it would look like the US put another Latin American dictator in power. The CIA and Ambassador Korry believed that Alessandri would win without their help, so they did not need to support him. Instead they attempted to divide the leftist coalition Allende needed in order to win.

As the campaign continued, it became more likely that Allende would win. Prior to 1970, Nixon and Kissinger did not pay much attention to Chile. Kissinger believed that nothing important happened in the Southern hemisphere, and they were preoccupied by the Vietnam War. Once Kissinger realized that Allende might win, he devoted significant efforts to stopping Allende. By that point, the CIA and the State Department had no time to carry out a propaganda campaign like they had in the previous election. The US also lacked a candidate to support. In the end, Korry outlined the “Rube Goldberg” ploy or the “Frei reelection gambit.” A Chilean president could serve multiple terms, but not consecutively. It would require Alessandri to lose the popular vote but be elected by Congress. He would then have to refuse the presidency, which would fit with his statement that he would only serve if he had popular support. By refusing the presidency, a new election would be required. The President of the Senate would be interim president, allowing Frei to run for reelection and Korry believed that Frei would easily win the majority. This plan required the support of the military to combat any UP resistance. The other option, that Korry adamantly opposed, was a military coup. Not only did he think it involved too much US interference, he also believed it wouldn’t happen.

The Assassination of General René Schneider

When it became clear that the “Frei reelection gambit” would fail, Kissinger shifted the power to make decisions about Chile from the State Department to the NSC. The White House and the CIA began Track II, which attempted to create a military coup. . The Chilean military only tended to get involved in politics when the politicians acted in illegal or unconstitutional ways. Allende had not done anything that would be considered illegal, so the military was unlikely to interfere regardless of their personal opinions on Allende.

In the following except of Congressional Report on alleged assassination plots against foreign leaders, the report describes the connections between the US government and conspirators in General Schneider’s attempted abduction and subsequent death. The goal of abducting Schneider from the US perspective was that he would not support a coup against Allende. Schneider was the head of the Chilean army and a constitutionalist which meant that unless Allende acted illegal, the military would not get involved in the political arena. The congressional investigation also looks at how much the White House was aware of the plot against Schneider and gives insight into how the CIA and the White House worked together.


Source: U.S. Congress. Senate. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders. 94th Congress, 1st session, 1975. S. Rep. 94-465.

What conclusions can be reached based on the document and do you agree with the conclusions the report reached? Does in adequately explain the connection between the White House, CIA, and the Chilean conspirators?

US Relations with Allende’s Chile

Chilean Congress elected Allende president on October 24, 1970. The US realized that the Chilean military would not interfere, so the US government began formalizing policy on how they would treat the Allende government. Prior to the meeting on November 6, Kissinger sent Nixon a memorandum that explained what Allende could do as President and different ways that the US government could handle those situations. In it, Kissinger explained that Chile would become socialist like Cuba and the Soviet Union. He noted that a socialist Chile would be a threat to US security and interests in the region.

He listed three plans that the US government was considering. The first one said that the US should continue to treat Chile as it had been. The other two would create pressure on Allende so that his plans would fail. The US could enforcing an economic embargo on Chile and terminate the aid they had been providing the country. The two plans differed on whether to publicly denounce Allende or keep the pressure on Chile out of the public eye. Ultimately, the US chose to covertly apply pressure to Chile.


Source: White House. SECRET/SENSITIVE Memorandum for the President, “Subject: NSC Meeting, November 6 — Chile.” November 5, 1970.

What made Chile becoming socialist so different from other threats of communism and socialism spreading in other countries? Why might the US choose to adopt a policy towards Chile of cold but correct? Why did Kissinger believe Nixon had to voice his opinion on this issue?

US Business Interest in Chile

US business first gained a large stake in the Chilean economy in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, 90 percent of Chilean copper was American owned and one-third of Chile’s trade was with the US. Copper made up the majority of Chile’s export, but the price was constantly influx. US companies still owned the biggest mines until the 1960s, when Chilean President Frei began working to nationalize the copper mines. Under his plan, Chile would slowly buy the mines from private owners without create tensions between Chile and the US. The problem with Frei plan was that it increased Chilean debt to the US.

When Allende became President he decided to completely nationalize the copper mines. Debt and compensation remained an important issue to US companies, but they were not surprised by Allende’s move. Allende concluded that hundreds of millions of dollars that the US companies earned were “excess profits” and Chile would not include them in the compensation deal. I

The following article from by Jack Anderson addressed the connection between the CIA and the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT). The article discusses ITT’s plans to exert economic pressure against Chile.


Source: Anderson, Jack. “Memos Bare ITT Try for Chile Coup.” The Washington Post. March 21, 1972.

How does the article illustrate the relationship between the CIA and ITT? How does it show the importance of business prospects in Chile?

The Fall of Allende and the 1973 Coup

The constraints the US put on Chile helped destabilize the economy and increased social unrest. The CIA, in an effort to undermine Allende, funded right-wing opposition groups in parliament elections in 1973. Allende began to lose control of the population and the rest of the government. The Chilean Supreme Court and Congress both decided in mid-1973 that Allende’s actions were unconstitutional. During that time, General Carlos Prats, who replaced General Schneider as the Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief, resigned after failing to restore order to Chile. General Augusto Pinochet replaced him.

The opinion piece below was published just over a month before the coup occurred. It addressed multiple issues that caused the unrest in Chile as well as what the US role was. In it Morris addressed the problems Allende would have had to face regardless of the US position, but he also showed how the US exacerbated other problems during Allende’s presidency.


Source: Morris, David J. “U.S. vs. Allende.” The Washington Post. August 5, 1973.

What was Morris’ bias? What argument was Morris making on the reasons for unrest in Chile and how did his argument differ from the other political documents included?