The line could be straight out of Dr Strangelove. It was uttered, though, by Dr Henry Kissinger a few months before the Chilean presidential election of Sept 4, 1970.
“I don’t see why,” declared Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, “we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
The prospect that filled Kissinger with such dread was that of Popular Unity candidate Salvador Allende’s success in the election. His nightmare began to come true when Allende received a higher proportion of votes than his conservative rivals. He fell well short of the 50pc mark, though, which meant his presidency required parliamentary endorsement.
The US clandestinely endeavoured to pre-empt this outcome, via the CIA as well as American transnational corporations that enjoyed a stranglehold over the Chilean economy, not least through control of its chief export, copper.
Efforts to bribe legislators proved less than successful, while attempts to instigate a military coup encountered resistance from constitutionalist officers.
In the latter process, army chief Gen René Schneider was assassinated by CIA-allied forces during an attempt to kidnap him. Two days later, the Chilean Congress voted 153 to 35 in favour of Allende — albeit only after putting in place unprecedented measures to restrict his powers.
A disheartened but unrepentant US administration thereafter redoubled its efforts to thwart the democratic process in Chile. Nixon, infamously, was determined to “make the economy scream”, with the aim of sowing chaos and creating conditions for a military takeover.
Forty years ago today, the efforts of Washington and its neo-fascist allies among the Chilean military and bourgeoisie ultimately paid off, interrupting an extended period of constitutional rule by ushering in a military regime that proved extraordinarily brutal even by Latin American standards.
Four decades later, many people might pertinently wonder why the US went to such great lengths to strangle a faraway democracy that had chosen the socialist path. Some of the answers can be found in comments from the period.
Kissinger opined: “What happens in Chile [will have an effect] on what happens in the rest of Latin America and the developing world … and on the larger world picture, including … relations with the USSR.” He feared the “contagious example” might even “infect” Nato allies in southern Europe.
Two days after Allende’s inauguration on Nov 3, 1970, Nixon told his National Security Council: “If we let … potential leaders in South America think they can move like Chile … we will be in trouble … No impression should be permitted in Latin America that they can get away with this, that it’s safe to go this way.”
There was fear of a “red sandwich”, with Cuba at the top and Chile at the bottom of Latin America, but Allende was perceived as setting an even more dangerous example than Fidel Castro precisely because the former was elected under, and had vowed to adhere to, a bourgeois constitution.
When Allende took to the Congress — where Popular Unity fell far short of a majority — a proposal to nationalise the Chilean operations of US-owned copper giants such as Kennecott and Anaconda, with limited compensation, he won unanimous approval.
He was also able to institute other reforms geared towards the redistribution of wealth in both the agrarian and industrial spheres.
Small wonder, then, that it did not prove particularly hard to organise disruptions by the bourgeoisie and the petite-bourgeoisie amid a surreptitious international campaign to block Chilean exports and credits.
When Allende took his complaints against imperialist interference to the United Nations General Assembly in 1972, pointing out that the depredations being heaped upon his nation served as a lesson for the developing world at large, the standing ovation that followed his anti-imperialist speech was so overwhelming that even the US ambassador to the UN, a certain George H.W. Bush, reportedly felt obliged to rise to the occasion.
The 1973 coup that ushered in Gen Augusto Pinochet’s horrendous regime was not exactly a novelty for the US, which had collaborated in coups against elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala two decades earlier.
And the bloody denouement that attended the snuffing out of the hopes Allende had raised was followed in short order by the ousters of Gough Whitlam in Australia (1975) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1977) in Pakistan.
The Chilean outcome also demonstrated to all too many people in Latin America and beyond that the democratic road to socialism was a dead end, prompting militants to take up arms instead of exploring constitutional avenues for change.
It was close to three decades later that Hugo Chavez set an example in Venezuela that was thereafter replicated across the continent. The so-called pink tide included the presidential success of Michelle Bachelet in Chile in 2006, and she is expected to be returned to power in November.
It’s worth noting, though, that Chavez’s supporters staved off a coup attempt in 2002, while Manuel Zelaya’s backers were less successful in Honduras in 2009.
Chile remains a divided society, although the proportion of Pinochet acolytes has steadily been diminishing, and efforts continue to find closure for the victims of 1973, including the exquisitely talented singer-songwriter Victor Jara, some of whose murderers were called to account this year.
And the bones of the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda were exhumed to ascertain whether he might have been poisoned a couple of weeks after the coup.
The 65-year-old Allende, meanwhile, resisted to the last as his presidential palace came under military attack. A young aide retains an indelible final image of him with a helmet on his head and a machinegun in his hands. One day, perhaps, Chile will be a worthy memorial to what he sought to achieve.
Keywords: Political science , International issues , Political process , Political leaders , Political issues , Armed forces , Democracy , George H W Bush , Dr. Henry Kissinger , Richard Nixon , Dr. Strangelove , Gen René Schneider , United States , Washington , Zulfikar Ali Bhutto , CIA , USSR