Seeing Red: Nixon and the 1970 Presidential Election in Chile

Editor’s Note:

Mateo Pimentel’s “Seeing Red” is the first in a series of three articles examining the history and persistence of Henry Kissinger’s pernicious conception of international “diplomacy,” today known as Realpolitik. Perhaps the series is best read remembering Kissinger’s now infamous homily to its application in Chile:

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

 Henry Kissinger, 27 June 1970


Given the political atmosphere surrounding the 1970 Chilean presidential election and 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, he had been elected to the US Senate 20 some years before 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 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 composed of a 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 a realization of the revolution that many had hoped would midwife a future of democracy, pluralism, and liberty.

Allende’s victory was fragile, based upon a tenuous alliance among fractious leftist political groups. Nixon’s intense rage about over Allende remains puzzling if one assumes that the election alone was enough to make Nixon holler “that sonofabitch … that bastard Allende” from deep inside the White House. In fact, unless the Allende election is ramified further, much of the significance of this critical point in Latin American history is lost. What likely incensed Nixon most about the Allende victory was that this historic event marked the crossing of a critical political meridian for the Chilean Communist Party and, possibly, communism in general. Ultimately, however, Nixon’s decision to intervene and topple Chile’s democratically elected Allende government was motivated by megalomania and imperialism.

A Well-Oiled Machine

At the time of the election, Chile’s Communist Party was considered not only the largest but also the most organized and disciplined Latin American communist faction. 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;” the Marxist president’s seemingly inevitable democratic revolution may not have incited Nixon quite like the prospect of an eventual victory for the communists. The communists 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. Moreover, they hoped it would lead to the isolation of Chile’s capitalist elites and the onset of socialism, or a “dictatorship of the masses” perhaps styled after the Soviets.

Like the Central American and Caribbean revolutionaries before him, Allende had 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 interests. So when Allende and the UP stood together to condemn the national and foreign reactionaries and capitalists who conspired to control the country like economic puppeteers, the UP effectively denounced the privileged 10 percent of the country that had a monopoly on half the nation’s income. The success of the UP was a denunciation of an entire system that had relegated most Chileans to privation, scarcity, or utter indigence. 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 and concerns over communist infiltration in Latin America. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and a team of economists, politicians, and development experts reported to Nixon that the US had “allowed the special relationship it [had] historically maintained with the other nations of the Western Hemisphere to deteriorate badly.” He blamed a host of mistakes including a lack of earnest partnership with countries, unrealistic rhetoric, and a general air of paternalism. Ironically, 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 that “the specific forms or processes by which each nation moves toward a pluralistic system will vary with its own traditions and situation.” The team instructed that “disagreements with the form or the domestic policies of other American governments” should not prevent the Administration from “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.

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.” When Nixon took office as president, he employed the CIA to ramp-up anti-Castro and sabotage efforts. In Chile, the presumed communist incursion incited heavy CIA expenditures in order to influence the outcome of the 1970 election. The CIA failed, and Allende emerged victorious with 36 percent of the vote amid a three-way race. Prior to the election, 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.”

Chile: Nixon’s “Cuba”

Even before Nixon, US 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. American 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 US 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, ITT (formerly International Telephone & Telegraph) called on Nixon to fix the situation in Chile, which appropriated their property without restitution. Nixon responded by employing the CIA to allocate millions of dollars to fuel covert operations against Allende. The fact that ITT contributed greatly to Nixon’s reelection campaign and that the American war in Vietnam drove up prices for copper in Chile is no coincidence. Infamously, Nixon vowed to “make the [Chilean] economy scream,” while simultaneously assisting Chile’s military in fomenting a future coup.

That Nixon facilitated the ousting of Allende by colluding with his political enemies and the Chilean military comes as no surprise to students of the US 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 international peace and domestic civility. Nixon had previously supported the US presence in Vietnam to buffer “an expansionist China,” which paralleled his subversive efforts in a potentially communist Chile.

Paradoxically, 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 had a peaceful, democratic election, how could Nixon possibly have sought international order and stability, let alone peace? Surely, what Nixon meant by “peace with honor” in Vietnam was success where his predecessors failed. In that manner, he likely felt the same about preventing Chile from become his “Cuba.” As for his meddling with Chilean democracy, historians may argue that Nixon would have benefited from an earnest evaluation of the civil unrest in his own country.

When a clamorous group demonstrated against the Nixon government, revealing distrust and plans to sabotage state war efforts abroad, Nixon might have decided to strike a rapprochement with a group that might have greatly informed his actions on Chile. Such a policy might have shown the communist world that democratic elections did not threaten America’s national security. This message might have conveyed that the lifeblood of a truly secure democracy sustained the US, despite contentious reactions to Communism. However, American democracy at the time was in many ways unstable.

Moreover, Nixon was an underhanded and self-interested man who made no such decisions and sent all kinds of terrible messages. By closing off his presidency from the public and other segments of the government, he revealed 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 intensify the widespread distrust among those who despised America’s crusade in Vietnam as well as Latin America.

This part of his legacy lives on today. It is a potent 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.


Mateo Pimentel

is a sixth-generation denizen of the Mexican-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 the last decade. He currently pursues a Master of Science in Global Technology and Development, and he composes and records music in his free time. Follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at

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