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Kissinger's troubling legacy in Chile can still be felt 50 years later


With the death of Henry Kissinger at the age of 100, we are going to take a moment now to remember one of the most controversial episodes in his long and controversial career - Chile, where, in the 1970s, he helped to orchestrate a plan that wound up toppling the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Here to talk more about the former secretary of state and former national security adviser's role in Chile is Peter Kornbluh. He is director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project. Welcome.

PETER KORNBLUH: It's a pleasure to be with you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. Why did Henry Kissinger think this plan was a good idea?

KORNBLUH: Henry Kissinger had a concern about the free election of Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist in the world. And as Kissinger eventually wrote in a top-secret memo to President Nixon, he was worried about the insidious model effect that Allende's election could have on Latin America and even in Europe. And his point to Nixon was Allende was elected legitimately. We cannot deny him any legitimacy. But if he presents a successful model to the world, this is going to affect our position in the world. He basically was enunciating what I would call the domino theory of electoral socialism.

KELLY: Yeah. And just to state the obvious, this is the 1970s. We're in the Cold War, and Salvador Allende was a socialist, was pro-Cuba, was all these things that were problematic for the U.S. in that moment.

KORNBLUH: Yes, although he represented electoral socialism. And the United States, was, you know, very fully on record for the respect for sovereignty and self-determination, unlike the Cuban Revolution, where we could say that Fidel Castro did not have any legitimacy as the leader of Cuba. We couldn't say that in the case of Chile. And we wouldn't be able to say that in other countries if Allende was successful and other countries started to form progressive, leftist and middle-of-the-road coalitions that brought socialists to power.

KELLY: Yeah. I'll introduce another name, which is Pinochet. The end result of all this was Pinochet taking over as dictator and, for - what? - 17 years, standing at the helm of a brutal regime under which thousands of Chileans were disappeared, were tortured, were murdered. Did Henry Kissinger ever express remorse for what went down in Chile?

KORNBLUH: I think the historical record, beyond a doubt, shows that he was the chief architect of the U.S. policy to destabilize the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. But he was also the leading enabler of the consolidation of the military regime of General Augusto Pinochet. And for the first three years of that regime, despite widespread evidence of massive human rights violations, Kissinger pressed forward with this policy of economic support, military support and diplomatic support. His embrace of the regime was so strong that Congress passed these laws that made human rights a criteria in U.S. foreign policy, restricting Kissinger's ability to continue that support. Kissinger never really expressed any remorse for the atrocities that the U.S. was backing under his tenure. And in fact, when he was asked about it years later, he basically said, well, you know, human rights was not an issue back in those days. I think that Chile goes down in the history of Kissinger's legacy as the true stain of his reputation.

KELLY: And it's now 50 years since the coup that overthrew Allende and his government. How is this viewed in Chile today?

KORNBLUH: Well, the Chileans are talking about this. Kissinger obviously changed the course of the history of that smaller country. And the historical record, I think, will outlive and has outlived him. And, you know, years from now, when the compliments that have been paid to him at this time have faded in memory, the verdict of history will still be there.

KELLY: Peter Kornbluh. He's director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project, also author of "The Pinochet File." Thank you.

KORNBLUH: Thanks so much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.