Fifty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to meddle in Chile, to stop the likely election of a socialist, Salvador Allende. If that failed, Nixon told CIA Director Richard Helms, he wanted the spy agency to make Chile’s economy “scream” until conditions were right for a military coup. It didn’t matter that the agency assessed the chance of success at 1 to 10.
On September 4, 1970, Allende won, but Nixon never relented. Four days after the election, White House National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger assembled a top-secret group of officials and asked for “a cold blooded assessment” of the pros and cons of supporting a military coup against the democratically elected government, according to documents assembled by the National Security Archive, a private research organization affiliated with the George Washington University.
As superpower playbooks go, the result was a masterpiece: The violent coup that eventually replaced Allende with General Augusto Pinochet installed a reliably pro-U.S., pro-business regime.
What these documents show is the unrelenting determination of the U.S., one of the world’s two superpowers, to overthrow a weak government. The first time around in 1970, Washington failed to fix the election, and it failed to engineer a military coup. But three years later, with the Chilean economy indeed screaming from American pressure, the Chilean generals were able to act—and received the U.S. government’s applause.
A half century later, the U.S. economy is the one screaming. Staggering under the weight of a pandemic-driven health emergency, mass unemployment, racial strife and a loss of faith in American institutions, including the guarantee of free and fair elections, the government seems ripe for a takeover. But it’s a U.S. president, backed by a foreign power, and some of his cronies who are threatening election violence and even a refusal to leave office if defeated.
It’s not hard to imagine how, back in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin, like Nixon and Kissinger 50 years ago, summoned his own advisers to the Kremlin for a “cold blooded assessment” of his chances for putting his own guy in power in America. Buoyed by that success, he’s now helping paralyzing the U.S. by secretly fostering violent chaos.
The Mueller report concluded Russia “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bipartisan report in August saying the Kremlin has waged a campaign to discredit the Mueller investigation and is using social media today to stir up cultural and racial discord.
The Russians call it active measures. In 1970, and still today, we call it covert action.