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U.S. Covert Operations in Chile 1964-1975

Reviewed by Amb. (ret.) Michael W. Cotter

Hostile Intent: U.S. Covert Operations in Chile 1964-1975. By Kristian Gustafson. (Washington: Potomac Books, Inc., 2007. Pp. xiv, 244. $29.95)

Kristian Gustafson served as an officer in the Canadian Army and later earned a Ph.D. at Cambridge University. He is a lecturer at Brunel University’s Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies in England. In this book he takes a middle-of-the road view of U.S. involvement with Chile’s political processes during the decade from Salvador Allende’s first campaign for president through the coup d’etat which ended his presidential term.

Over the past several years thousands of CIA and State Department documents relating to United States involvement in Chile between 1964 and 1974 have been released to the public. Dr. Gustafson has done extensive research in that documentation with the intention of using it to add significant factual information to what was known, or believed, about that involvement. With Hostile Intent he has succeeded admirably.

Gustafson concludes that the CIA was indeed involved in supporting the Chilean Christian Democratic party for a decade prior to, as well as during the 1970 election which Allende won and afterwards. He also concludes that the CIA was not involved in the coup d’etat that overthrew Allende in 1973. In explaining his conclusions Gustafson provides extensive background on U.S. covert financial support for political parties in Chile going back at least to the 1964 presidential campaign in that country. He argues persuasively that the assistance leading up to and after the 1970 election was essentially a continuation of that assistance. Gustafson’s analysis is made more valuable by the fact that he also explains the internal dynamics of Chilean politics of the time. Too often, writers on the U.S. involvement in Chile during this period treat it in a vacuum, ignoring those internal dynamics that Gustafson argues were the real reason for Allende’s ouster.

Hostile Intent begins with an extensive introduction that identifies the materials Gustafson relied upon for his analysis, notes the shortcoming of much of the previous research on this topic, and summarizes his conclusions. He then describes U.S. covert financial support of the Chilean Christian Democratic and National political parties from the presidential election of 1964 through the 1970 election; and analyzes the events leading up to the assassination of Chilean Army Commander Gen. René Schneider in October 1970, absolving the U.S. of responsibility for that crime while acknowledging that the CIA was aware of the plot. He describes as well the relationship between ITT, the International Telephone and Telegraph Company, and the CIA station in Santiago and the involvement of ITT in destabilizing Chile during Allende’s presidency.

Gustafson also places the events in Chile in the 1960s and early 1970s into the context of the Cold War, something missing in many analyses of United States’ involvement which ignore the larger geo-political picture. His analysis benefits from recently released documents from Soviet archives that attest to the interest and covert involvement of the USSR in events in Chile. In the end, the Soviets did not act to defend Allende, and Gustafson provides a fascinating quotation from then-Soviet Premier Andropov as explanation: “Latin America is a sphere of special U.S. interests. The U.S. has permitted us to act in Poland and Czechoslovakia. We must remember this. Our policy in Latin America must be cautious.” Whether this says more about Soviet policy in Latin America or U.S. policy toward Eastern Europe at the time is left to the reader to decide.

After demonstrating through the documentary record that the CIA was not even aware of the specific timing of the coup that overthrew Allende until it was underway, much less involved in planning the event, Gustafson concludes by providing a cogent analysis of the impact of the events in Chile on the CIA in general and on the utility of covert operations in particular. He notes that the Agency was essentially carrying out, often reluctantly, orders from President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger, and criticizes the United States for its lack at the time of a formalized system of executive control and legislative oversight over covert operations.

It is interesting to note, although Gustafson does not make this point, that it was largely CIA financial support for political parties in Chile that brought to light the fact that the United States had no overt means to provide such support to political parties in other countries. That realization led subsequently to the creation of the National Democratic Institute and National Republican Institute as mechanisms through which overt assistance could be provided to support democratic parties and processes elsewhere.

Hostile Intent is a book that needed to be written and deserves to be read by anyone interested in the role of the United States in the political events in Chile during the early 1970s. It is unfortunate that most people interested in those events have already made up their minds, and the impression that the United States strongly supported and perhaps even engineered the coup that overthrew President Allende in September 1973 is deeply imbedded in popular mythology. Gustafson defends admirably his thesis that this was not the case. And his description of how the lack of coherent management of covert actions contributed to the failure of U.S. policy in this instance, as well as his recommendations of organizational changes to prevent similar mistakes in the future, should be required reading for future American political leaders and managers of the intelligence community.

Michael W. Cotter
Michael W. Cotter

Amb. (ret.) Michael W. Cotter is vice president and associate publisher of American Diplomacy. Ambassador Cotter was posted to South Vietnam, Bolivia (during the Allende government in Chile), Ecuador, Zaire, Turkey, Chile, and Turkmenistan, where he served as ambassador. Living in the Chapel Hill area, Amb. Cotter writes and lectures on international topics as well as contributing to community volunteer activities.

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