Focus on ‘US Policy toward Chile in the 1970s: Frustrated Ambitions’

At the beginning of the 1970s, US foreign policy officials were facing something of a crisis in confidence of how the United States should conduct itself on the world’s stage going forward. The disastrous Vietnam war campaign meant public support for foreign military intervention was at an all-time low, while the countries whose economies were worst affected by the Second World War were beginning to once again prosper and stabilise, meaning the US could no longer exert its influence quite as it had in the previous two decades. Though Cold War tensions may not have been as volatile as they had been at the start of the previous decade, its perpetually looming shadow meant that US officials would never entertain the notion of dialling back US influence overseas.

When socialist Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in November 1970, the US was not prepared to sit idly by while the Soviets moved to establish a new sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. Allende had been elected democratically, further complicating the matter for American bureaucrats who sought to depose him. If the Americans were to achieve their goal of regime change then they would have to find more covert means of doing so. Allende was eventually ousted in a coup d’état that resulted in Chileans living under a brutal military dictatorship until 1990. The exact level of involvement of the US government and military in the coup has been a cause for debate and contention ever since, with the classified nature of foreign policy-making meaning that the exact machinations have remained unclear.

Salvador Allende giving a speech. Credit: Che Malla

Having previously looked into US-Chile relations during the Reagan administration in 2015’s co-authored Reagan and Pinochet: The Struggle over U.S. Policy toward Chile (2015), Morris Morley and Chris McGillion have turned their attention to the events of the previous decade, and how US policy towards Chile evolved and shifted during the wildly contrasting administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

Drawing upon a range of previously unexamined sources such as interviews with senior and junior foreign policy decision-makers in the White House and the Chilean opposition, newly declassified documents, and archival materials, US Policy toward Chile in the 1970s: Frustrated Ambitions not only sheds new light on the level of Washington’s interference in Santiago, but is revealing in how it lays out the tensions within the US political establishment and the disruption that occurred in the transition between administrations, preventing any real kind of coherence or continuity in US policy.

The methods and machinations established by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger naturally comes into close focus, but the real point of interest for Morley and McGillion comes in the form of those actors operating in the “lower echelons” of US bureaucracy. Government policy is, after all, not the work of a single all-powerful individual, but instead a conglomeration of ideas that synthesise until it becomes a consistent whole. The influence of such actors, the authors argue, has been wildly underestimated, particularly in regards to the ways in which policy decisions were subtly manipulated as they were disseminated from the oval office to the various government departments, in addition to those who were surreptitiously acting as conduits passing sensitive information to agitators in congress.

Morley and McGillion’s findings paint a picture of a White House far more divided and dysfunctional than we have been led to believe, and as such is vital reading for students and researchers of US foreign policy making, diplomatic history, and US-Chilean relations, as well as to the many who take an interest in how the world’s most prominent political superpower has conducted itself historically.

US Policy toward Chile in the 1970s: Frustrated Ambitions was released in December 2019. To learn more about the authors and to read an extract of the book you can visit its page on our website by clicking on the link above.

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