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Accountability and Legacy: The Policies of Henry Kissinger: An Interview with Peter Kornbluh


Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and director of the Archive’s Cuba and Chile documentation projects, having previously served as director of the Iran-Contra and Nicaragua projects. He has written several books, including Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana and The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. In addition, his articles have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and The New Yorker. 

Emma Stroupe: Henry Kissinger recently passed away. I was wondering if you could first talk about his broad legacy in Latin America and South America. How is he remembered, and how might that differ from how we remember him here in the United States? 

Peter Kornbluh: In Latin America, he’s going to be remembered, as the Chilean ambassador put it, as a person with a “profound moral misery,” a US policymaker lacking in respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of smaller countries, particularly those in Latin America—a policymaker that basically felt that the region had produced no history of world importance. 

Henry Kissinger’s reputation, no matter how many accolades and compliments are paid to him by the European side of the world—for his efforts at détente, for his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, for his considerable work on bringing China into the superpower equation and trying to normalize relations with China—that is set aside in regions like Latin America and Africa. There, Henry Kissinger will be seen as somebody who was on the wrong side of history and as one of the leading interventionists, if not an imperialist. 

ES: Let’s dive into Chile a little more. Salvador Allende, elected in 1970, was deemed a national security threat to the United States by Kissinger. Was he a legitimate threat to national security? And if not, what were the strategies that Kissinger and other CIA operatives or State Department operatives used to paint him in a certain way? What was the importance of that, and how did they do it?

PK: Henry Kissinger knew that Salvador Allende’s election did not represent a national security threat to the United States. Why? Because he had asked the national security agencies to do a threat assessment of Allende before the election. We have this assessment, you can read it. But basically, it said that Allende was not going to be a compliant client of the Soviet Union. He wasn’t going to turn Chile into a nuclear base. He wasn’t going to become a particularly significant ally of Cuba. And really, the worst that could be said was that his election might have a psychological impact for the United States and other countries in the region. But that hint of an impact, which the national security agencies did not consider a national security threat, Kissinger transformed into this most significant argument for overthrowing Allende, keeping him from even being inaugurated president. 

He apparently highlighted that part of the report. And then, after he and Richard Nixon had failed to block Allende from becoming president, Kissinger advanced to what I call the “domino theory of electoral socialism.” Essentially, Allende’s free and fair election as the first free and fairly elected socialist in the world could create what Kissinger called an “imitative phenomenon” that would spread to other countries in Latin America and even to Europe. He believed this would change the balance of the world during the Cold War, a point which he argued to Nixon. Because this would involve free and fair elections, the United States would not have any recourse to really challenge the legitimacy of Allende or these other leaders to come. And so the insidious model effect, as he referred to it, was a grave danger to the United States down the road. Therefore, US policy had to aggressively oppose Allende. In Kissinger’s mind, Nixon should not listen to any argument that the United States could coexist with Allende. Kissinger or the United States basically needed to assure that Allende was a model of failure rather than a model of success. 

ES: Shortly after Allende’s election, there was a coup in Chile. What was the role of the United States in this coup, and what is the importance of these actions now? 

PK: You don’t need my words necessarily to tell you what the US role was. You can use Henry Kissinger’s own words. He used to secretly tape his telephone calls. People like yourself and your fellow students know that Richard Nixon famously taped his meetings and his phone calls, but very few people know that Henry Kissinger secretly taped his calls as well. And unlike Nixon, Kissinger had a team of secretaries in his office who spent the evenings transcribing these tapes of his daily phone calls, creating a body of papers known as Telecons: telephone conversation transcripts that totaled over 30,000 pages during his tenure in the US government between January 1969 and January 1977.

These are invaluable, candid, contemporary documentations of his opinions, his policies, his arguments, and his cajoling. At times, he would lie when he would get on the phone with various members of the press, try to mislead them, but we have his telephone conversation with President Nixon right after the coup took place. And you get the sense of Henry Kissinger’s character cavalierly saying that the “Chile thing” is getting consolidated. The American press is bleating like a lamb because a communist was overthrown. 

And the two of them are kind of commiserating with each other that they’re not going to get the credit that they deserve for this Cold War victory. At one point, Kissinger says, “I mean, instead of celebrating—in the Eisenhower era, we would be heroes,” talking about how the press treated Eisenhower after Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown in Guatemala with the CIA’s support. And Nixon basically wants affirmation that the US role in Chile is not going to be exposed. He doesn’t ask if the United States had a role in Chile. He says, “Our hand is not going to show, right?” And Kissinger says, “We didn’t do it.” Here, he’s referring to the actions of the United States on the day of the coup. The United States was not on the ground. It was not manning the tanks. It was not flying the planes that bombed the La Moneda palace. They didn’t have a communication center where it was orchestrating all of this. 

Then he goes on, he says we helped them. He says they created the conditions as best as possible. And that does sum up what the US role was. At the beginning of the Allende period, Kissinger calls for creating minimal conditions for Allende not to be able to govern and maximum conditions so that his failure to be able to govern will lead to his overthrow. And then he basically refers three years later to those conditions again, and they managed to create those conditions, the maximum conditions. They did that through a variety of means. 

There was an invisible blockade that Kissinger’s office orchestrated in which the United States pressured the multilateral banks to stop lending money to the Chilean government during Allende’s rule. These banks quietly cut them off, which was very serious for Chile because most of their machinery was from the United States, and most of their trade and significant industrial infrastructure and mining and agriculture was all with US equipment and all depended on that equipment and purchase power credits to continue to import that equipment. There were also the CIA operations, which Kissinger basically oversaw. 

He was head of the committee that basically supervised and authorized covert operations in all countries. And when you read the minutes that we’ve obtained, you see Kissinger taking off his national security advisor’s hat and putting on a quasi-CIA director’s hat. He’s telling the CIA people how to take the money that he’s authorizing for covert operations and sell it on the black market in Chile for a lot more money. In doing so, its purchasing power will go a lot further. 

Significant, long discussions were also had about whether to fund a leading newspaper, El Mercurio, and a major propaganda operation, which some people opposed doing. Kissinger and Nixon decided they wanted to fund it, and that money went forward. They focused on disruption operations inside Allende’s own ruling coalition, the Popular Unity Coalition. They focused on expanding contacts with the Chilean military to influence them. And they focused on this propaganda effort supporting El Mercurio, which was the leading bullhorn for the opposition. It was kind of like Fox News on paper, if you will, basically openly calling for the overthrow of Allende and misrepresenting everything that was happening in Chile to the degree that would incite Chileans to take up arms and overthrow the government. And the CIA itself gave credit to that propaganda program of supporting El Mercurio as “setting the stage” for the coup of September 11, 1973. So those were the conditions. CIA cable traffic keeps referring to creating a “coup climate.” Certainly, for those three years, that was the effort of the United States under the direct supervision of Henry Kissinger. 

ES: Let’s talk a little bit about Henry Kissinger’s legacy within the United States. How do you think we should remember Kissinger as Americans, as citizens, as voters? Was he a hero? A war criminal? 

PK: Well, let me say that Henry Kissinger had a lot of people around him at the time who dissented from his policies. He had a couple of courageous aides who told him that intervening to block and undermine the elected government of Chile was a terribly bad idea for long-term US interests because Allende was not a threat to the United States, and the inevitable exposure of that intervention would be long remembered in Latin America and the third world, if not many other parts of the world. It would be a permanent black eye, if you will, on the legacy of US foreign policy and the position of the United States in the world. The national security interests of the United States are our reputation of what we stand for. And Henry Kissinger, in my mind, was a modern-day American Machiavelli. He was the quintessential policymaker who believed that might makes right and that the ends justify the means. 

He was unscrupulous and immoral in his efforts to promote US power in the world. He promoted that power at the expense of the principles and values of the unique country that he purported to represent. And the values of the American public, I think, showed themselves very clearly when it was exposed that Kissinger and Nixon had been involved in overthrowing Allende and that Kissinger’s policies were supporting the bloody military regime that came after Allende—that of Augusto Pinochet. The US public and Congress in the mid-1970s were outraged by these two issues. That led to a demand that the United States stand up for values of supporting democracy, being against military dictatorship, and making human rights criteria of foreign policy a high criterion. Congress started to pass laws that restricted Kissinger’s ability to simply embrace the Pinochet regime. That’s why we have these laws on the books. 

I think that this is the type of thing that people need to remember. Kissinger did not want a model of Salvador Allende, a socialist freely elected, to endure. But he seemed to have no problem in helping to create a model of an Augusto Pinochet and wanting him to be able to endure. And he turned his back on human rights. He turned his back on essentially international terrorism when he stepped in and blocked State Department officials from delivering a protest to Pinochet about Chile’s role in Operation Condor, this international consortium of Southern Cone Secret Police Services that were going around the world assassinating and blowing up their opponents. So, you could really understand where his sympathies lay. 

By helping to create a model of a Pinochet who arguably never would have arrived, succeeded, or endured without Henry Kissinger, Kissinger has created something that outlasts him in a way. Some of your generation know that there were people trying to overthrow the US government on January 6, 2021, who were wearing Pinochet t-shirts, these horrible shirts that show people being thrown out of helicopters into the ocean. It was once just the extreme, extreme, extreme right that bought these shirts and lauded the image of an Augusto Pinochet. But now, it’s just the extreme right—they’re not quite so fringe anymore. The whole idea of having a coup in the United States is certainly a distinct possibility. In Chile, the ghost of Pinochet, kind of with the ghost of Henry Kissinger behind him, continues to haunt the political system there. 

He weakened the institutions of democracy in Chile and was so cavalier about the significance of those types of institutions everywhere. This continues to reverberate today as a significant part of the civilized world is facing the ominous, dark prospect of authoritarian rule. 

ES: What is the importance of fact-finding and searching for these conversations and these documents to make sure that we have all the pieces of the story before it gets told to the public?

PK: Well, the US government, Nixon, and Kissinger baldly misrepresented both in testimony before Congress and speaking to the press and in Kissinger’s memoirs what their policy really was in Chile. To a degree, they didn’t quite get away with it because the overthrow of Allende happened right as the whole uproar over Vietnam was kind of climaxing in the United States. Kissinger ended up settling it, and he settled it on terms that it could have been settled on four years earlier—and even more importantly, 12,000 to 15,000 deaths earlier of young American men in the jungles of Indochina. So, the American public was just not willing to sit around and be spoon-fed the false histories that Kissinger and Nixon were putting out. 

That’s almost 50 years ago now. It really was a reckoning for the dark and sinister side, the hidden side of US foreign policy, for the first time in the mid-1970s. It lasted all, I would say, of about five years of a sort of morality with Jimmy Carter being president. Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the Cold War heated up. 

When Ronald Reagan became president, in some ways very similar to Trump, arguing that he would make America great again, make America strong again, the Contra War and Nicaragua started, and the bloodshed and just incredible immorality of US foreign policy was with us once again. So, US policy tends to be cyclical. I hope that it continues to be cyclical in a sense that’s the best we could hope for now instead of being frozen on the side of Donald Trump. But the history is important for us to remember because Kissinger’s policies really were rejected by the American public, and people forget that. Jimmy Carter became president against Gerald Ford running on a human rights platform. He made human rights an issue in the campaign. He called for a more moral American public. He demanded that US foreign policy—which had been done in the name of the American public but without its knowledge—become more transparent and also more reflective of the actual values, the better values of the American people. 

Kissinger represented none of those, I think it’s quite fair to say. Certainly, it’s not a radical statement of any kind to say that about him. He was a brilliant geostrategist. He understood superpower politics. He was a master negotiator, a suave and charming and many times effective diplomat. But he also abused the power of the United States in smaller countries, whether it was in Latin America or Africa, where, of course, he sent the CIA in to fight against the anti-colonial struggle there and ended up putting the United States on the side of the pro-apartheid forces in South America. Kissinger took this country to the wrong side of history, and luckily, we have a historical record to provide not a legal verdict on the legacy of Henry Kissinger but the verdict of history, the judgment of history on what he did so often in our name but without our knowledge.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.