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Document of the Week: When Ordering the Assassination of a World Leader Required Secrecy

Unlike Trump, former U.S. President Richard Nixon went to great lengths to cover up plans to assassinate or topple foreign leaders.

U.S. President Richard Nixon shakes hands with CIA Director Richard Helms
U.S. President Richard Nixon shakes hands with CIA Director Richard Helms on March 7, 1969. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

There was a time when ordering the overthrow or assassination of a foreign head of state was a top-secret affair, not something the so-called leader of the free world would boast about on morning television. But U.S. President Donald Trump did just that last month, complaining on Fox & Friends that his plans to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were ultimately nixed by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis. “I would’ve rather taken him out. I had him all set. Mattis didn’t want to do it,” Trump said.

But while Trump may be the first U.S. president to brag publicly about putting another world leader in the crosshairs, he is hardly the first to do so.

Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon triggered a series of covert actions aimed at either preventing Chilean leftist politician Salvador Allende’s from being inaugurated president of Chile or overthrowing him if he took office, which he did on Nov. 3, 1970. The White House ultimately triggered a military coup against Allende, who died by suicide in the presidential palace in 1973, shooting himself with an AK-47 rifle that was reportedly give to him by the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The episode, which tarnished Washington’s reputation in Latin America and beyond, provides a good opportunity to reflect on the impact U.S. regime change has had on American standing in the world. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the beginnings of the U.S. plot, the National Security Archive assembled a collection of previously declassified documents detailing Nixon’s fevered attempts to take Allende down.

On Sept. 15, 1970, Nixon ordered the CIA to help instigate a military coup against Allende during a closed-door Oval Office meeting with his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and CIA Director Richard Helms, whose notes from that meeting we will be highlighting as part of our Document of the Week series. “Fifty years after it was written, Helm’s cryptic memorandum of conversation with Nixon remains the only known record of a U.S. president ordering the covert overthrow of a democratically elected leader abroad,” according to an account by the National Security Archives.

The notes, which Helms scrawled in barely legible script, do not explicitly call for Allende’s overthrow. But they make clear that shady business is afoot, that it’s going to be expensive, and that there is not a high degree of confidence that it is going to succeed. “1 in 10 chance perhaps, but save Chile!” Helms wrote. “[N]ot concerned risks involved. no involvement of embassy. $10,000,000 available, more if necessary. Full-time job—best men we have. Game plan. Make the economy scream.”

The meeting came several months after Nixon had requested an “urgent review” of U.S. interests and options in the country, according to the archive. That review, which was concluded in August 1970, included a top-secret annex that outlined plans for a covert operation effort to foment a military coup. The annex, titled “Extreme Option—Overthrow Allende,” relied on the willingness of the Chilean military brass to move against a democratically elected president, something U.S. diplomats believed they were prepared to do. The effort would also pose risks to America’s standing in Chile and abroad.

“An unsuccessful attempt, involving as it probably would revelation of U.S. participation, would have grave consequences for our relations with Chile, in the hemisphere, in the United States and elsewhere in the world,” according to the top-secret annex. “Were the overthrow effort to be successful, and even were U.S. participation to remain covert—which we cannot assure—the United States would become hostage to the elements we backed in the overthrow and would probably be cut off for years from most other political forces in the country.”

By the second week of September 1970, the CIA was instructing its operatives to foment economic, political, and psychological warfare in an effort to create a climate for a coup. Following the election, the CIA developed a two-pronged strategy. It first pressed the outgoing Chilean President Eduardo Frei to annul the election result, appoint a military cabinet, and appoint a transitional figurehead president, but Frei wouldn’t do it. Option B was dubbed the “chaos formula” and involved creating a “coup climate” that would “provide the Chilean military with the pretext for seizing power,” according to the National Security Archives.

The plan faced stiff resistance from within the U.S. government, including the State Department and the CIA station chief in Chile, who argued that the effort stood little chance of success and would harm long-term U.S. interests. But the plot moved ahead with its efforts to destabilize Chile, funneling money and weapons to anti-Allende elements and aiding in the assassination of the commander in chief of Chile’s armed forces, Gen. René Schneider, in October 1970. The efforts didn’t prevent Allende from taking office, but they ultimately laid the groundwork for Gen. Augusto Pinochet to seize power in a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973.

The CIA-backed overthrow of Allende’s government, which followed earlier CIA plots that helped topple democratic governments in Guatemala and Iran, left a stain on America’s self-styled reputation as a champion of democracy. It has also fueled concerns that another four more years of Trump, who has sought to undercut and ultimately oust governments in Iran and Venezuela, might restore America’s taste for taking out foreign leaders who stand in its way.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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