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America’s First Date with 9/11 Was Not on US Soil

Twenty-eight years before the Twin Towers carnage, on September 11, 1973, the US actively encouraged a military coup that toppled the socialist Chilean government of Salvador Allende.
Military jets bombed the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, in the 1973 coup against president Salvador Allende’s government. Credit: Wikipedia

This article was originally published on September 11, 2018 and was republished on September 11, 2023.

I was in New York on September 11, 2001. On my way to work from Queens to midtown Manhattan that morning, I was changing trains at the Queensborough Plaza metro station as I did each day. On the station platform, I saw some people peering into the distance and heard the word ‘smoke’ mentioned several times. On the train I heard no more of that, and did not think about it again till I reached my office a few minutes before 9 am. My secretary met me at the door to tell me about a horrible accident. Apparently a plane had suddenly lost altitude and crashed into the World Trade Centre. She told me the news was all over TV.

I rang up home to tell my wife about the freak ‘accident’. She said she would check. A couple of minutes later, she called back breathlessly. Another plane had rammed into one of the towers even as she was switching on the TV. Thick smoke was billowing out of the towers and the fire seemed to be spreading rapidly. She sounded stunned.

With the Brooklyn bridge in the foreground, a plane explodes after hitting the second tower of the World Trade Centre as the other tower burns, in New York, September 11, 2001. Credit: Reuters/Sara K. Schwittek

Within a few minutes, the news was everywhere. A little later, there was report of the attack at the Pentagon. It was chaos. The New York metro shut down, something it very rarely did. I worried for my daughter who was a ninth-grader at a school in far-away Bronx and who commuted by the school bus. Was she going to be safe? I called the school and could reach someone after several attempts. A calming  voice told me that every child would be taken care of, the school would make sure that she reached home safe, and would I please not  call the school again because they were being swamped with telephone enquiries. I didn’t know if I felt relieved.

The 9/11 attack brought mayhem but, remarkably, New York managed to rally in the crisis quickly enough. The metro resumed working in a few hours, although on a truncated route; my daughter was dropped off at home by the school bus like everyday else, though somewhat late; New Yorkers remained civil to one another and there were countless cases of people going out of their way to help others, often at great personal cost to themselves; and xenophobia was hardly in evidence anywhere, at least in the days immediately following the tragedy.

All that was destined to change over the next few weeks, however. While “(t)he world merely saw a particularly dramatic terror attack with a vast number of victims and (perhaps) a momentary public humiliation of the USA”, President George W. Bush announced that September 11 had changed everything, and “in doing so, actually did change everything, by in effect declaring (the USA) the single-handed protector of a world order…”

The White House declared that “a global struggle to the death between the causes of God and Satan were now taking place one again”; soon enough, “real life (began to) imitate(d) Hollywood spectaculars”. Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded in quick succession; the Middle East plunged in its worst-ever crisis from which it has not managed to recover in nearly two decades yet; Bush, incredibly, had himself photographed against a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner and retired in triumph to his Texas ranch, leaving much of the world in flames and proud of his legacy that consisted of such monstrosities as the USA PATRIOT Act – the hilarious American acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, 2001 – whose crippling impact on international trade is yet to fully run its course.

The US had changed irrevocably. But had it really? Was US liberalism of the 1990s the real thing, or was it only a brief interregnum? Did Vietnam  – the tiny country  the world’s greatest military power had peppered with more bombs than all the combatants of World War Two together had dropped upon one another over 6 years – define the US or was it an aberration? What does American policy on Latin America tell us? What happened in Chile on 11 September, 1973?

Chile, 1970-1973

Salvador Allende with Fidel Castro. Credit: Wikipedia

Even before Salvador Allende, leader of Chile’s Socialist Party, took over as the country’s first Marxist president in November, 1970, alarm bells had started ringing in Washington. Indeed, successive  American administrations, Republican as well as Democratic, had been heavily invested in the anti-Allende campaign in four successive presidential elections in 1952, 1958, 1964 and 1970, as the 1975 report of the Frank Church Committee of the US Congress was to reveal later. The CIA had in fact spent more money per capita in the 1964 Chilean elections than did the Democratic and Republican campaigns together in that year’s US presidential hustings.

Alone among  major South American countries, Chile had a long, unbroken tradition of political democracy going back to 1927. Besides, the country’s social and cultural life had strong progressive elements that often raised the hackles of conservatives in Chile’s neighbours. Since the end of the Second World War, the US had been relentlessly expanding its sphere of influence in Latin America, and nearly every dictatorship in the region – whether in Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay or Argentina – owed its allegiance to the bosses in the US who propped up their brutal regimes by generous financial and military support. In turn, these countries had allowed American business and US finance capital unlimited access to their markets and natural resources.

Chile, with its vibrant socialist and workers’ movements, was a thorn in the US’ flesh, and it was with rising dismay that President Richard Nixon looked on as the September, 1970 elections played out in Chile.

Allende’s margin of victory being slim, his election as president required Congressional ratification. Well before that could happen, Nixon had agreed with his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, that the US could not “let Chile go down the drain”. Allende’s strong socialist credentials struck fear in conservative hearts and the fact that Chile’s Communist Party, too, was a member of the coalition that Allende headed made matters even worse. An interagency group called ‘The 40 Committee’, chaired by Kissinger, was quickly formed with the mandate to coordinate and oversee covert sabotage operations in Santiago that would frustrate Allende’s bid, if necessary by engineering a military coup.

When, under intense international pressure, the Bill Clinton administration was obliged in 1999-2000 to declassify and release some documents relating to the US intelligence operations in Chile, many chilling details came to light of a sinister project of subversion and terror. The CIA funded and coordinated a plot to kidnap General Schneider, head of the Chilean army who had refused to conspire against the elected president. Schneider was killed in a botched operation, and the CIA is on record with having helped the kidnappers “for humanitarian reasons” to flee to the US. Having failed to stop Allende’s inauguration, Nixon urged Kissinger to make the Chilean economy ‘scream’, so that Allende’s appeal did not spread like a contagious disease to the US’ vassal states. Nixon also approved generous grants to several anti-Allende political formations and business enterprises. Thus, large sums of money were pumped into the staunchly right-wing El Mercurio, Chile’s largest media conglomerate, which stepped up on its campaign of misinformation and propaganda against the new government.

Allende set about his task of laying the foundation of an egalitarian society in right earnest. Land reforms were set in motion with large latifundias being disbanded; copper mining –Chile’s largest industry and its biggest exporter – was nationalised (including the US copper giant, Anaconda); social security cover was extended to nearly the entire population in stages; the health-care sector was significantly strengthened with mothers and new-borns being accorded priority; vast swathes of the population lying beyond the reach of formal education were covered by  extensive literacy drives; real wages of workers rose and minimum wages were legislated; the income tax system was rationalised; milk and midday meals were introduced in all schools. Unemployment and inflation rates fell significantly while GDP and industrial production expanded in substantial measure. The government also began supporting new cultural initiatives and subsidised the printing and distribution of the treasures of Chilean and world literature for mass consumption.  It made a strong – in the US’ eyes, defiant – political statement by establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. In 1971, Fidel Castro came on a rare state visit to Chile and toured the country extensively, to rousing reception everywhere, and was deeply impressed by Allende’s efforts to build a socialist society by entirely peaceful means.

All this brought a restive US administration to the end of its tether. Kissinger, soon to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was now obliged to fall back upon his ‘Track 2’ option – that of frank disruption. He famously said that if the Chileans did not know what was good for their country, the US – the world’s oldest democracy – had not merely to show it to them, but do it for them too. A senior CIA operative put it succinctly: “ We cannot ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come from within Chile. Therefore, the station (the CIA’s Santiago station) should employ every stratagem…. to create this internal resistance”.

So the fuse was lit in 1972. Disaffected groups in the army were funded and strongly encouraged to revolt; production in many industrial units was systematically cut back, even sabotaged,  by buying off groups of supervisors and technocrats who in any case hated Allende’s pro-poor initiatives; artificial shortages were created across many essential industrial and consumer items by bribing dealers and wholesalers; a marathon truckers’ strike was orchestrated across Chile to further exacerbate these shortages; the judiciary’s deeply-entrenched prejudices against social change were worked on to bring them into open hostility to the government; numerous strikes were provoked through  unabashed manipulation of local discontent over something or the other; and the urban middle class, exposed to a torrent of virulent misinformation about the government’s actions as well as its intent, began to clamour for change.

History will not absolve the Nixon administration of its crime in Chile, just as it will not absolve al-Qaeda of its outrage on innocent civilians in New York.

It did not help that, world-wide, there was at this point a steep drop in copper prices, hitting export earnings badly. The US had already cut off its aid lines to Chile and had also prevailed upon the multilateral credit agencies like the IMF to do the same. The entire opposition ganged up against Allende demanding major policy reorientations and Chile’s top court played along helpfully.

Hemmed in from all sides, Allende started making concessions to vested interests, notably the army. On 29 June, 1973, Lt Col. Roberto Souper led a coup and encircled the presidential palace with his tanks. The coup was beaten back, but General Carlos Prats, the Commander of the Chilean army and the Interior Minister who helped disarm the rebels, was soon embroiled in a controversy fomented  by the CIA and had to resign his position. On 23 August, General Augusto Pinochet who, unknown to the president, had already cut a deal with the CIA, managed to have himself installed as Prat’s successor. The last hurdle in the conspirators’ path had now been removed. 

The last known photograph of Allende alive, La Moneda Palace, September 11, 1973. Credit: Wikipedia

Pinochet moved swiftly and, on 11 September, the day Allende was scheduled to address the nation on the burgeoning crisis, he struck early in the morning, deploying army units to capture all vital installations and government buildings across Santiago at lightning speed.

As gunfire raged around the city centre, Pinochet called upon Allende to surrender. Allende refused. He declined an offer of safe passage also, vowing to die fighting at his post.

The September 24, 1973, cover of TIME magazine. Credit: TIME/Wikipedia

As the presidential palace began to be heavily shelled by rebel artillery, Chile’s socialist president bade goodbye to his countrymen in a radio address broadcast live. His last message was one of hope, rather than of despair:

“Workers of my country! I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to build a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”

The president and his bodyguards fought a hopeless but brave battle for some hours, until Allende decided to take his own life sometime in the afternoon, using a gun gifted to him by his friend Castro. Augusto Pinochet, the CIA’s darling, soon assumed power and unleashed a reign of repression and terror that lasted for 17 years. Tens of thousands were killed or ‘disappeared’; hundreds of thousands were jailed and tortured while many chose exile instead; and Milton Friedman’s free-market zealots ran riot over Chile’s economic landscape to reduce the country to a shambles. Within years, Chile became one of the most unequal societies in the whole world.

It must rank as one of history’s great ironies that the US suffered its most deadly enemy attack in six decades on a date it had chosen to unseat a democratically-elected government in a proud republic. The sins of a generation, it is said, are often visited on its own progeny. Salvador Allende, a Marxist and an atheist, had no use for sin or redemption. But history will not absolve the Nixon administration of its crime in Chile, just as it will not absolve al-Qaeda of its outrage on innocent civilians in New York.

Anjan Basu is a literary critic, commentator and translator based out of Bangalore. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.          

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