Declassified files reveal how UK officials discuss foreign policy when nobody’s watching

Chile pardons death squad criminal

On 11 September 1973, the Chilean military violently removed the elected government of Salvador Allende and installed a dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. UK-manufactured arms were used in the coup, and prime minister Margaret Thatcher would go on to call Pinochet a “true friend” and lobby against his persecution for war crimes.

Less known, however, is how UK officials discussed Chile’s coup behind closed doors. Declassified foreign office documents published by historian Mark Curtis shed light on how UK officials discuss foreign policy when nobody’s watching.

Disregard for human life

UK planners were quite aware of the bloody nature of the coup. On 14 September 1973, UK ambassador to Chile Reginald Secondé noted:

The coup was carried out efficiently and with a cold-blooded, surgical approach untypical of the Chilean character… It is likely that casualties run into the thousands, certainly it has been far from a bloodless coup…

The extent of the bloodshed has shocked people.

Three days later, he added:

in view of the bloody nature of the coup, the Chilean armed forces are likely to have a poor international image…

Read on...

On 13 September, foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home told Secondé that, despite the bloody nature of the coup:

We still have enough at stake in economic relations with Chile to require good relations with the government in power.

Secondé then embarked on a campaign to “reassure public opinion at home”, and sought the permission of Chile’s new foreign minister Ismael Huerta to publish a statement on the situation. Huerta, however, was reportedly “not able to accept reference to deaths of many Allende followers or [the] large number of people arrested”. Secondé left these parts out in the final statement issued to the British public, for which Douglas-Home thanked him:

The statement helped us to defend our relatively early recognition of the new government against domestic criticism.


The UK government didn’t want to step on the toes of Chile’s new dictatorship for fear that it would affect potentially lucrative business opportunities. Indeed, as Secondé wrote one week after the coup:

Most British businessmen… will be overjoyed at the prospect of consolidation which the new military regime offers…

Now is the time to get in.

On 1 October, Secondé doubled down on his preference for a business-friendly dictatorship:

The military have no political experience and are likely to be heavy handed. Circumstances also will push them into directions which British public opinion will deplore. But this regime suits British interests much better than its predecessor. [emphasis added]

And one month later, the UK Latin American Department told Secondé that arms sales to Chile would “quietly” continue:

Existing defence contracts will be met (ships and aircraft). New enquiries will also be expected, but we shall wish to play these as quietly as possible for some time to come…

We shall not try to get landed with any large number of refugees from Chile, but we shall support UNHCR efforts to resettle them wherever else they want to go…

In other words, the UK government was well aware of the widespread abuses committed during the weeks following Chile’s coup. Indeed, UK-made arms played a pivotal role. UK officials nonetheless misguided the British public in order to score better relations for UK business.

Symbolic threat

UK officials also seemed deeply concerned about the symbolic threat posed by Allende’s socialist government in Chile. If Allende could succeed in peacefully building a more equal society in Chile, they feared, then other countries might follow suit.

In a Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) report dated February 1971, for instance, it is noted that:

the United States must view the prospect of a moderately successful extreme left-wing regime in Chile with considerable misgiving if only because of the effect this might have elsewhere in Latin America.

A JIC report written later in 1971 reads:

The success or failure in economic terms of the Chilean ‘experiment’ could have considerable significance for developments elsewhere on the continent

A month after the coup in 1973, meanwhile, Secondé quite shockingly reported back to Douglas-Home that:

a successful outcome to the Chilean experiment would have repercussions beyond Latin America by offering a pattern to be followed in other countries, particularly France and Italy.

So not only did the Chilean example threaten neighbouring Latin American countries, but UK officials worried it may spread as far as mainland Europe.

Human rights

UK officials thus saw the survival of global capitalism as of higher importance than human life, and saw socialist governments – however moderate – as a credible threat to global capitalism.

We could learn a great deal about contemporary statecraft from these documents.

Featured image via Kena Lorenzini/WikiCommons

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