Salvador Allende was the first democratic election of a Socialist leader in Latin America, or elsewhere. Since the early 1960s, U.S. policy makers had dedicated tens of millions of dollars in overt aid and covert actions to preventing the popular head of the Chilean Socialist party from being elected. Allende’s victory set in motion a furious effort, ordered by President Nixon, supervised by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and implemented by the CIA, to destabilize Chile and undermine Allende’s ability to govern—an effort paving the way to the September 11, 1973 military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. After the coup, Kissinger famously told his top aides. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people,”

September 4,1970, 50 years ago, “Chile voted calmly to have a Marxist-Leninist state, the first nation in the world to make this choice freely and knowingly,” U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry dramatically reported to Washington in a cable titled “Allende Wins” on September 4, 1970.”we have suffered a grievous defeat; the consequences will be domestic and international; the repercussions will have immediate impact in some lands and delayed effect in others.”

Before the election, U.S. officials believed that the CIA “spoiling operations”—covert propaganda efforts to undermine Allende’s popularity before the election—would succeed. In a confidential conversation with Chile’s Christian Democrat President Eduardo Frei on the evening of September 3, 1970, Ambassador Korry predicted that the conservative National Party candidate, Jorge Alessandri, would defeat Allende in a three-way race. When Frei asked who would win, according to Korry’s report on their meeting, “I replied that I believed Alessandri would gain no less than 38 pct, that Allende could not realistically hope for more than 35 pct and that [the Christian Democrat candidate, Radomiro] Tomic might surprise the Marxists by squeezing in second, thus making it a tighter all round race.” In fact, Allende narrowly defeated Alessandri with 36.3 percent of the balloting; Tomic came in a distant third.

Even before the votes were fully counted, Allende’s election triggered a series of covert U.S. contingency plans designed to block his inauguration. Since no candidate had won a plurality of the balloting, the strategy focused on influencing the October 24, 1970, vote of the Chilean Congress to ratify the winner—through bribery and economic disruption, and a possible military coup. On the day of the election, Kissinger’s office reviewed a TOP SECRET/EYES ONLY CIA planning paper for the “40 Committee” which approved covert operations. The CIA initially saw “no chance that any action by US can influence [Chilean] Congressional vote to defeat Allende”—a position that Nixon and Kissinger refused to accept. The next day, CIA headquarters transmitted a cable to its station chief in Santiago asking for an assessment on “chances of overturning an Allende’s victory.”