a NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript
Online NewsHour Online Focus

February 6, 2001

On February 6, 2001, The NewsHour's Elizabeth Farnsworth interviewed Henry Kissinger about the Clinton Administration's release of thousands of formerly classified documents relating to U.S. policy towards Chile in the 1970's.

As President Richard Nixon's national security adviser and later secretary of state, Kissinger played a crucial role in determining and executing policy towards Chile during the years when Salvador Allende, a Socialist who headed a coalition that included the Communist Party, was president.

Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. On the 30th anniversary of that coup, the interview, excerpts of which appeared in a February 2001 NewsHour report, is now published in its entirety.

NewsHour Links

Online NewsHour Special Reports
Documents on U.S. Involvement in Chile

The Politics of Chile and Pinochet

Feb. 20, 2001:
Recently released documents shed new light on the relationship between the U.S. and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Feb. 26, 2000:
Human rights lawyer Jose Zalaquett on the search for the "disappeared."

Feb. 23, 2000:
Pinochet associate Gen. Guillermo Garin on the military's role in Chile's past.

March 13, 1999:
Chileans remain divided on how to pursue justice for the torture and disappearance of thousands during Pinochet's rule.

Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Latin America



Outside Links

Chilean Embassy in Washington

Chile's Executive Branch (in Spanish)

The National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us.

HENRY KISSINGER, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State: Pleasure to be here.

Reacting to the release of documents

Chile DocumentsELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The State Department, the Defense Department, the FBI and other agencies have just released about twenty three thousand documents having to do with Chile and especially having to do with the political violence in Chile. What do you think of the release of these documents?

HENRY KISSINGER: It's hard for me to answer because I don't think I've read any of the mess that came out. I must have read many, several of them when the Church Committee looked at them twenty five years ago --

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Frank Church Committee headed by Frank Church in the Senate.

HENRY KISSINGER: Exactly. Investigating the intelligence community. And every once in awhile one of them gets into the newspapers and then I'm asked to take a position on them. But as a general proposition I would say this: those documents that deal with national policy, conversations with foreign leaders, and things of that nature, I think should be released.

And then the things that deal with criminal activity in this country such as the assassination of (Orlando) Letelier, they should be released. Those that deal with intelligence operations I have no difficulty with investigating the general nature and purpose. I'm uneasy about releasing too many operational cables -- about the insight they may give into intelligence activities. But again it's very hard to answer that in the abstract without having seen the documents to which you are referring.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because the CIA did for the first time release a whole batch of documents about covert operations. I mean, there are parts that are edited, blacked out, but....


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think for the most part those shouldn't have been released?

HENRY KISSINGER: I am not conscious of having looked at any of them so that I -- my instinct is against releasing operational cables on intelligence activities -- not policy making cables -- even policy making CIA cables. It's the ones to and from the field that bother me because of the insight they give and the ease with which they lend themselves to distortion because it's very easily possible that the top people never know what is in the details of these cables.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the new developments in human rights? When Pinochet was taken and put under house arrest in London, some people saw this as a huge development in human rights and when the House of Lords, the Law Lords as they call them, decided that sovereign immunity really didn't apply to torture and other cases like that, human rights lawyers, for example, considered this a great victory. What is your view of these developments?

Henry KissingerHENRY KISSINGER: Again it's a very difficult question to answer in a short interview. I support the criminal courts, the war crimes courts in Rwanda and in Yugoslavia. In other words, when there is a specific crime for which people can be indicted, I support this. When they attempt to establish what is called universal jurisdiction in which any judge anywhere in the world can indict anyone for human rights violations --

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Which some countries have --

HENRY KISSINGER: But, also has the right to define what the human rights violations are so that there is no clear definition, then I get uneasy. I think there should be a prior legal definition of the Security Council that establishes a particular set of crimes and a particular court responsible for it. I do not favor the method that was used in the Pinochet case.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some newspaper articles said this could apply for example to Henry Kissinger when he travels. Do you worry about that?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Has anybody ever told you not to travel?

HENRY KISSINGER: I don't worry about that but it could apply to anybody. I mean, just using my name, it's a convenient way of saying that any judge can indict any official and ask for extradition. Then the extradition proceeding runs on its own. It's independent of the guilt or innocence of the person because that deals only with the extradition request so the possibility of harassment. It applies to Clinton. It applies to Bush. It applies to Albright. I just mention them other than to catalogue, anybody involved in the Gulf War, anyone involved in Kosovo, or anyone involved in normal operations of government. I think this concept of universal jurisdiction to be applied by individual judges is extremely dangerous.

Dealing with Pinochet and human rights

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's look at Pinochet's situation for a minute now. He's back in Chile. He's under house arrest again. He's charged with 57 murders and 18 kidnappings perpetrated as part of one particular case that's called the "Caravan of Death" case. There are courts in Italy, France, Great Britain, Switzerland that are looking into charges against him.

There has been reportedly a grand jury in Washington that again has looked at the (Orlando) Letelier case perhaps to bring a case against him in that too. Perhaps the Justice Department would request extradition.

You met with him face to face in 1976, this man who is now charged with all these crimes. [Document: "Department of State, Memorandum of Conversation" (7/8/76), PDF required]

One of the things the documents show is that in this conversation you brought up human rights but you also told him, I think you said, we are behind you, we are sympathetic with what you're trying to do here. I think the previous government was headed toward communism. I think you are a victim of the left wing groups around the world. Why did you not say to him: You're violating human rights? You're killing people. Stop it.?

HENRY KISSINGER: First of all, human rights were not an international issue at the time, the way they have become since. That was not what diplomats and Secretaries of States and Presidents were saying generally to anybody in those days. But quite apart from this, the trip to Chile has to be seen in its entirety. On the way there, I made a speech in the Dominican Republic strongly affirming the importance of human rights. I made a speech to the Organization of American States, strongly affirming the importance of human rights.

In talking to the head of state of the government, I spent half my time telling him that he should improve his human rights performance in any number of ways.

But it was also true that we were convinced as I said, as you correctly quoted, I was convinced that Allende was heading the country toward communism. At that time, Argentina was in chaos. Uruguay had a radical left wing revolution. Peru had a left wing socialist military government. And Castro was still a vital force. So we believed that the establishment of a Castro-like regime in Chile would create a sequence of events in all of the, in least the southern cone of Latin America -- it would be extremely inimical to the national interests of the United States at a time when the Cold War was at its height. And for that reason, we did not want to weaken Pinochet to a point where the Allende people would come back.

KissingerBut within that limitation, we were trying to do what we could to improve the human rights performance of Pinochet and while the phraseology of the document you mentioned -- to whose release, incidently, I do not object -- was polite, you will see that I kept coming back to human rights in the conversation, if I remember it correctly, and with his saying to me that he was releasing some prisoners and I said 'These prisoners are not enough. We need the establishment of habeas corpus and other protections.' But I did not do it in the indignant tone of voice that those who think lecturing is the only method of diplomacy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay, help me to understand this because I think this is what viewers are going to really want to understand. Theoretically, part of the threat of Communism in Chile would have been that it would be very dangerous to the human rights of Chileans because of --

HENRY KISSINGER: (interrupting) And to the national security of the United States.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And to the national security of the United States -- but these things that you were worried that Allende would do: threaten the press, put people in jail, close Congress -- Pinochet had just done all those things and Allende (didn't....)

HENRY KISSINGER: Yeah but you also have to remember that at the end of -- that Pinochet left a functioning democracy while we thought that Allende was heading it towards what we now see in Cuba.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the main threat -- this was my next question -- this was --

HENRY KISSINGER: (Interrupting) It's an important thing for your viewers to understand. Today that the Cold War is over it's easy to forget what the Cold War was like. We thought rightly or wrongly, we were in a life and death struggle with the Soviet Union as a functioning global system. We were not simply engaged in an abstract philosophical debate about the virtues of Communism versus Democracy.

This was also a question of the national survival of the United States and the Democratic administrations that had proceeded us had made the same judgment about Allende and had put a lot of money into Chile into -- covertly -- into the political campaigns -- in fact, a lot more than we had prior to the Allende victory to defeat Allende. So this was not an aberrant judgment of one American administration.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But this gets to the next question: Allende had run in '58 and '64. And it's absolutely true that especially in '64, there was a lot of money that went into defeating him and Frei won. But he'd accepted defeat.

HENRY KISSINGER: Well he had no choice.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you were just pretty convinced that in 1970, from what you knew, that he would clamp down?

HENRY KISSINGER: And he did. Well clamped, he tried systematically, and this is in part why he was overthrown -- I didn't really think that this interview was going to be about -- Pinochet and Allende. But one forgets -- it is not mentioned -- that the Democratic Congress in Chile urged that the military take a role in government before Allende was overthrown and that all the Democratic parties in Chile welcomed Pinochet's coming to power. They turned on Pinochet only when he didn't relinquish power.

Responding to 1970s documents

Chile DocumentsELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's look at some of these documents. Some people will point out, I think, that we interview, that you played a very large role right after the election of Allende in orchestrating U.S. policy, in making sure there were measures that might prevent Allende from coming to office. Since he was only elected with a plurality, he then had to go to Congress for a runoff and you had hoped that maybe he could be prevented from finally coming to office.

And that there were two parts of that as far as I can tell: there was an overt and a covert part to that. And you played a very active role so let's look at these documents in case other people talk about them.

HENRY KISSINGER: Well when you say an active role, uh, I was National Security Adviser. The National Security Adviser was, and I'm sure still is, the chairman of what was then called the 40 Committee that supervises covert operations. So it was institutionally necessary. All these actions were ordered by the president then. In fact, President Nixon played an extremely active role in the --


HENRY KISSINGER: And it's quite true that I was the coordinator of it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. There's a document that you sent to the president which asks that a special group be set up to bypass the usual State Department, for example, the Ambassador in Chile, in order to have -- [Documents: "Chile: Our Modus Operandi" (9/16/70), "Memorandum for the President from Dr. Kissinger" (9/17/70), PDF required]



Kissinger and Nixon walkingHENRY KISSINGER: It is almost impossible to reconstruct the atmosphere of that period. The reason Nixon was so concerned was because he believed that the embassy had sabotaged the covert actions against Allende prior to the election because it was Nixon's belief -- and it was almost certainly correct -- that the embassy was in favor of the Christian Democrat who had no chance of winning while the center-right fellow called Alessandri, who lost by only one or two percent, did not receive State Department support because they were ideologically not in favor of him. So that was one of the reasons why Nixon thought -- he also thought that the ambassador there was actually supporting what we were trying to do but would not be able to be very disciplined -- so that's true. There was a group set up to handle it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So this is the document about that...this is a group set up to handle the covert operation --

HENRY KISSINGER: Now this document is thirty-one years old.


HENRY KISSINGER: So yeah, this is a summary of what the problem is. And why, why there should be a coordinating group in Washington.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then, one of the main things that this group helped coordinate was contacts -- I understand that there are debates about how long those contacts went on -- with groups in Chile which eventually kidnapped and assassinated the head of the army who was a constitutionalist and wanted to let Allende to take power: General Rene Schneider. Tell us about that.

HENRY KISSINGER: I'll just make one sentence about this and then I want to get off the subject because you either devote half an hour to it or it's unfair to do it.

First of all it's important to understand what we were trying to do. Allende won by 36 percent of the..technically 36 percent, so that 64 percent of the people were against a communist solution.

What we were trying to bring about was not a coup. What we were trying to bring about was one of two outcomes: either that the Congress -- if nobody had 50 percent -- the Congress would not vote for Allende. Or that there would be another election called in which only two people would run. One would be Allende and the other would be the two non left-wing parties or two non-Communist parties together. That was the objective that was attempted to be achieved. As this unfolded, it became clearer and clearer that there was no confidence in Chile to achieve either of these objectives so on October 15th, I called off any of these operations.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But just fit in, explain to me because I'm not sure I'm clear on this, fit in --

HENRY KISSINGER: Did we know, did Washington know that they wanted to kidnap Schneider? You know I can't reconstruct this. I'm not sure that was known in Washington.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You didn't realize they were going to kidnap Shneider?

HENRY KISSINGER: Look, it's thirty one years ago. It was not anything that we would normally deal with. We would deal with a general concept. Anyway, as far as were concerned in the White House, this thing ended on October 15th. Then I think around October 23rd or so, I don't remember the exact date, they kidnapped Schneider and in the process killed him.


HENRY KISSINGER: The Church Committee explicitly stated that there was never any plan to kill Schneider. And the Church Committee looked at all the documents which I don't have.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So this document that it's "firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup"? They just didn't get the message in the CIA? [Document: "CIA Message to Station in Santiago, Chile" (10/16/70), PDF required]

HENRY KISSINGER: If I remember -- I can't remember -- this is an operational document the CIA sent to the field. We would have never seen that at all. I think there is another document that you have in which it is stated -- what you have to remember that these documents happen as follows: there is a meeting in the White House office, then the guy in, then the CIA man attending it, writes a memo for himself which we never see which puts their position in the best possible light. Then he sends another one to the field, which we see less, which is again geared to the morale of his troops. What this document says is that we have come to the conclusion that the coup cannot succeed and therefore preserve your assets.

The time may come but you will, at any rate I'm not sure any of this was said either. What I was conscious of saying was that this is not to be done now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's important because --

HENRY KISSINGER: I mean, they may say "preserve your assets," this is all a reasonable thing to say but the basic message was "do nothing now."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The documents do show -- and the CIA summary of the documents that came out -- do show that people who were convicted in Chile of killing Schneider were given money by the CIA. Are you saying that's just something separate from you?

HENRY KISSINGER: When? Afterwards?


HENRY KISSINGER: I don't think that that ever got to the White House. But this is exactly what I didn't want to do because thirty years after, there is no possible way I can remember.

  Reflecting on Chile policy in hindsight

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well then let's talk generally. You now have had a chance to think about Chile -- you've written about this in your own memoirs. You've read about it. You've followed the history of Chile ever since. You know the good things that have happened in Chile since then and you know the bad things that have happened in Chile since then. Do you have any regrets about U.S. policy in those years?

HENRY KISSINGER: From that point of view, the assessment was correct. I think the particular actions -- whether one would do them -- I think our assessment of Allende was correct. I think that there was something boy scout-ish and amateurish and immature about the immediate reaction to the Allende victory because that was not, we should have known that that was not feasible. Again, I would question...but the particular actions, I will repeat, were an attempt to bring about either a vote by the Chilean Congress or another election. They were not an attempt to bring about a coup.

PinochetELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you have the feeling that you might have misread Pinochet too? That you should have come down harder earlier --

HENRY KISSINGER: First of all, we didn't know Pinochet when he --

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I mean, once he'd been in a while?

HENRY KISSINGER: It is very easy now, thirty one years after the event, to take a high moral position here. When the Pinochet revolution occurred, in the middle of September, in the first week of October, the Middle East war broke out.

We, I spent ninety five percent of my time dealing with the Middle East war. And in addition we had to deal with the Soviet Union. We had to deal with China.

And we had a president in the midst of Watergate; and to now say we should have dealt with this and that human rights issue, in the abstract, probably. But if you want to judge what a secretary of state and president really do, you have to place it in the context of the time and the other pressures that he faces. But after the Middle East war broke out, we were almost totally preoccupied with that. We had an alert with Russia, with the Soviet Union. We slid toward confrontation with the Soviet Union. We were at the very beginning of our relationship with China and if you look at my travel schedule....

Of course -- if we had been clearer, I think I even said, I even said to the Chileans consistently, one could understand what happens at the beginning when there is a civil war going on and it will not be understandable when it goes on.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But there really wasn't a civil war then was there?

HENRY KISSINGER: There was a six week period when there was, when there was a whole series of military, of military actions.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Should there be some kind of commission here along the same lines as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where all of this information can come out? Including the defense of some of the policies?

HENRY KISSINGER: Well, this assumes that the policy was immoral or worse -- and that I don't accept.

I don't mind, I mean, there are certainly lots of people working on this thing but to pick out one particular policy in one particular period, I would regret for the sake of the country because it gives a misleading impression. But if it is done and if it's going to be done, I'm not going to object to it formally if it's done. But I think apartheid is a different problem from this and this is -- you know -- this is trying after the event for one particular point of view, to criminalize its opponents; they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said to me that you hadn't even known who Charles Horman or any, you didn't know about the Americans --

HENRY KISSINGER: The only trouble with these things is that some guy remembers that he mentioned, as far as I have been able to reconstruct, that issue did not reach my level until 1976. But I could be wrong.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And on the (Orlando) Letelier case, you had known him?

HENRY KISSINGER: I knew Letelier. I liked him personally. He was a prisoner in Chile and I intervened on behalf of the Mexicans, of the Mexican government, to let him out and send, to go to Mexico. And I saw him, I think, two or three times when he was in Washington as an exile. I had personally hired a guard for him.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were you shocked when he was killed in the streets of Washington?

HENRY KISSINGER: I think it was an outrage.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm going to read one paragraph from the White House press release at the time that the most recent documents were released: "One goal of the project is to put original documents before the public so that it may judge the extent to which U.S. actions undercut the cause of democracy and human rights in Chile. Actions approved by the U.S. government during this period aggravated political polarization and affected Chile's long tradition of democratic elections and respect for the constitutional order and the rule of law." [Document: White House Press Statement (11/13/00)]

What is you response to that?

HENRY KISSINGER: I think it is an inappropriate paragraph. It is one that shows either total ignorance or a particular one-sided point of view. I don't think this is what one administration should to do its predecessor because when you have twenty three thousand documents, many that are capable of so many interpretations.

This is not the way to judge history. Then they should get a group of responsible people to assess them. So I think this, I don't object to the other part of that statement which praised the Chilean people for having reclaimed democracy and I don't defend many of the actions that Pinochet did, particularly after the first period of coming to power, is concerned. But this is something that the Clinton people should not have done or should not have said. I don't mind them releasing documents but this is not appropriate.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us.