Volume XII, Number I, Spring 2016

"The Gipper Gone South: A Review of Reagan and Pinochet – The Struggle over US Policy toward Chile" by Márton Tőke

Márton Tőke is an American Studies MA student at the Institute of English and American Studies at the University of Szeged. His research interests include US intellectual history, contemporary diplomatic history, and political revolutions. Email:

Reagan and Pinochet – The Struggle over US Policy toward Chile
Morris Morley and Chris McGillion
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
354 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-107-08763-7 (hardback)
ISBN: 978-1-107-45809-3 (paperback)

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”1

In a speech given before Congress on March 12, 1947, US President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) laid out what became his eponymous doctrine and the cornerstone of American foreign policy during much of the Cold War: containing the Soviet Union’s geopolitical spread and countering its influence in non-aligned countries by mostly indirect (non-military) intervention. With the Truman-doctrine in effect, the United States shifted from its previous position of isolationism – declared for the first time in the Monroe doctrine (1823) –, which had warned against any sort of foreign entanglement, and was expressed most staunchly during the interwar period and at the dawn of World War II. Conversely, Truman’s objective was generally implemented in the form of economic and political support of virtually any anti-communist political faction in a given country, depending on their presidential administration to varying extents. Since the antagonistic opposition between interventionism and isolationism seems to be a prevalent issue even in the most recent American foreign policy discourse, it is vital to understand the nature and consequences of former endeavors through which America tried to exert its will on the domestic issues of other countries.

Written by two distinguished Australian scholars of contemporary American history, Morris Morley and Chris McGillion, this work makes a significant contribution to this understanding. It covers US-Chilean relations under the Reagan administration (1981-1989), with a specific emphasis on the ways American officials influenced the loosening of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime and the country’s eventual transition to democracy. The authors present in meticulous detail an important segment of Cold War history while also placing their narrative in the much wider framework of 20th century American attitudes towards foreign affairs. Their central thesis, according to which American foreign policy has been governed primarily by economic interest, is represented consistently throughout the work.

The book begins with a summary of how the new Chilean regime introduced drastic measures against members of the opposition and non-complicit civil actors following the US-encouraged 1973 coup d’état orchestrated by Pinochet and his military junta, which was heavily supported by the Central Intelligence Agency as well. After the nearly unquestioning support of the Nixon and Ford administrations towards Pinochet, based primarily on the General’s anti-communist stance, President Carter made an attempt to put an end to human rights violations within the country and outside it, with minimal success. Therefore, Chilean officials were jubilant when Republicans took over the executive branch in 1981, as it meant a resurgence of America’s approval and, perhaps even more importantly, an increase in foreign aid. The authors paint a convincing picture of how hardliner ideologues within the administration’s first term, such as UN Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick (1981-1985) and Secretary of State Alexander Haig (1981-1982), successfully reversed policy back to full-fledged support of Pinochet’s regime. In a similar fashion, they concur with former students of Reagan’s foreign policy2 that he was a less-than-capable executive with an unsatisfactory understanding of the intricacies of international affairs. Their tone is often akin to one of condemnation, which seems to be governed not by partisan sentiment but by resentment towards what they deem to be the cynicism of the era.

In accordance with this, the authors consider personnel changes within the State Department and the National Security Council to be the primary reason for the eventual change in the US attitude towards Santiago. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the work is the reconstruction of conflicts within and between the various federal agencies concerned with the fate of Chile, as it illuminates the human aspect of policymaking, referring to the various ways in which individual fallibility and sheer personal interest affect the course of entire countries. The struggle for increasing pressure on Pinochet by Secretary of State George Shultz (1982-1989) receives special attention. His figure and the group surrounding him seems to be somewhat more relatable to the authors, as they one-sidedly present the path which led to the 1988 plebiscite which quietly overthrew the General. They do not fail, however, to recognize and skillfully shed light on Chile’s internal issues of economic struggle, human rights violations, and the subsequent resurgence of the voices of opposition as factors contributing to the country’s democratic changes. This demonstrates a powerful feature of Morley’s and McGillion’s monograph, namely their inexorable sense of obligation to examine their subject from the Chilean and the American perspectives in equal proportion, something that former works on the recent relations between the two nations have failed to do.3

In the third, concluding section of the book, the authors provide an overview of Chile’s first steps towards a renewed democratic structure and the extent to which the United States contributed to this process. Their assessment is far from praising: in their view, the 1973 coup ultimately triumphed, without any meaningful consequence or retribution on the part of the international community in general or of the US in particular. Despite international objections, America’s weak attempt to express its human rights concerns, and the eventual increase in soft power pressure under Reagan’s second term in office, Pinochet was able to remain in office for more than 15 years. In other words, the authors conclude with a critical look at the United States for, while pursuing its Cold War objectives, also legitimizing a military regime that acted in opposition to the most fundamental of American values.

Morley and McGillion exhibit unapologetic willingness to express their rather skeptical dispositions and to refute any sense of idealism: the central thesis of their work, as mentioned above, is that the eventual encouragement of democratic changes in Chile was spurred not by American exceptionalism and the desire to spread the ideas of liberty, self-governance, and equality, but by plain and simple economic and, to a lesser extent, political interest. So far, historiography has not reached a consensus, and most likely never will, on the ideal extent to which ideological considerations should govern a historical narrative. It is certain, however, that the authors do not shy away from expressing their distaste of the United States’ approach to Chile stemming from the US’s lack of compassion for the country’s civil society and the importance it has attributed to preserving the neoliberal economic model imposed by the military regime. Nevertheless, the authors’ claims are supported by a vast amount of primary sources (recently declassified reports, memos, records, policy papers, non-papers) as well as incredibly thorough personal interviews with both American and Chilean first-hand witnesses, policymakers, and junior and senior officials, such as Carlos Cáceres (Minister of Finance 1983-84, Minister of Interior (1988-89), Heraldo Muñoz (prominent Socialist leader during the 1980s) and, on the American side, Harry G. Barnes (US Ambassador to Chile, 1985-88) and Shultz himself, conducted by the authors over the past 10 years. These personal accounts also provide a unique insight into the internal mechanisms of the foreign policy elite that surrounded Ronald Reagan.

The only major shortcoming of the work is its surprising neglect of US relations with other Latin-American countries during the period. Although the authors occasionally try to incorporate examples of more diverse cases into their analysis — for instance, Brazil’s 1985 shift towards a more democratic state structure —, these attempts remain vague and anemic. There is also close to no mention of the strained relations between Columbia and the United States under the Reagan administration, of Pablo Escobar’s running amok, of Columbia’s domestic debate over the issue of extradition, and of the extent of America’s influence over its internal struggles. A regional, comparative outlook could have probably helped to support the book’s broader argument of US policy being governed not so much by the Wilsonian legacy of promoting democracy but by the American raison d’état. Despite being primarily a piece of contemporary diplomatic history, the book would have benefitted from a more detailed summary of the influence exerted over Chilean economy by Milton Friedman’s free market views and the so-called Chicago Boys, a group of Chilean economists educated by Friedman. Although the authors make numerous references to American economic interest in the region, the neoliberal monetary reforms implemented by the regime are referred to on only a few occasions and are at no point in the book explored in detail. Fortunately, those interested in this aspect of Chilean history can improve their understanding with Lanny Ebenstein’s recent monograph, Chicagonomics.4

Its minor flaws notwithstanding, Morley and McGillion produced a definitive work on the relations between Chile and the United States. Their book provides an insightful, incisive historical account with a scope that extends beyond its primary objectives and manages to express the deeper convictions and fundamental historical outlook of its authors. It should be read not only by students of Inter-American relations but also by anyone concerned with diplomatic history, for the authors handle their primary sources with exemplary thoroughness. In this day and age when the brief, post-Cold War hegemony of America is clearly being constantly challenged by various actors, and when many certainties of the West are being undone, it is important to reevaluate the cost and necessity of American intervention around the globe – an aim served quite well by Reagan and Pinochet – The Struggle over US Policy toward Chile.



1 President Harry S. Truman’s Address before a Joint Session of Congress, March 12, 1947. Available: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/trudoc.asp Accessed: May 17, 2016.

2 For examples, see (among others): David Ignatius, „Reagan’s Foreign Policy and the Rejection of Diplomacy” in Sidney Blumenthal ed., The Reagan Legacy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), Donald Regan, For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington (San Diego: Harcourt Trade Publishers, 1988), and Will Bunch, Tear Down This Myth – The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

3 For example, see: William Sater, Chile and the United States: Empires in Conflict (Athens: University of Georgia, 1991).

4 See: Lanny Ebenstein, Chicagonomics: The Evolution of Chicago Free Market Economics (New York: St Martin Press, 2015).