Before the beginning: How a botched kidnapping of a general led me to this project

Before I became interested in the CIA officer at the center of this project, I had planned to tell the story of another man whose life intersected with that of our protagonist.

That other man was General Rene Schneider, the commander-in-chief of Chile’s military at the time that Salvador Allende won a plurality in that country’s 1970 presidential elections and was on the cusp of a complete victory.

The US government, all the way up to President Richard Nixon, wanted to prevent Allende from winning a congressional runoff that would decide which candidate would be inaugurated. Effectively, Washington wanted a coup.

But Schneider was an obstacle to that effort because he had insisted that Chile’s military should respect the constitution and not get involved in the democratic process. US intelligence assets began making contacts with active and former figures in Chile’s military that might be willing take action to sweep Schneider out of the way.

General Rene Schneider Chereau was killed in a botched kidnapping attempt.

Those military officers, and others in a Chilean nationalist organization, pursued a plan that involved kidnapping the general so that he could be removed as an obstacle to military action. But it backfired. Two attempts to capture the general failed to find him where he was expected to be, and then on the third, he pulled out a pistol to protect himself and was shot in a firefight. The attack against him galvanized the military against intervention, and he was still in a hospital when Chile’s congress voted to in favor of Allende. Schneider died the following day.

I wanted to focus a book project on Schneider in part because there were so many questions around the role in the US his death. More importantly, I wanted to dig deep into the moral calculus, or lack thereof, around targeting a man for the sole reason that his dedication to his country’s constitution was an obstacle to US foreign policy aims in the Cold War.

I spent some time researching for that project, and aimed to make a podcast episode focused on Schneider story. But when I spoke to experts like National Security Archive’s Peter Kornbluh and Hostile Intent author Kristian Gustafson, who both wrote books focused on US involvement in Chile during the 1970s, I began to question whether I could bring anything new to the Schneider story beyond what they had already told. (The podcast project also failed to get enough support on Kickstarter to get it off the ground.)

That’s when my attention turned to Henry Hecksher, who was the CIA station chief in Santiago in 1970 and whose story seems largely untold.

For two accounts of the Schneider killing that come to some different conclusions, check out Gustafson’s Hostile Intent and Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File.

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