An apparent success in 1964 election – but at what cost?

Before Henry Hecksher, the CIA officer at the center of this project, became station chief in Santiago in the late 1960s, the agency had been involved in other efforts to influence the outcome of Chile’s elections.

The first chapter of Kristian Gustafson’s 2007 book, Hostile Intent: U.S. Covert Operations in Chile, 1964-1974, focuses on the CIA’s efforts to ensure Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva triumphed in the country’s 1964 election.

Eduardo Frei Montalva became Chile’s president in November 1964. Photo: Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional

On its surface, this program was successful in achieving its goal: to prevent Socialist Salvador Allende from becoming president. But Gustafson, who is currently director of studies at the Brunel University Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies in London, raises questions about how these efforts may cast a cloud over Washington’s favored Chilean political party.

Ahead of the election, a representative of Frei’s centrist Christian Democrat party asked for $1 million in campaign funding from the US, a sum that the CIA station in Santiago felt was reasonable, according to the book.

While at first just $750,000 in semi-covert funding would be approved, more would flow later, and the CIA proposed a “battery of tactics”, including bribery, propaganda operations and providing financial assistance to labor unions and other groups to support Frei.

Gustafson also notes that it is possible that the program may have taken place without permission or even knowledge of President Lyndon Johnson, who chose to remain more aloof of CIA and National Security Council activities.

He writes that, by the standards of the day, the efforts proposed by the CIA in 1964 were relatively restrained.

Further, the funding and lobbying aspects of the platform were not illegal under either Chilean or U.S. law. Nonetheless the plan outlined serious political interference with the electoral process in a democratic state, and the offhand inclusion of bribery as a means to achieve American ends suggests a dangerous undermining of the Chilean democratic system, which the Americans were supposedly protecting. To the Americans, however, bribery was merely a gentle inoculation to prevent the far worse anti-democratic disease of Marxism, a contagious disease with serious consequences should a “major Latin American nation … become the first country in the hemisphere to freely choose an avowed Marxist as its elected president.” 

Gustafson, quoting declassified documents

For many in the CIA, the agency’s efforts were key to Frei’s ultimate victory.

And while there is reason to question whether the tactics had that much of an impact on the outcome, Hostile Intent points out that one impact they did have was in the realm of unintended consequences.

After all, while the CIA ensured that it would have plausible deniability in its support of Frei and his Christian Democracy party, US support for the candidate was only thinly veiled.

“The United States had effectively, and with consent, undermined the credibility of the Frei government and the PDC by aligning too closely with them,” Gustafson writes, referring to the party by its acronym in Spanish.

Frei’s party would be seen as the US-backed party, providing ammunition to the very Marxists the US efforts sought to thwart.

“The election of 1964 reinforces the theory that even simple covert actions in democracies have a negative impact that goes far beyond the apparently benevolent nature (in the eyes of those who order it) of their execution,” Gustafson writes.

“At least in part, this is the law of unintended consequences: while the intervening power felt it was adding a small measure of assistance and making a change for the better, it in fact created an imbalance in the local political culture and unleashed resentments and political forces that it could not predict or control.”


Gustafson, Kristian. Hostile Intent: U.S. Covert Operations in Chile, 1964–1974, Verso Books, Kindle Edition.

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