Updated: Nov 28, 2020
US’ history of supporting of fascist dictatorships can help explain today’s far-right extremism
By Miguel Escoto, contributor
Photo: Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet and US Secretary of State Henry Kissenger
The end of communism sounds innocent enough.
During the Cold War, United States foreign policy was based on the notion of countering the Soviet Union’s influence—a strategic goal which not only encompassed Eastern Europe, but also Asia (i.e. the Korean and Vietnam Wars) as well as Latin America. Renowned US foreign policy critics, such as writer William Blum and writer Noam Chomsky have condemned many of these “anti-communist” campaigns because they have led to massacres of innocent people, strategic political assassinations of sovereign countries, US-backed undemocratic coups, and the propping up of fascist dictators.
US Interventionist foreign policies, described by many as “imperialist,” have deep roots in America’s history—from the invasion of Native American lands in the late 18th century to the invasion of the Philippines in the late 19th century. The Cold War particularly brought about a resurgence of American interventionism. Mainstream political philosophies in Washington—whether it was the Truman Doctrine or the Johnson Doctrine—all shared the common goal of “containing” the Soviet Union’s geopolitical influence. But at what cost?
Especially thanks to initiatives like “Operation Condor,” many of the anti-Soviet governments that the United States supported were far-right dictatorships. A US-led campaign of political repression and intelligence agency state terror, Operation Condor sought to suppress leftist political movements for fear of the spread of communism. It was a coalition of the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and an array far-right authoritarian dictatorships from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay (Esperanza).
The example of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile serves as a case study of US-backed dictatorships that were supported economically and/or militarily with US tax dollars. While these governments do not strictly fit the category of textbook fascism, they hold crucial characteristics of the exemplary fascists like Hitler, Mussolini or Franco (military-police state, in-group vs. out-group mentality, violent rhetoric). Perhaps this historical context can shed light on how fascistic tendencies seem to be so widespread within American society.
Chile: Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s Military Junta, 1973-1990.
Riding off a US-supported coup of democratically elected and leftist leader Salvador Allende, Gen. Augusto Pinochet began his reign of military terror in 1973. Pinochet consolidated power by proclaiming himself “Supreme Chief of the Nation,” reforming the constitution to fit his ambition, banning leftist parties form government, outlawing unions, and perhaps most notoriously, suppressing opposition. In 1973, his military death squad, Caravan of Death, executed around 93 people (BBC). Pinochet’s track record by the end of his dictatorship was much more oppressive. According to the Rettig Report, officially “The National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation Report,” 2,279 persons were killed for political reasons. [The Pinochet regime frequently threw political opponents from flying helicopters. (Franklin)] The Valech Report, officially The National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture Report, likewise found that approximately 31,947 victims were tortured. All fascistic political leaders assign an “other”—a target population, a scape goat for society’s problems. Hitler’s was the Jewish communities among others. The violence of Pinochet’s politics manifested in atrocities towards the “leftist,” similar to Spain’s Franco dictatorship which persecuted communists.
Instead of denouncing Pinchot’s massacre, the US government promoted his dictatorship. For example, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State for Nixon and Ford maintained a cozy relationship with Pinochet, as well as other right-wing dictators of Latin America, in order to carry out Operation Condor (Kornbluh). “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.” Henry Kissinger told Augusto Pinochet June 8, 1976 referring to his anti-communist regime. With the repressive campaign like Operation Condor in place, it is no surprise that the United States was intentionally instrumental to Pinochet’s rise to power. Academics such as Peter Winn and authors Peter Kronbluh (The Pinochet File), Tim Weiner (Legacy of Ashes), and Christopher Hitchens (The Trial of Henry Kissinger) highlight the CIA’s involvement in Chile, pointing out that US policy actively undermined Allende’s leftist government and set the groundwork for the 1973 coup.
“Free Helicopter Rides”
As unfortunate as it sounds, the support of fascist governments is fundamentally ingrained in America’s history. Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military junta is just the tip of the iceberg. The US has backed right-wing, fascist, torturous dictatorships throughout Latin America: Guatemala's military dictatorships 1950’s-1980’s; the Somoza Dynasty in Nicaragua, 1930s-1979; El Salvador’s Military Dictatorship from 1979-1992; Argentinean military junta from 1976-1983; the Hugo Banzer Dictatorship in Bolivia from 1971-1977; the Alfredo Stroessner Regime in Paraguay from 1954-1989, and others (Henderson).
Undemocratic, violent, foreign policy strategies that hinge on military-state dictatorships can help explain why fascist political movements in America are continuing to grow in number. Take for example the “Free Helicopter Rides” meme trend. Originating around 2015, this joke references Pinochet’s massacre on political opponents via helicopter executions (KnowYourMeme.com). Far-right fascistic internet users depict dictator Pinochet pushing left-leaning American politicians like Bernie Sanders from a helicopter. Far-right clothing store Forged for Freedom sells shirts with the logo “Free Helicopter Rides” in seven different colors (Forged by Freedom) Far-right online store “Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children” sells their own rendition with the text “Free Helicopter Rides, Provided by ANTIFA REMOVAL SERVICES, taking out commie trash since 1973.” [ANTIFA referring to “Antifascist” leftist/anarchist direct action philosophy.] This “Free Helicopter Rides” phrase in t-shirts is common in far-right neo-fascist demonstrations around the country. Today’s American far-right extremists co-opt Pinochet’s violence against his political opponents to project intimidating, threatening rhetoric onto their own political opponents. Whereas it can be easy for us to condemn Pinochet’s atrocities and American fascists’ fetishizing of such atrocities, United States’ geopolitical history cannot back up our condemnation. As uncomfortable as it makes us, America’s historical precedent is on the side of these neo-fascists in this case.
Concerned about the rise of hate-driven politics, the perspective of this article hopefully highlights a strategy of countering modern fascism: honest historical analysis of our own foreign policy. A path towards the extinguishing of today’s hateful political climate should include an authentic reckoning with lamentable American history. How can Americans expect the end of today’s fascism without acknowledging, and openly denouncing the fascism we have perpetuated in the past for our own geopolitical interests?
Sources Esparza, Marcia; Henry R. Huttenbach; Daniel Feierstein. State Violence and Genocide in Latin America: The Cold War Years (Critical Terrorism Studies). Routledge
“Chile's Caravan of Death: Ex-army chief Cheyre convicted for Pinochet-era crimes” BBC. 10, Nov. 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-46160437
Franklin, Jonathan. “Chilean army admits 120 thrown into sea” The Guardian. 8 Jan 2001. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jan/09/chile.pinochet
Kornbluh, Peter. “Kissinger and Pinochet.” The Nation. 11 March 1999. https://www.thenation.com/article/kissinger-and-pinochet/
Henderson, Alex. “7 Fascist Regimes Enthusiastically Supported by America.” Alternet. 4 Feb. 2015. https://www.alternet.org/2015/02/7-fascist-regimes-enthusiastically-supported-america/
“Free Helicopter Rides” KnowYourMeme.com https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/free-helicopter-rides
“Free Helicopter Rides Men’s T-Shirt” Forged for Freedom https://www.forgedfromfreedom.com/products/free-helicopter-rides-mens-t-shirt
“Free Helicopter Rides Tee.” Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children. https://unclesamsmisguidedchildren.com/products/free-helicopter-rides-t-shirt