An Interview with Richard Helms

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But it is basically true, that Nixon was extremely exercised?
He was very interested in preventing Allende's accession to the presidency. There wasn't a one of us who thought we had any chance whatever of achieving that objective and I had tried to make that point but it was like talking into a gale. We were to go out and do the best we could and that was all there was to it.
The possibilities of succeeding in the short time span were so remote that we had a most difficult time putting together anything that was even a semblance of an effort.
One of the things not generally realized by people who are not familiar with the process, that advanced planning is critical for any covert operation. You have to have assets in place-real estate, individuals, money and sometimes automobiles, newspapers, printing plants and even loud speakers. You have to have everything organized and ready to use.
We had nothing in place in Chile. We really had to extemporize from the very beginning and it was an almost impossible situation.
Why do you think Nixon was so worked up about Chile?
I think that he makes the point clearly in his book that with Castro in Cuba, right off the coast of the United States, that another communist-led country with frontiers contiguous with Argentina and Bolivia and Peru would make things in Latin America difficult for the United States.
One of the reports critical of the operation asked "Did the threat to vital U.S. national security interests posed by the Presidency of Salvador Allende justify the several major covert attempts to prevent his accession to power?
Answering that question today would you say yes or no?
With benefit of hindsight, I think that the Chilean business would be handled differently. I can't imagine wanting to go through such a nightmare a second time. When President Kennedy launched the Agency into the 1964 Chilean election, the work was started many months ahead of time so that there was some chance it would be effective. Against Allende it was started much too late to be very effective. The thing went from bad to worse.
Any judgment as to whether Mr. Nixon was justified in trying to defeat Allende or whether President Kennedy was right earlier in wanting to defeat him, rests within the foreign policy establishment. The President has the right, under our Constitution, to formulate foreign policy-whether everybody agrees with it at the time or their perceptions change through the years.
The Agency is often criticized, "Well, you did what the President wanted." What is the Agency for? It is part of the President's bag of tools, if you like, and if he and proper authorities have decided that something has to be done, then the Agency is bound to try to do it. We would have a very strange government, indeed, in this country if everybody with an independent view of foreign policy decided he was free to take or not take the President's instruction according to his own likes and beliefs.
But when you left that meeting on September the 15th you knew that the brief was impossible?
Let's say, most difficult.
Were you tempted to resign or did you think "This is part of my job"? No, I thought it part of my job.


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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:59 AM
Last Updated: May 08, 2007 08:59 AM