Yeoman Charles E. Radford did not want to be reassigned to Washington, but it was the fall of 1970 and he was in the Navy and his country was at war. Radford, twenty-seven years old, had been hand-picked by Rear Admiral Rembrandt C. Robinson to serve as his confidential aide and secretary on the National Security Council staff in the White House. The bright and ambitious Radford was an obvious choice for the sensitive job: he was married and had young children; he was a devout Mormon who did not drink and would never consider using drugs; and he was fierce in his determination to earn a commission and become a Navy officer. Radford reported for duty on September 18, replacing a civilian secretary who was being transferred. There was obvious tension in the office, and Admiral Robinson, in one of their first meetings, demonstrated why, Radford recalls: "He made it clear that my loyalty was to him, and that he expected my loyalty, and that I wasn't to speak outside of the office about what I did in the office."
Admiral Robinson was the liaison officer between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council, and his office was a sensitive one: the White House's most highly classified documents, including intelligence materials, routinely flowed through it. By mid-1970, Henry A. Kissinger, President Richard Nixon's national security adviser, had developed complete confidence in Robinson's discretion and loyalty.
It was not surprising, therefore, that Robinson was deeply involved in the secret Kissinger and Nixon operations against Salvador Allende Gossens, of Chile, who had astounded the Central Intelligence Agency and the White House by winning the September 4 popular election for the Chilean presidency, although Allende received only 36.6 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Radford, who arrived at his new post a few weeks after the Chilean election, vividly recalls the sense of crisis: "This wasn't supposed to happen. It was a real blow. All of a sudden, the pudding blew up on the stove." Admiral Robinson and his superiors were "wringing their hands" over Chile, Radford says, "almost as if they [the Chileans] were errant children. " Over the next few weeks, Radford says, he saw many sensitive memoranda and options papers, as the bureaucracy sought to prevent Allende from assuming office. Among the options was a proposal to assassinate Allende.
One options paper "discussed various ways of doing it," Radford says. "Either we have somebody in the country do it, or we do it ourselves. I was stunned; I was aghast. It stuck in my mind so much because for the first time in my life, I realized that my government actively was involved in planning to kill people."
The options papers had been prepared for Nixon in the weeks after Allende's election. "They were exploring ways to get Allende out of there," Radford says, and murder was one of the ways. The thrust of the option was clear: "I don't know if they used the word assassinate, but it was to get rid of him, to terminate him—he was to go."
By the mid-1960s, Chile had become widely known inside the American intelligence community as one of the CIA's outstanding success stories. The Agency had managed to penetrate all elements of Chilean government, politics, and society, and took credit for ensuring that Chile remained a progressive democratic nation that—not so incidentally—encouraged American multinational corporations to do business within its borders. The extent of American corporate involvement was a source of constant debate in Chile, however, and emerged by the end of the decade as a critical political issue, pitting the Chilean right, with its support for continued American profit-taking, against the left, which organized increasingly fractious labor strikes and public demonstrations against the American firms. Chile was a world leader in the mining of copper, but 80 percent of its production—60 percent of all exports from Chile—was in the hands of large corporations mostly controlled by U.S. firms, most prominently Anaconda and Kennecott Copper. Profits for the American firms were enormous: during the 1960s, for example, Anaconda earned $500 million on its investments—generously estimated by the company at $300 million—inside Chile, where it operated the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. The most significant political threat to Chilean democracy, in the view of American policy-makers, was Allende, a member of the Socialist Party, who had unsuccessfully run for president in 1958 and 1964 on a platform that advocated land reform, nationalization of major industries (especially copper), closer relations with socialist and communist countries, and redistribution of income. National concern over the disparity of income was especially critical to Allende's campaigns: by 1968, studies showed that the 28.3 percent of the Chilean people at the bottom of the economic scale took in 4.8 percent of the national income, while the 2 percent of the population at the top received 45.9 percent of the income.
In 1958, Allende had lost the presidential election by less than 3 percent to Jorge Alessandri Rodriguez, an arch-conservative who was strongly pro-business and was heavily backed by American corporations. Neither Allende nor Alessandri received a majority vote, and under the Chilean constitution the election was resolved in a run-off election by the Chilean Congress, which voted Alessandri into office. Despite CIA aid, Alessandri and his National Party steadily lost popularity over the next six years, and the presidential elections of 1964 came down to a battle between Allende and his radical forces and Eduardo Frei Montalva, a liberal representing the Christian Democratic Party, which was pro-American and far more favorable to business than Allende's coalition.