When Augusto Pinochet died only three days after one-time US Ambassador to the UN, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, it almost seemed as if the former Chilean dictator just couldn't go on without this woman whose career was founded on the proposition that governments like his were worthy of US support.
Certainly, it turned out that with her gone there really weren't that many people left singing the praise of Pinochet's 1973 overthrow of socialist Salvador Allende's democratically elected government. It's probably just as well that the General, backed so strongly in the White House of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush I, wasn't around to read his death notices, because the shock of the Bush II White House calling his government a "dictatorship" and offering sympathy to "the victims of his reign and their families" would surely have killed him had he lived to see it. Chileans have, in some cases, chosen to follow custom and not speak ill of the dead dictator, but instead to celebrate Pinochet's demise with champagne. For our part, let us Americans rejoice that Jeanne Kirkpatrick – in her day probably Pinochet's most significant US supporter, with the exception of President Ronald Reagan who appointed her Ambassador – lived long enough to see her work recognized for the crude propaganda it was.
The fact that it might even surprise anyone that a current US government would speak critically of Pinochet speaks to the depth of Jeanne Kirkpatrick's success. After all, it's not that you have to look very far to see the extent of his reign of terror – current Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and her father were both tortured during the years of the dictatorship, the father dying in prison. But those were the sorts of details that Kirkpatrick argued America needed to overlook.
Kirkpatrick stepped out from academia to answer an unsettling Cold War question: Why were US-backed dictators better than the Soviet-backed ones, when it turned out "our" dictators sometimes did the same things as theirs, and sometimes worse? The answer she offered was that their dictators were "totalitarian"and "ours" were only "authoritarian." That is, while our side's dictatorships might actually be as bad as, or worse than "theirs," our "authoritarians" were more likely to get over it and go democratic before the more enduring totalitarian dictatorships. The totalitarians were the ones allied with the totalitarian super power, the Soviet Union. The "authoritarians" were allied with the, um, democratic super power, the US. So if you needed clarification about which category any particular dictatorship fell into, why you could just call the White House.
Kirkpatrick gave America leave, then, to live comfortably with the absurd The proposition that the US Government wasn't about "to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people" – Henry Kissinger's take on Chile – wasn't dismissed as ridiculous in Kirkpatrick's world view. And the fact that the former Secretary of State's thinking is still treated seriously today may itself speak to Kirkpatrick's continuing influence. By dint of being our friend, she argued, Pinochet was likely to outgrow his need for murder and torture – at least sooner than someone we didn't like. And as for those who criticized the Reagan Administration's taste in dictators, well they were the "Blame America First" crowd, as she famously told the 1984 Republican convention.
On such was Kirkpatrick's reputation as a foreign policy expert built. She was particularly incensed about the fall of two of her favorite authoritarians during the Carter Administration's watch: the Shah of Iran and Nicaraguan dictator Anastastio Somoza, whose family dictatorship had avoided the democratic impulse for forty-three years until toppled by the Sandinistas. It was the Sandinistas, however, who were "Marxist dictators" in her looking class ideology and, as the Iran-Contra scandal would reveal, the Reagan Administration she served would go way past the limits of the law in its effort to overthrow them.
Now, all these years later, we may think a lot of things good or bad about Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista President of Nicaragua back then. We might think for instance, that his government suffered from the fact he'd had "no experience at governing" previously, which was one of the general criticisms Kirkpatrick made of rebel movements that overthrew our friendly dictators. (She did not elaborate on where they might have gotten the experience she found lacking.) But one thing that does seems clear about the man who was the first elected president of Nicaragua, the first to lose for reelection, and the first to be reelected is that he does not down in history as a "dictator." The Sandinistas' overthrow of Somoza brought democracy to Nicaragua – as they said it would.
So I, for one, rejoice in knowing that Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the woman who gave the Cold War the ideology it deserved, lived long enough to see Daniel Ortega re-elected president of Nicaragua.
Tom Gallagher is a San Francisco writer. He can be reached at TGTGTGTGTG@aol.com