Missing: The United States and the Pinochet Coup

On 11th September 1973, Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile was overthrown by a right-wing coup d’état headed by General Augusto Pinochet.

The coup, which saw an end to the constitutional system and democratic tradition that had thrived in Chile since 1833, received the full support and funding of the United States (Rabe, 2012). Immediately after Allende’s successful election, President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, along with the CIA, initiated a two track operation to overthrow the Chilean government. Track One sought to bribe legislators to vote down Allende’s presidency; this failed when Allende was voted through by the Unidad Popular coalition and the Christian Democrats in the Chilean legislature. Failing this, the United States pursued Track Two, which sought to create a ‘coup climate’ in Chile whilst simultaneously funding the Chilean military and opposition groups (Rabe, 2012, p.129). This was subsequently pursued by Washington and the CIA between 1970 and 1973, culminating in the military seizure of power.

Allende’s government had sought to implement ambitious land reforms, nationalisation of key industries and progressive welfare policies, not dissimilar from the postwar settlement pursued by European social democrats. Yet, for the United States, such a program was seen as reason enough to depose the new president. The election of an avowed socialist and anti-imperialist, was seen as a political, economic and ideological threat to historic U.S. hegemony in Latin America.

The film Missing (1982) portrays the events that followed the coup, detailing the violence and terror employed by Pinochet’s junta against Chilean and American ‘dissidents’ alike. The film is based on the true story of an American citizen named Charles Horman (John Shea), who was arrested and subsequently killed by the Chilean authorities in the aftermath of the coup. Horman was a left-wing journalist based in Santiago, who ultimately became a target of the authorities due to his support for Allende’s government. The film details the desperate search for Horman by his wife Joyce (Sissy Spacek) - named Beth in the film - and father Edmund/Ed (Jack Lemmon).

Lemmon superbly epitomises the loyal American citizen, ensconced within the myth that his country is a benevolent one. When Edmund first arrives in Santiago to begin his search for Charles, he blames his son’s disappearance on his leftist politics, claiming that Charles and Joyce got themselves into trouble because of their outspoken views. As Ed and Joyce continue their search for Charles, they encounter U.S. officials who are seemingly unaware of Charles’ whereabouts and refute Joyce’s claim that the U.S. was involved in orchestrating the coup. The pinnacle of Missing’s plot is essentially Ed’s political awakening. As the film progresses, he comes to realise that the country he venerates was in fact the driving force behind the coup and the atrocities that followed. It is a realisation that foreshadows much of the events that followed throughout the 1970s. The decade that revealed MK Ultra, the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal, which enlightened Americans to the crimes, corruption and covert actions of their government.

The director Costa-Gavras expertly dramatises U.S. complicity in the coup, gradually revealing the extent of U.S. involvement as the film progresses. The audience is witness to the vitriolic corruption of American officials in Chile who not only disregard the concerns of Edmund and Joyce, but even suggest that Charles’ left-wing views were cause for his disappearance.

As the plot reaches its climax, it is revealed that Charles was murdered in the Chilean National Stadium. This was the site of torture and execution of thousands of dissidents and supposed allies of Allende. Much to the dismay of Edmund and vindication of Joyce, the two learn of the United States’ evident support not only for the arrest of Charles Horman, but also the green light that was given for his execution. As Joyce Horman has since recounted: ‘My journalist husband was murdered because he knew too much about Pinochet’s US backers.’ (Horman, 2012).

Charles, it is revealed, had investigated the enhanced presence of the U.S. military in the region; this in turn threatened to compromise the United States’ recognition of the new junta in Chile. Throughout the film U.S. officials suggest that Charles may have ‘known too much’ and that he was ‘pok[ing] his nose around in a lot of dangerous places where he didn't really belong’. The implicit culpability of the United States is made most evident though, when Edmund is advised by Captain Ray Tower: ‘You play with fire, you get burned.’

Missing illustrates the zero-sum mindset that dominated policymaking in Washington at the height of the Cold War. Chile’s future was decided not by the self-determination of a democratically-inclined people. Rather, it was the concerns of a Cold War superpower, prepared to forego its supposed values of democracy and liberty, that led to the installation of a right-wing authoritarian regime sympathetic to the basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy. The United States treated developments in the developing world as ‘mere pawns of a giant Cold War struggle’. (Kolko, 1988, p.211). Chile served as such a pawn, with the election of Allende representing a defeat in the United States’ global war against communism (Harmer, 2011). Allende had merely wanted a better life for his people, but the dictates of Cold War policy making made it an unattainable goal.

Indeed, the film illustrates the utter injustice committed against the Chilean people. It is an injustice that is rarely present in U.S. discourse, as the toppling of Allende’s Chile was viewed as a necessary act in the struggle against communism. However, Missing is a film that should be watched by all of those who seek to understand one of the many tragedies of the Cold War. The United States actively supported a heinous regime that committed crimes against humanity. This later facilitated the ‘Dirty War’ waged against socialists, liberals and trade unionists across Latin America by right-wing juntas throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Most concerning of all though is the ease at which the United States was prepared to authorise the arrest and execution of one of its own citizens in order to pursue its foreign policy goals. The key lesson that Missing provides is that in the context of the Cold War, superpowers were not concerned with the human cost that their actions resulted in. In an attempt to secure stability and ensure ideological and geopolitical hegemony over Latin America, the U.S. was content with sacrificing one of its own citizens.

The Cold War will remain a topic of continued interest for political scientists and historians alike. Missing is a film that holds a magnifying glass over arguably one of the worst examples of Cold War superpower abuse. It is, and should remain, a film that can be studied by generations to come, and act as a reminder of the human cost of power politics.

Missing certainly speaks volumes in today’s political climate. The Pinochet regime’s assault on fundamental liberties that are so vividly depicted in the film are still occurring today. Across Latin America, the detention and killing of activists and social leaders still occurs on a daily basis in countries such as Colombia, Bolivia and Nicaragua (Larsson, 2017). However, these events are not specific to Latin America. Indeed, the recent murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly at the hands of the Saudi dictatorship, holds chilling similarities to the case of Charles Horman (BBC News, 2018). Khashoggi, like Horman, may have known too much truth about a brutal dictatorship (BBC News, 2018).

Moreover, the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is concerning for those aware of the broader pattern of right-wing authoritarianism in Latin America. Bolsarano’s threats to purge Brazil of leading left-wing groups and activists, represents a frightening reversion to authoritarian rule. A system of rule that Brazilians, like Chileans, are all too aware of after their own experience of military rule in the 1960s. Missing may have been intended as a film that sought to explain historical events, but in the current climate it also serves as a warning against tyranny, both future and present.


BBC News, ‘Jamal Khashoggi: Who is murdered Saudi Journalist?’, 22 October 2018. [accessed:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-45789369 ]

Harmer, Tanya, Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Horman, Joyce, ‘Justice for Charles Horman – and the truth about the US and Chile's coup’, The Guardian, 11 September 2013. [accessed: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/11/justice-charles-horman-us-chile-c, oup ]

Kolko, Gabriel, Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1980 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

Naomi Larsson, ‘What is at stake for Latin America in 2017?’, The Guardian, 7 February 2017.

Rabe, Stephen G., The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).