The Maxwell Affair

(The Nation, June 21, 2004)

Last November Foreign Affairs, the prestigious journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, published a review of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, a new book by Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project. Written by the council's chief Latin America expert, Kenneth Maxwell, the review upset two former statesmen who figure prominently in the book and who also happen to be influential actors at the council: Henry Kissinger and his longtime associate William Rogers. In May, after an acrimonious exchange between Rogers and Maxwell in Foreign Affairs--an exchange that Maxwell insists was abruptly curtailed as a result of pressure from Kissinger and Rogers--Maxwell resigned in protest from the council. His departure raises questions about intellectual freedom at the council; about editorial independence at Foreign Affairs, where Maxwell spent eleven years as Western Hemisphere book reviewer; and about Kissinger's and Rogers's influence on the nation's pre-eminent foreign policy think tank.

Maxwell's review, "The Other 9/11: The United States and Chile, 1973," was not a slashing polemic but a measured essay on American intervention in Chile in the 1970s. Maxwell expressed certain reservations about The Pinochet File, yet acknowledged that Kornbluh had assembled a dossier that "significantly amplifies" our historical knowledge of the campaign against President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by a military coup on September 11, 1973. Halfway through the essay, the reviewer directed his ire at the Nixon-era policy-makers--Kissinger chiefly among them--who contributed to Allende's demise: "What is truly remarkable," Maxwell noted, "is the effort--the resources committed, the risks taken, and the skullduggery employed--to bring a Latin American democracy down, and the meager efforts since to build democracy back up. Left to their own devices, the Chileans might just have found the good sense to resolve their own deep-seated problems. Allende might have fallen by his own weight, victim of his own incompetence, and not become a tragic martyr to a lost cause."

Maxwell's essay prompted a smoldering letter to the editor from Rogers, who worked under Kissinger at the State Department from 1974 to 1977 and is currently vice chair of Kissinger Associates. "The myth that the United States toppled President Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973 lives," Rogers proclaimed in the January/February issue. "There smoking gun. Yet the myth persists. It is lovingly nurtured by the Latin American left and refreshed from time to time by contributions to the literature like Peter Kornbluh's The Pinochet File and Kenneth Maxwell's review of that book."

Allende's fall, Rogers declared, was the result of "his disastrous economic policies, his attack on Chile's democratic institutions [and] the wave of popular resentment that swept the Chilean military to power." Rogers hastened to minimize US involvement in two highly controversial matters, both of which figure prominently in The Pinochet File: the murder of Chilean Gen. René Schneider in 1970 and Operation Condor, a state-sponsored terror network set up by Pinochet that from 1975 to 1977 targeted critics all over the Western Hemisphere and Europe. Among them was Orlando Letelier, Pinochet's most prominent opponent in the United States, who was murdered, along with American Ronni Moffitt, by a car bomb in Washington, DC, in 1976.

Round one of the Maxwell-Rogers exchange concluded with a rejoinder by Maxwell in the same issue. "William Rogers overreaches," Maxwell wrote. "To claim that the United States was not actively involved in promoting Allende's downfall in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary verges on incredulity." Maxwell went on to address a very delicate matter--Kissinger's and Rogers's knowledge of Operation Condor. Maxwell (following Kornbluh) insisted that the murder of Orlando Letelier, in particular, was "a tragedy that might have been prevented," since "other assassinations of opposition figures planned by Condor in Europe were in fact prevented because the United States tipped off the governments in question (France and Portugal) in advance." Closing his reply, Maxwell upped the ante: "Some countries," he wrote, "have established 'truth commissions' to look into such matters. In the United States, however, the record has been extracted painfully, like rotten teeth."

Rogers returned to the battlefield with a second letter in the March/April issue, in which he accused Maxwell of "bias," dismissed the notion that Letelier's murder could have been prevented and denied that he bore any responsibility for the crimes committed under Condor. Rogers's tone suggested that Maxwell had crossed an invisible line: "One would hope at least," Rogers ominously concluded, "that Maxwell's views are understood to be his own and not those of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is a senior fellow."

On February 4, Maxwell had handed in a six-paragraph rebuttal to Rogers's second letter--in which he wrote, "Rogers cannot forever provide a shield for his boss to hide behind"--but it never appeared. High-ranking sources at the council say that Kissinger and Rogers applied enormous pressure, directly and indirectly, on Foreign Affairs editor James Hoge--and on the council itself--to close off the debate. Neither Rogers nor Kissinger is a stranger to the institution: Rogers served three terms on its board of directors; Kissinger has been affiliated off and on since 1955, and he currently co-chairs a task force on US policy toward Europe. Maxwell notes that the institution's new president, Richard Haass, who succeeded Leslie Gelb in 2003, "is very much anxious to engage him." Maxwell declines to elaborate on the specific ways Kissinger and Rogers exerted their influence, but he does allow that "they know how to act in these matters, and they bring heavy guns to bear."

When his internal lobbying to get his rebuttal published failed, Maxwell felt compelled to act. On May 13 he resigned from the council and from his post as book reviewer for Foreign Affairs. The resignation was instantly accepted by Haass. In his resignation letter to Hoge, Maxwell wrote, "I have no personal ax to grind in this matter, but I do have a historian's obligation to the accuracy of the historical record. The Council's current relationship with Mr. Kissinger evidently comes at the cost of suppressing debate about his actions as a public figure. This I want no part of."

Hoge denies receiving pressure from Kissinger. "I never talked to Henry Kissinger about this at all," he says, "nor has anybody else told me that Henry had a view one way or the other." But Hoge certainly felt the sting of Rogers's fury. After round one of the exchange, Hoge received a call from Rogers, who recoiled from Maxwell's suggestion that he was directly (or indirectly) complicitous in Operation Condor. Hoge urged Rogers to send a second letter, and--curiously--assured him that the letter would conclude the exchange. Hoge then contacted Maxwell. "I called Ken," Hoge recalls, "and said, 'This is what Rogers thinks you are implying.' And he said, 'That is what I'm implying.' And I said, 'Ken, that puts me in an awkward position, because it's informed surmise that you are basing this on, frankly. If there are hard facts to this, they have yet to come out.'" Evidently Hoge does not read the books reviewed in his own journal, because as Maxwell pointed out in the unpublished reply, "Washington's knowledge about the Condor system and its activities during this period has been cautiously and carefully documented in John Dinges's book The Condor Years, especially chapters 7-10, and in chapter 6 of Kornbluh's Pinochet File." Hoge declined to explain why he promised Rogers--and not Maxwell, his journal's own Latin America expert--the last word in the exchange. "A different call might have been made," Hoge admits. (Kissinger and Rogers did not return phone calls, and Haass was traveling and unavailable for comment.)

Leaving the council, and vacating an endowed chair, was not an easy decision for Maxwell, a soft-spoken, English-born, 63-year-old historian who has taught at Yale, Princeton and Columbia and who writes for The New York Review of Books. "The burden was on me to make a decision on an issue of principle," he says. "That's never easy. It's easier to acquiesce. But in this case I didn't feel like acquiescing." On July 1 he will become a senior fellow at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard.

Oddly enough, Maxwell's departure coincides with the release of a 20,000-page cache of Henry Kissinger's telephone conversations from the 1970s, some of which concern Chile. "We didn't do it," Kissinger informed President Nixon after President Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet. "I mean we helped them." In light of these new transcripts, Maxwell's call for an American "truth commission" on Chile seems more appropriate than ever. But don't expect to find the details in the pages of Foreign Affairs.