Home World Issues Nathaniel Davis, ambassador during Chilean coup, dies
Nathaniel Davis, ambassador during Chilean coup, dies Print E-mail

( Courtesy of Harvey Mudd College / COURTESY OF HARVEY MUDD COLLEGE ) - Nathaniel Davis with students at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., where he taught after his Foreign Service career.

Nathaniel Davis, a career Foreign Service officer who was the U.S. ambassador to Chile in 1973 when President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a violent coup d’etat, died May 16 of congestive heart failure at his home in Claremont, Calif. He was 86.

Mr. Davis, who joined the Foreign Service in 1947, had been minister to Bulgaria and ambassador to Guatemala before he was appointed to head the embassy in Chile in 1971.


Later, he served as director general of the Foreign Service, ambassador to Switzerland and professor of political science at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont.

But his career was colored by persistent questions about the U.S. government’s role in the uprising in Chile, which ended what Allende supporters described as an effort to institute socialism through democratic means.

When Mr. Davis arrived in Santiago, Allende had recently become the first elected Marxist head of state in Latin America. He was attempting to bring about rapid changes through policies — included nationalizing U.S.- owned copper interests, raising wages and instituting new price controls — that critics, both in Chile and Washington, said exacerbating economic troubles and squeezing Chile’s middle class.

Strikes, fueled in part by groups supported covertly by the CIA, broke out across the country. The unrest came to a head Sept. 11, 1973, when Chilean Army Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a rebellion to depose Allende.

The president, trapped at his palace in Santiago, died that afternoon. The military junta placed Pinochet in charge, and he ruled for 17 years, during which thousands of dissidents were killed or disappeared at the hands of the government or right-wing death squads.

In a 1985 book about the period, “The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende,” Mr. Davis acknowledged the U.S. government’s efforts to oust Allende by stoking political opposition and applying economic pressure. He also acknowledged the moral questions arising from ma­nipu­la­tion of another country’s politics.

“Socialism may not be the best or even a good way to order a society’s affairs,” he wrote, “but the ability of free citizens to choose socialism, or capitalism, or some other economic system, is beyond price.”

He maintained that the U.S. government had no direct part in masterminding the military coup. He also contradicted the notion that Allende had been killed in a firefight with Pinochet’s troops, reporting instead that the president had shot himself with a Soviet-made rifle — a gift from Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

A 1973 autopsy confirmed Allende’s suicide, but a criminal investigation was never conducted. This year, a judge ordered Allende’s body exhumed for tests.

Soon after the coup, Mr. Davis left Chile to serve in Washington as director general of the Foreign Service.

In 1975, he was nominated by President Gerald R. Ford to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs. The appointment was opposed by the Organization of African Unity, which objected to the U.S. role in Chile while he was ambassador.



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