The documents record America's knowledge of the atrocities perpetrated against Chileans by the government of General Augusto Pinochet after the military took power in a coup in 1973. But they also show how the Labour government took a more pragmatic view of relations with Chile than it appeared at the time.
The US has declassified a welter of documents referring to the coup and to American policy afterwards. The US has been accused of assisting the military to overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, and of turning a blind eye to torture, murder and repression.
A US State department telegram reveals a conversation between an American diplomat and the British charge d'affaires, named only as Haskel, in July 1976. "HMG [Her Majesty's government] has now approved a full shipment of ammunition... to arm two Leander class frigates previously sold to Chileans," it records. One submarine built in Britain had already sailed; the second was about to.
"When asked why the British did not link the sale of ammunition to human rights problems, Haskel replied that HMG's position was that the moral obligation to provide ammunition and other supporting equipment for weapons systems bought and sold in good faith was overriding," the diplomat recorded.
The Labour government had withdrawn its ambassador from Chile in protest at human rights abuses, in particular the case of Sheila Cassidy, a doctor imprisoned and tortured by the Chileans. But business continued apparently as normal. The ambassador did not return until 1980, when the Conservatives were back in power.
The documents also record how a young Labour backbencher, Neil Kinnock, wrote to President Jimmy Carter asking about five cases of "disappeared" people with British links. "We suspect, although we cannot confirm, that they are dead," said a memo from a US official. The letter in reply to Mr Kinnock, however, simply said that the US had no knowledge of their whereabouts.
The US had every available reason to know about the repression and murder that was going on in Chile, but its support never flagged. Ten days after the coup, the CIA reported: "The prevailing mood among the Chilean military is to use the current opportunity to stamp out all vestiges of communism in Chile for good. Severe repression is planned."
General Pinochet, now 83, is under house arrest near London awaiting extradition hearings to decide if he will be sent to face trial in Spain for human rights abuses.Reuse content