1970-1979 | Arms exports | Backing dictatorships | Chile

Foreign Secretary cites copper as reason for arming Chile’s dictatorship

Foreign Secretary James Callaghan (European Commission - CC BY 4.0) and a display of photos of Chile's disappeared (Marjorie Apel -CC BY-SA 3.0).
Foreign Secretary James Callaghan (European Commission – CC BY 4.0) and a display of photos of Chile’s disappeared (Marjorie Apel -CC BY-SA 3.0).

24 April 1974

On 24 April 1974, Foreign Secretary James Callaghan explained to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) why the Cabinet had decided to supply the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet with two Leander class frigates and two Oberon submarines. They had been under construction on the Clyde when the military coup, which ousted Chile’s democratic socialist government of Salvadore Allende, occurred on 11 September 1973.   Callaghan informed the NEC that the paramount consideration was that Chile might retaliate by halting copper exports to Britain, which comprised 30% of imports of the material.1

Human rights concerns about the new regime would have to yield to the needs of British business for cheap copper. In the first few days after the coup, Pinochet’s military junta had rounded up tens of thousands of left wing activists, trade union leaders, students and dissident journalists, torturing or disappearing many of them. By April 1974, hundreds had already been executed and thousands interned in hard labour camps.  Many of the women detained had been subjected to rape as well as other brutal forms of torture.

At the time of the coup, the Labour Party had been in opposition and had attacked the Conservative government’s decision to continue its business as usual approach to Britain’s relations with the Junta. Julian Amery, then Foreign Secretary, had countered by suggesting that Labour MPs were inviting instability and rebellion: ‘the only logical reason that I can find for embargoing the sale of arms to Chile,’ he asserted, ‘is that the Opposition are anxious to encourage internal resistance or foreign intervention.’2

After it gained power at the general election of February 1974, the Labour Government proved equally reluctant to pursue an ethical foreign policy.  The issue was raised in Cabinet on 28 March and again on 9 April, but a clear majority of ministers decided to honour existing contracts to supply the Chilean armed forces. Roy Mason, Secretary of State for Defence, stressed that if Britain reneged on the deal she would be seen as unreliable by other Latin American states which had placed orders to the value of £200 million.3 Only two ministers, left wingers Michael Foot and Tony Benn, spoke out strongly against the move, although Eric Heffer, Minister of State at the Department of Industry, later gave a speech voicing his unease over the contract. This public expression of dissent was quickly castigated by the prime minister, Harold Wilson, who declared that the comments were incompatible with his position as minister and a ‘grave embarrassment to the government.’4 However, due to strong public support for Heffer’s heretical views, Wilson stopped short of sacking him.


  1. Ruth Winstone ( editor ), Tony Benn, Against the Tide: Diaries, 1973-76, Hutchinson, London, 1989, p. 139 and Ann Jones, No Truck with the Chilean Junta: Trade Union Internationalism, Australia and Britain, 1973-1980, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 2014, p. 129.
  2. Julian Amery cited in Josh Watts, Business as Usual: Britain’s Health Government and Chile’s 9/11,’ Alborada – Latin America Uncovered, 10 September 2013, accessed online at url https://alborada.net/watts-heath-uk-pinochet-chile-0913/
  3. Ruth Winstone ( editor ), op. cit., p. 130 and pp. 135-136.
  4. Ruth Winstone ( editor ), op. cit., p. 147.

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