tv Orlando Letelier Ronni Moffitt Memorial CSPAN November 11, 2019 5:00pm-5:12pm EST
formally asked me to be his chief of staff and i was flattered. i think he asked me to be his chief of staff because i had served under every chief of staff that served ronald reagan and george h.w. bush. >> you can watch this and other american history programs on our went where all our video is archived. that's c-span.org/history. on september 21st, 1976, a car bomb exploded at sheridan circle on embassy row in washington, d.c. just over a mile from the white house. next on american history tv, historian alan mcpherson on his book "ghosts of sheridan circle." how a washington assassination brought terror state to justice. mr. mcpherson gives an illustrated talk at busboys and
poets, but first we visit with the author to see where the crime took place and the memorial there for the two victims. >> so, we are literally at the scene of the crime. this is a memorial that was put here by the institute for policy studies. to memorialize the assassination of orlando letelier. at the same time, ronni moffitt, a u.s. citizen, was also killed in this car bomb, and all of this happened here in sheridan circle in the heart of nbc row in washington, d.c. on that morning of september 21st, 1976, orlando letelier was an employee of a think tank in
washington called the institute for policy studies. he was driving his car to work. he lived in that direction. in bethesda, maryland. he came down embassy row, massachusetts avenue, lined with several embassies. in the car with him were two colleagues from isp, ronni moffitt and her husband michael moffitt. they turned the corner over here and unbeknownst to them, following them was a gray sedan. in that gray sedan were two cuban americans who had helped put a bomb underneath the driver's seat in the chevelle that orlando letelier was driving. the order to put the bomb in there was given by d.i.n.a., which was the secret police of chile, and chile was ruled at that time by a dictator who
didn't like the political activities that orlando letelier, a former ambassador to the united states from chile, was taking on in washington. and so we know now that it was the dictator who ordered the secret police to assassinate him. and so they did this partly through an american chilean called michael tanly who came to washington, built the bomb with these cuban americans and they put it under the car of letelier. they thought he would be alone. and ended up having two american citizens with him. so the car came down massachusetts, turned over here, and exploded right here. this is where the two cuban americans in the gray sedan pushed the button on this pager that set off the bomb. almost immediately the bomb blew off letelier's legs and within a few minutes he bled to death.
there were car parts, body parts, broken windows, twisted metal all over this place. the car careened for something like, you know, 40, 60 feet, went several feet into the air, crashed down and ended up crashing against a volkswagen that was illegally parked right here at this spot. so letelier died almost immediately. and then came the tragic story of ronni moffitt. she was not targeted but she happened to be in the car with him. she stumbled out of the car and her husband was in the back seat, and so he suffered just minor cuts. he looked at her and she was stumbling away so he figured she must be okay. i'm going to go help orlando who is in the driver's seat and clearly is dying. so he went around the front,
tried to get orlando out, and couldn't do it. there was, you know, jagged metal pieces everywhere, broken glass, and he simply couldn't get, you know, the car had essentially imploded on to itself. he couldn't get the body out. eventually he went to see his wife and he realized at that point that a piece of shrapnel had exploded from the driver's seat and had cut her carotid artery and she was essentially drowning in her own blood. even though that was her only injury. and so both were -- both victims were immediately brought, you know, within a few minutes there were police vehicles and ambulances all over the circle. we're just afew bloc few blocks from dupont circle so a lot of people could hear this. we're about a mile away from the white house and the state department, so you could hear the explosion from almost anywhere in central d.c.
so then a few minutes after that, they were both off to the hospital. orlando was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. they tried to revive and save ronni moffitt in all sorts of ways at the hospital. nothing worked. and so she was pronounced dead within about an hour of the crash. this was a very serious assassination. it was the only state-sponsored assassination in the united states. it signalled an escalation in what was called "operation condor." this was an operation by several south american dictatorships whom together were going to chase their leftist opponents, whether peaceful opponents or violent ones, all over south america and then eventually outside of south america. so outside of each other's countries. so they would chase them wherever they could find them,
whether it be mexico, europe or the united states, but this was the only condor assassination in the united states. it ended up being a huge miscalculation for the government. they must have somehow thought that this would be okay with the u.s. government. likely because they had done it in all sorts of parts of the world and the united states government hadn't done anything about it. also because letelier was a socialist and he was allying with other socialists, but he was a democratic socialist and a peaceful socialist. the government probably thought that nobody would respond to this, that the americans wouldn't care about this, but it turns out when you kill a former ambassador in the united states that is a crime under u.s. law, under the u.s. code, because that person remains a protected person until they die. also, of course, they killed a united states citizen.
so these are two separate federal crimes. immediately the fbi descended on to this scene. they took the investigation away from the washington, d.c. police as soon as they realized who the victims were and who the potential, right, criminals were. and so then they had the resources, right, to find people in latin america to help them investigate this. put some pressure and find allies in the state department. and that's eventually what they did. and within about a year and a half, they found the bomb-maker. they found the cuban americans who were guilty. some of them went to jail. some of them didn't. some of them went for very little time. but eventually this case through the years ended up really bringing his terror state to justice in that the chilean government dissolved d.i.n.a., dissolved the secret police once this crime became public and it became clear it was the chileans
who had done it. they fired the most important sort of torturer and killer in chilean history, who was the head of the secret police, and eventually it created a lot of momentum for the u.s. government to put pressure on him to step down and it created momentum among the chilean sort of peaceful ant -- to essentially run him out of office through a referendum in the 1980s. so the case, while it seems to be small, created all this momentum and really set off a human rights revolution through the rest of the 20th century. well, this memorial is particularly important, you know, because it has the dates of the two victims. it focuses on the victims. it doesn't focus on the aggressors. it doesn't focus on the
political issues at the time. these are very important but it's really a very human memorial, right? it doesn't paint these people as harrowing. they're simply people trying to help their countries or in the case of ronni moffitt, help another country out. and i think it illustrates these themes of justice, peace and dignity that everybody is fighting for these things. everybody should be fighting for these things. and so it really kind of goes beyond the petty politics of the cold war. every 21st of september since 1976 friends, family, former colleagues of letelier and moffitt come down here, they lay flowers and they have some sort of commemoration around that traumatic episode for the country of chile. it's important to note also that the chilean ambassador's
residence is right over there. not the embassy but the chilean ambassador's residence. on the morning of september 21st, the chilean ambassador actually heard the bombing. he was in the shower, right? gave him a stir. he came down and he was wondering what was going on. turns in he wasn't in on this assassination at all, even though it was his government that did it, but later on, of course, he trumpeted the version of events of the pinochet regime which is that there is no way his government could have done this. it must have been some leftist guerillas trying to pin it on pinochet, but it's important that the residence is there because the residence itself now has a bust of orlando letelier to try to remember him also, and so around the circle we have these two memorials to this one man and, of course, to ronni moffitt. and so sheridan circle will be marked forever in thhe