Nathaniel Davis, 1925-2011

The former ambassador with his students

Henry Kissinger called him “a brilliant career officer.” Ed Horman, the father of one of two Americans killed in the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 coup, called him “a very polished liar.”  He had a long career in the Peace Corps and the U.S. State Department as well as teaching posts at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvey Mudd College. But he was also the American ambassador whose embassy did not do enough to protect U.S. citizens swept up in the wave of arrests in the coup’s aftermath. Nathaniel Davis, professor emeritis of political science, died of heart failure on May 16 in Claremont, California.

In his book The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende Davis wrote that U.S. Embassy staff “toured carabinero and military stations, the Santiago stadiums, the hospitals, the morgue and other points in the city to locate and obtain the release of any U.S. citizens who had been detained.”  But a subsequent report by the U. S. General Accounting Office unfavorably compares these efforts with those of other foreign embassies on behalf of their citizens during this period. While U.S. officials indicated they were not allowed access to Americans being held in the national stadium, Dutch and Belgian diplomats managed to visit their nationals held in the same site. Other embassies offered shelter to their citizens who feared arrest; the U.S. Embassy did not. The report said “there was clear inference from the Ambassador [Davis] and the Deputy Chief of Mission that sheltering them would not be looked upon with favor.”An American woman seeking protection on September 19 was not permitted to stay in the Embassy but found shelter in the Panamanian Embassy, while three other Americans were allowed to stay at other foreign embassies.

Davis, who left the State Department in 1975, was the model for the ambassador in Constantin Costa-Gavras’ 1982 film “Missing,” which implied that officials from the U.S. mission were complicit in the arrest and killing of Charles Horman. He and two other officials attempted to sue Costa-Gavras and the film studio for libel but their suit was thrown out of court. In 1983 he joined the faculty of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, where he taught for 19 years. According to the dean, “his classes were highly sought after by students and they benefited both from his knowledge and kindness.”  But a graduate student who knew Davis at the college during this period told me that if anyone brought up the subject of Chile and Charles Horman, “he would walk out of the room.”

“An Assessment of Selected U.S. Embassy-Consular Efforts to Assist and Protect Americans Overseas During Crises and Emergencies” Report of the Comptroller General of the United States, December 4, 1975.

Davis’s obituary on the Harvey Mudd College web site:

2 comments on “Nathaniel Davis, 1925-2011

  1. Bill Hovingh says:

    The anecdotal report that Davis would “walk out of the room” when Chile and Horman were mentioned is not consistent with my experience. (I was a student of Davis’s at Harvey Mudd in the years immediately after he was hired.)

    I recall one occasion on which he was asked specifically about the film, Missing. It’s been more than 25 years, of course, but his response was a gentle but pointed dismissal of the film’s overall credibility that went something like this: “In the film, the character of the American ambassador was portrayed by a tall, svelte actor with a thick head of dark hair. I found the rest of the film to be just as accurate.” (Davis, at least by the time he was speaking, was quite portly, with significantly thinned, absolutely white hair.)

    • Bill,
      Thanks for your comments, and I would heartily agree that the film Missing uses literary license on a number of occasions. The anecdote mentioned comes from a former graduate student who was there in the early 1990s, less than a decade since the film’s release, so perhaps feelings were still running high.

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