Born in a tent to illiterate Bedouin parents, Muammar al-Qaddafi grew up loathing the Libyan monarchy and its Western backers. Sensing its growing weakness, the then-27-year-old junior army officer decided to seize power himself on September 1, 1969, while King Idris was out of the country at a health resort. Driving military vehicles into the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, he and about 70 co-conspirators surrounded the royal palace and other key government buildings, cut communications and arrested certain top officials (one of whom flung himself into a swimming pool in his pajamas in a desperate attempt to escape). The king’s personal guard put up only token resistance, and within two hours the essentially bloodless coup had come to a conclusion. In a radio address that morning, Qaddafi informed his countrymen that the “corrupt” and “reactionary” regime had been toppled. At first, no one seemed to know who exactly had taken charge. But Qaddafi would soon impose his will on all aspects of Libyan life. Ruthlessly stifling dissent and constantly clashing with the United States, he would govern Libya for 42 years until being killed during the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising.
From humble beginnings, Idi Amin rose through the military ranks to become Uganda’s top general. Though originally a close ally of President Milton Obote, who had led the country to independence from Britain in 1962, the two men eventually began to distrust each other. Just prior to leaving for a conference in Singapore, Obote allegedly secretly ordered Amin’s arrest. Word of this plot apparently leaked back to Amin, who responded on January 25, 1971—while Obote was still away—by moving troops into Kampala, the capital. Firing automatic weapons and mortars, Amin’s men quickly took possession of the airport and other strategic sites prior to announcing their successful coup over the radio. Despite a promise to restore democracy, the self-proclaimed “Last King of Scotland” would go on to rule Uganda with an iron first, slaughtering some 300,000 perceived political opponents over the course of his brutal eight-year reign. After being deposed by Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian soldiers, Amin lived out the rest of his life in Saudi Arabia without ever facing charges.
A career military officer, Augusto Pinochet was named head of the Chilean army around the same time he joined a CIA-backed coup plot against the man who had promoted him, President Salvador Allende. On September 11, 1973, the Chilean navy took over the port city of Valparaiso while tanks and troops advanced on the presidential palace in downtown Santiago. Directing the attack from a suburban command post, Pinochet ordered two fighter jets to fire rockets at the palace. As flames burst skyward, soldiers then stormed the building, prompting Allende, a democratically elected Marxist, to commit suicide rather than surrender. Pinochet’s men spent the rest of the day—and many days thereafter— rounding up thousands of Allende supporters to be tortured and, in many cases, executed without trial. Meanwhile, Pinochet began what would become a 17-year dictatorial reign. Congressional testimony and declassified documents later showed that, under U.S. President Richard Nixon’s orders, the CIA had for years attempted to foment Allende’s downfall, in part by funding anti-Allende propaganda, taking measures to hurt Chile’s economy and maintaining constant contact with known coup plotters. The CIA moreover played a role in the assassination of a pro-democracy general.