Documents Shed New Light on US Support for 1964 Brazilian Coup

A newly declassified audiotape and documents released here Wednesday 40 years after the 1964 coup that installed military rule in Brazil show that then US President Lyndon Johnson was directly involved in the decision to back the coup forces, if necessary.

In a six-minute tape of Johnson being briefed by phone at his Texas ranch, the president is heard giving a top aide, Undersecretary of State George Ball, the authority to actively support the coup if US backing is needed.

“I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do,” he tells Ball on Mar. 31, 1964, the day before Brazilian President Joao Goulart fled the country.

“We just can’t take this one,” he says, apparently referring to Goulart, whose populist rhetoric and alleged association with leaders of the Brazilian Communist Party had fostered fears that South America’s largest country could turn into a giant Cuba.

“I’d get right on top of it and stick my neck out a little,” adds Johnson, who one year later would send thousands of Marines to intervene in civil unrest in the Dominican Republic.

He then calls for “everybody that had any imagination or ingenuity … (Central Intelligence Agency Director John) McCone … (Secretary of Defense Robert) McNamara,” to ensure that the coup that was already in play in Brazil was successfully concluded.

Goulart, a member of the Brazilian Workers’ Party who was elected vice president under Janio Qadros, took power in 1961 after Qadros resigned.

Despite Goulart’s democratic antecedents and his repeated efforts to reassure Washington that he was not setting Brazil on a radical path and had no intention of aligning the country with Cuba or the Soviet Union, US officials, still shaken by the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962 – which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war – adopted an increasingly hostile position.

Washington was represented in Brasilia by Ambassador Lincoln Gordon whose chief military attaché, Gen. Vernon Walters, was a particularly close friend of Brazilian Gen. Castello Branco, who would be declared president after Goulart’s ouster. Walters later became deputy director of the CIA and eventually US ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan.

In addition, the CIA had a heavy presence in Brazil at the time, and was implementing a number of covert operations designed to bolster the opposition to Goulart.

As with the case of the US ambassador in Chile during the early 1970s when the CIA was actively trying to destabilize the government of President Salvador Allende, Gordon, who is now 92 years old, was reportedly kept in the dark about the agency’s specific operations.

Much has already been revealed about US support for a military coup.

In 1976, for example, secret documents uncovered by a graduate student at the University of Texas and later published in the Brazilian press offered some details about CIA operations and also confirmed that Washington had deployed a aircraft carrier task force that included destroyers and oil tankers off the Brazilian coast at the time of the coup, presumably to intervene either covertly or overtly on behalf of the coup forces, if Gordon deemed it necessary.

At that time, Gordon, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, admitted the deployment had taken place but insisted that it was “a contingency never put into effect. We feared the possibility of a civil war … and one side might need some outside help.”

The new documents and audiotape, which were officially declassified last month when they were obtained by the independent National Security Archive (NSA), include at least two of the documents – including a lengthy cable from Gordon on the political situation as of Mar. 27, 1964 – that were disclosed in 1976.

But, in addition to the audiotape, four of the documents, including two CIA memoranda and two State Department exchanges, have apparently not been revealed previously.

“These documents reflect the degree to which the Johnson administration, starting with the president himself, was willing to intervene to ensure the success of this coup,” said Peter Kornbluh, the chief Latin American researcher at the NSA.

“They shed new details about sending arms and ammunition via submarine and appropriating an Esso tanker to support rebels forces, if needed.

“They make it more clear than ever before that the US was prepared to do a great deal – overtly if necessary – if the coup did not quickly succeed, to ensure that Goulart was indeed overthrown,” he added.

The first cable, which is perhaps the best known, was sent Mar. 27 by Gordon to top foreign-policy cabinet officials and provides a lengthy assessment of Goulart’s alleged intention to “seize dictatorial power” with the Communist Party. It also recommends “a clandestine delivery of arms” for Branco’s supporters, as well as a shipment of gas and oil to help them succeed.

The ambassador also urges the administration to “prepare without delay against the contingency of needed overt intervention at a second stage.”

A follow-up cable sent by Gordon the following day reiterates the request for a secret shipment of weapons to be “pre-positioned prior any (sic) outbreak of violence” and to be “used by paramilitary units working with Democratic Military groups.”

A third document from the CIA, dated Mar. 30, is a field report from intelligence sources in Belo Horizonte that asserted “a revolution by anti-Goulart forces will definitely get under way (sic) this week, probably in the next few days,” and would take the form of a march by military forces toward Rio.

According to the source cited in the cable, the “revolution … will not be resolved quickly and will be bloody.” In particular, the source anticipates fighting with other army units in Sao Paolo and a protracted military struggle in the north.

The navy is seen as likely to favor Goulart, while “the air force is so divided that it will not be a problem in the early stages (and) eventually it should come to the aid of anti-Goulart forces.”

A secret cable dated Mar. 31 to Gordon from then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk provides a list of White House decisions “taken in order (to) be in a position to render assistance at appropriate time to anti-Goulart forces if it is decided this should be done.”

The decisions include sending US naval tankers from Aruba to Santos; assembling 110 tons of ammunition and other equipment for the anti-Goulart forces; and dispatching the naval task force to be positioned off the coast.

The final document, dated Apr. 2, 1964, is from the CIA confirming Goulart’s departure into exile in Uruguay on the same day and the success of the coup.

While the new releases contribute more to what is known about the coup and the US role in it, the record remains far from complete, according to Kornbluh, who said the CIA has failed to disclose documents relating to its operations in Brazil, in contrast to those concerning its actions with respect to the military regimes in Chile and Argentina.

“Declassification of the historical record on the 1964 coup and the military regimes that followed would advance US interests in strengthening the cause of democracy and human rights in Brazil, and in the rest of Latin America,” he said.

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.