Documents Shed Light on US Support for Brazilian Coup
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Documents shed new light on US
support for 1964 Brazilian coup
By Jim Lobe
Washington, DC, Mar. 31 (IPS) -- A newly declassified
audiotape and documents released Mar. 31, 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 told Ball
on Mar. 31, 1964, the day before Brazilian President Joao
Goulart fled the country.
"We just can't take this one," he said, 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
"I'd get right on top of it and stick my neck out a little,"
added Johnson, who one year later would send thousands of
Marines to intervene in civil unrest in the Dominican Republic.
He then called 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
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
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
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
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 an 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
At that time, Gordon, who could not be reached for comment
for this article, 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
"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
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
The navy was 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
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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