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Brazzil - History - March 2004
 

US's Heavy Hand Behind Brazil's Military Coup

On March 31, 1964, just declassified documents show, the American
ambassador to Brazil received a secret message from the U.S.
It stated that President Johnson had decided to send a naval
task force to take up position off the coast of Brazil and
assemble an airlift of ammunition and CS agent, a gas for mob control.

Peter Kornbluh

"I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do," President Johnson instructed his aides regarding preparations for a coup in Brazil on March 31, 1964. On the 40th anniversary of the military putsch, the National Security Archive posted recently declassified documents on U.S. policy deliberations and operations leading up to the overthrow of the Goulart government on April 1, 1964. The documents reveal new details on U.S. readiness to back the coup forces.

The Archive's posting includes a declassified audio tape of Lyndon Johnson being briefed by phone at his Texas ranch, as the Brazilian military mobilized against Goulart. "I'd put everybody that had any imagination or ingenuity…[CIA Director John] McCone…[Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara" on making sure the coup went forward, Johnson is heard to instruct undersecretary of State George Ball. "We just can't take this one," the tape records LBJ's opinion. "I'd get right on top of it and stick my neck out a little."

Among the documents are Top Secret cables sent by U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon who forcefully pressed Washington for direct involvement in supporting coup plotters led by Army Chief of Staff General Humberto Castello Branco.

"If our influence is to be brought to bear to help avert a major disaster here-which might make Brazil the China of the 1960s-this is where both I and all my senior advisors believe our support should be placed," Gordon wrote to high State Department, White House and CIA officials on March 27, 1964.

To assure the success of the coup, Gordon recommended "that measures be taken soonest to prepare for a clandestine delivery of arms of non-US origin, to be made available to Castello Branco supporters in Sao Paulo." In a subsequent cable, declassified just last month, Gordon suggested that these weapons be "pre-positioned prior any outbreak of violence," to be used by paramilitary units and "friendly military against hostile military if necessary." To conceal the U.S. role, Gordon recommended the arms be delivered via "unmarked submarine to be off-loaded at night in isolated shore spots in state of São Paulo, south of Santos."

Gordon's cables also confirm CIA covert measures "to help strengthen resistance forces" in Brazil. These included "covert support for pro-democracy street rallies…and encouragement [of] democratic and anti-communist sentiment in Congress, armed forces, friendly labor and student groups, church, and business."

Four days before the coup, Gordon informed Washington that "we may be requesting modest supplementary funds for other covert action programs in the near future." He also requested that the U.S. send tankers carrying "POL"-petroleum, oil and lubricants-to facilitate the logistical operations of the military coup plotters, and deploy a naval task force to intimidate Goulart's backers and be in position to intervene militarily if fighting became protracted.

Although the CIA is widely known to have been involved in covert action against Goulart leading up to the coup, its operational files on intervention in Brazil remain classified to the consternation of historians. Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh called on the Agency to "lift the veil of secrecy off one of the most important episodes of U.S. intervention in the history of Latin America" by completely declassifying the record of CIA operations in Brazil.

Both the Clinton and Bush administrations conducted significant declassifications on the military regimes in Chile and Argentina, he noted. "Declassification of the historical record on the 1964 coup and the military regimes that followed would advance U.S. interests in strengthening the cause of democracy and human rights in Brazil, and in the rest of Latin America," Kornbluh said.

On March 31, the documents show, Gordon received a secret telegram from Secretary of State Dean Rusk stating that the Administration had decided to immediately mobilize a naval task force to take up position off the coast of Brazil; dispatch U.S. Navy tankers "bearing POL" from Aruba; and assemble an airlift of 110 tons of ammunition and other equipment including "CS agent"-a special gas for mob control.

During an emergency White House meeting on April 1, according to a CIA memorandum of conversation, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told President Johnson that the task force had already set sail, and an Esso tanker with motor and aviation gasoline would soon be in the vicinity of Santos. An ammunition airlift, he reported, was being readied in New Jersey and could be sent to Brazil within 16 hours.

Such U.S. military support for the military coup proved unnecessary; Castello Branco's forces succeeded in overthrowing Goulart far faster and with much less armed resistance then U.S. policy makers anticipated. On April 2, CIA agents in Brazil cabled that "João Goulart, deposed President of Brazil, left Porto Alegre about 1pm local time for Montevideo."

The documents and cables refer to the coup forces as "the democratic rebellion." After General Castello Branco's takeover, the military ruled Brazil until 1985.


This article is reproduced from www.nsarchive.org with the permission of the National Security Archive.



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