Monday, July 28
On 50th anniversary, Archive posts new Kennedy Tape Transcripts on coup plotting against Brazilian President João Goulart
White House Audio Tape, President Lyndon B. Johnson discussing the impending coup in Brazil with Undersecretary of State George Ball, March 31, 1964.
The conversation starts at 00:30.
Robert Kennedy characterized Goulart as a "wily politician" who "figures he's got us by the ---."
Declassified White House records chart genesis of regime change effort in Brazil
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 465
Posted April 2, 2014
Edited by James G. Hershberg and Peter Kornbluh
For more information contact:
James G. Hershberg, 202/302-5718
Peter Kornbluh, 202/374-7281
Washington, DC – Almost two years before the April 1, 1964, military takeover in Brazil, President Kennedy and his top aides began seriously discussing the option of overthrowing Joao Goulart’s government, according to Presidential tape transcripts posted by the National Security Archive on the 50th anniversary of the coup d’tat. “What kind of liaison do we have with the military?” Kennedy asked top aides in July 1962. In March 1963, he instructed them: “We’ve got to do something about Brazil.”
The tape transcripts advance the historical record on the U.S. role in deposing Goulart — a record which remains incomplete half a century after he fled into exile in Uruguay on April 1, 1964. “The CIA’s clandestine political destabilization operations against Goulart between 1961 and 1964 are the black hole of this history,” according to the Archive’s Brazil Documentation Project director, Peter Kornbluh, who called on the Obama administration to declassify the still secret intelligence files on Brazil from both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations.
Revelations on the secret U.S. role in Brazil emerged in the mid 1970s, when the Lyndon Johnson Presidential library began declassifying Joint Chiefs of Staff records on “Operation Brother Sam” — President Johnson’s authorization for the U.S. military to covertly and overtly supply arms, ammunition, gasoline and, if needed, combat troops if the military’s effort to overthrow Goulart met with strong resistance. On the 40th anniversary of the coup, the National Security Archive posted audio files of Johnson giving the green light for military operations to secure the success of the coup once it started.
“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 U.S. support for a coup as the Brazilian military moved against Goulart on March 31, 1964.
But Johnson inherited his anti-Goulart, pro-coup policy from his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. Over the last decade, declassified NSC records and recently transcribed White House tapes have revealed the evolution of Kennedy’s decision to create a coup climate and, when conditions permitted, overthrow Goulart if he did not yield to Washington’s demand that he stop “playing” with what Kennedy called “ultra-radical anti-Americans” in Brazil’s government. During White House meetings on July 30, 1962, and on March 8 and 0ctober 7, 1963, Kennedy’s secret Oval Office taping system recorded the attitude and arguments of the highest U.S. officials as they strategized how to force Goulart to either purge leftists in his government and alter his nationalist economic and foreign policies or be forced out by a U.S.-backed putsch.
Indeed, the very first Oval Office meeting that Kennedy secretly taped, on July 30, 1962, addressed the situation in Brazil. “I think one of our important jobs is to strengthen the spine of the military,” U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon told the President and his advisor, Richard Goodwin. “To make clear, discreetly, that we are not necessarily hostile to any kind of military action whatsoever if it’s clear that the reason for the military action is… [Goulart's] giving the country away to the…,” “Communists,” as the president finished his sentence. During this pivotal meeting, the President and his men decided to upgrade contacts with the Brazilian military by bringing in a new US military attaché-Lt. Col. Vernon Walters who eventually became the key covert actor in the preparations for the coup. “We may very well want them [the Brazilian military] to take over at the end of the year,” Goodwin suggested, “if they can.” (Document 1)
By the end of 1962, the Kennedy administration had indeed determined that a coup would advance U.S. interests if the Brazilian military could be mobilized to move. The Kennedy White House was particularly upset about Goulart’s independent foreign policy positions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although Goulart had assisted Washington’s efforts to avoid nuclear Armageddon by acting as a back channel intermediary between Kennedy and Castro — a top secret initiative uncovered by George Washington University historian James G. Hershberg — Goulart was deemed insufficiently supportive of U.S. efforts to ostracize Cuba at the Organization of American States. On December 13, Kennedy told former Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek that the situation in Brazil “worried him more than that in Cuba.”
On December 11, 1962, the Executive Committee (EXCOMM) of the National Security Council met to evaluate three policy alternatives on Brazil: A. “do nothing and allow the present drift to continue; B. collaborate with Brazilian elements hostile to Goulart with a view to bringing about his overthrow; C. seek to change the political and economic orientation of Goulart and his government.” [link to document 2] Option C was deemed “the only feasible present approach” because opponents of Goulart lacked the “capacity and will to overthrow” him and Washington did not have “a near future U.S. capability to stimulate [a coup] operation successfully.” Fomenting a coup, however “must be kept under active and continuous consideration,” the NSC options paper recommended.
Acting on these recommendations, President Kennedy dispatched a special envoy — his brother Robert — to issue a face-to-face de facto ultimatum to Goulart. Robert Kennedy met with Goulart at the Palacio do Alvarada in Brazilia on December 17, 1962. During the three-hour meeting, RFK advised Goulart that the U.S. had “the gravest doubts” about positive future relations with Brazil, given the “signs of Communist or extreme left-wing nationalists infiltration into civilian government positions,” and the opposition to “American policies and interests as a regular rule.” As Goulart issued a lengthy defense of his policies, Kennedy passed a note to Ambassador Gordon stating: “We seem to be getting no place.” The attorney general would later say that he came away from the meeting convinced that Goulart was “a Brazilian Jimmy Hoffa.”
Kennedy and his top aides met once again on March 7, 1963, to decide how to handle the pending visit of the Brazilian finance minister, Santiago Dantas. In preparation for the meeting, Ambassador Gordon submitted a long memo to the president recommending that if it proved impossible to convince Goulart to modify his leftist positions, the U.S. work “to prepare the most promising possible environment for his replacement by a more desirable regime.” (Document 5) The tape of this meeting (partially transcribed here for the first time by James Hershberg) focused on Goulart’s continuing leftward drift. Robert Kennedy urged the President to be more forceful toward Goulart: He wanted his brother to make it plain “that this is something that’s very serious with us, we’re not fooling around about it, we’re giving him some time to make these changes but we can’t continue this forever.” The Brazilian leader,” he continued, “struck me as the kind of wily politician who’s not the smartest man in the world … he figures that he’s got us by the—and that he can play it both ways, that he can make the little changes, he can make the arrangements with IT&T and then we give him some money and he doesn’t have to really go too far.” He exhorted the president to “personally” clarify to Goulart that he “can’t have the communists and put them in important positions and make speeches criticizing the United States and at the same time get 225-50 million dollars from the United States. He can’t have it both ways.”
As the CIA continued to report on various plots against Goulart in Brazil, the economic and political situation deteriorated. When Kennedy convened his aides again on October 7, he wondered aloud if the U.S. would need to overtly depose Goulart: “Do you see a situation where we might be—find it desirable to intervene militarily ourselves?” The tape of the October 7 meeting — a small part of which was recently publicized by Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari, but now transcribed at far greater length here by Hershberg — contains a detailed discussion of various scenarios in which Goulart would be forced to leave. Ambassador Gordon urged the president to prepare contingency plans for providing ammunition or fuel to pro-U.S. factions of the military if fighting broke out. “I would not want us to close our minds to the possibility of some kind of discreet intervention,” Gordon told President Kennedy, “which would help see the right side win.”
Under Gordon’s supervision, over the next few weeks the U.S. embassy in Brazil prepared a set of contingency plans with what a transmission memorandum, dated November 22, 1963, described as “a heavy emphasis on armed intervention.” Assassinated in Dallas on that very day, President Kennedy would never have the opportunity to evaluate, let alone implement, these options.
But in mid-March 1964, when Goulart’s efforts to bolster his political powers in Brazil alienated his top generals, the Johnson administration moved quickly to support and exploit their discontent-and be in the position to assure their success. “The shape of the problem,” National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy told a meeting of high-level officials three days before the coup, “is such that we should not be worrying that the [Brazilian] military will react; we should be worrying that the military will not react.”
“We don’t want to watch Brazil dribble down the drain,” the CIA, White House and State Department officials determined, according to the Top Secret meeting summary, “while we stand around waiting for the [next] election.”
Source: The National Security Archive.
All the documents are available in the Archive including phone calls.