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
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
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
"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
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
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