Brazil: Kennedy backed plan for 1964 coup

On April 1, the 50th anniversary of the military coup that removed left-leaning Brazilian president João Goulart (1961-64) from office, the Washington, DC-based research group National Security Archive posted 16 Brazil-related documents from the administration of US president John Kennedy (1961-1963) on its website. The documents—which include declassified National Security Council (NSC) records and recently transcribed tapes of White House conversations—detail the administration's efforts to bring President Goulart into line, and its plans for dealing with him if he continued to implement social reforms and to oppose US policy on Cuba.

President Kennedy and his advisers were considering a military coup as early as July 1962, according to a tape Kennedy made secretly of a July 30 meeting in the Oval Office. "We may very well want [the Brazilian military] to take over at the end of the year, if they can," then-deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs Richard Goodwin advised. Lincoln Gordon, the US ambassador to Brazil, said that "one of our important jobs is to strengthen the spine of the military. 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," Kennedy interrupted, finishing the sentence.

On Dec. 11, 1962, a meeting of the NSC's Executive Committee considered three options on Brazil: "do nothing and allow the present drift to continue"; "collaborate with Brazilian elements hostile to Goulart with a view to bringing about his overthrow"; and "seek to change the political and economic orientation of Goulart and his government." The committee decided on the third option, saying that Goulart's opponents lacked the "capacity and will to overthrow" him and that there wasn't "a near-future US capability to stimulate [a coup] operation successfully." But the NSC felt that the coup option "must be kept under active and continuous consideration."

President Kennedy sent his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to talk to Goulart on Dec. 17, but the Brazilian president continued with his reforms and his independent foreign policy. By October 1963 the US president felt he'd had enough. "Do you see a situation where we might be—find it desirable to intervene militarily ourselves?" he asked at an Oct. 7 meeting. "I would not want us to close our minds to the possibility of some kind of discreet intervention which would help see the right side win," Ambassador Gordon said, and called for contingency plans to get ammunition or fuel to pro-US factions of the military. After the meeting, Gordon returned to Brazil and supervised the preparation of these plans at the US embassy. The plans had what a Nov. 22 transmission memorandum described as "a heavy emphasis on armed intervention."

Kennedy never read the Nov. 22 memo; he was assassinated that day. It was left to the administration of his successor, President Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969), to back the Brazilian military when it overthrew Goulart in April 1964. (National Security Archive, April 2; La Jornada, Mexico, April 3, from correspondent)

As the center-left government of current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff marked the coup anniversary this month, a grassroots organization, the Xingu Alive Forever Movement (MXVPS), charged that old policies of spying on activists were continuing despite the restoration of democracy in 1985. MXVPS coordinator Antonia Melo has filed a complaint against the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN) and the Belo Monte Construction Consortium (CCBM) charging that they spied on the group during its annual planning meeting in February 2013. The MXVPS is a collective of organizations opposing the building of the giant Belo Monte dam in Vitória do Xingu municipality in the northern Brazilian state of Pará. (Adital, Brazil, April 3)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 6.