U.S. Policies in Hemisphere Precede Kissinger and Pinochet

A.J. Langguth, a professor at the USC School of Journalism, is the author of "Hidden Terrors," an account of U.S. involvement in Latin America. His most recent book, "Our Vietnam," won the 2000 Overseas Press Club award

Human rights activists have been calling for Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet to be tried for his role in the murders and disappearances that followed his 1973 coup d'etat. Others, led by British journalist Christopher Hitchens, have pressed for former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to be prosecuted for his role in that same overthrow of Chile's elected president, Salvador Allende.

It is unlikely that either Pinochet or Kissinger will be brought to trial. But the outcry has raised a question: Why should the demand for justice stop with those two men?

If world attention is finally focused on 30-year-old crimes in Latin America, simple fairness demands that the inquiry not be limited to the actions of the Nixon administration. We must also revisit the Kennedy and Johnson years and assess what misery they inflicted on the hemisphere.

Just as President John F. Kennedy's advisors worried about a China-North Vietnam alliance, they were also alarmed that Cuba might succeed in turning Latin America against us. Their greatest concern was with Brazil, the continent's largest country.

In the fall of 1961, Kennedy's new ambassador arrived in Rio de Janeiro. Lincoln Gordon was typical of Kennedy's recruits for his New Frontier: Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, professor of international economics at Harvard's business school. He was not, however, politically adroit. When Brazil's president, Joao Goulart, tried to maintain his country's uneasy balance by naming two cabinet officers from the far left, Gordon warned against their appointments. "Oh," Goulart said cheerfully, "I can keep an eye on them."

During his term, Goulart tried to reassure Washington more directly. He paid a call on Kennedy in the White House and later, during the Cuban missile crisis, he pledged Brazilian solidarity with the United States. It was not enough. In December of 1962, then Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy traveled to Brazil to warn Goulart against any attraction he might be feeling to left-wing causes.

Meantime, the CIA was expanding its presence in Brazil, bribing public officials and circulating lies about such reformers as Paulo Freire, who was considered dangerous not only for teaching farm hands to read but for challenging them to question their condition as chattel on Brazil's great estates.

Ambassador Gordon became friendly with officials of the Institute for Social Research Studies, an organization much like America's John Birch Society. He also heard from segments of the Brazilian military intent on removing the civilian president, although Goulart had just won, by a margin of 4 to 1, a plebiscite expanding his powers.

One stumbling block to a coup, however, was a highly respected Brazilian general, Humberto Castelo Branco. To overcome Castelo Branco's respect for civilian authority, Washington sent as its new military attache Lt. Col. Vernon A. (Dick) Walters, a gifted linguist who knew Castelo Branco well from serving as a liaison with the Brazilian army in Italy during World War II.

As the pieces fell into place, Gordon mastered the idiom of the Cold War, sprinkling his conversation with phrases about Goulart like "parlor pink" and "playing footsie with the communists." The ambassador met regularly with Goulart's enemies. Walters, while he worked on Castelo Branco, advised other Brazilian officers about which colleagues to recruit for their conspiracy.

The CIA was flush with money channeled through the Bank of Boston and the Royal Bank of Canada. Its agents, aiming for a coup, helped to sponsor tens of thousands of demonstrators in Sao Paulo for a "March of the Family with God for Freedom." It ended with the reading of a manifesto by Sao Paulo women on behalf of Christianity and democracy. The archbishop of Sao Paulo had forbidden his bishops to participate, however, saying the march had been organized by a U.S. advertising agency, McCann-Erickson.

As the coup's target day approached, Walters wired the State Department that Castelo Branco had "finally accepted leadership" of the anti-Goulart forces. On April 1, 1964, the Brazilian military seized the government. Goulart defied his more fiery allies and refused to fight back. He did not want to be responsible for bloodshed among Brazilians, he said.

That night, Gordon slept well. When he flew to Washington, he found a jubilant mood in Lyndon Johnson's White House.

Although Washington downplayed its involvement in the coup, the director of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)--funded by the CIA, the AFL-CIO and some 60 U.S. corporations, including ITT and Pan American World Airways--was indiscreet enough to boast over the radio, "What happened in Brazil did not just happen--it was planned--and planned months in advance. Many of the trade-union leaders, some of whom were actually trained in our institute, were involved in the revolution, and in the overthrow of the Goulart regime."

Even Robert Kennedy, still grieving for his brother murdered the previous November, took heart from the coup: Goulart got what was coming to him, he told Ambassador Gordon.

The Brazilian people got a good deal more. Increasingly severe crackdowns on political dissent led to bloody years of torture and murder. By the time Richard M. Nixon took office in 1969, Gordon was back in the United States, as president of Johns Hopkins University. When students badgered him about having saddled Brazil with a vicious dictatorship, Gordon acknowledged the torture but said that at least Brazil had been spared a communist regime, and he pointed to the country's economic boom. Students countered that the boom had benefited only corporations, that real wages had declined 10%.

The repression spread. Uruguay, once a model democracy, became a military dictatorship, and Argentina established close ties with Brazil's army and police. From the time Allende was elected president of Chile until his overthrow, CIA agents strengthened the anti-democratic network in the countries of Latin America's Southern Cone, supplying explosives and untraceable handguns.

They introduced members of Brazil's death squads to the police of nearby countries and set up meetings to discuss how the new dictatorships could monitor their country's political exiles. The women's protest marches, so useful in destabilizing the political climate in Sao Paulo, were exported to Chile.

That quick recap of events from 1961 until Pinochet's coup 12 years later raises questions: Should Kissinger be tried as a war criminal or congratulated for carrying forward a bipartisan policy in Latin America? Is Pinochet a monster or merely one more ambitious but dutiful Latin American ally?

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°