U.S. Policy in Latin America: Dictatorships over Democracies

George F. Kennan was the U.S. State Department’s premier expert on the Soviet Union and the author of the “containment” theory. His staunch view that the United States should fight communism at all costs was used to rationalize support for dictators throughout the world.

The “Memorandum by the Counselor of the Department (Kennan) to the Secretary of State” is a report that Kennan sent to Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson after a whirlwind tour of Latin America in 1950. Acheson had been accused of being too “soft” in confronting the spread of Communism, and in this document, Kennan sought to use his firsthand experiences in Latin America to convince Acheson that the United States needed to be tougher on regions with communist connections and sympathies.

Date: March 29, 1950. Classified Secret.

Mr. Secretary: Below are some views about Latin America as a problem in United States foreign policy, as these things appear to me at the conclusion of a visit to some of the Latin American countries.

Our relationship to Latin American occupies a vitally important place in our effort to achieve, within the non-communist world in general, a system of international relationships, political and economic, reasonable adequate to the demands of this post-war era, and henceforth to serve as a rebuttal of the Russian challenge to our right to exist as a great and leading world power.

If the countries of Latin America should come to be generally dominated by an outlook which views our country as the root of all evil and sees salvation only in the destruction of our national power, I doubt very much whether our general political program in other parts of the non-communist world could be successful.

The military significance to us of the Latin American countries lies today rather in the extent to which we ma be dependent upon them for the materials essential to the prosecution of a war.

It is also true that in no Latin American country, with the possible exeption of Guatemala, does there seem to be any serious likelihood that the communists might acquire the strength to come into power by majority opinion.

If war were to break out in present circumstances I think we must recognize that we would probably be faced at once with civil war, at best, and communist seizures of power, at worst, in a whole series of Latin American countries. And this, as indicated above, could not only disrupt political confidence in us on a world scale, but would force us to take violent action in order to assure raw materials supplies and retention of strategic facilities in this part of the world.

Our problem, then, is to create, where such do not already exists, incentives which will impel the government and societies of the Latin American countries to resist communist pressures, and to assist them and spur them on in their efforts, where the incentives are already present.

But where they do not exist, and where the concepts and traditions of popular government are too weak to absorb successfully the intensity of the communist attack, then we must concede that harsh governmental measures of repression may be the only answer; that these measures may have to proceed from regimes whose origins and methods would not stand the test of American concepts of democratic procedure; and that such regimes and such methods may be preferable alternatives, and indeed the only alternatives, to further communist success.

With respect to other forms of U.S. investment, we must recognize that the only real sanction for the good treatment of such investment lies in such influence as its owner are themselves able to exert through their operations and financial power in the recipient country and through such sense of self-interest as they can enlist on their own behalf in the governing circles of that country.

Actually, as of today, the protection of U.S. investments in Latin America rests predominantly on the self-interests of the government groups in the Latin American countries and on the ability of the American owners to enlist that self-interest through the judicious use of their financial power, where it does not exist from other causes. In many instances, bribery may be said to have replaced diplomatic intervention as the main protection of private capital; and the best sanction for its continued operation lies in the corruptibility, rather then the enlightenment, of the local regimes.

For all these reasons, I think it urgently desirable that there be enforced upon our entire official establishment a form of discipline which would cause its members to desist from all sorts of moralizing or public judgment about the internal quality or propriety of Latin American governments.

It is important for us to keep before ourselves and the Latin American people at all times the reality of the thesis that we are a great power; that we are by and large much less in need of them than they are in need of us; that we are entirely prepared to leave to themselves those who evince no particular desire for the forms of collaboration that we have to offer; that the danger of a failure to exhaust the possibilities of our mutual relationship is always greater to them than to us; that we can afford to wait, patiently and good naturedly; and that we are more concerned to be respected than to be liked or understood.

In regards to Kennan’s recent trip to Latin American, this is what he had to say about the goals of U.S. policy in Latin America:

1. The protection of our raw materials

2. The prevention of military exploitation of Latin America by the enemy, and

3. The prevention of the psychological mobilization of Latin America against us

Communists “represent our most serious problem in the area”, Kennan insisted, and they “have progressed to the point where they must be regarded as an urgent, major problem”. Under no circumstances could they be allowed to take power. Kennan goes onto conceed this horrendous idea:

The final answer might be an unpleasant one, but … we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government. This is not shameful, since the communists are essentially traitors … It is better to have a strong regime than a liberal one if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communists.


Full Text of Kennan’s memo to Secretary of State

Kenna quoted in Peter Smith, Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of US-Latin American Relations (1996), Pgs. 126-127. Kennan at the 2nd Regional Conference of US Chiefs of Mission in Rio De Janeiro, 1950.

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