How the U.S. Supported the 1964 Brazilian Military Coup

The 1964 Brazilian coup d’état was a series of events in Brazil from March 31 to April 1 that led to the overthrow of President João Goulart (Jango) by members of the Brazilian Armed Forces. Goulart took office with full powers in 1963, and during his rule several problems in Brazilian politics became evident, as well as disputes in the context of the Cold War, which helped destabilize his government. The Basic Reforms Plan (Reformas de Base) proposed by Goulart had the potential to socialize the profits of large companies. It was labelled as a “socialist threat” by right-wing sectors of society and of the military, which organized major demonstrations against the government.

The United States government was very much in favor of removing Goulart from power and aligned itself with the Brazilian military to support the coup.

Here are a number of declassified documents published by the National Security Archive demonstrating complete American support for the coup:

1) White House Audio Tape, President Lyndon B. Johnson discussing the impending coup in Brazil with Undersecretary of State George Ball, March 31, 1964

In this 5:08 minute White House tape obtained from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, President Johnson is recorded speaking on the phone from his Texas ranch with Undersecretary of State George Ball and Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Thomas Mann. Ball briefs Johnson on that status of military moves in Brazil to overthrow the government of Joao Goulart who U.S. officials view as a leftist closely associated with the Brazilian Communist Party. Johnson gives Ball the green light to actively support the coup if U.S. 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 orders. In an apparent reference to Goulart, Johnson states “we just can’t take this one.” “I’d get right on top of it and stick my neck out a little,” he instructs Ball.

2) State Department, Top Secret Cable from Rio De Janiero, March 27, 1964

Ambassador Lincoln Gordon wrote this lengthy, five part, cable to the highest national security officers of the U.S. government, including CIA director John McCone and the Secretaries of Defense and State, Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk. He provides an assessment that President Goulart is working with the Brazilian Communist Party to “seize dictatorial power” and urges the U.S. to support the forces of General Castello Branco. Gordon recommends “a clandestine delivery of arms” for Branco’s supporters as well as a shipment of gas and oil to help the coup forces succeed and suggests such support will be supplemented by CIA covert operations. He also urges the administration to “prepare without delay against the contingency of needed overt intervention at a second stage.”

3) State Department, Top Secret Cable from Amb. Lincoln Gordon, March 29, 1964

Ambassador Gordon updates high U.S. officials on the deterioration of the situation in Brazil. In this cable, declassified on February 24, 2004 by the LBJ Presidential Library, he reiterates the “manifold” need to have a secret shipment of weapons “pre-positioned prior any outbreak of violence” to be “used by paramilitary units working with Democratic Military groups” and recommends a public statement by the administration “to reassure the large numbers of democrats in Brazil that we are not indifferent to the danger of a Communist revolution here.”

4) CIA, Intelligence Information Cable on “Plans of Revolutionary Plotters in Minas Gerias,” March 30, 1964

The CIA station in Brazil transmitted this field report from intelligence sources in Belo Horizonte that bluntly stated “a revolution by anti-Goulart forces will definitely get under way this week, probably in the next few days. The cable transmits intelligence on military plans to “march toward Rio.” The “revolution,” the intelligence source predicted, “will not be resolved quickly and will be bloody.”

5) State Department, Secret Cable to Amb. Lincoln Gordon in Rio, March 31, 1964

Secretary of State Dean Rusk sends Gordon a list of the 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 loaded with petroleum, oil and lubricants from Aruba to Santos, Brazil; assembling 110 tons of ammunition and other equipment for pro-coup forces; and dispatching a naval brigade including an aircraft carrier, several destroyers and escorts to conduct be positioned off the coast of Brazil. Several hours later, a second cable is sent amending the number of ships, and dates they will be arriving off the coast.

6) CIA, Secret Memorandum of Conversation on “Meeting at the White House 1 April 1964 Subject-Brazil,” April 1, 1964

This memorandum of conversation records a high level meeting, held in the White House, between President Johnson and his top national security aides on Brazil. CIA deputy chief of Western Hemisphere operations, Desmond Fitzgerald recorded the briefing given to Johnson and the discussion on the progress of the coup. Defense Secretary reported on the movements of the naval task force sailing toward Brazil, and the arms and ammunition being assembled in New Jersey to resupply the coup plotters if necessary.

7) CIA, Intelligence Information Cable on “Departure of Goulart from Porto Alegre for Montevideo,” April 2, 1964

The CIA station in Brazil reports that the deposed president, Joao Goulart, left Brazil for exile in Uruguay at l pm, on April 2. His departure marks the success of the military coup in Brazil.

This military dictatorship in Brazil lasted until 1985.

In 2014, nearly 30 years after the regime collapsed, the Brazilian military recognized for the first time the excesses committed by its agents during the years of the dictatorship, including the torture and murder of political dissidents.

In May 2018, the United States government released a memorandum, written by the CIA to Henry Kissinger, dating back to April 1974 (when he was serving as Secretary of State), confirming that the leadership of the Brazilian military regime was fully aware of the killing of dissidents. Of course, the US was fully aware as well 🙂

The Subject of that memo read as follows: Decision by Brazilian President Ernesto Geisel To Continue the Summary Execution of Dangerous Subversives Under Certain Conditions

It is estimated that 434 people were either confirmed killed or went missing (not to be seen again) and 20,000 people were tortured during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Human rights activists and others assert that the true figure could be much higher.

Thanks for reading,


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