Understand the US participation in the military coup of 1964 in Brazil—and what may still be revealed

The US interfered in Brazilian politics from the beginning of the decade, fearing the country could become socialist

April 02, 2024 by Rodrigo Durão
A war tank and other vehicles of the Brazilian Army near the National Congress of Brazil, during the Coup d'état of 1964. Photo: Wikimedia commons

For over a decade, talking about US involvement in the 1964 military coup carried out in Brazil was considered a conspiracy theory. But things changed in 1976 when the content of communications between the American ambassador to Brazil between 1961 and 1966, Lincoln Gordon, and the US government were revealed.

“If our influence is to be brought to bear to help avert a major disaster here – which might make Brazil the China of the 1960s – this is where both I and all my senior advisors believe that our support should be placed,” reads the cable from March 27, 1964, four days before the coup.

This was the first thread in an ongoing story that explains how the last dictatorship (1964-1985) had the complicity and support of the United States. Gordon’s letter is evidence of Operation Brother Sam, which used US military forces to support the overthrow of the João Goulart government (popularly known as “Jango”) in favor of coup plotters like General Castelo Branco.

The plans discussed by US President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Gordon did not have to be put into practice, since João Goulart’s government did not offer resistance, as explained by historians heard by Brasil de Fato.

US strategies before 1964

“It is important to mention US actions in Brazil taken before the coup seeking to get the country far from socialism,” says Marcus Dezemone, from the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). “The first [of these actions] was the Alliance for Progress, which started in 1961.”

“The project injected money to spread American propaganda, mainly in opposition state governments such as Carlos Lacerda (Guanabara, currently part of Rio de Janeiro state), Magalhães Pinto (Minas Gerais state) and Ademar de Barros (São Paulo state). The aim was to strengthen the opposition so that Jango would be weak at the 1965 elections, unable to elect a successor,” he says.

“The second measure was financing the Brazilian Institute of Democratic Action (IBAD, in Portuguese), which produced anti-communist content, such as documentaries broadcast in theaters before the main movie, presenting subjects such as The Cuban Problem, an attempt at preventing the so-called ‘Cubanization’ of society,” said Dezemone. In addition to films, IBAD produced soap operas and content for radio and TV channels.

“The money the US put into our 1962 parliamentary elections surpassed the amount spent on their presidential campaign the previous year, which saw Kennedy elected. The idea was to elect pro-US legislators to oppose João Goulart.”

The fourth front invested in so-called soft power: “Politicians and influential people in society, like politicians Mário Covas and Ulysses Guimarães, were invited to go to the US on an all-expenses-paid basis, to see the institutions working, to build a favorable mentality about the country,” says Dezemone. The researcher recalls that this strategy was repeated at the beginning of the century with members of the judiciary invited to visit the US, including figures such as former judge and federal deputy Sérgio Moro and former federal deputy Deltan Dallagnol.

He says the last element was the rapprochement between the two countries’ militaries after the Second World War, “when our army abandoned the French model as an organizational reference, as they had quickly succumbed to the Germans.”

“The War College was created in the 1940s with a great deal of exchange with the US, which trained the officers who seized power in 1964,” says Dezemone.

American researcher James Green, one of the experts on this topic, told Brasil de Fato that the US “misjudged Jango, thinking he would be interested in a socialist revolution, just because he knew how to deal with left-wing politicians.”

“The decision was made to support a coup, which would happen later, in April or May 1964. But when events came to a head on March 31, Gordon [the American ambassador to Brazil] intervened so that the then US president, Lyndon Johnson, would immediately recognize the legitimacy of the new government,” he said.

“The US was going to send a military force to support the coup plotters in the event of resistance or civil war. But it wasn’t necessary and so the US began to deny any involvement,” he explains.

The US then opened their financial taps to Brazil’s military regime, helping to build major projects such as the Transamazon highway and the Rio-Niterói bridge, leading to an increase in Brazil’s foreign debt.

At the same time, the US spy agency, the CIA, helped depose countless governments in Latin America and improve the repressive apparatus in those countries under the justification of fighting communism.

Changes in relations

The denials of involvement with the Brazilian dictatorship lasted until 1976, when the first thread of the story was brought to light. But why at that time?

“For various reasons,” explains Green. “There was a politicization because of the Vietnam War, the emergence of a new generation critical of US foreign policy and a moral crisis after the revelations of corruption in the Nixon administration in 1973 with the Watergate case.”

“Democratic congressmen were elected who argued that the US should not support totalitarian regimes in Latin America—there have been attempts in the US Congress to cut aid to Brazil since 1972. Jimmy Carter, who was elected to the presidency in 1976, said that one of the criteria for a country to be recognized [by the US] would be respect for human rights, which put pressure on the Geisel government to soften repression in Brazil.”

The academic stresses that this movement was an exception to US foreign policy and “normality” would return in 1980, under the administration of Republican Ronald Reagan.

But even under the Reagan administration, Brazil’s move towards democracy and the disclosure of US involvement in the country’s internal affairs were unstoppable processes from the 1980s onwards.

End of story?

Since then, thousands of documents have been made public and there is pressure from US politicians—such as Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—for more to be released by the country’s State Department. James Green is responsible for the Opening Archives program, run in partnership between Brown University and the State University of Maringá (Paraná state), which publishes the documents that have already come to light.

“We’ve already made 55,000 documents available. There are still 20,000 to go and we’re asking for another 1,500 to be released,” explains the academic, who says he’s not optimistic about any bombshell revelations.

“I don’t think we’ll discover anything too unexpected. But even if they don’t reveal anything big, that’s important in the name of transparency,” he says.

Dezemone has a similar opinion. “I don’t think we’ll have any more revelations that will change the general interpretation of historiography. But documents have begun to emerge, for example, that recognize that the US government was aware of torture as an institutional practice. We may have more documents to this effect in the coming years,” he says.

The future

The Brazilian historian points out that his profession is much better at interpreting the past than predicting the future. Even so, he is optimistic that the military alliance between Brazil and the United States is not something unbreakable, made to last forever.

“That’s just a historical process. It wasn’t always like this and, consequently, there’s no reason why it should continue forever. The Red Army defeated Nazism on the battlefield. The largest armies in the world are communists.”

“There is no natural incompatibility between the armed forces and communism,” says Marcus Dezemone.

This article by Rodrigo Durão was originally published in Brasil de Fato.