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British Archives and the Coup of 1964

Documents from the U.S. National Archives show an exchange of information between British and Americans as to military intervention in Brazil

William Torres Laureano da Rosa/National Archives Documents from the U.S. National Archives show an exchange of information between British and Americans as to military intervention in BrazilWilliam Torres Laureano da Rosa/National Archives

Access to official documents from the United Kingdom has changed greatly in recent years. Since 1958, the government has begun to select documents that had been in existence for more than 30 years for preservation and later dissemination. More recently, the British Parliament approved the Freedom of Information Act, which means that individual requests for declassification and release of various documents could be filled and access granted even before the term prescribed by law had expired. Based on those reports it has been possible, for example, to learn about and examine the position taken by the United Kingdom in regard to the Brazilian political situation in 1964 and the networks of information between London and Washington that existed at the time.

The documents indicate that the possibility of a coup d’état in Brazil was nothing new to British diplomacy. In a letter sent in January 1964 to the American department of the British diplomatic service about the possibility of a coup in Brazil, Counselor Ronald Burroughs reported “an outbreak of rumours and statements concerning possible coups d’état.”[1] Burroughs states “these coups d’état are predicted as coming from variously the Right, the extreme Left, and the President.”[2] According to information obtained through the U.S. military attaché, “General Castello Branco […] warned the Minister of War that the latter should not count on the Army supporting a coup by the president. If any such move were set on foot he, Castello Branco, would call out troops to oppose it.”[3]

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A reading of the documents shows that such information was obtained not only from Brazilians who had close ties with British diplomatic circles—among whom was journalist Ruy Mesquita, from O Estado de S. Paulo—but also by means of a system for cooperation between the United Kingdom and the United States. Such cooperation consisted of British access to information bulletins issued by the CIA (one of which strongly suggested the confirmation of Castello Branco as president the day before he was chosen), as well as the exchanges of information with U.S. diplomatic representatives, among them John Plank, Latin American Section chief of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and Ellsworth Bunker, U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS).

William Torres Laureano da Rosa/National Archives

The documents do not simply supply direct indications of the events and the people involved, according to diplomats who served in that era. Cross-checking information obtained from the British documents reveals important aspects of the “partnership.” During that period, for example, it is observed that although the United States and the United Kingdom were allies and shared information about Brazil, such did not take place without restrictions. Documents now declassified show that British diplomats kept U.S. participation in the coup d’état secret. In a report about a conversation with Dean Rusk (U.S. secretary of state) about that possible participation by the United States dated April 1, 1964, Lord Harlech, British ambassador in Washington, reported that with respect to the deposing of President Goulart, the U.S. “would have little influence, if any, on the course of events.”[4] Non-participation by the U.S. in the coup appears to have been a matter of consensus in the British diplomatic correspondence of 1964, and was again discussed and reaffirmed on two different occasions: at the time of the accusations of USA cooperation made both by French newspapers and by Brazilian journalist Bocaiúva Cunha. There is still much that is new yet to be discovered about the period and access to a larger number of documents in collections available in Brazil, the United States, and the United Kingdom is certainly an important tool for achieving this.

William Torres Laureano da Rosa. Doctoral candidate in international relations at the University of Sussex and researcher at the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU).

Notes
1 “I am afraid that this present letter must also be rather woolly, but I think you should have on record that there has been an outbreak of rumours and statements concerning possible coups d’état,” (FO 371/173760).
2 “As usual, these coups d’état are predicted as coming from variously the Right, the extreme Left, and the President.” (FO 371/173760).
3 “General Castello Branco […] warned the Minister of War on January 16 that the latter should not count on the Army supporting a coup by the president. If any such move were set on foot he, Castello Branco, would call out troops to oppose it.” (FO 371/173760).
4 “The Americans were watching the situation very closely, but they would have little influence, if any, on the course of events.” (F0 371/173761). Opinion of Mr. Rusk on the situation developing in Brazil; no U.S. influence on course of events).

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