(W)Archives: He Rode a Tank, Held a General’s Rank, But Did He Direct Latin America’s Coups? Vernon Walters’s Diaries
Vernon Walters enlisted in the United States Army during the Second World War and rose to the rank of lieutenant general before retiring in 1976. He served as deputy director of central intelligence from 1972 to 1976, and he later held several ambassadorial posts. He was gifted in languages, a trusted interpreter to presidents, cabinet members, and foreign dignitaries during the Cold War. He thus enjoyed front-row seats to the major historical events of his time. Although some might characterize his career as Forrest Gump-like, others perceive him through a darker lens, seeing him as the protagonist in the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” His personal calendars and diaries, unavailable to the public and excerpted here, courtesy of National Intelligence University’s John Hughes Library, confirm that, while some historians have alleged that he was in Santiago de Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, directing the coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende, he was in fact thousands of miles away and on business that had nothing to do with Chile.
This information exposes fundamental weaknesses in much of the historical writing on southern South America’s Cold War. Too many historians remain disinterested in any context but an angry north-south, anti-imperialist one, and in their prosecutorial haste, they sometimes fail to fact-check their narratives, particularly in the Chilean case. They also refuse to accept that Brazil and Chile’s professional officer corps could have planned or executed their own coups without Walters’s permission and supervision. This is wildly inaccurate.
Walters served as U.S. Army attaché in Brazil from 1962 to 1967. The Brazilian armed forces seized power and General Humberto Castello Branco, long Walters’s friend, became president in 1964. This represented the first anti-communist coup in southern South America, with similar coups following in Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina in the 1970s. These dictatorships formed the Condor anti-communist alliance and decimated the region’s left.
Critics have long alleged that Walters directed the Brazilian coup. They reach this conclusion through McCarthyist logic: Walters was there; he knew Castello Branco; and he accurately predicted the coup. Senator Joseph McCarthy hurled these same charges against Foreign Service Officer John Service, who had made contact with and reported on the Chinese Communist Party in 1944. Most historians believe the explanation for the Chinese revolution lies with Jiang Jieshi, Mao Zedong, and Chinese politics, and not with any conspiracy in the Department of State or its officers, and they reject McCarthy’s musings as unreasonable, if not paranoid.
Walters, like Service, denied the allegations against him, to no avail:
I advised the US authorities that the 1964 revolution in Brazil was imminent, but although I knew that it was going to happen, I had no part in it. There is very little advice an American colonel without experience in coups could give Brazilian generals who had deposed two presidents in the preceding five years.
Critics offer more detailed allegations against Walters in Chile. According to Cambridge historian Jonathan Haslam,
Nixon decided go one step further than a golpe seco or golpe blando — which would just ensure a full military majority in cabinet. He moved instead directly towards a full military coup, the ‘Brazilian’ option of 1964 — golpe negro. As in that instance, the United States would prepare the ground and do everything short of seizing power themselves. The coup would be effected from the Pentagon, using DIA and naval intelligence working with and through the Chilean armed forces…in offices a few streets back from the Hotel Carrera, CIA deputy director Vernon Walters had set up shop along with general [William] Westmoreland’s son-in-law Hernández Westmoreland to observe the coup at close quarters…The hotel overlooked the Plaza de Constitución and at one level provided a view directly into the president’s office.
Haslam further alleged that Walters commanded a force of 32 American military aircraft from an airbase in Argentina.
In fact, the Watergate scandal was consuming nearly all President Richard Nixon’s attention, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was preparing for Senate confirmation hearings as secretary of state, and Walters was involved in a Near-Eastern initiative and vacationing in Palm Beach, Florida from late August through mid-September 1973.
According to Walters’s diaries, he traveled to San Clemente to see Kissinger on Aug. 30; Nixon, distracted, had forgotten to swear in William Colby as director of central intelligence (DCI). As Colby recounted it, “everybody seemed to forget all about the necessity of formally swearing me in as DCI, so that didn’t happen until Dick Walters stirred the machinery and I was finally called down to the White House on September 4.”
Walters also discussed his upcoming trip to Morocco, where he would be from Sept. 1-5. The Palestine Liberation Organization had been seeking negotiations with the American government since July, through King Hassan II, another of Walters’s lifelong friends. Kissinger let this play but ignored it until renewed Arab-Israeli fighting forced him to reevaluate the situation that October. Kissinger used Walters and Hassan to deceive the PLO, feigning interest in negotiations to keep its leadership on good behavior as he began cultivating Egypt for what would become the Camp David Accords. Otherwise, the PLO might have sabotaged these talks before they began. As Kissinger explained, “Walters’s meeting achieved its immediate purpose: to gain time and to prevent radical assaults on the early peace process.”
Walters returned to Washington on Sept. 6 and remained there two days. He attended CIA staff meetings, hosted South Africa’s General Hendrik van den Bergh, received Jordanian officials, and made a brief appearance at the Brazilian embassy’s independence celebrations. Then he went to his home in Palm Beach, relaxing as far away from the Watergate investigations as he could go, remaining there from Sept. 8-12. He saw friends, his lawyer, and a real estate agent, dined at the Holiday Inn and the Petite Marmite, spent much time shopping in Lake Worth, and swam. He drove to Miami on Sept. 11, dined with friends, and then drove back with his top down via the A1A highway, which he described as “very pleasant.” He returned to Washington on Sept. 14, leaving the same day for New York. Thus, Walters was not in fact setting up shop only “a few streets back from the Hotel Carrera” on Sept. 11, 1973. He was not even on the same continent.
James Lockhart is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Arizona, and adjunct professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Security and Intelligence. Thanks to Denise Campbell at the John Hughes Library for her professional courtesy.