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American Diplomacy
Commentary & Analysis
December 2012

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"They Aren't Friendly, Mr. Vice President"
The Eisenhower Administration's Response to Communist-Inspired Attacks during Vice President Nixon's 1958 Tour of Latin America
by Jeff Cox

As United States Vice President Richard Nixon’s motorcade approached the third blockade on his route through Caracas, Venezuela in May 1958, it was evident that he and his retinue were in trouble. They could not push through or go around as a mob several hundred strong materialized out of the side streets and began attacking the cars. Rocks, pipes, sticks, fists and spit slammed into the motorcade. A rock struck the shatterproof window of Nixon’s car, sticking there and spraying glass into the car, striking the eyes and face of the Venezuelan Foreign Minister in the seat next to him. As the Venezuelan security forces stood by, the Secret Service men jumped out and began pushing the mob back. The Secret Service was greatly outnumbered, and Nixon’s car began to rock as the attackers attempted to overturn it. Finally, a news truck was able to block oncoming traffic in the opposite lane long enough for the motorcade to drive around the barrier and escape.1

Caracas was the last stop on what was to have been a routine tour of Latin America by Vice President Nixon and other United States officials. Nixon undertook the trip to strengthen United States relations with the region, and to congratulate the Latin Americans on their social and political achievements. The trip nearly ended with his death at their hands. Throughout, Nixon believed that those taking part in the demonstrations and attacks against him to be predominately Communists. Upon returning to the United States, the Vice President and the rest of the Eisenhower administration attempted to discern the causes of what happened during the trip, and many agreed with Nixon’s assessment that the events were part of a larger Communist plot.

This assessment raises the question of whether the Eisenhower administration reflexively blamed Communists without giving due weight to the problems with US-Latin American relations generating ill will toward the US that could have led to the attacks. The answer to this question is not simple, and requires a look at several issues, including the details of the administration’s reaction; the actual level of Communist involvement throughout Latin America at the time; issues other than Communism that may have contributed to the demonstrations; the anticommunist policies of the Eisenhower administration, both foreign and domestic; US Latin-American relations leading up to the trip; and the effects of the events of May 1958 on United States policy with Latin America. Once all of these issues have been addressed, it is clear that there was relatively little Communist involvement in Latin America, and that communists were only the leaders of the demonstrations against Vice President Nixon. In spite of this, and contrary to the dominant interpretation, the administration’s focus on Communism was not only in keeping with its policies, but was also tempered by an understanding of the complex social issues in Latin America and the numerous legitimate reasons for anti-United States sentiments among Latin Americans, and in light of this understanding, the United States responded appropriately.

The Historiography
The Nixon trip of 1958 was one of the most important United States foreign policy events in post-WWII Latin America, and many historians have examined it from a variety of perspectives. Few, however, have undertaken an in depth analysis of  the Eisenhower administration’s response to the crisis. One who has is Stephen G. Rabe, in his book Eisenhower and Latin America: The Politics of Anticommunism. Rabe criticizes the administration for focusing too heavily on Communism and ignoring the effects of United States foreign policies that may have been unfavorable to the Latin American, giving them reasons beyond Communist plots to protest as they did. While Rabe is partially accurate, he does not take into account the effects that the Eisenhower administration’s anticommunist policies had on its assessment of the demonstrations. He also plays down how quickly the administration addressed Latin Americans’ feelings about United States foreign policy, and suggests that when the administration did begin discussing possible changes in foreign policy, they did not go far enough.2

Another work that examined these issues was Alan McPherson’s Yankee No!: Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations. McPherson looks at the Nixon trip through the perspective of anti-United States sentiments. He too criticizes the government in the United States for giving too much attention to the Communists, and not enough to other causes of ‘anti-American’ sentiments. McPherson writes, “They preferred to see anti-Americanism as a subset of Communism, and not the other way around.”3 McPherson clearly believes that emphasis placed on the role of Communism was disproportionate to reality.

The Goals of the Nixon Trip
Postwar relations between the United States and Latin American nations were not what either party had hoped for. The United States recognized and understood the importance of Latin America, but found it difficult to fit the region into a foreign policy centered around the conflict between the East and the West, Communism and Capitalism.4 The Nixon trip was a recognition of this flaw, and an attempt to begin to correct it. While there, Nixon hoped to address both political and economic issues in Latin America.

The official reason for undertaking the trip to South America was to attend the inauguration of Argentina’s new President, Arturo Frondizi. Frondizi was the winner of the first free election held in Argentina after the overthrow of Juan Peron.5 The Eisenhower administration wished to send the highest ranking United States official available to attend the inauguration to dispel impressions that the United States supported and sympathized with Peron, and to demonstrate support of freely elected officials.6 Peron was not the only Latin American dictator to be recently overthrown though, and the State Department recognized this trip as an opportunity to visit other nations that had recently elected or strengthened a democratic government, to show the approval of the United States.7

Another important reason for a high-ranking member of the United States government to visit Latin America was the economic crisis that struck worldwide in the months before the Vice President’s trip. Latin American nations in particular were hard hit by the drops in commodity prices.8 Many governments in the region were feeling pressure to open up trade relations with Soviet satellites because the recession in the United States had such an impact on their trade with their great northern neighbor.9 Inflation was also a serious problem in several nations. Bolivia was particularly hard hit. At the time of the Vice President’s trip, the standard currency in Bolivia, the boliviano, was worth 1/1000 of a United States penny.10 The Eisenhower administration wanted the Latin Americans to know they had not been forgotten in the midst of the economic troubles.

In his Six Crises, Nixon described himself as having absolutely no interest in taking part in a diplomatic mission to South America. He had no premonitions about the difficulties he would face. On the contrary, he did not want to take part because he thought the trip would be boring. He wrote, “of all the trips I made abroad as Vice President the one I least wanted to take was my visit to South America in 1958—not because I thought it would be difficult but because I thought it would be relatively unimportant and uninteresting compared to the assignments I had in Washington at the time.”11 It was an election year, and Nixon felt that his work on campaigns would be more important for the nation. His trip turned out to be more important than he could have imagined.

The Tour of Latin America
While the original plan was to attend the inauguration in Argentina, more countries were added, one or two at a time, until the list included every country in South America with the exception of Brazil, because Nixon had visited recently, and Chile, because high ranking members of its government would be in Washington at the time of Nixon’s visit. The first stop on the trip was Montevideo, Uruguay.12

In Montevideo, Nixon decided to make an unscheduled stop at the University of the Republic, the center of the Communist movement in the small country. He hoped to catch the Communists off guard, and have positive interactions with the pro-United States students, believed to be the vast majority. He would then leave before the Communists could react. He wanted to demonstrate that even in the center of the country’s Communist movement, by far the stronger sentiment was pro-United States. As the Vice President spoke with students at the University, the Communists began to react. They attempted to organize, heckling Nixon and distributing pamphlets, but their efforts were thwarted by their fellow students, who Nixon described as caught up in a pro-United States spirit.13

After his victory in Montevideo, Nixon continued his tour without incident until he reached Peru. He planned to make another university visit in Lima, at San Marcos University. This time, the visit was scheduled and announced. Those with anti-US sentiments, labeled Communists by Nixon, knew he was coming, and planned demonstrations. Nixon decided to go ahead with the visit, against the recommendations of Peruvian officials. He sought another confrontation with Communist demonstrators, again in the hopes of triumphing over them in a public, highly visible venue.14

Nixon walked right into the crowd that had gathered in anticipation of his arrival, bringing only two followers. He describes the crowd as shocked by his boldness, and allowing him to begin speaking. Nixon reported that he began to win them over, imposing reason on the mob and getting them to calmly listen to what he had to say. The ringleaders, seeing that they were losing control, began throwing stones. A stone struck one of Nixon’s companions in the mouth, breaking his tooth. The stoning forced Nixon and his followers to retreat.15

Upon leaving San Marcos University, Nixon made another stop at Catholic University. He sat in on free elections of Student Senate, then spoke with the students. He describes an attempted Communist sabotage that was put down by the other students. While there, the ringleaders of the mob at San Marcos re-energized their supporters, and beat Nixon to his hotel. The Vice President and his retinue had to push through agitators to gain entry to the hotel. Demonstrators were spitting at the US party, and Nixon himself was struck in the face.16

The next stop on Nixon’s tour was Venezuela, a nation with a history of strong pro-United States sentiments. For many, those sentiments appeared to be nothing but history, as several death threats were made against the Vice President prior to his arrival. In light of these threats, it was suggested by some that the Venezuela stop should be canceled.  Nixon asked the Venezuelan government if they wished to cancel the visit, but they proclaimed themselves prepared to deal with anything Nixon might encounter while in the country.17

Though the Venezuelan government anticipated demonstrators, they were not prepared for the scope and strength of the demonstration that met the Vice President when he landed. The mob met Nixon at the airport in Caracas. It was alarmingly large, loud, and unfriendly. He, his wife and the rest of the United States delegates, and some Venezuelan officials were shouted at and again spat upon as the two country’s national anthems were played. Nixon decided to cut the diplomatic rituals short and go straight to the cars, but was impeded by the crowd as even more people spat at him. The security forces, which the government claimed were prepared for anything, failed to do anything at all at this time.18

The Venezuelan Foreign Minister, after successfully entering a closed car with the Vice President, apologized for what was transpiring. He explained that his government was in a difficult position. After overthrowing Pérez Jiménez, an incredibly oppressive dictator, the new government was afraid to do anything that could be considered infringing on the freedoms of its people. Communists used this to their advantage to operate freely within the country, and to organize events such as the demonstrations he and Nixon were enduring.19

The route they were to take from the airport was well known, and again security forces were overwhelmed by what they found waiting for them. The attacks on the Vice President and his retinue in Caracas were well organized and thoroughly planned. Demonstrators in cars buzzed the motorcade, and wove in between the cars. At strategic points along the route blockades were set up, forcing the cars to come to a complete stop while they were cleared or negotiated. As soon as the cars stopped, the attackers appeared. According to US officials, “the mob was made up of ruffians and riffraff and it was in an ugly mood.”20 Again, the promised security forces stood by as “the Government of Venezuela [was] reluctant to take a firm stand in the face of mob action.”21 It was Secret Service men who held the mob at bay each time long enough for the cars to escape. Finally, they changed routes, skipping a scheduled stop (where approximately six thousand demonstrators awaited), and drove straight to the embassy. Several people were wounded, though none seriously, and Vice-President and Mrs. Nixon were unharmed.22 They left the battered, dented, spit-covered cars parked out front. Venezuelan officials were asked to stop by the embassy if they wished to speak with Nixon. At the embassy, Nixon held a luncheon, and “gave a rousing anti-communist speech,”23 which Venezuelan officials appeared to appreciate. Nixon had several meetings with members of the Venezuelan government, then he and the rest of the group returned to the United States.

Throughout his own descriptions of these events, Vice President Nixon continually mentioned Communists. One must wonder how many actual Communists were present, and what their actual roles were in the demonstrations. In a cabinet meeting held immediately after his return, Nixon proclaimed that the extremists “without any doubt, were Communists.”24 All of the demonstrators could not have been Communists, not even most. This was most obvious in Caracas, given the numbers of demonstrators. The primary role of Communists in the attacks was inspiration and leadership. The consensus was that the Communists organized people of various ideologies who had one thing in common, anti-United States sentiments. Once organized, especially in Caracas, the Communists planned the attacks. Though small in number, the Communists were the head of the serpent that nearly bit Vice President Nixon.25

Communism in Latin America
Based on these descriptions of the events that took place in Latin America in May 1958, it may appear that the Communists were a force to be reckoned with in Latin America. In fact, this was not really the case. Communism had neither a long nor an illustrious history in the region. According to Luis Aguilar, “Marxist ideas… reached Latin America late and sporadically.”26 It was the late nineteenth century before the first national parties were established. The first groups to affiliate themselves with the Marxist First International did so in Argentina in 1872. From then on, the movement slowly but steadily gained momentum. Communist parties formed shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and by the early 1920s, Communist parties existed across Latin America.27

The existence of Communist parties does not mean that they were taken seriously, or supported by others. Reaching all the way back to Marx and Engels, the international leftist leadership did not consider Latin America a region of importance.28 The International Communist Party, or Comintern, did not believe that a revolution could even succeed in Latin America until one did in Europe, Asia or the United States. As Manuel Caballero writes, “in the pyramidal world structure of the Comintern, Latin America was located at the bottom.”29

Latin American Communists did not need recognition or support from the Comintern to spread their beliefs. In the 1930s, two Communist insurrections occurred in Latin America, in Brazil and El Salvador. Communists began entering the governments of Cuba, Ecuador and Chile in the 1940s. These developments took place before such events had occurred in most of Europe and Asia. While it was not very important to the Comintern, Communism was in many ways more successful in Latin America than in the locations the Comintern chose to focus on, including Europe and Asia, and especially the United States.30 It was more difficult for Communist parties to gain strength when struggling against established, secure and powerful governments such as those in the United States and Europe. Latin American governments were far more susceptible to the Communists because most were relatively weak.

In spite of this, the fact that they were ahead of some places is more indicative of a failure of the Comintern than any success of Latin American Communism. The region’s Communist parties were often well led, and well organized, but they lacked the membership to become truly powerful.31 Only in Venezuela did a Communist party attain anything resembling power and influence, and this was only because Venezuela’s weak, inexperienced government provided the perfect opportunity for them.32 Many historians have pointed to this lack of membership, and lack of real representation in national politics, as evidence of the ineffectiveness of the Communist party. This is used to support claims that the Eisenhower administration exaggerated the level of Communist involvement and did not pay due diligence to the legitimate sources of grievances in Latin America. This argument fails to realize how much is possible with a strong, committed, active leadership such as that of the Communist parties in Latin America. In some ways, it was their lack of political legitimacy that allowed the Communist party to exert the influence it was able to in Caracas in 1958.

Continuing the trend, the Communist government of the Soviet Union paid little attention to Latin America. The greatest Soviet influence on Latin American Communists was Soviet radio and other media. Nixon claimed that “…during his visit to Latin America he had seen evidence indicating that Radio Moscow had urged the population of those countries to engage in hostile demonstrations…”33 According to Nixon, the Soviets used their press and radio to call for violence against him, his wife and the others who were there with them, and to express approval after the events.34 Historians have downplayed Soviet efforts in this regard, suggesting that they were not strong enough to actually influence events. This was again used to support the argument that the Eisenhower administration exaggerated Soviet influence in Latin America, and the threat it posed. However, this is again a shortsighted approach. Though still relatively minor, the USSR’s approach to Latin America was becoming more hands on around the time of the Vice President’s trip, and influence was growing. Identifying this as a source of the demonstrations does not, as some have implied, preclude one from also identifying factors such as the effects of US policies on Latin American public opinion of the US.

Although Latin America was not particularly important to the Comintern or to the Soviet Union, the United States took Communism in Latin America seriously, with good reason. A paper, titled “Communism in Latin America,” was prepared in the Office of Intelligence Research in the Department of State in April, 1956. Written more than two years before Nixon’s trip, it assessed Communist goals, practices and capabilities in Latin America. While the report claimed they would not be meeting their objectives of controlling the region any time soon, if ever, the Communists could still create problems for Latin American governments, and their relations with the United States. It also warned about the weakness of those governments. The report stated that Communism “has a special advantage in Latin America where political organization is in general weak or poorly developed.”35 It also pointed out that Communism “has at one time or another shown significant strength in most countries of the area.” The United States government clearly believed that Communism was a threat in Latin America, even prior to Nixon’s tour of the region.

Inter-American Tensions
In Latin America in 1958, one did not have to be a Communist to have anti-United States feelings. According to Nikita Krushchev, the attacks on Vice President Nixon were the result of “righteous indignation of the people,” directed not against Nixon, but “against the policy of the US.”36 Historian Richard P. Stebbins put it another way: “The fiercely hostile demonstrations… were only the most acute symptom of what appeared to be a deep-seated and general discontent with United States policy in both economic and political matters.”37 Many of the foreign policies of the United States in Latin America since WWII caused negative feelings toward the United States. US foreign policy makers seemed to be saying one thing and doing another, as they talked about being a ‘good neighbor’ but exploited the Latin American people both politically and economically.

Latin Americans felt that the United States owed them economic aid, either because they blamed the United States and US investors for the state of their economy, or because they felt that the United States had the resources, and that both sides would benefit from a stronger Latin American economy. “Where is our Marshall Plan?” asked many Latin Americans. After WWII, the United States put together the Marshall Plan for rebuilding European economies destroyed by the war. Latin American economies were not destroyed by any war, but they were still victims. Economies in the former colonies were never designed to be self sustaining, and when they attained freedom, most did not have the ability to support themselves. Since the beginning, Latin American nations relied on foreign capital and investments, which involved a measure of foreign control. The foreigners, the United States foremost among them, appeared not to desire Latin American economies to evolve past the point where they would become self sufficient, and no longer be dependent.

Therefore, economies throughout Latin America were in poor condition. When Latin Americans saw their ‘good neighbor’ put together and implement a plan to rebuild economies halfway around the world, while leaving those next door in disarray, they were quite dismayed, and began demanding their own Marshall Plan. In fact, many of the problems in European economies that the Marshall Plan was designed to fix were also prevalent in Latin American countries, including inflation and lack of confidence in the currency; inadequate or outdated machinery; international financial requirements greater than the ability of the country to pay; and the dependence of the United States on the health of the economy. Although the Marshall Plan stated that the United States “should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world,” it contained no provisions for assisting Latin American economies, implying that Latin America was not even part of the world to which it referred.38

Latin Americans blamed the US not only for not assisting, but for implementing policies that actually harmed Latin American economies. Many in Latin America believed that the United States was only interested in the ruling elites, and that they were helping the rich get richer and the poor poorer.39 This may have some credence, but what is certain is that United States policy makers were far more concerned with the state of their own economy than that of any Latin American nation. The drop in world commodity prices affected everyone, but it hit Latin America harder than most, because so many nations in the region had export based economies. When the prices of those exports dropped, it had an immediate, sharply negative effect.

A perfect example was the situation in Peru. United States relations with Peru leading up to Nixon’s visit were becoming strained. The United States moved to protect its own industries after the drop in commodity prices, limiting imports, and some of the industries hardest hit were Peru’s most important exports, like copper and cotton. The actions of the United States, the greatest trading partner of the Latin American nations, did great harm to those industries in Peru, and other such industries throughout Latin America.40 Even while Secretary of State John Foster Dulles talked about advances in economic relations in April of 1958, the United States was imposing quotas on various products to protect its industries at the cost of harming those of Latin America. These economic actions soured Latin Americans’ feelings for their northern neighbor.41

The United States also damaged its reputation in Latin America with some of its political actions. Again the US government seemed to be saying one thing and doing another. One event that many Latin Americans would later point to was the US-backed overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, in violation of numerous promises and agreements, and indeed apparently of its own policies. A stronger, staunchly anticommunist, and more oppressive government was put in its place. This blatant disregard on the part of the US government for the agreements made with its ‘good neighbors’ upset many Latin Americans.42

On December 21, 1936, a declaration was adopted by the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace. This declaration specifically prohibited actions such as those taken by the United States in Guatemala. This agreement required that each American State respect the “rights of autonomy, independence and free development” in the other States.43 Further along in the agreement, it states that “Intervention by one State in the internal or external affairs of another state is condemned.”44 Two days later yet another agreement was conducted between twenty-one American States, again devoted to nonintervention. The United States again signed an agreement saying it would not intervene in the internal or external affairs of any American State. Unfortunately for the rest of the hemisphere, the United States did not seem to consider these treaties as binding as those with more powerful nations in the Eastern Hemisphere. The US could get away with it too, to a point. There were no real provisions for how such interventions would be stopped, if instigated. The agreement merely states: “The violation of the provisions of this Article shall give rise to mutual consultation, with the object of exchanging views and seeking methods of peaceful adjustment.”45 This is international diplomacy based on the honor system. The US broke treaties and inter-American agreements without consequences, and there was nowhere for Latin American nations to turn for recourse. These actions eroded what trust there was between Latin America and the United States, and led many to believe that the only way to hold the US accountable for such transgressions was to actively and openly oppose it, its policies, and the governments it supported.

Even as this agreement was drawn up, every nation knew that if the United States chose to break it, there was nothing any of the other nations could do. Their militaries were too weak, and their economies too dependent on the United States to take any real actions to enforce the agreement. When the United States repeatedly violated the agreement, there was nothing the Latin Americans could do about it. Although the words on all the agreements spoke of equality, Latin Americans could not help but feel that the United States considered itself superior to them, and above any agreements made by them.

Another problem with the political policy of the United States in Latin America was the relations with Latin American dictators. The United States supported dictators throughout Latin America and at least tolerated others. According to Walter LaFeber, at the time of the Nixon trip, “the Venezuelans were especially irate because the dictator they had recently overthrown had once been awarded a medal by Eisenhower for meritorious services.”46 The United States also lost many friends by continuing to have what appeared to be cordial relations with deposed dictators.

A memorandum in the State department demonstrates that the US was aware that Latin Americans were upset by the way the United States had dealt with them politically, “particularly the issue of US relations, both past and present, with dictatorships in the area and US policy on granting visas to political exiles…”47 These interactions seemed to contradict what the United States had been telling them, and made Vice President Nixon’s congratulations for overthrowing their dictators seem insincere at best, inflammatory and insulting at worst, as seen by reactions during Nixon’s tour of the region. This memorandum is further evidence that the Eisenhower administration was aware of the conditions in Latin America, and of the growing anti-US sentiments, as well as the sources of those sentiments.

Anticommunism as Policy
To understand the Eisenhower administration’s quickness to emphasize the role of Communists in the attacks on Vice President Nixon, one must first understand the administration’s anticommunist policies. 1958 marked the end of McCarthyism and the Red Scare in the United States. In the previous seven years, Senator Joseph McCarthy took it upon himself to find Communists in various organizations in the US government. He first accused the State Department of containing hundreds of Communists. His evidence for this statement was less than weak, a list of potential security risks, only a few of which had anything to do with Communism. McCarthy skillfully navigated attempts to call his bluff, and came out ahead, receiving incredible publicity.48

McCarthy continued to harass the Truman administration until its end in 1952, throwing out baseless accusations with impunity. He was too smart and tenacious to be caught in any of the various traps laid for him by the Democrats. After Eisenhower’s election, McCarthy did not let up. He took on the International Information Agency, casting doubt on many of its members. He then moved on to the army, where he continued to find Communists, real and imagined, until his downfall in the mid-1950s.49

For years, the government had been ruthlessly seeking out Communists and Communist sympathizers. The House Un-American Activities Committee, of which Nixon himself was once a member, began in the 1930s, and was still active throughout Eisenhower’s term. By 1958, Senator McCarthy had died in disgrace and the influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee was in decline. But the citizens of the United States and members of its government remained alarmed about the threat of international communism. The Eisenhower administration was so committed to anticommunism it had United States citizens looking for Communists in their back yards.50

The United States was not only obsessed about Communists within its own borders. With the start of the Cold War the US became firmly committed to preventing the spread of Communism around the world. President Truman began this policy with his interventions in Turkey, Greece, and most notably, Korea. In 1947, Truman announced to the world that the United States would not stand by and allow Soviet Communism to spread throughout the world. Abandoning traditional noninterventionist policies, Truman assisted the governments of Turkey and Greece in putting down the Communist insurrections.51 When Eisenhower took office five years later, he accepted his role as protector of the ‘free world’ from the Communist threat.

Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles also took the Communist threat very seriously. Dulles said, “The threat of Soviet communism, in my opinion, is not only the gravest threat that ever faced the United States, but the gravest threat that has ever faced what we call Western civilization.”52 Dulles advocated a more proactive anticommunist policy, not just preventing the spread of Soviet Communism, but pushing it back, ‘freeing’ some of the people currently controlled by it. He supported a “global strategy,” one that would counteract the Soviets’ own strategy of inciting leftist rebellions throughout the world.53

Anticommunism was clearly an integral part of the Eisenhower administration’s outlook. Both at home and abroad, the administration was committed to finding and stopping Communists. Naturally, this clear focus on Communism affected the administration’s assessment of the involvement of Communists in the attacks on Vice President Nixon.

The Response of the Eisenhower Administration to the Attacks
The reactions of the United States to the events of May 1958 in South America were summed up by William P. Snow, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs in a memorandum dated May 15, 1958. The presence and actions of Communists in the demonstrations was addressed first. He wrote, “the pattern of organization and of slogans in all cases points to Communist inspiration and direction, as do certain of the intelligence reports.”54 Snow was concerned that the United States was losing its hold over Latin America. Citing recent Soviet technological advances, such as Sputnik, he implied that Latin Americans were losing their faith in the superiority of the United States, and that this was allowing Communism to gain strength.55

Although Snow’s first move was to blame communists, he also acknowledged other problems in the region. He reported that “a number of factors have combined in Latin America to provide a fertile background which the Communists exploit.”  He then acknowledged that there were “real grievances” present in Latin America against the United States. Snow addressed both economic and political policies of the United States with regard to Latin America that had engendered negative feelings. He believed that the issues were mostly economical, “such as tariffs, quotas, surplus disposals, and the magnitude of financial assistance.”  The political grievances centered around the relations of the United States government with the dictatorships in the region, including harboring overthrown dictators such as Venezuela’s Jimenez.56

In a cabinet meeting held May 16, 1958, the first after Nixon’s return, the Vice President made his case for his beliefs that Communists played a pivotal role in the demonstrations. The evidence of similar chants, slogans, and placards, as well as some hecklers raising “Commy issues” rather than issues specifically pertaining to Latin America, supported his idea.57 In his report to the National Security Council, Nixon claimed that, after his trip, the threat of Communism in Latin America was greater than ever before.58 Through various other press conferences, addresses, speeches and reports, the Vice President continued to stress the role of Communists in the attacks in Latin America. Others in the administration supported his assessment.

While Communism was generally the first thing to be discussed, the topic that occupied members of the United States government the most was who the people with the Communists were, and how they came to be there, fighting alongside the Communists. This is a crucial point, one often overlooked by historians who do not look past the initial reactions. On May 16, the cabinet discussed Communists just long enough for Nixon to provide his evidence. Immediately afterward, Nixon asked “How could these extremists have the effect they did?” and the answer he provided was “because there are some gripes there.”59 “Gripes” was perhaps a bit of an understatement. The Vice President recognized both the political and economic grievances the Latin Americans had, feeling that the political “gripes” were the more urgent to the Latin Americans.60

Nixon pointed to US relations with dictators, both those “they’ve gotten rid of” and those still in power.61 He brought up broken treaties and agreements, such as the Montevideo Agreement of 1933, that the United States will not intervene in the domestic issues of the Latin American nations.62 He also mentioned the economic troubles, such as the drops in world commodity prices, and the tariffs put in place to protect US industries. When it came to economic problems,  Nixon quipped, “whenever we sneeze, they catch pneumonia.”63 Economic problems experienced in the United States trickled down southward, becoming disasters in the fragile Latin American economies.64

The US Response
After determining the causes of unrest, the administration, along with the rest of the government, began addressing how to fix it. In the cabinet meeting, Nixon suggested that the “problem is not so much what we do as how we do it.”65 He and the rest of the administration understood that it was a delicate situation. While it was clear that Latin Americans were being treated unfairly, and that US policies were leading to social unrest, it is the duty of the United States government to look out for the interests of the United States and its people. The immediate happiness of the Latin Americans was, understandably, not nearly as important as the security of the United States.66

Snow’s memorandum addressed the need to rethink policy. He brought up the number of non-Communist students who took part in the demonstrations, and cited them as a reason for “concentrating even more than we already are on students and other intellectual groups in our cultural and information programs.”67

He also suggested paying closer attention to the effects of US domestic economic policies. Changes that seem minor and are made to protect US industries can have disastrous effects on Latin American economies, a fact that should be given more attention.

Nixon, in a meeting of the National Security Council on May 22, 1958, suggested keeping a closer eye on the new political leaders in Latin America. While steps toward democracy are always cause to rejoice, Nixon stressed that some new politicians, though freely elected, could be a problem. “While they are honest men, they are certainly oriented in the direction of Marxist thinking…”68 They were too open to all ideas, seeing the Communist party as just another party, and failed to acknowledge it as the threat it just showed itself to be. He claimed that “…Frondizi and the other new leaders had not only stated that the Communist problem was not serious, but went further and said that when it came to dealing harshly with the Communists they would again fail to secure public support.”69 Based on recent experiences, Latin Americans were more afraid of policies and actions reminiscent of old dictatorships than they were of Communists.

The Nixon trip of 1958 led the United States government to what one historian called “the most serious reappraisal of its Latin American policy in a dozen years, resulting in a series of policy moves which went a considerable distance — though by no means all the way — toward meeting some prevalent Latin American complaints.”70 After the trip, Nixon argued that great changes were needed in foreign policy, making Latin America a priority. The United States should embrace the democratic leaders, while maintaining cooler, but functional relationships with the remaining dictators. Nixon also wanted to decrease the focus on the elites and increase efforts on behalf of the masses, and others in the administration agreed with this assessment.71 Dr. Milton Eisenhower, the President’s brother, echoed Nixon’s sentiments, suggesting that the way for the United States to win back the confidence and affections of the justifiably angry Latin Americans was to blatantly distance itself from dictatorships while just as obviously supporting freely elected governments.72 The rest of the government followed along, as various committees and councils began full-scale investigations into the grievances aired by the Latin Americans, and what could be done about them to retain cordial relations, not just with the governments, but with the people as well.73

The Eisenhower administration and the rest of the United States government also had domestic public opinion to deal with. US citizens were not very knowledgeable about Latin America or the situation there, but after Nixon began encountering violence, the media ensured that the US people learned quickly. A well-informed New York Times article appeared on Sunday, May 11, 1958, titled simply “Nixon’s Tour.” It began with a background of what and where Latin America is, then proceeded to relations between the region and the United States. It quickly outlined the region’s dependence on the US, including economic and military, and explained the presence of anti-US sentiments there.

The article then addresses the problems Nixon, and by extension the whole US government, were facing. Before the Vice President even made it to Caracas, the New York Times picked up on the problems and began criticizing the government. The author claimed that “the U.S. in its preoccupation with cold-war crises in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, had neglected affairs in its own back yard.”74 The article also recognized that fixing the problems would not be easy, as they were primarily economic and the US was also feeling the recession, and the pressure to increase tariffs to protect US industries.75

In the same issue appeared another article, by Tad Szulc, titled “Nixon Tour Highlights a Continent’s Crisis: South Americans Voice Their Loud Complaints Against the US.” Szulc wrote, “Mr. Nixon was the catalyst that made South America’s problems and their intensity come to life.” Szulc outlined all of the problems, both economic and political, that negatively affect US-Latin American relations. He discussed the distrust Latin Americans feel for the United States, when it did not provide the necessary economic aid, as well as the questionable relations with current and previous dictators. He even brought up the issue of Soviet trade, suggesting that if the United States cut its trade with the Latin Americans much further, they would be forced to turn to the other superpower.76

With the appearance of these articles and others like them around the nation, the citizens of the United States became aware of how serious the issues had become, and the people themselves began pressuring the government to resolve the issues. Conditions in Latin America not only played to US citizens’ sense of compassion and fair play, but with the threat of Soviet trade, also played to their fears of Communist expansion. Now the United States government was forced to appease not only its weak southern neighbors, but also its much more powerful citizenry.

In December 1958, seven months after Nixon’s trip, a National Intelligence Estimate entitled “Latin American Attitudes toward the US” outlined much of what was learned during the trip and after. It pointed out the growing power of the middle and lower classes, and “the differences in culture and living standards” between them and the United States.77 It also stressed this group’s feelings about the US interventions which contradicted stated policy and signed agreements, the role of US companies in the Latin American economies, and the relations between the United States and Latin American dictators. The report then warned that these issues would not be resolved quickly, and in fact the situation may get worse before it gets better. The nations in the region were politically unstable. The stability provided by oppressive dictatorships was gone, and the result was perhaps more freedom than the new governments could handle. This estimate indicates that the US government was aware of the complexity of the problems in Latin America, and that it would proceed with caution in addressing them.78

One year after the Vice President’s tour of Latin America, a report was submitted to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs by the Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs. This report warned that while focusing on stopping the spread of Communism in Europe and Asia, the United States must not forget the importance of Latin America, claiming that “close inter-American ties are more important than ever before.”79 The reasons included strategic, economic, and political importance. Again, this demonstrates understanding of the complex situation far beyond reflexively blaming Communism.

The report was dedicated to understanding the problems that led to the demonstrations of the year before, and how to fix them. The issues were more complex than most people realized, and the report stressed that there was a need to look past specific difficulties. Latin America was experiencing “an epic social revolution,” one in which the people were demanding improvements. They refused to allow governments, theirs or that of the United States, to control them any longer. While Latin American governments continued a longstanding tradition of peaceful cooperation with the United States, US policy-makers began to understand that the real power in Latin America was shifting to the people, and it was the masses, not the ruling elite, that they had to court.80

The Subcommittee stressed the difficulties the United States government would face in winning the favor of the people in Latin America while still standing by all treaties and agreements, and while looking out for the interests of its own citizens. Many actions, such as maintaining functional relationships with dictators, were done out of necessity, and did not necessarily signify approval. The Subcommittee warned of the difficulties of explaining this difference to the people who had lived and were still living under such dictatorships. Likewise, the economic policies of the United States must protect its own industries first.81

With regard to the political troubles in US-Latin American relations, the Subcommittee hoped that better communication would help Latin Americans understand that the United States was not supporting the dictatorships. It also suggested that with the remaining dictatorships, the US should “avoid the effusive, undue cordiality” that so enraged the people oppressed by those dictators.82 As suggested by Nixon and others within the Eisenhower administration, the United States must have warm, cordial relations with democratically elected governments, and cold but functional relations with the remaining dictatorships.

In the aftermath of the Nixon trip, the United States government appears to have understood two important things: there were serious problems in its relations with Latin America, and it had limited ability to address those problems. Nevertheless, the Subcommittee report shows that the US government would take a smart, balanced approach to solving them. While Latin Americans demanded immediate action to redress the perceived wrongs, rather than trying to radically change its policies to suit the whims of the new power base in Latin America, policy-makers sought to reason with them while making changes that could be made, and setting up policies that benefited all American states in the long run.

May 1958 was an important time in United States foreign relations. Events in May throughout the world triggered a serious reappraisal of policies and relations. In that one month, anti-United States feelings were manifested in one way or another “in such widely separated places as Algeria, Lebanon, Burma, Peru, Venezuela and Canada.”83 While certainly not the only demonstrations, by far the most important were those in South America during Vice President Richard Nixon’s tour of the region.

The government of the United States underestimated the strength of anti-US sentiments in Latin America. It also underestimated the effects of its policies, both economic and political. And the problems ran deeper than anyone at first realized. According to Richard P. Stebbins, “the fiercely hostile demonstrations… were only the most acute symptom of what appeared to be a deep-seated and general discontent with United States policy in both economic and political matters…” Previous scholarship has asserted that the United States government was too slow in realizing this, choosing instead to focus on the activities of Communists. While most initial reports and assessments of the trip did include significant references to the presence and activities of Communists, they were quick to recognize the presence of non-Communists, and to understand the reasons for their actions. An initial focus on Communism was to be expected in an administration whose stated goal was stopping the spread of Communism worldwide. This policy, combined with the surprising success of the Communist Party in Latin America, and the fertile conditions for its continued growth, led to a necessary initial focus on Communism. This focus then shifted to the more serious economic and political problems in the relations between the United States and Latin America, and the focus remained there in the weeks and months that followed.

It is important to remember that the policies of the United States government must first and foremost focus on protecting its citizens and their industries. Likewise, distribution of economic aid must take into account the health of the world market, not just the economies of Latin American nations. The Eisenhower administration, along with the various other bodies and committees responsible for policy-making, recognized the problems in Latin America and took the appropriate steps to address them without negatively affecting their responsibilities to their own citizens and to the world.bluestar

1. Richard M Nixon, Six Crises. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962), 217-20.

2. Stephen G. Rabe, Eisenhower and Latin America: The Politics of Anticommunism. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 100-103

3. Alan McPherson, Yankee No!: Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003), 9-37

4. Richard P. Stebbins, The United States in World Affairs 1958. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), 351

5. Nixon, 183

6. Nixon, 183

7. “Letter from the Secretary of State to the Vice President.” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960: Volume V, American Republics. (Washinton: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 222

8. Stebbins, 361

9. “Memorandum of a Discussion at the 366th Meeting of the National Security Council,” in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960 Vol. 10, Part 1: Eastern European Region; Soviet Union; Cyprus. Glen W. LaFantasy, ed. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1993), 15

10. Nixon, 192

11. Nixon, 183

12. Nixon, 183-187

13. Nixon, 187-8

14. Nixon, 194-200

15. Nixon, 200-03; “Memorandum From the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Snow to the Secretary of State.” Foreign Relations of the United States1958-1960: Volume V, American Republics. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 224

16. Nixon, 203-205

17. Nixon, 210-11

18. Nixon, 212-16 ; “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation Among the Minister-Counselor of the Embassy in Venezuela (Burrows), the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Rubottom) in Caracas, and the Deputy Director of the Office of South American Affairs (Sanders) in Washington, May 13, 1958, 2 p.m.”  Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960: Volume V, American Republics. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 226

19. Nixon, 216

20. “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation … (Burrows) … (Rubottom) … and … (Sanders),” 226

21. “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation … (Burrows) … (Rubottom) … and … (Sanders),” 227

22. “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation … (Burrows) … (Rubottom) … and … (Sanders),” 226-7

23. “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation Between the Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs (Rubottom) in Caracas and the Acting Assistant Secretary of State (Snow) in Washington, May 13, 1958, 4:30 p.m. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960: Volume V, American Republics. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 230

24. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

25. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OS

26. Aguilar, 4

27. Aguilar, 3-15

28. Aguilar, 3, 98-101

29. Manuel Caballero, Latin America and the Comintern 1919-1943. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 1

30. Caballero, 1-2

31. Aguilar, 4-10

32. Nixon, 185

33. “Memorandum of a Conversation [Nixon Visit],” in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960 Vol. 10, Part 1: Eastern European Region; Soviet Union; Cyprus. Glen W. LaFantasy, ed. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1993), 300

34. “Memorandum of a Conversation [Kozlov Visit],” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960 Vol. 10, Part 1: Eastern European Region; Soviet Union; Cyprus. Glen W. LaFantasy, ed. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1993), 368

35. “Paper Prepared in the Office of Intelligence Research, Department of State,” in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Volume VI American Republics: Multilateral; Mexico; Caribbean,ed. John P. Glennon (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1987), 85

36. “Memorandum of a Conversation [Kozlov Visit],” 368

37. Stebbins, 350

38. Jean Woy, ed., Bibliobase: Custom Coursepack for History (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 178

39. Stebbins, 354

40. Nixon, 193

41. Stebbins, 361-2

42. Walter La Feber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1993),113

43. “Inter-American Solidarity,” in Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America 1776-1949, ed. Charles I. Bevans (Washington: Department of State Publication, 1969), 300.

44. “Inter-American Solidarity,” 301

45. “Nonintervention (Inter-American),” in Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America 1776-1949, ed. Charles I. Bevans (Washington: Department of State Publication, 1969), 345

46. LaFeber, 138

47. “Memorandum from the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Snow) to the Secretary of State.” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960: Volume V, American Republics. (Washinton: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 237

48. John E. Hayes. Red Scare or Red Menace?  American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era  (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1996),143-5

49. Haynes, 145-155

50. Jeff Broadwater, Eisenhower and the Anti-Communist Crusade  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 137-166

51. Woy, 179

52. Woy, 188

53. Woy, 187-89

54. “Memorandum From the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Snow) to the Secretary of State.”  Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960: Volume V, American Republics. (Washinton: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 237

55. “Memorandum From … (Snow), 237

56. “Memorandum From … (Snow),” 237

57. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

58. “Memorandum of a Discussion at the 366th Meeting of the National Security Council, Washington, May 22, 1958, 9:03 a.m.,” in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960: Volume V, American Republics. (Washinton: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 239

59. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

60. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

61. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

62. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

63. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

64. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

65. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

66. Cabinet meeting, 16 May 1958, C-45 folder, box 5, Cabinet Series (Minnich notes), OSS

67. “Memorandum from … (Snow),” 237

68. “Memorandum of a Discussion at the 366th Meeting of the National Security Council,” 240

69. “Memorandum of a Discussion at the 366th Meeting of the National Security Council,” 240

70. Stebbins, 352

71. LaFeber, 138

72. Stebbins, 371

73. Stebbins, 363

74. “Nixon’s Tour,” The New York Times, Sunday May 11 1958.

75. “Nixon’s Tour,” The New York Times, Sunday May 11 1958.

76. Tad Szulc. “Nixon Tour Highlights a Continent’s Crisis: South Americans Voice Their Loud Complaints Against the U.S.” New York Times, Sunday May 11, 1958.

77. “National Intelligence Estimate.” Foreign Relations of the United States,1958-1960: Volume V, American Republics. (Washinton: United States Government Printing Office, 1991), 60

78. “National Intelligence Estimate,” 60-62

79. US Congress. House. Committee on Foreign Affairs. Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs. Report on United States Relations with Latin America. Report prepared by Armistead I. Selden, Jr.; Barratt O’Hara; Dante B. Fascell; Omar Burleson; Donald L. Jackson; and Chester E. Merrow. 86th Cong., 1st sess., 1959, 1

80. US Congress, 2

81. US Congress, 3-6

82. US Congress, 6

83. Stebbins, 98-99

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

AuthorJeff Cox is a first year graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, studying U.S. relations with Latin American dictators. This paper was his writing sample when he applied for his Master's program and has been presented at a graduate conference. He is currently applying to PhD programs.

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