Just Why Did Nixon Go to Venezuela in 1958 Anyway?Historians/History
tags: Richard Nixon, Venezuela
Letter from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to Richard Nixon, March 6, 1958
Why am I writing this at age 96 instead of sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch feeding the roaming chickens in the yard? It is mainly to be occupied during the lonely hours of mourning my dear wife’s, Bernice, recent death. Also it is to try to find the answer of many Whys that come to mind during my waking hours about our foreign service experiences while serving our country in Latin America.
Nixon’s Folly is a good example of one of my many Whys. I was assigned to the US Embassy Caracas, Venezuela as Assistant US Air Attaché during Vice President Nixon’s visit to Venezuela on 13 May 1958. His visit was designed to improve good relations with Latin American countries but Venezuela should not have been included. The country was still in political turmoil following the ousting of a military dictator, General Perez Jimenez, who had been very supportive of the US and big business, particularly oil companies. Demonstrations and disorders were frequent because the secret police had been disbanded and police left their posts for fear of being killed. There was no law and order and curfews were frequent. The protestors encouraged by leftist reformers, university students and perhaps some communist sympathizers, were protesting US policies favoring military ruled governments such as Perez Jimenez and now a military junta.
Following a long meeting with the Embassy staff all agreed that it would be risky and perhaps dangerous for the Vice President of the United States to visit Venezuela at this time. Ambassador Sharp sent a message to Washington recommending that the Vice Present not come to Venezuela. Nixon came anyway. Why?
Using Maj. General Edward Lansdale’s favorite term, Egghead, to describe wrong decisions made by officials and politicians in Washington can best describe this goodwill trip by Vice President Nixon to South America. Egghead denotes being out of touch and lacking realism and General Lansdale as Assistant Secretary of Defense, Special Operations, often had to deal with these confusing decisions.
For almost two years many Latin American countries were experiencing radical leftist movements protesting authoritarian governments. They blamed the United States for supporting these governments because, they claimed, it was an economic advantage to the US. The US was labeled Imperialist. The radical leaders would infiltrate Social Democratic organizations and encourage them to demonstrate and make demands for change. Apparently Secretary Dulles and Vice President Nixon did not know or care about the underlying social problems these developing countries were experiencing. Well known for their strong anti-communist stand, they must have considered all social reform movements as Communist. Uruguay, Peru and Venezuela, the countries Nixon visited were then experiencing these violent actions. They hated Americans!
Nixon’s visit in Uruguay was not violent but not the friendly reception he expected. However, in Peru he experienced violent demonstrations against the US. Now, his last stop, Venezuela, would be worse because just a few months before his visit General Marcos Perez Jimenez, a military dictator, was over-thrown and now ruled by a Military Junta. Radical leftist groups emerged, demonstrations were almost a daily occurrence, the secret police disbanded, and police abandoned their posts for fear of being killed by mobs. Law and order did not exist. During this period I was assigned as an Assistant Air Attaché to the Embassy and the following paragraphs are to the best of my recollection what happened during those critical days when Richard Nixon and Pat were almost killed by violent mobs.
When Ambassador Edward (Eddie) Sharp announced that the Vice President would be visiting Caracas, I and several members of the Embassy staff were shocked. We knew it would probably result in violent protests.
I went to discuss the situation with my long-time friend and former associate, Jake Esterline, who was the CIA Station Chief. Jake and I had known each other since 1954 when we were involved in CIA’s PBSUCCESS (Guatemala) operation. We maintained a close working relationship in Caracas. Jake agreed with me; this untimely visit by a US Vice President could result in a disaster. Jake agreed with my suggestion that I contact my good friend and excellent contact, Col. Ruben Osio Navas, Chief of Intelligence, Ministry of Defense, to obtain up to date information. With Headquarters approval we had been providing Osio with training material to organize an effective military intelligence and counter intelligence organization. It was named SIFA (Servicio de Inteligencia de las Fuerzas Armadas). As a result, I had a close contact with the commander and staff of this organization which could provide valuable and timely information.
EGGHEAD VISIT PLAN
A week before the visit which was scheduled for May 13, Ambassador Sharp selected members of the embassy staff to meet with two members of Nixon’s advance party. The military attachés, political officer, CIA Station Chief and others attended: Nixon’s representatives said that VP Nixon specifically did not want a show of military force. He wanted access to reach the people that he hoped would receive him with flags and good cheers. They also specifically requested that he ride in an open (convertible) limousine. Jake and I objected because that could be very dangerous. Unruly mobs could attack the open vehicle. We warned them that we had information that violent protests were being organized. The consensus of the group recommended that Nixon not come to Venezuela but that did not change their minds, Nixon came anyway.
The following assignments were made:
Lt. Col. Jed Daily, Army Attaché and Lt. Commander Lou Sciliris, Ass’t Naval Attaché, were to take the flowers to the National Panteon, Bolivar’s tomb. which was located in downtown Caracas.
I was to be at the Miaquetia Airport to coordinate the service and catering by PanAm and with the Airport Commander, Major Arabia (who was a good friend). The airport military police would provide supplemental security for the aircraft. Fortunately I was also a friend of Jim Kervin, the PanAm station chief. The enlisted crew members would remain with the aircraft and I would transfer the pilots and navigator to quarters at the Circulo Military (Officer’s Club) in Caracas.
Master Sergeant McAtanamy of the US Army Mission would be the limo chauffeur.
The embassy arranged for the Chrysler factory to provide a convertible limousine and I asked Col. Ruben Osio if we could have the military provide ousted President Jimenez’s Cadillac limousine to be used in case it was needed and it was approved by the Minister. Although it was not fully armored, it would be safer than an open vehicle.
Vice President Nixon would visit Bolivars Tomb at the National Panteon and place a flower wreath at the base. He would then proceed directly to his quarters, the Presidential suite at the Military Club (Circulo Military) .
A SHOCKING ARRIVAL
When I arrived at the Miaquetia Airport about mid-morning I noted that the Chrysler convertible and Cadillac limo were parked near the front entrance to the airport terminal. I contacted the Airport Commander, Major Arabia, to ask if the cars could be parked on the tarmac (ramp where aircraft would be parked) and he said that he was instructed by someone from the US Embassy staff that Mr. Nixon would pass through the terminal and board the cars at the front entrance. This was another mistake; what if the greeters were less than friendly as he walked through the terminal?
There was already a group of reporters, embassy and government officials at the tarmac. A long-time friend, Colonel Jules Debois, a well-known Chicago Tribune reporter greeted me with a warm embrace. “Manny, my Amigo, how nice to see you. What do you think is going to happen? The crowd on the balcony doesn’t look too friendly and I just got a message from downtown that there will be major demonstrations when Nixon reaches Caracas.” A few minutes later another reporter said that he had just received a radio message from his colleague reporting that the block leading to the Bolivar Panteon was blocked by a mob and that they had attacked the military attachés who were delivering the floral wreath. The mob tore the wreath to shreds but they didn’t report whether or not the Attachés had been injured. Later, at the residence Lou told me that they had been roughed up by the crowd but were not injured.
Nixon’s Air Force C-54 finally landed and parked in front of the terminal. The PanAm passenger ramp was moved into place and when the door opened the first person out the door was Pat Nixon, and then joined by the Vice President. I took the following photo of this event.
Vice President Nixon and Pat
As soon as the Nixon’s were on the stairs the anti-Nixon placards were unfurled by the crowd on the balcony. “Yankee go home, you are not welcomed, American Dogs, Imperialists” were yelled in English and Spanish. After a fast review of a small honor guard and greeting Venezuelan and embassy officials airport military guards cleared a path through a large group of protesters that were in the terminal. Another unruly crowd was at the entrance but Nixon finally went directly to the open doors of the Cadillac limo instead of the convertible. This may have saved their lives. Nixon only had 12 US Secret Service agents accompanying him and they were no match against the pushing and shoving mob.
The five car caravan, led by a flatbed truck full of reporters and photographers, sped up the 13 mile Autopista (expressway) to Caracas. The expressway rises from sea level to three thousand feet and through two tunnels, one of which is a mile long. Just past the toll plaza exit, a very large and unruly mob had descended from the slums of the nearby hills and blocked the road to stop the cars. One of these slums is known as Sierra Maestre, named for Castro’s guerrilla camp. It was also a no-man’s land because police feared going there. The crowd, in a violent frenzy, began rocking the Nixon’s limo, throwing rocks at the windows and then using a battering ram to break the thick glass. Flying glass wounded the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, who sat next to VP Nixon, but the Nixons were not hurt. Colonel Walters who was in the front seat received facial cuts from the shattered glass.
After approximately 15 minutes of being blocked the flatbed truck inched its way through the mob to the opposite lane and the limo followed bumper to bumper until it was clear. They then rapidly sped another five miles on Urdaneta Avenue to the side street leading to the Bolivar Panteon. However, all was not well. The street was completely blocked by a mob of people so the limo driver drove past it with instructions to precede directly the US Ambassor’s residence on the north edge of Caracas instead of the Circulo Militar.
Finally Ambassador Sharp requested assistance from the Military Command and within an hour they had secured the Embassy Residence perimeter surrounded by tanks, armored cars and squads of military personnel. Road blocks were established to control access to the residence area. The US Marine guards were assigned to patrol the residence yard and Ambassador Sharp requested that some the US Military Attachés be present inside the residence at all times.
When the shocking news from Caracas reached President Eisenhower he took immediate action by ordering a US Naval Squadron to go to a position offshore of the La Guardia Port which was adjacent to the Miaquetia airport. Helicopters would evacuate the Nixon’s to a waiting ship in case it was needed. Lt. Col. Foley, the Air Attaché, informed me that we would fly Nixon and his party from the downtown airport to Miaquetia and asked that I alert our crew to standby for further instructions. However, a delegation from the Junta personally came to visit the Vice President and told him that the Junta President, Admiral Larazabal, invited him to lunch with the Junta and insisted that the Nixons ride with him to the airport after lunch. The delegation assured Nixon that the road would be secure. Nixon accepted the friendly gesture to avoid further confrontation.
Lt. Commander, Lou Sciliris, Assistant Naval Attaché, and I spent the night at the Residence while our bosses went home and returned next day. Early in the morning I went downstairs to the kitchen to use their bathroom to shave and shower and enjoyed a good breakfast while there. About 10 AM, Lt. Col. Vernon Walters, US Army, who accompanied Vice President Nixon, saw me freshly shaved and perhaps smelling good, asked me if he could borrow my razor to shave. “Sure, con gusto mi amigo. You can also take a shower if you wish”. I had known Vern since the early 50s while attending intelligence meetings in Washington. Vern was a fluent linguist in four or five languages and served Presidents Truman and Eisenhower as an interpreter and translator. He later had a distinguished career as a Military Attaché and Ambassador, retiring as a Lt. General and lived in Palm Beach, Fl.
When I went upstairs, Ambassador Sharp asked me where Walters was. A union delegation had just arrived to speak with Mr. Nixon and they needed an interpreter. When I told the Ambassador that Vern was taking a shower he said: “We can’t delay the meeting. You speak Spanish fluently so you do the interpreting. Please go into Mr. Nixon’s suite immediately.” All I could do is say, “Yes, Sir.” When I entered the suite I introduced myself to Mr. Nixon as Manuel Chavez and advised him that the Ambassador asked me to fill in as an interpreter while Col. Walters was taking a shower. I warned him that I was not a skilled interpreter and he answered that would be fine, just do the best I could and he would understand. The delegation came in for about a 15 minute chat to apologize for the incident, claiming they had no part in these demonstrations and several other excuses. In fact they probably were the instigators or at least encouraged the actions. Nevertheless, Mr. Nixon accepted their excuses and apologies and the meeting was over.
As I started to follow the visitors out the door Mr. Nixon asked me to stay and talk awhile. He was polite and cheerful, and then asked if I was related to Senator Dennis Chavez. I answered that he was distantly related to my father, but Senator Chavez was a close friend of my family and often enjoyed a dish of enchiladas, a la Margarita (my Mother) at our home in Las Cruces. He said he had known Senator Chavez for many years in the Senate, that he was a fine and dedicated senator and had a lot of respect for him. We also talked about my hometown, Las Cruces, because he had visited that town several times. He then spoke to Pat Nixon, who was standing nearby and said, “Pat, bring Major Chavez one of our gifts.” And that she did, bringing me a blue pen with the name Pat Nixon stamped on the side.
While I was speaking with VP Nixon Ambassador Sharp came to the suite to advise him that President Eisenhower was on the phone. During their conversation Mr. Nixon told the President that they would have lunch with President Larazabal and the Junta, depart for Puerto Rico after lunch and planned to stay overnight in San Juan. He said they would arrive in Washington during the afternoon on May 15t h and asked if he could arrange for a large crowd to welcome their return.
On May 14, 1958, after lunch with the Junta the Nixons were accompanied by Admiral Larazabal with a large motorcade of officials and security agents to Miaquetia Airport. There was no traffic on the streets and definitely not a sign of demonstrators. Reason? The entire route was saturated with armed military personnel and armored cars. Streets were blocked for free passage by the convoy all the way to the airport. This time Mr. Nixon did not object to the military presence.
When the Nixons finally arrived back in Washington they were received by a friendly and cheerful crowd of 15,000 well wishers. It is easy to arrange a friendly welcome when the President of the United States orders it, especially in Washington, with thousands of government employees volunteering to take the afternoon off.
Why did Vice President Nixon make this risky visit to South American countries that were experiencing violent demands for change? Was it to enhance his political image as a hero for political reasons? Or did he and other Washington decision makers ignore reports that the US Embassy officials were dispatching to their headquarters?
Alan McPherson in his book, Yankee No!: Anti-Americanism in US-Latin American Relations, provides an answer. McPherson looks at the Nixon trip from 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 that officials “preferred to see anti-Americanism as a subset of Communism, and not the other way.”
Maybe General Lansdale’s favorite line applies: “Egghead Decisions.”
Now, you be the judge.
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