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date: 24 April 2017

Alliance for Progress

Summary and Keywords

On March 13, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress, an economic assistance program to promote political democracy, economic growth, and social justice in Latin America. The United States and Latin American nations formally agreed to the alliance at a conference held in August 1961, at Punta del Este, Uruguay. U.S. delegates promised that Latin America would receive over twenty billion dollars in public and private capital from the United States and international lending authorities during the 1960s. The money would arrive in the form of grants, loans, and direct private investments. When combined with an expected eighty billion dollars in internal investment, this new money was projected to stimulate an economic growth rate of not less than 2.5 percent a year. This economic growth would facilitate significant improvements in employment, and in rates of infant mortality, life expectancy, and literacy rates. In agreeing to the alliance, Latin American leaders pledged to work for equality and social justice by promoting agrarian reform and progressive income taxes.

The Kennedy administration developed this so-called Marshall Plan for Latin America because it judged the region susceptible to social revolution and communism. Fidel Castro had transformed the Cuban Revolution into a strident anti-American movement and had allied his nation with the Soviet Union. U.S. officials feared that the lower classes of Latin America, mired in poverty and injustice, might follow similarly radical leaders.

Alliance programs delivered outside capital to the region, but the Alliance for Progress failed to transform Latin America. During the 1960s, Latin American economies performed poorly, usually falling below the 2.5 percent target. The region witnessed few improvements in health, education, or welfare. Latin American societies remained unfair and authoritarian. Sixteen extra-constitutional changes of government repeatedly unsettled the region.

The Alliance for Progress fell short of its goals for several reasons. Latin America had formidable obstacles to change: elites resisted land reform, equitable tax systems, and social programs; new credits often brought greater indebtedness rather than growth; and the Marshall Plan experience served as a poor guide to solving the problems of a region that was far different from Western Europe. The United States also acted ambiguously, calling for democratic progress and social justice, but worried that Communists would take advantage of the instability caused by progressive change. Further, Washington provided wholehearted support only to those Latin American governments and organizations that pursued fervent anticommunist policies.

Keywords: anticommunism, Cold War, Cuban Revolution, economic aid, Kennedy administration, Latin America, Marshall Plan, modernization


The John F. Kennedy administration designed a grand program—the Alliance for Progress—to transform and modernize Latin America. President Kennedy pledged to transfer U.S. wealth to uplift the conditions of Latin America’s poor. The U.S response to Cuban communism would be representative democracy and socioeconomic progress. The United States had revivified Western Europe with the Marshall Plan. The Kennedy (1961–1963) and Lyndon Baines Johnson administrations (1963–1969) believed that they could repeat the historic achievements of the Marshall Plan by building, in the 1960s, sturdy, stable Latin American nations that would resist the false promises of communism and remain closely allied to the United States.

President Kennedy unveiled his reform program for Latin America in an impressive White House ceremony on the evening of March 13, 1961, just a month before the Bay of Pigs invasion. After hosting an elegant reception for two hundred fifty people, including the diplomatic corps of the Latin American republics and congressional leaders, the president and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, directed guests to move to the East Room. They seated themselves on gilt-edged chairs arranged in semi-circles on both sides of the rostrum. President Kennedy’s speech was simultaneously broadcast by the Voice of America in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, the languages of the Western Hemisphere. Kennedy thrilled his attentive audience, telling Latin Americans what they had been waiting nearly two decades to hear. The United States would underwrite the region’s social and economic transformation. The United States would join in a “vast cooperative effort, unparalleled in magnitude and nobility of purpose, to satisfy the basic needs of Latin American people for homes, work and land, health and schools—techo, trabajo y tierra, salud y escuela.” Dubbed the Alliance for Progress—Alianza para el Progreso—the new program would be Latin America’s “Marshall Plan.”

Kennedy delivered over $600 million in emergency economic aid to Latin America in early 1961. His administration gave real substance, however, to his splendid rhetoric at an inter-American economic conference held in August 1961, at the Uruguayan seaside resort of Punta del Este. Secretary of the Treasury C. Douglas Dillon informed Latin American delegates that they could count on receiving $20 billion in public and private capital over the next ten years, “the decade of development.” In 21st-century terms, this would be the equivalent to the impressive sum of over $100 billion. With this influx of foreign money, combined with an additional $80 billion that Latin Americans could reasonably expect to generate in internal savings, Latin American nations would achieve a real economic growth rate of 2.5 percent a year. Administration officials chose to be publicly cautious; they actually expected that growth might reach 5 percent a year. Marvelous changes would flow from foreign aid and economic growth. The Charter of the Punta del Este Conference enumerated more than ninety lofty goals. Latin Americans would witness a five-year increase in life expectancy, a halving of the infant mortality rate, the elimination of adult illiteracy, and the provision of six years of primary education to every school-age child.

The Alliance for Progress meant more than improvements in health, education, and welfare. This would be a revolution in human rights. Political freedom and social reform would go hand in hand with material progress. Archaic tax and land-tenure structures would be dismantled and self-serving tyrants cast aside. President Kennedy vowed that North and South Americans would “demonstrate to the entire world that man’s unsatisfied aspiration for economic progress and social justice can best be achieved by free men working within a framework of democratic institutions.”

Fears of Social Revolution

The Kennedy administration decided to embark on a campaign to underwrite change and social development in Latin America because it perceived that the region was vulnerable to radical social revolution. U.S. officials feared that Latin American nations would embrace communism and the Cuban Revolution of Fidel Castro. President Kennedy characterized the region as “the most dangerous area in the world.”

If poverty and injustice were preconditions for upheaval, Latin America was indeed ripe for revolution. In several countries—Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Haiti—malnutrition was widespread, with a grossly inadequate daily per capita consumption of 2,000 calories or less, and a daily intake of fifteen grams of animal protein. In eight other countries, daily per capita consumption only approached 2,400 calories, the bare minimum necessary to sustain people who toiled in fields and factories. By comparison, in 1961, U.S. adults consumed every day over 3,000 calories and sixty-six grams of animal protein. Hungry people had predictably poor health records. Guatemalans had a life expectancy of less than fifty years, twenty years less than for a U.S. citizen. In the Andean nations of Ecuador and Peru, approximately 10 percent of newborns died during their first year of life. The poor of Latin America also lacked education and skills. Adult illiteracy rates ranged from 35 to 40 percent in relatively prosperous nations like Brazil and Venezuela. This misery was concentrated in the countryside, with campesinos working tiny plots of land and a rural oligarchy operating vast estates or latifundia. In Colombia, 1.3 percent of landowners controlled over 50 percent of the land, and in Chile 7 percent owned 80 percent of the land. Desperate rural people were fleeing to urban areas, moving into squalid shantytowns that surrounded cities like Bogotá, Caracas, and Rio de Janeiro.

The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration (1953–1961) poured the foundation for the Alliance for Progress. The Eisenhower administration knew that Latin Americans protested that they had been “neglected” in the postwar period. Between mid-1953 and mid-1958, the United States had provided $12.8 billion in foreign aid. But only $783 million, less than 7 percent, had been directed toward Latin America. Latin American democrats further resented that the administration had lavished medals and military support on right-wing dictators, like Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1952–1958) of Venezuela, because they professed to be anti-Communist. Latin Americans visibly expressed their anger with U.S. policies in May 1958, when Vice President Richard M. Nixon toured South America. Protestors hounded Nixon in Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay; in Caracas, Venezuela, a howling mob tried to assault the vice president. In the aftermath of the Nixon trip, Eisenhower and his advisors began to listen to Latin Americans, like President Juscelino Kubitschek of Brazil (1956–1961), who spoke of inter-American economic cooperation, an “Operation Pan America.” President Kubitschek had won international acclaim for launching the creation of a fantastic capital city, Brasília, in the heart of the country. The Eisenhower administration responded by funding an Inter-American Development Bank. In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, the administration went further, putting $500 million into a Social Progress Trust Fund (1960) to underwrite health, education, housing, and land reform projects.

Beyond the sense of crisis that informed U.S. perspectives about Latin America, U.S. officials judged it a propitious time to foster progressive reform in Latin America. In a series of popular upheavals dubbed by journalist Tad Szulc the “twilight of the tyrants,” ten Latin American military dictators fell from power between 1956 and 1960. Middle-class reformers, like Rómulo Betancourt (1959–1964) of Venezuela, replaced the military men. They vowed to rule democratically and to reform the region’s archaic social structures. Betancourt and influential political leaders like Arturo Frondizi (1958–1962) of Argentina and José Figueres (1953–1958) of Costa Rica joined with Kubitschek in pleading for U.S. help. They unabashedly played on the U.S. fear of communism. Latin America’s poverty and injustice, they warned, was a fertile breeding ground for the Communist contagion to fester and spread. A second, third, and fourth “Cuba” might be on the horizon. Indeed, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary, attended the conference at Punta del Este and debated Secretary of the Treasury Dillon. Guevara boasted that Latin America’s “new age” would be under “the star of Cuba,” not the Alliance for Progress.

The Communist Threat

President Kennedy perceived the Cuban Revolution as part and parcel of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “wars of national liberation strategy.” In a lengthy address given in Moscow on 6 January 1961, Khrushchev briefly raised the issue. Scholars have questioned whether Khrushchev intended to provoke the president-elect; they have suggested that the Soviet leader was addressing doctrinal issues within the Communist camp. Nonetheless, Ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon, who helped design the Alliance for Progress, decided that Khrushchev had signaled his intention to use Cuba as “a base for military and intelligence activities against the United States and for further opportunistic conquests in Latin America.” President Kennedy drew similar conclusions from his one, unpleasant meeting with Premier Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. Upon returning home, the president soberly reported to the nation that his Soviet adversary predicted that in the developing countries “the revolution of rising peoples would eventually be a Communist revolution, and that the so-called wars of liberation, supported by the Kremlin, would replace the old methods of direct aggression and invasion.” Kennedy added that it was “the Communist theory” that “a small group of disciplined Communists could exploit discontent and misery in a country where the average income may be $60 or $70 a year, and seize control, therefore, of an entire country without Communist troops ever crossing any international border.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk followed the president’s public warning with a confidential alert to U.S. diplomats in Latin America. Khrushchev was targeting Latin America.

Not to oppose the alleged Communist master plan for Latin America would imperil the national security of the United States. The United States would be surrounded if Communists came to power in Central and South American nations. U.S. officials also believed that they had to maintain U.S. credibility “in our own backyard.” The U.S. ability to act on the global stage would be impeded if it could not maintain order and stability in Latin America, the traditional U.S. sphere of influence. Secretary Rusk once noted to Argentine diplomats that the Communist adversaries measured the resolve of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. “A lack of determination on our part,” Rusk warned, might encourage Soviet aggression in the divided city of Berlin.

Not only national security anxieties but also domestic political calculations informed President Kennedy’s approach to the region. The president, in his 1964 reelection campaign, was loath to face the same charge—losing a Latin American country (Cuba) to communism—that he had thrown at the Eisenhower/Nixon team in 1960. Throughout his tenure, Kennedy predicted disaster in Latin America. In January 1961, he told an aide “the whole place could blow up on us.” In November 1962, he cautioned Argentina’s General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu to be alert, observing “that the next twelve months would be critical in Latin America with respect to renewed Communist attempts at penetration.” In October 1963, a month before his death, he warned that Latin America posed “the greatest danger to us.” A few months earlier, in a meeting with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Kennedy demanded that the United Kingdom postpone the independence of its South American colony, British Guiana. Kennedy alleged that British Guiana might become a Communist state. British Guiana would then join Cuba as a major campaign issue and jeopardize the president’s reelection. As presidential advisor and biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. put it, it was his boss’s “absolute determination” to prevent a second Communist outpost in the Western Hemisphere.

Modernization Theories

Although motivated by Cold War imperatives, the president and his team approached the task of building a prosperous, democratic, anti-Communist Latin America with supreme confidence. They thought they knew how to “modernize” Latin America. They fashioned the Alliance for Progress on contemporary social science theories, espoused by intellectuals, which included Ambassador Gordon and presidential assistant Walt W. Rostow. In the postwar period, social scientists had enunciated formal theories on political and economic development. They posited a universal, quantitatively measurable movement of all societies from a “traditional” situation toward a single ideal form or “modern” organization. Traditional societies, as they presumably existed in Latin America, had authoritarian political structures, rural, backward economies, and a lack of faith in scientific progress and the entrepreneurial spirit. A modern society that would resemble the United States would be characterized by a competitive political system, a commercialized and technologically sophisticated economic system, mass consumption, high literacy rates, and a geographically and socially mobile population. The assumption that “modern” Latin Americans wanted to replicate superior U.S.-style institutions and inculcate Anglo-American values in their societies belied the concept of an “alliance.”

The mission of the United States was to accelerate the modernization process, before the Communists could subvert it. The United States would identify and support urban, middle-class leaders in Latin America who favored democracy, universal education, and state policies that promoted economic development and social welfare. The United States would assist these leaders with substantial amounts of economic aid until these Latin American societies could generate enough internal capital to underwrite their own economic development. At that point, presumably within ten years, Latin American nations would have reached the “take-off stage,” as outlined in Rostow’s famous treatise, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960).1 The modernization theory further held that democratic structures would flourish in nations that could sustain their own economic growth.

The lessons of history affirmed the administration’s faith in the modernization process. U.S. leaders were proud that the past Democratic administration of Harry S. Truman (1945–1953) had rebuilt war-torn Western Europe and Japan. The Alliance for Progress would be the “Marshall Plan for Latin America.” The United States would pursue a policy of “enlightened anti-Communism.” The United States would win the Cold War in Latin America by performing righteous works. The United States would build sturdy, progressive societies that uplifted the poor and dispossessed. These modernized societies would naturally align themselves with the United States and reject the false promises of Khrushchev, Castro, and their fellow Communist travelers.

President Kennedy displayed the enthusiasm, confidence, and empathy inherent in the Alliance for Progress. During his abbreviated presidency, he toured Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, and Costa Rica and received tumultuous welcomes. He participated, for example, in a land redistribution ceremony in Venezuela.

Alliance for ProgressClick to view larger

Figure 1. President John F. Kennedy participates in a land redistribution ceremony in La Morita, Venezuela, on December 16, 1961. Also present is President Rómulo Betancourt (dark glasses) of Venezuela. Land reform was an essential part of the Alliance for Progress’s plan to transform the socioeconomic structure of Latin America. Venezuela was one of the few Latin American counties to achieve in the 1960s some of the Alliance’s goals. (Cecil Stoughton/John F. Kennedy Library)

Kennedy also opened the Oval Office to Latin American presidents, former presidents, foreign, finance, and labor ministers, ambassadors, generals, trade unionists, and economists. A telling example of the president’s commitment occurred during his visit to Costa Rica. He noticed an unoccupied hospital and told aides to find funds to staff it. The U.S. Agency for International Development subsequently granted $130,000 for a children’s hospital in San José. Bedeviled by his quagmire of a war in Vietnam, President Johnson spent less time with Latin Americans. He made only one major trip to Latin America, meeting leaders at Punta del Este in 1967, to review the Alliance. Johnson enjoyed, however, reading reports about schools and hospitals being built in Latin America with Alliance funds.

The Alliance in Action

The enthusiasm, energy, and optimism that infused the Alliance for Progress did not result in meaningful political and social change in Latin America. The Alliance proved to be a notable policy failure of the Cold War. During the 1960s, sixteen extra constitutional changes of government shook Latin America. Latin American economies hardly reached the “take-off stage,” registering an unimpressive annual growth rate of about 2 percent. Most of the growth took place at the very end of the 1960s. The Alliance failed to reach any of its ninety-four numerical goals in health, education, and welfare. The number of unemployed Latin Americans rose from eighteen million to twenty-five million during the decade.

U.S. officials misled themselves trying to apply dubious social science theories and misleading historical analogies like the “Marshall Plan for Latin America.” Latin America was not Europe. Western European countries had been devastated by war, but they had financial and technical expertise, familiarity with industrial forms of organization, institutionalized political parties, strong national identities, and, except for Germany, a robust democratic tradition. The Truman administration had helped “rebuild” countries whose social fabrics, political traditions, and economic institutions were notably similar to those of the United States. On the other hand, the Spanish/Portuguese (Iberian) and Amerindian political heritages emphasized planned economies, strong central governments, and the organization of society into corporate groups. Latin Americans traditionally gave greater significance to group achievement than to individual success. Latin Americans further believed that national progress came from a unified government rather than one slowed by a mixed form of power sharing with checks and balances. In his last address on inter-American affairs, President Kennedy conceded that the Alliance for Progress should not be compared to the Marshall Plan, for “then we helped rebuild a shattered economy whose human and social foundation remained. Today we are trying to create a basic new foundation, capable of reshaping the centuries-old societies and economies of half of a hemisphere.” Yet Kennedy assured his audience that idealism, energy, and optimism would bridge the vast cultural gap and bring about the “modernization” of Latin America. Although recognizing the challenges ahead, Kennedy was still assuming that Latin Americans wanted their modernized societies to replicate the social structures of the United States.

The United States also lacked the power to reform Latin America. In the postwar years, the United States militarily occupied both Germany and Japan, reordering their societies. General Douglas MacArthur, for example, directed the writing of the Japanese constitution, requiring the redistribution of land and limitations on military expenditures. In the 1960s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations repeatedly meddled and intervened in Latin America. But the United States could hardly claim the right to invade a Latin American country because the government wasted resources, abused campesinos, or discriminated against citizens of African or indigenous heritages. Neither Kennedy nor Johnson could act in Latin America, as they did when they dispatched federal marshals to protect the civil rights of African Americans in the U.S. South. In any case, the history of U.S. rule in Latin America taught sobering lessons. During the first third of the 20th century, the United States had militarily occupied countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua in the name of democracy and progress. But the United States had not successfully exported its values. Dictators like Fulgencio Batista (1940–1944, 1952–1959), Rafael Trujillo (1930–1961), and Anastasio Somoza García (1937–1956), not democrats, had emerged in the aftermath of those occupations.

The Alliance for Progress also proved far less generous than the Marshall Plan. President Kennedy regretfully had to inform Latin American leaders in private that the United States “could not give aid to Latin American countries in the same way that it helped to rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan.” Through his eloquence and spectacularly successful trips to Latin America, he had galvanized public and congressional support for the Alliance. But with Kennedy’s rapid expansion of military spending on nuclear weapons, and Johnson’s war in Vietnam, the United States took on heavy financial burdens in the international arena. Legislators, worried about government spending, cut budget requests for foreign aid, from both Kennedy and Johnson, sometimes by as much as 25 percent. Most Marshall Plan aid was in the form of grants, whereas the Alliance offered loans, which had to be eventually repaid. In the 1960s, the region received about $15 billion of the promised $20 billion. Even then, with Latin American nations being required to repay principal and interest on pre-1961 and Alliance loans, this meant that the actual net capital flow to Latin America during the 1960s averaged about $920 million a year. This was the equivalent of about $4 per Latin American per year. By comparison, Marshall Plan money, which did not have to be repaid, amounted to $109 a year in assistance for every person in the Netherlands.

The Alliance money that Latin America received did have salubrious effects. Both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson could read upbeat reports about schools and hospitals being built and more people gaining access to potable water. Democratic leaders in countries such as Costa Rica, Chile, and Venezuela performed within the spirit of the Alliance for Progress. During the early 1960s, Venezuela, for example, received over $200 million in loans and grants from the United States to finance public housing and public works projects. The United States further backed Venezuela’s requests for an additional $200 million in loans from international agencies like the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank. President Rómulo Betancourt and his successor, Raúl Leoni (1964–1969), toiled diligently for the poor, resettling approximately one hundred sixty thousand families on their own farms, allocating budgetary expenditures to health and education, and cutting unemployment. But Venezuela never hit the Alliance’s target of 2.5 percent annual growth, and 75 percent of Venezuelan youth still did not complete the sixth grade. Economic growth stagnated, because Venezuela depended on the export of oil, and oil prices declined precipitously in the 1960s, falling from $2.65 a barrel in 1957 to $1.81 in 1969.

Population growth eroded many gains. With a 2.9 percent annual rate of increase, Latin America experienced the most rapid population increase in the world in the 1960s. Colombia saw its population increase from 15.6 million to 21 million, and Brazil added 25 million people, from 70 to 95 million. Alliance programs helped cut the percentage of Latin American children not attending school from 52 to 43 percent, but, because of this population growth, the actual number of children not attending school increased during the 1960s. Latin America added 151,670 hospital beds in the 1960s and ended up with fewer hospital beds per thousand people in 1969 than in 1960.

The Alliance for Progress did not place population control on its agenda. President Kennedy took no interest in population control, apparently believing it to be politically and medically impractical and morally dubious. He once disputed what proved to be the accurate prediction that the world’s population of 3 billion in 1960 would double to 6 billion in 2000. In truth, no Latin American leader raised population issues with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Nicaragua took the position that it was under populated. Oral contraceptives, an effective method of birth control, became commercially available in the United States in 1960. Bolivian nationalists reacted furiously when they discovered that Peace Corps volunteers dispensed oral contraceptives to the rural poor. The family planning program was small, non-aggressive, and voluntary and was initially approved by Bolivian authorities. Nonetheless, some Bolivians perceived birth control as part of conspiracy to reduce Bolivia’s geopolitical power, and the government responded by expelling the approximately one hundred Peace Corps volunteers in 1971. Latin America’s most populous nations, Mexico and Brazil, would eventually take effective steps to encourage family planning and population control in the 1970s and 1980s.

Latin American leaders also bore responsibility for the Alliance’s failures. Their governments often proved incapable of designing the long-range plans required for putting their countries on the path of sustainable economic growth. By January 1962, only Colombia had submitted a development plan. Governments wasted U.S. money on short-term, politically expedient projects or directed the spending at enhancing the living standards of middle-income groups, rather than the poor. Latin American leaders, other than in Chile and Venezuela, also hesitated to attack traditional land tenure patterns, with 5 to 10 percent of the population, the landed oligarchy, owning 70 to 90 percent of the land. The rural regions were the locus of Latin America’s poverty, underdevelopment, and population explosion. Ecuadorian agricultural laborers, for example, earned fifteen cents a day. Mexico continued to sustain its post-1940 economic growth in the countryside. In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), successive Mexican governments had redistributed over one hundred million acres of land, often in the form of communal holdings or ejidos. The Alliance for Progress, however, played a minimal role in Mexico.

In their defense, Latin American leaders pointed to the declining terms of trade as the cause for the region’s economic stagnation. In order to generate the $80 billion on domestic savings mandated by the Alliance, Latin America needed to sell their primary products—coffee, sugar, bananas, copper, tin, lead, zinc, and oil—on the global markets. But the prices of these tropical foods and raw materials declined in the 1960s even as the prices of imported industrial machinery and finished goods, the very things needed for economic development, rose. The price of coffee, Latin America’s chief export, fell from ninety cents a pound in the 1950s to thirty-six cents a pound in the early 1960s. In May 1969, at an inter-American conclave, delegates produced the “Consensus of Viña del Mar,” calling on the United States to open its markets to Latin American exports and to work for fair terms of trade. Recognizing the failure of the Alliance for Progress, Latin Americans now wanted trade, as much as aid, from the United States.


The failure of the Alliance for Progress cannot be explained solely by faulty social science theories, misread lessons of history, or structural problems. If so, historians could limit their analyses to noting that President Kennedy virtuously, but unsuccessfully, tried to end poverty and injustice in the hemisphere with a bold, imaginative program. Scholars could then add that the Alliance, like the Great Society domestic reform program, became a casualty of President Johnson’s tragic venture in Vietnam. They would further point to President Kennedy’s untimely death in November 1963. Kennedy had repeatedly told aides that he had not given up on his cherished program. Kennedy presumably would not also have blundered, by dispatching over 500,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam. More money would have been available for Latin American development. Indeed, U.S. economic aid to Latin America dropped during the Johnson years, although Latin American economies did better in the late 1960s than during the Kennedy years.

A fair assessment of Kennedy and Latin America reveals that the president’s Cold War initiatives undermined the Alliance for Progress. Kennedy judged regional governments on whether they affirmed the U.S. faith that Fidel Castro’s Cuba represented the focus of evil. He demanded that Latin American nations break diplomatic relations with Cuba and enlist in the U.S. campaign to strangle Cuba’s economy. He further required Latin American leaders to outlaw domestic Communists and to forswear from establishing relations with the Soviet Union or the Communist bloc. Constitutional heads of state, like Arturo Frondizi (1958–1962) of Argentina, João Goulart (1961–1964) of Brazil, Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana (1957–1964), and Juan José Arévalo (1945–1951), the former president of Guatemala, failed Kennedy’s Cold War test. These leaders respected constitutional processes and praised the Alliance for Progress, but they believed that the administration was obsessed with Castro. They also discounted the threat of Cuban communism to their counties and the hemisphere. The Kennedy administration would not, however, trust any progressive leader or group deemed suspect on the issues of Castro and communism. The Kennedy administration authorized 163 major covert operations in less than three years, many of them in Latin America. It launched campaigns to undermine the authority of Frondizi, Goulart, and Jagan, and to prevent Arévalo from returning to electoral office in Guatemala. These destabilization campaigns produced ironic results. The authoritarian, anti-Communist leaders who seized power in Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, and British Guiana opposed free elections and disdained the idea of social reform, the essence of the Alliance for Progress. The Brazilian generals who controlled political life in their country between 1964 and 1985 also spread repression throughout the hemisphere. In the early 1970s, Brazil worked to overthrow civilian leaders in Bolivia and Uruguay. Brazilian General Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969–1974) pledged to help President Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974) overthrow the constitutional leader of Chile, President Salvador Allende Gossens (1970–1973).

President Johnson also waged ruthless Cold War in Latin America. He fulfilled President Kennedy’s goals of driving President Goulart out of power in Brazil and Prime Minister Jagan out of British Guiana (Guyana). He authorized the military invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, depriving the supporters of constitutionalism from restoring the legitimate president to power. U.S. military and civilian advisors became intimately involved in the slaughter of political opponents and Mayan Indians by the Guatemalan government and the military. Operación Limpieza (Operation Clean-Up) of 1966 spread terror, torture, and assassination throughout Guatemala. Guatemalan security forces, many trained by the United States, killed up to eight thousand Guatemalans in 1966 alone. Over the next thirty years, over two hundred thousand Guatemalans, many of them indigenous people, would perish in Guatemala’s nightmarish political violence.

Under President Johnson, the CIA also became adept a manipulating elections in countries such as Bolivia and Chile. In Chile, the CIA spent millions of dollars to prevent Allende, a Socialist, from winning the election of 1964. The preferred U.S. candidate, Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964–1970), a Christian Democrat, won the election. In the Dominican Republic and Guyana, the CIA went beyond pouring funds into the campaign coffers of favorite candidates and worked to rig elections to ensure the victory of strident anti-Communists. President Johnson directly ordered CIA Director Richard Helms to make certain that the U.S. man, Joaquín Balaguer, an authoritarian and ally of former dictator Rafael Trujillo, won the 1966 election in the Dominican Republic. Balaguer gave his nation twelve years of repressive rule. In newly independent Guyana, the CIA and the U.S. embassy collaborated with Forbes Burnham, the leader of Guyanese of African descent, in creating false voter lists to insure that Burnham held power in the 1968 election against Cheddi Jagan. Burnham pledged to follow an anti-Communist line. Burnham (1964–1985) gave his country two decades of misrule, characterized by corruption and the vicious persecution of Guyanese of Indian descent.

By the end of the 1960s, Latin America was far less democratic and socially progressive than it was at the beginning of the decade. There had been sixteen extra-constitutional changes of government in the region. In the name of anticommunism, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations assisted conservative authoritarians and military dictators in their seizure of power.


Under the aegis of the Alliance for Progress, the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson administrations waged a successful foreign policy with Latin America. At the beginning of the 1960s, President Kennedy had dubbed Latin America the “the most dangerous area in the world.” Kennedy and his advisors feared that social revolution would sweep throughout the Western Hemisphere and that Fidel Castro and his fellow revolutionaries would be the beneficiaries. Communism would spread throughout the region. But by the end of the decade, the region was secure, stable, and remained within the U.S. sphere of influence. Fidel Castro’s Cuba had been contained. No Latin American country emulated the Cuban Revolution. And the Soviet Union continued to have minimal influence in the Western Hemisphere. The United States had seemingly won a Cold War victory.

Both Democratic presidents had talked, however, about winning the Cold War by building democratic, progressive societies in Latin America through the Alliance for Progress. The United States was allegedly pursuing a policy of high ideals and noble purposes. Instead, the Democratic administrations invaded countries, destabilized constitutional governments, and rigged elections. The two administrations sacrificed splendid visions of a prosperous, free, and socially just hemisphere for the short-term security that anti-Communist, right-wing dictators could provide. Cold War fears led the United States to compromise, even mutilate, the grand goals that were inherent in the Alliance for Progress.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship on the Alliance for Progress can be readily categorized. Initially, partisans of President Kennedy dominated the debate. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. set the tone in his loving biography, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Schlesinger, who helped design the Alliance, fulsomely praised the president for reversing the Eisenhower administration’s policies. Eisenhower denied economic aid to Latin America, whereas Kennedy uplifted the Latin American poor and championed decent democrats like José Figueres of Costa Rica and Rómulo Betancourt of Venezuela. Presidential advisor and speechwriter Theodore C. Sorenson similarly applauded the president’s efforts, although he conceded that reality and results did not match the exuberant rhetoric that flowed about the Alliance for Progress. When it became apparent at the end of the 1960s that the Alliance had fallen short of its progressive goals, Schlesinger first blamed the Johnson administration for abandoning the Alliance’s reformist goals. In his biography of President Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Schlesinger began to concede that his beloved administration had not fully embraced the dreams of the Alliance. Schlesinger admitted that the president and his brother had unwisely listened to national security officials who wanted to combat Latin American radicalism with counterinsurgency doctrines and covert interventions. But in March 1986, at a conference marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the president’s Alliance speech, Kennedy administration officials again paid homage to their leader’s idealism and claimed that the Alliance, whatever its immediate shortcomings, paved the way for long-term economic development in Latin America.2

The journalists Jerome Levinson and Juan de Onís offered the first comprehensive history of the Alliance for Progress in The Alliance That Lost Its Way: A Critical Report on the Alliance for Progress, borrowing their title from a critical article penned by Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva and published in the influential journal, Foreign Affairs.3 Levinson and de Onís thoroughly documented the Alliance’s dismal economic statistics and failure to reach any of its ninety-four enumerated goals. Why the Alliance failed to meet its quantitative and qualitative goals became the subject of debate. Lincoln Gordon, who helped design the Alliance and subsequently served as the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, rejected Arthur Schlesinger’s contention that President Johnson had undercut the Alliance. Gordon pointed out that economic growth in Latin America during the Johnson years exceeded growth during the Kennedy presidency. Gordon also denied that he or any other U.S. official played any role in the military overthrow of President João Goulart of Brazil in 1964.4 Abraham F. Lowenthal suggested that State Department bureaucrats preferred stability over change and declined to push reform on reluctant Latin American elites or U.S. business interests who operated in Latin America.5

In the fields of diplomatic history, foreign relations, and international history, scholarship relies on access to the archival record. Scholars need to compare the statements and proclamations of actors in the international arena with their internal, private deliberations. Through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, memorandums of conversation and diplomatic dispatches of U.S. officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administration were declassified and opened to research to scholars. For example, Phyllis R. Parker demonstrated that Ambassador Gordon had not told the whole truth about the U.S. role in the overthrow of President Goulart. Under the direction of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the U.S. military attaché in Brazil, Colonel Vernon Walters, encouraged the Brazilian military to strike. Ambassador Gordon collaborated with Colonel Walters. Conducting research in U.S. and Brazilian archives, W. Michael Weis confirmed Parker’s findings and conclusions.6

Strong archival research has subsequently marked scholarship on the Alliance for Progress. Stephen G. Rabe demonstrated that, contrary to Schlesinger’s argument, many of the ideas inherent in the Alliance for Progress were first proposed by Eisenhower administration officials and Latin American leaders in the late 1950s. Rabe’s monograph, The Most Dangerous Area in the World, remains the most complete analysis of the Alliance for Progress.7 Rabe found merit in President Kennedy’s commitment to the dispossessed of Latin America but concluded that Kennedy and President Johnson undermined the Alliance with anti-Communist counterinsurgency initiatives and covert interventions. In an outstanding study, Jeffrey Taffet established that the United States used Alliance money to achieve specific U.S. policy goals. Brazil and the Dominican Republic received a disproportionate amount of economic aid, because the Johnson administration wanted to bolster the anti-Communist authoritarians that the United States had helped place in power.8 Michael E. Latham placed the Alliance for Progress within the context of the ambitious U.S. anti-Communist effort to transform foreign societies throughout the world, including South Vietnam, into bastions of capitalism, constitutionalism, and social progress.9

The newest studies have focused on examining U.S. policies in the 1960s in individual Western Hemisphere countries. A welcome development is that these studies are also grounded in primary-source research in the individual countries. An outstanding example is Thomas C. Field’s From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress. Field conducted extensive research in Bolivian archives and interviewed key Bolivian and U.S. officials. He found that the Kennedy administration’s emphasis on security and anticommunism pushed Bolivian leaders to the right, undermining the progressive goals of the Alliance for Progress.10 Greg Grandin, in The Last Colonial Massacre, revealed the chilling nature of the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency campaign in Guatemala.11 Piero Gleijeses has updated and translated into Spanish his 1978 examination of the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. Piero Gleijeses conducted multi-archival research and interviewed numerous Dominicans who testified to their destroyed hope for a society that honored constitutional processes.12 Multi-archival research also characterized Stephen G. Rabe’s, The U.S. Intervention in British Guiana, a study of efforts by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to subvert democracy in South America’s only English-speaking nation.13 Combing through Haitian archives, Wien Weibert Arthus has produced an imaginative article, “The Challenge of Democratizing the Caribbean during the Cold War,” that demonstrated the limits of U.S. power. President Kennedy wanted to overthrow the odious dictator of Haiti, François Duvalier (1957–1971). But Kennedy hesitated, because he and aides feared than an extreme leftist might gain power in the wake of Duvalier’s downfall. Duvalier also proved a crafty and resilient opponent of the president.14

Primary Sources

Before entering the archives, students of the Alliance for Progress would want to be certain that they are thoroughly grounded in the secondary literature. Two recent historiographic essays on the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies and Latin America are by Jeffrey F. Taffet, and Alan McPherson.15

After perusing the secondary literature, students would be then advised to visit a library that is a government repository to consult published primary services. The public statements of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson can be found in General Services Administration, Public Papers of the Presidents.The statements, speeches, and observations on inter-American affairs by U.S. officials can also be found in U.S. Department of State.16 Research libraries will also have guides or indices to government publications for individual years. By using these guides, students will be able to identify congressional hearings on U.S. relations with Latin America.

The most invaluable published primary sources for a student of international affairs are the volumes in the series, U.S. Department of State, Historical Documents, Foreign Relations of the United States. The published volumes for 1961–1969 would be available in a library that is a government depository. The volumes have sections on U.S. relations with Latin America as a region and relations with individual countries. Some but not all of the series are now available via the Internet. Fortunately, for the Kennedy presidency, Volumes X–XII and the microfiche supplement, of the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, American Republics; Cuba 1961‐1962; Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath, are available for digital research. Similarly, Volume XXXI, South and Central America; Mexico and Volume XXXII, Dominican Republic; Cuba; Haiti, Guyana, on U.S. relations with Latin America during the Johnson presidency can be found in published volumes in a research library or on the web.

Outstanding research requires a student to visit archives. For U.S. relations with Latin America, this entails visiting the U.S. National Archives. U.S. documents on relations with Latin America in the 20th century are found at The National Archives at College Park, Maryland. The other key archival locations for the Alliance for Progress would be the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, at Columbia Point (near Boston) and the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. The private papers of U.S. officials are scattered throughout the United States, although officials often deposit their papers either at the presidential libraries or with the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Research advice has focused on records generated in the United States. But studies on the Alliance for Progress need a Latin American perspective. Some Latin American governments have opened official papers for research on relations with the United States in the 1960s. For examples of this multi-archival approach, see works by Thomas C. Field, Jr., Tanya Harmer, and Renata Keller, on Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico. respectively,17

Further Reading

Field, Jr., Thomas C. From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Giglio, James N. The Presidency of John F. Kennedy. 2d ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006.Find this resource:

Latham, Michael E. Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Levinson, Jerome, and Juan de Onís. The Alliance That Lost Its Way: A Critical Report on the Alliance for Progress. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970.Find this resource:

Lowenthal, Abraham F. “United States Policy Toward Latin America: ‘Liberal,’ ‘Radical,’ and ‘Bureaucratic’ Perspectives.” Latin American Research Review 8.3 (1974): 3–25.Find this resource:

Martin, Edwin McCammon. Kennedy and Latin America. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.Find this resource:

Packenham, Robert. Liberal America and the Third World: Political Ideas and Social Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.Find this resource:

Rabe, Stephen G. Eisenhower and Latin America: The Foreign Policy of Anticommunism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Rabe, Stephen G. The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Taffet, Jeffrey F. Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America. New York: Routledge, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) Walt W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1960).

(2.) Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965); and Theodore C. Sorenson, Robert F. Kennedy and His Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978). L. Ronald Scheman edited these testimonials in The Alliance for Progress: A Retrospective (New York: Praeger, 1988).

(3.) Jerome Levinson and Juan de Onís, The Alliance That Lost Its Way: A Critical Report on the Alliance for Progress (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970); and see Eduardo Frei Montalva, “Urgencies in Latin America,” Foreign Affairs 45 (April 1967): 437–448.

(4.) Lincoln Gordon, “US-Brazilian Reprise,” Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs 32 (Summer 1990): 165–178.

(5.) For a theoretical piece, see Abraham F. Lowenthal, “United States Policy Toward Latin America: ‘Liberal,’ ‘Radical,’ and ‘Bureaucratic’ Perspectives,” Latin American Research Review 8.3 (1974): 3–25.

(6.) W. Michael Weis, Brazil and the Quiet Intervention, 1964 (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1979); and W. Michael Weis, Cold Warriors and Coups d’Etat: Brazilian-American Relations, 1945–1964 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993).

(7.) Stephen G. Rabe, Eisenhower and Latin America: The Foreign Policy of Anticommunism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); and Stephen G. Rabe, The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

(8.) Jeffrey F. Taffet, Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2007).

(9.) Michael E. Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

(10.) Thomas C. Field, From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

(11.) Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

(12.) Piero Gleijeses, La Esperanza Desgarrada: La rebellion dominicana de 1965 y la invasión norteamericana (Santo Domingo: Editora Búho, 2012).

(13.) Stephen G. Rabe, The U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

(14.) Wien Weibert Arthus, “The Challenge of Democratizing the Caribbean during the Cold War: Kennedy Facing the Duvalier Dilemma,” Diplomatic History 39 (June 2015): 504–531.

(15.) Jeffrey F. Taffet, “Latin America” in A Companion to John F. Kennedy, ed. Marc J. Selverstone (Malden: MA, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 307–327; and Alan McPherson, “Latin America” in A Companion to Lyndon B. Johnson, ed. Mitchell B. Lerner (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 387–405.

(16.) General Services Administration, Public Papers of the Presidents (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1962–1970); additional statements and observations can be found in U.S. Department of State, Bulletin of the Department of State (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1961–1969).

(17.) Thomas C. Field, Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Tanya Harmer, Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); and Renata Keller, Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Cuban Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).