263. Memorandum From the Officer in Charge of West Coast Affairs (Siracusa) to the Director of the Office of South American Affairs (Bernbaum)1


  • Suggestion for Diversifying Bolivian Policy

In connection with the suggestion that periodic congressional briefings on the Bolivian situation and on our policy toward that country be arranged, the following recommendation is submitted as a means of diversifying our policy so that we do not rely entirely on the hope that something beneficial will develop out of our support for the MNR.


That we adopt and put into effect a line of action with respect to the Bolivian Army for the deliberate purpose of seeing the formal military so strengthened that there would be some responsible body from which leadership might emerge should political chaos come to Bolivia through a collapse of or an unfavorable reorientation of the MNR regime. This would provide a form of secondary insurance for achievement of our objectives in Bolivia, especially should hopes with respect to our present policies not materialize, and should the situation deteriorate against our interests.

Concrete types of action which might go into the execution of such a policy would be:

Strengthening our Military Mission activities.
Increasing programs for training of Bolivian officers in the United States.
Considering grant military aid for Bolivia in order to provide a rejuvenating military with the strength required for internal security.
Devising effective means for our civilian and military officials to influence MNR leadership, particularly those in responsible positions of government, to rely on the military and to weaken the civilian militia.
Devise means to enhance the prestige of the Bolivian military such as: Decorating high officials where possible; scheduling visits to Bolivia of high ranking U.S. military figures; inviting Bolivian Military figures to the U.S. as official visitors, etc.

[Page 538]


It is my understanding that our policy toward Bolivia is based roughly on the following:

We are aiding Bolivia in an effort to prevent economic collapse. At the same time we are trying to encourage the MNR regime to adopt policies and programs which will eventually enable Bolivia to stand on its own feet without outside aid. We hope in the process that the moderate elements in the MNR will gain strength and that it will increasingly adopt attitudes and practices consistent with U.S. ideals and aims, political, social and economic. Principal reasons for our doing this are the fact that the MNR, with all its recognized defects, is yet the only organization which now appears capable of attracting and holding substantial following among the people and it is devoted to reforms, at least some of which are long overdue in Bolivia. Our course has been adopted in part, also, because of the belief that should the MNR collapse, a period of political vacuum and chaos would inevitably occur in Bolivia which would be detrimental to our interests there and in the hemisphere. In summary, it is our hope that while we hold the MNR up, and help it eventually to put Bolivia back on its feet, we will also be able to influence it in a healthy way.

Even though it involves calculated risks, this policy is probably the best that could have been devised under prevailing conditions. And, so far, it has appeared to work well enough. A government which was leftist and anti-U.S. at its inception has, probably in great measure due to our aid, become less so and has, in fact, cooperated with us to an encouraging degree. This has not been without cost to its own situation, however, and as it has become more moderate, cleavages have been intensified between its moderate and middle elements and its own far left wing. At the moment, too, the latter appear to be emerging as the strongest faction. While it is possible that the next government will, like the present one, move toward us even though the initial outlook may appear bleak, the situation will not be the same and we cannot count on it. Therefore, even through it now appears that Siles, a moderate, will be President, the Lechin group will probably dominate the MNR, the Congress and possibly the government. This could produce problems serious enough to weaken the MNR regime, even disastrously, or could so alter its character that U.S. policy would have to be reappraised. Thus, we could be faced with a situation wherein achievement of our objectives, in whole or in part, could gradually or suddenly be precluded.

What would we do, for example, were the MNR to collapse through internal dissension or split factionally to such an extent as to virtually become inoperative? What would be the prospect in [Page 539] terms of our interests should the leftists in the MNR gain control and act in such a way as to cause us to withdraw our aid? What if, in this case, aid from unfriendly quarters should be sought and/or obtained? I don’t think our present policy contains answers to these questions even though I assume that in given circumstances we might try to generate OAS action on the Bolivian problem or, in the extreme, take covert unilateral action of one kind or another.

It appears so far that we have been putting our energies into the formulation and application of the policy we have, and have not yet developed alternatives or something in the way of secondary insurance. Such insurance might be provided if there were an organization or agency in Bolivia which might act as a balance and, having the right capacity and orientation, be able to step into the breach in extreme circumstances.

The only organization in Bolivia which, if strengthened, might be able to take the kind of action required is the Bolivian Army. While the Army normally has such a function in Latin America, the Bolivian Army is probably not capable of performing it because of its inherent weakness and the added fact that it is now counterbalanced by a civilian militia which probably has greater capacities than it has. This would almost certainly be the case if the armed police (carabineros) did not support the army. It seems consistent to suggest, therefore, that we expand our policy toward Bolivia by addition of a firm aim to see the formal military forces strengthened so that there would be some responsible body with strength from which leadership might emerge should the MNR regime collapse or become unfavorably reoriented from our point of view.

Were we to adopt such a policy the possibility would have to be accepted that at some point a rejuvenated military might attempt to take matters into its own hands, with violence to the hope we have of seeing a gradual emergence of democratic practices in Bolivia. However, in the Bolivian context and especially in view of the degree of democracy which has historically existed or appears remotely possible in the foreseeable future, this possibility must be accepted. The fact that should need arise under present circumstances, there appears at present to be no responsible body capable of filling a void there seems to me to be the compelling element. In such an eventuality, not necessarily remote, possibly greater violence to the hope of democratic evolution would be done.

. . . . . . .

To act on the lines recommended in Bolivia we would face the formidable problem of doing so without causing the government to suspect or believe erroneously that we were trying to build up a force which would eventually take over there. This would largely be [Page 540] a problem of tact, timing and approach; a problem which we already face to a more limited extent in the OCB expressed aims of (1) bringing about a reduction in size and influence of the civilian militia and (2) getting the Bolivian Government to increase its reliance on the formal armed forces. Essentially, what is recommended is an expansion and intensification of point (2) above. The need to do so arises basically from the fact that the Army in Bolivia is probably incapable of performing the traditional Latin American Army function of stepping into the breach left by political and social upheaval, acting as a balancing factor and binding force until such time as relative stability can be reformed through the traditional political structure.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 611.24.2–256. Secret. Also addressed to Belton. A handwritten notation by Bernbaum at the top of the source text reads: “Siracusa—Let’s include this in an overall discussion of the problem.”