109. Summary of the Discussion and Decisions at the 37th Senior Interdepartmental Group Meeting1


  • Under Secretary of State, Chairman
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • General Brown for the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • The Director of Central Intelligence
  • Mr. Poats for the Administrator, Agency for International Development
  • The Director, United States Information Agency
  • Mr. Bowdler for the Special Assistant to the President
  • Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • Deputy Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • SIG Staff Director
  • Ambassador Mein, Guatemala
  • JCS—General Orwat
  • ISA—Mr. Lang; Mr.Earle
  • State—Mr. Oliver; Mr. Ruser
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The SIG, at its 37th meeting, considered the situation in Guatemala. Following are highlights of Ambassador Mein’s presentation and the ensuing discussion.

Statement of Positions

The purpose of the meeting was to review the strategy toward Guatemala proposed in the Country Team’s Country Analysis and Strategy Paper (CASP) for FY 70.2 The IRG/ARA, reviewing the CASP, had found itself at variance with the Country Team’s conclusions and recommendations.3

Ambassador Mein, summarizing the CASP’s recommendations, said the Country Team had considered three alternative strategies toward Guatemala.

  • —To continue the present strategy of supporting the Mendez regime, and develop United States programs more or less along present lines;
  • —To put the Mendez regime on notice that we would have to cut back our programs unless it moves faster on economic and social reform;
  • —To offer a substantial increase in our aid effort as an inducement to more rapid reform.

The Country Team was proposing continuation of our present strategy—albeit with certain changes in emphasis. It had discarded the third alternative essentially because it understood that budget stringencies would preclude a substantial increase in assistance. It had concluded that the second alternative—a strategy of pressure—was both unwise and undesirable. Mendez, with all his shortcomings, was preferable to any alternative now in sight. Should he be replaced, the next government would be either a purely military or a rightist military-civilian regime. Mendez was committed to reform to the extent politically feasible and was well aware of our position. It was not in our interest to threaten Mendez with withdrawal of our support.

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Assistant Secretary Oliver reported that the IRG/ARA, in contrast to the Country Team’s conclusions, had unanimously recommended in favor of a combination of the Embassy’s second and third alternatives— a strategy of pressure, combined with an offer of increased assistance in return for accelerated self-help efforts. We should encourage Mendez to mount a reform program and be prepared to review our assistance effort in light of the regime’s performance.

In the discussion, it was noted that there had recently been considerable criticism in the United States press concerning repressive measures by the Guatemalan Government and our apparent association with them. The United States Government was in a difficult position supporting a regime which appeared to carry out—or tolerate—a campaign of counter-terror against its political opponents. Our military assistance program and AID’s public safety program, in particular, were politically vulnerable. The United States public, not aware of our limited leverage on Guatemala, misinterpreted these programs as evidence of our support for the status quo.

Resilience of the Regime

There was a consensus that the resilience of the regime, its capacity to undertake reform, was the key issue as between the opposing views.

Ambassador Mein said that in his judgment Mendez’ freedom of action continued to be severely circumscribed both by political factors and by available resources. The politically dominant forces in the country remain opposed to significant reforms.

The IRG/ARA view, on the contrary, was that, following the events of March 28,4

A third view was that we should not focus entirely on the capacity of the government but also on the attitude of Guatemala’s socioeconomic establishment. Since 1954, this power structure had remained essentially unchanged: land-owning groups, some business interests, some elements of the army. The Mendez government would be unable to undertake significant reforms without at least the acquiescence of these groups. We should attempt to engage these groups in a dialogue in an effort to persuade them to accept such a program.

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United States Objectives

Ambassador Mein underlined his belief that survival of the duly elected Mendez government, followed by an orderly transfer of power in 1970, should be the primary United States objective—even if Mendez should have to sacrifice major reforms during the remainder of his term. Survival of an elected government—this would be the third such government to survive since 1821—would set an important precedent, which would benefit the development of viable democratic institutions in Guatemala.

In the discussion, the question was raised whether, if the government was in fact so heavily dependent upon tolerance by the power structure, its survival really made that much difference from the United States point of view.

Another view was that a head-on confrontation with the regime— and all the risks attached to such an approach—made in any case little sense, given the regime’s limited room for maneuver. This issue was really not one of how far we were willing to go in risking the regime’s survival but whether Mendez and the United States could persuade the power structure to accept a measure of reform.

Mendez’ Regime Performance

Ambassador Mein stressed his disagreement with the estimate that the Mendez regime had been a standstill administration. There had been significant progress, although not as much as we would have liked to see and probably not as much as Mendez could have accomplished. In assessing Mendez’ accomplishments, we should keep in mind that the Mendez administration had started from scratch. Progress under the previous military regime had been negligible.

In this connection, the Ambassador recalled that the United States had proposed 26 projects to the new government in late 1966; 24 of these had been accepted by the Mendez government. The large loan pipeline ($70 million) was mainly in IBRD, IDB, and CABEI financed projects; the AID pipeline was quite modest.

Other Guatemalan achievements were:

  • —sound monetary fiscal policies;
  • —little labor unrest;
  • —considerable progress under the northeast rural development program;
  • —encouragement of private enterprise and private foreign investment (e.g., negotiations with International Nickel were virtually completed).

In the important field of tax legislation, the government in 1967 had increased the land tax and it now hoped to get the Guatemalan Congress to approve AID’s property tax development loan, which [Page 258] would result in a substantial increase in tax revenues. The Ambassador considered prospects for this loan favorable although he conceded that there remained considerable opposition.

It was acknowledged that this loan, if authorized, could be an important step towards a more equitable sharing of the tax burden by the land-owning classes of Guatemalan society.

Rightist Counter-Terror

As regards the counter-insurgency situation, Assistant Secretary Oliver noted that the existence of rightist counter-terrorist groups was a major source of concern to the IRG/ARA.

Ambassador Mein said that he shared this concern and had raised this matter with Mendez on several occasions. The President had not conceded any excesses in the clandestine counter-insurgency operations.

Equally important, since removal of the three generals, there had, in fact, been no new incidents. The clandestine units of the national police had been dissolved. Activity of the clandestine army groups had been curtailed. Victims of the counter-terror were, in fact, overwhelmingly leftist subversives and sympathizers.

United States Leverage

Ambassador Mein said we should recognize that our influence and leverage were, in fact, very limited. There remained residues of resentment related to the events of 1954. There also was some resentment related to the rather large United States presence. Nationalism was a force to be reckoned with in our policy.

The question was raised whether the threat of withdrawal of our aid, even if taken seriously, was likely to give us much leverage. Our present program, in fact, was a modest one. Included in it were a prospective educational loan and some $3 million in technical assistance, to which we probably attached greater importance than the Guatemalan leadership. The military assistance program was less than $2 million.

A contrary view was that we presumably would extend our approach to IDB activities, which are of considerably greater magnitude. A United States veto on IDB loans would undoubtedly be rather painful to the regime.

Ambassador Mein said that Mendez was fully aware of our views. Threats to withdraw the remaining program would not be helpful. Our dissatisfaction with Guatemalan self-help efforts was reflected in the fact that no loan agreements, excepting the educational loan, were pending at this time. He strongly urged that we proceed with the educational loan, which had been under discussion for [Page 259] more than a year and which tried to deal with one of Guatemala’s basic requirements.

Desirable Reform Steps

The discussion showed that there was essential agreement on the steps we would like the Mendez government to take.

The steps identified were:

  • —tax reform;
  • —a rural development program;
  • —educational reform and development;
  • —cessation of the counter-terror;
  • —freedom of activity for progressive democratic groups.

As regards political reform, Ambassador Mein suggested that this was not much of an issue. The only important democratic political group now denied freedom was the Christian Democrats. This matter was now in court and there was not too much for us to do at this time.

Mr. Oliver said there was an issue of whether to use economic aid as lever for political reform or whether to relate political reform exclusively to our MAP and public safety programs. ARA came out in favor of the more moderate of these two approaches.

Role of Milgroup

The Chairman raised the question of whether and how we could use our Milgroup to encourage a democratic political orientation in the Guatemalan armed forces.

The observation was made that there was some risk in our military personnel entering the political dialogue of their host country. The Guatemalan military was no longer a major obstacle to reform. Its officer corps was increasingly drawn from the middle classes. Many of these officers had received training in the United States.

As regards AID’s public safety program, indoctrination in democratic political processes and the importance of orderly judicial procedures were an important element of the training program at the International Police Academy in Washington. We could not, of course, be sure how much of this training Guatemalan police officials were able to sustain, confronted as they were with political cross pressures in their jobs back home.

Ambassador Mein said that the Guatemalan military academy’s curriculum was being adjusted to modern conceptions of the role of the military. It now includes a political science course. Our military training program envisages sending young military men to public and private universities in this country. In the coming year four Guatemalan officers would be brought to this country for this purpose.

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The Chairman concluded that the personal and professional contacts of our Milgroup—as well as AID’s public safety officers—were an asset we should be sure to use fully. It was important that our people speak up in all their contacts with Guatemalans and vigorously express their viewpoint on the value of democratic and orderly judicial processes.


There was a consensus that we should make a serious effort at a dialogue with the Mendez government and the Guatemalan establishment on the requirements for modernization. In this dialogue we should not threaten withdrawal of our already limited program, as this might merely weaken the Mendez government’s position. Conversely, however, we should use the offer of additional aid as an inducement to obtain a commitment by the government—and acceptance by the establishment—to a meaningful reform and development program.

Action Summary

The Chairman directs:

That the Country Team, in cooperation with the IRG/ARA:
develop, in more specific terms, elements of a development program which the United States would support, and specific performance in the fields of tax reform, agricultural development and educational reform expected from the Mendez government in connection with such a program.
develop a plan for a dialogue with elements of the Guatemalan social-economic power structure for the purpose of assisting the Mendez government in obtaining their acquiescence or endorsement for a stepped up reform/development program.
That, after this preliminary work is completed, the Ambassador, supported by ARA/LA, commence a formal dialogue with President Mendez and his government on the requirements for accelerated development, offering an increased level of United States assistance in return for increased self help efforts.
That, drawing on its preparatory work, the Country Team undertake a systematic effort at a dialogue with the Guatemalan power structure on the need for accelerated development.
That the Milgroup continue using its contacts for the purpose of encouraging a democratic political orientation in the Guatemalan armed forces.
That all elements of the Country Team continue to emphasize the importance we attach to democratic processes, freedom of expression for democratic political forces, and orderly judicial procedures.
That ARA, in due course, report on the results of these efforts.5


Nicholas deB Katzenbach
Chairman Senior Interdepartmental Group
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, S/SSIG Files: Lot 70 D 263, SIG/RA No. 37, 5/14/68, Latin America. Secret. No drafting information appears on the summary; it was prepared on May 24 and approved by Katzenbach on May 27.
  2. The FY 1970 CASP for Guatemala was transmitted as an enclosure to airgram A–35 from Guatemala, March 22. (Ibid., Central Files 1967–69, POL 1 GUAT–US)
  3. At its meeting on April 26 the IRG/ARA “unanimously agreed that the basic U.S. strategy toward Guatemala proposed by the Country Team in its FY 1970 Country Analysis and Strategy Paper (CASP) would not meet U.S. objectives generally for the hemisphere or specifically for Guatemala.” As an alternative, the IRG proposed a strategy in which the U.S. Government would increase assistance to Guatemala if the Méndez administration agreed to promote economic development and social reform. The strategy included the following: “If Mendez is unwilling to move on the basis of our proposal, we should then reduce our aid on all three fronts (economic, police and military) to minimal levels.” (IRG/ARA Action Memo No. 38, April 29; ibid., S/S–SIG Files: Lot 70 D 263, SIG/Memo No. 64, 5/3/68, IRG/ARA Decision on Basic US Strategy Toward Guatemala)
  4. On March 28 Méndez fired three high-level military officers: the Minister of Defense, the Commander of the Zacapa Military Brigade, and the Commander of the Honor Guard Brigade. (Memorandum from Bowdler to Rostow, March 28; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Guatemala, Vol. II, 1/66–11/68)
  5. The Department forwarded the action summary on May 30 and instructed the Embassy to submit first “its recommendations for implementing 1a and 1b above, for IRG/ARA review.” (Telegram 173821 to Guatemala, May 30; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, AID(US) 8–8 GUAT) In airgram A–581 from Guatemala, September 7, the Embassy submitted its recommendations, including the following explanation: “The airgram was drafted by Ambassador Mein and reviewed by him with members of the Country Team thoroughly prior to his tragic and untimely death on August 28. The only changes made since then are minor ones which he had discussed with the Country Team and authorized on the morning of August 28.” (Ibid., POL 1 GUAT–US) In a memorandum to Katzenbach, October 14, Oliver reported that the IRG/ARA judged that “the airgram constitutes compliance with the SIG directive.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, SIG, 37th Meeting, 5/16/68, Vol. 5)