40. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1


  • Frontiers of South America

On January 31, 1966, you requested that I undertake urgently a preliminary assessment of the potentialities of developing the frontiers of South America.

I attach a summary report and seven appendixes.2 In addition, there is included a special report developed by the Department of the Army’s Engineer Agency for Resources Inventories.3

These represent the present state of thought and knowledge in the town. They have been assembled to provide a foundation for future systematic work. None can be regarded as definitive.

In compiling the data and writing the report, I have received the whole-hearted support of every element in the government with interest in and knowledge of the problem:

  • Agency for International Development
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of Interior
  • Department of the Army
  • National Aeronautics and Space Agency.

[Page 97]

This is, I believe, the first time this problem has been systematically examined in our government. It is evident that there is much more for us all to learn; and my first recommendation is that, under Linc Gordon’s leadership, work on this problem be made a continuing account and that the various agencies capable of making a contribution continue to expand and refine their knowledge on a coordinated basis. A working party operating under the Latin American IRG might perform this function.

In addition, CIAP should set up a working group that would regularly engage the IBRD, IDB, AID, and the OAS in this field.

What emerges of substance may be briskly summarized as follows:

South America is at a stage of historical evolution where the further development of its frontiers can contribute to food production, a widening of markets, regional integration, and the settlement of various bilateral disputes.
A rational program for exploiting these frontiers must be geared to other aspects of South American development, with careful attention to the comparative benefits to be derived from intensive investment in existing areas as opposed to extensive investment in expanding the frontiers. The opening of the South American frontiers has an important role to play in the region’s future; but it is not a panacea.

There are four major complexes which comprise the bulk of the frontier regions of South America capable of rational economic exploitation from the present forward.

  • —The Darien Gap area of Panama and Colombia;
  • —The Andean Piedmont, running in an irregular narrow belt for 3,000 miles from the Venezuelan border through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, to the Santa Cruz region of Bolivia;
  • —The Campo Cerrado area, east and south of the Amazon basin;
  • —The Gran Chaco and Gran Pantanal region covering portions of Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

There are special further potentialities in the tropical flood plains of the Amazon; the Guayana region of Venezuela and British Guiana; the linking of Buenos Aires to the whole region south of Rio–Sao Paulo; and the River Plate drainage system.

The character of all these regions are briefly sketched in the report.

There is little prospect in sight for the economic exploitation of the vast Amazon–Orinoco basin unless the proposal for making it a lake (by damming the rivers) should prove feasible.
As the survey of seventy-four projects under way or envisaged indicates (Appendix I), there is now a great deal of activity focused on the opening up of the frontiers; and it is generally following a rational [Page 98] pattern. The task for policy in Latin America is to make the expansion of the frontiers more effective and purposeful.
A political point of some importance: the opening up of these frontier regions could, in a number of South American countries, strengthen the sense of nationhood and contribute to political and social stability. Moreover, notably in the Andean Piedmont, but elsewhere as well, the laying out of roads and organized settlements is a significant element in preventing the possibilities of Communist insurgency.
Detailed recommendations are set out in Part Four of the attached summary report. Briefly, they are:
  • —The Darien Gap complex be urgently examined as a whole, notably in the light of our Panamanian negotiations. Its various elements have been hitherto treated separately.
  • —We maintain a policy of selective but continued support for road-building in each of the four countries engaged in opening up the Andean Piedmont. (The report isolates the road segments judged most rational for the next phase.)
  • —We assign specific responsibility to Linc Gordon quietly to explore the possibility of exploiting work on multinational projects to ease or settle the major outstanding bilateral quarrels in South America.
  • —We clarify our minds on the economics of frontier settlement in the light of recent experience and establish Alliance for Progress policies based on this review. No serious agreed guidelines now exist.
  • —We examine urgently on an interdepartmental basis, perhaps under the aegis of the SIG, the security and other problems involved in a systematic use of orbital remote-sensor measurement of land and geological formations in South America, providing you with a report. These methods could accelerate rapidly mineral discovery and exploitation, notably in the Andes.
  • —We intensify our support for your proposal, via CIAP, for accelerated development of chemical fertilizer production in Latin America.
  • —We set up both within the CIAP framework and within the U.S. Government continuing systematic work on the development of the South American frontiers.
  • CIAP should consider this summer (after the report on multinational projects by the Development and Resources Corporation, headed by David Lilienthal) the publication of materials that would dramatize what is going forward in this field and its potentialities for Latin American development and integration.
  • —We re-examine (with full attention to our balance of payments position) our present policy on local cost financing of development projects with a view to permitting financing of local costs of certain infrastructure projects as part of an over-all program for opening frontier areas.

If further detailed examination of this study makes sense to you, I recommend that an NSAM be issued assigning responsibility for the [Page 99] task to State—specifically to Linc Gordon. A suggested draft NSAM for your approval is at Tab A.4

You may wish to weave into your statements on Latin America passages indicating an awareness of the frontier development going forward, its potentialities, and your support for it. A possible draft is at Tab B.5

Should you (or the Vice President) visit Latin America, you may wish to visit certain selected frontier areas as well as the conventional cities.6

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, National Security Action Memorandums, NSAM No. 349. Confidential.
  2. The report was prepared by the Department’s Policy Planning Council in May 1966; attached but not printed. Rostow was chairman of the Council until April 1, when he succeeded Bundy as Special Assistant to the President.
  3. Dated February 14; attached but not printed.
  4. Attached but not printed. In NSAM No. 349, May 31, the President instructed the Department to report on development of the South American frontier. (Johnson Library, National Security File, National Security Action Memorandums, NSAM No. 349) Progress reports, dated February 14, 1967, July 2, 1967, and March 25, 1968, are ibid.
  5. Attached but not printed. The President approved the draft statement. In a speech marking the fifth anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, August 17, Johnson referred to development of the inner frontier: “The eastern slopes of the Andes, the water systems of the Gran Pantanal River Plate, and Orinoco, the barely touched areas of Central America and of Panama—these are just a few of the frontiers, which, this morning, beckon to us.” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966, Book I, pp. 824–829)
  6. A handwritten note by the President at the end of the memorandum reads: “Good. L