Edward Barrett Considers Anti-American Sentiment in Latin America

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Rioters in Caracas, Venezuela attacking Richard Nixon's limousine, May 13, 1958.

The violent anti-American demonstrations occasioned by Vice President Richard M. Nixon's recent trip to Latin America are the subject of this 1958 International Interview with Edward W. Barrett, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Barrett has just returned from Latin America, where he received a far more friendly reception than that given Nixon. America's foreign policy is discussed, as well as the difference between how the Eisenhower administration is perceived as opposed to ordinary citizens. Barrett makes many sharp observations, although he does at one point fall back on attributing the uproar to the local population's natural "buoyance and enthusiasm and excitability." 

Barrett was an assistant secretary of state under Truman and hints that he is uncomfortable with the current administration's more aggressively anti-Communist, pro-dictator attitude toward Latin American and South American countries. While he contends the riots were organized by dissident groups, including Communists, he also lists three issues causing the unrest that these groups were able  to capitalize on. The first is economic. America is in a recession and is buying less from its neighbors, causing economic hardship, particularly in Chile. The second is political, as in the case of Venezuela (the United States gave asylum to the universally despised strongman Pérez Jiménez). A third, more general, cause for dissatisfaction, is that the United States has been paying less attention to the region for the last few years. There is a feeling the United States is taking Latin America for granted.

Asked about the recent rapturous reception given to Leonard Bernstein by the region, Barrett agrees that cultural exchanges are valuable ways to build understanding and good will. A former newspaperman himself, he then turns the tables on his questioners and asks how the United States is perceived in Europe. The general feeling is that there is a sense of disappointment and "slight disillusionment" with the United States in Switzerland and Italy. France presents a special case because of resentment over the United States' position on North Africa. 

Barrett laments that too many American diplomats "ride the cocktail circuit rather heavily," though he notes that some do go to labor rallies and other, less sheltered, events. When asked if the solution to Latin American dissatisfaction is more foreign aid, he worries about giving money indiscriminately, saying "more careful systematic attention" must be paid to such projects. He calls for the U.S. tone to be "less moralizing, not to be so holier-than-thou." 

Nixon's rude reception seems to have come as a complete surprise to most Americans. Never before had a high-ranking U.S. leader been the object of such raw outrage. As the website history.com recounts:

The trip began with some controversy, as Nixon engaged in loud and bitter debates with student groups during his travels through Peru and Uruguay. In Caracas, Venezuela, however, things took a dangerous turn. A large crowd of angry Venezuelans who shouted anti-American slogans stopped Nixon's motorcade through the capital city. They attacked the car, damaged its body, and smashed the windows. Inside the vehicle, Secret Service agents covered the vice president and at least one reportedly pulled out his weapon. Miraculously, they escaped from the crowd and sped away. In Washington, President Eisenhower dispatched U.S. troops to the Caribbean area to rescue Nixon from further threats if necessary. None occurred, and the vice president left Venezuela ahead of schedule.

While the Eisenhower administration blamed the demonstrations on Communist organizers, many both in and out of government echoed the concerns expressed by Barrett in this talk. The Harvard Crimson interviewed Thomas McGann, an assistant professor of history, who:

…emphasized that disillusionment of students and liberal intellectuals has arisen especially as the result of U.S. support of the dictatorial regimes. Even passive American support of the status quo has served to alienate these groups. Latin American students take an active part in the political life of their nation, McGann said. They are both more progressively oriented and more anti-American than the population of these countries as a whole. Student Federations have been active in opposing dictatorial regimes, often in the face of harsh brutality by the government.

Ironically, these demonstrations benefited both sides. The anger shown by the populace did lead to a reconsideration of American foreign policy, with renewed emphasis on aid and trade. And Nixon, as The New York Times recounted in its obituary, played up his role in the encounter for all it was worth:

…Mr. Nixon's 1958 trip in South America turned out to be one of the "Six Crises" he would recall in his book. He managed sessions of crowd-mingling and argumentative discussion in Venezuela and Argentina with few problems. But in Peru crowds of students and others had been worked into an anti-Yankee, anti-Nixon frenzy by speakers and signs. When a rock thrown from a crowd in Lima grazed the vice president's neck and hit a Secret Service agent in the teeth, Mr. Nixon shook his fist at the crowd and asked, "Are you afraid to talk to me? Are you afraid of the truth?" He leapt onto the trunk of his car, shouting: "Cowards! Are you afraid of the truth?" In a later confrontation someone spat in his face. "I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to tear the face in front of me to pieces," he wrote later. "I at least had the satisfaction of planting a healthy kick on his shins. Nothing I did all day made me feel better." Such confrontations paid off in public acclaim. On his return to the United States, he was greeted by cheering crowds as a conquering hero.

These encounters, in addition to his famous Kitchen Debate with Khrushchev, cemented Nixon's reputation as an expert on foreign affairs, which he would use to advantage in his 1968 campaign for the presidency.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

Note: Some poor audio quality due to condition of original recording.