The aircraft supercarrier USS Forrestal departed Feb. 4 from Philadelphia for Texas, a trip that will take approximately 17 days. This is to be the vessel’s final voyage: it will be dismantled upon arriving in Brownsville, after 38 years of service in the U.S. Navy. A Texas scrap company, All Star Metals, reportedly bought the supercarrier from the Navy for one cent (not a typo).
The legacy of the Forrestal will be felt in Latin America, as the carrier was part of a fleet sent by the U.S. government to support a military coup in Brazil in 1964. At the time, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson deployed the Forrestal off the coast of Brazil as part of Operation Brother Sam. The goal was to support a military coup against then-President Joao Goulart. (The military officers who staged Goulart’s overthrow suspected the Brazilian leader of having communist sympathies.) The coup occurred on March 31 of that year and was successful and largely bloodless — though it also initiated a military regime in the Portuguese-speaking giant that lasted from 1964 until 1985.
VISUAL CONTEXT: U.S. military spending
Upon coming to power, the military began a brutal crackdown on left-leaning entities. One group worth noting was the Comando de Liberacao Nacional (COLINA; National Liberation Command), a small militant movement that had branches in the Brazilian states of Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro. When the group was disbanded under the pressure of the clampdown, various members fled into the arms of a bigger guerrilla group, the VAR Palmares. One member of both movements was a young woman named Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s current president, and in 1970, while a member of VAR Palmares, she was arrested (and tortured) by the Brazilian military .
Predictably, U.S. media have focused on the more palatable aspects of the Forrestal’s history. It was in standby mode during the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. The warship also aided in evacuating U.S. citizens from Cyprus during a 1974 conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriot forces in the Mediterranean island. Tragedy struck the Forrestal in July 1967 when it was operating in the Gulf of Tonkin, off Vietnam’s coast. An accident started a fire that killed 132 sailors and injured over a hundred more. Coincidentally, Lt. Cmdr John McCain, Republican Senator from Arizona and the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, was aboard at the time. (That last fact has been a real sop to the American press corps.) In Brazil, as might be imagined, the coverage is sparser and darker. Consider this opening sentence of a January 7 article in the website of the Brazilian news agency Folha de Sao Paulo: “…the major symbol of Washington’s support for the 1964 coup, the [Forrestal] will be scrapped.”
The Forrestal’s role in Brazilian history may be a small anecdote in the warship’s distinguished decades of service. But 40 years ago this supercarrier and its support vessels were a larger-than-life demonstration of American military might and how far Washington was willing to go to protect its interests in the Western Hemisphere. The fact that the warship will now be scrapped as a left-wing “ex-guerrilla” (as Rousseff was first labeled when she came to power in 2010) sits in office as (and will likely be re-elected) Brazil’s president reveals how substantially power dynamics in the region have shifted since then.