The Assassination of Ambassador John Gordon Mein, Guatemala, 1968
Eight U.S. Ambassadors have died while on duty, six of whom were killed in armed attacks. The most recent was Chris Stevens, who died during the September 11, 2012 attack on Benghazi. (The other two ambassadors died in airplane crashes.) On August 28, 1968, Ambassador John Gordon Mein became the first U.S. ambassador to be assassinated when he was shot and killed just a block away from the consulate.
Mein began serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala in 1965, in the midst of the Guatemalan Civil War. Rebels of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), a local guerrilla organization, forced Mein out of his limousine on his way to the embassy. FAR had assassinated two U.S. military aides on their way to the embassy a few months earlier. It is believed that this time FAR only intended to kidnap Mein and hold him hostage while demanding the release of a recently arrested guerrilla leader. When Mein tried to run, however, the rebels shot and killed him, leaving him on the side of the street with eight bullets in his back.
John Bushnell and J. Phillip McLean reflect on the assassination and the political atmosphere surrounding the event. Bushnell was an economic officer in San José, Costa Rica 1967-1969 and was interviewed by John Harter in December 1997; McLean was regional officer in Latin America 1967-1968 and was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in January 1999. Read about other Foreign Service Officers who died in the line of duty.
“It was one of the first times, if not the first time, that the Presidential aircraft went down and picked up an ambassador’s body”
BUSHNELL: [AID Officer Dick] Breen’s first stop on this trip was Guatemala where our Ambassador, Gordon Mein, gave a luncheon in Breen’s honor. A number of Guatemalan officials were present.
As Breen and the Ambassador were about to leave the Ambassadorial residence to ride back to the Embassy together, Mrs. Mein said she had some things to resolve with the Ambassador in connection with the dinner which they were giving that evening in Dick Breen’s honor.
Ambassador Mein asked if there were another car available. There was, and Dick returned to the embassy in that car, while Ambassador Mein stayed a few minutes at the Residence. A few minutes later Ambassador Mein’s car was ambushed on the way back to the embassy, and the Ambassador was killed. Dick considered that episode a “near death experience” for him, not to mention that it was a terrible thing for all of us in the Foreign Service.
J. Phillip McLean
McLEAN: We were doing papers, and one of our functions was to do the weekly contribution to something that was then called “Current Foreign Relations,” which was a document that was put out around the Department, and the desk officer brought us a piece about the assassination of some U.S. military officers who had been riding in a car and an assassin came along and riddled the car with bullets….
In the end what he did — what we did together — was publish something that talked about the growth of violence in the country, not just on the left but also of something that was called the “White Hand.” Today you call it paramilitaries or right-wing guerrillas or government-backed right-wing guerrillas, but at that time these were new concepts, and in the report we just dealt with the two issues.
Well, that caused an explosion from our embassy. The embassy wrote in. They somehow thought that these reports were done by the intelligence part of Washington, but in fact that was just done by the desk officer, and we kept our heads and didn’t get into much of a debate about it.
The embassy clearly wanted not to be discussing this other part of the issue, which was the part that there were left-wing guerrillas and that there was also violence being generated on the right and perhaps by the government as well.
The story goes on that in June of that year my friend Ralph Cortada, who had left INR/XR [the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Latin America division] and had gone down to the Latin American part of things, did a rather simple report. It was a simple analysis that simply said, “What causes violence against American institutions in Latin America?”
He tried to do an academic correlation, population size, per capita income, etc. He did this all up on a chart, and the only correlation he could find was that violence in the country correlates perfectly with violence against Americans. It seems like a simple idea.
Again, Embassy Guatemala blew up. They were very unhappy with our analysis, because they thought it wasn’t our analysis, it was INR’s analysis — that INR was trying to criticize our policy in some ways, and that was an enormously surprising reaction.
A letter came in from Ambassador Mein to the Assistant Secretary making this complaint and then asking us that we go to INR…. He was my first DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], John Gordon Mein. But there it was, and I remember seeing him. Just after that there was a major interagency group meeting that I attended probably as a notetaker, and I saw him at that time. He’s a wonderful, good person.
The sad ending of this phase of the story, though, is that in August, late August of that year, I went in to temporarily fill in as the staff assistant to the Assistant Secretary, and the Assistant Secretary left that day in fact to go down to Ecuador, and I got the call from the Watch and was plugged into talking to the DCM in Guatemala saying that the Ambassador was dead, he had been assassinated that afternoon.
It was an enormously sad moment, but as you can tell, my own conclusion is that, once again, we hadn’t stepped back and looked closely enough at the full implications of what we were doing in Guatemala.
The sadness of it, of course, was I was involved, deeply involved, in doing the arrangements for transporting him back to the States. I think it was one of the first times, if not the first time, that the Presidential aircraft went down and picked up an ambassador’s body and took off with it to bring him back to the States with his family.
The day after as I walked into the Department, a friend said, “Shouldn’t we have the flag flying at half mast?”
I tell you it took me the better part of the day getting lawyers and others to agreement that we could fly the flag at half mast.
Now sadly that’s a regular thing that is now done, but it had not been done up to that point, that in fact a department has the ability to make that decision on its own, and arranging the meeting and the funeral, and, as I said, sadly I did many of the condolences whether it was from the Secretary, from the American Foreign Service Association, etc., and we worked long hours.