Between 1978 and 1980, the country of Bolivia was constantly in a state of crisis. There was a series of military governments that ruled briefly, each overthrown by the next. Rodger McDaniel’s 2018 book, The Man in the Arena: The Life and Times of U.S. Senator Gale McGee, relates a time when McGee, his wife Loraine, and aides found themselves in a dire situation on the cusp of a Bolivian coup in 1979. Recently American Heritage Center archivist Roger Simon discovered photographs related to the incident while processing portions of Gale McGee’s papers.
Democrat Gale McGee served Wyoming as U.S. Senator from 1959 to 1977. After a defeat by Republican Malcolm Wallop, McGee was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to be U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS is a organization founded in 1948 to promote regional solidarity and cooperation among its 35 independent member states in the Americas. After approval by the Senate, McGee was sworn in as OAS ambassador on March 30, 1977. It was while McGee was in Bolivia for an OAS General Assembly that this harrowing experience occurred.
Here is an excerpt about the incident from McDaniel’s book, along with snapshots that Roger Simon found in McGee’s papers.
[On a trip to La Paz, Bolivia, on October 20, 1979,] Loraine and several OAS staff members accompanied [Ambassador McGee] to attend the General Assembly. Two were former members of his Senate staff, Liz Strannigan and Betty Cooper. They flew together with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance on the luxurious aircraft known as Air Force One when the president is aboard. Upon arrival, they noticed a contingent of U.S. Marines stationed around the plane, all standing “at-ease,” rifles resting at their sides.
The first few days were filled with sightseeing and important meetings with Latin American heads of state and others. The McGees awakened early one morning to find tanks and troops on the streets nine floors below the room in which they were staying in the La Paz Sheraton. It was the opening salvo of what came to be called “the cocaine coup” because it had been financed by the drug cartel out of its unhappiness with the current government’s enforcement of drug laws.
With Marines posted at each end of his hallway to prevent secret documents from being captured, the ambassador attempted to call Washington, but the phones were down. Alejandro Orfila, who now served as secretary general to OAS, told McGee he could arrange for he and his wife to leave Bolivia immediately aboard Orfila’s personal plane. But there was not enough room on the plane for his staffers. While other ambassadors jumped at the chance to leave, McGee refused the offer, advising Orfila, “We came together. We will leave together.”
Alexandra Watson, the deputy chief of the La Paz mission, recalled the tense situation they faced. On the streets were tanks and soldiers. Checkpoints were “manned by illiterate 16, 17, 18-year-old soldiers from the countryside who were scared to death and whose AK-47s trembled in their hands as they put their guns up to our ears.” As Liz Strannigan worked to arrange passport clearance to leave the country, there was gunfire in the downtown area not far from the hotel. “Bolivian troops opened fire on protesting crowds in the streets of La Paz.” Late that afternoon Strannigan was able to make arrangements for the McGees as well as staff members to fly out of the country on a plane that would have been formally designated Air Force Two had the vice president been aboard.
They made their way slowly up the steep road to the airport aptly named El Alto, which sits atop a mountain 1,500 feet above La Paz. As when they landed a few days earlier, the Marine contingent surrounded the aircraft, not “at-ease” this time but with guns raised to an “at-ready” stance. Fully loaded, the plane started down the runway, necessarily one of the longest in the world to accommodate large airplanes trying to take off at the altitude. After rumbling down most of the runway’s 13,000 feet, the plane finally lifted off. After a brief stop in Lima, Peru, the group left for Washington.
Bolivian President Wálter Guevara Arze was deposed in a military coup on November 1, 1979, only days after the McGees were able to leave. At least 300 people were killed in the ensuring violence that lasted the week following the coup.
To learn more about Gale McGee’s interesting career, we recommend a look at Rodger McDaniel’s book. You can also view McGee’s papers at the American Heritage Center. No appointment needed. The AHC’s research room is open 10:00 am to 7:00 pm on Monday and 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Tuesday through Friday.