How Communists overthrew Salazar’s regime in Portugal

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Wolfgang Adler explains how Communists overthrew Salazar’s regime in Portugal:

An interesting answer to these outsized fixations on the Lusophone world comes to us via the October 1961 issue of the French military journal Revue Militaire Générale. Reporting on the “Congress of 81” of communist countries held in Moscow on December 6, 1960, the Frenchmen captured the product of three weeks of deliberation in Moscow on the course to take in the Third World, with the Soviets:

[A]nnouncing the targeting of a number of countries for subversive activities. Portugal and its colonies were on the top of the list. They asserted that the way to change Portugal’s dictatorship was to disturb the colonial situation, and presented a plan to topple the authoritarian government of Dr. Salazar and separate the Portugal from its colonies. This plan was to be implemented simultaneously with the support of African nationalist organizations advocating the independence of the Portuguese colonies and by the infiltration of Portuguese universities with elements supporting this notion of colonial independence and espousing the communist doctrine… Portugal could cope with the military situation initially, but as the wars expanded, its armed forces would need to recruit large additional members of temporary junior officers from the universities. Thus, the appropriately indoctrinated university graduates would in the meantime be entering the government and particularly the military service and making their new views felt. The plan called for these forces to combine and to create an opportunity for the installation of a communist government in Lisbon. The ultimate aim was to replace the Salazar regime, which had refused to establish diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, with a government friendly to the communist sphere.

What would appear at first glance to be a phantasm of reactionaries in the French military suffering from some “McCarthy-esque” red-baiting neuroticism was in actuality one of the most shockingly accurate predictions of the collapse of an authoritarian regime to a seemingly unreal level of exactitude. Almost a decade and a half after the conference, the Estado Novo was toppled in the Carnation Revolution of 1974 by a cadre of leftist junior officers, previously radicalized towards Marxism to a large degree during their university tenures.

What made the Soviet plan successful was the unity of action of the Soviet command and the placement of highly competent people in key positions:

The regimented Soviet communist structure stands in stark contrast to the American method of power projection evident in this first part of the 21st century. Regardless of party, American presidents provide contradictory and confused foreign policy statements on many geographies. At the departmental level, conflicting initiatives from the Pentagon on one hand and the State Department and CIA on the other hobble the ability to develop cohesive policy. Out-dated sub agency structures poorly match the needs of campaigns, and change is too slow to ever be impactful. The general quality of many American proxy agents in conflicts appears poor and ineffectual. And, arguably most tellingly, our local partners in conflicts will oftentimes have higher allegiances to any number of capitals — Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Ankara, Tehran, Moscow, Beijing — before Washington, and don’t display much competence in many matters beyond burning through terrific amounts of U.S. taxpayer dollars.

If anything, with its domestic hyper-factionalization, inter-departmental strife, dated bureaucratic structures, weak executive visionary leadership, growing encroachment by hostile powers in its spheres of influence, and questions around a long-term power decline, the United States government in the early 21st more clearly matches the ailing Estado Novo regime under Caetano than its Soviet opponents.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Or perhaps early 15th-Century Byzantium.

  2. Kirk says:

    Well, then there’s the fact that the US really had and still doesn’t possess a coherent, over-arcing “grand strategy”. That sort of thing is the purview of tyrants and oligarchs, not more-or-less democratic empires that come into existence more through misadventure than some grand planning on the part of the people running the place.

    The US just doesn’t have the mindset–Witness the active sabotage, against even common sense, that Obama conducted of the Bush administrations Middle East policy. Blew up in his face, it did, did it not? If we had some sort of coherent national policy set, well… That would be a lick on us as a nation. But–The US is manifestly not your classic empire, a la the Soviets, the British Empire, or anyone else. You want a somewhat reasonable likeness from world history, you kinda-sorta have to go back to the Phoenicians and/or later Carthaginians. The US is not Rome, I’m afraid: It’s more like a Carthage or any of the other major city-states that the Phoenicians set up.

    As such, decrying the lack of a coherent “national strategy” just isn’t something that you can or should expect from a phenomenon like the United States. Someone a few hundred or a thousand years from now may be able to make out some such thing, but I seriously doubt it. We’re too damn incoherent, and then there’s also the ease with which various foreign interests have been able to influence US national policy, going back to when the UK sucked us into their little war in Europe, and going right up to the present day, where we find ourselves under the malign influence of Islamists from Saudi Arabia and other oil-tick nations.

  3. ATP says:

    Kirk, did the Venetian Republic have a coherent grand strategy? Why or why not, and how? I do not know, but suspect they may have, at least part of the time, and am genuinely curious.

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