Country Listing

Portugal Table of Contents


The Military Takeover of 1974

As the inconclusive colonial wars of the 1960s and early 1970s dragged on, support for them turned to indifference at home. Separated from home and family during repeated twenty-four month tours of duty, military professionals felt increasingly estranged and demoralized. White officers, especially those commanding black troops, were often hostile to the white settlers over their treatment of blacks and in many cases were sympathetic to black aspirations for freedom. The mounting antiwar sentiment in Portugal was reflected in a growing rate of desertion and failures of conscripts to report for duty. Evasion of combat by unenthusiastic conscripts and university graduates commissioned as junior officers (milicianos) became increasingly common. Many of the milicianos formed a radical element that agitated against Portugal's involvement in overseas wars.

Traditionally, the officer corps had been the preserve of younger sons of wealthy families and sons of officers who could afford the tuition charged by the Military Academy. Military careers were sought by wealthy candidates more for prestige than reward because pay was relatively poor compared with that of other professions. The low salaries of senior officers, however, were often augmented by remunerative sinecures as corporation board members. Extended periods of leave to work in the private sector were not unusual.

In 1958 the Military Academy, failing to attract anywhere near the numbers of cadets needed for the army, ended its tuition requirements, and henceforth the student body was dominated by sons of shopkeepers, smallholders, and lower-level provincial bureaucrats who could not have afforded a university education earlier. This new class of cadets expected that after graduation they would enter the peaceful garrison life at home or in the colonies that the Portuguese army had known for generations. Instead, they were thrown directly into the colonial wars and eventually became the disgruntled captains who instigated the revolution.

A number of events in the 1960s and 1970s helped to coalesce revolutionary sentiment in the military. One such event was the loss of the Portuguese Goa. In 1961 the Portuguese enclave of Goa on the coast of India was threatened by an Indian invasion force of some 30,000. The 3,000 Portuguese troops in Goa were badly equipped and unprepared to put up more than token resistance. In spite of Salazar's insistence that the colony should be defended, it was quickly overrun. Salazar punished the army for its failure to make a stand by ordering a number of dismissals and other penalties. The army, in turn, blamed the Goan debacle on Salazar and resented the punishments that they felt humiliated the entire officer corps.

Further undermining the loyalty of career officers was Decree Law 353-73, issued by the government of Prime Minister Marcello Caetano. The decree law stated that nonregular officers, in most cases milicianos commissioned after a short army course, would be permitted to convert to a regular commission at their conscript rank and to receive the same consideration for promotion as those who had graduated from the Military Academy. Career officers felt that the decree undermined their status in the army, as well as in society.

The growing dissatisfaction, based largely among junior career officers, led to the formation in 1973 of the Captains' Movement. This ad hoc committee of career officers--mostly captains--initially banded together to give voice to their professional grievances. In a short time, the captains found that their grievances were shared by career officers of the navy and the air force, as well as noncareer officers of all services. The Captains' Movement became the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas--MFA) and emerged in November 1973 as a fullblown dissident group whose clandestine membership ranged across the political spectrum. In addition to the question of professional status, officers were discontented over their low pay and long postings abroad under harsh conditions. They were also disturbed over the lack of modern equipment to match the arms furnished to the African insurgents by the Soviet Union, the East European countries, and China. A reason for this disadvantage was that the United States and several other NATO countries had imposed an embargo on the shipment of arms to Portugal that might be employed against the African liberation movements.

Dissent among senior officers with the government's conduct of the colonial wars was centered in two groups. The right wing was associated with General Kaúlza de Arriaga, the former commander in chief in Mozambique, who conspired to seize power to enforce a military solution to the wars in Africa. More moderate officers, such as Chief of Staff General Francisco de Costa Gomes and General Spínola, who had been named deputy chief of staff, favored negotiation with the liberation movements. Spínola's influential book, Portugal and the Future, advocating a loose confederation with the African colonies because military victory was impossible, hardened the resolve of the increasingly radical MFA plotters.

In March 1974, when Spínola and Costa Gomes failed to appear at a public ceremony in which they were to endorse existing policy in Africa, Caetano fired both of them. A premature coup attempt followed Spínola's dismissal, but loyal troops turned back a column marching on Lisbon. No shots were fired, but many officers were arrested or transferred. Five weeks later, on April 25, 1974, the main group of MFA conspirators deposed the Caetano government without resistance by the loyalist forces. The chief architect of the meticulously planned coup was the leftist major (later brigadier general) Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho.

The MFA quickly appointed a board of seven officers--the Junta of National Salvation--with General Spínola at its head to govern the country according to the MFA program. Assuming power for the first time in almost fifty years, the military pledged that authority would be transferred to a new government when constitutional institutions freely chosen by the people had been established.

Friction developed almost immediately between the thenanonymous leadership of the MFA and President Spínola's junta over the issue of the pace and direction of decolonization. The MFA favored immediate dissolution of the links with the colonies and withdrawal of Portuguese forces, whereas Spínola favored a gradual solution leading to limited autonomy within a Portuguese federation. Most conscript officers and men were anxious to abandon the struggle in Africa and return home. Although Spínola had wide popular appeal, his position was shaky because he was viewed as insufficiently committed to the revolution by radicals controlling the MFA. A powerful weapon in the hands of the MFA was an elite military organization--Continental Operations Command (Comando Operacional do Continente--COPCON)--with Carvalho at its head. Formed in July 1974 of paratroopers, marines, and army commandos, its mission was to control rising political and labor violence at a time when the police were reluctant to appear on the streets to enforce the law.

In September 1974, after Spínola's rightist supporters attempted without success to dislodge the left-wing inner circle of the MFA from control, he resigned the presidency. The leftist climate within the military strengthened as the MFA continued to shift radical officers into key positions while sidelining those considered to lack revolutionary zeal. Nevertheless, when officers were able to express their choice by ballot, support for the left wing seemed weak, and many officers were eager to return to the barracks.

After conservative military units backing Spínola mounted an abortive countercoup in March 1975, Spínola and other officers were forced to flee to Spain by helicopter. The MFA moved rapidly to consolidate its control, setting up a Council of the Revolution that consisted of the leading MFA officers. The council had the power to control the presidency and a veto over the legislative process.

Elections held for the Constituent Assembly in April 1975 showed the communist and ultra-left parties to be in the minority. The MFA continued to advance revolutionary plans but became increasingly factionalized in the mounting political turbulence. The angry reaction to takeovers of the pro-socialist opposition newspaper and of the Roman Catholic radio station by ultra-leftists, together with attacks against communists by conservative northern peasants, attested to a shift in the tide against radical elements.

Discipline began to break down within the armed forces under the anarchic conditions prevailing in the late summer and fall of 1975. Moderates, still a majority among the officers, gradually improved their position. A left-wing coup attempt by air force paratroopers and various Lisbon army detachments was decisively put down by a well-organized countercoup on November 25, 1975. COPCON was dissolved, Carvalho and 200 other radical officers were arrested, and others were purged from the armed forces. With the moderate element of the MFA firmly in charge, the military formally agreed to hand power back to the civilians after a new constitution was drawn up.

Data as of January 1993

Country Listing

Portugal Table of Contents