Scurrying away after just one week, President Dwight D. Eisenhower left the tense U.S.-Soviet meeting at the Paris Summit of May 1960 to preserve a previously scheduled diplomatic rendezvous. With whom could the president possibly be meeting to curtail such a momentous meeting in the middle of the U2 incident, when the Soviets took out a U.S. spy plane in Soviet airspace? None other than one of Eisenhower’s most cordial NATO relations, Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal. The Soviets found the snub infuriating, based on a longstanding hostility to Salazar’s Portugal, as per Khrushchev’s son:
Father perceived the reference to a previously scheduled visit to Portugal as insulting and humiliating. Negotiations on disarmament, peace in Europe, and fate of Germany were put on the same level as a protocol visit to a country whose policies had absolutely no effect on world affairs. To this was added the hostility that Salazar had inspired in our country from the very start.
A few years later, Khrushchev would develop a curious fixation with another Portuguese speaking locale, Angola. In 1962, while meeting Kennedy in Vienna, Khrushchev made a point of emphasizing that the nationalist independent movement in Angola was nothing less than a “sacred war.” Responding personally to an Angolan nationalist organization’s request for Soviet aid, Khrushchev stated emphatically that “the patriots of Angola can be sure that the sympathies of the peoples of the great Soviet Union are fully on their side.” Khrushchev even went so far as to physically visit Angola himself in 1959. Per the admission of Soviet officials, Angola was playing an overly outsized role in the USSR’s policy relations with both the U.S. and the Third World, as the under-developed Portuguese overseas province lacked any significant geopolitical value.
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.
The focus of this piece will be understanding what elements made execution of this Soviet plan possible. First, we will examine the history of the Portuguese communists and the elements that transformed them into the most regimented element of the opposition to Salazar’s Estado Novo. Next, we will inspect the highly organized Soviet machine in the Portuguese Ultramar that permitted the USSR to project its power regionally in a very decisive fashion. Returning to Portugal, we will analyze the systematic communist subversion of both the university system and the military. Finally, we will study the leftist coup that toppled the regime.
Overall, the historical account is a testimony to what organization, discipline, and hierarchical command can achieve in the face of a divided, factionalized opponent–to the eternal detriment of the Portugal and Lusophone Africa and as a cautious warning to the United States.
History of communism in Portugal
Nothing surrounding the founding of the Partido Communista de Portugal (PCP) augured any amount organizational success. Following the initial euphoria surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, the PCP was founded in 1921 as an outgrowth of the nascent Portuguese labor movement and with close links to the Soviet Communist International (Comintern). Originally loosely aligned with the Republicans, Freemasons, radical trade unions, and other anti-monarchical and anti-clerical sects, the PCP had significant initial problems maintaining internal order, as evident by the flurry of divergent activity a few years after its founding:
The PCP’s decentralized nature is evident between the first and second (1926) congresses. During this short period the party increased its syndicalist activity: formed alliances with the Radical Party, the Democratic Left, the Socialist Party, Partido Socialista Português (PSP) and the [and the anarcho-syndicalist Confederação Geral do Trabalho] (CGT), struggled with a bid for accelerated Bolshevization, which led to internal conflicts and purges of historical leaders; created a short-lived Popular Agrarian Party: took part in the elections of 1925: and participated in various attempted military coups—all of which helps explain why it diminished in strength to near non-existence.
A 1933 internal review stated that the PCP’s difficulties arose because “its organizational strength was much weaker than its actual influence. The party’s cadres were primarily young, inexperienced individuals who still harbored anarchist tendencies and occasionally resorted to terrorist activity.” The infant party could be characterized as “a weak minor organization with a fluctuating membership and leadership … [showcasing] inconsistent political directives, poor leadership discipline, poor communication with the Comintern, and rivalry among party factions.” Such a disorganized body served as no match for Salazar’s paramilitary force, the PIDE, whose persistent pressure in the 1930s kept the organization’s leadership in constant state of upheaval (See Chart 1). Its lone success was in the infiltration of the armed forces; the PCP began to penetrate the rank and file of the military by the mid-1930s.
All this disorder ceased in 1940, when the PCP went through a critical reorganization:
The reorganization of the 1940-1 brought the party under orthodox Communist control. Although Soviet support was denied to the newly reorganized party at first, the new leaders continued the party’s Stalinization … With information from its imprisoned leaders and members, it uncovered and purged suspected informers. The reorganization was carried out so secretively and successfully that many leaders only learned of the newly reorganized party when they were denounced as unworthy of mass support … The new party was made up of disciplined, revolutionary militants and leaders devoted to the principles of international communism.
The key point man of the reorganized PCP was Álvaro Cunhal, then not quite thirty years of age. Cunhal epitomized tenacity: he wrote his doctoral legal thesis–unsurprisingly on legalizing abortion in Portugal based off the sham model of Soviet “success”–from the inside of his prison cell, and received a police escort to defend said macabre thesis in front of a three-professor panel (which passed him despite vociferously opposing his conclusion) that included Salazar’s future successor, Marcelo Caetano, who told him he was brilliant and it was a shame he was a communist. His ambition for subversive destruction would earn Cunhal a cumulative total of nearly fifteen years inside Estado Novo prison cells; his time outside incarceration was spent behind the Iron Curtain in Prague and Moscow. As the undisputed chefe vermelho, Cunhal instill a strict hierarchy into the organization:
As Secretary-General, Cunhal sat on all the leadership institutions. He dominated [Central Committee] meetings and overruled them at a whim. Under Cunhal, the Secretariat (between five to seven members) handled the party’s finances, ran communications and directed its organization; the Political Commission (around 20 members) made policy documents while tightly controlling ancillary organizations and elected officials. Parliamentarians were generally weak vis-à-vis the party leadership and paid most of their salary to the party which contributes a high proportion of its income.
The results were a fully transformed PCP, one where the party was more “professional, secretive and fearsome. For the first time, the PCP would be in a position to carry out the policies dictated by the Popular Front strategy: carrying out mass propaganda, and establishing contacts with other opposition forces.” Cunhal led the PCP’s more aggressive push into infiltration, abandoning the idea of a separate Marxist trade movement and instead opting to subvert the official corporatist “national syndicates” system. Off the back of widespread labor insurrection in 1942, Cunhal published A Celula da Empresa (The Company Cell) that outlined the creation of communist labor cells within different work environments–a model that the PCP would export into the military.
The PCP quickly became the centerpiece of nation’s opposition, as was evident from the presidential elections of the late 1940s. As soon as the Salazar regime announced the first presidential election in 1945, the PCP went to work to subvert the Movimento de Unidade Democrática (MUD), the main opposition umbrella organization. Although that election was ultimately canceled–the opposition withdrew–and the MUD was suppressed, the PCP carried its momentum into the following cycle. When General Norton de Matos–a long serving public servant during the failed Republic and a Freemasonic Grand Master–ran in 1949, his campaign relied heavily on the PCP “and its network of supporters to bring the campaign to all parts of the country, despite the difficulties set up by the government.” Due to the PCP’s discipline, “much of the energy and drive in the campaign was provided by communists, young and old … The PCP was behind a plethora of organizations, targeted at specific components of Portuguese society. which supported the campaign. Overall, it was a tour de force for a clandestine party.”
The power exerted by the communists was most apparent when it came time for de Matos to bow out once it became clear the upcoming election would be yet another rigged farce. While the general himself and his non-communist advisers did not want to concede, they ultimately had no choice given unanimous PCP desire to exit the race, as “it would be impossible to distribute voting lists without communist volunteers, or to maintain some kind of presence at the voting centers.” This was because the PCP was “the only well-organized group among the opposition. Thus, though small and unrepresentative, it exerted an influence outside of its numbers.”
Most pertinent to this analysis was the Third Congress of the PCP held in 1943, in which Cunhal specified the need to target both the youth and the military. With respect to youth activities, Cunhal criticized the party’s past work and called for more dynamic youth organizations. His call led the PCP to “greatly intensify its activity among working class youth and students” and to take a key role in the opposition youth organization MUD Juvenil, which “would owe its existence largely to PCP initiative” and which “continued to work effectively among university students.” Cunhal insisted that “Communist youth work should be broad and non-sectarian, but also that it should combine legal and illegal forms of activity, thus creating youth organizations capable of resisting repression.” The PCP would remain committed to this formula for the next several decades, as we shall see later.
Cunhal’s plan for military activity was even more detailed:
All the party militants or sympathizers called up for military service must contact the Party’s military committee and must attempt to organize broad anti-fascist committees within their units, and the Communists outside the Armed Forces must cultivate contacts and friendships with troops and officers and attempt to persuade them to side with the people against fascism, or at least to remain neutral in the event of civil strife. It was resolved that to form ‘Committees of National Unity’ – this was the title now adopted within the military: although Communist Party cells might also be formed, this was regarded as less urgent than broad, unitary committees. These nuclei should respect the existing military hierarchy, with separate committees for officers, NCOs, and other ranks: and the party must immediately establish a central body responsible for directing its military activities, under the direct control of the Central Committee’s Secretariat.
Like the approach towards university students, we will also see continuity in the PCP’s strategy towards military outreach and subversion.
It would be remiss to leave a discussion of the PCP without elaborating on its exceedingly close ties with the Soviet Union. After a daredevil prison escape from Peniche fort in 1960, where Cunhal and other communist leaders “slid down the walls [of the fortress] on a rope made of bedsheets tied together”, Cunhal immediately fled to Moscow where he would mostly remain until the collapse of the regime. Cunhal had first been in the Soviet Union as a university student in order to attend a congress of world Communist youth held in September 1935; it was at this conference that Cunhal first developed his lifelong belief in a Stalinist two-stage theory of revolution, involving a pre-revolution stage emphasizing unity with democratic movements in order “combat fascism and defend the USSR” as a necessary precursor to the actual communist revolution, and where Cunhal learned the basics of running a Stalinist bureaucracy. Upon taking command of the PCP, Cunhal built a culture of closeness with the Russian communists within the PCP:
[E]verything was done in order to please the Soviet comrades, according to what we thought they would like us to do. But there were no direct orders. This was unnecessary. Let’s say that there was unity of thinking that made the orders redundant. PCP personnel had been trained in [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] schools. It was in the USSR that the major figures of the PCP spent their holidays, and at times they would meet.
To the Soviets, Cunhal was “a hero of the anti-fascist struggle in Portugal, [and] enjoyed high prestige in the USSR.” European communists, on the other hand, described him as a “Moscow-oriented hard-liner who held reformist Euro-communist ideas in contempt.” When other continental communist parties felt comfortable criticizing Moscow, Cunhal took the opportunity to come to Moscow’s defense and further align himself with Soviet hard liners:
When his Spanish counterpart, Santiago Carillo, roundly denounced the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 from his exile in Paris, Cunhal [just as] as roundly approved. In fact, he supported every major Soviet initiative through the years in exile: if anything, he distrusted the liberalization and de-Stalinization begun by Khrushchev in 1956, and was cautiously identified with the Kremlin-hard liners, men like the veteran party theoretician Mikhail Suslov, and the spokesman on foreign Communist parties, Boris Ponomarev.
Indeed, Cunhal never really came around from his strict Stalinist convictions. In the 1970s, Cunhal “praised the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan, and rejected the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He clung to his Communist ideals long after the Soviet ‘perestroika’ of the 1980s.” Cunhal’s unwavering loyalty and deeply held ideological commitment made him exactly the subversive agent the Soviets needed.
Soviets in Portuguese Africa: Focus Angola
Soviet support of African nationalist movements was not a natural outgrowth of Marxist theory. Stalin opposed such intervention: he viewed the African nations as mere cogs within the global capitalist machine; he doubted the ideological readiness of the region to Marxism vis-à-vis more comparatively promising geographies; and, tellingly, he feared the potential Soviet domestic contagion effect of sponsoring nationalist movements internationally. The ascent of Khrushchev marked a reversal in Soviet policy, as apparent in his 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) which called for an active courtship of Third World nationalism as a key means of competition with the capitalist West.
Although the USSR had by 1955 made its first arms transfer to an African nation–Nasser’s Egypt–it had limited relations with sub-Saharan Africa until 1958 with newly independent Guinea. The prior year, Professor Ivan Potekhin of the Soviet Academy of Sciences led the Soviet Africanist Co-Ordinating Conference to unite Soviet governmental and academic institutions in a complete re-appraisal of their Africa strategy, which ultimately culminated with the creation of the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s first Africa Department. In 1959, Potekhin founded the Soviet-African Friendship Association, the first of Moscow’s many coordinating agencies for Marxist rebel activity in Africa. The foreign ministry would later undergo a second reorganization in 1961 that would leave it with a fully dedicated division focused on black sub-Saharan Africa.
For the African provinces of the Ultramar, the pivotal event was the arrival of Daniel Semenovich Solod in 1960 as the Soviet Ambassador to Conakry. Previously the Soviet ambassador to Egypt since 1954, Solod ran “the center for Russian agitation in the Middle East and North Africa.” That a Russian Jew would be the wellspring of nationalist agitation across a vast stretch of the Muslim world spanning “the Sudan, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco” is an irony perhaps lost on future generations of Arab nationalists.
From Conarky, Solod made contact with the two main rebel leaders in Portuguese Angola: Mario Pinto de Andrade of the urbanized, mulatto-centric, and overtly Marxist Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), founded with aid from the Angolan Communist Party and the PCP; and Holden Roberto of rural, Bokongo-ethnic-group-centric and Black Nationalist União dos Povos de Angola (UPA) and would later re-brand itself the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA). One of Solod’s early duties was ameliorating organizational tension between the two fronts–an unpleasant yet frequent burden facing future Soviet leaders (who on one occasion would enlist the help of Alvaro Cunhal to solve a more complicated diplomatic misstep).
To coordinate activity between the MPLA and UPA, Solod in 1960 founded the Conarky based the Front Révolutionnaire Africain Pour l’Indépendance Nationale des Colonies Portugaises (F.R.A.I.N.), which would also encompass the revolutionaries in Portuguese Guinea led by Amilcar Lopes Cabral. As that organization failed to quell the ego-driven Andrade-Roberto rivalry, Solod formally called the Conference of Nationalist Movements in the Portuguese Colonies in Casablanca, Morocco in late April of 1961 with representatives from Russia, China, Ghana, Guinea, Morocco, and Egypt. This conference further formalized the coordination structure in Conakry and placed firm control of military commands in the hands deemed most efficacious, those of Holden Roberto–apparently before Roberto built an infamous reputation for poor military discipline in southern Africa.
Writing to congratulate Roberto, Lev Souhanov of the Soviet Committee stated his approval of the conference and included a resolution–printed widely in Soviet newspapers–which saluted “the courageous patriots of Angola on behalf of 220 million people in the Soviet Union, demanded the immediate independence of Angola and appealed to all the people of goodwill in the entire world to offer all their means to the fighting people of Angola.” Roberto was subsequently granted liberal access to the Moscow and Beijing funded Afro-Asian Solidarity Fund.
While the literature portrays Holden Roberto as a committed anti-Communist–Roberto was the darling of Anglosphere cultural Marxist organizations like American Committee for Africa, and he was indeed on the CIA payroll as Henry Kissinger would later admit in congressional testimony–he nonetheless began his career in insurrection highly dependent on Soviet assistance. Prior to a terrorist attack on Portuguese settlers and local laborers in the north of Angola in December of 1960– days after the Congress in Moscow mentioned at this piece’s open–Roberto’s radio stations blared:
Long live the U.P.A. Long live Nikita Khrushchev. Long live Angola … Prepare your arms. We are about to open fire. We have no fear. Russia will provide the weapons and [Congolese independence leader] Lumumba will help us. Let us kill the whites. Lumumba has given the authority.
Echoing similar language, an order to field operatives before the same violent attack stated:
Five million have been delivered to get the necessary means to conquer and liberate Angola … The future is being forged. You must not believe those who spread nonsense. Communism is not bad. When we stayed in Moscow, we were able to see for ourselves many wonderful things which the West will never have … Our comrade the Devil [the U.S.S.R.] is standing with a watchful eye. Long live communism. Down with concentric tribalism.
When in need of arms and financially drained from buying them second hand off UN troops in the Congo, Roberto’s pleading to Solod would not fall on deaf ears, as “advisers from Solod’s Embassy personally supervised deliveries and distributions [of arms]. Soviet trawlers in fact carried arms from Conakry direct to the Angolan coast.” While said quantities began small, they expanded considerably with time:
By early May, large scale gun-running through Ghana was working satisfactorily, with Soviet and Polish ships bringing supplies direct from the Ghanaian port of Takoradi. From May, therefore, Roberto’s forces were equipped with modern Czech automatic weapons and two-way radio communications.
Soviet Bloc military aid to the MPLA was also generous, as “by the early 1970s, 78% of the arms the MPLA received – worth an estimated $63mm – came from the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, particularly Czechoslovakia. The MPLA also received military training from Cuba.”
The Soviets wrote openly about the extensive support given to the Angolan revolutionaries:
[I]n 1970, in an interview with Pravda, that the head of the Soviet delegation to the International Conference of Support to the People of Portuguese Colonies, held in Rome, Professor Vassily Solodovnikov, for the first time clearly stated that Moscow was supplying ‘arms, means of transport and communications, clothes and other goods needed for a successful struggle’ to the liberation movements and that ‘military and civilian specialists are being trained in the USSR.
The funding for the Angolan revolutionaries came not just from Moscow but throughout the Soviet bloc. Solod helped Roberto garner incremental funding from East Germany, Ghana, and Guinea.. For the MPLA, “only half of the contributions to this fund came from the USSR, with the remainder coming from China, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Bulgaria joined later.” Later on, the MPLA would even receive funding from the Romanian Council of Trade.
The Soviets also helped garner international support for the Angolan revolutionaries. Among the more astounding such episodes included a conference in Rome, in the which representatives of the de facto Marxist revolutionary movements in each of the three Portuguese together were granted a papal audience with progressivist Pope Paul VI despite, curiously, all three being Protestants, as was universally the case for leadership of the African revolutionary movements in the Ultramar. This same Roman conference also saw the MPLA connect with the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which would ultimately promise to “educational and medical supplies – vehicles were later included – directly to the MPLA by the Swedish International Development Agency. The Swedes were not alone, since “because of its socialist and multi-racial character and endorsement from socialist countries, the MPLA also received support from left-wing solidarity groups in Western Europe, Scandinavia and North America.”
An often-ignored source of assistance came with aid in the production of propaganda. Communist propaganda in Portuguese was transmitted into Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea, starting in September 1960. By the summer of 1961, Radio Peking was dedicating seven hours a week to programming aimed towards Angola. Radio Prague and Radio Bucharest each broadcasted three and a half hours a week, and by August of 1961, Radio Moscow was contributing seven hours a week of Portuguese programming aimed at the African provinces.
As the years passed, however, the Soviets came to tire of the conflict by the late 1960s. While the Soviets had expected the Portuguese to fold quickly post insurrections as did the other European imperialists, the Portuguese fought the insurrections head on with significant military success. The Soviets felt misled by the African nationalists and came to doubt the favorability of these locales to communism due to the “social fragmentation, weak economies, and violent political rivalries” present in the Portuguese Africa. The internal dynamic within Africa also became fundamentally less friendly:
[F]ailed Soviet attempts to incite revolution in Egypt, Ghana, Mali and Sudan, which had been allies with or at least friendly toward the USSR, naturally alienated the leaders of those countries and created credibility issues for the USSR in Africa. The military coups in Algeria (1965), Ghana (1966), and Mali (1968) that overthrew pro-Soviet leaders were the final blow to the ‘Casablanca Bloc’.
Further exacerbating the situation was the success of the Portuguese in wooing local leaders over time and increased competition for influence among the nationalist movements from the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Nonetheless, despite not getting the near-term results desired, the Soviets were able to set in motion fighting that would create tremendous political costs for the Estado Novo government.
Leftist infiltration of Portuguese University System
On June 13th, 1962, the Portuguese police published in the Diario de Noticias a key finding obtained from a recent raid of PCP cell: the communist action plan for infiltration of the university system, presumed to have been developed several years prior and which echoed the prior strategy outlined in the PCP’s Third Congress:
A correct association of the legal work with illegal work means that we should guide all young and progressive communists towards legal activity within mass organizations. We should ensure that all young communists are made fully aware that it is their duty of honor to become involved with young people, to leave narrowly focused groups, seek to be attentive to popular demands and forms of combat that best correspond to the needs and aspirations of each youth sector … Among the legal organizations at the disposal of the young people: student associations, clubs, syndicates, sports and cultural groups in companies, camping, scouts and excursionist groups, film societies, newspapers and legal bulletins, certain sectors of the Mocidade Portuguesa, standing committees.
What is meant by this reference to the legal and illegal work? An explanation arose in a pamphlet of the Movimento Democrático Estudantil discovered in 1972:
The legal sphere was to be directed at mobilizing the rather non-politicized student mass through the maximum use of all licit possibilities of participation. In turn, the illegal sphere was to be formed by a core of highly politicized people with strong doctrinal education following the orthodox principles of the PCP, for the purpose of identifying, on a case-by-case basis, the most appropriate objectives and strategies for the contingent situation.
To this end, for example, the PCP created the Portuguese Youth Union, which combined both political and apolitical students with the goal that dialogue forged “through dances, excursions, walks and other forms of fraternization, would convey stronger contact between young people, in favor of the PCP.”
Another key youth organization was the Secondary Education Pro-Association Commission, founded in 1960, an opposition for high school students that originally commenced as a part of the failed Delgado presidential campaign. The organization “orbited around the PCP and was to play an important role in the student unrest of the following years”, as it produced many of the leaders of the Maoist and other leftist groups that would formally break off from the PCP. That this and some other youth programs created some leftists that ultimately were not compatible with the PCP party line does not negate the effectiveness of these programs in pushing the Overton Window decidedly to the far-left.
In the 1950s, the PIDE was especially focused on university students “among whom the Communists were notably active, and were particularly suspicious of certain [female] students whom the Communists were keen to use as agents on the grounds that they were more likely than men to escape police surveillance.” Perceiving heightened subversive activity on university campuses, the Estado Novo attempted to reassert control with the Decree-Law 40 900 in 1956, focusing on student organizations broadly–as they were the nexus of communist action per their leaked strategy documents–and creating
a standing committee for Inter-school and Social Works of Higher Education establishments, intended to replace the academic associations in the majority of these establishments … [student] associations could only coordinate activities in special cases and only after specific authorization from the Ministry of National Education, which was also necessary to establish international relations. The boards of associations were henceforth appointed with ministerial authorization and would always have to be controlled by a delegate of the Director of the Faculty, also entrusted with watching over and assuring respect for the established order.
The approval of the decree on the 12th of December led to the commencement of student protests at Coimbra and other universities that had to be repressed by the PIDE. The bill was sent to the Corporative Chamber for amendment, which never happened, as the regime feared a repeat of the protests. Furthermore, the regime weakened its positioning by allowing some student protests when it met its purposes–for example, permitting students to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary–showcasing that right-wing protests are not particularly useful even in a rightist dictatorship.
The situation in the immediate lead up to the 1962 Academic Crisis was a bleak one for the Salazar regime, as “university campuses became an ideological battleground, one in which the government was in clear retreat.” The so-called crisis commenced on the 23rd of March, when the Minister of Education suspended the upcoming “Student Day” which had been in celebration since at least the 1957 student protests. Poorly received by the students, this prohibition led to a spate of protests in Coimbra, Lisbon, and Oporto that would last until June. More than 1,200 students were arrested at Lisbon University, and an additional 300 at Salazar’s alma mater, Coimbra.
As rector of the University of Lisbon, Marcelo Caetano complained to Salazar, who responded quite presciently “But for the love of God, don’t make resolutions regarding the future, for no-one knows what the nation might demand from you at a given moment and what your past services might impose on you.” Ironically, Caetano failed to heed Salazar’s warning and resigned over heavy handed police action on university grounds.
The university unrest would dog the Estado Novo regime for the remainder of its days. A series of student protests occurred in 1968-9 in Coimbra, Porto and elsewhere. The regime was growing increasingly unpopular in this segment, as “opposition to the wars, and to regime has seriously increased among the University population, which is growing in influence and size.”
Notably, the only stridently anti-war opposition voice was the PCP, which had been publicly outspoken against the colonial wars since at least December 1961. Similar to contemporaneous experience in the United States and France, student protests from 1962 up until 1973 had a strong anti-war bent. The combination of ant-war and Marxist sentiments was a key problem to the regime identified by Guinean Marxist rebel leader Amílcar Cabral:
The proliferation of anti-government organizations and the agitation they create leads to an unstable psychological climate which, by affecting the activities of students, affects the country, which seems troubled and does not know what to do to lead its children back to the right path … In the metropolis generally, the population continues to show little interest in the war overseas and ignores the efforts being made by the armed forces. The student masse remains vulnerable to pacifist propaganda.
We will close this section on the Portuguese university system by revisiting the aforementioned PCP-Maoist splits. One ignored area of tension between the two groups arose from different attitudes about delinquency rates of conscripts who failed to report for duty (See Chart 2). Whereas the Maoist and other splinter leftist groups actively encouraged widespread military disengagement, the PCP took the opposite approach and instead “began to ask its militants to enter the army and, once incorporated, to carry out propaganda and politicization work. This strategy was not unknown and was indeed a source of concern to the authorities and above all to the armed forces.”
Military in focus
What ultimately made the regime susceptible to Marxist subversion in the military was the rapid pace of military expansion. The Portuguese Colonial War required a massive expansion in the total number of armed forces as well as the proportion allocated to the Ultramar. (See Chart 3). This expansion put considerable strain on the national budget; its relative poverty constrained the options available to the Estado Novo in how to prosecute the war. Given these constraints, the regime was placed in an extremely vulnerable position.
The impact to the armed forces of these student protests was incredible. Given the elevated level of protests from the late ‘60s onwards,
[p]ractically no student could have avoided participating at one time or another in these activities. Thus, these conscript officers, ex university students, brought into the army a degree of political experience which was shared by only very few of the career officers … and many continued to retain some of the left-wing ideas picked up in their student days.
Prime Minister Caetano wrote that “because of this constant infusion of university graduates, the armed forces absorbed the ideas which agitated the younger generations and circulated in the schools.” That the presence of leftist, college educated conscripts upset the apple cart was also a foregone conclusion at the other end of the ideological aisle, with the head of the Socialist party stating that:
Each spring for the last seven or eight years, Portuguese university were the scene of student demonstrations against oppression. Each year between four and six hundred students were asserted and sent to the army as punishment. Many of these young radicals afterwards become lieutenants, captains and majors.
Indeed, looking at the participants in the ultimate Carnation Revolution, many were “low-rank officers, often in their 30s, who had been at university at a time when the Portuguese students were beginning to take radical mass action.”
It was a prevailing spirit of open dialogue within the military command that made the subversion so deathly successful, which itself was an unintended result of regime policies:
[T]he armed forces remained the only place where a man could keep his own counsel albeit discreetly. The liberal traditions of the opposition were kept alive by Admiral Pinheiro de Azevedo and others who taught at the military and naval academies. Political conversations in the officers’ mess were relatively free and although one officer noted that after such discussions ‘sometimes you thought to yourself “perhaps I shouldn’t have said that”’ their increasing frequency and openness as war-weariness increased was an important factor in spreading the disease.
Knowing that the environment was ripe, the PCP “pressed its militants to accept army commissions and to spread opposition to the war from within the armed forces.” Querying junior officers involved in the 1974 coup, they would explain “how their consciousness had been changed by reading revolutionary literature for their own psychological warfare purposes and by contact with politically conscious conscripts.” An interesting and unexpected source of subversion arose among officers engaged in counterintelligence, especially in Guinea where such operations were most advanced:
Captain Duran Clemente, one of the officers involved in the left-wing coup attempt of 25 November 1975, claimed that the PAIGC [Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde, the Guinean rebel group] had a pedagogical effect on officers. Alves also concluded that the officers’ examination of their opponents meant that the liberation movements educated the Portuguese army for socialism at the same time as they prepared their peoples for liberation.
The most proximate cause of regime conflict with the junior military members centered on the liberalization the promotion process for college educated conscripts, the milicianos. The armed forces faced a major crisis in that the deficit in newly commissioned permanent officers, per the needs of the Portuguese Colonial War, grew worse each year (see Chart 4). “Most armed forces try to strike a balance between seniority and ability in the promotion stakes, giving preference perhaps to top Military Academy graduates. But Portuguese promotion was based almost exclusively on seniority.”
This all changed in July 1973, when the Council of Ministers passed Decree Law No. 353/73, “which under certain conditions gave the miliciano officers regular commissions with seniority based on their length of service as a reserve officer.” Compared to the four-year stint of the professional officers, the milicanos had to only attend the Military Academy for a single year. Although only about 200 milicianos would be eligible under this program, the immediate reaction was decidedly negative, with especially among the captain class of officers who felt most “discriminated against by the government.” Seizing on the opportunity, the PCP successfully exploited this decree for propaganda purposes in subverting more of the junior officer ranks.
Seeing a conflagration brewing, the Estado Novo regime tried to get ahead of the situation by setting up a meeting of junior officers at Oporto, the Congress of Combatants in June 1973. When government authorities would not allow the junior officers to amend any resolutions, “400 signed a document saying motions that were passed were invalid.” Leading this group were Ramalho Eanes and Otelo de Carvalho, two subordinates of commander of the Guinean theater General Spínola.
By March of 1973, Prime Minister Caetano set in motion the events that would ultimately lead to the Carnation Revolution and his downfall. His recently appointed Vice-Chief of the Defense Council, General Spínola, had in January dropped a bombshell book, Portugal e o Futuro, which was highly critical of the regime’s strategy and ultimate victory in the Colonial Wars. Selling more than 50,000 copies in a few days–when Portuguese bestsellers at the time numbers 3-4,000–the book sent shockwaves of doubt inside an already highly factionalized regime. Caetano requested a vote of confidence from his ministers on his Africa policies; failing to get them from both Spínola and his superior, Chief of Staff Costa Gomes, Caetano sent both men packing on the 14th of March. The following day, March 15,
200 men of the Fifth Infantry Regiment stationed at a town (Caldas da Rainha), north of Lisbon, mutinied against the command of the regiment, locked some officers in the barracks and took off in trucks toward Lisbon, supposedly intending to topple the regime. They were stopped, no shots were fired and later the police arrested them. 
In less than a week, “35 officers, including one Lt. Colonel, and 180 enlisted men, were under arrest … and the Government had also sacked senior officers in the Military Academy and Navy Command.”
The Revolution would be underway shortly.
In a critically important move, agreed upon by much of the literature, the ousted generals were to collaborate closely with the ultimate group of revolting leftist junior officers, the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA).
Removed Generals Spínola and Costa Gomes … supported the Movement of Captains from their senior positions of general staff and vice general chief of staff, respectively. On 5 March 1974, the young officers met as Cascais, a seaside resort near Lisbon, and agreed to collaborate with Generals Spínola and Costa Gomes. [The leftist junior officers] needed Spínola as a figurehead for the movement, and also the support for regiments loyal to him.
The Carnation Revolution
The Portuguese coup mirrored other coups, in that it was preceded by economic tumult. Like many nations in the wake of Nixon’s default on the gold window and the collapse of Bretton Woods, Portugal was plagued by high inflation which had registered an astounding 21% in 1973. The Arab oil embargo–which Portugal felt acutely, as it was singled out for being the only Europeans to permit the US to use its airfields in support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War–caused gasoline prices to shoot up 60% almost overnight. Those on fixed incomes as always paid the price, including soldiers on modest salaries.
The Estado Novo was no stranger to leftist military intrigue, as it had survived leftist “military oppositions and coup attempts in the 1930s, and a naval mutiny in 1936 attempted to divert ships to help the Spanish Republic. There was [also] a major plot inside the army in 1943 and an NCO rebellion in 1946.” But whereas the regime overcame those attempts, it would not outlive the speedy and bloodless coup coming its way. On the morning of April 25th, 1974, the airing of a banned opposition song marked the beginning of the end:
The 5th Infantry Regiment took Rádio Clube Português, transmitting the first MFA communiqué at 5.30. It appealed to police and troops to stay in barracks. Prime Minister, Marcello Caetano, sought refuge at the Carmo barracks, which housed the Guarda Nacional Repúblicana (GNR, the regime’s praetorian guard). En route to Carmo, Maia’s detachment was confronted by tanks from the 7th Calvary Division under Brigadier Reis. After a stand-off, however, Reis’s men went over to the side of the coup … Key installations were secured: military headquarters occupied, airport closed, leading ministers arrested. Troops sealed off access to Lisbon and secured the second city, Oporto. The only resistance came from the hated secret police, [the PIDE] … At 8pm the MFA announced that the regime had been deposed. Caetano, refusing to surrender to anyone under the rank of general, handed power over to General António de Spínola. Caetano fled to Madeira, with President Américo Tomás close behind. A month later they were granted political asylum by the military dictatorship in Brazil.
General Spínola would lead the seven-man Junta of National Salvation, which would include MFA captains as well the leadership of the three major political parties: Sá Carneiro of the center-left Popular Democratic Party (PPD) as Vice Premier; previously exiled in Paris, Mário Soares (Foreign Minister) for the Socialist Party (PS); and previously exiled in Moscow, Álvaro Cunhal of the PCP. Unfortunately for Spínola, the Carnation Revolution was also emblematic of other revolutions in another sense: the moderate agents involved in the insurrection were removed from authority in a relatively quick order. A mere five months later, Spínola was pushed out by his leftist subordinates:
President Spínola spoke out against the imposition of a collectivist revolution. Supporters of Spínola’s moderate plan planned a large demonstration in Lisbon for September 28th, 1974. The left-wing revolutionaries, fearing a fascist counterrevolution, prevented it by building barricades to halt their march. The demonstrators were justified in expecting the Protection of the COPCOM, a new military force that Spínola had established to maintain order. Its commander was Brigadier Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, the popular hero and main organized of the 25 April coup. He did not act and demonstrators had to abandon their March. Spínola resigned, aware he was powerless to stem the revolution.
The PCP suddenly found itself in a triumphant position after the Carnation Revolution and attracted scores of young radicals. In an interview with The New York Times, Cunhal stated openly that “We Portuguese Communists need the army. And we’re supporting the army … We have already signed the kind of pact we need with the M.F.A., the Armed Forces Movement.” Pro-communist MFA Major Vasco Gonçalves, who had become Prime Minister in July of 1974, was now able to make his power felt:
His rule was accompanied by violence in the cities and the regions of large rural estates and strikes by the organized workers. During this period, the government carried through a radical restructuring of the Portuguese economy: banks and insurance companies were nationalized, the large estates of Alentejo were expropriated and placed under collectivist committees, and labor unions were incorporated into a single organization, the Intersindical. In these measures, the Communist Party gave Gonçalves full support, and in return it obtained controlling influence both in the agricultural collectives and the labor unions.
“Much of the radical fervor that was unleashed following Spínola’s coup attempt was encouraged by the PCP as part of their own agenda to infiltrate the MFA and steer the revolution in their direction.”
These controversial acts were ultimately more than the population was ready to tolerate, however, and the PCP received a popular rebuke in April 1975 at the polls for the Constituent Assembly:
After a campaign marked by considerable violence, the Socialists obtained 38 percent of the vote, the Popular Democratic Party 26 percent, and the Communists a mere 13 percent. The was a clear popular rebuff to the MFA, one for which the Catholic bishops’ instruction to the faithful to vote for the parties compatible with Christianity could take some credit.
After a failed leftist coup on the 25th of November 1975, the PCP’s power would wane forever in modern Portugal. The PCP would put up a sizable minority in each of the national elections (see Chart 5), but its true glory years of influencing the national debate were most certainly in the past.
Having examined various aspects of communist history in the Portuguese speaking world, we can more convincingly tackle the question posed at the onset of this piece: what made the Soviet plan successful was the unity of action of the Soviet command and the placement of highly competent people at key aspects of the value chain. From the very top of the Soviet government, Khrushchev gave a consistent rhetorical vision surrounding the Marxist rebels in Angola and elsewhere in Portuguese Africa. The Soviet foreign ministry was staffed by men who optimized organizational structures within departments – relying on the nation’s foremost Africa experts – to maximize success and created the necessary ancillary sub-committees and external organizations to coordinate and execute specific action items. On the ground in Africa, the Soviets had an extremely skilled and experienced operator in Daniel Solod, who could personally direct a myriad of functions for the rebels including fundraising, diplomacy, propaganda, arms procurement and even resolution of inter and intra group conflicts.
Domestically in Portugal, the Soviets had a tremendous asset in a highly efficacious Partido Communista de Portugal which had highly refined and systematic subversion programs perfected over decades under extremely difficult circumstances. The PCP’s history in subverting official labor organizations under duress from the paramilitary police carried over to other spheres, making it the most organized element of the anti-Salazar opposition with the ability to project its power far beyond its narrow official membership base, as was seen in national election campaigns. The subversion programs specifically aimed towards universities and the especially the military had been tested over a multi-decade period and were optimized to take full advantage of the growing political instability emanating from the long Colonial Wars. Finally, the organization’s leadership in Álvaro Cunhal showed filial loyalty to the Soviets due to his very strong personal and ideological connections to the Soviet apparatus.
Thus, while some critical mistakes were made at key junctures–the Soviets overplaying their hand in running insurrections in neighboring African countries and the PCP seeking to consolidate power too prematurely in the wake of the Carnation Revolution–a sufficiently large portion of the plan remained in operation for the totality of the 14 year Portuguese Colonial War. The ultimate toppling of the Estado Novo regime followed the prescription outlined by the leaked Congress of 81 strategy to a golden tee.
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.
How the Salazar regime dealt with wavering American and French governments under high internal and international duress will be the subject of the next installment in this series on the Estado Novo regime.
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