Kenneth Maxwell Looks Back at the Portuguese Revolution: The 25 April 2024 São Paulo Lecture

By Kenneth Maxwell

I was invited by Professor Vera Lucia Amaral Ferlini, who holds the Jaime Cortesão Chair at the University of São Paulo (USP), to speak at the Congress on the 50th Anniversary of Revolution of Carnations in Portugal in early April this year. She had previously graciously invited me to give the opening address at her conference at USP to mark the 200th anniversary of Brazilian Independence.

This time I had been invited to give an overview of the international consequences of the coup d’etat in Lisbon on 25 April 1974 which ended Europe’s oldest dictatorship and brought about the independence of the Portuguese colonies in Africa where Portugal had be fighting for decades a seemingly endless colonial war on three fronts.

The evening before my speech I had dinner with my old friend Elio Gaspari. He is an eminent Brazilian journalist and author of five volumes on the Brazilian military regime. I have known Elio since 1966 when we met at a cocktail party at the apartment in Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro, of Christian Adams, a young British diplomat, who had recently graduated at Oxford. Elio was then working for the society columnist Ibrahim Sued.

We had discussed over dinner what I was intending to say the next day at the congress at USP, and after dinner I sent him a copy of my speech. Elio then sent me next morning some amazing documentation, including records of the secret conversations of the exiled General Antonio de Spinola (1910-1996) with the Brazilian intelligence agency (SNI) in Rio de Janeiro and in Brasilia in 1975, and the reaction of the Brazilian president, General Ernesto Geisel (1902-1996), to General Spinola’s request for assistance for his planned invasion of Portugal.

I was able to introduce these records into my speech at the last moment and they tell an amazing and unknown story, detailing General Spinola’s plans, specifying precisely what he wanted by way of Brazilian assistance, laying out the role West German intelligence, and the involvement of Spain, and the role of Spinola’s Salamanca HQ in his scheme to infiltrate armed groups over the frontier from Spain into northern Portugal. And of West Germany willing to clandestinely finance these operations.

I include these documents in the text which follows. They provide a unknown side to the story of the Portuguese Revolution, and the lucky escape that Portugal had thanks to the uncoordinated action of the Brazilian military president Ernest Geisel in categorically denying General Spinola’s requests, and of the American ambassador in Lisbon, Frank Carlucci, in circumventing Henry Kissingers’s desire to make Portugal an example, a la Pinochet in Chile, to prevent the spread of what he regarded as communist “infection” in the rest of Europe. Certainly together Geisel and Carlucci prevented much potential bloodshed which an armed invasion of Portugal’s in 1975 would inevitably have entailed. And for that we can be for ever grateful.

At the beginning of April, Kenneth Maxwell took part in a conference on the 50th anniversary of April 25 at the University of São Paulo (Brazil)

The Lecture

This afternoon, I’m going to talk about some aspects of the international impact and reaction to the revolution in Lisbon on April 25, 1974.

It’s sometimes hard to remember how important Portuguese affairs were on the world stage in the mid-1970s.

But this oscillation between long periods of inattention followed by brief waves of international panic is not an unprecedented phenomenon in Portugal.

In 1640 and 1820, as in 1970, Portuguese revolutions upset the international status quo.

The terrified reactions they provoked in Count Duke Olivares, Prince Metternich and Henry Kissinger, respectively, were strikingly similar.

In many ways, the Portuguese uprisings, which for a time so worried these statesmen, ended up being eclipsed by their international consequences: the collapse of the attempt to regenerate Spanish power in the 1640s, Brazilian independence in the 1820s, and the beginning of the end of white rule in southern Africa in the 1970s.

Perhaps because of this unique trajectory, historians have paid more attention to the results than to the beginnings of events.

The Portuguese revolution of 1974 is already dismissed by many as the sweet illusion of hopeful leftists, even if some participants have good reason to forget that period.

Henry Kissinger’s actions in the mid-1970s do not reflect the best qualities of this statesman, nor his discernment and, as might be expected, are nowhere to be found in his voluminous book “Diplomacy”.

The contrast between short-term projection and long-term consequences was also driven by the rhythm of Portuguese history, that is, by a certain alternation between brief waves of early experimentation followed by prolonged lulls. Each of these phases seems to temporarily exclude the possibility of the other.

I remember being in a Lisbon café at the beginning of 1964, reading a description of Professor Edgar Prestage from fifty years earlier. Professor Prestage, a fierce monarchist and Catholic convert, was the first holder of the Camões Chair at King’s College, London, between 1923 and 1936.

He spoke of demonstrations taking to the streets and of political and military turmoil. Such a Lisbon seemed inconceivable at the time, and I dismissed Prestage’s account as the exaggerations of an old man’s memory.

Just a decade later, in 1974. however, most of the old cafés had been replaced by banks, whose employees were vociferous “anti-fascists”, led by a communist cabinet minister, making the meticulous Salazarist order of 1964 unimaginable, just as the revolutionary uprising of 1974-75 must seem to some Portuguese and foreigners today.

This obviously doesn’t mean that the events themselves were insignificant or that our perception of them at the time was either.

The Portuguese experience was qualitatively different from many other regime changes precisely because it acquired several characteristics of a revolution. In some respects, what followed was not just a process of establishing democracy, but a process of a revolution.

The Portuguese uprising of 1974-75 didn’t “turn the world upside down” as the Levelers, the most radical insurgents during the English Civil War in the 17th century, wanted, although for several months Portugal recalled much of the euphoria, although not the violence, of past revolutions.

Perhaps thanks to this carnage-free trajectory, the Portuguese revolution is not punctuated by indelible images such as the execution of Charles the First in England, the fall of the Bastille in France, or the seizure of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks in Russia, which in other historical contexts dramatically marked the break with the past.

It’s true that in all these cases the past in one way or another came back to haunt the new regime, and that old social inequalities resurfaced in new political structures, but the symbolic event remains forever in the popular imagination and in historiography, proclaiming the intention and radical change, even if not its consummation.

The Portuguese Revolution certainly had its moments:

  • The confrontation in Praça do Comércio between the young Captain Salgueiro Maia and regime forces and the popular reaction with thousands of Lisboners in the streets.
  • Salguerio Maia said to the commander of the loyalist tanks : “If they fire, there will be a civil war. Will the army shoot the army?”
  • Salgueiro Maia and the Armed Forces Movement (MFA)’s ultimatum to Marcello Caetano at the Carmo Barracks
  • Caetano’s surrender to General Spínola and Caetano’s transfer to Brazil, escorted by Captain Salgueiro Maia to the plane that transported him into exile in Brazil – a country, we should remember, especially close to March 31 and the first day of April, at the time ruled by a military dictatorship.
  • The PREC period — Spínola’s flight to Spain: the return of the Communist and socialist leaders, Álvaro Cunhal and Mário Soares,
  • The clandestine interventions in Portugal by the Soviet Union, the United States, West Germany, and the Cuban and South African military in Angola.
  • The dynamics of failure and success, which flowed from the convalescence and disintegration of alliances during the tumultuous period between the collapse of the old order and the crystallization of the new, cannot be disregarded.
  • The brief period of euphoria, characteristic of all revolutionary moments when everything seems possible, is harder to capture, respectively.
  • Wordsworth summed up this moment in his famous phrase about the French revolution: “It was glorious to be alive at that dawn” and Marx, writing about the 1848 revolution in France, called it a moment of “brilliant splendor”.

There are many advantages to retrospective analysis, but one disadvantage is that it strips history of all sensitivity to the choices men and women make in moments of commotion. This is probably the reason why, despite all the theories of revolution and the academic and ideological debates about its causes, every revolution is a shock, and a singular surprise.

The Portuguese revolution was no exception. Cord Meyer, director of the CIA office in London in April 1974 said: “When the Revolution happened in Portugal, the United States had gone out to lunch. It was a total surprise.”

The U.S. Ambassador in Lisbon was Stuart Nash Scott, an elderly good natured lawyer and a political appointee, in the position for years, and a member of the American elite, with no diplomatic experience, as was common with U.S. ambassadors sent to Lisbon.

Ambassador Scott was in the Azores on a visit to the U.S. base when the coup took place. As Lisbon airport was closed, he decided to go to Boston for his class reunion at Harvard Law School.

It was a huge blunder for an ambassador in a country in the throes of an armed insurrection, and one of several factors that destroyed Scott’s credibility in the eyes of Henry Kissinger, then President Gerald Ford’s powerful Secretary of State and national security adviser.

The story of Mr. Post, the acting head of diplomatic representation at the embassy, is even sadder.

Mr. Post said “It was still dark when the phone rang in my room. It was the guard at our house in Restelo, a former member of the DGS (the Portuguese secret police) calling from the garage; he said ‘danger, danger’, but I didn’t understand. My wife, almost asleep, said: ‘Well, that’s the guard’s name’. I hung up and we went back to sleep. At around six in the morning, one of the military allies reported by phone that there were tanks in the streets and military music on the radio.”

In Washington, however, the overthrow of Caetano caused great concern. Just six months before the coup, the American base in Lajes, in the Azores, which some said had lost its importance in that era of intercontinental ballistic missiles, would suddenly prove vital, not so much for NATO’s own purposes, but for what in the NATO jargon of the time was called “out of area contingencies” – the Middle East, for example.

During the war between Israel and the Arab countries, following the Egyptian attack on Yom Kippur in 1973, Portugal had been the only one of the U.S.’s European allies to allow the use of the base’s facilities for American resupply missions to Israel, and even that had practically required an ultimatum from Nixon to Caetano. It was for lack of an alternative that Caetano, in his isolation, had given in to the American request.

It was because of this that Kissinger secretly tried to facilitate “red eye” missiles for Portuguese use in Portuguese Guinea on the eve of the coup in Lisbon. Another source of Kissinger’s embarrassment if this secret information became public.

Sources of information were scarce.

On March 15, 1974, at a congressional hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, the publication of General Spínola’s book “Portugal e o futuro” (Portugal and the Future) came up for discussion.

The State Department’s director for Iberian affairs, Ellwood M. Rabenhold Jr., declared: “I would like to make the following observation: change in Portugal occurs very slowly, and in my opinion, we cannot assume that anything, even this book, can abruptly bring about a drastic change.”

Just 42 days later, tanks from the Cavalry School in Santarém entered the quiet center of Lisbon. Within 24 months, the Portuguese presence in Africa, which had begun half a millennium earlier, would come to an end.

Portuguese civil society was also taken by surprise by the sudden and rapid success of the young officers. In the weeks before the coup, the MFA had deliberately avoided civilian opposition for security reasons. The secret police were known to have infiltrated the underground political parties. And they had no problem assassinating them: as with General Delgado in Spain, Amilcar Cabral and Eduardo Mondlane in Africa.

Even so, opposition to the dictatorship had always existed and in the political vacuum that emerged in April 1974 there was a group of civilian opposition collaborators with the military.

The old Republicans, for example, had never accepted the corporatist state and its fascist allies, even though their countless programs of dissent had never come close to shaking the formidable apparatus of censorship, repression and cultural uniformity imposed by Salazar.

The Communist Party was the most troublesome thorn in the side and suffered the most intense repression as a result.

The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) was founded in 1921. From 1943, under the leadership of Alvaro Cunhal, the party began to develop a political base. Forced underground from the first days of the Salazar dictatorship, the long years spent underground profoundly affected the psychology and behavior of the Portuguese communists. Cunhal himself spent thirteen years in prison in Portugal and fourteen years in exile in Eastern Europe and Moscow. He joined the party in 1931. He became a member of the party’s Central Committee in 1936.

In Portugal, the PCP had a solid base in the Alentejo, a region with a long history of communist militancy and Cunhal knew it well. He was the author of one of the few detailed analyses of the social and economic structures of the Portuguese countryside. “The Agrarian Question in Portugal”, published in Brazil in 1968.

The PCP was also strong in the trade union movement. And before the coup, the communists were strongly entrenched in the metalworkers’ unions and had been gaining influence among lower middle-class white-collar workers, especially in the bank workers’ unions in Lisbon and Porto.

Coexisting uneasily with the communists, there was a tradition of opposition from which the Socialist Association (ASP) originated in the 1960s, and the Portuguese Socialist Party (PS) in 1973. This current of opinion was inspired by the regime’s main intellectual opponents, such as the Lisbon evening newspaper, República, the magazine Seara Nova, and its eminent contributors, and the philosopher, Antonio Sergio, and the historian Jaime Cortesão, the brave man celebrated by USP’s Jaime Cortesão Chair, whose holder is our dear Professor Vera Lúcia Amaral Ferlini.

In the 1960s, a younger generation took over the reins: the Lisbon lawyers Mario Soares and Francisco Zenha, and the editor of República, Raul Rego. They founded the Portuguese Socialist Action in Geneva in 1964, and the organization was renamed the Portuguese Socialist Party at a congress in Bad Munstereifel, West Germany, in April 1973. Portuguese socialists joined the Socialist International, especially Willy Brandt and the West German Social Democratic Party. Soares and his colleagues also maintained contact with Swedish and British socialists.

Socialists had rarely suffered trials like those imposed on much of the Communist Party leadership. Nevertheless, men like Raul Rego, Mario Soares and Salgado Zenha had taken considerable risks and had been imprisoned several times for their convictions. The strength of their dedication was a factor that the communists tended to underestimate.

But for the young military, the opposition’s ideas were well known, particularly by Major Melo Antunes, who had been responsible for much of the drafting of the MFA’s program. Even General Spínola knew about it and had sent a copy of “Portugal e o Futuro” to Mario Soares in Paris.

After April 1974, however, a large section of the population, very traditionalist and conservative, was left without a spokesperson. Temporarily muted by the speed with which state power evaporated, the conservative rural peasantry and the Catholic community made up a considerable slice of the political electorate. Consequently, two parties emerged to represent the centrist and conservative forces: the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) and the Democratic and Social Center (CDS).

General Spinola, the provisional president, wanted to consolidate a centrist and reformist civil coalition that would strengthen his authority vis-à-vis the MFA. The PPD was founded in May 1974 by the main reformists of the early Caetano period, such as Francisco Pinto Balsamao, editor of the new journal O Expresso, and the Christian Democrats, led by a young law professor, Diogo Freitas do Amaral.

But General Spínola, in a move that surprised even the MFA, invited the PCP to join the provisional government, putting a communist, Avelino Gonçalves, in the Ministry of Labor, and bringing Álvaro Cunhal into the government as a minister without portfolio.

The horrified reaction of Portugal’s NATO allies to the presence of the first communists in a Western government since the start of the Cold War, especially the presence of a party leader who made no secret of his devotion to the Soviet Union, meant that Spínola’s attempt to buy peace in the country only succeeded in buying him the hostility of friends abroad whose support he would need if he was to survive.

Kissinger reacted to the events in Lisbon in the same way he had reacted to the election of Salvador Allende in Chile. When it became known that the communists would actually take part in the government in Lisbon, Kissinger’s actions were reflexive and automatic.

Almost immediately, NATO’s “secrets” stopped being passed on to the Portuguese, as did various stories about a “theory of Mediterranean dominoes.” Kissinger considered the potential threat of communist participation in the governments of Spain, Italy, France, and Greece.

But when the coup took place, the bulk of the Portuguese armed forces were in Africa. The Portuguese colonial soldiers were exhausted, and the middle-ranking officers felt under a lot of pressure. It wasn’t long before the ceasefire, agreed at local level, spread to various places.

General Spínola wanted to create a federation of Portuguese-speaking countries, but the MFA prevailed and decolonization began.

The first major crisis occurred in June 1974, when Spínola and the prime minister tried to reduce the influence of the MFA and their plan was thwarted.

To exclude the possibility of a challenge from Spinola in the armed forces, the MFA established a command structure, COPCON (Operational Command of the Continent) on July 8, under the effective command of Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, who became commander of the Lisbon military garrison.

Spínola tried to circumvent the MFA’s influence by asking for a show of support for the “silent majority”. Concerned members of the old financial and business oligarchy helped finance the propaganda for Spinola’s appeal. But the bankers’ unions were keeping a close eye on the extraordinary cash transfers.

The MFA, the communists (under the guise of their umbrella organization, the Portuguese Democratic Movement) and the socialists, mobilized against those who had come to show support for Spinola. As a result, General Spínola resigned from the presidency on September 30. He was replaced by General Costa Gomes, who had been the original choice of the MFA, and whose political flexibility was reflected in his nickname. “The Cork”.

But the crises that pushed Portugal decisively to the left also gave an inexorable impetus to the independence of Portuguese Africa.

In Portuguese Guinea, peace came long before it was recognized in a formal agreement. In May 1974, Colonel Almeida Bruno, a friend of General Spinola, and Foreign Minister Mario Soares, went to London to negotiate with the PAIGC, but in Algiers Major Melo Antunes of the MFA signed an agreement recognizing the right to self-determination.

In Lisbon, the pro-communist Colonel Vasco Gonçalves was sworn in as prime minister. This was a crucial blow to Spínola’s power. The MFA and its allies on the left managed to sign an agreement in Africa that Spinola had been unable to obtain.

Similar crises in August and September 1974, and in Angola in January and March 1975, were both complex. But the consequences inside Portugal were to increase the power of the MFA and speed up the decolonization process in Africa.

On October 18, 1974, over lunch at the State Department in Washington, Henry Kissinger made his fears about the course of events in Portugal very clear to his visitors, President Costa Gomes and Foreign Minister Mário Soares. For the first time since 1949, communists were participating in the government of a NATO country, he lamented, and communist penetration of institutions, the media and trade unions was so great that Portugal was probably lost to the West.

When Soares objected, Kissinger claimed that he would be the Portuguese Kerensky. Soares replied. “But I don’t want to be Kerensky”. And Kissinger retorted. “Kerensky did not want to be Kerensky either.”

To assuage his fears, Kissinger sacked Ambassador Nash Scott and dispatched a dynamic new diplomatic team to Lisbon, recommended by General Vernon Walters, the head of the CIA. Walters spoke Portuguese and was well known to the Brazilian military during the Second World War in Italy and the coup of ’64 in Brazil.

Composed of Frank Carlucci, Herbert Okun, and Colonel Robert Schuler from defense. All three spoke fluent Portuguese and had worked with then Colonel Vernon Walters in Brazil in the 1960s at the time of the American-backed coup of ’64 against President João Goulart.

They had a clear mission in Lisbon, as Washington saw it: to get the communists out of government and keep them out.

In the first months after the April 25 coup, the young officers of the Armed Forces Movement tried to remain behind the scenes, preferring to remain as anonymous as possible. That didn’t mean they wanted to lose the fruits of their victory to others.

Major Vitor Alves clearly stated that the problem in the 1926 coup was that “although the soldiers knew what they didn’t want, they didn’t know what they did want. They didn’t have a program.”

In 1974, Major Alves’s MFA coordinating committee had already rectified the mistake of its predecessors. The MFA program promised the abolition of censorship, freedom of expression, a constituent assembly with free elections, one year after the April 25 coup, and the participation of all political parties.

But to foreigners, all this seems like a characterless operation.

The Portuguese are masters at telling enthusiastic foreigners what they want to hear – just remember the old expression used by Brazilians in the 19th century…“for English to see…” Then they wouldn’t have thought they were arriving in search of the truth, and they would have come back with it.

A comment made by one of Lisbon’s leading political scholars is one of the best descriptions I know of the problems faced by those involved in the process.

Describing two French communist intellectuals sent to write about the situation in Portugal for “Le Nouvelle Critique”, he summed it up: “two Becket characters, waiting for Godot in the mist of Portuguese disinformation.”

Few illustrious figures, including Jean-Paul Sartre, were able to resist the opportunity to see for themselves.

Joao Abel Manta, who had become a sort of official artist for the MFA, summed up the situation well when he designed a poster for the Quinta Divisão’s “cultural dynamization” campaign showing a crowd of avid observers of the past, including Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, pencils in hand, staring at a map of Portugal traced on a blackboard.

But the West was beginning to find its way into the Portuguese tangle. Under Ambassador Carlucci, the U.S. would quickly acquire the formidable capacity to transmit and gather intelligence data.

Carlucci used the issue of NATO membership as a test to help identify communists in the armed forces. Carlucci soon came to doubt Kissinger’s dire predictions. “The pressures and forces that have been unleashed must be tempered, they cannot be stuffed back into the tube,” he told Washington

Herbert Okun set up an efficient polling operation for the Constitutional Assembly elections, predicting the results with certainty. And Colonel Schuler as defense attaché cultivated the younger members of the officer corps with a view to incorporating selected Portuguese officers into NATO training programs; among them was a little-known colonel named António Ramalho Eanes. “A boy scout for democracy” is how Okun described Eanas.

But for Carlucci the task of fighting the communists proved less difficult than comforting Henry Kissinger’s assumptions. When Carlucci said that Mario Soares was “the least bad choice”, Kissinger shouted at his advisers: “Who convinced me that Carlucci was a tough guy?”

The communist leader, Alvaro Cunhal, speaking to Italian newspaper L’Europeo on June 15, 1975, said “..if you think the socialist party with 40 percent and the Popular Democrats with 27 percent constitutes a majority you are the victim of a misunderstanding .. I’m telling you that the elections have nothing to do with the dynamics of a revolution .. I promise you there will be no parliament in Portugal.”

He was wrong.

As Carlucci said later: “It was the election that reversed the situation.”

Kissinger was less impressed: he said to President Ford on the first May 1975: “Algeria is their model. The Europeans are ecstatic. But we could face in ten years a socialist Europe united by anti-Americanism.”

But Herbert Okun’s opinion polls confirmed the Constituent Assembly on April 25, 1975. In the first free election in Portugal since 1925, and with a turnout of 91.66%, Mario Soares’ Socialists won 38% of the vote, Francisco Sá Carneiro’s PPD 26%, and Álvaro Cunhal’s PCP only 12%.

But, above all, Alvaro Cunhal had overestimated the tenacity of its friends and underestimated that of its enemies. Mario Soares proved much tougher than even his closest friends expected.

Cunhal also underestimated the impact of the collapse of the authority of all institutions immediately after the coup. The communists were preoccupied with the spontaneous action of the workers which was a critical error for a people emerging from fifty years of dictatorship.

In the Alentejo, around 1.2 million hectares had been expropriated, often through initiatives by the workers themselves. The nationalization of industries was not always the initiative of the PCP. And in Portugal, the initiative was taken by the radical left. A complex and often divided collection of small groups that included various Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and revolutionary parties that defended popular power.

But it came as a big surprise to most observers in Lisbon when the majority of small landowners in the north and center of Portugal, fervent Catholics and intensely traditionalist, rebelled and expelled the communists from much of the rural areas and small towns of the north, eventually creating a situation that focused the radical military back into the barracks.

The most important event was the reaction of the major Western powers.

They did not support the extreme right, now organized in clandestine groups ostensibly led by General Spinola. The MDLP (Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Portugal) or the more radical ELP (Portuguese Liberation Army.) These movements committed a number of terrorist bombings in Portugal in 1975, and had organized cells in Salamanca, Madrid, and Brazil. As well as in communities of Portuguese immigrants in the United States and Venezuela. The MDLP certainly maintained close relations with the CIA and Brazil, but in the end the conduct of both countries repudiated them.

We can find out more about General Spinola’s attempts to get support from Brazil thanks to information from Elio Gaspari.

Spinola was in Brasilia with General Sebastião Ramos de Castro on 1975-07-01. General Sebastião Ramos de Castro was the second in command of the SNI (Servicio Nacional de Informacoes): “The general [Spinola] traveled with the knowledge of the Brazilian government. He arrived at the airport discreetly without his famous monocle, wearing sunglasses and different clothes from those he usually wore. He didn’t go to the airline counter and headed straight for the plane. The ex-president returned to Brazil on Friday night, wearing the same discreet outfit and with the same precautions. The ex-president has not yet had any major contacts since his return, but it is known that he is much more euphoric than when he left here.”

“In a letter from General Newton Araújo de Oliveira e Cruz (1924-2022), later the head of SNI from 1977-1983), to Heitor (Heitor de Aquino Ferreira, (1935-2022) General Geisel’s private secretary dated 06-08-75, nine sheets from the SNI. The package was put together on this date, because it was the day of Spinola’s meeting with the SNI, but each fact was put on its own sheet, on its own day, and called in.

Castro asks for guidance. General Figueiredo (1918-1999) (then head of the SNI and Geisel’s successor as the last military president of Brazil) (…) said that he could only pass on what came from the Planalto.

(Geisel on the card: instructions to Castro, Saturday, 8-8. Brazil cannot get involved. Listen to the German).

Attached to information from the National Intelligence Service, Central Agency (Castro’s heading)

Synopsis of the facts already reported.

In continuation of the contacts that had been made with General Antônio Spinola, a new meeting was held on July 23 at the Central Agency, after his trip to several European countries.

On this occasion, he stated that he had managed to raise the awareness of the authorities in the countries he had visited, with a view to preventing the communization of Portugal, and that his requests for support had been accepted.

He presented the following demands: Given the possibility of obtaining a place to train the men in Paraguayan territory, would it be possible for Brazil to provide certain logistical support in the form of uniforms, stationing, and encampment material, would the weapons be obtained from other sources or, if the Brazilian government agreed, could they be bought in Brazil, duly decommissioned, as this would require financial resources.

Logistical support would include, if possible, food. The period of instruction will be short, as the men will have to adapt to the new weaponry, since they are all former combatants.

There was a possibility that clandestine transmissions to Portugal would be authorized in order to motivate the Portuguese people to react.

And then: The German government is very concerned about developments in Portugal and is determined to prevent the country from becoming a communist dictatorship. …the U.S. confirmed General Spinola’s contact with elements of the State Department. More information could not have been obtained [sic] through the CIA, since it usually withholds the information it has, only releasing it when it suits its interests.

New facts: On August 5, 1975, the BND liaison reported that the German government had sent a representative under a false name to seek contact with the SNI and General Spinola, with whom he would discuss possible German aid. This representative had arrived in Brazil on August 10, and from August 11, he intended to meet with a Brazilian element to provide some form of support to General Spinola.

…Colonel Corvão, from General Spinola’s group, went to a CIA event and requested the supply of hand grenades, explosives, fuses and sophisticated detonators. The material was to be delivered to Spain.

The CIA seems inclined to fulfill the request, either directly or through a European country, possibly Germany.

General Spinola would have invited two former DGS (ex-PIDE) officials to join his group, who were currently in Angola and another in Rhodesia.

…Spinola’s position in Portugal is considered important. He has a lot of influence (…)

In a conversation with SNI agents on June 17, 1975. The report “even considers the existence of a strategy in which Portugal would fall under communist domination in order to serve as a vaccine and antibodies for the Western world. Various activities are being planned to invade Portugal and regain power.” In addition, the colonel’s report, “considers that with five thousand well-armed and trained men, it could successfully invade Portugal”.

In another meeting, regarding the Portuguese situation, the National Intelligence Service reports a supposed infiltration, with German and Spanish support, in Portugal: “The German government is willing, if necessary, to financially support General Spínola’s group and to make connections with the Spanish Intelligence Service, to facilitate the infiltration of Portuguese elements into Portugal, as well as the delivery of weapons to the men concentrated on the border” – finally, the report describes the type of collaboration to the cause: “

By way of collaboration, this leadership presents as possible, depending on a higher decision, the following support: Arms and ammunition for the first one or two infiltration groups:

  • 34 caliber 45 hand machine guns with 3 magazines for each machine gun;
  • 16 caliber 45 pistols with 2 magazines for each pistol;
  • 2 automatic rifles with grenade launcher nozzles;
  • 9,000 caliber 45 cartridges for machine guns and pistols.

This weaponry, most of which has already been used, but is in good condition, has a de-characterized origin and was seized from subversive ‘apparatuses’ prior to 1973 and belonged to the R group.”

There is also a letter from Newton Cruz to Heitor, dated 06-08-75 and nine sheets of paper from the SNI. The package is put together 75-07-23, but each fact has its own file, on its own day and follows:


national information service

Central Agency (Castro heading)

Information No. 1272/60/AC/75

Date – 06 AUG 75

Subject – Support for General Spinola’s reaction in Portugal.

Defusal – Head of SNI


  1. (…) 4 When General Spinola’s statements were analyzed in order to verify the extent to which they were true, with regard to possible support from other countries, it was found that:

(a) on the part of the West German government

– the German government is very concerned about developments in Portugal and is determined to prevent that country from becoming a communist dictatorship.

(Geisel underlined ‘is determined’ and marked ‘?’)

– He is determined, as long as he is not ostensibly accused, to be an element capable of leading the reaction in Portugal.

– admits that this support could be clandestinely provided by NATO itself

(Geisel marked ‘?’ next to NATO)

– is not sure that Spinola is the man capable of leading this reaction

– hinted that if Brazil decided to covertly support Spinola, a German representative could come and coordinate the support.

(Geisel marked ‘?’ in the paragraph)


(1) On August 5, 75, the BND liaison reported that the German government had sent, under a false name, an accredited representative to seek contact with the SNI and General Spinola, with whom he would talk about possible German aid. This representative will arrive in Brazil on August 10 and, from August 11, he intends to meet with an accredited Brazilian element, in case the Brazilian government intends to provide some form of support to General Spinola.

(Geisel marked ‘!’ in the second half of the paragraph)

SNI reports German conversation 1975-08-13

A letter from Newton Cruz to Heitor, dated 06-08-75 and nine sheets of paper from the SNI.

The package was put together 75-07-23, but each photo went into its own file, on its own day.

Personnel – Secret

National Intelligence Service

Central Agency (Central Agency stamp, Castro’s initials)

Information No. 20/30/AC/75

Date: 13 Aug 75

Subject: Contact with FRG government representative

Diffusion: Head of SNI

The contacts made with the representative of the FRG government, who came to Brazil to discuss possible support for General Spinola, took place as follows:

– it was clearly specified that the principle adopted in Brazilian foreign policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other countries is of fundamental importance; this position assures the Brazilian government of the moral authority to repel and vigorously oppose the actions of countries seeking to intervene in the internal affairs of Brazil.

– It was made clear that Brazil’s interest in preventing Portugal from becoming a communist country was much more sentimental, given its geographical remoteness, and was aimed at preserving the communist ideological influence on the Portuguese community living in Brazil:

– the German representative was very positive in his statements that the German government cannot allow the possibility of a communist Portugal, because of the problems this would cause for Europe, especially for NATO; therefore, the German government is willing to cooperate, in a discreet way, with a group of Portuguese nationals who want to destroy the process of communization in Portugal;

– He also said that the big doubt was who would be able to lead this opposition movement and, to this end, he asked for information to be exchanged and for a final impression to be made; a process of analyzing the available information was then started, which led to the following:

– in fact, all the opposition abroad is currently agglutinated around Gen. Antonio De Spinola:

– Corvette Captain Guilherme Calvao is Spinola’s military representative. He has his HQ in Salamanca, Spain, and has 1,200 to 1,500 men capable of operating in Portugal, but he needs weapons:

– Major Sanchez Osorio is also part of Spinola’s scheme, in the position of political representative, but his internal prestige in Portugal is somewhat diminished, due to the fact that he has left the country and taken refuge abroad:

– aviation general Galvao de Melo is part of Spinola’s scheme, but his action is limited by the fact that he remains in Portugal.

– The German representative was of the opinion that only a mass action by Portuguese elements based in Spain could be successful; Commander Calvao’s plan, however, is for an initial infiltration by successive groups of 25 armed combatants who are known to the resistance groups in the interior of Portugal, for an agglutination action, followed if necessary by a mass action. if necessary, a forceful action to activate the available elements concentrated on the Spanish border.

– The German government is prepared, if necessary, to give financial support to General Spinola’s group and to liaise with the Spanish Information Service to facilitate the infiltration of Portuguese elements into Portugal and the delivery of arms to the men concentrated on the frontier…

By way of collaboration, this leader presents it as possible, subject to a higher decision…”

But the “higher decision” was made by General Ernesto Geisel, Brazil’s military president. And General Geisel definitively refused Spinola’s requests. General Ernesto Geisel, a Brazilian, and Ambassador Carlucci, an American, were de facto collaborators, without mutual knowledge, in preventing an invasion of Portugal by General Spinola.

President General Geisel, rejected the opinion of his military aides and intelligence agents, and the other, Ambassador Frank Carlucci, reversed the intentions of his superior, Henry Kissinger. This was a providential relief for Portugal: despite Kissinger, Mario Soares was not going to be a new Kerenski, and General Spinola was not going to be a new General Pinochet.

The role of Ambassador Carlucci and his deputy, Herbert Okun, was fundamental in warding off the extreme right and countering the threatening and predictable reaction of the powerful Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. In a rare feat for an American ambassador, Carlucci managed to sidestep Kissinger and take his ideas directly to President Ford. Thanks to the influence of his old Princeton classmate and wrestling companion, Donald Rumsfeld, Chief of Staff at the White House.

In this way, the ambassador urged Washington to support the middle way, and argued that the elections to the Constituent Assembly had clearly demonstrated that the Portuguese people welcomed this position.

The alternative that the communists and Moscow may well have foreseen was that the United States and its allies would support violent armed action against them. But they were denied this.

The United States stayed away from Spinola in exile, and the Brazilian government did the same. Carlucci’s action is one of those contingencies of history. And possibly saved Portugal from being the scene of a bloody new Chile with a new Pinochet, both of which we should remember thanks in part to the actions of Henry Kissinger.

Speaking to Mário Soares in January 1976, Kissinger said: “In view of your democratic evolution, and your institutions, my perspective as a historian is that the large participation of communists in Western governments cannot end well. I can’t comment on the tactical adjustments you have to make. But I have to tell you that you have surprised me.I have to admit to you. I don’t often make wrong decisions.”

We are now 50 years on from the coup against Europe’s longest-lasting dictatorship by young military officers fed up with the endless war in Africa on three fronts: Guinea, Mozambique and Angola.

Then Portugal joined Europe as a member of the European community. Portugal has provided a President of the European Community, and a Secretary General of the United Nations. Durao Barroso was a social democratic prime minister, and Antonio Guterres was a socialist prime minister.

But there is disillusionment in Portugal with the political elites and a decline in confidence in political institutions and participation in elections.

It’s a challenging political moment for populist forces on the extreme right. And there are also challenges to Portugal’s Europeanization process. 500,000 have returned from Africa, 5% of the total population of 10 million. Portugal has also become a destination for mass tourism in the 21st century.

The foreign population there grew from 0.5% in 1980 to 6.4% in 2020. They came from other European countries, Brazil, and former Portuguese colonies in Africa.  They bring diverse cultures in the arts, literature, and music, but have provoked xenophobia and discrimination against women, immigrants, and racial antipathies. And a questioning of the colonial past. And accusations of corruption have brought down two governments.

All these events in Portugal were once again facing a watershed. And that the political compromises of the 1970s and the political parties that emerged in the 1970s are now being challenged. As is the international order, with war once again in the Middle East, with Russia’s war in Ukraine, and with populism on the rise in the United States, in Europe, not to mention Bolsonaro’s Brazil. This 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution is not a time for complacency.

Photo credit: The military in Lisbon on 25 April.

Ipsilon, Lisboa, 25 April, 2013,