Carlucci and Soares – the US role in the Portuguese revolution

 In American Club of Lisbon, News

It started with a military coup in the early hours of April 25, 1974, promoted by mid-ranking officers or captains.

The coup’s two initial goals: to end the colonial wars which had exhausted Portugal’s financial reserves over 10 years, and reintroduce democracy not seen since 1933.

In the initial phase the people viewed the coup with jubilation and it was welcomed by governments overseas.

In the vacuum created by the change, the best organised party in the country was the communist party. For two years there were constant power struggles, coups and counter coups, with many analysts around the world believing that Portugal would become a communist regime.

This concerned the United States. Not only was Portugal a founding member of NATO, the lease of the US air base on the Portuguese island of Terceira in the Azores was considered of vital strategic military importance throughout the cold war.

Military intervention?

The Communists came closest to power in Western Europe than at any other time during the Cold War according to Tiago Moreira de Sá, a Portuguese politician, university professor and researcher, and author of the book Carlucci and Soares – the US role in the Portuguese revolution’.

Tiago Moreira de Sá was the guest speaker of the American Club of Lisbon (ACL) at the prestigious Lisbon debating club Grémio Literário in April as Portugal prepared to commemorate the 50 anniversary of the 25 April Revolution. It was an informative and lively debate led by the President of the ACL and author of ‘RENDEZ-VOUS WITH AMERICA – An Explanation of the US Election System’, Patrick Siegler-Lathrop.

The fall from power of the stalwart pro-NATO Estado Novo regime in Lisbon spurred discussion in Washington of US options, ranging from attempting to sponsor a coup to letting events take their course. Certainly for the US, and many leaders in Western Europe, the idea of Portugal becoming a communist regime would have been unacceptable.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis over a decade before, the Americans were certainly concerned that some kind of Russian military base could have been — although highly unlikely – established in the Azores.

To this day rumours have swirled that an aircraft carrier with marines was ready to seize the island of Terceira if such an event seemed even remotely likely, despite a period of detente between the two superpowers.

The documentary ‘The Eyes of the Revolution’ (‘Os Olhos da Revolução’) produced by Portuguese TV channel RTP to commemorate the 50 anniversary of 25 April, screened to an audience, including the Portuguese President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and surviving ‘Captains of April’, as they are now called, at the Cultural Centre of Belém the Friday before the commemoration date revealed that far from being a spontaneous hastily planned uprising, the April coup had been planned in secret down to the smallest detail by the captains at a hidden farm house location deep in the Alentejo in 1973.

In 1977, after the tumultuous events, the US diplomat who had witnessed and influenced the course of events at the time, Frank Carlucci (Carlucci had been Ambassador to Portugal and served in that position from 1974 to 1977) told a US congressional hearing: “It was a very inspiring experience to watch a country emerge from 50 years of dictatorship, divest itself of a colonial empire, go to the brink of a new sort of dictatorship, pull back by the will of the people, and see democratic institutions established — and all of this done within two years without any significant bloodshed. This is an unique case in the history of the world”.

Tiago Moreira de Sá, a Portuguese politician, university professor and researcher, and author of the book ‘Carlucci and Soares – the US role in the Portuguese revolution’ says that Carlucci’s comments show that Portugal’s transition to democracy was a “success”.

What some may not know is that Carlucci played a vital role in that success, working with all the United State’s European allies, especially West Germany, the UK, France, Sweden, and others.

The spectre of communism in Southern Europe

The Portuguese revolution inspired other countries in their transitions from dictatorship to democracy in what was termed the ‘Third Wave of Democracy’ after the book ‘The Third Wave’ by Samuel P. Huntington, which traces the story of the transition to democracy of Spain, Greece, Brazil, parts of Asia, and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The international backdrop to 1974 was nothing if not turbulent. Richard Nixon resigned that year over the Watergate Scandal, there were massive protests in the US over the Vietnam War, the world was reeling against the effects of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the OPEC Oil Crisis, while the world was gripped by recession and rampant inflation with countries like the UK essentially bankrupt and stricken by strikes.

The US was concerned. Portugal was the first NATO European country to have communists in the government — a State working with classified information, including nuclear, with all the dangerous potential that posed for passing on secrets to the Soviet Union, not to mention a drive to install communists in the French and Italian governments, and a war between two NATO countries, Greece and Turkey, which resulted in the partition of Cyprus.

The Americans in the dark

What is clear from the book is that Portugal was a major topic of policy discussion for the then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger under Gerald Ford. This heralded several policy options for Portugal unfurled over several stages; the first one being a state of ‘wait and see’.

The military coup was initially viewed as positive by Kissinger if it would lead to decolonisation and democracy — which it did. However, this was far from certain at the time.

“Kissinger knew little about what was happening in Portugal beyond capital flight, the discontent in the armed forces, the meetings of the captains, and the problem of the colonial wars, but he never thought it would result in a military coup” says Tiago Moreira de Sá.

The irony was that the US had known nothing about the looming revolution planned in secret in 1973. The previous ambassador to Frank Carlucci, Stuart Nash Scott (He left January 1975) said he had wanted the posting in Portugal because it was a “very calm place”.

The first inkling the Americans had of the revolution was when Kissinger sent the deputy head of the CIA Vernon Walters on a fact-finding mission to Lisbon. It was soon clear that the embassy and the ambassador had been in the dark as to what was going on in the turbulent period between April and November 1974.

Mário Soares returns

During the coup Mário Soares (and politicians against the regime) who had been living in exile in Rome, returned, organised the Socialist Party and visited Kissinger in October.

Kissinger had supported the idea of a coup from the right in 1975 after believing that the communists would assassinate Soares, according to Department of State documents for 1969-1977.

Soares had been compared by Kissinger, as a political figure, to the provisional government leader Alexander Kerensky after the February revolution in Russia in 1917, who turned out to be a stop-gap prime minister until the Bolsheviks took power in October that same year. Was history going to repeat itself?

A meeting took place on August 12, 1975, between Kissinger, Carlucci (By then the US ambassador to Portugal) and members of the State Department in Washington, including William Hyland from the Department of Information and Research.

A year had passed since the revolution and the government in Lisbon was led by Vasco Gonçalves, considered “arch enemy number one” in Portugal by the US.

Carlucci and Hyland concluded that the major risk to US goals in Portugal was its first post-revolution president and the former vice-chief of the Defence Council of the Armed Forces António de Spínola because he represented the extreme right.

Kissinger realised that the team he had in Portugal was weak and therefore decided to appoint Frank Carlucci, who already had a distinguished career behind him at the US embassy in the Congo. Carlucci had also served as an under-secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, led the response to Hurricane Agnes in 1972, as well as being chief-of-staff — the person who could grant or refuse access to the president — under President Nixon.

As the President of the American Club of Lisbon, Patrick Siegler-Lathrop puts it: “Carlucci was a man whose star was rising, and who had developed a network of very powerful friends.”

Carlucci to the rescue

When appointed as US ambassador to Portugal, Carlucci was given the instruction by Kissinger to “stop the communist advance” and “preserve the integrity of NATO.”

The tide began to turn in September 1974 when military leader António Spínola appealed to the “silent majority” to resist communist radicals, and was later behind a failed right-wing counter coup in March 1975. He fled to Brazil.

By March, it looked likely that the communists would seize power after the failed coup which may even have been a communist trap to foil Spínola. The communists controlled the media, local government, the armed forces, and in the Revolutionary Committee.

The Americans had to do something and there were two schools of thought. ‘The vaccine theory’ and the ‘Democratic support theory’.

Kissinger believed Portugal was lost to the communists, but saw a positive side. A poor, violent and isolated communist Portugal could serve as a “vaccine” warning to Greece, France, Spain and Italy not to go down the same path.

Carlucci, on the other hand, thought the opposite, and believed that Portugal could move towards democracy with the support of the US; after all, Portugal was far from the Soviet Union.

The other factor was the economy since 96% of Portugal’s trade was with other European countries.

NATO ties also figured since Portugal was a founding member of the defensive military alliance.

Another was private ownership of land (except in the Alentejo) and fear of State-owned collectivisation which had been so disastrous under Stalin in 1930s Russia.

Most important, however, was the influence and role played by the powerful Catholic church. Here Carlucci immediately moved to forge relations with the Catholic hierarchy in Lisbon and elsewhere, speaking to priests about the risks of a godless society.

As Patrick Siegler-Lathrop points out: “It took a lot of courage and confidence to stand up to Kissinger and not give up on Portugal as his boss in Washington was apt to do”.

Says Tiago Moreira de Sá: “Carlucci was essential, he was very important”, and noted ironically ‘the key problem facing an ambassador is not how to deal with a country, but how to deal with Washington”. However, the key to his success in this respect was his excellent connections in Washington, including Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger and a later Secretary of State under Reagan, Donald Rumsfeld, his old pal from college days.

Carlucci also had a lot of experience with revolutions, including in the Congo, Brazil and Zanzibar, making him the ideal candidate to help steer Portugal towards a democratic outcome.

Immediately on his appointment he replaced the entire team at the embassy and put “very competent people in important posts”. Carlucci then forged relationships with political elements of any importance, except the communists, and scheduled three meetings every day with different political figures.

The diplomat also became open to the press, and set that precedent from his very arrival when he gave a press conference at the airport and instigated a US$ 25 million aid programme (a lot in hose days) for which he had he support of Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy – the younger brother of John F. Kennedy.

“Ted Kennedy, known as the ‘lion of the senate’ came to Portugal at the end of 1974. He knew the Portuguese diaspora from Massachusetts and helped get aid bills through congress for Portugal both after the revolution and during the establishment of democracy from 1976. Financial and other aid continued until Portugal joined the European Community in 1986.

Germany’s role in supporting democracy

On March 21,1975 Helmut Schmidt called President Gerald Ford and said he was “extremely worried by the way things are going in Portugal”.

It was said a government reshuffle was on the cards with various ministerial roles to be given to communists, including the ministry of the Interior, and plans were afoot to remove Mário Soares from the government as minister of Foreign Affairs, not to mention talk of nationalising the banks.

Just like Helmut Schmidt, Carlucci and the CIA had feared, the IV Provisional Government of March 26, 1975, had leading communist figures in its ranks such as Vasco Gonçalves, a left-wing revolutionary. The Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) also filled two posts in the new government.

On the same day it took power, Henry Kissinger held a press conference in which he said the development had raised concerns in the US over NATO and Portugal with suggested measures such as “quarantining” Portugal without actually expelling it from the alliance.

Plans to isolate Portugal were equally discussed at a meeting between US movers and shakers and Germany’s former chancellor Willy Brandt.

In the conversation Kissinger said it was unthinkable that Portuguese (communists) would have access to secret information regarding negotiations between the US and USSR over the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) arising from the new detente between the two superpowers.

Not only that, Kissinger worried that the Portuguese revolution could destroy the entire Western defence system set up after WWII.

Carlucci said that rather than isolate Portugal from NATO, they should expand NATO Military contacts with Portugal and mobilise Mário Soares’ German contacts to support free and fair elections.

In the end, Helmut Schmidt played a vital tole to convince Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger and Carlucci that Portugal could be saved by stressing “Portugal is in the German sphere of influence, so we’ll do the work if you’ll support us.”

“Germany and other European countries were concerned about the future of Portugal and Spain because it was clear that if the communists won in Portugal that could have been a setback to the goal of a future reunification of Germany”, says Tiago Moreira de Sá.

On the other hand, the Russians also played an important role in providing very limited support for the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) because Brezhnev thought it was not worth risking detente with Western Europe. However, some Soviet archives remain closed and not enough information is available to tell the whole story.

“I am convinced the Soviets did provide full support to the communists with funding, and that is why the communist party had so much cash after the revolution. It did not provide military support, which was refused to avoid a civil war”, adds Tiago Moreira de Sá.

Carlucci pulls a fast one!

In 1975 Carlucci requested a meeting with President Ford in Washington to support his view that Portugal was not a lost cause.

Kissinger, realising that Carlucci had close ties with his ex-college pal Donald Rumsfeld – now the President’s chief-of-staff — caved in, and so relinquished the ‘vaccine theory’ by telling Carlucci “I think your plan is not so bad after all”, to which Carlucci replied “then I don’t need to see the president after all”.

Frank Carlucci got his way, supported Mário Soares and the moderates, bankrolled the Socialist Party and supported a successful counter coup by more moderate centrist army officers who backed a democratic approach.

Portugal’s first free election was held on 25 April 1975 to write a new constitution replacing the 1933 constitution in force during the Estado Novo era. Advice for the drafting of this document, it is said, was given to Mário Soares by Frank Carlucci who spent many a night burning the midnight oil over discussions in the ‘Crow’s Nest’, a glass-enclosed observation deck at the top of the American ambassador’s residence in Lisbon, which has a wonderful view over the city and the river.

Successive ambassadors have used that room for small, informal gatherings with Portuguese and Americans from all walks of life ever since, and the mansion was renamed Carlucci House (Casa Carlucci) in honour of the US ambassador who did so much to steer Portugal on the road to democracy, instead of letting his superiors in Washington abandon it to the communists.

Another election was held in 1976, and the first constitutional government, led by centre-left socialist Mário Soares, took office. Despite a rocky road ahead over the next 10 years, democracy prevailed and the rest is history, as the say.

Text: Chris Graeme; Photo: Joaquim Morgado

About the author

Tiago Moreira de Sá is a Portuguese politician, from the Chega party. He is a professor at Universidade Nova de Lisboa and researcher at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations. Moreira de Sá was also a member of the Assembly of the Republic during the 15th legislature (2022–2024), elected for the PSD Social Democratic Party. He is an associate professor at Universidade Nova de Lisboa – Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, where he teaches several subjects related to International Relations, and an Integrated Researcher at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations (IPRI), having participated in several research projects such as ‘Democracy in Times of Crisis: Power and Discourse in a three-level game’ and ‘History of Portugal – United States of America Relations: 1776-2015’. In 2008 Tiago Moreira de Sá published ‘Carlucci and Soares – The US role in the Portuguese revolution’. It is available in English from Amazon.