Portugal flag
Portugal flag

Portugal has been a land of paradoxes. For much of the 20th century, it was simultaneously a weak, agrarian, poverty-stricken, isolated state on the periphery of Europe and the seat of a vast colonial empire. It had used an alliance with Britain to sustain this paradox for a long time.

Portugal relied on Britain to keep Spain at bay and to secure its claim to its colonial holdings. In return, the Royal Navy enjoyed access to a far-flung network of colonial ports to be used as coaling stations.

Modern nationalism in Portugal dates from the popular reaction to the British ultimatum of 1890, which foiled a Portuguese scheme to connect Angola and Mozambique by seizing the intervening territory.

For half of the 20th century, the country was governed by Western Europe’s most enduring authoritarian regime. Then, in 1974–76, it became the only North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country to experience a full-fledged social revolution. After approaching the precipice of civil war, Portuguese society backed down and built a working democracy.

Portugal overthrew its monarchy in 1910. The country established a new constitution the following year and became Europe’s third republic, after Switzerland and France. There were several coups over a 16-year period. In reaction to labor unrest in the early 1920s, extra-parliamentary right-wing organizations arose. These groups lent their support to a bloodless military coup in 1926.

Two years later, in the wake of financial crisis, the military regime brought an economics professor out of the obscurity of the University of Coimbra and named him minister of finance.

António de Oliveira Salazar
António de Oliveira Salazar

António de Oliveira Salazar had a limited set of priorities in that office: to generate a budget surplus and to stockpile gold. He proved to be quite effective at what he set out to do. He quickly overshadowed a succession of military prime ministers and won supporters among officers, clergy, businessmen, bankers, and landowners.

The New State

The military regime was a little more stable than its predecessor. Salazar, whose star was already rising within the regime, founded a new party in 1930, the National Union (União Nacional), to unify the regime’s supporters. In 1932, as the Great Depression advanced, he was appointed prime minister, a position he would hold for the next 36 years.

Salazar promulgated a new constitution in 1933, establishing the New State (Estado Novo). The National Assembly, consisting of the Chamber of Deputies and the Corporatist Chamber, had severely limited powers. Salazar selected nearly all candidates personally.

Rights and liberties proclaimed by the constitution were nullified by government regulation. Various sectors of society were organized from above in corporatist fashion. The political police maintained surveillance over potential opponents, many of whom fled into exile. Censors erased any hint of dissent.

From 1936 to 1944 Salazar was also minister of war. In that position he found he could shrink the size of the army and control officers’ salaries, transfers, retirements, and even marriages.

Officers were encouraged to marry wealthy women so that their salaries could be kept low. A politicized government-run militia, the Portuguese Legion (Legião Portuguesa), partially offset the army’s influence.

Thus it was Salazar, not the military, who consolidated the authoritarian regime. His was a conservative, corporatist police state, but it was not a true fascist state. It did not seek to overthrow traditional elites or mobilize society around its goals.

Rather, Salazar sought to demobilize—or even freeze—society and to reject modernity. Rather than exalting war, Salazar strove for a kind of neutrality. In any event, his austere policies left the armed forces with a very low level of effectiveness.

Spain and World War II

Salazar viewed Spain’s leftist Popular Front government as a threat. When General Francisco Franco rebelled against it in 1936, launching the Spanish civil war, Portugal officially followed the lead of Britain and France by promising nonintervention, but surreptitiously funneled aid to Franco.

Franco’s agents were allowed to operate on Portuguese territory. Thousands of volunteers went to Spain to fight against the Republican cause. At the end of the war, in March 1939, Salazar and Franco signed a treaty of friendship and nonaggression, known informally as the Iberian Pact.

Salazar declared Portugal’s neutrality in World War II on September 1, 1939, the very day Poland was invaded. He also sought to keep the war as far away as possible by bolstering Spain’s neutrality. In the wake of its civil war, Spain was in no condition to take an active role in World War II, but Portugal’s position highlighted the potential costs of even a passive role, as in allowing the Germans to pass through to take the British stronghold of Gibraltar.

The strategic situation changed for the Iberian Peninsula as the Germans became tied down in the Soviet Union and the Allies moved into North Africa and Italy. It was now highly unlikely that Spain would intervene on Germany’s side. Salazar allowed himself to be persuaded to join the Allied cause, albeit passively. From the Allied perspective, the Azores were the key objective.

Situated in the mid-Atlantic, these Portuguese islands would be useful bases both for antisubmarine warfare and for refueling transatlantic flights in the buildup prior to the great invasion of France. First Britain, and then the United States, acquired access to facilities there, and Portugal ceased selling tungsten to Germany while still claiming to be neutral.

Postwar Portugal

Portugal’s shift put it on the winning side, improving its bargaining position in postwar Europe and increasing its chances of getting back East Timor and Macao, which had been occupied by the Japanese.

Still, the semifascist state was in an ambiguous position after the war. It began to describe itself as an "organic democracy" rather than a "civilian police dictatorship", an expression that had been used in the 1930s.

Portugal was not invited to the San Francisco conference, which established the United Nations, and was denied UN membership until 1955. Portugal was, however, a founding member of NATO chiefly because the United States still wanted access to bases in the Azores.

Portugal’s relations with the United States and NATO replaced its traditional alliance with Britain. Unlike Britain’s earlier guarantee of Portugal’s overseas territories, however, NATO’s area of responsibility was expressly restricted to Europe to avoid its being drawn into colonial wars.

A certain "softening" marked the Salazar regime in the postwar era. There was no real institutional change, but some of the more fascistlike institutions were allowed to erode. On the other hand, after a dissident general managed to win 25 percent of the vote in presidential elections in 1958, the direct election of the president was discontinued.

A degree of economic liberalization led to the growth of the service sector and a larger middle class in the 1960s. Industry, previously limited to textile production, added electrical, metallurgical, chemical, and petroleum sectors.

A stroke immobilized the dictator in 1968, although he lingered for two more years. His successor was Marcello José das Neves Caetano, who, not coincidentally, had also succeeded him in his chair at the University of Coimbra.

Caetano brought technocrats into the regime, retired some of Salazar’s old-school hangers-on, and favored economic development over cultivated stagnation, but again the basic system remained.


War was spreading in the African colonies of Portuguese Guinea (Guinea-Bissau), Angola, and Mozambique. The policy of the New State had been to instill pride among the Portuguese in their empire, a legacy of Portugal’s glory in the age of discovery. The state also reasserted national control over the colonies, where foreign corporations had conducted much of the economic activity.

African farmers were compelled to shift from subsistence crops to cotton for the Portuguese market in the 1930s, and more so as World War II disrupted other trade sources. Portuguese investment in Africa began to take off in the years after the war. Portuguese emigration tripled the white population of Mozambique and quadrupled that of Angola between 1940 and 1960.

Initially, even the outbreak of the wars of national liberation spurred economic growth, as the state responded by boosting civil and military investments. All of these changes disrupted the lives of the Africans, and many of them also undermined the few existing bases of support for Portuguese rule.

In 1961 a revolt against forced cotton cultivation broke out in Angola. Fighting escalated with retributions and counter-retributions; it spread to Guinea in 1963 and Mozambique in 1964. The government quickly repealed forced cultivation and forced labor. It also mobilized troops and dispatched them to Africa.

Large numbers of Africans were concentrated in strategic villages (aldeamentos) where their actions could be controlled. In 1961 the United States called on Portugal to decolonize. The insurgents sought and received military aid from the Soviet bloc and China.

In order to fight the leftist insurgency most effectively, the military high command assigned junior officers to read the political tracts of African revolutionary leaders, such as Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau.

To their ultimate surprise, a sizable number of junior officers were convinced that the insurgents were right. Some of them also concluded that Portugal itself was an underdeveloped Third World country in need of "national liberation".

Revolution of The Carnation

A diverse group of disgruntled junior officers in 1973 formed a clandestine political organization, the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas, MFA). On April 25, 1974, the MFA deposed Caetano. The New State collapsed without resistance. Holding red carnations, demonstrators had persuaded other military units not to resist.

The MFA then stepped back, but this proved only temporary. The young officers would soon be in the midst of a political free-for-all to determine the direction of the revolution. They too coalesced into a number of factions built around competing political orientations and personalities.

Captain Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho became the focal point of one radical faction, once styling himself as the Fidel Castro of Europe. Colonel Vasco Gonçalves began as a moderate, but moved to a position close to the Portuguese Communist Party. A moderate faction, later dubbed the Group of Nine, formed around Lieutenant Colonel Melo Antunes.

Finally, further behind the scenes until the last stages of the revolution were the "operationals", a group of officers largely concerned with professional military matters and associated with Lieutenant Colonel António Ramalho Eanes.

The Junta of National Salvation (Junta de Salvação Nacional) was formed from moderate senior officers. General António de Spínola, a former military governor of Guinea-Bissau, was invited to lead the junta as provisional president of the republic.

Palma Carlos, a liberal law professor, was named provisional prime minister. Political parties of all stripes were legalized, and political prisoners were released. Political exiles streamed back into the country.

Cease-fires were arranged in Africa. In one of the most fateful decisions of the new regime, the leaders promised elections for a constituent assembly within a year, the first real elections in over half a century, and with universal suffrage and proportional representation.

The revolution had released popular tensions that had been building up for decades. Turmoil spread quickly in the newfound freedom, and rival power centers competed to control the situation. Spurred on by the newly legalized Portuguese Communist Party, Maoists and other leftist groups and workers staged strikes and seized factories, shops, and offices.

Students took over schools and denounced teachers for "fascist sympathies". Services broke down, and shortages became common. Right-wing groups, especially in the conservative rural north, began to mobilize and arm themselves.

In July the Palma Carlos government collapsed amid the turmoil, and prominent members of the MFA moved into key positions. Carvalho was promoted to brigadier general and put in charge of the army’s new Continental Operational Command (Comando Operacional do Continente, COPCON), which became the principal arbiter of order as the police disintegrated.

Colonel Vasco Gonçalves was appointed to the position of prime minister. The MFA radicals regularly overruled Spínola’s decisions and also forced him to accept the independence of the colonies.

In September a major demonstration planned by Spínola to bolster his position forced a confrontation with COPCON, which resulted in Spínola’s resignation. General Francisco da Costa Gomes, who was more sympathetic to the left, assumed the presidency.

The most radical phase of the revolution began in March 1975. Spínola launched an unsuccessful coup attempt on March 11. In response, the radical wing of the MFA abolished the Junta of National Salvation and formed the Revolutionary Council (Conselho da Revolução), some 20 officers responsible only to the MFA Delegates’ Assembly.

The council nationalized the banking system, press, utilities, and insurance companies. With elections for the Constituent Assembly scheduled for April 25, the anniversary of the revolution, the MFA pressed a "constitutional pact" on the six largest parties, which recognized the permanent supervisory role of the MFA in a "guided" democracy.

Turnout was high for the elections, in which 12 parties competed, but the outcome shocked the radicals. The moderate Socialist Party came in first with 37.9 percent, followed by the right-of-center Social Democrats (originally called the Popular Democrats) with 26.4 percent. The Communists, the electoral ally of the MFA radicals, garnered only 12.5 percent.

Talk of Civil War

The MFA responded during the "hot summer" (verão quente) of 1975 by styling itself as a national-liberation movement. In the south, landless agricultural laborers seized large estates and declared them collective farms. Moderate Socialists and Social Democrats resigned from the government. Small freehold farmers formed armed groups, held counterrevolutionary demonstrations, and bombed the offices of leftist parties.

Plans were drawn up for a possible alternative government in the north. COPCON was beginning to disintegrate, and individual army units were under pressure to declare their political orientation. Both society and the MFA itself were becoming increasingly polarized, and there was talk of civil war.

As a consequence of the growing tension, Gonçalves and his government were pressed to resign at the end of August, and they did so. A new, more moderate provisional government was installed.

Dissatisfied with this outcome and determined not to "lose" the revolution, radical paratroopers attempted to organize a coup in November 1975. Like Spínola’s coup attempt, however, this backfired. Lieutenant Colonel António Ramalho Eanes, of the MFA’s professional military faction, led a purge of the MFA radicals. COPCON was disbanded and Otelo, its commander, placed under house arrest.

Eanes was named army chief of staff and made a member of the Revolutionary Council. The "constitutional pact" was renegotiated in February 1976. Elections were held for the new Assembly of the Republic in April, and Eanes was elected president in June with 61.5 percent of the vote in the first round.

The Constituent Assembly sought to avoid both the weak, unstable governments of the 1911 constitution and also the authoritarianism of the 1933 constitution. Based on the French model, the new system called for both an elected president with real powers and an executive prime minister chosen by a majority party or coalition in a freely elected parliament.

The renegotiated constitutional pact still called for socialism as the goal of government and society and institutionalized the legacy of the revolution. Moreover, it retained the Revolutionary Council, still a self-appointed and purely military institution, and gave it the power to safeguard the legacy of the revolution and judge the constitutionality of legislation passed by the civilian government.

The first elected government was led by Mário Soares of the moderately leftist Socialist Party. In 1979 however, a center-right government of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats was elected. The inherent tension between the elected government and the essentially undemocratic council became evident as the cabinet sought to privatize portions of the economy.

After a standoff that lasted roughly from 1979 to 1982, a process of normalization set in and the undemocratic vestiges of the revolution were gradually excised. In particular, a constitutional reform in 1982 abolished the Revolutionary Council and sent the army back to the barracks.

In the elections of 1986 Soares became Portugal’s first civilian president in 60 years, replacing Eanes. Another constitutional reform, in 1989, eliminated the requirement to keep the nationalized sector of the economy.

The moderate Socialist and Social Democratic parties had increasingly come to dominate the political system, reducing the need for multiparty coalitions and increasing the stability of government. Portugal had become a far less hierarchical and far more pluralistic, democratic, and dynamic society than it had been before 1974.

In 1986 the European Economic Community (now the European Union) accepted Portugal and Spain simultaneously as members. The opening to trade, the inflow of European investments for infrastructure and other purposes, and the constitutional changes of 1989 spurred growth and helped transform the economy.

Economic growth surpassed the European average in the 1990s and until 2002. While, like any country, Portugal was not without its scandals, controversies, and disagreements, by the end of the century it had become integrated as a solidly democratic, stable, and respected member of the European community.