The Ambassador in Portugal (MacVeagh) to the Secretary of State


No. 434

Sir: I have the honor to report that I have now been in Portugal for nearly six months during which time I have been able to make contacts with many private individuals in all social ranks, as well as with many officials, including the President and the Prime Minister, other Ministers of State, provincial governors, senior and junior secretaries, police chiefs, military and naval leaders, and so forth. Accordingly, it would seem that I should now be in a position to express some views on what is always a vital subject for determination by any chief of diplomatic mission, namely the prevailing local attitude toward the United States.

From my experience here, I cannot doubt that a wide-spread liking for America exists among the lower classes of Portugal. This liking is due not only to the natural freedom-loving character of a maritime people, but more particularly to kinship with emigrants who send home periodic remittances. From this kinship and its benefits, the fisherman, peasant, laborer, shop assistant, taxi driver, household and hotel servant, and even the small business owner, derive the same idea of the United States as a land of blessed opportunity which is entertained by similar persons the world over; and in this connection, the effort of communist propaganda to orient the lower classes in the direction of Russia finds an obstacle in the feeling of many of those who are being propagandized that they have personal knowledge of something better. On the other hand, in the higher ranks of society, the nobility, landlords, bankers, ship-owners, industrialists, and even professors, there is less direct contact with the United States and consequently less appreciation. Family ties among these classes are apt to be European, or perhaps Brazilian; they almost never extend to North America. Culturally, the type of Portuguese “high life” is continental, and predominantly French rather than Spanish, despite the contiguity of Spain; even England, though Portugal’s secular ally and repeated savior from continental threats of conquest and absorption, has made little if any impression on the manners and thinking of the rich. Finally, in official circles, this fundamental difference between the lower classes and their “betters” is reflected in a favorable attitude among the generality of minor functionaries, both civil and military, toward our growing importance in European affairs, and a corresponding feeling of reserve and caution, and even occasionally of jealousy and resentment, on the higher levels. On such [Page 1013] levels, including the highest, these latter feelings are masked under an attitude of friendliness often quite unreflected in action.

While the above is only a very summary presentation of a complex situation, I feel its main lines may be regarded as correct. They indicate that the Portuguese people can be properly classed as pro-American generally speaking, and they explain why casual American visitors and “small-time” business representatives, prospecting engineers, writers of travel literature, and so forth, often conceive the idea that Portuguese friendship for the United States is “something to write home about.” Unfortunately, however, they also indicate where such an idea is likely to be misleading if applied to Portugal as a whole, since it does not derive from contacts with the ruling class. Of course, a strong trend of popular opinion must exert some influence on the conduct of any country. But the pro-Americanism of the general Portuguese public hardly falls in such a compelling category. There is nothing passionate or imposing about it, and thus, for all practical purposes, the superior directors of public action are free to develop their conceptions without giving it more than occasional lip-service. Actually, in the determination of what is at present under discussion, namely the Portuguese attitude toward the United States, popular liking for America must be regarded as a negligible factor, and the basic question to be answered has only to do with the reactions of the elite.

Who constitute this “elite”? One can hardly include in its ranks any substantial number of the old nobility (there is no new ennobling process going on). Restricted in numbers, and oriented almost wholly towards the past, of which it is both socially and economically a mere survival, this class contributes little if anything to the management of the country from which it sucks its life. Where the effective direction of Portuguese thinking lies is in the substantial upper middle-class, blessed (or cursed) with the same thoroughly European education as the nobility, but actively engaged in trade. It is this class whose sons obtain most of the high preferments in the military forces, and it is this class which furnishes the important functionaries in the civil establishment of a country where government service is greatly underpaid.

It should not be imagined, in this connection, that Portugal, which escaped most of the effects of the French Revolution, is essentially changed today from what she was in the 18th century, though she is now called a “corporative state.” This phrase means that the state is now run theoretically by representatives of all occupations for the coordinated good of the whole community. But in fact the present system is only a mask for a thoroughgoing dictatorship in the hands of [Page 1014] the more substantial citizens, whose leaders decide what that coordinated good may be. The corporations indeed have advisory powers, but control in all matters of state, both internal and external, lies with ministers appointed from among those whom Cicero would call the “Optimates” and Juvenal (more bitterly) “Those who have sufficient cash to qualify as knights.” Governments rise and fall on the basis of an inveterate factionalism in the armed forces which reflects nothing more national than the conflicting ambitions and jealousies of the well-to-do. Popular suffrage exists, but is again a mere mask for a situation which has obtained ever since wealth first flowed in from discoveries overseas and riches rather than arms became the main support of power. Thus, as might be expected, the present regime itself is the outcome of highly restricted factional strife, and that it has continued to rule for twenty years is only because the fiscal policies of Dr. Salazar have brought satisfaction on an exceptionally wide basis to dominant but usually conflicting groups. It is not likely to survive a day after the “wizardry” of this performance lapses, and Dr. Salazars whole course of action indicates that he himself realizes where the necessities of his position lie, since, while balancing the budget for so many years, he has done little to modernize the country’s social system and has spent only a minimum of revenue on public education.

Under these conditions, what of the prevailing attitude toward us? No matter what she calls herself, present day Portugal, still ruled by the moneyed successors of her merchant princes and their hangers-on in commerce and finance, is practically what we call, in modern terms, a fascist state, which is itself only a new name for the kind of state exemplified by ancient Rome in the scandalous days of the later Republic. Since her ruling class believes in government only as a means for its own advancement and protection, limits its view of legitimate change to factional alteration at the public trough, and very generally regards its colonies chiefly as areas for financial exploitation, it can hardly do otherwise than view with alarm the increasing involvement of democratic and progressive America in European affairs. The United States, child of the 18th century “enlightenment,” asks cooperation, but can little Portugal cooperate safely, even in fancy modern dress, with a great country possessing so different a social and governmental structure? Cooperation involves a certain intimacy. What if Portugal should become Americanized in the process? Here is certainly cause for apprehension to all the Portuguese “optimates,” and the very eagerness of the United States in offering its powerful friendship, genuinely kindly as we know this eagerness to be, can only add an element of distrust to their alarm. I think that most Americans of long experience in Portugal have sensed behind the politeness and hospitality [Page 1015] of their contacts here a certain attitude of alien reserve whenever governmental cooperation is discussed. This is generally put down to an exaggerated spirit of “nationalism” on the part of the Portuguese people. But the people as a whole have no such exaggerated nationalism, otherwise there would be no necessity for the efforts of the authorities, including the Prime Minister, to drum it up, as they do, on all occasions. What is involved is a defensive attitude, common to the whole class of which I have been speaking (and which supports the present Prime Minister only because of his services to itself) against anything which might disturb the elite of Portugal in its ancient preserves.

Of course this attitude is directed against others as well as against us, but it is perhaps more marked in our case than in that of the other democratic Western Powers because of our presently emergent greatness. Actually, the Portuguese elite are far more afraid of Russia than they are of the United States, and if they had to choose between democracy and communism would certainly choose the former. Furthermore, they almost unanimously look on the United States as the only hope of the world against communistic advance. But for all that, until they have to choose, they would wish to defer the choice. Hence, they are not likely to go further in friendship toward the democratic powers, and particularly towards the United States at the present time, than immediate and practical urgency may seem to them to demand. The coldness with which Dr. Salazar has always judged our friendly and cooperative advances is not only symptomatic of his personal character but evidence of this fundamental attitude of those who, to all intents and purposes, constitute the Portuguese nation.

Summary and conclusion. On the basis of my experience here, I believe that the Portuguese people of the lower classes are friendly to the United States, owing chiefly to their emigrant connections and accruing advantages. However, neither this class nor the nobility, which takes little part in affairs, can be said to determine the country’s attitude toward the United States. This is rather the function of the commercial and banking classes which have for centuries disposed of the country’s wealth and manipulated the government and the army. The rule of these classes renders Portugal today essentially a fascist state, fearful of the advances of communism and trusting to the power of the United States for protection if necessary, but also fearful of the possible undermining influence of democratic contacts. Official emphasis on “nationalism” and on the shibboleth of “sovereignty”, which is always invoked at the slightest mention of cooperation with the West (but not with Spain), stems fundamentally from this deep source of caution and not from any personal idiosyncrasy of official spokesmen. [Page 1016] By the same token, this caution is not likely to be voided by mere sentimental advances, or to yield to arguments based on the desirability of saving the world for democracy. Perhaps, therefore, it would be wise, in dealing with Portugal in the future, to keep these things in mind and avoid anything but the strictest realism in our attempts to influence decision on her part by (as Ellery Stowell defines diplomacy) “creating the impression of the existence of a compelling motive.”

Respectfully yours,

Lincoln MacVeagh