171. Telegram From the Embassy in Portugal to the Department of State1

1716. Subj: The Twilight of the Salazar Era.

Prime Minister Salazar’s most recent press interview, given in late April to an obscure Argentine publication and published with maximum play in Lisbon press and in Portuguese Africa during first week of July (Embtel 1642),2 was his most extreme to date. It has set tongues wagging here, and even Portuguese who are stout defenders of the Estado Novo and great admirers of Salazar personally have volunteered their concern over its general tone.
It was not so much Dr. Salazar’s references, contemptuous as they were, in referring to the United States as a country with “insoluble racial problems” which takes it on itself to preach to Portugal on Africa. Nor was it his taunting of the United States on Cuba. He has said similar things in the past. Some of the present language seems to have been lifted directly from earlier interviews such as that of March 1966 with The New York Times (Embassy’s A-371 of 11 April 1966),3 although he has never before been quite so bluntly ill-mannered. De Gaulle has also said scathing things about the U.S., but with more style.

Rather more indicative of change in Salazar’s latest interview was his extreme defensiveness about his own record and about Portuguese policies and postures in general. His statements and strictures in this area were both petulant and unyielding—rigid to the point of rigor mortis.

Is Salazar Senile?

Some of my European colleagues, astonished and appalled at the language used by the Prime Minister, have begun to whisper of senility. While Salazar has during the past year been noticeably showing the weight of his 79 years, and his eye trouble is rather well confirmed, it would still seem premature on the basis of what we know to judge him senile. As of now I would be more inclined to conclude that here is a very old man who is steeped in his self-righteousness and bulwarked in his convictions through his success in manipulating the local power levels firmly for 40 years—an ancient who is increasingly disgruntled and querulous as he sees time running out and himself unable to bring the world (or even substantial and growing numbers of Portuguese dissenters) around to his views as to how the world and Portugal should be ordered—in short, a man who has stayed on too long.

It was precisely this latter mood which members of the Brazilian Foreign Minister’s delegation reported after their week-long, intimate visit here early this month. During a schedule which was crowded but carried off in cozy and confiding atmosphere befitting a mother-daughter reunion, the Brazilians found Salazar active and exercising his old charm and good humor but showing definite slow-down signs as regards physical vigor. They described even official and inner establishment Portuguese as bored with their heavily encrusted government atmosphere and as actively looking forward to end of era. These Brazilian observations parallel Embassy impressions and are in line with views expressed by members of Lisbon’s foreign business community on the basis of their local contacts.

Salazar Mystique Is Still There

This is not to say that Dr. Salazar has lost his hold on affairs or that his mystique has evaporated. In Portuguese spectrum he has been right too many times and been wiser than his critics on too many issues. Indeed his legendary acumen was at work again during recent days in handling of “folded arms” non-strike on Lisbon’s public transportation system, when service was not interfered with while conductors simply refused to accept fares. After allowing this essentially jolly situation to go on for several days, government by fiat decided it was time for company (fact that company was predominantly English-owned made action easier) to accept bulk of wage demands. After this action the workers promptly appeared wearing Salazar buttons, and there has since been a carefully staged and widely publicized rally lauding Salazar as friend of working man and dispenser of all good things.

For the moment, Salazar gets credit for having done workers, whom he does not allow to strike, a good turn. If, however, this precedent should come home to roost in terms of increased wage demands now being rumored with respect to locally owned industries, atmosphere [Page 350] could quickly turn un-jolly. Wage pressures seem sure to build up over the months ahead.

A Change of Atmosphere

Without wishing to overstate issue or to get ahead of developments pace of which cannot now be judged, one might say that difference in atmosphere between a year or even a few months ago and now is that Portuguese are coming to admission, which for years they have suppressed, that Salazar is mortal after all. He has been around for so long and handled matters so generally well from narrow, traditional Portuguese point of view that serious people were still saying seriously a few months ago they hoped Salazar would just go on and on and continue to take care of things. One seldom hears this expression of faith nowadays.
The eventual removal—and it must be emphasized that precise rhythm of process cannot be predicted—of what seems to the overwhelming majority of Portuguese their rock of ages inevitably is engendering a certain air of nervousness in the local scene.

It is interesting that this gestating nervousness does not have as a primary ingredient concern over Portugal’s African posture and problems. Even those of the new generation who are increasingly frustrated over home policies, and who have been critical of U.S. involvement in Viet-Nam, strongly support the idea of Portugal in Africa. Although there is inevitable griping over the demands of military service, the cost of the wars in Africa (with the possible exception of Guinea) continues tolerable to the Portuguese in both human and fiscal terms. The national will seems set on staying in Africa, even though more and more people may be coming to accept the inevitability of future political adjustments there. The atmosphere of uncertainty developing locally derives primarily from worries over the future of European Portugal, and does not have at its base concern over Africa.

The Influence of France

This country was badly shaken by the events in France in May.4 It was suddenly and starkly clear at various levels of Portuguese society how easily a strong-man system could be brought to the brink of revolution. Portugal is of course not France. It is presumably easier to hold down the lid in a country like this one, with a largely illiterate and unorganized people under a determined regime served by a pervasive police apparatus and a strictly controlled press.

There have been audible sighs of relief here, both oral and written, over De Gaulle’s rebound, together with much public and private [Page 351] admiration over the way he brought off his recent elections. Informed quarters, however, recognize that there are accounts to pay in France. The Portuguese will be watching French labor adjustments apprehensively with an eye to their influence on the increasingly pressed local wage structure. They will have concern over the significance of educational reforms in France with respect to Portuguese students who have been up to now surprisingly quiescent but who have begun to show restiveness in recent months. There is considerable expectation here of student troubles in the autumn. Disorders in France could trigger something here.

The Succession to Salazar

Despite the general recognition they found among their Portuguese contacts that Salazar can no longer be expected to go on forever, the Brazilians during their recent visit got no more discerning guidelines for the future than the rest of us. Their soundings received the usual stock answer which seems to satisfy Portuguese, i.e., when Salazar goes, the President will appoint another Prime Minister. It seems incredible that men of high professional stature and of important affairs, those who have more at stake than other social classes as regards the future, should not concern themselves more about the shape of things to come. Yet that is overwhelmingly the case.

In the muted speculation which goes on about the succession there is little change in the usual collection of names which continue to be bandied about. There is no indication that Dr. Salazar has given the nod to anyone, and his remark to the Argentine interviewer that his successor would be an “unknown” was not reprinted here. If he has imparted any views on this subject to his faithful chief of state, it is a deeply held secret.

The President of the Republic


Meanwhile, President Thomaz, 73 years old himself, continues to go doggedly about the country doing his patriotic duty as the loyal old sailor that he is—and quite often in his sailor’s uniform. He is a man who always looks like his feet hurt him, but there is no local festival, commercial inauguration or educational happening too minor to merit his presence. At the major Evora Festival recently he drove through the streets of that medieval town, standing in an open car and waving to the crowd for all the world like a candidate for office. The President always gets respectful applause—the Portuguese are a courteous and respectful people—but there was in this basically unstaged reception at Evora some warmth which went well beyond the requirements of protocol. The President of the Republic is a taciturn man who rarely expresses any opinion publicly or in conversations with diplomats other than patriotic sentiments. Although a rather amiable father-type figure who often appears at public functions accompanied [Page 352] by his grandchildren, he gives every appearance on policy matters of being a hardliner. He has close military connections, and certainly his cronies belong to that group. In event of a sudden vacuum his views as to Salazar’s successor could assume key importance.

The Estado Novo Tightens Up

The enigma of the future continues in Portugal, as inscrutable as in Spain. Here at least there is an operating framework which includes both chief of state and chief of government. Whether Salazar will go on for some years yet or whether we are on the threshold of an accelerating deterioration of age which will bring earlier changes, only time will tell. As the regime shows increasing signs of entering its final stage the inner power structure, smugly satisfied with things as they are, has begun in authoritarian style to tighten up, to turn further to the right. Recent public statements by the Saurian Minister of Interior (Embtel 1674)5 have constituted grim warnings to all and sundry to stay in line. I am told that contingency plans of the security forces have been recently revised and toughened in anticipation of student problems in the autumn. The church has also been put on notice.
The initial succession to Salazar, when it comes will require the support of the armed forces and should be largely in his image. However it goes, the immediate successor will lack the immense authority which the present Prime Minister derives from his 40 year rule. The successor may also be of baser metal and lack the personal rectitude which has been one of Salazar’s principal strengths. The successor could be a real dark horse, and there might be several changes in tandem before power finally lodges. In the latter event, strains on military unity might well develop. Assuming an orderly first act after Salazar, the plot could then become more intricate and involved.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 15-1 PORT. Secret; Limdis; Noforn. Repeated to London, Madrid, Paris, and Rio de Janiero.
  2. Dated July 2. (Ibid.)
  3. Not printed. (Ibid., SOC 12-2 PORT)
  4. Reference is to mass demonstrations that nearly toppled President De Gaulle’s government.
  5. Dated July 11. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 15-1 PORT)