98. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Coup in Portugal

The virtually bloodless coup that toppled the government of President Thomaz and Prime Minister Caetano on April 25, 1974 was triggered by Lisbon’s African policies and the divisions within the military to which they gave rise.

The leaders of the rebellion, who called themselves the “armed forces movement,” are virtually unknown, but they are almost certainly middle-level officers devoted to General Antonio de Spinola. After broadcasting an initial proclamation that called for both a liberalization of Portugal’s colonial policies and a restoration of domestic liberties, the rebel junta promptly called on General Spinola to head their movement. Spinola accepted the call, reportedly received an enthusiastic public welcome in Lisbon and, according to the Portuguese radio, has been proclaimed “Head of Portugal.”

Superbly organized and well-led, the insurrectionists took the government by surprise. Loyalist forces offered only token resistance, and after fleeing to the headquarters of the national guard, Thomaz, Caetano, and several other ministers agreed after a few hours of negotiation to go into exile in the Madeira Islands. Thus far the new government appears to be in complete control.

In a speech to the nation on the evening of April 25 Spinola promised to restore power to constitutional institutions once a president of the republic has been elected. Spinola can be expected to run for the post.

Portugal’s most decorated war hero, Spinola is also the author of a book which dared to say that a military solution to the problem of insurgency in the African territories is impossible and a political solution must be found. Spinola also called for a new Portuguese constitution to provide civil liberties and democratic institutions in all areas administered by Portugal. The book created a sensation in Portugal when it appeared last February. It led to a small but abortive “march on Lisbon” in March, and the country has since been gripped by coup fever. De [Page 228] spite Lisbon’s moves earlier this month to arrest various oppositionists, the government apparently was unaware of the magnitude of the internal threat it faced.

As “head of government,” Spinola appears to be off to an auspicious start. His prestige is such that, despite the divisions within the armed forces, he may be able to keep them fully under control. The country, despite the influence of the ruling oligarchs and the radicalism of some of the opposition elements, may be ready for some modest movement toward change at home and abroad.

A reorientation of Portugal away from Africa and toward Europe could be traumatic, although many African and European countries would welcome such a change and allow time for it to take place. Assuming the new government settles fully into power, we do not expect to delay full relations with the Spinola regime. At present, the coup would seem not to have put US interests in danger, and it could possibly provide some near-term benefits for the United States—for example, a possible lessening or end to Portuguese pressure for U.S. weapons for use in the African territories.

Thus far there is little reaction to events in the metropole from the Portugese territories of Africa. The local governments there are urging business-as-usual. The rebel movements have not reacted publicly. They will take a cautious approach to developments and to General Spinola’s announcement he will seek a political rather than military solution to Portuguese African questions. The rebels consistently have demanded complete independence, something they will not give up lightly. White settlers, particularly in Angola, will be increasingly concerned about their own security. Rhodesia and South Africa will face basic policy reassessments since Portugal’s continued military effort against Mozambique insurgents has been seen as a buffer for their own internal security.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 701, Country Files, Europe, Portugal, Vol. II. Secret. Sent for information. Scowcroft initialed for Kissinger. A stamped notation on the first page indicates the President saw it.