The Collapse of the Portuguese Empire – The War

The Portuguese colonization of Africa in its contemporary form, dates from the second half of the 19th century, with the Conference of Berlin (1884-85) being a pivotal moment. The colonization of the African territories was marked from its inception by violence against the local populations, including military operations in Angola and Mozambique (the so-called “campanhas de pacificação”) that lasted well into the 20th century.

Ever since the Monarchy, colonization was a vital part of the self-image of the country and its elites. The rising nationalism, common to all sides of the political spectrum, often stressed the historical mission of the empire. The First Republic substituted the Monarchy after the revolution of 1910, but Republicanism was also nationalist, and consequently drawn special attention to the African Empire. Maintaining the colonies was one of the reasons for Portugal to intervene in WWI.

The Republic fell in 1926 to a military coup d’état and was replaced by a Military Dictatorship, which evolved, in 1933, to a different form of dictatorial rule – the Estado Novo, under the leadership of António Oliveira de Salazar, until 1968. The Estado Novo was a conservative, catholic, anti-liberal (socially and economically), anti-communist and anti-parliamentarian regime. There is disagreement among historians as to whether the concept of “fascism” accurately describes the regime. The lack of mass political participation and involvement from the population signifies that this regime was not sustained on a popular movement, a characteristic that largely contributed to the success of fascism in Germany and Italy. Furthermore, after the end of WWII, Salazar relaxed some characteristics of his regime that resembled more extreme ones, in order to maintain his governance.

Salazar supported a colonial Portuguese rule, often referring to the Portuguese empire as an extension of Portugal (“Portugal goes from Minho to Timor”, as the regime propaganda stated). This implied a unitary territory despite the geographical distance and a union between the people that inhabited those lands. This notion of a unitary nation that the regime maintained is important in understanding why the government harshly handled any type of dissent.

The craving for independence in the territories under rule from the European powers reached its highest point in the aftermath of WWII. Local nationalist movements grew, and independence was given or conquered, first in Asia and then in Africa, where most countries became independent in the 1960s. The Portuguese colonies were similar in that the independentism grew in those decades, aided by a growing native elite that was educated in Europe and exposed to these new ideas, as well as contacted with the opposition to the dictatorship.

The first armed conflict was the annexation of the Indian colonies. The British left India in 1947, granting independence to India and Pakistan. Until 1954, the French would peacefully hand over their colonies to the Republic of India. The only remaining European power present in the region was Portugal, with the control of three cities – Goa, Daman, and Diu. After years of failure of political decisions (the idea of a referendum in the Portuguese territories was vetoed by some figures of the regime, and negotiations with India failed) and violent border clashes, Nehru opted for a military annexation in December 1961. The Portuguese troops were urged to fight until death, but the Governor-General decided to surrender instead, due to the lack of weapons and men to repel the better equipped and larger Indian army. The occupation had a large moral blow on the rest of Portugal. The regime would not recognize the former Portuguese territories as part of India until its fall in the democratic revolution of 1974. The events in India showed the regime would not drop the idea that the colonies were an integral part of Portugal and prelude the armed reaction in Africa.

The war came to the African colonies in the beginning of the 1960s. Nationalism and independentism grew in popularity as more and more countries became independent in the continent. Even the UN formally recognized the right to auto-determination of colonies in 1960. At the same time, the Cold War would  influence these events. As the Portuguese regime became more and more isolated on the international stage, the two superpowers (USA and USSR) aligned themselves with the resistance movements. These movements were formed in the 1950s in Guinea and Angola, while the Mozambican ones were formed at the beginning of the 1960s. The USSR gave support to PAIGC (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde), MPLA (Angola), and FRELIMO (Mozambique), while the USA supported FNLA and UNITA (Angola). There were competing ideologies in the independence struggles. As with most conflicts around the world in the second half of the last century, the Cold War provided a decisive background. The superpowers’ involvement was also clear in the civil wars that occurred after independence.

It is beyond the reach of this article to provide detailed information on the military side of the war, which was a particularly bitter and violent conflict. This article seeks to understand how the war was a decisive aspect in the fall of the Estado Novo. It caused a lot of structural problems to the regime and to the Portuguese society. Its consequences were political and ideological, but also material, economic and human.

The war contributed to the international isolation of the regime and brought to the surface many tensions within it. In the 1960s, signals of opposition became clearer, even though Salazar managed to maintain its grip on power. In 1961 there was a failed military coup d’état to depose Salazar and over the years the opposition to the regime grew mostly due to opposition to the war. At the same time, the war presented an enormous economic cost to the nation, imposing major expenditures to the state and limiting the economic growth in the 1960s, which was crucial for a country that was trailing behind the economic and social development of its European counterparts. Furthermore, the human costs were also massive counting more than 8,000 deaths and thousands of psychologically and physically wounded, in the Portuguese Empire.

The regime was further disturbed by Salazar’s declining health which led to his substitution by Marcello Caetano, in 1968. An expectation of social reforms and liberalization of the regime was created. Indeed, as soon as he became President of the Council (equivalent to the current position of Prime-Minister), he had a series of initiatives to increase the communication with the people, to positively influence public perception of the regime and to create a feeling of proximity. However, censorship, repression, and political suppression remained. In that sense, the so-called Marcellist Spring failed.

The regime faced an ongoing crescendo of social tensions in the university students’ community and within the ranks of the military. The political opposition was more organized and vocal in its protests. The great protests by university students after 1968 were in large part motivated by hostility to the war. Even more dangerous to the government, between 1969 and 1974, in the ranks of the military, desertions, protests, and insubordination became common. This unrest showed the atmosphere of opposition against the war that led to the creation of the Armed Forces Movement and, eventually, the overthrow of the government.

Regarding the war and its potential resolution, Marcello Caetano was stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, he firmly believed that ending the war abruptly was the wrong decision as he dreaded the idea of having the pro-independence factions taking control of the colonies. Even if he wanted to transition away from the war by negotiating with the pro-independence factions, he would likely not have the support of Américo Thomaz (the President of the Republic) and other figures of the regime,  risking the loss of his power. On the other hand, Marcello Caetano seemed to know that the tensions brought about by the war were a powder keg waiting to explode. And so accordingly, they did, on April 25th, 1974.

Documentary Suggestion: “A Guerra”

Sources: Arquivos RTP; Diário de Notícias; Sábado; Judith E. Walsh, A Brief History of India, Lambert Mascarenhas, Goa’s Freedom Movement; Luís Pedro Melo de Carvalho, O Movimento dos Capitães, o MFA e o 25 de Abril: do Marcelismo à Queda do Estado Novo; Pamela Peres Cabreira, Contra o Estado Novo: manifestações e organizações em Portugal no período marcelista (1968-1974); Encyclopedia Britannica; Wikipedia

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