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Document Friday: The US Military had “a contingency plan to take over” Portuguese Islands!?

November 19, 2010

Mario Soares, not Alexander Kerensky.

Pentagon Had Contingency Plan to “Seize” the Azores in 1975 In Event of Communist Takeover of Portugal

Information recent declassified by the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) sheds light on a hitherto obscure aspect of U.S. policy toward Portugal after its April 1974 revolution.   At issue was a memorandum of conversation between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger on 22 January 1975. The document is held in the files of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.[1] On the first page, after Kissinger makes a gloomy appraisal of the Portuguese situation, Schlesinger makes a comment that was excised.  Earlier this month ISCAP reversed the excision in response to a mandatory declassification review appeal by the National Security Archive.[2] So what were they hiding?

Kissinger and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger had routine breakfast meetings to discuss current business and when they met on 22 January 1975 Portugal was the first item on the agenda.  With the political direction of Portugal uncertain during 1974 and 1975, Pentagon contingency planners had gone to work developing scenarios for U.S. actions in the event of developments such as a Communist coup.  Tacitly acknowledging the need for initiatives to protect U.S. interests in Portugal –especially air field in the Azores, the archipelago of islands 900 miles off the country’s coast– Kissinger commented, “We should have a program.”   He then pessimistically declared that “There is a 50 percent change of losing it.”  To that Schlesinger responded, “We have a contingency plan to take over the Azores.”  He parenthetically noted, “That would be stimulating Azores independence.”

The Kissinger-Schlesinger conversation must be understood in the context of U.S. policy toward Portugal in the months after the April 1974 revolution. Led by insurgent military officers, the “Carnation Revolution” overthrew the autocracy that António de Oliveira Salazar had established in the early 1930s.  With some elements of the military close to the pro-Moscow Portuguese Communist Party, Kissinger worried that the new government led by General Vasco dos Santos Gonçalves would turn hard-left with the Communists calling the shots.  If Portugal, a NATO member, went Communist, Kissinger would declare, expulsion from the Alliance could follow.  [For Kissinger’s concerns, see background paper]  To strengthen the Mario Soares and the Socialist Party, the British Labor Governments and the West German Social Democrats secretly provided financial subsidies.  While Kissinger distrusted recommendations for a center-left government, and absolutely opposed Communist participation in a coalition government, he may also have supported clandestine support for the Socialists and other moderate elements He noted that he saw Soares as a “Kerensky” figure who would fail to check the  Communists.  Kerensky, of course, was the prime minister of Russia until Lenin and the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace.  When Soares told Kissinger that “We have no desire to become Communist,” the Secretary of State replied, “Neither did Kerensky.”[3]

Lajes Air Force base from cooperscastle.com

One element of the situation that was especially worrisome for U.S. policymakers was control of the Azores.  For years, the Portuguese had provided access to Lajes airfield, which proved vital during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War because it facilitated the transit of U.S. aircraft carrying military supplies to Israel (other NATO allies failed to cooperate).  The base agreement with Portugal expired in 1974, while negotiations had stalled nevertheless Lisbon continued to provide access to Lajes.  Meanwhile, some Azoreans were interested in greater political autonomy, possibly even taking the independence route just as other Portuguese overseas territories, such as Angola, Mozambigure, and Guinea-Bisseau.  While some Americans of Portuguese descent (many from the Azores) supported independence, according to Kissinger, the U.S. position was one of “strict neutrality.”  The implication of the Pentagon contingency plan was that the US could quickly end their “strict neutrality,” should it choose.

The details of the contingency plan are unavailable, but are presumably in files held by the Pentagon.  In any event, the concerns that informed the planning on the Azores proved to be exaggerated because Mario Soares and the socialists had more staying power and more and political skills than Kissinger had appreciated.   National elections held in the spring of 1976 would make Soares prime minister.  A few months earlier, Kissinger told him that “what you have done surprised me. I must admit this. I often don’t make mistakes of judgment.”[4]


[1]The file copy of the Kissinger-Schlesinger conversation can be found at the Gerald R. Ford Library, Gerald R. Ford Papers. National Security Adviser. Memoranda of Conversation, box 8, January 22, 1975 – Kissinger, Schlesinger.  Hitherto excised passages are marked with red lines.

[2] The remaining excised passage concerns U.S. aid to the French nuclear program.  The excised phrase on page 3 may a reference to nuclear weapons design information because, as Kissinger responded, that would require a “legal change” of the Atomic Energy Act.  The United States, however, could provide “negative guidance” to questions from the French to steer their thinking in the right direction.  That the United States had provided assistance to the French in this form was first disclosed by Richard H. Ullman in “The Covert French Connection,” Foreign Policy 75 (1989): 3-33.  Other previously excised passages refer to a war game for a U.S.-Soviet confrontation in Iran involving the use of nuclear weapons on a selective basis, discussions of the Cambodia situation including a possible reference to intercepts of French communications, irritation over the British leak of Oman’s offer to Washington of Masirah island, Kissinger’s skepticism on the Israeli stance on the Sinai negotiations, and the position that he was “tempted” to take –encourage the Israelis to attack preemptively–  if the Soviets sent troops into the Middle East.

[3]Memorandum of conversation, “Secretary Kissinger and President Coast Gomes of Portugal,” 18 October 1974, Digital National Security Archive (DNSA). For Kissinger’s reaction to the Portuguese situation, see, for example, the interviews with Warren Zimmerman, 10 December 196l and Wesley Egan, 28 October 2003, in the Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/diplomacy/index.html.

[4]Memorandum of conversation, “The Secretary’s Meeting with Mario Soares,” 26 January 1976. DNSA.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2010 9:13 am

    Was a very nice article. Thank you very much.

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  1. A U.S. Plan to Invade Portugal? Again? – Nuno Monteiro

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