H-Diplo Article Review 680 on “Accommodating and Confronting the Portuguese Dictatorship within NATO, 1970-4.”

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Article Review
No. 680

17 February 2017

Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Rui Lopes.  “Accommodating and Confronting the Portuguese Dictatorship within NATO, 1970-4.”  The International History Review 38:3 (2016): 505-526.  DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07075332.2015.1046388.

URL:  http://tiny.cc/AR680

Review by Evanthis Hatzivassiliou, University of Athens

In the past two decades, a new historiography has emerged on the two major Cold-War alliances. Apart from the strategy of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, their war plans, and the policies of their major members, scholars have discussed the institutional evolution and political roles of the two alliances, as well as the flanks and the attitudes of the smaller members. Studies about NATO have also focused on transatlantic relations and the disputes on the infamous ‘out-of-area’ issues.

The article by Rui Lopes is a part of this new bibliography. It is based on impressive, multi-archival research, including Portuguese, British, French, German, U.S., and NATO sources, as well as on a commendable command of the relevant bibliography, not only on Portugal and NATO, but also on the national policies of the other members. The article discusses two salient issues of the early 1970s: the emerging dilemmas in Africa, and the attitude of the other NATO members toward the dictatorships in the alliance (the Portuguese and the Greek dictatorships, as well as the peculiar situation which arose in Turkey after the March 1971 pronunciamento). Thus, the article deals with the tensions which the issue of human rights sparked within the alliance structure.

Lopes shows that Portuguese actions in Africa caused a strong reaction by three smaller members, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. These countries repeatedly attempted to raise the problem of the wars of Portuguese decolonization in the Alliance fora, from the expert working groups, to the North Atlantic Assembly and the ministerial sessions of the Council. They put forward an idealist discourse, pointing to the need for the alliance to serve (and to be seen as serving) the overriding principles of liberal democracy. They tried to appease their radicalized younger generation, but also put forward the argument that NATO’s silence on Portuguese actions in Africa tended to push the African states into the arms of the Soviet Union.

The efforts of the small northern counties were blocked by the major members, the U.S., Britain, France, and West Germany, as well as by the two persons who held the post of NATO Secretary-General, Manlio Brosio and Joseph Luns. Taking a more traditional attitude, they preferred not to rock the NATO boat, and prevented a discussion of the excesses of the Portuguese dictatorship. Lopes offers a series of reasons for this: the importance of the Azores base for NATO communications, the fear that pressure on Lisbon could provoke adverse reactions by the military leaders in Greece and Turkey, the need to counter the Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean. Mostly, the major members gave priority to allied cohesion, especially in view of the détente negotiations with Moscow. Lopes also notes that a denunciation of the Portuguese authoritarian regime might appear awkward at a time when West German Ostpolitik attempted to approach dictatorial regimes in Eastern Europe. In terms of intra-NATO politics, Lopes points to the same pattern that the works of Effie Pedaliu and Konstantina Maragkou have revealed with regard to the Greek dictatorship: in that case, too, the smaller northern NATO members attempted to denounce the 1967-74 junta, but were dissuaded by the larger members, which preferred to avoid intra-alliance public disputes on human rights.[1]

The argument of the article is convincing, well-supported by the evidence, and brings to the forefront the issue of intra-NATO disagreements regarding the role of the alliance as a vanguard of Western representative democracy. It enriches the NATO-related bibliography for the 1970s. As recent scholarship has noted, NATO was not a strictly military structure, but also a value-oriented union. It is thus interesting to discuss why it failed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to uphold its core principles when these were being violated by its own members.

In fact, these new works on NATO and human rights open a new discussion on the alliance, its roles, and its limits. With all its salient characteristics of a political as well as a military organization, NATO was first and foremost an alliance, designed to function in the more traditional domains of the states system. As an alliance, it was based on (and had to serve a logic of) a clear differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them;’ the problem in this case was that the member was a dictatorship, acting ruthlessly in another continent. In practice, the alliance of the early 1970s was not in a position to deal with this challenge. The larger states held that NATO could hardly make sudden leaps such as the one which the idealist small northern members were asking. This could be done in the supranational European Economic Community (with its almost exclusive emphasis on ‘soft power’) or in other intergovernmental organizations dealing with human rights, such as the Council of Europe, but it is debatable if it could have been done in a cumbersome intergovernmental military alliance, in the aftermath of the traumatic French withdrawal from the military command, and in the midst of crucial negotiations with the Soviets. There were some measures that NATO could take: for example, when, after the 1973 Navy Mutiny against the Greek junta, the diplomat George Sekeris (serving in the Greek Permanent Mission to NATO) resigned and faced the regime’s persecution, NATO appointed him as Executive Secretary of the alliance. This was a very dignified, low-key manifestation of disapproval of the Greek dictatorship. But this was as far as NATO felt that it could go against one of its members.

Historiography on the 1960s dealt with NATO’s ability to face the Gaullist challenge and evolve with the adoption of the Harmel Report, which provided for a more participatory alliance structure. This article shows that in the 1970s further adjustments were called for. Lopes does not simply point to a traditional conflict between the ‘idealist’ small northern European members and the ‘realist’ larger ones. The 1970s was a transitory era, when new issues and cleavages appeared in the international arena, and NATO, as one of the major institutions of the West, needed to address them, while at the same time fulfilling its more traditional roles, namely, safeguarding the balance of power. This was a complicated era, and the work of international historians, who will try to formulate comprehensive interpretations of that era and its tensions, is not going to be easy either.


Evanthis Hatzivassiliou received his Ph.D. in International History from the London School of Economics in 1992. He is Professor of Postwar History at the Department of History of the University of Athens. He is a member of: the Academic Committee of the Constantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy; the Publications Committee of the Eleftherios Venizelos Foundation; and the Greek-Turkish forum. His publications include Greece and the Cold War: Frontline State, 1952-1967 (London: Routledge, 2006), and NATO and Western Perceptions of the Soviet Bloc: Alliance Analysis and Reporting, 1951-1969 (London: Routledge, 2014). He currently studies the NATO Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society during the 1970s.

© 2017 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License


[1] Effie G.H. Pedaliu, “‘A Discordant Note’: NATO and the Greek Junta, 1967-1974,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 22:1 (2011): 101-120; ditto, “Human Rights and International Security: the International Community and the Greek Dictators,” The International History Review 38:5 (2016) 1014-1039; Konstantina Maragkou, “Favouritism in NATO’s Southeastern Flank: the Case of the Greek Colonels, 1967-74,” Cold War History 9:3 (2009): 347-366.