David Frum is wrong, the Salazar regime’s “biggest project” was a success
Like it or not, we all live in the shadow of the American empire. And apparently, America has reached the point where it’s having Salazar discourse.
The trigger for this seems to have been “Waiting for Salazar”, a review of Tom Gallagher’s new biography of António de Oliveira Salazar, the dictator who governed Portugal from 1933 until his death in 1970.
As the traditional right-wing coalition breaks up, the Estado Novo regime he established apparently appeals to a section of the religious right. As this scathing counter-view points out, the original subhead the American Conservative attached to the review was: “Portugal’s 20th-century philosopher-king may be the ideal model of a leader for our times.”
Suffice to say, there are plenty of reasons not to adopt this Iberian holdout of New Order Europe as a model, even when exploring “liberalism’s alternatives”. So it’s interesting that one high-profile American commentator opted to ignore all of them in favour of one metric on which pre-revolutionary Portugal seems decisively to outperform modern America: war.
In a thread to his 980.7 thousand followers, David Frum wrote:
It’s weird to read US right-wingers praise for the Salazar regime in Portugal with no mention — or even any apparent awareness — that the regime’s biggest and most expensive project was to fight and lose three massive, bloody colonial wars in Africa between 1960 and 1974.
This refers to Salazar’s efforts to hold together what the regime referred to as pluricontinentalismo — the idea that Portugal was a “pluricontinental and multiracial nation”, a unitary state spanning the globe — via a series of brutal colonial wars in what are today Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique.
It is perhaps not surprising that Frum, as a former speechwriter to President George W Bush, should be preoccupied by the ability to project power and export values by force as a metric of national worth.
All three of the territories he mentions actually gained independence after the Carnation Revolution had toppled the Estado Novo
But it is perhaps more surprising that he didn’t decide to buttress his grand theory of the Estado Novo with a quick Google. Because contra his claim, “the regime’s biggest and most expensive project” was — at least in military terms — a success.
Frum claims that the Salazar system was propped up by the spoils of empire and collapsed once that empire was lost. In fact, all three of the territories he mentions gained independence in 1974 or 1975, after the Carnation Revolution had toppled the Estado Novo.
Moreover, the wars in these territories were ruinously expensive. Far from it being the case that “Salazar’s wish for a frozen Portuguese social order — dominated forever by landlords and bishops — could only be kept afloat by the profits of empire”, as Frum suggests, it would almost certainly have been more cost-effective to effect a managed handover in the colonies rather than spending half of Portugal’s GDP on the war.
In fact, the causality is the reverse of what Frum suggests. Rather than collapsing following the loss of empire, the Estado Novo regime finally exhausted the patience of the Portuguese people, in large part due to the personal and financial cost of colonial conflict. The post-revolutionary government then dismantled the empire.
Remarkably, the Portuguese military had actually won the war on the ground in both Angola and Mozambique, and fought the rebels to a stalemate in Guinea.
Whilst this may neither have been morally justifiable or strategically wise, from a purely technical standpoint it is astonishing that a small country of around eight million people managed to fight three Vietnams at once, let alone win two. Contrast this with the track record of Frum’s America, which in the Bush era tried to fight merely two wars concurrently and, if the Taliban do succeed in taking control of Afghanistan again, has lost at least one.
It is astonishing that a small country of around eight million people managed to fight three Vietnams at once
(Although given the vast disparity in size between Portugal and the United States, it would be fairer to wonder how Bush’s wars would have played out if they’d been prosecuted by, say, New Jersey.)
Now there are good reasons that the US doesn’t seem to enjoy the same “state capacity” as Salazar’s Portugal when it comes to warfighting, chief of which is that it’s a democracy without conscription. And it seems unlikely that “post-liberal” right-wingers would win many converts with the case that if only we traded away our domestic freedoms, we could prosecute even more unpopular foreign wars.
But if Frum is genuinely wondering why right-wingers praising the Estado Novo don’t mention that “the regime’s biggest and most expensive project was to fight and lose three massive, bloody colonial wars in Africa between 1960 and 1974”, it’s probably because it’s ahistorical rubbish.
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