Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Frank Carlucci: Helping Block the Communists in Portugal

After decades of right-wing dictatorship, Portugal faced a threat of a takeover by communists in the mid-1970s.  Ambassador Frank Carlucci, who went on to become Secretary of Defense, headed up efforts to prevent the first loss of a NATO member state to the alliance’s political and ideological foes.  That meant engaging with parties and politicians across the political spectrum, engaging the Portuguese press, and working hard in Washington to convince a skeptical Henry Kissinger that non-communist Portuguese leftists — notably the socialist Foreign Minister Mario Soares — had a realistic chance to prevail.  The downfall of dictatorship in 1974 led to two years of political confusion in Portugal, the independence of Portugal’s African colonies, and the emergence of a Socialist government led by Soares following free elections in 1976. And Portugal remained in the NATO alliance.

Carlucci’s anti-communist political strategy proved effective.  Carlucci went on to become the Deputy Director of the CIA under President Carter (1978-81), the White House National Security Advisor (1986-87) under President Reagan, and finally the Secretary of Defense (1987-89), also under Reagan.  Carlucci retired in 1989.

Ambassador Frank Carlucci was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy, beginning on  December 30, 1996.

Read Ambassador Frank Carlucci’s full oral history HERE and HERE.

Drafted by Jamie Smith

“There was a lot of unrest in Portugal and the feeling was that Portugal might be the first NATO country to go communist.”

Communist Influence During Portugal’s Transition to Democracy: In retrospect it is quite clear that [Portugal’s] president was a communist sympathizer, the prime minister was a communist, the top military structure was controlled by communists, the labor unions were controlled by the communists, most of the government was communist. There was a lot of unrest in Portugal and the feeling was that Portugal might be the first NATO country to go communist. It was quite a tense situation with a lot of demonstrations in the streets. So, it was something that needed urgent attention. Henry Kissinger had been dissatisfied with the previous ambassador, Stewart Nash Scott, and had summarily removed him. I was given very little time to get out there [in 1975].  The Desk pretty much confined itself to the facts of the situation. It was clear that Henry Kissinger felt that the situation was that Portugal was at least a pre-communist state. It is no secret that he called Mario Soares a Kerensky [a moderate Russian political figure displaced by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia] at the time, and I think that accurately reflected his views.

“I had a few tense meetings where I told him quite frankly that his statements were pushing Portugal into the arms of the communists.”

Tension in U.S. Strategy Development: Henry didn’t have a lot of faith in the socialists. But he did agree in the outset that we could have some modest aid programs to Portugal.  He felt I should have some tools to work with. I gradually became convinced that there were strong forces pushing against the current trend in Portugal. There were a number of considerations. Portugal was not adjacent to the communist bloc. The ties to the West and NATO were strong. The Church was influential, not in the hierarchical sense but at the village level. The people were by and large conservative and they were interested in protecting their economic interests. I thought the electoral process could serve to undermine the communist control of the country. There were a lot of skeptics about that. That was in essence the nature of the dialogue between Embassy Lisbon and the State Department, with a number of people in the State Department feeling it was probably best to write Lisbon off and teach them a lesson in order to protect the rest of the countries in Europe.

They [the Pentagon] showed a clear interest in the Azores which were essential in those days to any kind of airlift to the Middle East. They were very protective of their equity in the Azores. There probably were elements — certainly there were elements in the Congress — who were intrigued with the idea of Azorean separatism. Some, including one person within my own embassy, were intrigued with the idea of cooperating with the extreme right. I took a very firm stand against that.

Frankly it took a number of meetings in June, 1976, with me and Henry Kissinger, for us to reach a meeting of the minds. Henry was coolly critical of what he regarded as my willingness to bet on the democratic parties which he didn’t regard as very strong at that point and he had made a public derogatory comment about me which emerged as headlines in the press.

I think it was something along the lines of “whoever told me Carlucci was a tough guy?” I had a few tense meetings where I told him quite frankly that his statements were pushing Portugal into the arms of the communists and his response was, “Well, if you are so goddamn smart, you make the statements,” to which I said, “Fine, I will.” I had some discussions with the White House as well because I believed I worked for the President, not just the Secretary of State.

I was well acquainted at the White House having been an Under Secretary of a major department, so had some discussions there. The next time I met with Henry he said something to the effect that the President had asked to see me.

Quite frankly at that meeting Henry did say that he would give my policy option a chance, he would back me. So, I told him there was no reason for me to go to the White House. Henry couldn’t have been more supportive from that day on. He had been highly critical up until that day, but once we reached a meeting of the minds, a joint decision, he gave me practically everything I wanted, all the support I needed. It turned out that the electoral process worked, and as history has demonstrated, the socialists came in. The socialists ran a campaign of privatization, an undoing of much of what the communists had done.


Implementing an Anti-Communist Strategy:  First of all you try to shape up the embassy. I gave that task to [Deputy Chief of Mission Herb Okun]. The natural tendency for people like Herb and myself, is to do the reporting ourselves, which we did for a couple of weeks because there was no other option. Then I told Herb he had to stop rewriting cables and start sending them back to the drafters and tell them to redraft them and how to redraft them until we got people trained. He had to set schedules, he had to set goals. We had to be very precise as to what we wanted out of the staff.

Secondly, I began to work on an AID program. I had a lot of trouble with AID, they wanted to send me flocks of people instead of programs. But, we worked that out. I got a good AID director and I started to design AID programs myself.

Thirdly, I began a rather intensive campaign of getting to know the political figures. I would make it a goal of meeting at least two or three political figures a day. I would just call them up and setup appointments, invite them to lunch, invite them to dinner. So, I became quite well-acquainted.

Fourthly, I made myself accessible to the press, too accessible according to Washington. But it had a major impact on public opinion, the fact that I was open. The fact that I spoke Portuguese helped. To my recollection no previous ambassador had spoken Portuguese. That began to create a positive image. There were all kinds of charges about the CIA. The communists put out a book, two inches thick, called “Dossier CARLUCCI: CIA.” There was one press conference where I answered all these charges. The questions were so slanted that even the communist minister of information jumped in at one point and said, “Now look, you can’t expect the ambassador to constantly answer negatives to prove that he is not part of the CIA.” But, the fact that I was open, I think had a major impact.

Finally, I quietly established lines with the Church. Not that I ever asked them to do anything, but I would go over and talk with the Archbishop quietly, have lunch with him, and came to understand what the Church’s view was. I regarded the Church as being very important and indeed the so-called counter-revolution did start with the village priests in northern Portugal, so the Church played an important role.


Shortcomings of the Communist Party: [The communist party had] very erratic leadership. I spent many, many hours in long debates and discussions with the prime minister, Vasco Gonçalves, who liked to argue and had a very Marxist point of view, but he was erratic and disorganized as could be. The president, Costa Gomes — when I had a briefing in the State Department, the desk said that the one hope was Costa Gomes. When I had had about two meetings with Costa Gomes, I went back to my desk and wrote a cable saying he isn’t any hope at all. At best he is a dead loss and at worse he may be a sympathizer. Indeed, subsequent events have borne out the fact that he was a sympathizer. So, I didn’t have a lot of tools in the government to work with other than Mario Soares who was the foreign minister but later took to the streets.

There were other democratic parties that I worked with very closely — the CDS (Christian Democrats) and the PSD (Social Democrats). The PSD later became critical of me, but I worked very closely with them in the early days. My theory was that I was not favoring one party over another. What we needed to do was to support all of the democratic parties.

The communist leader, Alvaro Cunhal, although capable, was a bit of a Western asset because he was a very vain man who had spent so many years in Czechoslovakia that when he returned he behaved in a very non-Portuguese way. The Portuguese are not vain people. But Cunhal was a little imperious, he felt that the job had already been done. So, the communists overplayed their hand.

Secondly, there were splinter groups basically to the left of the Communist Party. The MRPP, indigenous Marxist groups that did such foolish things as seize the Catholic radio station for which the Communist Party got blamed. So you had the head of the Communist Party, Alvaro Cunhal appearing on television saying that he wasn’t anti-Catholic. Well, nobody believed that. So they committed a number of mistakes and indeed part of my lecture to my Portuguese friends was to allow the communists to make their mistakes.

“At one point they were on the verge of breaking into the embassy and I issued orders to use tear gas.”

Coup Attempt: There was a coup attempt, I guess it was a right-wing coup attempt, nobody knows much about it, on the 15th of March, 1975. That evening we were all in the embassy and there were demonstrators out in the street. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho went on television and said that the American Ambassador had been behind the coup attempt and that he had no intention of protecting me. I got him on the telephone and said, “First of all I want to make sure that is what you said,” and he said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, you understand that that is the equivalent of declaring the American Ambassador persona non grata.” He said, “No, I didn’t understand that.” I said, “Well, that is not your job.” He said, “What is my job?” I said, “Your job is to protect the American Ambassador and you made me a virtual target.” We went on in that vein for a while and he finally said, “What should I do?” I said, “Well, you had better protect me.” To my surprise he sent some troops over to my house. I was always nervous as to whether they were there to protect me or for some other purpose.

Sure, there were a number of threats and there were demonstrations virtually two or three times a week. At one point they were on the verge of breaking into the embassy and I issued orders to use tear gas. At one point they caught me in my automobile and started rocking it. The State Department sent me a lot of security. We went through all that.

It [the coup] was the rabble in the streets. In fact, I became fairly close to some of the original coup plotters, Melo Antunes and Vitor Alves, even Vasco Lorenzo. I spent a lot of time with them and was convinced that even they were not happy with the turn the events had taken even though they were all on the left side of the spectrum. I think those contacts at least helped to neutralize them, if nothing else.


Instilling Hope in the Portuguese: The first meeting I had with Mario Soares he came around to my house. I will never forget it. It was an evening and I had been there only a day or two. I think he was foreign minister at the time. He was very down. When he left Herb Okun and I turned to each other and said, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

The Portuguese are wonderful people but a little pessimistic by nature, fatalistic. It is always hard to cheer them up and get them to look at the positive side of things. I set about deliberately to do that, to convince them that things were not lost. I had had a little experience doing that when I headed for Richard Nixon the disaster relief effort after hurricane Agnes where people were totally depressed up in the Wilkes Barre area of Pennsylvania. I went in specifically with the goal of taking a public position and turning around people’s attitudes by telling them that it wasn’t the federal government that was going to do it for them but they were going to do it for themselves. And it was much the same kind of thing in Portugal. Expressing faith in the Portuguese people, expressing faith in the Portuguese leadership that you can do this. That you can be a free country. That you haven’t lost your revolution. It has taken a little detour, but you can work your way out of it. So, the positive outlook I think was extremely important.

“There were all kinds of monitors who came for the elections. In fact it was rather an inspiring sight.”

Success in the Election: The military was turning rapidly into an uncontrollable rabble and the idea was to restore a sense of professionalism, get them back into the barracks, get them out of politics and enable the elections to take place and the civilian leadership to take over. And, that in fact is what happened.

There were all kinds of monitors who came for the elections. In fact it was rather an inspiring sight. I went around a lot of the polls myself and you would see Portuguese standing in line for hours on end to wait to vote. The Portuguese people expressed themselves decidedly. The results were indisputable. With the monitoring that was taking place, including monitoring by the press, it was very difficult to tamper too much with the elections, not that there weren’t irregularities, I am sure.

Well, the socialists won, the communists came in second and the other democratic parties a distant third and fourth. Eventually Mario Soares was elected prime minister.




     Wyoming Seminary 1948

     Princeton University 1952

     MBA, Harvard Business School 1955


Joined the Foreign Service 1956

     Leopoldville, Congo—Political Officer   1960-1962

     Lisbon, Portugal—Ambassador   1975-1978

     Central Intelligence Agency—Deputy Director   1978-1981

     The White House—National Security Advisor   1986-1987

     United States Secretary of Defense   1987-1989


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