the military moment



Civilian leaders always believed that conciliation would deter military leaders from a new assault on legality.

More than in the period 1946-1964, electoral stability between 1989 and 2014 provided the illusion that we were in a mere clash of different values, but anchored in a democratic consensus.[I] A one-sided reading of Gramsci and other authors in social movements and parties supported that assessment.

It is no wonder that the extreme right has mimicked and distorted “Gramscianism” as if the left had a secret cultural strategy of penetrating institutions to subvert them from within. But the electoral left around the world adapted rather than changed the state. Gramsci's proposition that we should take economic structure into account as well as political movements and military forces has been forgotten. Revisiting the History of Brazil demonstrates that this was not a new mistake. The pre-1964 era, with its military mutinies and ideological campaign in preparation for the coup, is an example.


It is after the communist uprising of 1935 that the military found a scarecrow to seek its unity based on anti-communism and on the ideology of hierarchy and discipline, rarely followed by them. They supported the Estado Novo (1937-1945) of Getúlio Vargas until he overthrew it on October 28, 1945, shortly after the day of loyalty in Argentina.

The coincidence is important because Getúlio Vargas had lost the support of sectors of the liberal elite and the tolerance of the military. On the other hand, he had approached his union bases and a labor conception, and the example of Juan Domingo Perón was manipulated by Goes Monteiro to raise suspicions about Vargas, whom he had been betraying.[ii]

The compromise solution was the Dutra government, military and anti-communist, but which did not attack the union corporate structure. The Communist Party of Brazil was made illegal and strikes repressed. But unlike Argentina, the PCB supported Vargas in 1945 and, despite setbacks and oscillations, gradually joined the labor camp.

Getúlio Vargas returned to power in 1950 “in the arms of the people”. Although his victory was contested by politicians from the main right-wing party, the National Democratic Union (UDN), by the conservative press and by military officials, his inauguration was guaranteed by sectors of the army that were still loyalists.

In the same way, after his suicide, faced with the imminence of a military coup in August 1954, a few months after the fall of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and a year before the deposition of Perón in Argentina, the new government of Vice President Café Filho did not have the military support to completely reverse the statist and developmental course of the Vargas Era. In November 1955, after the elections that gave victory to Juscelino Kubitschek, Marshal Teixeira Lott led the military counter-coup that guaranteed the inauguration of the new president.

The new government, with Lott as Minister of War, faced two military seditions of the Air Force in desolate regions of the country: Jacareacanga, in the Amazon region, and Aragarças, in Goiás. In this case, the rebels took refuge in Buenos Aires and Bolivia, and were later granted amnesty. There was also the plot of a kidnapping of the president himself, but that was not put into practice.[iii] Other military attempts followed, some better known as the attempt to prevent the inauguration of João Goulart, others less so, such as the bomb attack at the Soviet Exhibition of São Cristóvão, in 1962 in Rio de Janeiro.

However, two blows with different results express in their particularities a general process that Brazilian society was going through and that seems to have not been interrupted even today: the massification of politics exposed the incompatibility between democracy and the bourgeoisie.


The coup d'état had been carried out in successive waves since August 1954, as the factual narrative of Edgard Carone reveals.[iv] The conspirators were encouraged by the ostensible attitude of Air Force officers, the Catholic Church and most of the press against “communism”; they still made use of organizations created after the election of Vargas. In 1952, the Democratic Crusade emerged, made up of Army officers; the following year, the Clube da Lanterna and the Cruzada Brasileira Anticommunista were founded, both of a civil nature.

On November 1955, 1954, at the funeral of the president of the Military Club, General Canrobert, Colonel Jurandir Mamede gave a speech against the “democratic lie” and “immoral and corrupt pseudo-legality”. Mamede was a well-known political agitator in the barracks and a signatory of the XNUMX Memorial dos Coronéis.[v] Lott, then Minister of War, tried to get Mamede to be punished by Café Filho, but the president alleged health problems, taking a leave of absence. He took over from Mayor Carlos Luz on November 8. Luz did not accept Mamede's punishment and forced Lott to resign.

Historian Nelson Werneck Sodré, at that time a major, wrote that on the night of August 10 to 11, 1955, military leaders with command responsibility gathered in different locations decided to support Lott's continuity in the Ministry of War.[vi] The support of General Odylio Denys, commander of the East Military Zone, was imperative.[vii] On a literally stormy afternoon,[viii] as it rained in buckets, leaders of the civil and military right fled in a breakneck race to the cruiser Tamandaré and the coup was quelled.

The importance of the 1955 counter-coup was to show a serious split in the Armed Forces. A constitutionalist military movement was structured with a central command and regional commands. It established contacts with the press, congress and civil figures and considered itself prepared to respond to various types of coup that could be unleashed.[ix] However, the position of Congress was vital in both 1955 and 1964, as we shall see.

Although the Constitutionalist Military Movement in its internal bulletin pointed out the block of parties (Socialist,[X] Liberal, Christian Democrat and UDN) side by side with the coup, at a crucial moment both the Chamber and the Senate ousted Carlos Luz and, subsequently, Café Filho itself. Thus, he inaugurated the President of the Senate Nereu Ramos, the only authority in the line of succession who accepted to legally hand over power to the elected president Juscelino Kubistchek. Already on October 21, 1955, the leaders of the main political parties had signed a manifesto in favor of legality. Soon after, all party leaders were in the same anti-coup position, with the exception of the UDN.[xi]

Therefore, it was through a combination of military action and parliamentary hegemony that the supporters of legality managed to stop the coup. The military's intervention in political life never took place without collusion with leaders of the civil business, political and media elite. On an exclusively military level, legalism was victorious because the coup leaders represented a serious threat to discipline without there being any expectation of a victorious “revolution” that would excite the Armed Forces as a whole.


The counter-coup was not directed by a military left. Lott acted as a totem of the military establishment, in the sense of Oliveiros Ferreira[xii]. The military establishment is not neutral and depends on a mindset strongly marked by anticommunism. Being “anti” he does not define “pro” in advance and there may be divisions of interests. Another could have been the 1955 solution if the aforementioned Constitutionalist Military Movement had led the counter-coup. Military legalism would have carried out the necessary purges and sanctions, and civilians would have done the same in the three powers. A “revolution within order”. But it wasn't like that.

Obviously the legalism of 1955 can be questioned due to the deposition of a president. But if we go beyond the surface of the facts, we will see that Café Filho conspired against democracy, while Lott defended it. Maria Vitória Benevides stated that legalism was a myth because both in August 1954 and in November 1955, the military's objective would be the same: "to take control of the conduct of the political process". Given the lack of unity, “the real objective of November 11 would have been to postpone that moment”.[xiii]

The later trajectory of the two main leaders of 11/1961 was different. General Denys in XNUMX tried to prevent the inauguration of João Goulart, after the resignation of Jânio Quadros[xiv]; Lott defended legality. Afterwards, he spoke out against changes in the law on profit remittances and the future project Radam (aerophotogrammetry).[xv] The issue, it turns out, is not one of disagreements. internal corporis, because these express indecisions inherent to civil society itself. A coup without the military would be ineffective. But not a purely military one either. Only a civil and military coup could succeed.

Both civilians and officials needed a common blueprint. Oliveiros Ferreira stated that the seditious movement was being defeated because a developing nation “cannot offer just the moralization of administrative customs as a program”.[xvi]

In 1964, the military party relied on the United States and the business elite, promoted extensive ideological propaganda in advance, and formulated a liberal program. Victorious, the right carried out permanent purges both in civilian and military circles. Between 1964 and 1970, 1.487 military personnel were punished, including: 53 general officers and 274 senior officers, 111 intermediate officers, 113 junior officers and 936 including sergeants, non-commissioned officers, corporals, sailors, soldiers and cabin boys.[xvii]

Brazil was not exempt from the tutelage that the US exercised over Latin America. The coup was one among others supported by imperialism. In 1962, Argentina and Peru; the following year Guatemala, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Honduras; and in 1964 Bolivia. Even so, each US intervention was enforced through internal causes of the affected countries.

The dispute for hegemony

In the period 1945-1964, three major parties consolidated established political camps. The PTB occupied the trade union and “popular left” areas with a discourse aimed at urban workers; the PSD occupied the center, without a defined ideology and based on the rural oligarchy and rural landowners. The UDN turned to the middle classes, deluded by state “gigantism” and corruption and defenders of a selective morality.

The UDN maintained permanent conspiratorial contact with a strategic fraction of the middle sectors: military officers, which tinged its liberalism with statism tinctures. A rather ambiguous and pragmatic liberalism. It was only when a regime crisis took hold in 1964 that the majority of the PSD joined the UDN coup d'état and the entire political terrain founded on the developmentalist consensus gave way to conservative modernization.

The PSD was the factor of political stability because its majority did not depend on the acronym or on a program, but on the local government. Just like the MDB[xviii] later he exhibited a "unity without unity."[xx] Its program was merely formal, although it had a reformist group in the “girl wing”: “the fact that the PSD represents power makes the issue of ideology secondary”,[xx] as Edgard Carone wrote.

The PSD guaranteed the support of the colonels,[xxx] although coronelismo was a reality in decline due to the centralization of the State after the Revolution of 1930. The expansion of rural unionization, Peasant Leagues in Pernambuco and agrarian conflicts in São Paulo, Paraná and Goiás, etc. led to the decline of the PSD itself. Udenist and PSD politicians acted within the government structure to block the extension of labor legislation to the countryside.[xxiii]

Brazilian politics, anchored in the advance of the material forces of production, became massive and civil society became more complex, although disarticulated by social inequalities, by regional asymmetries of development, by imperialism, by authoritarian dominant values ​​and, fundamentally, by repression. to the left. There was also a significant change in the balance of power between the parties. The national electorate grew by 18% between 1945 and 1964.[xxiii] PSD and UDN elected around 80% of federal deputies in 1945 and 51% in the 1962 elections. The PTB rose from 7,6% to 28,3% in the same period.

The crisis that led to the 1964 coup, unlike what happened in 1955, had broad participation by Congress, which sought to legalize military intervention by declaring that President João Goulart had abandoned office.

The conflict between a conservative Congress and an executive pressured by reformist demands from social movements intensified in the early 1960s. Business factions joined forces with military conspirators and the press to meticulously prepare for armed intervention.[xxv] The conjuncture that combined structural transformations of the economy and society with the events that precipitated the coup was marked by the reestablishment of presidentialism, the Triennial Plan, the basic reforms, the Civic Vigil and the conflicts of March 1964.[xxiv]

The system of alliances collapsed in Congress because, when the dominant groups believed that their fundamental privileges were in question (ownership of land and total control of business investment decisions), their representatives put the privileges of relationship with the central government and were seduced by the UDN's historic coup engagement. Preemptive counterrevolution now seemed possible. Ultimately, the political costs of previous attempts turned out to be small, as those involved suffered lenient punishments and returned to conspiracy.

Democracy and business

The regime from 1946 to 1964 did not receive a unanimous nomination from the historiography. Edgard Carone called it a “liberal republic”; Pedro Estevam Pomar of “intolerant democracy”; Jorge Ferreira and Lucila Delgado were more optimistic and subtitled one of the volumes in their Brasil Republicano collection “the time of democratic experience”. Carlos Marighela defined the Brazilian republican regime as a “rationed democracy”[xxv].

This difficulty will perhaps reappear with the resumption of criticism that the left made in the 1980s to the term New Republic, which had very little of “new” in it. After all, what kind of Republic depends on the discretion of businessmen and the military every time progressive forces win elections?

The explanation depends on numerous considerations, such as the low level of surplus, imperialism, the geopolitical position, the behavior of the middle classes, the characterization of Latin American societies (western, eastern, hybrid) etc. But if there's one thing you should soon learn, it's that no reformist government survives without a military device. Or rather: without the military party considering that its adherence to the constitutional breach will have a very high cost in economic and corporate terms.

The different attempts from 1954 to 1964 went unpunished because the civilian leaders believed that conciliation would deter military leaders from a new aggression against legality. But it was exactly the opposite: they interpreted civil lukewarmness as a lack of willingness to fully exercise power.

If a future democratic regime uses legality to punish the privileged cliques of the Armed Forces and police that act as a military party, then we will know what to name the next Republic.

* Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History of the PT (Editorial Studio).


[I]Developed version of article originally published in Maria Antonia, USP, Gmarx, Year 01 No. 67/2021.

[ii]Quartim de Moraes, J. “The war, the FEB and the liberal coup”, in: Various authors, Military and politics in Brazil. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2018, p.128.

[iii]Silva, Helio, The Military Power. Porto Alegre, LPM, 1984, p. 167.

[iv]Caron, E. The Liberal Republic. Political Evolution. Political Evolution. São Paulo: Difel, 1985, pp. 90-103.

[v]Document in favor of valuing the Armed Forces and against the 100% increase in the minimum wage proposed by João Goulart, Minister of Labor.

[vi]Sodré, NW Military History of Brazil. São Paulo: Popular Expression, 2010, p. 436.

[vii]It covered the Federal District, Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais. In 1956 it was renamed I Army. The Commands of the Military Zones were: South, Center, East and North, with headquarters in Porto Alegre, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Recife, respectively.

[viii]Folha de S. Paul, 11/11/1980.

[ix]Informative report nº 11, of the Constitutionalist Military Movement, September 10, 1955. Manuscript (typed), Cpdoc Archive, GV dc 1955.09.10

[X]The leader of the Socialist Party, João Mangabeira, later took a position in favor of legality, although without signing the manifesto against the coup. There were sectors of the anti-Vargas left. The PCB itself had opposed the government at various times. But later he supported the candidacy of Juscelino, who was from the PSD. There were leftist intellectuals who supported the coup, like Mário Pedrosa. Caron, E. The Liberal Republic. Political Evolution. São Paulo: Difel, 1985, p.105.

[xi]Silva, H. The Military Power, quoted, p. 103.

[xii]Oliveira Ferreira, Life and death of the Fardado Party, Senac, São Paulo, 2000, p.43.

[xiii]Benevides, MV The UDN and Udenism. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1981, p.139. It should be remembered that, although close to the Getúlio Vargas government, Denys would have “warned” him against handing over a Command in the South of the country to General Estilac Leal. cf. Letter from Ernesto Dornelles to Getúlio Vargas conveying General Denys' apprehension regarding the possibility of General Estilac Leal receiving a military command in the south of the country. Cpdoc, GV c 1953.06.00/1, June 1953.

[xiv]Would Denys have acted in favor of Lott on November 11, 1955 just because he feared that the Constitutionalist Military Movement would launch its own “revolutionary coup, Cf. Carloni, Karla. Armed forces and democracy in Brazil. The 11th of November 1955. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 2012, p.116.

[xv]Folha de S. Paul, 27/5/1984.

[xvi]Apud Oliveira, Eliézer R. “The military as political actors in the work of Oliveiros S. Ferreira”, in: Kritsch, R.; Mello, L. and Vouga, C (Orgs). Oliveiros Ferreira: A Political Thinker. São Paulo: Humanitas/Fapesp, 1999, p.54. Ferreira was specifically referring to the August 1954 coup.

[xvii]Vasconcelos, Claudio Beserra de. The nationalist trajectory of the expelled officers after the 1964 coup. Anais do XXVI National History Symposium – ANPUH, São Paulo, July 2011.

[xviii]Hippolytus, L. psd. Of Foxes and Reformers. Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra, 1985. The book projects the PMDB from the “democratic transition” of 1985 into the old PSD, seen as a guarantor of political stability.

[xx]Secco, Lincoln. “The coup of April 2016”. Latin American Political Magazine, Buenos Aires, no. ja/jul. 2016

[xx]Caron, E. The Liberal Republic: Institutions and Social Classes. São Paulo: Difel, 1985, p.300.

[xxx]The term refers to the colonels of the extinct National Guard (1831-1916). The sertanejos gave the treatment of colonel to any and all local political leaders. It is the same phenomenon called caudilhismo (Rio Grande do Sul) or chiefismo (São Francisco valley) and possibly caciquismo in Spain. Carone, E. “Coronelismo: historical definition and bibliography”. Business Administration Magazine, vol.11 no.3 São Paulo July/Sept. 1971.

[xxiii]Benevides, MV The Kubitschek Government. 2 ed. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1976, p. 113.

[xxiii]ID Ibid., p.136.

[xxv]Dreyfuss, RA 1964: Conquest of the State. 5 ed. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1987. Djurovic, Camila Alvarez. Impressions from the right: the editorial action of IPES (1962-1966), USP, master's thesis, 2021.

[xxiv] RibeiroDavid RicardoS. From the political crisis to the coup d'état: conflicts between the executive and legislative powers during the João Goulart government. São Paulo, USP, master's thesis, 2013.

[xxv]Secco, L. “The Rational Democracy”. Counterpoint, v. 4, Montevideo, 2014, pp. 137-152.

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