When General Spínola resigned as President of the Republic on September 30, 1974, there was only one possible choice to replace him. And indeed, Portugal was fortunate that General Francisco da Costa Gomes was on hand to take up the position, although it was clearly a promotion that he did not welcome. And when the first presidential elections of the new constitution were about to take place in June 1976, he emphatically refused any suggestion that he should stand for election. He said that he was “demasiado cansado pelo desgaste sofrido ao longo destes dois últimos anos, para poder desempenhar as funções de Presidente por mais um tempo” (too tired by the wear and tear that I have suffered over the last two years to perform the functions of President for another term).
During his presidency of 21 months, Portugal was shaken by two attempted coups d’état, one by the forces of the right (March 15, 1975) and the other by the forces of the left (November 25, 1975). He made official visits to Italy, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland, USSR, France, USA, the UN, and Helsinki; and received visits from Ceausescu (Romania), Kennedy (USA), leaders of PAIGC, Angola, EEC, and Zambia. He presided over three provisional governments, and the introduction of a new constitution, the preparations for a presidential election and supervised the independence of Portugal’s African colonies. It is small wonder that he felt tired.
He considered himself a “poor politician” because he “was a soldier” and did not possess the “flexibility necessary to deal with all the parties with which I have to deal today”. On the day on which his successor was elected in June 1976, he was asked when he had decided not to offer himself for election. His reply was direct: “A long time ago, right from the time I was pushed into this position.”
What was the background of this strangely unambitious General? If he was unambitious, how had he reached that rank and how had he become the head of all of Portugal’s armed forces? Of the many photographs of Costa Gomes, I have had difficulty in finding an image with a smile. In his photographs, he gives the impression of being an interested by-stander. It may be that his career of paradoxes had taught him this inscrutability.
He followed a highly successful military career, yet admitted that he would never have chosen it if circumstances had been different; he admired the rebel General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, yet was later Portugal’s representative in the supreme command of NATO; he was a member of the government (undersecretary for the Army) while at the same time conspiring against Salazar, his head of government; dismissed from this post as a consequence and relegated to the direction of a recruitment centre, he became, only a few years later, the most brilliant and effective of Portugal’s commanders in the African wars; appointed to the highest command in the Armed Forces by Marcelo Caetano, he was also acceptable as a leader of the Junta de Salvação Nacional (JSN) after the Carnation Revolution; having spoken effectively for the nomination of Spínola as President of the Republic, he was accepted by the “captains of April” as a replacement President four months later.
Why had he recommended Spínola for President? Because he himself lacked political experience and he considered Spínola better qualified. It was a position he did not want and, after September 30, in his own words, he felt “empurrado para Presidente da República sem nunca o ter pretendido” (pushed into the Presidency without ever having wanted it).
A tough start in life
Born on June 30, 1914 in Chaves near the northern border of Portugal, Francisco da Costa Gomes was one of a family of 11 children, of whom seven survived into adulthood. His father, a captain in the army, died when Francisco was eight years old, and his mother had eight children to bring up in reduced circumstances. She was forced to send the 10-year-old boy to study at the Colégio Militar in Lisbon on an army scholarship, with the intention that he should follow his father’s footsteps and become a soldier. He himself declared much later about this career: “If it had been my choice, I would not have been a soldier.”
Costa Gomes’ life at this school was difficult. He later wrote that he felt violated by the rigid rules and regulations whose utility he seriously doubted. His family did not have the money to pay for him to return home for Christmas and Easter, and he was able to return only for the summer holidays.
As soon as he had finished school in 1931, Costa Gomes enlisted in the army and served in various units before finishing his cadetship in the Escola Práctica de Cavalaria in 1936. Passing the captain’s course, he was promoted to captain, while at the same time he studied at the University of Porto, and in 1944 won a mathematics degree with distinction. All of this with his disenchantment with the military life.
During his career, he served abroad, beginning in Macau in 1949, where he was part author of a report which asserted that it was a fantasy to suppose that either Macau, Timor or Goa could be defended militarily. When later in the position to do so, he withdrew many of the armed forces from those territories.
Now as a major, in 1954 he was seconded to NATO headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia in the detachment of General Humberto Delgado. He spent two years in the US and became well versed in the operational side of NATO, declaring that he had learned more in two years in the USA than he had in all his military courses in Portugal. Like Delgado, he had also witnessed democratic systems in operation.
Returning from the US, he joined the Primeira Repartição da Defesa Nacional (First Office for National Defence). Here, by daring to disagree with him, he won the respect of one of Salazar’s closest associates, Captain Santos Costa, the undersecretary of National Defence. He became the Portuguese expert on NATO, and a friend of the Minister of Defence, General Botelho Moniz.
Received personally in 1958 by Dr Salazar, who afterwards declared that Lt Colonel Costa Gomes was the best-informed Portuguese officer concerning the colonies, Costa Gomes believed that decolonisation was the only way to progress, contrary to Salazar’s clear position. Three years later, in 1961, he was involved in the coup d’état planned by his chief, Botelho Moniz, and he also had published in the Diário Popular a letter in which he declared that the problem of the African colonies was complex and that the military part of the solution was far from being the most important. He was sent away to Beja to supervise recruitment.
The American Ambassador wrote at the time with remarkable foresight: “It is possible that if the [Portuguese] Armed Forces find it necessary at some date in the future to dispense with the services of Dr Salazar, Colonel Costa Gomes would be, instead of General Botelho Moniz, the true solution.”
Recalled and promoted to Brigadier, he was sent as Deputy Commander in Mozambique, where he later succeeded to full command (1965-1969). In the colonial wars, Gomes had an original strategy quite different from those of Spínola and Kaúlza de Arriaga. His base of action was “to serve the people”. War should not be made against the guerrillas, but “in favour of the population”. His main job was not to oppose the liberation movements, but “to win back the people”, to defend the people, drawing them away from the guerrillas, assuring them of their wellbeing, of order and of social peace. The use of violence, as far as possible, had to be minimal and focussed.
He became Commander in Angola in 1970, where he reformed the armed forces and came to an agreement with UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) against MPLA (Movimento Popular da Libertação de Angola) and FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola).
In September 1972, he was nominated Chief of the General Staff, the top post in the Portuguese Armed Forces, but in March of 1974, he was dismissed. There were two reasons: first he had authorised the publication of the book Portugal e o Futuro by António de Spínola; and second, he had refused to swear loyalty to the government of Marcelo Caetano along with the other senior generals, the ‘Brigada do Reumático’.
Man of Peace
After the 25 April Revolution, Costa Gomes was one of the seven officers who comprised the JSN and, on April 29, he reassumed the post of Chief of the General Staff. It was agreed, after Spínola had resigned, that the next President should be one of the other six members of the JSN. Three had already resigned from the JSN; Pinheiro de Azevedo refused point blank; and Rosa Coutinho was in Angola. That left only Costa Gomes, who was thus “pushed” into becoming President.
As President, he aimed to: introduce a democratic constitution; effect decolonisation in Africa; and normalise Portugal’s international relationships, specifically within NATO and with the ex-colonies. But his presidential term was marked by a radicalisation of the revolutionary process under the influence the PCP and parties of the extreme left. He insisted that the next President of the Republic should be elected by universal direct suffrage; and the national vote to approve the new Constitution of the Republic in April 1976 was a major achievement, as it marked a point where the activists of both the right and the left had been disarmed. Some people thought that the positions that he took were ambiguous, but his overarching achievement was to avoid a civil war in Portugal. He had proved to be a successful politician.
A year after leaving the Presidency of the Republic, he became involved in intense national and international activities as President of the World Peace Council.
This Council had been founded in 1950, emerging from the policy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and advocates disarmament, peaceful co-existence and campaigns against imperialism, weapons of mass destruction and any kind of discrimination. He became President of the Portuguese Council for Peace and Cooperation, and joined the Group of Generals for Peace and Disarmament.
In 1982, he was promoted to the honorary post of Marshal, and in 1986 received from the United Nations the garland of Messenger of Peace. At the end of his life, Costa Gomes chose for his epigraph Man of Peace, and declared that the award he valued most was that of the Messenger of Peace. Francisco da Costa Gomes died in the Military Hospital in Lisbon on July 31, 2001 at the age of 87, and was interred with state honours in the Cemetery at Alto de São João in Lisbon.
The beautiful girl on the portrait
On visiting the studio of the painter Henrique Medina in 1951, he had caught sight of the portrait of a young woman in the regional costume of the Minho, his own home territory. It was a coup de foudre, and he begged the artist for an introduction to the beautiful girl. He successfully wooed Maria Estela Veloso de Antes Varajão (1927-2013), and they married in the Sé de Viana do Castelo on December 8, 1952.
Maria Estela had trained as a teacher and they had one son only, Francisco Varajão da Costa Gomes. She accompanied Costa Gomes on his foreign travels and always looked happy. Their boy became a militant communist, and visited the Soviet Union, and sadly put an end to his own brief life in the late 1980s, it is said because he was crossed in love. The tragedy of their son’s death must have marked them both.
Francisco da Costa Gomes came from a poor military family, and it seems that his schooldays were mostly unhappy. He followed his military career with outstanding success and reached the pinnacle of military and civil life in Portugal. Exceptionally talented, even after the attempted coup of 1961, he was too valuable to be discarded.
As a soldier, Costa Gomes was always concerned with peace, with civic life. He never wore his uniform except on those occasions when it was necessary, and many of the photographs at the time of the Carnation Revolution show him in civilian clothes.
He was the first senior Portuguese soldier clearly to declare that the solution to the colonial wars could not be military but had to be political. During the Portuguese Colonial Wars in Africa (1961-1974), he was paradoxically the most successful Portuguese military commander. His skill was to reduce the operational and military effectiveness of the liberation movements by political means.
Portugal was indeed fortunate that Francisco da Costa Gomes was at hand in 1974 to lead the country in a peaceful and orderly transfer of power towards a democratic government. His contribution to the peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy was his priceless contribution to his fatherland.
By Lynne Booker