Something New in Dictators: Salazar of Portugal

During his thirty years as editor of the Atlantic ELLERY SEDGWICK traveled widely, wishing to see for himself what was going on in lands far from the Hub. Since his retirement in 1938 he has continued to travel, observe, and write despite the painful handicap which arthritis has imposed. He has lived abroad for the past four winters; and his colorful essays on Spain, Sicily, Portugal, and Home compose the nucleus for his next book, which he facetiously calls Europe in a Wheel Chair.



To the sensitive traveler the government of a country is almost as palpable as its geography. The ruler prints his own lineaments upon the ruled clearly as he stamps them on his medals. Everywhere the story is plain to read. The policeman on his beat fairly shouts it. It is more subtly told by the cleanliness of the streets, by national monuments cherished or neglected, by the quality of food and shelter, by prices and timetables. The faces on the street reflect it. Not twenty-four hours after our Ford, wedged into a barge scarcely larger than itself, was ferried across the broad Guadiana which divides Spain from southernmost Portugal, I felt myself at home in a dictatorship very different from the Spain I had left. Before a week had passed I knew that dictator or no dictator, Portugal is blessed among the nations.

Of autocrats and their works I had left no American prejudice behind. Harvard College had taught me intensively about them; but the first rule of travel is to keep an open and observant mind. I felt instinctively but with certainty that the scene before me was new in my experience. Much about me at once recalled the stimulating reforms of Mussolini’s early years, but the spirit of that formidable regime was wholly absent. The Italian’s ambition was to resurrect the buried imperialism of the Caesars. The Portuguese dictator, with power as unlimited, detests imperialism in any form. His aim is to restore the ancient simplicities through masterful but moderate control, subject in the most literal sense to the laws of morality. Like Mussolini, Salazar saw in parties only partisan conflict. He abolished them but, unlike his prototype, set up no party of his own. Strikes he judged intolerable and insisted upon their judicial settlement. Yet “never,”he declared, “shall we hold the state omnipotent,”and added a sharp and discriminating dictum on the man whose reforms he admired. “Not for nothing is Mussolini a child of the country of the Caesars — and of Machiavelli.”

The similarity and the contrast puzzled me deeply. Here was something totally foreign to the dictatorships of history. Back and back I looked for precedents, but not until I had traversed twentyfive hundred years did I come on a true spiritual parallel. It suddenly struck me that the Portuguese dictator must have studied the principles of Confucius, and once again in my library at home I boned up on the maxims and commentaries which once seemed to have shaped China for eternity. There to my satisfaction I found that I was right. It seems an odd preface to a guide to Portugal, to advise preliminary consultations with the Chinese philosopher. But the comparison yields illuminating results.

In fundamentals Salazar thinks as Confucius did. He holds more influential even than principles, methods and men. In fact, method proclaims the man, and the virtue of the ruler is all-important, for his moral qualities are directly reflected in the nation over which he presides. A bad man makes a bad ruler. Before all things an autocrat must be virtuous, for his excellencies will be multiplied in his people. The unit of society is the family, a unity ordained of God and essential to man, rooted as it is in the natural order of things. Precisely as, in the realm of physics, the modern world has smashed the atom, breaching matter and throwing wide the doors to physical discord, just so it has shivered the family into the smithereens of individualism, opening in the social world as great a gap in nature. This breach must be closed. At all costs the family must be strengthened and preserved. The behavior of children—so think alike the ancient and the modern philosopher — is the reflected image of ideas inculcated by parents. Authority determines the character of those beneath it. A wicked governor is answerable for the sins of his people. Tyranny is odious. “ Remember then, my children,”remarked Confucius, “fiercer is oppressive government and more to be feared than a tiger.

The American loves a formula. His convictions rest on habit. In our political campaigns it is the slogan, not the argument, which rams conviction home. Per contra the words we stigmatize as offensive goad us to fury. “Communism,”“Fascism,”carry about them so black an aura that all discrimination flies out the window. We give a word a bad name and we hang it. “Dictator is positively obscene. To me also American prejudice is old and dear, but I am a Pharisee only at intervals, and on my travels my confidence in the universal beneficence of republican principles is—shall I say? — intermittent.

Do not time, place, and circumstances shift the meaning of words? In Portugal my self-questioning took formidable shape. Here is a country with everything against it: small, mountainous, and poor, with a population of which perhaps 5 per cent can read with fluency; vet from all that I could see, a better administered country does not exist in Europe. Can salvation, I asked myself, come through dictatorship? Is not liberty the first essential? Few of us, to be sure, know just what liberty means, though we may think we do. Is it possible, then, that a people’s happiness is a saner objective? That word “happiness" at least has no shade of doubt. In my ears seemed to reverberate the tags of Fourth of July orations. “The alternative to liberty is tyranny.” “Absolute power absolutely corrupts.” “Let there be light, said Liberty.’ I tried to straighten the jumble of my thoughts.


PORTUGAL is a garden of flowers. To a Portuguese, flowers are necessities of life, and no doubt the blossoming countryside influenced me. Here seemed a country happy in its illiteracy, undepressed by its bondage. No dispiriting rows of tenements are to be seen. Families own their independent cottages. In every housing plan, homesteads are individual domains which after twenty years of modest rentpaying become family property. Hedge and fence are always in repair and, as is most noticeable to the tourist, historic memorials are almost too perfectly restored. And flowers, everywhere flowers. Even the roadmaker must be a gardener, for he is as responsible for his borders as for the smoothness of his highway. Like Italy and Spain, arable land is sharply limited. Wages are pitifully low. The farmer, his family about him, toils early and late — the women in their mannish hats bought once in a lifetime, as shelter from the dangerous sun of summer. Life is hard, but through it runs a strand of content one does not feel in Spain. Year by year things improve. There is hope in the land.

It must be remembered that for a millennium good government had been almost unknown in Portugal. Her history is a perfect illustration of Gibbon’s definition — the record of the crimes, the follies, and the misfortunes of mankind. The dismal chronicle lights up but once — when, in the sixteenth century, Portugal led all Europe in adventure, tripling the size of the world and making the name of Henry the Navigator forever illustrious. His spirit descends upon the traveler, for everywhere he is held in remembrance. I have never seen a memorial more appropriate to its object than the straggling castle Henry built on the wild heath which overtops the tremendous palisades of Cape St. Vincent. The ramparts of Sagres once marked the end of the world. You stand there, Europe behind, and before you the endless rollers of the Atlantic against which the Navigator pitted his no less limitless imagination. In the rough held which forms the courtyard, this prince of princes laid with his own hands long lines of fieldstones forming the outline of a huge compass. There night after night young adventurers from all Europe thronged about him, fascinated by his personality and his speculations on the route to India, on the unknown continent to the south and the starry distances that must be traversed.

With the death of Henry night descended slowly on Portugal. Exhausted by her achievements the miniature country, a mere strip of coastline scarce a hundred miles wide, sank into apathy to lie prostrate under a despicable line of Braganzas and Bourbons. Finally, in 1908, the end of all things seemed approaching. The King, Don Carlos, and his eldest son were murdered in the great square of Lisbon. The crime compounded confusion, and all the furies which can bedevil a state broke loose. A plethora of parties — factions rather — strikes, secret societies, war, treason, Jesuit intrigues, clericals, anticlericals, Reds, Plucks, Mongrels, of all descriptions, made up the elements of a witches’ broth. Within two hectic years a Republic was created, an honest one. But forms of government mean little. The escudo, which had a value of four shillings and sixpence, dropped by 1922 to twopence and halfpenny. Between 1910 and 1926 Portugal was ruled by eight presidents and fortythree ministries. The first government of the Republic lived nine weeks, the most stable lasted for a year. Curiously enough, the brightest thread in the tangled skein was the army, which, recruited from every class and every province, seemed alone imbued with some sense of patriotism. It was the army which led the nation out of the morass. In May, 1926, there appeared on the walls of the garrison city of Braga two simple sentences: —

For men of dignity and honor the political condition of the country is intolerable.

Portugal, to arms for the liberty and honor of the Nation!

The Portuguese are an emotional people. The simple words rang true. Their effect was electric. Three generals — da Costa, Cabeçadas, and Carmona— rallied the army and with it the nation. Not a shot was fired. In a day Portugal was calm, but one more revolution was powerless to change the nuture of things, and for two years the country was a little He paved with excellent intentions. The generals were patriots, but of civil government they had the unextensive knowledge of drill sergeants. Da Costa became President, Cabecadas had monarchial views and soon disappeared. After a season Carmona, ablest of the three, succeeded to power, but the root trouble remained. The country teetered on the very verge of bankruptcy. Fiscal problems were tackled by a series of well-drilled soldiers much as rookies might wrestle with calculus. The newborn League of Nations was besought for a loan of twelve million sterling. The request was granted, but as every previous borrowing had been used principally to retire its predecessor, strict conditions of oversight were stipulated, too galling to national pride to be accepted. The abyss lay straight ahead. Then occurred a scene reminding us of the day King Saul, sorely beset by Philistines, heard of the shepherd boy who was destined to be his saviour. Friends spoke to President Carmona of a young economist, a professor in the University of Coimbra, who had written with clarity and hard sense of the problems before the country. The salvation of Portugal was as casual as that ! An intelligent reporter at the time approached the President. Here is his account of the crucial incident: —

General Carmona, beau ideal of a Chief of State, answers my questions with a delightful vagueness. “The new government,”he remarks, “is just the best we can find at the moment. The Minister of Finance is to be a certain Salazar from Coimbra. Everyone praises him. Do you know him?'’

No, I did not know him, and nobody else did except the students and his fellow professors.

But the old culinary axiom, first catch your hare, had not been followed. The young professor loved his classes. More than that, he held profound distrust of the democratic process. Moreover, once before, he had savored polities. He had been elected a deputy and sifter listening to one debate he Had returned the very same evening to the University. Now it was difficult to budge him. However, he did come and this time stayed — almost for a week: for during that interval he learned that he was expected not to act but to advise, a sit tuition outrageous to his nature. The climax came promptly. Salazar happened to telephone the Ministry. A strange voice answered the call. “Who is speaking?” he asked. The voice answered, “’The Minister of Finance.” “Oh,” replied Salazar, quite unperturbed, “I was under the impression that I was Minister of Finance.” He got up, packed his bag, and the next morning resumed his lectures.

President Carmona continued his quest. More soldierly experiments, more wrestling with the Chimera according to military regulations, then a renewed and fervent invitation to the recalcitrant professor. Finally, every demand satisfied, with absolute control of finance assured, very reluctantly he came. Twenty-five years have elapsed since that momentous decision. Salazar still holds the reins of finance taut in his hands.

It is simple truth to add that in our generation it has been given to no other man to transform a people so quietly, so steadily, so profoundly, Kemal made Turkey a new country, but his rule was violent, revolutionary, and cruel. Salazar’s pace is moderate and full of consideration for opponents as well as friends. To trace briefly his subsequent career: he became Minister for the Colonies in 1930, Prime Minister in 1932 — never for an hour relinquishing his control of finance—and in the dangerous year 1936 he assumed the additional burdens of the Ministries of War and of Foreign Affairs. These last two offices he relinquished when once his successors were fully trained. As President of the Council of Ministers, any or all of his colleagues are retained simply at his pleasure. The Constitution stands, but the President of the Council of Ministers is the interpreter thereof. Though it guarantees all the freedoms—free speech, free assembly, and free press — Salazar holds it absurd that these should apply to polities, which they could only “vulgarize” (his own word) and undermine.

Studying the Constitution on paper, the casual inquirer is apt to be misled. There is a President of Portugal by whom the President of the Council is nominally appointed and who takes from him the burden of ceremonial, but Solomon on his judgment seat did not rule more unconditionally than does Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. No law, no appointment, is valid without his signature, and his ideas become law. The emergence of the marvelously right man in a crisis of history suggests to the rationalist that there are aces as well as deuces in the pack. To the religious mind it is a demonstration of overruling Providence. To all of us it is profoundly impressive.


SALAZAR is a peasant’s son born in 1889 in the hamlet of Santa Comba. At school in a neighboring village he learned the beautiful simplicities of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, the stock in trade of his life’s work. His father, blessed with a son after the arrival of four daughters, destined him as a Portuguese matter of course for the priesthood, and after his eleventh birthday the boy was sent to the seminary at Viseu. It was the seminary which taught him that his vocation was not the priesthood but public service. In 1908 he moved on to the University of Coïmbra, where after graduation he became Instructor and then Professor of Law and of Economics.

It would be hard to understand Salazar without a visit to Coïmbra. Whoever walks its twisted streets must realize how nobly an environment can shape a man. Venerable the city seems as Oxford. The river Minho, on which it stands, has a peculiar place in Portuguese affection. From river’s edge the battlemented town, its streets running at every medieval angle, climbs a high hill crowned by the Cathedral and the great quadrangle of the University. Scholars swarm about looking as they looked four hundred years ago, each tightly buttoned in his frock coat surmounted by a black and rusty gown. The gownmakers of Coïmbra must spend long workless days, for new garments are unknown. Invariably ragged they are at the bottom, where an inch or two is ripped off. At graduation, I was told, every boy gives his girl the keepsake of a sentimental strip. This, like most romantic tales, I doubt, but the frayed finish of the gown does add a gaberlunzie touch carrying you back 1o the Middle Ages — this neatly balanced by the scholarly portfolio in every student hand, each bound with its bright ribbon, yellow, green, or red, appropriate to the rival faculties of Law, Medicine, and Humanities.

I visited Coïmbra, the legend of Salazar coloring my imagination. There amongst the boys scurrying to their ten-o’clocks I fairly caught sight of him, the yellow ribbon of his Law portfolio fluttering against his tattered gown. As he entered the library I followed, and when the great door swung open, I caught my breath. Before me was the most glorious of all Temples of Learning. Three vast and vaulted rooms, their walls from floor to dome glittering with gilded bindings of folio, quarto, and octavo, open each into the next through wide archways making one noble whole. The sections of books are broken by fanciful baroque columns, and each great room is intricately painted after the fashion of Chinese lacquer. Gold on red, gold on black, sparkle with subdued splendor. My first thought was: Has ever such tribute been paid to books? My second: What young man could go from such a place unchanged? Afterwards when I asked Dr. Salazar himself whether the influence of such a library was not enduring, he raised both arms high in air to express his feelings.

To enjoy the privileges of the University, young Salazar had to support himself. He became tutor in a school which, as it happened, was run in the English tradition. This set him thinking. To borrow his own words, he became convinced that “the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon state so strikingly demonstrated during the European war is to be ascribed to fundamental elements in education. It is by English methods that a boy goes beyond the Latin system of purely intellectual stimulation, and learns to become a citizen.” Concerning Portuguese education as it formerly existed, he speaks scornfully: “A smattering of information sometimes assimilated, sometimes sticking in the scholar’s mind just long enough to enable him to pass his examination and so earn the right to forget.”

Before he was twenty-one, Salazar’s ideas were completely formulated. For him the primary importance of education is to develop moral character and a sacrificial love of country. By the time he was twenty-five we find him delivering at Oporto the detailed principles he holds today. That prodigy of English history, young Pitt, did not cast his shadow more definitely before him. Forms of government, Salazar maintained, are a secondary consequence. The essentials are administration and the men who make it. Unguided democracy is merely mob government. It must be Christianized, and in Portugal at least, though every man may worship as he will, it is Catholic. Democracy exists only when it grants no privileges to one class at the expense of another. If il yields to favored classes, it becomes demagogy and therefore utterly incompatible with history, politics, and with human reason.


ONCE on the teaching staff, Salazar climbed the ladder. He wrote on current economic problems, gold, wheat, commodity crises. Suddenly there occurred an incident which cast into an iron mold his convictions on oligarchy and democracy. With three other teachers he was suspended on suspicion of advocating republican doctrine. There was no evidence against him and he was promptly reinstated, but not before he had published a reply which, among advanced minds, stamped him as a leader. It wasted no words in its declaration that despotism is bad, but stupid despotism is vile. Luther with his theses was not more uncompromising. Scorning to defend himself, Salazar indicted the government that persecuted him: —

In the space of a few years half the population of Portugal, Monarchists, Catholics, Democrats, Revolutionists, Syndicalists, Socialists, and citizens with no opinions at all have entered the prisons of the Republic, sometimes successively, sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously.

When she is intent on her job, Destiny acts secretly and with dispatch. The politicians had watched the young professor’s arrival at the Ministry. They had seen him depart, leaving no trace behind. When they beheld him return, this time clothed with power, they remembered his words, and recognized the man who faced realities. From the clay of his final oath, the history of modern Portugal begins.

Salazar’s equanimity equals his daring. Nothing could be more unspectacular than the way he went to work. One great asset he had. The financial honor of Portugal was untainted. Little or nothing might remain for the development of the country, but debts had been paid to the last farthing. When the Dictator is reminded that Russia, too, pulled herself out of the ditch by her own bootstraps, he smiles and remembers that Russia ratted on her debts, whereas no debtor of Portugal has ever been cheated of one escudo. True the borrowings have always been paid from new loans, but now that sort of financing is done with. The resurrection of Portugal was like the resuscitation of the drowned. Slowly, painfully, steadily, the breath of life returned, and after a year the patient began to suspire. The nation went to primary school and learned the merits of addition in modest taxes and the beauty of subtraction in every essential expense. Multiplication and division went unexplored till they could be afforded. Old-fashioned rules lived on. They had kept the world solvent before Keynes bedeviled it with his abracadabra of prodigal expenditure; deficit financing was anathema. Financiers might laugh, but Salazar imperturbably went, his way, saving here a jot and there a tittle. He set his own salary at something equivalent to $3000, and it is told that when he broke his leg and doctors’ bills exceeded the balance of his income, he sharply rejected offers of the state to pay for his own misfortune, and simply sold one of his fields at the Vimiera he loves so well. For some difficult years he took over the work of two ministries but not their salaries.

To watch his system carries one back centuries in time. Here again are honored the maxims of Poor Richard. Salazar governs his country much as the famous farmers’ wives of France manage their households, weighing the sous one by one, and dropping into the kettle every well-scraped bone and rescued leaf of cabbage. With all his administrative genius and acute intelligence, it is with a peasant’s understanding he rules his peasant country.

It is by the individual character of a nation that its government must be judged. Portugal is a strip of coastline scarcely a hundred miles wide, with a population rivaling New York City. But to this Lilliput is attached a Brobdingnagian empire, and it must be remembered that Portugal stretches across the world.

For all its possessions, Portugal is a patriarchy and Salazar is its patriarch. Liberty and its inevitable corollary, duty, still have for him the meaning they had for Abraham and Isaac. Both are inseparable and both imbedded in the law of God. The endowments of men being unequal, Salazar believes that for the common good the unthinking many must be controlled by the intelligent few. So thought the Prophets of Israel. When Isaiah promised that his people would be saved by a Remnant and the Lord gave assurance that if it contained but ten righteous men the city should yet be preserved from destruction, the same idea was present. It would be hard indeed to measure more accurately the transformation of men’s political thinking than by considering the change which has come over that almost sacred word, Remnant. Once signifying the salt of the earth, it has come to mean the odds and ends sold at bargain counters as cheap stuff.

We are told that this is the century of the common man and that majorities necessarily have the wisdom to rule; yet there may be wisdom when votes are few.

But peace to controversy. Let us get on with Salazar’s philosophy. Here is his statement .

Not the individual but society is the foundation of the state. Society’s roots are in the family, a natural universal and necessary phenomenon out of which all other forms of human association have spontaneously developed. In this society man is a single element; from it he comes and to it he owes all that he is. He is a being endowed with liberty not because liberty gives him the power to do right but because freedom of choice gives to the good he does the greater value. No man finds an end in himself. Not within himself is the law he must obey. God created him as well as the law above him. There is no moral obligation which does not come from God. No dominion can be imposed by one man on another except in the name of God. God instituted authority and entrusted it to those who hold it so that law marked with the seal of His authority may be just in its content and aim of insuring the common good. Thus is secured neither the despotism of the State nor the blind mastery of the masses, but perfect equilibrium between a necessary authority independent of human fashion and social justice which does not vary with the fluctuation of public opinion.

This is counsel of perfection. Any tyrant might make mock of it by proclaiming God’s authority for his own misdeeds. But to Salazar the divine commands are as living and potent as if they were printed in capitals on the statute books: with him they transcend every earthly consideration. It is merely as corollaries to them that he enumerates the essentials of an orderly family and a society based upon it. From his conception of the family as the unit of social order comes the most un-American of all Salazar’s ideas. Feminists of the World, unite! The Dictator has a word for you: —

With one blow you have dismembered the nucleus of the family and intensified competition, bringing women into industry without giving them wages in any degree equivalent to their value as good housewives or to their social importance as mothers.

Salazar, you see, reverses the familiar argument. His approach is not from the theoretical rights of women, but from their practical duties. Woman is simply too valuable an asset to be lost to the home. The family cannot spare her and live. To implement his philosophy, Salazar forbids married women to enter the service of the state. A single unmarried woman, it is true, is employed in government service. It is a joke in Portugal that at least one member of the sex is indispensable to the government.


HAVING locked women in, as my readers will put it, Salazar, following the lines marked by the Revolution, endorses a state set up on corporate principles. A parliament of two houses is retained, rather to generate ideas than to make laws. There is a parallel corporate body of employers and employed who forbid strikes and encourage fair practices. Perhaps his most startling innovation is the abolishment of parties. Long as man could remember, feuds and party intrigues had been the ruin of the state, but note this! Along with other parties, Salazar has abolished his own. Politics in the familiar, the devastating sense, he detests; and against this primal curse of democracies, wages ceaseless war.

“What do Portuguese women think of all this?”

I am asked. I can only reply that at the gateway of his modest Palace they have erected a truly feminist monument —the denial mother with her progeny — to express their gratitude!

Portugal then is a kindergarten. The children are obedient. The nurse is kind, wise, and strict, but never nags. There is a wholesome absence of petty restrictions in the nursery, and good children are rewarded.

Nothing is more characteristic of Salazar’s wisdom than his official attitude toward the Church, to which his personal allegiance is complete. He maintains absolute freedom of religion. The prerogatives of the Church are straitly defined by a Concordat negotiated with the Vatican through thirty-six patient months. The powers of the Church are spiritual and spiritual only. In the old days of University life Salazar’s roommate was a certain Manoel Gonçalves Cerejeira. This once closest of friends is now Cardinal Archbishop of Lisbon, Patriarch of Portugal. Looking back on long years of intimate association, the Cardinal made a remark of the utmost significance. “Once,” he said, “I used to see Dr. Salazar at every hour of the day. Now I see him once a year, about Christmastime.” Both are men consecrated to spiritual ideas, but Cerejeira is a Priest of the Church. Salazar is a Priest of the State.

How complicated the problem of Church and State! How simple the solution! “As a Catholic,” says Salazar, “I believe that before all things the Church should preserve her own liberty, accepting in exchange the necessary sacrifices. As Chief of Government with essential duties towards Catholics and also towards those who are not Catholic, I must enforce solutions which safeguard religious liberties to all Portuguese. Other sheep I have which do not belong in the sheepfold.”

Perfectly Catholic-trained in a Jesuit school departing not one iota from the ancient faith, Salazar is modern as 1953. You catch a hint of his spirit in his correspondence with a schoolgirl who in her quandary finds it natural to write to the Father of the State: —

Mr. President, I am very troubled. On the 16th I must pass an examination and I have a strong chance of failing. They tell me you are on good terms with our Lady of Fatima. Could you make a prayer for me telling our Lady that my home is in the Algave [the southernmost province of Portugall but I am actually living in Lisbon. This is very important, for our Lady might be mistaken in the address.

The President’s reply was mailed the same evening:

DEAR CHILD: Your commission has been done. I have already transmitted your request to our Lady of Fatima. But she answers that if in the examination you make as many mistakes in spelling in your dictée as in your letter, she could not be responsible for your success.

Some days passed. There came a second note: “I have to thank you, Mr. President. Thanks to you, I have passed my examination.”

“Well,” remarked the President, “the happier of the two of us was I, myself.”

I had seen much and read more when a welcome opportunity came to talk to Dr. Salazar. His schedule was crowded, and most courteously he offered to receive me on a Sunday. The Dictator’s presence fulfills his legend. His figure is tall with the slight stoop of the scholar. The gray eyes are penetrating, their gaze level and direct. The authoritative nose gives power lo the face. Is this a Dictator? thought I, this courteous, modest, retiring scholar, hating publicity and loathing propaganda, who turns his back on popularity and speaks in public only on sufferance, never flattering his audience, never baiting his periods for applause? Duty done is his simple reward. The only material prize he values is the empty chair in his college classroom, which his dearest hope is one day to resume. What will happen to his successor, another chronicler must record.