Fear and Memory in the Brazilian Army and Society, 1889-1954

Fear and Memory in the Brazilian Army and Society, 1889-1954

by Shawn C. Smallman

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For more than half a century, the Brazilian army used fear and censorship to erase aspects of its history from public memory and to create its own political myths. Although the military had remarkable success in promoting its version of events, recent democratization has allowed scholars access to new materials with which to challenge the "official story." Drawing on oral histories, secret police documents, memoirs of dissident officers, army records, and other sources only recently made available, Shawn Smallman crafts a compelling, revisionist interpretation of Brazil's political history from 1889 to 1954.

Smallman examines the topics the Brazilian military wished to obscure--racial politics and terror campaigns, institutional corruption and civil-military alliances, political torture and personal rivalries--to understand the army's growing involvement in civilian affairs. Among the myths he confronts are the military's idealized rendition of its racial policies and its portrayal of itself as above the corruption associated with politicians. His account not only illuminates the origins of the military government's repressive and often brutal actions during the 1960s and 1970s but also carries implications for contemporary Brazil, as the armed forces debate their role in a democratic country.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807860502
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 04/03/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Lexile: 1260L (what's this?)
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Shawn C. Smallman is associate professor and director of international studies at Portland State University in Oregon.

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Fear and Memory in the Brazilian Army and Society, 1889-1954

By Shawn C. Smallman

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-5359-7


This book explores the informal structures of power that shaped civil-military relations in Brazil from 1889 to 1954, and provided the foundations for authoritarian rule after 1964. It also considers the military's construction of historical memory as part of an official history of nation building and nationality that has shaped both popular and scholarly memory. This work challenges conventional Brazilian history, collective memory, and, most fundamentally, the Brazilian military's account of its own experience and its role in national development. In so doing, it undermines the armed forces' narrative of unity and examines the internal conflicts that military versions of Brazilian history have chosen to forget.

Between 1964 and 1973 a wave of military coups swept across Latin America. They differed from previous military interventions in that armed forces not only chose to retain power, but also to transform their societies. In nations like Argentina the armed forces did not limit their ambitions to altering the national economy, political system, and social structure. They wished to change even the way people thought. To understand these authoritarian regimes, scholars have paid great attention to the coups and the events that led to them. Some authors have depicted the Brazilian military as an institution forced to act by urgent circumstances such as the infiltration of the enlisted ranks by unions, the irresponsible appeals of populist politicians, and the desperate sense that a polarized political system was breaking down. While accurate enough, this narrative represents an insufficiently historical perspective, one that does not examine the deep roots of the military's political actions, which laid the groundwork for later authoritarian rule. Attention needs to be paid not only to particular events and individual actors, but also to the long-term trends that shaped the military's behavior once the coup took place.

The Brazilian military's decision to retain power and to impose a particular political program resulted from its historical experience. Structures that supported authoritarianism in Brazil did not suddenly appear during the coup but rather evolved over decades. By carefully examining factional conflicts within the Brazilian military until 1954, this book emphasizes the major changes that reshaped the institution long before the coups took place and that the military has since sought to conceal.

Brazil's Importance and History

While Spanish America fractured into many republics after independence, Portuguese-speaking Brazil remained intact. Brazil's current position as the most powerful nation in Latin America is due partially to its common language as well as its size, population, military, and economy. The fifth largest nation in the world, it occupies nearly half of South America, an area larger than Europe, and it borders all South American nations except Chile and Ecuador. According to the 2000 census Brazil has over 169 million people; the Brazilian state of São Paulo alone has nearly twice the population of Guatemala. In terms of both manpower and expenditure, Brazil has the largest armed forces in South America, with four times the enlistment of the Argentine military. The Brazilian economy-the ninth largest in the world-is much larger than Russia's. In 1996 the gross domestic product (GDP) of Brazil was larger than that of all Spanish South America combined. The Brazilian economy acts as the financial linchpin for the rest of Latin America.

Until recently, historians have generally argued that Brazil's political history has been characterized by greater political stability than many of its neighbors. It is true that Brazil achieved independence from Portugal in 1822 without war, largely because the monarch's son, Pedro I, became the new emperor. But this political continuity did not stop Brazil from experiencing a series of uprisings, rebellions, and racially inspired revolts at the local and regional level throughout the nineteenth century, as recent scholarship has emphasized. The government suppressed many of these uprisings with great brutality. Still, at the national level the figure of the emperor provided a sense of continuity and stability lacking in Spanish America, until a military coup ended imperial government in 1889. Between the foundation of the republic and the 1964 coup, Brazil ostensibly remained a democracy for all but nine years (the Estado Novo or New State, 1937-45).

The armed forces did frequently intervene in politics. In 1889, 1930, 1937, 1945, and 1954, the military (or factions within it) helped either to change the structure of government or to replace the nation's leader. Even so, during the twentieth century the military never retained power after intervening in politics but rather transferred power to civilians. In Brazil this changed with the 1964 coup, after which the armed forces dominated the political system for twenty-one years (1964-85). The military first engineered "the Brazilian miracle"-six years of explosive growth-then oversaw an equally remarkable period of debt and decay.

New Opportunities for Scholarship

The Brazilian military withdrew from power in 1985 as authoritarian regimes crumbled throughout the continent. Although it retained great influence, the play of democratic politics gradually eroded the military's power. This situation has created a unique opportunity for scholars of Brazil. The military no longer formally censors books and newspapers, and it has lost its ability to control academic courses and offerings. Equally important, the legacy of fear has begun to erode, as memories of political torture fade. In this environment, many new sources have become available.

During military rule the armed forces banned many books and pamphlets, which disappeared from libraries and bookstores. These works are now emerging from private collections, or are accessible at the archive of the social and political police, Delegacion Especial de Segurança Política e Social/Departamento de Ordem Política e Social (DESP/DOPS). Officers, including military dissidents, have placed their papers and memoirs in such centers as Fundação Getúlio Vargas. Much like scholars studying Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, specialists in Latin American history now have access to resources that they never expected to see. This situation permits a scholarly reappraisal of the military's own collective memory.

The Military's Influence over Historical Memory

Until the start of the democratization, the military's dominance over the political system inevitably shaped studies of the military, not only in Brazil but also in many other South American countries. These militaries have long possessed allies in civilian society, regulations to discipline retired officers, authority over military archives, and a legacy of fear. Military leaders controlled access to their archives and granted interviews to historians, as part of an effort to create an "impartial" account of their past. By this means officers promoted an official history that emphasized military unity and that focused solely on events and topics that the armed forces deemed acceptable.

In this official narrative, the military explained all institutional changes by referring only to common, public experiences, that is, formal structures sanctioned by the institution's hierarchy. Officers spoke at length about new schools, famous officers, combat experiences, and foreign missions. The resulting narrative is characterized more by what was omitted than by what it included. For example, officers produced countless works on their ideology, a safe topic. As a result, specialists have been able to study carefully how military ideology shaped everything from coups to the authoritarian regimes that followed. Yet other important issues-such as terror, race, and corruption-received little attention. Of course, some authors have challenged the military's hegemony. Nelson Werneck Sodré and Stanley Hilton-to name but two of the best-known writers-have critically examined the military's history. Yet in some respects the armed forces' hegemony has endured; "official" army concerns permeate the work of even some distinguished authors.

The extent of the military's influence can be seen by considering specific works. Edmundo Campos Coelho wrote an insightful book that emphasized the military's autonomy in the mid-1970s. Yet a lack of primary sources hampered his study. During authoritarian rule Coelho had difficulty viewing the complex social and political forces that shaped military politics. As a result, his work depicted the army as a monolith. Coelho argued that the army suffered from an "identity crisis" and became increasingly alienated from society. By overlooking the factions and struggles that shaped military policy, Coelho adopted the army's depiction of itself as a united institution that based its actions on its ideals.

Other scholars have also tended to reify the military. Robert Hayes's study, The Armed Nation, adopts the rhetoric of the Brazilian military itself. According to Hayes, the Brazilian military has become imbued throughout its history with a "military corporate mystique." The armed forces conceived of themselves as the nation's saviors, which led them to search for a "military messiah." Although Hayes does refer to the military's factional conflicts, he does not carefully examine the slow process through which army factions created and manipulated doctrine. Instead, he adopts a psychological explanation for the armed forces' behavior that emphasized enduring military beliefs. While potentially useful, Hayes's work contains no critique of the military's creed. Because of this approach, his work omits discussion of events the military wished to ignore, such as political terror.

Even authors with access to new sources have not completely escaped the armed forces' hegemony. For example, William Waack and Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro carefully studied the 1935 "communist" uprising within the Brazilian military. William Waack had access to new sources available in Moscow, while Sérgio Pinheiro had access to over 90,000 documents from the archive of former president Artur da Silva Bernardes. Yet neither author traced the origins of the conspiracy back to the army's senior leadership although disgruntled commanders formed an alliance with civilian elites under the leadership of Artur Bernardes. In this case, the interests of a wide range of parties supported the military's version of the past. Nor was this example unique. In many instances, the military has succeeded in shaping both popular and scholarly memory.

Informal Structures and Conflict

To escape the military's influence, this work uses new sources to emphasize the informal structures that shaped the institution's political behavior. Informal structures are the unwritten rules, organizations, and beliefs that shape power without official sanction or government funding. Examples of these structures would be corruption networks, civil-military alliances, army factions, racial beliefs, family ties, and regional allegiances. These structures exist without government endorsement. A chart of the army's official hierarchy would ignore them, yet these factors define power within the institution to such an extent that an alternative hierarchy predicts officers' authority nearly as much as their official rank. Often, informal structures shape the military's relationship with civilian society more than its official organization.

To understand these informal structures, this work gives considerable attention to military factions and the internal conflicts they generate. Officers indicated the issues that mattered to the army by fighting over them. During moments of struggle, military factions or parties often turned to civilians for support. This situation shattered the army's image of unity and left documents that reveal military politics with unusual clarity. Like bolts of lightning, factional conflicts allowed observers to view the military landscape.

Few subjects have been studied so carefully as military factions in Latin America, a topic on which there is a rich regional and theoretical literature. This scholarship, however, has sometimes been weakened by a lack of discourse between historians and political scientists. For example, political scientists Alain Rouquié and Antonio Carlos Peixoto correctly argue that military factions resembled political parties, in that they served as a means to aggregate and express political interests. Yet this only became a dominant characteristic of military factions in Brazil after World War II, as the military responded to trends in the international arena and Brazilian society (the Cold War, the rising power of nationalism, and the polarization of Brazilian society). Historians have carefully studied factional conflicts throughout Latin America, but they have not always placed these contests within a broader context of social and political change. For example, the work of Robert Potash and John Foster Dulles describes military factions and their conflicts in (respectively) Argentina and Brazil, but does not always tie these contests to larger historical issues. Without this context, history becomes chronicle, that is, a record of events lacking interpretation. Military conflicts mattered because they formed part of larger historical processes as officers debated essential choices during times of rapid change.

The armed forces have wanted to conceal these struggles in part because they suggested that nations such as Brazil could have taken different social, political, and economic paths. For this reason, the armed forces have used violence and terror to shape the memory of the past. In 1910, for example, a naval rebellion with racial overtones rocked Brazil. The armed forces went to extreme lengths over the course of half a century to erase the public memory of this event-imprisoning a sane witness in a mental hospital, kidnapping one journalist, terrifying another, and stripping scholars who studied this topic of their rights. Selective amnesia has remained the military's official policy toward painful questions ever since. In 1952, General Alcides Etchegoyen won the presidency of a military social club, after a campaign marked by terror. Meeting with reporters the next day, Etchegoyen said: "I am ready to answer only the questions that are about subjects after the election. I forget everything before the vote. I have a poor memory."

This work examines the conflicts that officers sought to forget. In adopting this approach, this work does not seek to sensationalize the past, but rather to come to a more thorough understanding of military behavior. This effort does not entail explaining the 1964 coup, an event that took place because many political actors combined to undermine democracy in South America, the military being only one actor among many. Instead, this work examines the informal structures that shaped the military's involvement in politics. Throughout Latin America, profound changes took place within national militaries long before the wave of coups drew attention to these institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. In Brazil, for example, many structures that later bolstered military rule-the existence of a powerful military party, with a system of intelligence and terror to repress dissent, strong civil-military alliances, a network of corruption to provide rewards, and a clear program for the nation-existed by 1954. These informal structures acquired critical importance when broad changes in Latin American politics and society undermined democratic government. This context shaped how officers perceived the army's role in politics after the coup and provided the framework that defined military government. Yet these networks, alliances, and organizations have remained hidden because of the military's efforts to shape historical memory.


While all three branches of the armed forces must be considered to understand military politics, the army has held the most weight in civil-military affairs. This history focuses on the Brazilian army and society during this period. Following McCann's example, this work conflates the terms military and army where this approach does not lead to confusion. Chapter 1 examines the army's conflict with traditional elites during the Old Republic (1889-1930). During this period, the institution remained fractured between competing personalities and bound to an ostensibly democratic government by a system of corruption. Despite the army's conflicts with rural elites, it also shared many attitudes with them, such as a firm belief in Brazil's racial hierarchy and a concern with the growing power of the working class.


Excerpted from Fear and Memory in the Brazilian Army and Society, 1889-1954 by Shawn C. Smallman Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

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A significant contribution to the historical literature on the military and society in Latin America.—American Historical Review

An important contribution on intra-military factionalism over a long time span. It helps to understand the manifold and complex interaction between elite politics, civil society, and the military institution: and, what is even more interesting, the reader gets a good sense on the workings of power relations within a closed institution such as the Brazilian military.—Iberoamericana

A detailed, sober analysis of just how a high command can seek to conceal the way it operates when officers have political as well as institutional goals. It goes far deeper than other studies of the topic, providing readers with a model for future single-country studies. . . . Fear and Memory in the Brazilian Army and Society, 1889-1954 is more than just a milestone in the study of civil-military relations, it is an important contribution to the study of military-civilian relations.—Latin American Research Review

A clearly written and useful narrative history of military factionalism in twentieth-century Brazil that makes a useful contribution to the study of the Brazilian military and its role in national politics.—Hispanic American Historical Review

A fluidly written and intriguing revisionist take on many of the better, and some lesser, known events of a long, formative stretch of the evolution of modern Brazil. . . . An admirably ambitious interpretation of the military in modern Brazilian politics, one that goes beyond assumptions about the armed forces as a monolithic institution.—Journal of Military History

Fear and Memory in the Brazilian Army and Society treats an important topic in an interesting and novel way. Bringing to bear insights from new non-governmental sources, it represents a much needed counterpoint to the official history.—Wendy Hunter, University of Texas at Austin

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