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Portugal and NATO

Did you know that the sea explains much of Portuguese foreign policy and political choices? That while it was one of NATO’s founding members, its membership was not a given? Do you know what the “Caravan for peace” was and where it travelled? And why not see how Portugal was portrayed by NATO film makers and photographers in the 1950s.

Portugal wishes to assert that she sees in the North Atlantic Pact, not only an instrument of defence and international cooperation, but also, for the reasons and for the aims which govern it, a precious instrument for peace

Dr. Jose Caeiro da Matta,
Speaking at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty
Washington, D.C., 4 April 1949

Renowned for its maritime discoveries and conquests, Portugal is a truly “Atlantic” country that stretches from the most westerly point of Europe to the bustling port of Lisbon, up to Porto and beyond. Its pioneering spirit and maritime heritage, combined with its geographical location, made it an appealing candidate for the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. Portugal forms part of the Iberian Peninsula and together with the Azores and Madeira, offers a strategic triangle of protection for NATO. The Azores archipelago is located one third of the way between Lisbon and New York, and it provides crucial air bridges between Europe and North America and helps to defend vital sea routes.

Why did Portugal join NATO?

Portugal had had a centuries-long relationship with the United Kingdom – another seafaring power with interests scattered across the globe. They had helped each other protect their territorial possessions, and there were many of them. They also maintained privileged trade agreements. In the lead-up to the Second World War, Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar decided, however, to broaden his country’s alliances to protect Portugal from being dragged inadvertently into one of the biggest human catastrophes of the twentieth century. However, this status of neutrality did not last and by 1943 and 1944, Salazar signed the Azores Agreements with the United Kingdom and the United States respectively. This marked the beginning of Portugal’s rapprochement with countries involved in the future North Atlantic Alliance.

When Portugal was invited to join the North Atlantic Alliance, it had reservations about the use and possible exploitation of its territory for naval and air bases in times of peace; it was assured that they would not be used without the government’s full consent. Portugal then tried to make a case for the inclusion of its many overseas territories and colonies and sought to have Spain invited. The reply was negative in both cases. Portugal accepted the invitation to join NATO nonetheless.  

The accession to NATO constituted a diplomatic victory for the regime in terms of its participation on the international stage. Joining the Alliance meant added prestige and the strengthening of Portugal’s status as a whole; it also injected a degree of stability on the domestic front. More fundamentally, membership of the Alliance, albeit turned principally toward Central and Eastern Europe, increased the country’s security. And over time, it would also mean the development of Portugal’s armed forces, which would benefit from changes in infrastructure, training and the professional upgrading of its military personnel.

Lisbon at the heart of events from day one

From very early on, Portugal featured in the Alliance milestones when the young international organisation held a defining meeting in Lisbon 20-25 February 1952. Decisions were taken that would shape the Organization and provide it with structures that still exist today. It was also at this meeting that Greece and Turkey were formally welcomed as NATO’s new members, having officially joined on 18 February 1952.

Lisbon 1952: new structures, new headquarters, first stamp

Lisbon 1952: new structures, new headquarters, first stamp The ninth session of the North Atlantic Council in Lisbon, 20 to 25 February 1952, was where NATO reorganised its civilian structure: the North Atlantic Council became a permanent body, comprised of permanent representatives from each of its member countries; Allies decided to appoint a Secretary General to lead a newly created International Secretariat designed to assist the Council in carrying out its increasing responsibilities; Allies also decided to move NATO headquarters from Belgrave Square in London, United Kingdom, to France to be closer to NATO’s military headquarters in Versailles; and Greece and Turkey attended the meeting as fully-fledged NATO members, marking de facto what constituted NATO’s first wave of enlargement. On the occasion of this meeting, Portugal issued the first ever NATO commemorative stamp.

Bringing NATO to people’s homes

For a country whose interests had for a long time been its colonies, territories and trading posts, it was important to explain NATO to the general public. In this pre-internet age where televisions could not be found in every household, the NATO Information Service set up a mobile exhibition to bring NATO to the people. The first travelling exhibition set off from Paris in 1952 and was called the “Caravan of peace”. It travelled through several member countries before stopping in Portugal in September 1954.

With the same purpose in mind, the “Comissão Portuguesa do Atlântico” or Portuguese Atlantic Committee was formed in 1960 to raise awareness and increase knowledge about NATO and related issues. It organised conferences and exhibitions, published a bulletin and supported the distribution of NATO publications in Portugal. It also promoted the visit of prominent figures from Portugal to NATO and had a number of radio and television talks about the Alliance. The Portuguese Atlantic Committee is still active today.

The NATO exhibition revisited Portugal in the 1960s using a more modern version of the “Caravan of Peace”. The bus zig-zagged across the entire country driving from Beja to Lagos in the south, to Viana do Castelo in the North, passing through Coimbra, and crossing most of the country visiting small, isolated towns where information about NATO was not accessible.

The new, technologically improved vehicle was fascinating: what seemed from the outside like a normal bus would actually transform into a cinema. It housed a small projector, which either allowed for open-air screenings for large crowds, or indoor viewing for approximately 45 people. In guise of windows, there were panels showcasing maps of NATO member countries. The bus could also open its doors and serve as an exhibition venue, with panels tracing the Organization’s history. See NATO’s mobile information centre and NATO’s travelling exhibitions.

Surveilling the Atlantic Ocean

From a military standpoint, Portugal’s membership had always been crucial to establishing air bridges between both sides of the Atlantic and defending the Atlantic approach to the European continent to guarantee sea-trading lines. The Azores and Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean form a strategic triangle with mainland Portugal. In times of crises, the Azores for instance would be a potential strategic base with the capacity to provide essential refueling facilities, track submarine movements, perform naval surveillance and provide communication assistance.

The establishment of the Iberian Atlantic Command (IBERLANT Command) in Portugal was the manifestation of this country’s capacity to contribute to NATO’s collective defence effort. IBERLANT Command was the Alliance’s southernmost command in the Atlantic and a subordinate command of Allied Command Atlantic based in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, with which it maintained strong lines of communication. With its unique geographical position, it was responsible for the critical area linking Europe and North America: from the northern border of Portugal southward to the Tropic of Cancer, and approximately 1.150 kilometres seaward from the Strait of Gibraltar. It ensured the surveillance of approximately 600.000 square miles of ocean and was truly at the intersection of many shipping routes and vital sea lanes.

IBERLANT Command was inaugurated in 1967 and was the first NATO command in Portugal. In times of peace, the Command’s role was basically to prepare plans and forces in case a war broke out. This involved conducting exercises, testing war procedures and preparing forces to ensure they were ready for combat. In times of international emergency or war the primary task of the Command was to control and protect Allied ships and aircraft in the area, while providing safe transit and support for friendly forces. It would also be assigned with conducting offensive operations against the enemy, supporting those of other NATO commands and defending the mainland and islands in the area. Initially located in a villa near Sintra, it moved to its permanent Headquarters in Oeiras in 1971.

In 1982, the Commander of IBERLANT acquired the status of Commander-in-Chief (CINC) and the Command changed its name to CINCIBERLANT. It was also the year in which, for the first time, a Portuguese vice-admiral was appointed as the commander. The Command further evolved in the post-Cold War period and was eventually deactivated in 2012 after 45 years of existence.

During the Cold War, Portugal also offered other facilities to NATO, which included Lajes Air Base on Terceira Island in the Azores, used both by NATO and US forces. NATO was authorised to have fuel storage areas and ammunition and strategic reserves on Portuguese territory and was also able to use part of the Montijo Air Base just across the Tagus facing Lisbon.

The military in transition

The number of Portuguese military forces was relatively high compared to fellow NATO member countries. The government had been gradually modernising and increasing its forces, especially since the country’s membership of NATO.

During the 1950s many Portuguese officers took part in exercises, especially naval exercises in the Atlantic, and training in other Allied countries. They brought back a new strategic and political vision of the world, helping to open up Portugal to new perspectives. NATO helped to forge a new generation of officers, which were called the “NATO generation”. Training covered areas that were unknown at the time such as computers, radars or modern logistics; it had a ripple effect, impacting the structure and organisation of the armed forces, as well as mentalities. One of the most prominent figures that benefitted from these initiatives was the future general and second President of the Republic after the Carnation Revolution (September 1974 – June 1976), Francisco da Costa Gomes. He had an active role in re-introducing democratic values into domestic politics.

Political snapshot of Portugal

Between the early 1900s and NATO membership, Portugal endured: a revolution that deposed the monarchy; a republic; and then the beginning of an authoritarian regime called the Estado Novo led by António de Oliveira Salazar. Salazar was the 100th Prime Minister of Portugal and ruled between July 1932 and September 1968. In the 1960s, the colonial war started in Africa. The Carnation Revolution in 1974 put an end to this war and reinstated democracy in Portugal.

Turning the page

The Carnation Revolution on 25 April 1974 overthrew the Estado Novo regime and led Portugal toward a democratic government. Changes were operated on all fronts: social, economic and political, and the country withdrew from its colonies. The colonial war that had started in Angola in 1961 had put a strain on Portugal’s relations with NATO and the international community. The new provisional government, starting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mário Soares, reaffirmed their allegiance to NATO. Different factions had differing opinions as to what the fate of the country should be and how that would influence the country’s membership of NATO. Portugal remained, however, committed to the North Atlantic Alliance.

Prime Minister Adelino da Palma Carlos and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mário Soares, from the first provisional government, attend a NATO meeting, June 1974 Prime Minister Adelino da Palma Carlos and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mário Soares, from the first provisional government, attend a NATO meeting, June 1974.

By the mid-1970s, the country reinforced its level of participation and was making greater contributions to the Alliance’s objectives. It invested in new military equipment and purchased, for instance, modern frigates and reconnaissance aircraft so that the armed forces could increase surveillance and control over a large sector of the eastern Atlantic. Portugal’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions was reinforced when it joined the European Economic Community in 1986, triggering yet again renewed interest in the country’s participation in the North Atlantic Alliance.

The photo gallery below offers some images of high-level Portuguese officials at work within NATO circles. Similarly to all member countries, Portugal has a permanent representation at NATO Headquarters to defend its interests, raise concerns and participate in Alliance activities.

The caravel – a special gift to NATO

Canadian Defence Minister, Kim Campbell As a token of its lasting commitment to the Alliance, in July 1989, the Portuguese Government offered NATO a scale model of a XVI century Portuguese caravel. It belonged to the “Museu da Marinha” in Lisbon. A symbol of the Portuguese discoveries and the Portuguese connection to the Atlantic, it is now placed in the Arts Heritage hub at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium.