Portugal’s Colonialist Propaganda and Covert Lobbying in the United States, 1961-63
Journal article (in progress)
After defeating Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s Nazis, the Western world became less tolerant of right-wing dictatorships like António Salazar’s Estado Novo. The international community also became hostile towards old European colonial powers like Portugal, echoing the liberal democratic principles of the United Nations Charter of 1945. Despite mounting pressures to introduce democratic reforms and release its colonial territories in Africa and Asia, Salazar was able to count with the “collaborative neutrality” of important Western allies, including President Dwight Eisenhower’s United States. The amicable relations between the two countries was largely grounded in the Americans dependency on the Lajes Air Base (in the Azorean island of Terceira) for its Cold War military plans.
When the anti-colonialist John F. Kennedy became President in 1961, Portugal-US relations entered one of its most acrimonious periods. That year, Salazar also faced the most difficult period in his 36-year rule, with a series of high-profile revolutionary actions from the emboldened democratic opposition; the annexation of Portuguese territories in India by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru; and the outbreak of the colonial wars in Angola, later spreading to Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea. The relations between Salazar and Kennedy would eventually improve after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, with the U.S. backing away from its public and clandestine attacks on the Portuguese dictator and his colonial empire; thanks once again to the U.S. dependency on the Lajes Air Base.
During this period, the Estado Novo invested a great deal of resources to shaping the public opinion of Americans towards accepting Portugal’s “historical rights” in Africa and its colonial wars as “a fight against Soviet imperialism”. Through indirect means, the Portuguese regime unleashed a large propaganda campaign in the U.S., hiring American public relations firms; subsidizing influential American media outlets and reporters; and recruiting Portuguese-American lobbyists. In 1962, the New York firm Selvage & Lee and the Portuguese-American Committee on Foreign Affairs were able to persuade twelve Republican and Democratic congressmen – some representing districts with large Portuguese populations – to publicly criticize the U.S. State Department’s anti-colonial policy towards the Portuguese empire. Later, these lobbyists were found to receive direct instructions and logistic support from Portuguese diplomats, in contravention with U.S. regulations regarding the non-intervention of foreign officers in American domestic politics.
This article follows up on the earlier work of historians José Freire Antunes (1991), and Luis Nuno Rodrigues (2002), on Portugal-US relations in the early 1960s, and examines in greater detail the activities of the public relations firms George Peabody & Associates, Selvage & Lee, Downs & Roosevelt, and the Portuguese-American Committee on Foreign Affairs on behalf of the Estado Novo. My findings are drawn primarily from records consulted at the Arquivo-Histórico Diplomático of the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the 1963 congressional hearings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the “Activities of Nondiplomatic Representatives of Foreign Principals in the United States”, chaired by Senator J. W. Fulbright.