Reviewed by Shawn Smallman (International Studies Program, Portland State University)
Published on H-LatAm (September, 2001)
Ollie Andrew Johnson III's new work provides a revisionist account of Brazil's political history from 1945 to 1964, with a focus on party politics. The core of his argument is that during this period a political realignment strengthened the left, which caused a backlash from conservative forces. In April 1964 a coup overthrew Brazil's democratic regime and began twenty-one years of military rule. Johnson says that although a "definitive study" of the coup is "beyond the scope of this work" he wanted to focus on the "political causes of the coup" (p. 3). In so doing he challenges the work of such scholars as Alfred Stepan, who in his account of the coup emphasizes the weakness of Brazil's party system and flaws in the political leadership of President Goulart. Johnson argues that Joo Goulart was not the incompetent or radical politician portrayed in the historiography, but rather a man overwhelmed by a carefully orchestrated conspiracy. Johnson's major condemnation of Goulart is that he failed to fight to defend Brazilian democracy in 1964, even if it meant a civil war: "In these pages I shall argue that Brazilian progressives could have actively, and perhaps violently, defended the civilian regime in 1964" (p. 6).
The 1964 coup was not only one of the most important events in twentieth century Brazilian history, but also one of the most difficult to explain. While Johnson is correct that we still lack a comprehensive analysis of the coup, his study represents an important analysis of the political factors that led to the collapse of Brazilian democracy. He has a provocative argument that he strongly argues throughout his work. His jargon-free and reflective examination of this period is an interesting and much needed questioning of the existing literature.
At the same time, a tension exists within his book. Johnson says that in his study of the political factors that led to the coup he would emphasize "the important role of parties, factions, alliances, and leaders. The military, economic, cultural, and international causes of political instability will be mentioned, but are not the primary concern of this research" (p. 3). The scope of the problem is an issue facing all scholars studying the coup. Any adequate explanation for the coup must incorporate all these factors, yet to do so is an overwhelming task. Johnson was correct to limit his focus, but he also raises questions that entail a more comprehensive study. For example, Johnson suggests that Goulart could have retained power if he had been willing to resist the coup with violence, but he does not provide a detailed look at the military and its involvement in politics. Every president during the period from 1945 to 1964 knew that they had to have military support if they were to complete their term. The army itself had formed strong alliances within the Brazilian party system. The Democratic Crusade, the dominant conservative faction within the armed forces during the 1960s, was often called the "UDN (Unio Democrtica Nacional) in uniform." Without a careful look at the military and its ties to civilian leaders, it is difficult to answer many of the questions that Johnson addresses: could Goulart have done more to defend his regime in 1964, and to promote the basic reforms in the face of military opposition? Or did Goulart misjudge his military support, and needlessly anger officers as Alfred Stepan argues.
Similarly, Johnson could have given greater attention to civilian conservatives. This is an unexpected omission because Johnson argues that an adequate explanation of the coup cannot focus on Goulart and his allies alone since the conservatives ultimately hold responsibility for the coup (p. 5). Indeed, he uses his work to issue a call to research: "At the same time, this study has attempted to shift attention to important neglected research areas such as the behavior of prominent moderate and conservative politicians" (p. 129). But Johnson does not give much attention to these figures. The materials for this research are available, in particular in the excellent interviews held in the oral history archive at Fundao Getlio Vargas. While Johnson worked at FGV, and himself carried out a number of interviews in Brazil over a period of years, he does not draw on this material, apart from a few published works. These sources might have shed light on how politicians and military officers interpreted the political realignment that Johnson argues was taking place during this period.
Instead, Johnson focuses his attention on two major figures: President Goulart and his brother-in-law, Leonel Brizola, then governor of Rio Grande do Sul. He wishes to defend these men--and the left in general--from the accusation that their mistakes helped to bring about the coup: "Inspired by the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and unhinged from reality by their electoral growth and unexpected control of the presidency, leftists and radicals have been accused of preparing an illegal coup and provoking the conservative military officers and politicians to overthrow the democratic regime" (p. 11). Johnson argues that in fact Goulart should be portrayed as a "pragmatic and experienced progressive politician" who performed well under the circumstances (p. 4). He recognizes that most scholars explain the coup with reference to failures of political leadership (pp. 117-120) and the weakness of the Brazilian political system, but Johnson believes that this is a mistake: "The political and regime crises of 1964 were more responses to political realignment than consequences of economic development and crisis, poor leadership, political chaos, corruption, fragmentation and paralysis" (p. 23).
This argument challenges the dominant paradigm in the historiography, as represented in the works of such scholars as Alfred Stepan and John W. F. Dulles. For example, in his work Alfred Stepan stresses the actions of Goulart and Brizola that he believes polarized Brazilian politics, such as Brizola's calls for the creation of clandestine armed groups, the efforts of their leftist allies to undermine the discipline of the enlisted ranks, the politicization of officers' promotions, as well as the public attacks by Goulart and Brizola upon the constitution (Stepan, pp. 141, 148, 156, 162-163, 198, 195, 200-201). This is an argument echoed in the works of other scholars, who have suggested that Brizola favored a revolutionary coup (p. 120). Most scholars argue that a series of mistakes undermined Goulart's legitimacy and cost him vital military support during this dangerous period (pp. 117-121).
In contrast, Johnson argues that what caused the crisis was a political realignment that favored the Brazilian left. Not only had the PTB (Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro) strengthened its representation in the Chamber of Deputies, it had also changed the terms of the political debate. From this perspective, by criticizing Goulart scholars have taken attention away from the underlying changes that endangered his administration. But there is a dichotomy in Johnson's work between his careful analysis of the changing balance of power in Brazilian politics, on the one hand, and his defense of Goulart and Brizola on the other. While Johnson carefully describes Goulart's portrayal in the historiography, he does not enter into great detail in refuting the specific charges made by Stepan and other authors. To do so in a meaningful way would have altered the focus of this concise (138 pages of text) book.
Finally, Johnson might also have strengthened his work by placing Brazil in an international context. He convincingly argues that the origin of Brazil's political crisis in the early 1960s lay in the rising power of the Brazilian left. But the 1964 coup was only the first in a series that swept away democratic governments from Uruguay to Peru. Was a similar process taking place in other Latin American countries? While this question was too broad to fully address given the constraints of the work, some discussion of a wider picture could have made his argument relevant to the region as a whole.
This does not detract from the book's real strengths. Every author studying this period has to wrestle with the question of what to include in his or her study. Johnson's clear focus on party politics and the coup of 1964 allows him to create a fresh perspective on Brazil's changing political landscape just prior to the coup. In so doing, his work may represent one part of a new revisionist trend that will help us to reassess our understanding of this crucial period.
. Alfred Stepan, The Military in Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 196.
. Stepan, The Military in Politics; John W. F. Dulles, Unrest in Brazil: Political-Military Crises (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970).
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Shawn Smallman. Review of Johnson, Ollie Andrew, III, Brazilian Party Politics and the Coup of 1964.
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