It is a good time to study coups because coups are all over the news these days.
In particular, Bolivia had Latin America’s first successful coup in a generation on 18 November 2019. To explain, Bolivia’s military overthrew elected socialist President Evo Morales. The generals did not seize power; however, instead politician Jeanine Áñez declared herself president after Morales fled the country.
The military threw Morales out after the Organization of American States (OAS) found serious problems with the last election’s results. Morales, conversely, had agreed to a new election overseen by a tribunal. The military moved in after Morales tried to block his most successful opponent Carlos Mesa from running in the new election.
America’s Obsession with Coups
In America, there is a growing obsession with coups on both the right and the left.
Some credible observers; including Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and The American Conservative’s Robert W. Merry, think the intelligence community is organizing a coup against President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida). The theory is that spy agencies and military intelligence want Trump removed because he is a threat to their agenda.
American hysteria about coups is nothing new. In 1934, the retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler told the United States House of Representatives Special Committee on Un-American Activities that wealthy businessman were planning to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York).
Oddly, Butler alleged the businessmen were planning to pay veterans to overthrow FDR. Butler; however, presented no evidence to verify his claims of a Business Plot.
In the 1960s, the silly big-budget movie Seven Days in May publicized fears of a right-wing coup in the United States. Strangely, President John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) supported the production of Seven Days in May. However, they did not release the movie until after JFK’s death.
The Intelligence Coup Conspiracy
In 1991, Lee Colodny and Robert Gettlin published Silent Coup: The Removal of a President. Silent Coup alleges the Watergate conspiracy was really a Pentagon coup to remove President Richard M. Nixon (R-California).
The authors think the generals wanted Nixon gone because the President had recognized the People’s Republic of China. Interestingly, Silent Coup is a cult classic with an introduction by Roger Morris, a former National Security Council Staff Member under Henry Kissinger.
Today’s conspiracy theorists have revived The Silent Coup theory as an explanation for the odd impeachment efforts directed at President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida). Notably, some national security officials are testifying against the president in the impeachment hearings.
What is a Coup?
Americans think of coups as military overthrows of civilian government. In reality, a coup need not involve the military.
For instance, Google’s dictionary defines a coup as “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.” Hence, a coup is a violent or illegal takeover of government by any group.
In fact, you can describe the Russian Revolution as a coup or putsch organized by Vladimir I. Lenin. To explain, Lenin used German money to hire mercenaries to overthrow Russia’s government. Afterwards, Lenin spread the lie that the Russian people backed his “Revolution.”
The Russian Revolution was a classic coup because it involved extensive disinformation and a foreign intelligence agency. Imperial German intelligence financed Lenin’s Communist putsch. The Germans wanted to overthrow the Russian government because it was fighting them in World War I.
The term coup comes from the French phrase coup d’état. Wikipedia describes a coup as “the overthrow of an existing government by non-democratic means; typically, it is an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of power by a dictator, the military, or a political faction.”
A coup; or putsch, is any illegal seizure of power by any group. Thus, it is partially accurate to call the removal of a U.S. President by impeachment a coup. The definition depends on whether you consider the impeachment legal.
What we can Learn from Coups in History
I do not think America is facing an intelligence coup. However, there is a lot we can learn from historical coups.
Important lessons we can learn from coups in history include:
Coups can Backfire
First, coups can lead to catastrophes. For instance, the Spanish Civil War began as a botched right-wing coup. To explain, the army tried to overthrow the democratic Spanish Republic. The coup fell and all out war between left-wing and right-wing factions broke out.
Farther back, a series of coups plunged the Roman Republic into a series of bloody civil wars. Those wars only ended when Augustus Caesar established an absolute monarchy.
In addition, the Soviet Union collapsed because of a botched coup in 1991. To clarify, the KGB and Communist leaders tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead, the clumsy coup backfired enabling anti-Communist Boris Yeltsin to overthrow the Kremlin elite.
Finally, the Germans financed the Russian Revolution to dismantle the Russian Empire. However, the Russian Empire became more powerful than ever under the Soviet Union. In fact, Russian troops set up a Soviet puppet state in East Germany 28 years after the October Revolution.
Fear leads to Coups
Factions launch coups when they become frightened of losing power, status or influence.
For instance, the Chilean middle-and upper classes backed General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody September 11 coup in 1973, because they were afraid President Salvador Allende planned to take everything they had. More recently, the Bolivian upper class removed Morales because they feared he threatened their lifestyles and traditions.
In the United States, intelligence professionals fearing for their power and cushy jobs support efforts to remove Trump. Strangely, the intelligence community finds unlikely allies in moderate politicians, big business, journalists, and other groups whose power is declining in America today.
Hence, history partially vindicates the intelligence coup theory. However, there is no evidence of popular support for a coup. Successful coups; such as Pinochet’s and Lenin’s, always have some popular support.
Conversely, the level of support for a coup is always exaggerated. For instance, Lenin and his successors went to great lengths to spread the myth that mobs of Russian people stormed the Winter Palace.
The Winter Palace was the building where Russian leader Alexander Kerensky headquartered his provisional government. What we call the Russian Revolution occurred when Lenin’s forces seized the building in a coup.
Illegality leads to Coups
Factions launch coups because they believe leaders are engaging in illegal or illegitimate behavior.
For example, the Bolivian military launched its coup because of Morales’ alleged election abuses. Meanwhile, the US intelligence community supports impeachment because of President Donald J. Trump’s (R-Florida) alleged corruption.
Additionally, the KGB and diehard Communists tried to overthrow Gorbachev because they viewed his efforts to dismantle Communism as a betrayal of Lenin’s “revolution.” Hence, the Communists viewed Gorbachev’s rule as illegitimate.
Coups can lead to Bloodshed
Coups often begin with high ideals and end in bloodshed and slaughter.
For instance, Lenin overthrew the provisional government to clear the way for his Communist utopia. However, Lenin’s regime; the USSR, engaged in some of the worst genocides in history.
Likewise, Pinochet launched his coup to protect “traditional Chilean society” from Communism. The coup ended in the mass murder of alleged leftists. Ironically, Pinochet adopted Communist tactics in his efforts to “save Chile from Communism.”
To explain, Pinochet emulated Lenin’s tactic of organizing a ruthless secret police force to kill anybody he saw as an enemy. Lenin organized the Cheka; which evolved into the KGB, Pinochet formed his own murder force called DINA. Both Lenin and Pinochet murdered every potential enemy.
For instance, Lenin ordered his thugs to kill Czar Nicholas II’s teenaged daughters and gravely ill son. Meanwhile, Pinochet sent hitmen to other countries to murder Chileans who disapproved of the new order.
Another slaughter occurred after a coup attempt in Indonesia in October 1965. Some scholars think the Indonesian military killed 500,000 people in response to a clumsy Communist coup attempt, The New York Times reports.
Coups need Popular Support
History shows that coups without popular support quickly collapse.
The Soviet coup against Gorbachev failed, because it had no popular support. Likewise, the 1944 Operation Valkyrie coup against Hitler in Nazi Germany collapsed because it had no support among the German people.
Similarly, the 1981 23-F coup attempt in Spain collapsed because it had no popular support. Additionally, King Juan Carlos I ended the coup by refusing to acknowledge its legality. The plotters quit when they realized the people backed the King rather than their putsch.
Therefore, successful coups have the tacit support of elements of the population. However, you do not need widespread support. Just the support or silence of much of the populace.
Coups in America
Fortunately, history shows American coups only exist in the realms of fiction and popular imagination.
The closest thing to a coup in U.S. history was the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865. The Confederacy fell apart because generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnson ignored President Jefferson Davis’s orders and surrendered their armies to Union forces.
Lee and Johnson’s actions were a coup because they ignored Davis’s orders to fight to the last man. The generals destroyed Davis’s authority by refusing to follow the Confederate President’s orders. Ironically, America’s Civil War reversed standard history and ended with a coup rather than beginning with a putsch.
However, the United States government has a long history of involvement in coups in other nations. For example, leftist historians claim the CIA engineered Pinochet’s coup. Currently, American leftist journalists claim the Trump administration is behind the Bolivian coup.
Personally, I think such allegations are exaggerated and rooted in American exceptionalism. Many American “intellectuals” cannot imagine that Latin Americans can do anything on their own, for instance. In addition, leftists hate the idea that the people in another country could reject “leaders” they idolize.
Coups are a small part of United States history but they have a powerful hold on the American imagination. Only future history will tell if that imagination will become a reality.
For a good overview of coups in Chile and Indonesia see Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond.