Coups: What makes one successful, another fail?

Robert Keith Packer, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol. Later he made his way inside the building.

By now, readers who follow mainstream media—i.e., not QAnon and its ill ilk—know that the rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6 planned an insurrection or coup.  They hoped to take US congresspeople hostage, maybe hold mock trials, then who knows what.  But surely much more bloodshed than did happen would have occurred had the mob succeeded in holding the Capitol.  Fortunately, many of the rioters appeared to lose interest after being on the building’s steps for hours.  They walked away.  And inside the Capitol, law enforcement finally brought the mob under control.

                But why didn’t the attackers succeed?  I’ll write first about a successful coup and then about another unsuccessful one.

                The one I am thinking of that worked, and resulted in a great deal of pain and bloodshed, occurred in Chile in 1973.  Salvador Allende was a Marxist who was the first ever of his political outlook to be elected president of a Latin American country, in September 1970.  He got only 36.2 % of the vote, but that was a plurality that allowed him to form a government.  President Richard Nixon, working closely with his advisor Henry Kissinger on foreign affairs, found Allende’s election—deemed fair by observers—intolerable.  Of course, that had already been official America’s attitude toward any hints of socialism abroad outside of the Soviet bloc.  Or we can trace back American opposition, accompanied by force, to the right of a people to determine their own form of government.  Think of our war to take over the Philippines 1899-1902, after we had promised independence to that country.  Repeated interventions in Nicaragua in the 1920s, Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, refusal by our government even to talk to the victorious Vietnamese at the Geneva Conference in the latter year, and so on.

Allende demanded that mining operations be held responsible for damage to the land and to workers’ health.  One of the chief offenders was copper, in which American companies held a large stake.  When in 1973 Allende’s government began to expropriate some private property, to nationalize mines, and food shortages began to appear, the more confrontational elements of his policies and supporters started to evoke considerable opposition.  There was also a growing fear of women’s participation in demonstrations among conservative Chilean males, one of whom feared a “White Panther” in the marriage bed and a Tupamaro(a) (Uruguayan “terrorists”) in the kitchen.

Inflation ran high, and the government was unable or unwilling, because of truly radical elements in it, to make compromises with the growing opposition.  Allende and his followers were not skilled, subtle politicians. Still, the situation might have been resolved peacefully, except that

Nixon, already bogged down in Vietnam, could not stomach another socialist regime besides Cuba in Latin America.  The U.S., true to its traditions, had already been at work to undermine Allende.  By 1970, we had spent millions to try to block him.  Little more than a month after Allende was elected, CIA officers in Chile received a message from Langley:  “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to 24 October, but efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date. We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end, utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG and American hand be well hidden.” 

On August 22, 1973, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution, 81-47, calling openly for Allende’s ouster.  The armed forces knew US policy. Always to that time and for decades after, the military in much of Latin America was a conservative if not outright fascist body. The Chilean army and air force overthrew Allende on Sept. 11, arresting him and members of his government and party.  As the military surrounded and bombed the presidential palace, Allende reportedly committed suicide. 

Salvador Allende and supporters, September 11,1973, in the Presidential Palace

The new government, under the “strongman” General Augusto Pinochet, detained Allende supporters in the National Stadium in Santiago, where numerous people were tortured and shot.  Over the next three years, Pinochet’s men arrested an estimated 130,000 people.  The situation was gradually pacified.  US involvement was obvious and has since been documented, although Washington denied it at the time.

In this successful coup, much popular opposition to Allende’s policies had emerged, largely because of the deteriorating food supply and inflation.  Whether this trend would have resulted in an overthrow without US support is open to question.  But the main point is that the Chilean armed forces remained undivided, and they did their dirty work effectively.

As for an unsuccessful coup attempt, let us take Russia in August of 1991.  Gennady Yanayev and a few other die-hard Communists attempted to trap Mikhail Gorbachev in his dacha in the Crimea, while ordering tanks and helicopters into the center of Moscow.  It didn’t work; Boris Yeltsin, in the days before he became a worthless drunk, famously stood on top of a tank and exhorted the crowd around him, as well as the tank crews, not to fire on the people.  Only two members of the peaceful demonstration against the coup were killed.  Helicopter pilots refused to fly.  In that case, the forces of coercion cracked and would not obey the orders of the coup-makers.  We might say the same of the women’s march on Versailles to return King Louis XVI to Paris in 1789, where he became not quite such an absolute monarch.  In both events, popular sentiment had reached deep into the armed forces, which refused to commit violence against the crowds.

The women’s march from Paris to Versailles, October 5, 1789

While we have seen that various local officials, including city council members and police officers, were active in the Capitol riot, we have also seen officials across the country virtually close ranks against the violent insurgents and now to a fair extent against Senators Hawley and Cruz.  The forces of coercion in the US may have acted ineffectively for hours on January 6, but they remained pretty solidly on the side of the Constitution.

That’s why further violence, say on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, will not succeed.  But God help us if the Biden administration can’t find ways to offer improvement to all poor people of the country, including failed or failing rural communities.  The rioters on Jan. 6 appeared to be above the poverty line, even if Trump called them “low class.”  The mob was well enough off to fly to DC or to rent buses to go (and who paid for that?). Yet policies to boost the rural poor, white and Black, would go far to undermine the grievances of the “base.”

a scene in rural America

About thurstrw

Prof. of history at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Managing Partner, Oxford Coffee Company.
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