The Brazilian Tenentes
Written for a research assignment at UCSB. Note that this is a web-optimized version; formatting and citations have been omitted.
Origins of the Movement
On July 5, 1922, the War Ministry of Brazil became the target of cannon fire, along with a few other key locations in the former capital city of Rio de Janeiro, directed by a rebellious general of the name Delso Mendes da Fonseca. Expressing growing frustration with the government of Epitácio Pessoa, a group of army officers and cadets took control of Fort Copacabana, located on the southern beach of Rio de Janeiro, in the hopes of igniting a revolt that would overpower the central government. It was these first few shots that marked the birth of the tenente movement: a series of armed uprisings primarily planned and supported by young lieutenants in the Brazilian army.
Viewed as an isolated incident, the Copacabana Revolt was remarkably unsuccessful. Many authors attribute the revolt's failure to the condition under which it was carried out. The revolt is often described as an inflamed, passionate response to the perceived insults of the arrest of Marshal Hermes da Fonseca and the closing of the Military Club. McCann describes the arrest as a "catalyst." Fausto writes that the sequence of events led to a "protest aimed at 'rescuing the army's honor.'" Smallman writes that "when conflict over [the moral bankruptcy of the high command] led to the arrest of Marshal Hermes and the closing of the Military Club, [the young officers] rose against the government." The common theme is that all of these authors describe the arrest of the marshal as the reason for the Copacabana Revolt.
This idea, however, ignores the fact that these events followed months of conspiracy by the very same officers who revolted, along with the many officers who did not actually take part in the revolt. The previously named General Delso Mendes da Fonseca, for example, wrote that it had taken him about six months to prepare the trajectory tables needed to hit his targets; furthermore, many officers later admitted that plans for revolt had been discussed so frequently, both formally and informally, that little opposition was expected once the revolt was actually underway. That this was not the case speaks more to the plan's failures than the supposed failure to plan. The political crisis following the arrest of the marshal served as a reason to revolt, but was certainly not the genesis of the revolt.
Tension between the government and the nation's army was nothing new. During the 19th century the army was composed of the nation's lowest strata: criminals, the poor, and blacks. As a result of the army's demographics, the Brazilian elite did not put much trust in the organization. The participation of army officers in five major rebellions between 1832 and 1845 did not help ease their concern. Yet the Paraguayan War of the late 1860s and the uprising that led to the fall of the monarchy in 1889 helped the army create an ideology where it viewed itself as the "nation's savior." The army saw itself as the inheritor of the monarch's moderating privilege, poder moderador, and many army officers imagined themselves responsible for the people of Brazil: a position that set them against the political elite of the Old Republic. Both groups saw themselves as the rightful rulers of the nation, and they both saw each other as threats to national stability.
Of course the Brazilian army's animosity towards the nation's elite was not purely based on dreams of egalitarian societies. The army had repeatedly been slighted by the nation's upper class as a result of this mistrust. The creation of the National Guard in 1831 was "intended not only to defend the elites against the masses, but also to check the power of the army." This institution was composed of men who made yearly incomes over a specific amount, meaning that the National Guard would be composed of educated, rich whites, while the army would be composed of uneducated, poor non-whites. A report released by the army in 1900 urged that it be able to absorb the National Guard so that the elites could no longer reject and deprecate them.
During the first couple decades of the 20th century, the army sought to introduce such reform through the legal channels of their country. Besides the necessity of absorbing the National Guard, army leaders believed that compulsory service was necessary in order to counter the many "illiterate, stupid soldiers, incapable of understanding discipline except by fear or dread of violent punishments" that the officers (perhaps unfairly) attacked. Yet obligatory service laws would not be passed through the nation's Congress until 1908, and it would take at least eight more years before the country even pretended to enforce the bill. Despite the passing of the law, many middle and upper-class citizens refused to appear when summoned for conscription. None of the social changes that the army had sought appeared with this form of "mandatory" service.
Army officers saw the elite as responsible for the failure of such reform. The law that created forced conscription also allowed for members of Tiros to avoid the draft; these shooting clubs were primarily composed of the elite. At the same time, major politicians, called colonels because of their position in the National Guard, dominated local politics. The colonel system meant that all of the power and prestige associated with military service went to the elite in the National Guard instead of the army. Furthermore, state politicians "created militias that were better trained, equipped, and funded than the central army." The Brazilian army was not only seeing its goals ignored by the government, but also seeing its already established power weaken as other military organizations gained prestige and power at its expense.
The presidency of Marshal Hermes da Fonseca (the very same man whose arrest would precede the Copacabana Revolt) did little to help the army, despite his intentions. As McCann writes, "a bitter antimilitarist campaign" waged by Fonseca's presidential rival, Senator Rui Barbosa, effectively eroded the nation's trust of the soon-to-be elected marshal, and the organization he represented. In an attempt to strengthen the state against regional political bosses, and thereby strengthen the army against the state militias, Hermes da Fonseca appointed army officers to replace civilian politicians in what the army referred to as salvações, or salvations. The political elite saw this as a threat to their power and forced the president to abandon his policy and those who supported it. While Hermes did not succeed in achieving the army's goals, he did manage to further endear himself to the organization.
Following World War I, the Brazilian army received increased political support and validation, as the need for a well-trained and well-equipped fighting force became apparent. The National Guard was transferred to the army and effectively destroyed. Brazil's inadequately prepared ground troops had forced the country to play an embarrassingly small role in the war, causing the nation to start looking outward for training. Hoping to modernize itself into a fighting force that could compete with European nations, indigenous military schools were reinvented and the French became the primary instructors for the nation's army.
Before the French would lead instruction in the 1920s, the cadets that graduated from the Indigenous Mission during 1918 and 1919 were taught German tactics—albeit with a Brazilian flair. The officers that this school created would serve as the "bulk of the rebellious tenentes." This rebelliousness came from the junior officers' belief that they were better trained than their superiors: a belief that would only be enhanced following their graduation from the French school. Not only were the tenentes better trained than their superiors for modern warfare, but they also saw themselves as morally superior. The young officers had spoken out against their occasionally corrupt, higher-ranking officers, who were, in their eyes, pawns controlled by the elite.
It was this very issue that led to the arrest of Marshal Hermes da Fonseca. Responding to an order from President Epitácio Pessôa that troops intervene in Pernambuco, Hermes, who was the president of the Military Club at the time, sent a telegram stating "governments pass and the Army remains." The true message behind this sentence was clear; the government has no right to use the military for its own political games. Following further subordination, the president placed Hermes under house arrest for a day, and ordered that the Military Club be closed for six months. These two actions were certainly inflammatory. Only a week passed between the sending of the telegram and the Copacabana Revolt.
Although it is easy to point one's finger at the immediate precursor to the revolts, such an attitude reveals short-sightedness. The arrest of Hermes da Fonseca served as a vessel through which decades of building resentment could be rallied around and expressed. The young tenentes saw the marshal as a symbol for their own struggles against the government, and must have imagined that his arrest was a legitimate chance for revolt. As mentioned before, the officers had been planning for such a revolt for months. The arrest gave the tenentes an opportunity to show their dissatisfaction, which came from a century spent competing with the typically hostile Brazilian government. While the revolt might have been born out in passion, it was not born from it.
The units that did take part in the Copacabana Revolt were spread across Rio de Janeiro, and were easily subdued. This was due in part to the loyalty that the army's senior officers displayed toward their government. The only general to revolt was the previously mentioned Delso Mendes da Fonseca. The rest found themselves responsible for stopping their subordinate officers and acted accordingly. Within the first few hours of the revolt, Colonel João José de Lima arrested his junior officers after determining that "all but two of the lieutenants" criticized the government for "closing the Military Club," thereby revealing their hostility. Actions such as this ensured that the revolt would not have the leadership it required, nor the popular support necessary for larger mobilization.
The vast majority of the Brazilian army would respond by directly opposing the revolting forces. Fausto writes that "after firing a few cannon shots, the rebels were bombarded in reprisal and surrounded." Burns describes the revolt as "a few desultory rounds" met by "bombardment from both land and sea." Return fire from units at the Vila Militar ensured that the soldiers at Copacabana knew that help would not come, and also showed the rest of the army that loyalist forces had the rest of the military's strength on their side. Fort Copacabana was effectively decimated. Within a day most of the two hundred remaining soldiers would evacuate the fort following the arrival of two Brazilian dreadnoughts boasting 12-inch guns.
Although Lieutenant Siqueira Campos allowed men to escape the fort following the government's appeal to surrender, he would personally lead a band of sixteen rebellious soldiers and one civilian volunteer to defeat and, for most of the members of this ragtag group, death. The group, later known as "os 18 do forte," then marched down Avenida Atlantica to meet several thousand soldiers loyal to the government. This small group, what Burns calls "a quixotic band of eighteen," was essentially decimated. Within a single round of shots, all but two of the soldiers remained: the other sixteen having given their lives "for their vaguely defined cause."
The subversive lieutenants, including those questioned by Colonel de Lima, were jailed for five months, and a large number of cadets were expelled. Instead of granting amnesty, which had been the case for previous rebellions, such as those seen in 1897 and 1904, the government pursued harsh penalties. Stating that the revolt had been carried out with the intention of overthrowing the constitution and government, the officers faced decades in prison if found guilty. Although the few shells that rained down on Rio de Janeiro had little lasting impact, the symbolism of the eighteen soldiers giving their lives on the sands of Copacabana Beach would further rally subversive officers in the years to follow, initiating "tenentismo, or the legend of the lieutenants."
The Second Revolt and the March of the Column
The refusal of the government to grant amnesty to those who revolted in the July 1922 revolt encouraged further feelings of frustration amongst the army. Although the Copacabana Revolt ended within little more than a day, the repercussions of the revolt would last for years. When the already unpopular Artur da Silva Bernardes, seen by many officers as hostile to the military, took office in November of that year, he "ruthlessly sought to eradicate military dissent and to weaken the army's power." Erasing decades of effort by the army to boost its numbers, Bernardes cut army enlistment by a fourth, ensuring that the president would inflame army forces and live "in a legal state of siege throughout his administration." By the end of 1923, the tenentes were planning for yet another uprising: one that would dwarf the Copacabana Revolt in comparison.
Fifty soldiers from the initial revolt had been charged with attempting to violently overthrow the government and its constitution; of the fifty, eleven had managed to avoid arrest and decided to carry on the movement that they had initiated. This time around the tenentes would actually seek revolution: the very crime they had been charged with by the Bernardes government. The free tenentes would attempt to avoid the mistakes they made in the previous revolt by seeking wider support. Part of this required that the army be seen as unified, ensuring that the tenentes themselves did not appear as radicals within a larger institution.
Like the previous revolt, the planning began months in advance. In 1924, retired Colonel Isidoro Dias Lopes, who the tenentes had courted to be their movement's leader, visited barracks in São Paulo, Paraná, and Rio Grande do Sul to ensure that their officers would actually rebel once fighting began. Other tenente leaders made lists, separating friendly officers from hostile officers. The purpose of all of this was to make sure that the revolt would not just fall apart within the first few hours of actual fighting, as had happened at Copacabana. Furthermore, the revolt could not succeed if it only took place in Rio de Janeiro. For the tenentes to retain control, they would need to neutralize the large state militia of São Paulo, along with several others. By July of 1924, the tenentes felt as though they were prepared to stage a new revolt.
Exactly two years after Copacabana, Isidoro and his followers began their revolt in the city of São Paulo. The tenentes and their troops, with the help of Major Miguel Costa, took control of key buildings, including army barracks, the police headquarters, police stations, train stations, and a telegraph building. The state forces eventually withdrew along with the governor of São Paulo, abandoning the city to the rebels. Their control of the capital persisted until July 27th, at which point federal forces had effectively put enough pressure on the tenentes to force them to evacuate the city.
Revolts were supposed to take place in Paraná, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, and Mato Grosso at the same time. The tenentes believed that such a simultaneous uprising would effectively overwhelm the national government and its supporting forces. Synchronization did not occur, though, and individual revolts in Bela Vista, Mato Grosso, Sergipe, and Manaus were quickly overcome by local forces. This being the case, Isidoro and his three thousand troops were forced to flee to the west, eventually settling within the Triple Frontier, where the countries of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet.
Three months later, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Captain Luís Carlos Prestes took control of a tenente revolt that had begun within a few of the state's garrisons. Having recruited gauchos who were unhappy with the results of a civil war that had taken place within the state during the previous year, the captain led his own small army toward Isidoro, with the intent of combining forces. The two armies finally met on the 25th of March in the following year. By this point the two groups had suffered a handful of defeats, leading Colonel Isidoro to believe that the revolt was lost. After the departure of the colonel, Prestes would become Chief of Staff while Major Costa would take command of "1,500 well-armed and well-mounted followers," creating the famous Prestes Column.
Between April 1925 and February 1927 the column marched approximately 14,000 miles (according to conservative estimates) throughout the sertão, or backcountry of Brazil. Over fifty battles would be fought during this time, eventually leading the column to escape to Bolivia and live in exile. The constant movement was part of Prestes' strategy. Writing that "war in Brazil…is a war of movement," the captain led a campaign of guerilla warfare meant to avoid direct confrontation at all costs, while doing what he could to either destabilize the interior or inspire revolution from other parts of the army. During the march, Prestes would destroy tax documents and debt records, as well as free political prisoners, ensuring that the march remained symbolic of revolution.
Government forces were first exposed to the "war of movement" tactic when the column escaped them by using a steamer to cross the Paraná into Paraguay, and then reenter the country a week later. The continuous crossing of borders proved to be extremely useful for Prestes, who was outmatched wherever he went. While the government-backed forces could not enter into foreign countries as such an action would most likely lead to a major diplomatic crisis, the rebels could go wherever they pleased without meeting resistance from other, potentially sympathetic nations—other South American governments would have most likely seen instability within Brazil as a good thing. One author writes that within Brazil itself, the "constant crossing of state borders allowed Prestes to shake off state troops who would not cross boundaries even when in hot pursuit due to strong federalist sensitivities." Thus, even borders within the country were respected, allowing the column to continually escape otherwise unfortunate odds. In addition to this, a large number of officers were relatively disinterested in pursuing the column because most of them were sympathetic to the rebel cause. Since it was constantly on the move, forces loyal to the army in name, but not necessarily in spirit, could ignore the column and not be forced to pick a side.
Such a massive political threat could not continue indefinitely, however, without drawing the ire of the Brazilian elite. Prestes' greatest enemy turned out to be Horácio Mattos, a major politician with a private army of his own. After entering Bahia in April of 1926, Prestes found himself hounded by Mattos' men. Although poorly-equipped in comparison, the private army was intimately familiar with the land, and could keep pace with Prestes throughout his march. These frequent skirmishes, in combination with the fact that about four hundred men, including Prestes himself, had contracted malaria only several months beforehand, effectively weakened the resolve of the column. Aware that the government would continue to enforce its policy of not granting amnesty despite the election of a new president, Prestes and his remaining men made their escape to Bolivia. Success had proven itself to be unlikely, and the soldiers knew when to make a strategic retreat.
Although the march accomplished little on its own, much like the Copacabana Revolt, it did achieve nationwide publicity for the tenente movement, which was now beginning to mature. Scheina writes that "Prestes and his men…emerged as national heroes. They were admired for their dedication to their political, social, and economic principles, their aggressive strategy, and their fighting spirit." Yet historians find it difficult to describe what these "political, social, and economic principles" actually were. Smallman notes that some historians describe the tenentes as leftist, while others describe them as conservative; some even argue that the tenente movement was constructed as a national myth after the fact. There is one common thread that united the various tenentes, though, and this was that the army needed to be reformed, along with the government that controlled it.
From the writings of the participants of the revolts, it is clear that the tenentes initially mobilized themselves against the government because of its anti-military policies. In A Guisa de Depoimento sobre a Revolução Brasileira, Juarez Távora wrote that he and the other tenentes "were only seeking 'violent vengeance' against President Pessôa; they did not nourish 'any desire to change the form of government of the country or to alter, violently, the political constitution.'" This being the case, it is difficult to imagine the movement existing if not for the unpopularity of presidents Pessôa and Bernardes. If the government had been more catering to the desires of the army, the tenentes would not have been as militant.
Some authors cite the middle-class backgrounds of the tenentes as examples of their politics, but conflating the opinions they were exposed to in their upbringing with the goals of their movement is dangerous. Fausto writes that this simplifies the issue because "as far as their social origins were concerned, the majority of the lieutenants came from military backgrounds or from impoverished branches of elite families in the Northeast." He emphasizes the fact that the tenentes were army officers and that "their world view was primarily shaped by their socialization within the armed forces." While the tenentes might have displayed sympathy for the middle sectors of Brazilian society, they were not originally, if ever, fighting for the same goals. Most of what they knew and understood was through their experiences in the army. An army that was pampered by the government would have little reason to complain.
Indeed, famous tenentes like Juarez Távora were actually hostile to the goals of the larger, liberal-leaning population. Smallman writes that "Távora feared nothing so much as a popular revolt… [and] embodied the paradoxes created by the military's social conservatism and racial views," with an example of this being a letter sent to Prestes, where the officer argued that abolition had occurred too quickly. The history of abolition in Brazil was an extremely gradual process by most standards, with the Golden Law (granting freedom to all slaves) being passed in 1888: thirty-eight years after the trade itself was abolished. That Távora saw this as too fast implies that the army did not have the European form of liberalism in mind when its officers sought reform. Certainly they wanted progress, but order was just as important.
Furthermore, democratic institutions were of little concern to the tenentes. Accustomed to military life, the officers did not have any qualms with an authoritarian state: especially as officers familiar with giving orders. They "assumed that economic and social change could be commanded or decreed," meaning that democracy was not seen as a necessity for modernization. Smallman notes that "both wings of the movement…wanted political centralization," making it one the few things they actually agreed on. Such desires echoed those of the soldiers who had supported former President Hermes da Fonseca's salvações; they believed that the nation needed a centralized ruling power, and if this had to be the nation's army, so be it.
Of course the politics of the tenentes would change as the decade drew to a close. During the long march of the Prestes Column, the soldiers were exposed to the frequently ignored populations of Brazil's vast rural areas. Thus, "insofar as it was a doctrine, tenentismo began to take form as a set of assumptions about Brazil during the Prestes march." It is at this point where the movement extends from seeking military reform to seeking fundamental political and social reform. Prestes himself would distance himself from the tenentes following his exile, and become an avid supporter of communism: arguing for the popular revolt that officers like Távora feared. It is clear that the march succeeded in dislodging the social conservatism of many, but the influence it had took several forms.
By the 1930s the tenente movement represented a confused, reform-based ideology. It contained "seeds of corporatism and neo-fascist radicalism…confused with a vague socialism." As Wirth writes, "a contemporary was probably closest to the truth when he wrote that at bottom the tenente 'did not know what he wanted, and poorly understood what he did not want.'" Perhaps Scheina describes the movement best when he states that the tenentes "were not a homogenous group nor did they coalesce seeking collectively to impose their ideas upon the nation…they worked within various movements."
To best understand the tenente movement, then, one should consider it as a large expression of dissatisfaction by army officers. McCann writes that "how individual officers decided to join the rebellion reveals that politics was probably less important than pressure from friends and a belief in the movement's likely success." The author goes on to mention the testimony of Indio do Brasil, who claimed that he only participated in the revolt because he liked Major Costa. Although the tenentes surely had their own political opinions, the movement was not centered on these opinions. Indeed, the politicization of the tenentes came with their rise to power in the 1930s; faced with the task of actually ruling the country, the officers found themselves conflicted over how Brazil should be run. The variety of ideologies that came as a result reflects the fact that the tenente movement was not a politically-minded ideological movement at its core.
The Decline of the Movement
Tenente influence peaked in the early 1930s, specifically in 1931 and 1932. With the events leading up to the Revolution of 1930, the tenentes had finally found the rest of Brazilian society ready for change: specifically through the Liberal Alliance. Responding to the economic effects of the Great Depression, mainly the low price of coffee, and the political crisis following São Paulo's break from the cafê com leite political tradition (which left politicians in Minas Gerais frustrated, along with those from the rest of Brazil's states), traditional bastions of support rapidly eroded. A new wave of young officers found themselves swept up in conspiracy. The new military movement would be led by Pedro Aurélio de Goés Monteiro, a man whose own gradual acceptance of revolutionary ideas reflected the slowly increasing influence of the tenente revolts. Beginning in Rio Grande do Sul, the home of Getúlio Vargas, success in the state came quickly, having the support of 82 percent of all officers. The attacks were also coordinated from Minas Gerais and Paraíba, and overwhelmed loyalist forces by invading the cities of Recife and Salvador, and the states of São Paulo, Espírito Santo, and Rio de Janeiro. , President Washington Luis was deposed, and Vargas was given power by the military junta in early November.
The tenente role in the revolution was as necessary as it was symbolic. One of the previously mentioned original revolutionary officers, Juarez Távora, would lead the Paraíba forces. He, along with his comrades, had spent the last decade undermining the command structure of the army, effectively weakening its ability to resist revolution, and its resolve to try. The important roles, symbolic and strategic, that the tenentes had in the revolution established them as an influential group in the new regime. The Liberal Alliance had initially courted them for their "mystique," but the revolutionary actions of the tenentes had legitimized them in the eyes of the public as true representatives and agents of change. Public approval, combined with their strong presence in the army, made them valuable allies for Vargas.
Wirth writes that "Brazilians of the 1930s agreed that…tenentismo dominated the first two years, or radical phase, of the Vargas era." Although the tenentes would originally be overlooked in the revolt due to their power being spread out across various political groups, the formation of O Club 3 de Outubro gave the tenentes a proper platform for expressing their interests. During 1931 they had a unique "balancing position, with sufficient leverage to control the balance of power for nearly a year…[and] became Vargas' indispensable ally." While this period of power was relatively short, the tenentes did manage to accomplish several major goals. They encouraged a centralized national government and brought attention to the middle sectors of Brazilian society. They introduced a "wide range of social legislation," including labor laws, social security, a public health system, and universal education. Most importantly, they established an ideology of military rule that would haunt the country for decades. If there is one way to summarize the tenentes and their movement, it is that they sought to make the positivist ideals of order, through a centralized government with a strong army, and progress, through modernization, a reality: this they achieved.