The historic English speaking world hasn’t had a military coup in over 350 years since Oliver Cromwell dispersed the Long Parliament and established rule by his generals: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” An English parliamentarian deployed the same quote against Neville Chamberlain in 1940, whose departure was peaceful.
Most of the world lacks this history, and coups are too common, never good though sometimes preferable to alternatives. The recent failed Turkish coup was presumably trying to prevent the Turkish president’s increasing authoritarianism and Islamism. Turkey’s successful coup in 1980 responded to growing violence and disorder, mindful of the recent Islamist takeover next door in Iran. Some Iranian generals had wanted to prevent the Ayatollah’s seizure of power but they waited until too late, as the Shah and U.S. dithered. Egypt’s military was more decisive in overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood.
The 1982 coup try in Spain was comical, as a colonel in tri-corner hat brandished a pistol before the parliament, until the King helped restore democracy by appealing to the nation. Japan’s emperor suppressed a coup when surrendering to the U.S. after the atomic blasts. The 1973 coup in Chile sought to avert Marxist rule. The 1991 Soviet coup sought to preserve Marxism. The 1963 coup in South Vietnam sought to overturn a repressive regime but replaced it with instability leading eventually to conquest by North Vietnam. The 1967 Greek coup sought to end instability but instead ended the monarchy and led to Turkish occupation in Cypress. The 1961 coup in South Korea overturned a democratic government but still relied on alliance with the U.S. against North Korea. The 1975 coup in Portugal was leftist and overthrew a longtime rightist regime, provoking fears of communism, but instead leading eventually to democracy. The failed 2003 coup in Venezuela sought to overthrow leftist strongman Hugo Chavez, who had himself once led an unsuccessful military coup. The 1954 CIA-backed coup in Guatemala overthrew a leftist regime. A 2012 coup was backed by the supreme court to prevent an outgoing leftist president from illegally prolonging his rule. The most tragic failed coup was the 1944 attempt to overthrow Hitler. Its success may have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Military coups typically seek a restoration of public order achieved through repression. The 1973 Chile coup and 1980 Turkey coup were repressive but successful in restoring order, fostering prosperity and transitioning back to democracy. The 1976 Argentina coup and 1964 Brazil coup were repressive and less successful, especially Argentina, whose junta was felled by the disastrous Falklands War.
Coups may be better than chaos and worse forms of dictatorship, especially if totalitarian. Sometimes the juntas are motivated by patriotism, other times by power, lust, and chicanery. Militaries and generals usually don’t make for good rulers. Preferably they are subordinate to a lawful civilian government constitutionally accountable to the public. From a Christian perspective, a just regime above all protects religious freedom and rights of conscience, not imposing the state upon matters of the soul. Accordingly, military rule, however flawed, is typically preferred to communism or Islamism.
Supposedly Cromwell, in dismissing Parliament with his soldiers, referring to its iconic symbol of authority, said: “Take away that fool’s bauble, the mace.” We in the Anglo-American tradition can be grateful that we have in subsequent centuries abided in civilian constitutional rule, without need or fear of military coups. We should always reflect on the reasons why and pray they continue.