Portuguese Neutrality in World War II: A Political Tightrope

WWII

Portuguese Neutrality in World War II: A Political Tightrope

Portugal was one of the most important places on earth during World War II, but as the war carried on, it became much more difficult to remain neutral.

Portugal was one of the most important places on earth during World War II, but as the war carried on, it became much more difficult to remain neutral.

by B. Paul Hatcher

For the first time in over 400 years, the small nation of Portugal was one of the most important places on earth during World War II. At the airport in Lisbon, its capital city, planes from London, Rome, and Berlin boarded side by side, while spies, emissaries, and diplomats stood in line within a grenade’s throw of one another.

By mid-1940, over 20,000 refugees, some rich, some not so rich, and some royalty, crowded Lisbon’s resorts, cafés, and boarding houses. They awaited transportation to a variety of potential destinations: Britain, the United States, Argentina, Brazil. Readily available were newspapers and propaganda from Italy, Britain, and Germany alike. Portugal, through its dictator Antonio Salazar, had declared itself neutral at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, and politically its attention was focused on keeping that neutrality, as well as keeping Spain neutral, all the while maintaining a treaty of friendship with Great Britain which had existed since the 14th century.

More of a British Liability Than an Asset

Other neutral nations had seen their neutrality challenged and protested by the principal belligerents, especially Britain and Germany. Throughout the war, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and especially Ireland and Spain, had come under immense pressure from the belligerents to declare allegiance and begin contributing immediately to the war effort. Not so Portugal. Great Britain favored Portugal’s neutrality and considered Portugal’s potential belligerence more of a liability than an asset. If Portugal were to declare war against the Axis, or to otherwise provoke an Axis movement against it, Great Britain figured it would further strain its already fully stretched resources in coming to Portugal’s rescue. By mid-1940, with the fall of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, and Norway, with Britain’s defense of its homeland now straining the island nation beyond its means, the addition of Portugal as a British ally would assuredly result in the fall of that nation as well, with the possible addition of Spain to the Axis side.

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Meanwhile, Hitler gave little thought to Portugal. Although the German military had drafted extensive plans for the potential invasion of Sweden and Switzerland, Portugal had strategically little to offer the Wehrmacht, with one major exception. The Azores Islands were a Portuguese possession located in the Atlantic Ocean. In the early 15th century, Portuguese explorers discovered the Azores Islands, which lay strategically one-third of the way between Portugal and New York City. Uninhabited, they were settled and farmed by the Portuguese, but by mid-1940 an airbase in the Azores had acquired a new and somewhat unique importance.

Strain on the Tightrope

The German U-boat war against Allied shipping was taking a tremendous toll in the North Atlantic. This was largely because of the lack of air cover for the convoys in the mid-Atlantic where the United States’ planes had to turn back for lack of fuel, and the area was also out of range of patrols from Britain. An Allied base in the Azores would (and eventually did) fill this gap, helping to assure safe passage for convoys and menacing U-boats on the prowl.

Diplomatically, Hitler insisted that Portugal refuse the Allies use of the Azores as an airbase. Hitler’s recognition of Portugal’s neutrality would, it was made clear, terminate should Portugal yield to British pressure. The British claimed the right to use the ports under their ancient treaty with Portugal, making the country’s political tightrope to remain neutral even more difficult to navigate.

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