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A Latin American State within the State: The Politics of the Chilean Army, 1924–1927*

  • Frederick M. Nunn (a1)


Political orientation and motivation of Chilean army officers in the twentieth century has generally been confined to the 1924-1932 period. During those eight years the military functioned as a politically deliberative body in four distinct ways. First, in September 1924 the actions of junior and middle-grade officers caused President Arturo Alessandri Palma to resign his office, whereupon a junta composed of two generals and an admiral assumed executive functions. Four months later, in January 1925, a coup led by the progenitors of the 1924 movement deposed the junta and recalled Alessandri, allowing him to serve out the remaining few months of his five-year term.



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A version of this essay was presented as a paper in a session devoted to “The Impact of the Military on the Internal and External Affairs of the State,” at the American Historical Association, Pacific Coast Branch Meeting, Santa Clara, California, August 1968.



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1 Alessandri accepted a petition from army officers on September 5, 1924 which contained demands for social and military reform legislation. Once congress had acted on the demands, Alessandri expected the officers to disband a junta formed along the lines of the Spanish military defense juntas. They did not disband and he then resigned. See my “Military Rule in Chile: The Revolutions of September 5, 1924 and January 23, 1925,” Hispanic American Historical Review, XLVII, No. 1 (February, 1967), 122 . inspector General Luis Altamirano Talavera, General Juan Pablo Bennett Argandoña and Admiral Francisco Neff.

3 The best source on military involvement in politics in 1931 and 1932 is Morales, Carlos Sáez, Recuerdos de un soldado, Vol. III, El 26 de julio al 24 de diciembre de 1932 (Santiago, 1934). In English the best treatment is Thomas, Jack Ray, “The Socialist Republic of Chile,” Journal of Inter-American Studies, VI, No. 2 (April, 1964), 203220 .

4 Interview with General (ret.) Oscar Novoa Fuentes, Santiago, October 24, 1962. Novoa became commander in chief in 1933.

5 These were two chief concerns of German army leaders after 1871. See Craig, Gordon A., The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945 (New York, 1964), Chapter VI, “The State within the State,” 218 .

6 Ibid.

7 Specifically, the colonels wanted to expel extremists of the right and left: reactionaries who opposed the idea of constitutional reform and radical thinkers who, they believed, advocated Marxism as a remedy to Chile’s post-war problems.

8 There was no threat to national security which motivated the army to act in 1924 and 1925. The only war scare in the twentieth century came in 1920 when the government mobilized the armed forces in an attempt to keep Alessandri from being inaugurated. See La llamada movilización de 1920 (Santiago, 1923), a documentary record defending the decision to mobilize.

9 Nearly all the army proclamations and press statements confirm this.

10 In which President José Manuel Balmaceda was overthrown by congressional leaders with the collaboration of the navy and numerous army officers.

11 The professionalization process and early twentieth century interest in politics by Chilean army officers is discussed in my “Emil Korner and the Prussianization of the Chilean Army: Origins, Process and Consequences, 1885-1920,” to be published in the Hispanic American Historical Review.

12 Revised Edition (Leipzig, 1935).

13 Gedanken eines Soldaten, 92-93 as quoted in Craig, 388.

14 On the role of the military in the elections of 1924 see my “Military Rule in Chile,” 2-3. Alessandria coalition, the Liberal Alliance, composed of Radicals, Democrats and a Liberal faction, held a majority in the Chamber of Deputies after 1921. The immense powers of the Senate, however, made a majority in that chamber an absolute necessity for Alessandri, and he looked forward to the 1921 elections throughout the early portion of his term.

15 There is a question concerning leadership of the January 23 coup. Grove, claimed credit for planning the coup, in his autobiographical Toda la verdad (Paris and Buenos Aires, 1928), 7 . Sáez Morales agreed. Recuerdos de un soldado Vol. I: El ejército y la política (Santiago, 1933), 165. The most detailed versions of the coup, however, gave Ibáñez the credit. See the biographical treatment of Captain Sócrates Aguirre Bernal in Virgilio Figueroa [pseud., Virgilio Talquino], Diccionario histórico y biográfico de Chile, 5 Vols. (Santiago, 1925) I, 173-177; and Monreal, Enrique, Historia completa y documentada del periodo revolucionario, 1924-1925 (Santiago, 1929), 166180.

16 Most of them were cavalry and artillery officers. See Escalafón por grados y antigüedad de los oficiales de guerra i mayores del ejército (Santiago, 1913); Reseña histórica de la academia de guerra, 1886-1936 (Santiago, 1936), 62-310, passim.

17 Alessandri was informed of this before he returned from Rome.

18 Until engineers and civilian employees threatened a strike there was serious talk of naval resistance to Alessandria reinstatement based on the admiralty’s objections to constitutional reform. This attitude was explicit in “The Navy’s Manifesto to the Country,” originally published in El Diario Ilustrado and El Mercurio, January 25, 1925; and translated in Department of State Files (Hereinafter cited as DSF), 825.00/392, Mackinson to Hughes, February 2, 1925. See also Evans, Oswald, “The Pronuncimiento” [sic] South Pacific Mail, January 29, 1925 .

19 Members were the highly respected states-man Emilio Bello Codesido, General Pedro Pablo Dartnell Encina and Admiral Carlos Ward.

20 Blanche had been sub-secretary since September 1924; he became Director General of Police in 1925, then War Minister, succeeding Ibáñez, in 1927.

21 In 1927 Ibáñez fused the carabineros with municipal police force to form Carabineros de Chile, Latin America’s most disciplined national police force.

22 For example, Alessandri was told to stay away from numerous former associates because they were unpopular with military leaders. His former private secretary Arturo Olavarría Bravo was one of those with whom the president was not supposed to associate. See Bravo, Arturo Olavarría, Chile entre dos Alessandri: Recuerdos Políticos, 4 Vols. (Santiago, 1962-1965, I, 178-179. Alessandri's “dependent” status was no secret. Five months after he returned to Chile La Hora, the Radical Party daily published a caricature of Alessandri in convict stripes and a tricorn, striking a Napoleonic pose, and with a saber sticking in his left side. The caption read, “This is how the President of the Republic will look if he accepts the impositions of the saber [the army].”

23 Two retired captains, Oscar Fenner Marín (an Ibañista) and Gaspar Mora Sotomayor (an Alessandrista); one general, Mariano Navarrete Ciris and an admiral, Juan Schroeders, were also members of the 100 man group that framed the 1925 constitution.

24 Primarily because there were too many Alessandristas in the membership and resistance to their proposals was heated.

25 Morales, Carlos Sáez, Recuerdos de un soldado, Vol. II: Génesis y derrumbe de la dictadura (Santiago, 1933), 13 .

26 Divisions of opinion manifested in 1925 were essentially those manifested by the traditional parties on all major political issues since the war. All but a few Conservatives opposed constitutional reforms to reestablish executive hegemony; all opposed the assumption by the state of responsibilities in the social sphere. The Liberal Party was hopelessly divided on most issues, and had been since the mid-nineteenth century. The Radicals advocated sweeping social and economic reforms this early but had misgivings about strong executive powers.

27 Sáez, II, 17-18.

28 Ibáñez’ version of this conflict with civil authorities is presented in Prieto, Luis Correa, El presidente Ibáãnez, la política y los políticos: Apuntes para la historia (Santiago, 1962), 106107 . Correa’s book consists of a series of interviews with Ibáñez during his second presidency, 1952-1958.

29 DSF, 825.00/419, Deichman to Kellogg, June 23, 1925; Donoso, Ricardo, Alessandri, agitador y demoledor: Cincuenta años de historia politica de Chile 2 Vols. (Mexico and Buenos Aires, 1952-1954), I, 408, 411.

30 DSF, 825.00/416, Collier to Kellogg, June 5, 1925; DSF, 825.00/421, same, July 7, 1925. See also Donoso, I, 409-410.

31 Alessandri did not protest against this form of “intervention” because he considered Salas a threat to Chilean democracy.

32 These rumors linked Grove, the most radical member of the army elite and the authoritarian Blanche with Inspector General Navarrete and General Juan Emilio Ortiz Vega, two officers nearing retirement age.

33 Monreal, 377-378.

34 Jaramillo ostensibly resigned because he was outraged at continued “army meddling.” By resigning he could not be accused of engineering his own election from his ministerial post. This was customary and a legally necessary move.

35 On September 1 three navy captains, Luis Concha, Luis Caballero and Luis Escobar revolted against the high command. They and their supporters demanded new salary, promotion and retirement scales, and purchases of modern ships and equipment. The “Revolt of the Three Luises” was immediately put down.

36 The Radicals refused to support anyone but a party member at this stage.

37 La Nación, October 1, 1925; See also Sáez, II, 26-27; and Correa, 115-116. Article 75 of the 1925 constitution states, “All orders of the President of the Republic must be signed by the minister of the respective department i.e., ministry and are not binding without this essential requisite.” Ibáñez was technically wrong, because even after resigning cabinet members continued in such a capacity until replacements were chosen and sworn in.

38 Barros ran against Alessandri for the presidency in 1920, but the two were friends.

39 For example, Alessandri accused Ibáñez of working against him in a pamphlet published two years later in Paris. Don Arturo Alessandri, ex-presidente de la república de Chile, para contestar afirmaciones de La Nación de Santiago, ha enviado a don Carlos Ibáñez, actual presidente la siguiente comunicación.

40 Captain Sócrates Aguirre, Alessandria aide-de-camp, attempted to raise infantry elements against Ibáñez. He was deported to Argentina for his efforts.

41 See Sáez, II, 28; DSF, 825.00/453, Collier to Kellogg, October 12, 1925.

42 Figueroa won 72 percent of the vote; Salas received 28 percent. Percentages are rounded off to the nearest whole and based on results published in La Nación, October 25, 1925.

43 See de Diputados, Cámara, Boletín de sesiones extraordinarias, 1925-1926, April 16, 1926.

44 The full text of Ibáñez’ address appeared in El Diario ¡lustrado, October 21, 1926.

45 El Mercurio, November 16, 1926.

46 All generals stationed in Santiago but one refused to serve in the cabinet. General Enrique Bravo Ortiz, the only high ranking officer who objected to Ibáñez, received an official “request” to resign and did so in anger. Among the colonels Ibáñez had no rivals. Blanche was his staunch ally; Grove, out of favor since January 1926 had been ordered to London as chief of an air force mission.

47 The “Cabinet of February” as it has been called was composed of political newcomers who were all committed to full application of constitutional powers granted the executive branch in 1925. Its formation welded together Chilean military and civilian elements that were unable to participate meaningfully in politics under the parliamentary system. Conrado Ríos Gallardo, the new Foreign Minister, was an energetic nationalistic firebrand. Pablo Ramirez, an anti-Alessandri Radical, became Chile’s financial wizard as Treasury Minister. A retired captain, Aquiles Vergara Vicuña, the Minister of Justice and Education, performed Herculean tasks in the reorganization of Chile’s judicial and public education system. These three and their new colleagues were all close to Ibáñez.

48 Justice Minister Vergara had attacked Figueroa’s brother Javier Angel, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and demanded his resignation. Rather than be a party to the purge of his brother, President Figueroa vacated the presidency.

* A version of this essay was presented as a paper in a session devoted to “The Impact of the Military on the Internal and External Affairs of the State,” at the American Historical Association, Pacific Coast Branch Meeting, Santa Clara, California, August 1968.

A Latin American State within the State: The Politics of the Chilean Army, 1924–1927*

  • Frederick M. Nunn (a1)


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