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The National Security Archive at George Washington University

CONSORTIUM NEWS - Edited by Robert Parry


June 01, 2003

Excerpts from 'Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook' by Edward Luttwak

'Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook' (1968 - Harvard University Press)

"As soon as the moral power of the national representation was destroyed, a legislative body, whatever it might be, meant no more to the military than a crowd of five hundred men, less vigorous and disciplined than a battalion of the same number."
– Madame de Steal, speaking of Napoleon's coup d'etat

"Listen to me Mr. Ambassador. Fuck your Parliament and your Constitution. ...If your Prime Minister gives me talk about Democracy, Parliament and Constitution, he, his Parliament, and his Constitution may not last very long."
– President Lyndon Johnson to the Greek ambassador, circa 1967
(As recounted by an eyewitness.)

Excerpts From Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook
By Edward Luttwak

(Harvard University Press, 1968. Page citations are from the 1979 paperback edition.)

Comments within [brackets] are this editor's, not the author's. Bolded segments are emphasized by this editor, not the author. Italicized comments not within brackets are emphasized by the original author (Luttwak).

Edward Luttwak was a special national security advisor to President Reagan. He also has numerous ties to think tanks with known connections to US intelligence. Currently, he works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. For a brief bio of Luttwak at the CSIS site, see

Ch. 1 — What Is a Coup D'Etat?

[p. 26 - 27]

"A coup d'etat involves some elements of all these different methods by which power can be seized [i.e., putsch, revolution, civil war, war for liberation] but, unlike most of them the coup is not necessarily assisted by either the intervention of the masses, or, to any significant degree, by military-type force. [emphasis added]

"The assistance of these forms of direct force would no doubt make it easier to seize power, but it would be unrealistic to think that they would be available [or desirable] to the organizers of a coup.

"If a coup does not make use of the masses, or of warfare, what instrument of power will enable it to seize control of the state? The short answer is that the power will come from the state itself...

"A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder."

from the author's Preface to the 1979 ed.
[p. 16]

"The overt corruption commonly found in [many] states reveals the full consequences of the absence of political community. Only from the latter can effective norms arise, norms felt in the consciousness of each citizen. Without political community, the state is no more than a machine. It is then that the coup d'etat becomes feasible since, as with any machine, one may gain control over the whole by seizing hold of the critical levers."

Ch. 2 — When is a Coup D'Etat Possible?

[pp. 37 - 55, passim]

[The three chief pre-conditions of a coup d'etat:]

  1. "The social and economic conditions of the target country must be
    such as to confine political participation to a small fraction of the
  2. "The target state must be substantially independent and the influence
    of foreign powers in its internal political life must be relatively
  3. "The target state must have a political centre. If there are several
    centres these must be identifiable and they must be politically, rather
    than ethnically, structured. If the state is controlled by a
    non-politically organized unit, the coup can only be carried out with its
    consent or neutrality."

[pp. 20 - 21]

"The growth of the modern bureaucracy has two implications which are crucial to the feasibility of the coup: the development of a clear distinction between the permanent machinery of state and the political leadership, and the fact is, like most large organizations, the bureaucracy has a structured hierarchy with definite chains of command...

"The importance of this development lies in the fact that if the bureaucrats are linked to the leadership, an illegal seizure of power must take the form of a 'Palace Revolution' and it essentially concerns the manipulation of the person of the ruler. He can be forced to accept to policies or advisors, he can be killed or held captive, but whatever happens the Palace Revolution can only be conducted from the 'inside', and by 'insiders'...

"The coup is a much more democratic affair. It can be conducted from the 'outside' and it operates in that area outside the government but within the state which is formed by the permanent and professional civil service, the armed forces and police. The aim is to detach the permanent employees of the state from the political leadership, and this cannot usually take place if the two are linked by political, ethnic or traditional loyalties."

"...[T]he state bureaucracy has to divide its work into clear-cut areas of competance, which are assigned to different departments. Within each department there must be an accepted chain of command, and standard procedures have to be followed. Thus a given piece of information, or a given order, is followed up in a stereotyped manner, and if the order comes from the appropriate source, at the appropriate level, it is carried out.

"...The apparatus of the state is therefore to some extent a 'machine' which will normally behave in a fairly predictable and automatic manner.

"A coup operates by taking advantage of this machine-like behavior: during the coup because it uses parts of the state apparatus to seize the controlling levers; afterwards because the value of the 'levers' depends on the fact that the state is a machine." [emphasis added]

[p. 30]

"The [socio-political] dialogue between the rulers and the ruled [which perpetuates the legitimacy of a goverment] can only take place if there is a large enough section of society which is sufficiently literate, well fed and secure to 'talk back'. Even then certain conditions can lead to a deterioration of the relationship, and this can sometimes generate sufficient apathy and distrust of the regime to make a coup possible."

[pp. 35 - 37]

"All power, all participation, is in the hands of the small educated elite. This elite is literate, educated, well-fed and secure, and therefore radically different from the vast majority of their countrymen, practically a race apart. The masses recognize this and they also accept the elite's monopoly on power, and unless some unbearable exaction leads to desperate revolt they accept its policies. Equally they will accept a change in government, whether legal or otherwise. [emphasis in original] After all, it is merely another lot of 'them' taking over.

"Thus, after a coup, the village policeman comes to read out a proclamation, the radio says that the old government was corrupt and that the new one will provide food, health, schooling — and sometimes even glory. The majority of the people will neither believe nor disbelieve these promises or accusation, but merely feel that it is all happening somewhere else, far away. This lack of reaction is all the coup needs on the part of the people to stay in power. [emphasis added]

"The lower levels of the bureaucracy will react — or rather fail to react — in a similar manner, and for similar reasons. ...The 'bosses' give the orders, can promote or demote and, above all, are the source of that power and prestige that make them village demi-gods. After the coup, the man who sits at district headquarters will still be obeyed — whether he is the man who was there before or not — so long as he can pay the salaries and has links to the political stratosphere in the capital city.

"For the senior bureaucrats, army and police officers, the coup will be a mixture of dangers and opportunities. ...[F]or the greater number of those who are not too deeply committed, the coup will offer opportunities rather than dangers. They can accept the coup and, being collectively indispensable, can negotiate for even better salaries and positions...

"As the coup will not usually represent a threat to most of the elite the choice is between the great dangers of opposition and the safety of inaction. All that is required in order to support the coup is, simply, to do nothing — and that is what will usually be done.

"Thus, at all levels, the most like course of action following a coup is acceptance... This lack of reaction is the key to the victory of the coup...."

Ch. 3 — The Strategy of a Coup D'Etat

[pp. 58 - 59]

"...If we were revolutionaries, wanting to destroy the power of some of the political forces, and the long and often bloody process of revolutionary attrition can achieve this. Our purpose is, however, quite different: we want to seize power within the present system, and we shall only stay in power if we embody some new status quo supported by those very forces which a revolution may seek to destroy. Should we want to achieve fundamental social change we can do so after we have become the government. This is perhaps a more efficient method (and certainly a less painful one) than that of a classic revolution. [emphases in original]

"Though we will try to avoid all conflict with the 'political' forces, some of them will almost certainly oppose a coup. But this opposition will largely subside when we have substituted our new status quo for the old one, and can enforce it by our control of the state bureaucracy and security forces. We shall then be carrying out the dual task of imposing our control on the machinery of state while at the same time using it to impose our control on the country at large. [emphasis added] ...

"Our strategy, therefore, must be guided by two principal considerations: the need for maximum speed in the transition phase, and the need to neutralize fully the forces which could oppose us both before and immediately after the coup. If, in the operational phase of the coup, we are at any stage delayed, then our essential weakness will emerge: we shall probably acquire a definite political coloration, and this in turn will lead to a concentration of those forces which oppose the tendency we represent (or are thought to represent). As long as the execution of the coup is rapid, and we are cloaked in anonymity, no particular politcal faction will have either a motive, or an opportunity, to oppose us. ...[A] delay will lose us our principal advantage: the voluntary neutrality of 'the wait and see' elements, and the involuntary neutrality of those forces which need time to concentrate and deploy for action."

Ch. 4 — The Planning of the Coup d'Etat

[p. 141]

Parties in Developed Countries

"Whether it is a two-party system, as in much of the Anglo-Saxon world where parties arein effect coalitions of pressure groups, ow whether they are the class- or religion-based parties of much of continental Europe, the major political parties in developed and democratic countries will not present a direct threat to the coup. Though such parties have mass support at election time, neither they nor their followers are versed in the techniques of mass agitation. The comparative stability of political life has deprived them of the experience required to employ direct methods, and the whole climate of their operation revolves around the concept of periodic elections. ...

"The apparatus of the party, with its branches and local organizers, can, however, allow them to perform a role of information and co-ordination which could be potentially dangerous. Even though their leadership may not take any action, the apparatus can still serve as the framework for anti-coup agitation. We will therefore close — administratively — the network of branches, and this should be sufficient to neutralize this particular threat. [Or neutralize the party
judicially, eh wot?

"The only serious threat from this direction will come from the trade-union movements which are affiliated to the mass parties of the Left."

[p. 144 - 145]

"Though some form of confrontation may be inevitable, it is essential to avoid bloodshed, because this may well have crucial negative repercussions amongst the personnel of the armed forces and the police. [emphases added] Cf. the destablizing effects of the behavior of the police in Paris on the night of Friday 4 May 1968, which was the detonator of the [Paris uprising] crisis."

Ch. 5 — The Execution of the Coup d'Etat

[p. 147]

"With detailed planning, there will be no need for any sort of headquarters structure in the active stage of the coup; for if there is no scope for decision-making there is no need for decision-makers and their apparatus. In fact, having a headquarters would be a serious disadvantage: it would contitute a concrete target for the opposition and one which would be both vulnerable and easily identified. As soon as the coup starts, the ruling group will know that something is happening, but unless coups are very frequent in the country, they will not know what that something is... We should avoid taking any action that will clarify the nature of the threat and thus reduce the confusion that is left in the defensive apparatus of the regime. Our teams will emerge from their bases and proceed to seize their designated targets while operating as independent units; their collective purpose and their coordination will thus remain unknown until it is too late for any effective opposition. The leaders of the coup will be scattered among the various teams, each joining the team whose ultimate target requires his presence; thus the spokesman of the coup will be with the team which will seize [or co-opt] the radio-television station and the prospective chief of police will be with the team whose target is the police headquarters [or state legislature, as the case may be]. As each team will be both small and highly mobile, and as there is no headquarters throughout the active phase of the coup, the opposition will not have any single target on which it will be able to concentrate its forces. In this way their numerical superiority will be dissipated and the smaller forces of the coup will have local superiority in the area of each particular target. This will be the key of the victory of the coup."

[pp. 165 - 166]

Stabilizing the Bureaucracy [following the coup]

[Amongst the state bureaucracy, following the coup] "...their principal pre-occupation will be the posisble danger to their positions in the hierarchy... In the period immediately after the coup, ...they will probably see themselves as isolated individuals whose careers, and even lives, could be in danger. This feeling of insecurity may precipitate two alternative reactions, both extreme: they will either step forward to assert their loyalty to the leaders of the coup or else they will try to foment or join in the opposition against us. Both reactions are undesireable from our point of view. Assertions of loyalty will usually be worthless since they are made by men who have just abandoned their previous, and possibly more legitimate, masters; opposition will always be dangerous and sometimes disastrous. Our policy towards the military and bureaucratic cadres will be to reduce this sense of insecurity; we should establish dircet communication with as many of the more senior officers and officials as possible to convey one principal idea in a forceful and convincing manner: that the coup will not threaten their positions in the hierarchy and the aims of the coup do not include a reshaping of the existing military or administrative structures. [emphasis added] ...

[p. 167]

From Power to Authority: Stablizing the Masses

..."The masses have neither the weapons of the military nor the administrative facilities of the bureaucracy, but their attitude to the new government established after the coup will ultimately be decisive. Our immediate aim will be to enforce public order, but our long-term objective is to gain the acceptance of the masses so that physical coercion will no longer be needed in order to secure compliance with our orders."

[p. 168 - 170]

"Our...far more flexible instrument will be our control over the means of mass communications... Moreover, the confused and dramatic events of the coup will mean that the radio and television services will have a particularly attentive and receptive audience. In broadcastin over the radio and television services our purpose is not to provide information about the situation but rather to affect its development by exploiting our monopoly [or other de facto control] of these media. We will have two principal objectives in the information campaign thatwill start immediately after the coup: (a) to discourage resistance to us by emphasizing the strength of our position, and (b) to dampen the fears which would otherwise give rise to such resistance.

"Our first objective will be achieved by conveying the reality and strength of the coup instead of trying to justify it... One of the major obstacles to active resistance will be the caft that we have fragmented the opposition so that each individual opponent would have to operate in isolation... In these circumstances the news of any further resistance against us would act as a powerful stimulant to further resistance by breaking down this feeling of isolation. We must therefore make every effort to withhold such news. If there is in fact some resistance and if its intensity and locale are such as to make it difficult to conceal from particular segments of the public, we should admit its existence; but we should strongly emphasize that it is isolated [emphasis in original], the product of the obstinancy of a few misguided or dishonest individuals who are not affiliated to any party or group of significant membership. The constant working of the motif of isolation...and the emphasis on the fact that law and order have been re-established, should have the effect of making resistance appear as dangerous and useless.

"The second objective of our information campaign will be to reassure the general public by dispelling fears that the coup is not inspired by foreign and/or extremist elements, and to persuade particular groups that the coup is not a threat to them. The first aim will be achieved by manipulating national symbols and by asserting our belief in the prevailing pieties. ...[T]he inevitable suspicions that the coup is a product of the machinations of the 'Company' [slang for the CIA used within the CIA itself] can only be dispelled by making violent attacks on it. These, being verbal and not unexpected, will pacify the public without disturbing business interests, and the attacks should be all the more violent if these suspicions are in fact justified. [emphasis added]

..."We shall make use of a suitable selection of...unlovely phrases [such as "un-American"]; though their meaning has been totally obscured by constant and deliberate misuse, they will be useful as indicators of our impeccable nationalism..." [emphasis added]


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