Nearly a century of nonparticipation by the military in Chilean politics came to an end on September 5, 1924, as army officers east tradition aside to deliberate politics openly, and a general was named minister of the interior. Disturbed by the inability of politicians to cope with inflation, unemployment, and other pressing issues, and anxious for legislation to improve their own conditions, junior army officers demanded action.

When their demands resulted in the toppling of civilian government and the establishment of a reactionary military regime the junior officers had second thoughts. Within five months they revolted again to insure fulfillment of their original goals. A study of these military revolutions and of power struggles within the armed forces during the brief period of military rule provides an opportunity to observe an early example of organized military support for social and political reform in twentieth-century Latin America.

Such conduct by army officers was unique in Chilean history. As early as the 1830s Diego Portales had confined the army to military activities. Later, in 1885, a German military mission led by General Emil Körner began the modernization of what became the most professional army in Latin America. A further impediment to political activities by the military was the stability of Chilean politics during the period from 1830 to 1891. After the Civil War of 1891, in which congress revolted against José Manuel Balmaceda, politics degenerated from the stable, vigorous presidential system of the preceding sixty years into a weak imitation of British parliamentary government. This system proved incapable of dealing with Chile’s social and economic problems. Numerous voices were raised against the Parliamentary Republic. On several occasions there were rumblings of discontent from the military. Nevertheless the parliamentary system withstood all challenges until 1920.

In that year Arturo Alessandri Palma, candidate of the Liberal Alliance (left-wing Liberals, Radicals, and Democrats) and idol of the middle and lower classes, was elected president on a platform of social, political, and constitutional reform. He advocated separation of church and state and a return to strong executive leadership. After four years, however, Alessandri had made little progress; his supporters in congress were disunited, and few were committed to his program. The opposition blocked his proposals and made a shambles of national politics.

Then in March 1924 Alessandri saw his opportunity to obtain meaningful legislation. Breaking a precedent established during the Parliamentary Republic as well as a promise he had made to the opposition, he exerted executive pressure in parliamentary elections by appointing army officers to oversee the voting in various provinces. Political observers would later argue that his electoral intervention had been unnecessary, for the Liberal Alliance won easy majorities in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Soon after the congressional elections Alessandri’s opposition, the National Union (Conservatives and right-wing Liberals), accused the army of interfering with proper electoral procedures. General Luis Brieba, the minister of war, was charged with complicity. Brieba denied the accusations, maintaining that army officers appointed to supervise elections were legally under executive control.1 Many officers, however, criticized him and the high command for their evasive defense.2

Congress convened on June 1 without representation from the National Union, which considered the parliament fraudulently elected and refused to participate in it.3 Fearful that the “packed” congress would carry out Alessandri’s reform program, a number of rightwing politicians formed a secret society, the TEA (Tenacidad, Entusiasmo, Abnegación), to plan the overthrow of the government. The cabal invited high-ranking officers to its meetings, including Army Inspector General Luis Altamirano Talavera.4

Meanwhile congress ignored Alessandri’s pleas for reform legislation and budgetary appropriations measures and concentrated on a bill to provide salaries for legislators. Alessandri supported the measure, hoping that once it passed, work on his legislative program would begin. As the debate dragged on, various members of the National Union attended Senate meetings to voice their disapproval. Because the bulk of the electorate opposed parliamentary remuneration, the Unionists could sincerely claim they were acting in the best interests of all Chileans.

Since the March elections, army officers of the Santiago garrison had been meeting to discuss military problems and the political situation. Major Marmaduke Grove Vallejo led discussions on the political influence of the Spanish army, while Major Carlos Ibáñez del Campo spoke on Chilean politics and social problems.5 Both demanded military legislation to revise antiquated promotion statutes and adjust salaries to offset inflation; both opposed the parliamentary salary bill. Despite their intermission into political matters, no disciplinary action was taken by the high command.

One officer serving during this period justified the army’s attitude by saying that Chilean political parties were unconcerned with the country’s development and were interested only in power and prestige. The Liberal and Conservative Parties, he said, sought only to maintain the status quo. The Radical Party, originally a socially conscious organization, had turned its back on the lower classes and had lost much of its earlier reform zeal. The only institution, therefore, which he thought capable of solving Chile’s social, political, and economic problems was the army. Its intimate contact with all social and economic sectors and its apolitical nature made it a truly national institution, motivated solely by principles of order, stability, and patriotism.6

Another officer wrote that by the 1920s many junior officers were convinced that their leaders were unfit to serve.7 Imbued with a spirit of military professionalism and progress after attending German or French military institutions, junior officers chafed at this incompetence. At the same time they blamed politicians for the lack of new legislation on military salaries and promotions.8 Politicians were also accused of helping officers with connections to get quick promotions, while more capable officers spent years in the lower ranks awaiting advancement.9 Aware of such, complaints, Alessandri had appointed thirteen different war ministers in four years, but none had been able to secure reform legislation from the congress.

Another factor responsible for the political activity of junior officers in this period was internal schism in the army and navy arising from class distinctions. Since the time of Portales it had been the custom to select army cadets from the aristocracy, but by the late nineteenth century an increasing number of cadets were coming from the middle sectors.10 In 1924 most of the lieutenants, captains, and majors had been born outside of the aristocracy. Many older officers, on the other hand, were close to the oligarchy, either through family ties and political connections or because their rank and position had moved them into the top echelons of society. A similar situation existed in the navy where the majority of line officers were from aristocratic families. Most engineers were not, and they resented the snobbish treatment accorded them by their equals in rank.11

Disillusioned with Chilean politics, junior army officers of the Santiago garrison decided to take matters into their own hands. On September 2 a group of nearly fifty army officers entered the Senate galleries to hear final debate on the parliamentary salary bill. They made no disturbance, but several officers applauded a senator who spoke against the measure. The immediate reaction to the military intrusion was a demand by the Senate that the offending officers be punished.12 The army ignored the senate’s demand, however, as there was no law, civil or military, prohibiting attendance of military personnel at legislative sessions. Furthermore, according to La Nación, owned by Senate President Elidoro Yáñez, a group of army officers had been present at debates on the same measure months before.13 In both cases the officer-spectators were protesting not merely the parliamentary remuneration law but Chile’s entire sociopolitical system, especially the outmoded Constitution of 1833.14

At the session of September 2 the Senate passed a bill providing a remuneration of 2,000 pesos per month for members of congress. By so doing, the Senate violated the constitution, which prohibited payment for congressional service. From the viewpoint of many junior officers, the army was not bound by the constitution, therefore, and was equally free to circumvent it.15

On September 3 a larger group of officers appeared in the galleries. War Minister Gaspar Mora met them and ordered one of the officers to take the name of all officers present. The officer, a captain, replied that he was not Mora’s secretary and would not comply with such an order. Mora was then told that the group would leave if he came to the Club Militar after adjournment. When he agreed, the officers filed out.

After the Senate adjourned, Mora proceeded to the Club Militar. There he told the assembled officers that the government could not grant salary increases, as the condition of the national treasury did not permit it. Lieutenant Mario Bravo Lavin answered that the army had rejected this argument the minute the parliamentary remuneration bill became law.16 Mora then left the Club Militar to confer with Alessandri.

On the morning of September 4 the war minister met with troop commanders and implored them to maintain discipline and order among their subalterns. That afternoon Inspector General Altamirano told a meeting of the cabinet that the junior officers were justified in their hostile attitude and that he would take no disciplinary action.17 Two different attitudes were apparent. The Alessandri administration wanted to halt the army’s extramilitary activities; the army high command, which knew the plans of the TEA, solidly defended these activities.

That same afternoon at the Club Militar army lieutenants gave a reception in honor of the captains. This was to have been a closed affair where the younger officers could freely discuss the events of the two previous days. Major Carlos Ibáñez, commander of the Cavalry School, was also present as an observer. News of Altamirano’s actions at the cabinet meeting altered the original purpose of the reception, and he was invited to the reception. Altamirano’s visit was short but momentous, for he agreed to assume titular leadership of the movement.18 Encouraged by the general’s visit, the lieutenants and captains passed motions calling for veto of the salary law.19 At 8:00 p.m., when the aggressive spirit of the young officers was at its peak, Mora appeared at the entrance of the Club Militar and was forcibly ejected.20 Two hours later Alessandri requested a conference with representatives of the group in the Club Militar. The officers sent a three-man commission to the executive offices headed by Captain Heraclio Valenzuela.

Alessandri, realizing the potential political impact of the military’s actions, told Captain Valenzuela and his companions that he heartily agreed with their desires for military legislation and for the responsible conduct of congressional activities. He asked them to organize a formal committee and to draw up a list of legislative projects which congress should consider. If the legislators continued their irresponsible ways, he promised to close congress and convoke a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. With the army’s support, he concluded, he would “make a new Chile.”21

While Alessandri attempted to attach himself to the army movement and gain military support for his reform program, Interior Minister Pedro Aguirre Cerda implored high-ranking army officers to maintain order and discipline. Aguirre Cerda also sent a messenger to Valparaíso to meet with Admiral Francisco Neff, director general of the navy. Neff declared that the navy considered itself completely removed from politics, that it had not been involved in the postelection squabbles, and that it was unconditionally loyal to the government. Nevertheless, he added, under no circumstance would the navy fight against the army in the event of a political crisis. This was a declaration of neutrality and hardly one of “unconditional loyalty.”22 Simultaneously War Minister Mora notified Admiral Arturo Acevedo, commander of the naval station in Talcahuano, of what had happened in Santiago. Mora feared that Admiral Luis Soffia, also in Talcahuano, might complicate matters by pronouncing in favor of the army movement, but Neff reassured the administration that naval discipline would not crumble and that Soffia could be trusted.23 Clearly the government feared that the discontent of the lieutenants and captains in Santiago might become contagious. Therefore, while Alessandri appeared willing to listen to the young officers, his administration was striving to isolate the movement.

Alessandri’s request for a petition encouraged the army dissidents even more than Altamirano’s adherence to their cause. They were also goaded into action by persistent rumors that the government was considering disciplinary action for all involved. The group called a meeting for the next day at 10:00 a.m. to prepare the petition before the government had time to contemplate punishment.

During the night Major Ibáñez and his aide Lieutenant Alejandro Lazo labored over a document to be considered at the morning meeting. Up to this point Ibáñez had merely observed the lower-ranking officers in action, but his rapid work of September 4 and 5 converted him into a revolutionary leader. At 9:00 a.m. on September 5 Ibáñez assembled his officers at the Cavalry School. The army itself, he said, was about to violate the constitution in order to deliberate openly national politics.24

One hour later the rebellious officers assembled at the Club Militar. At Ibáñez’ suggestion they formed a military junta to act as central directorate for the movement. Colonel Arturo Ahumada, director of the Military School, was named president, and three lieutenant colonels, nine majors, six captains, and four lieutenants completed the junta.25 The document drawn up by Ibáñez and Lazo was then accepted for submission to the President.

The petition of September 5, 1924, called for veto of the parliamentary salary bill; immediate passage of the annual budget; reform of the army ordinances; salary raises for the army, navy, and carabineros-, income tax reform legislation; pensions for veterans of the War of the Pacific; stabilization of the peso; passage of workers’ health and accident insurance laws; passage of a pending law concerning private employment; payment of back salaries to public employees and public school teachers; dismissal of cabinet ministers unacceptable to the junta; designation of a professional officer as minister of war; and exclusion of the armed forces from politics.26

The meeting with Alessandri took place in the Moneda at 11:30 a.m. After Lieutenant Lazo read the petition, Alessandri replied that he had done everything in his power to help the army, and would devote all his energy to seeing that the measures in the petition were carried out—all but the request for dismissal of cabinet ministers, which he considered rank insubordination.27 Lieutenant Lazo replied: “We have come not to request but to demand.”28

At this Alessandri angrily declared the meeting at an end, whereupon Colonel Ahumada intervened and placated the president by saying that Lazo was an impetuous youth, and that the demands were aimed at congress, not the executive.29 Satisfied, Alessandri allowed the meeting to proceed and said that he would call in the cabinet from an adjacent room to hear the petition. The officers requested that only Aguirre Cerda be invited, as they did not want to see any other cabinet members.30

When Aguirre Cerda entered, Lieutenant Colonel Bartolomé Blanche told him that the junta knew of his communications to high-ranking officers the previous night. Blanche warned him against further actions and closed by saying that the entire army was in complete accord with the junta.31 Lieutenant Lazo then read the petition anew. When Aguirre Cerda attempted to reply, Lieutenant Bravo told him that no reply was necessary, only action. Aguirre Cerda was informed he would receive a copy of the petition for study by the cabinet, and at that point the meeting ended. Alessandri told the officers that in the future he would communicate with them through Altamirano.32

On the same afternoon Altamirano told the junta that Alessandri had asked him to serve as minister of the interior and form a new cabinet, Aguirre Cerda having just resigned. The junta was jubilant, for it seemed that the army was unified in purpose. Still later in the day the purely military side of the junior officers’ movement became evident when Major Grove called for the reformation of the army as a prerequisite for total success. He said that “in order to perform our work of regeneration, it is necessary to begin by purging [this] institution of those who have played at politics during the last few years and of all those without aptitude who clutter up the ranks because of the defective laws and present-day disorganization of the army.”33

On September 6 Altamirano completed his cabinet. He named Admiral Neff to the post of treasury minister and General Bennett as minister of war and marine. Through Altamirano, Neff, and Bennett it was presumed that the military would speak out on national matters and on the proposed reforms, military as well as economic, social, and constitutional.

Civilian reaction to the events of September 2-5 was generally favorable. The pro-Alessandri Liberal Alliance coalition, while fundamentally opposing the army’s tactics, agreed to approve the measures presented in the petition.34 The agreement was by no means unanimous, however, as the Radical Party, which lost prestige by the cabinet change, had earlier voted to oppose the army’s meddling.35 The National Union, through its conservative mouthpiece El Diario Ilustrado, also supported the movement, maintaining that the officers were justified in their opposition to the parliamentary salary law.36 The army’s action, said the editors, was a true interpretation of the nation’s feelings and a noble and patriotic gesture.37

The junta met three times on September 6. At the first meeting Ahumada resigned as president because of illness. The junta chose Lieutenant Colonel Blanche to replace him and named Lieutenant Lazo secretary. Major Ibáñez suggested the formation of a central committee to take charge of direct communication with the president and cabinet. He also suggested that there be no discrimination as to rank within the group, that meetings of the junta take precedence over all other military duties, and that officers refrain from meeting with politicians.38

At a second meeting that afternoon the junta voted to send Grove to Valparaíso to sound out the navy chiefs regarding their cooperation.39 At this meeting the junta learned that the police had declared their support of the army. Then, when the meeting seemed to be progressing smoothly, news came that Alessandri had suggested the submission of a new petition for the closure of congress. The president’s proposal revealed to the members of the junta their precarious position, for closure of congress would necessitate rule by decree, giving Alessandri virtual dictatorial powers. This might enable the president’s supporters to rally behind him in a power struggle to wrest control from the army. Alessandri’s suggestion was refused.40 One other thing worried the junta members: the National Union had been vociferous in its support—a curious attitude for those who stood to suffer most if numerous reform measures were instituted. Because of this, some Alessandri partisans had already accused the junta of being used by rightist politicians to create a reactionary military regime.41 Altamirano’s notorious conservatism gave some support to this thesis.

The third meeting on September 6 began at 10:00 p.m. Here it was proposed that the president leave the country for a few months, thus alleviating the danger of a power struggle and making the military’s position more tenable. The junta chose Lieutenant Colonel Ewing, a personal friend of Alessandri and a former war minister, to state this to Alessandri should it become expedient.42

On September 7, the junta reopened the Alessandri question. Further discussion stemmed from the fear that congress might not pass the reform measures. Major Carlos Sáez suggested that Alessandri resign immediately and ask his partisans to support Altamirano as vice-president. Altamirano could then dissolve congress and rule by decree.43 Despite a growing fear of Alessandri, this solution was rejected. The junta reaffirmed conditional support for the existing administration, provided congress passed the reform legislation. If congress refused, Alessandri would be asked to dissolve the parliament. Only then would Alessandri’s resignation be considered.44 At later meetings the same day the junta planned a manifesto proclaiming the apolitical nature of their movement. The members chose representatives to approach workers’ organizations and formed a tribunal, headed by General Juan Ortiz, to hear professional grievances.

Grove returned from Valparaíso on September 8 shortly before congress met to vote on the requested legislation. He informed the junta that the navy would unconditionally support the resignation of Alessandri. He also reported that high-ranking naval officers were in contact with National Union politicians who advocated the closure of congress.45 That afternoon congress passed all social, labor, and military reform measures incorporated in the petition of September 5. Apparently the mission of the junta had ended, for congress had acted on more legislation in one afternoon than during the previous four years of the Alessandri administration. Nevertheless the junta voted not to disband and remained on the political scene to insure the promulgation and application of the reforms.

Obviously the congressional action of September 8 had not ended the political crisis. Alessandri had failed to dominate the junta, and at the same time he had no desire to be controlled by the military. Furthermore, civilian antigovernment demonstrations in the Plaza de la Moneda had increased in magnitude. These factors prompted Alessandri to resign the presidency.

Alessandri’s resignation divided opinion in the junta. One group, led by Major Sáez, favored acceptance of Alessandri’s resignation, while another faction, led by Lieutenant Colonel Blanche, argued that instead the president should take a short leave of absence. In office he would continue as the target of vitriolic criticism by the National Union; furthermore, he was the natural center around which Liberal Alliance politicians might congregate to regain political leadership. The Blanche group urged that if Alessandri were to absent himself for a short period, political tempers would cool, and the administration could be reconstituted.46 This opinion prevailed. In a statement to the public, signed by Blanche, the junta requested that the president not resign but instead ask for a leave of absence. The junta guaranteed the personal safety of Alessandri and his family and would permit them to leave the country with full presidential honors.47

If Alessandri’s resignation was a bluff to whip up popular opposition to the army, it failed. Conversely if he hoped for outright acceptance of his resignation to make himself a political martyr, he hoped in vain. His position was further weakened on September 8 and 9 when the junta, heretofore strictly an army group, became an interservice organization with the addition of five navy captains.48 They restated the opinion of the naval high command that Alessandri should resign, but the junta maintained its stand. More army officers also joined the revolutionary body—all but one of them from the Santiago garrison.49

At its next meeting on the morning of September 9, the junta learned that Alessandri had fled the Moneda and had taken refuge in the United States embassy. He told the American ambassador that he had resigned. He sought asylum, he said, because it was “inconsistent with his self-respect and dignity to remain as president while he was not permitted by the military to perform the duties of his office.”50 That day the senate rejected his resignation but voted to give him a six-month leave of absence. By so doing, congress delivered Chilean politics into the hands of the armed forces.

Alessandri’s flight put the integrity and sincerity of the junta in doubt. To reassure the people, a new statement was issued proclaiming that the military movement was in no way political and that it was “exclusively inspired by the supreme purpose of saving the nation, with the purpose of avoiding political and administrative corruption.” Though it would not disband until its mission was fulfilled, the members assured the nation “that neither the establishment of a military government nor the creation of any type of dictatorship” was intended.51 Within three days this last statement was proved to be false.

After Alessandri left for Argentina on September 10, the civilian members of his cabinet resigned. When Admiral Luis Gómez Carreno demanded closure of congress, the civilian ministers refused to serve. They said that it was now the military’s problem to assume responsibility for government during the extraordinary situation.62 The next day General Altamirano consolidated his grip on Chile by dissolving congress. Instead of assuming the vice-presidency, he formed a three-man junta of government consisting of himself as president, General Bennett, and Admiral Neff, and he organized a new cabinet. The junta of younger officers was not consulted on these matters.

Because Fidel Muñoz Rodríguez, the new treasury minister, was an anti-Alessandri Radical and Oscar Dávila, the new public works minister, was known to have been a leader of the TEA, suspicions grew that the new government did not represent the reform elements. Therefore the junta reiterated its resolution not to disband. Nevertheless, the new cabinet began its functions almost immediately, and on September 12 Altamirano’s junta accepted the resignation of Alessandri, completing the transition from civilian to military rule.

The day Alessandri left the Moneda, Altamirano, Bennett, and Neff issued a manifesto assuring the public that the military government would be temporary, and that civil constitutional government would be restored by means of elections as quickly as possible.53 The following day, the military junta issued its own manifesto, which also proclaimed the transitory nature of military rule, but which went much further in discussing the governmental situation. The military movement, it stated, was one of political regeneration. No military caudillo would be tolerated; civil liberties would be maintained; and a constituent assembly would be convoked to write a new constitution. Only then would elections be held.54 The manifesto of the junior officers showed clearly where their political sentiments lay. A rapid return to civil rule without constitutional reform would almost certainly aid the National Union to recapture control of polities. This the junta did not want. The junior officers considered their movement one of regeneration, not reaction.

In spite of the threatened power struggle between the two juntas, the civilian reaction to the collapse of civil government was peaceful. In the words of the United States ambassador, the nation was “inclined to accept the new government, at least until a new constitution is adopted or until new elections bring about a change.”55 The two extremes of Chilean politics openly supported the military intrusion but for totally different reasons: the right because Alessandri and his congressional majority had been eliminated; the radical left because of the reforms and social legislation advocated by the junta and passed by congress. Neither of these extremes, however, found favor in the junta.

The National Union supported the change in government through El Diario Ilustrado. Zig Zag, another conservative publication, stated that the military movement of September was like none other in the history of Latin America because it was a truly national movement, not one in behalf of any particular political organization or social sector.56 The left (Communists and Democrats) also voiced approval. The military junta had designated several of its members to confer with labor groups, and at a mass meeting of workers on September 14 Captain Carlos Millán explained the purpose of the revolution. Luis Emilio Recabarren, leader of the Chilean Communist Party, lauded the young officers and called the movement a great step forward for the workers.57 All labor groups concurred, even the syndicalists, who hoped to make use of the situation to further their own purposes.58 In their qualified support for the movement two Santiago dailies spoke out for political change and social reform, which, they said, were common goals of the young officers and the deposed president. In an editorial by novelist Joaquín Edwards Bello La Nación warned the junta not to let itself be corrupted by outside forces, but to struggle in behalf of the workers, the intellectuals desirous of reforms, and indeed the entire population.59El Mercurio praised the military in an editorial of September 16. But the editors believed that a simple change in leaders was not enough; the reform of Chile’s political structure and a return to the presidential system were prerequisites to the success of the army’s venture into politics.60 Ironically, the ultimate success of the original military movement depended on support from those staunchly opposed to it—the reform-minded Alessandristas who had lost both their prestige and their leader.

The political situation was further complicated by a rift between the lower and higher naval officers. The admirals and their subalterns supported the September movement, but for different reasons. Ibáñez would later state that because of their ties with the aristocracy of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, the admirals participated in the revolution for the sole purpose of deposing Alessandri.61 Many of the officers in the lower ranks endorsed the movement because they sympathized with the junta’s aims. The admirals excluded the junior naval officers from direct participation in the activities of the military junta to prevent the naval reformist elements from joining with their counterparts in the army.62 Both the army and the navy, then, were as divided with respect to the purpose of the military’s political activities as were civilian elements. Military support was unanimous but disunited.

In October when the junta presented two petitions to Altamirano, it became clear that the government was not disposed to take seriously the political counsel of the junior officers. The first petition was a request that a number of army officers be retired from active duty. The government responded quickly, ordering those named removed from the army list. One general commented that the government thought it best to placate the junior officers for fear of a coup.63

The second petition, however, was a list of reforms to be studied by the three-man junta of government and by the cabinet. The young officers called for the convocation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution; the creation of new ministries for customs, transportation, agriculture, public works, sanitation, and labor; modernization of the civil service system and streamlining of the bureaucracy; legislation on fiscal reforms, commodity price speculation, rentals, and protection of national industry; autonomy for the judiciary and education systems; and a law for the creation of a central bank.64 Except for the creation of three new cabinet positions, the government showed no interest in complying with the second petition.

With the exception of General Bennett, the government either failed to understand or more probably chose to ignore the demands of the subordinates. Failure to embark on a program of reforms in October 1924 widened the breach between the government and the junta of junior officers by making it completely clear that the leadership of the revolution had indeed become reactionary.

The situation was further exacerbated by an incident on October 23 during a banquet at the Cavalry School on the occasion of the annual interservice sports competition. In a program staged by Ibáñez, army officers berated Altamirano, read aloud secret documents, and demanded that junior naval officers be allowed to join the junta. Next day the government accused Ibáñez of insubordination and warned him that his actions might be considered subversive, Ibáñez apologized, but when he also tendered his resignation as director of the Cavalry School, it was refused.65 The government recognized him as a leader of the discontented junior officers and knew that his supporters would assume that he had been dismissed. The banquet and its aftermath created an even greater rift between the two army groups, for a small group of army officers and all naval delegates broke with the Ibáñez bloc in the junta.

Events on the civilian political scene further isolated the Ibáñez antigovernment junta faction. On November 2 a convention of the Radical Party demanded a return to civilian government and publicly condemned the military intervention as contrary to the best interests of Chile. Later that month the Democratic Party, which had earlier approved of the junta’s reform program, accused the armed forces of acting in the interests of the oligarchy.66 The total failure of the junta as a generator of reform was emphasized the day after the Radical declaration, when the cabinet, after having agreed to consult with a junta committee on a new electoral law, published it without consultation.67

That afternoon the junta’s committee (dominated by antigovernment officers) met with the government. Lieutenant Lazo accused Altamirano of handing the revolution over to the National Union by calling for elections without first convoking a constitutuent assembly to reform the constitution. As tempers flared, Altamirano, Bennett, Neff, and the entire cabinet threatened to resign rather than be berated by a junior officer. Navy Captain Luis Escobar, a junta committee member, then stated that the navy was in complete accord with the government and would tolerate no changes.68 Knowing that they had little civilian backing and almost none from the rest of the armed forces, the members of the junta committee backed down and agreed that the junta should continue to function in an advisory capacity. A total rupture appeared to have been avoided. When this proposal was presented to the entire junta, however, it was rejected, and the conflict broke out again. The antigovernment majority clearly controlled the junta. But as long as military discipline and tradition were maintained, the young officers were effectively stymied. The situation remained in flux until the first week in December.

With the publication of the decree calling for elections in May, various political parties began preparations for the coming campaign. On December 5 El Diario Ilustrado hinted that Colonel Alfredo Ewing, head of the carabineros, would be the armed forces’ candidate with Alessandrista backing. Ewing denied this report to Altamirano and the cabinet. He then resigned his post. On December 11 the government announced that it was sending Ewing to Spain as military attaché.69 That night the junta disavowed support of any military candidacy, but the officers objected to Ewing’s reassignment on the grounds that the government had agreed not to transfer junta members without their consent. Against the opposition of the naval delegates the junta then voted to demand that the cabinet resign and that the junta of government be reconstituted. The next day a compromise was reached by which the junior officers promised to break up their junta if an acceptable cabinet were organized.70 On December 13 the junta disbanded, and its members awaited the announcement of a new cabinet.

The new cabinet, formed and sworn in by December 19, was every bit as reactionary as its predecessor. The interior minister, Rafael Luis Barahona, a National Unionist, stated that the cabinet would follow policies already established and would hold elections as soon as possible. Lacking political backing, without unity of purpose, and harassed by a pro-government minority composed of moderate army officers and the naval delegates, the junta failed in its efforts to work with the government. The reformist zeal and pressure tactics of Ibáñez, Blanche, and others failed to produce significant results. The congressional action of September 8 and the retirement of some officers in October, the only victories of the junior officers, were not enough to satisfy them. They were convinced that a return to oligarchic rule was inevitable.71

As the new year began, intra-army tensions were more noticeable than during the existence of the junta. Several antigovernment troop commanders were replaced by officers known to be loyal to the government. Ibáñez was relieved of his duties at the Cavalry School; he had reputedly asked to be sent abroad, claiming that he was disillusioned by political activity.72 The proclamation of Ladislao Errázuriz as the government-supported presidential candidate completely alienated most of the junior officers. One charged Errázuriz was “the incarnation of the reactionary spirit.”73

Tension mounted on the political scene. It appeared that no candidate could unite the warring Liberal Alliance factions, and that Errázuriz would become president by default. Radicals, Democrats, and Alliance Liberals voiced loud protests against his candidacy, but they could reach no accord on an Alliance candidate. The Communists, mourning the recent suicide of party leader Recabarren, demonstrated vociferously against the government. Many Alliance politicians held that Alessandri was the only candidate capable of defeating Errázuriz. The candidacy of Errázuriz and the threat of a return to oligarchic rule drew the Alliance, the Alessandristas, and the army revolutionaries together in solid opposition to the government. Alessandri could unite the Liberal Alliance. Ideologically, he was acceptable to the junior officers.

In early January, Captain Oscar Fenner discussed the possibility of a new coup with Armando Jaramillo, an Alessandrista Liberal. Fenner told Jaramillo that only Ibáñez could lead such a movement.74 On January 15 the first definite plans were made, but Ibáñez, being closely watched by the government, did not take part in all the early discussions. On January 18 Grove, recently promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, met with Captain Sócrates Aguirre and twenty-five other officers at the Pudeto Regiment. Owing to the close surveillance of Ibáñez, Grove assumed temporary leadership of the group.75

The plotters planned the coup for January 23. This clandestine version of the junta of September 1924 consisted of Ibáñez, Grove, twelve captains, and eight lieutenants.76 It was far more cohesive than its predecessor. Whereas the first junta had been split by dissension, the new group was united behind its leader Ibáñez. On January 21, with Ibáñez presiding, the plotters held their last large meeting. In order to avoid suspicion Ibáñez retired early, leaving Grove in charge. The next day, a small group met briefly with Ibáñez and Grove to lay final plans for the next day’s activities.

Early on the morning of January 23, Captain Aguirre arrested the commander of the Pudeto Regiment. Aguirre’s action gave the insurgents a loyal body of troops willing to seize the Moneda. By 7:30 a.m. the Pudeto was ready to move into central Santiago. The same morning Altamirano visited the carabinero barracks in Santiago. Finding many officers absent, he sensed the impending danger and ordered elements of the police and Carabinero School to guard the presidential palace.77

Aguirre waited until 5:00 p.m., then moved his command toward the center of the city. At 5:30 they appeared on the east side of the Moneda. Facing them were the contingents of carabineros and police. Simultaneously, Captain Benito Contreras, leading a squadron of cavalry, approached on the opposite side of the Plaza. With no resistance from carabineros or police, the rebels fortified the Plaza with machine guns and sealed off the east entrance to the Moneda.

While the Moneda was being surrounded, most of the high-ranking army officers loyal to the government were at a meeting at the War Ministry called by Inspector General Pedro Dartnell. Except for Dartnell all were confined to the building by troops of the Pudeto. Other troops from the same regiment fortified the entrance to El Diario Ilustrado and gained control of all government and military communications centers.78

As this occurred, Altamirano was taking tea with Neff and other government members in the Moneda. Conspicuously absent were Dartnell and General Bennett, who was vacationing at the seashore. Shortly after 5:30 Navy Minister Admiral Gómez Carreño ran in with the news that armed troops were entering the building. Immediately Ibáñez and Grove walked in and demanded the resignation of the junta of government and the cabinet. Altamirano and his party had no choice but surrender; he, Neff, and the others were placed under house arrest.79 Dartnell and General Ortiz, the war minister, were named to a provisional junta of government and began to form a cabinet.

On January 24 the provisional government published a manifesto to the nation. It stated that the ideals of the September revolution had been betrayed; that the army had never desired Alessandri’s resignation (this was not entirely true); but that Altamirano had betrayed him. The government insisted: “The present coup d’etat is directed against the traitors Altamirano and Neff and their manipulators. Through it we will prove that the oligarchs are not the masters of Chile, that democratic doctrines have not made their way into the national conscience in vain and that the vigor of the perpetrators of the September revolution has not diminished.”80 The next day Ibáñez affirmed publicly that the army had overthrown Altamirano in order to restore Alessandri to the presidency.81

Acclaim for the January 23 revolution came from those civilian sectors which stood to benefit from Alessandri’s reform program. Labor unions and Liberal Alliance parties unanimously supported the new government and asked for Alessandri’s rapid reinstatement. The National Union, its hopes for the reestablishment of the oligarchy defeated, condemned the movement and the idea of Alessandri’s restoration. The navy chiefs also opposed Alessandri’s return. Furthermore they were incensed at Neff’s arrest.

The high command did not speak for the entire naval officer class. Rumors of a countercoup by the National Union and the navy led many junior line officers and most of the pilots, surgeons, engineers, and civilian naval employees to declare for Alessandri. Moreover, they threatened open rebellion if the high command tried to topple the provisional government or prohibit Alessandri’s restoration.82 Faced with a complete breakdown of discipline, navy leaders finally accepted the situation on January 27. The same day the government released all those who had been arrested with the exception of the erstwhile presidential aspirant, Ladislao Errázuriz. Once the danger of a countercoup was eliminated, a new junta of government was named consisting of Emilio Bello Codesido as president, General Dartnell, and Admiral Carlos Ward. This junta governed Chile until the return of Alessandri on March 20.

Military rule technically ended when Emilio Bello became president of the provisional junta. Alessandri’s return two months later completed the transition to civilian government, and Alessandri carried out the tasks he had set out to perform. A new constitution promulgated on September 18 fulfilled the promises he had made to Chilean voters in 1920. It restored the chief executive to a position of leadership, separated church and state, and provided for extensive social and economic reforms. The Constitution of 1925 was framed by civilians, but it was the result of the military revolutions of 1924 and 1925. The army officers who led both movements were responsible for the regeneration of the Chilean political system.

After constitutional government had been restored, however, Ibáñez and his followers continued to watch politics closely, being determined to insure full application of the constitution and hopeful that it would lead to the creation of a new Chile. Ibáñez, named minister of war after the January 1925 coup, used his position to apply pressure on the government. This pressure became offensive to Alessandri, and he resigned on October 1, 1925, but his elected successor, Emiliano Figueroa, fared no better. As a result, by February 1927 Ibáñez was but a step from the presidency. When Figueroa resigned two months later, the election of Ibáñez was a foregone conclusion. The task of creating a new Chile, then, ultimately fell to the leading figure of the revolutions of September 5, 1924 and January 23, 1925.


Luis Brieba A., Actuación del ejército en las elecciones de 1924 (Santiago, 1927), 9, 77.


Ernesto Würth Rojas, Ibáñez, caudillo enigmático (Santiago, 1958), 26.


Ricardo Donoso, Alessandri: agitador y demoledor (México, 1953), I, 374.


Würth, Ibáñez, 26. Generals Luis Contreras, Juan P. Bennett, and Juan de Dios Vial and Admirals Luis Gómez Carreño and Guillermo Soublette were also aware of the TEA’s activities. Donoso, Alessandri, I, 373; Enrique Monreal, Historia completa y documentada del período revolucionario, 1924-1925 (Santiago, 1929), 23, 135.


Carlos Sáez Morales, Recuerdos de un soldado. El ejército y la política (Santiago, 1933), 64.


René Montero Moreno, Orígenes del problema social en Chile (Santiago, 1926), 33 ff.


Würth, Ibáñez, 28.


Arturo Ahumada, El ejército y la revolución del 5 de septiembre, 1924. Reminiscencias (Santiago, 1931), 39.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 33-35. Ahumada, El ejército, 41; Juan Bennett A., La revolución del 5 de setiembre de 1924 (Santiago, 1926), 13-14; Emilio Rodríguez Mendoza, El golpe de estado de 1924, ambiente y actores (Santiago, 1938), 174.


This was partly due to the army’s loss of prestige in the Civil War of 1891 when it remained loyal to President Balmaseda and to the concomitant rise of naval prestige. See Luis Langlois, Influencia del poder naval de Chile desde 1810 a 1910 (Valparaiso, 1911), 230-234.


Carlos Vicuña Fuentes, La tiranía en Chile (Santiago, 1938), I, 137.


Bennett, La revolución, 19.


La Nación, September 4, 1924.


Oscar Fontecilla, Alessandri ante la historia. Mensaje a su excelencia el presidente de la república (Santiago, 1925), 21-22.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 74; Ahumada, El ejército, 53.


Würth, Ibáñez, 35.


At approximately the same time General Pedro Dartnell told a meeting of officers that no punishment was forthcoming and that work was soon to begin on military legislation. Bennett, La revolución, 23.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 77.


Bennett, La revolución, 24.


Ibid., 24.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 77; Rodríguez, El golpe, 201-208. Rodríguez cited a personal memorandum written by Captain Valenzuela.


Monreal, Historia, 148-149. Monreal cited a memorandum of the interview written by Luis Espinoza, secretary to Alessandri.


Ibid., 148-149.


Ibid., 152-153.


The original members were Ahumada, Lieutenant Colonels Bartolomé Blanche, Emilio Salinas and Alfredo Ewing; Majors Roberto Canales, Arturo Mújica, Matías Díaz, Guillermo del Pozo, Arturo Puga, Ambrosio Viaux, Carlos Grasset, Carlos Vergara, and Carlos Ibáñez; Captains Ángel Moreno, Oscar Fenner, Armando Vásquez, Sócrates Aguirre, Luis Cabrera, and Carlos Millán; Lieutenants Mario Bravo, Alejandro Lazo, Silvestre Urízar, and Enrique Zúñiga. Würth, Ibáñez, 40; Ahumada, El ejército, 110-111.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 30-31; Würth, Ibáñez, 39.


Arturo Alessandri, Recuerdos de gobierno: administración 1920-1925 (Santiago, 1952), 322.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 79.


Ahumada, El ejército, 78.


Würth, Ibáñez, 42.


Ahumada, El ejército, 80.


Würth, Ibáñez, 43.


Cited in Ahumada, El ejército, 86.


La Nación, September 6, 1924.


El Mercurio, September 5, 1924.


El Diario Ilustrado, September 5, 1924.


Ibid., September 6, 1924.


Würth, Ibáñez, 49-51.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 87.


Ibid., 89; Rodríguez, El golpe, 250-251.


Bennett, La revolución, 42.


Würth, Ibáñez, 52.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 92-94. Under the constitution, the minister of the interior automatically assumed the position of vice-president in the absence of the president.


The lack of unanimity on the Alessandri question was the first of many examples of disunity which would impede decisive action by the junta militar.


Ahumada, El ejército, 103. While in Valparaíso Grove also talked with Francisco Huneeus and Guillermo Rivera, two leaders of the TEA.


Bennett, La revolución, 53; Sáez, Recuerdos, I, 98.


Sáez, Recuerdos, I, 98.


Original naval delegates were Captains Olegario Reyes del Río, Benjamin Barros Merino, Carlos Jouanne, Luis Escobar, and Julio Dittborn. Bennett, La revolución, 46. The navy sent only captains; the views of their subalterns were not presented in the junta.


New army members were Colonels Carlos Fernández Pradel and Francisco J. Díaz; Lieutenant Colonels Feliz Urcullu and Pedro Charpín; Majors Sáez and Rafael Poblete; Captains Tobías Barros, César Arroyo, David Bari, and Guillermo Villouta; and Lieutenant Enrique Calvo. Bennett, La revolución, 45, 60. Major Grove replaced Colonel Ahumada who resigned because of ill health.


Department of State Files, 825.00/284. Collier to Hughes, September 10, 1924. Hereafter cited as DSF. Asylum was not granted. Instead Alessandri was extended the “hospitality” of the ambassador.


El Mercurio, September 9, 1924.


Emilio Bello Codesido, Recuerdos politicos. La junta de gobierno de 1925. Su origen y relación con la reforma del régimen constitucional (Santiago, 1954), 19.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 102-103.


Ibid., 169-170.


DSF, 825.00/284. Collier to Hughes, September 10, 1924.


Juan Caceres [sic] [pseud. Carlos Acuña], “Comentario sabatino. Los políticos en bancarrota,” Zig Zag, September 13, 1924, 37.


La Nación, September 15, 1924.


Bennett, La revolución, 84.


La Nación, September 18, 1924.


El Mercurio, September 16, 1924.


Cited in Ricardo Boizard, Cuatro retratos en profundidad: Ibáñez, Lafferte, Leighton, Walker (Santiago, 1950), 23.


Ahumada, El ejército, 146; Bennett, La revolución, 79.


Monreal, Historia, 101.


Bennett, La revolución, 122-124; Würth, Ibáñez, 69-70. Ministries of Health and Welfare, Agriculture, and Public Works were created on October 14.


Ahumada, El ejército, 143-145; Würth, Ibáñez, 73. Ibáñez was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel on October 8, 1924.


Bennett, La revolución, 215-216; Monreal, Historia, 107, 114.


This law put the registration of voters in the hands of local committees (juntas de vecinos) composed of those citizens who paid the highest taxes. The law gave control of elections to the conservative elements.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 129-131.


Bennett, La revolución, 157; Ahumada, El ejército, 156.


Bennett, La revolución, 167-172.


Most of the 170 decree laws promulgated since September were merely clarifications of earlier laws of statutes; thirteen were actually clarifications of other decree laws.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 152-153. Grove, Blanche, and seven other members of the defunct junta militar were relieved or scheduled to be transferred. Bennett, La revolución, 354-355.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 156.


Monreal, Historia, 166.


Grove was not under surveillance as the government did not consider him dangerous. In his autobiography he wrote that from January 18 to January 23 he did not see Ibáñez and assumed leadership only in his comrade’s name. Toda la verdad (Paris, 1929), 7. An anti-Ibáñez contemporary stated that Grove was definitely the original leader and ceded leadership to Ibáñez only out of loyalty. Eulogio Rojas Mery, Recuerdos de un joven “octogenario” (Santiago, 1958), 228. Sáez concurred. Recuerdos, I, 165. On the other hand, Monreal wrote that Grove, because of his impetuous nature, was not informed of the plans until January 18. Historia, 166. Grove was undoubtedly a key figure in the plotting. He was popular, colorful, and intelligent. Ibáñez, though, was both careful and methodical, and he inspired more confidence among his subordinates. He was the only jefe máximo of the January movement.


Members were Captains Oscar Fenner, Ernesto Fernández, Andrés Soza, Alejandro Lazo, Sócrates Aguirre, Carlos Millán, Fernando Cabezón, Enrique Zúñiga, Amaro Pérez, Eduardo López, Federico Barahona, and Armando Vásquez; and Lieutenants Mario Bravo, Roberto Alarcón, Rafael Hormazábal, Delaskar Iribarren, José Jara, Adolfo Ballas, José Muñoz, and Pedro Zuloaga. Bello, Recuerdos, 66; Monreal, Historia, 167-258.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 165.


Monreal, Historia, 169-170.


Sáez, Recuerdos, 166-167. See also the biography of Sócrates Aguirre Bernal in Virgilio Figueroa [pseud. Virgilio Talquino], Diccionario histórico y biográfico de Chile, 1800-1925 (Santiago, 1925), I, 173-177.


El Mercurio, January 24, 1925.


La Nación, January 25, 1925.


Rodríguez, El golpe, 357.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History at Portland State College. A grant from the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Foundation made possible the research for this article.