In 1969 Robert Potash published his excellent study of the Argentine army during the 1930s and early 1940s. Now, eleven years later, he has completed its long-awaited sequel, which begins with the rise of Juan Perón in 1945 and ends with the coup that displaced civilian president Arturo Frondizi in 1962. The book is welcome not only because it deals with some of the most controversial and confusing episodes in recent Argentine history, but also because it adds abundantly to the knowledge needed to understand the transformation of military officers from the role of vigilante to that of controller of Argentine politics in recent years.

As was its predecessor, this is a narrative history of high quality, prodigiously researched and filled with details gleaned from interviews with military officers and civilian politicians, as well as from personal diaries, newspapers, and public documents. Most of the events and issues described in the book are familiar to students of the country, as are the political conflicts of the period, e.g., Peronism versus anti-Peronism, nationalism versus liberalism, constitutionalism versus anticonstitutionalism. What Potash adds to this conventional wisdom is not only a skillfully integrated narrative, but also a closer look at the involvement of the military in each of these conflicts, focusing on individual officers, their judgments of civilians and each other, and their emergence as participants as deeply involved in the nation’s rule as elected civilians.

We learn of Perón’s relations with his fellow officers, the importance of factionalism and his manipulation of it throughout his career, and the persistent schizophrenic response of the service commanders to the demands of constitutional politics after 1955. We are also reminded that Argentina has been a virtual laboratory for the study of the coup d’etat. From Potash’s account of each unsuccessful, as well as successful, coup during the period, we learn of the critical role of personal rivalries and interservice relations in the generation and execution of military interventions. What is most striking about the book’s findings is the similarity between the behaviors of civilians and military officers within the Argentine political arena. Most of the policy issues that divided civilians, e.g., the design of constitutions, economic development strategy, relations with the United States, Cuba, and others, also divided military commanders. Moreover, despite the tradition of discipline and hierarchy, the military, like most civilian organizations, was frequently torn by conflicts caused by the personalities and management styles of service secretaries and division commanders. Typical was the case of Arturo Frondizi’s Navy Secretary Admiral Adolfo Estévez. Described as “an intellectually gifted individual . . . [who] . . . was erratic in his contacts with senior officers, tactless and patronizing in dealing with people, and indifferent to the need to maintain good public relations,” (p. 311) he embroiled Frondizi in a web of controversy involving issues of military discipline, insubordination, and conflict that added to the woes of the already besieged president.

Missing from the book is any concerted attempt to examine the theoretical significance of its findings. While the risks of such an effort are readily apparent, the reader cannot help but regret that Potash was so cautious, especially given the relevance of his narrative to the assessment of currently popular competing interpretations of Argentine institutions and their fates. He does, of course, reach some conclusions. The most thought-provoking argues that the frequent military seizures of power witnessed during the period were “more an indication of the failures of the civil sector to stand united in defense of constitutional government than . . . of military lust for power” (p. 381). Undeniably, the incompatibility of civilian movements was a primary inducement to military intervention. Yet, the relationship is a dynamic one that builds up a momentum apparently sustained as much by the conditions set by officers for constitutional rule and their propensity to judge presidential conduct quickly and harshly as by objective conditions of civilian behavior. An appreciation of the reciprocity of this relationship may help us understand the inability of Argentina’s current military rulers to build the new democracy they claim to seek. Civilian habits and expectations learned during thirty years of civil-military relations still persist, yielding familiar scenarios of party leaders seeking narrow immediate advantages from each junta. In doing so, unfortunately, they cannot help but reinforce military distrust of the politicians they have failed to transform and thereby perpetuate the junta’s self-image as savior of the country from its “irresponsible” civilians.

The many questions that remain to be studied do not detract from the excellence of this book. Few scholars have accepted the challenge of sorting out and describing the postdepression history of this perplexing country, and none have matched the scholarly self-discipline, clarity of exposition, and narrative skill of Robert Potash.