A "coup d’état" is the sudden overthrowing of a government or political order, and is usually carried out by a small group of people. Most coups are violent, and are planned with the executions of political figures in mind. They’re often carried out in a single day but are carefully plotted over months or years.
Festering in a politically turbulent country, these attacks are led by military officials who have turned on their superiors or foreign organizations such as the CIA acting through a proxy military. Regardless of the mutineers, successful coups occur when they are able to catch their enemies by surprise, and, more importantly, are able to implement the regime change. And this doesn’t just happen with an army. As seen in this collection of historical military operations, successful coups always launch a secret multi-pronged operation, one that employs not only threats of violence but also media propaganda and psychological operations (PSYOPS), to topple the government but also subdue the citizens from breaking into civil war.
10 The Sergeants' Coup
In 1980, the small country of Suriname in South America saw their government toppled in a violent military coup. Led by Desi Bouterse, the Surinamese coup d’état was successfully carried out by only sixteen men, giving it the name the Sergeants’ Coup.
On the day of the coup, Bouterse and his men attacked the Suriname police station. Prime Minister Henck Arron was imprisoned by the coup leaders, and the military dictatorship swiftly implemented the regime change. Martial law was placed over the country and the following decade would continue to be violent.
In 1982, Bouterse participated in the executions of those who stood against military rule. Known as the December Murders, fifteen people, including journalists and lawyers, were killed. Shockingly, Bouterse became President of Suriname in 2010, even though he was formally charged with murder. To avoid trial, the President created a law that granted himself and other suspects amnesty, which many viewed as a great injustice. Bouterse continues to rule Suriname today.
9 Bloodless Burmese Coup D’état
Although most coups revolve around the execution of political figures that stand in the military's way, some military coups are successfully achieved without bloodshed. The 1962 military coup in Burma was one of these “bloodless” victories, that only included the execution of one man, the son of general Sao Shwe Thaik.
On the morning of March 2nd, 1962, General Ne Win led the coup against the civil Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League government (AFPFL) and with little opposition seized complete control over the country. Historians differ greatly on both the details of the coup as well as the reasons for it. Some say that the coup was a well-coordinated military operation which employed tanks, field commanders, and generals. Others state that Ne Win seized power in secret, without any show of force. Regardless, the Burmese military had been viewed in the eyes of the people as their only source of political stability, while the AFPFL was littered with corruption.
Of course, some argue that Ne Win’s coup merely replaced corrupt politicians with corrupt militants, but the success of the coup cannot be argued. Led by Ne Win, The Union Revolution Council would replace the AFPFL indefinitely, declaring martial law and successfully instilling an authoritarian rule for twenty-six years.
8 Bakr Sidqi Coup
October 29th, 1936 marked the first military coup in not only modern Iraq but in all of the world’s Arab countries. Led by General Bakr Sidqi, the coup successfully overthrew Prime Minister Yasin al-Hashimi and replaced him with Hikmat Salayman. Most importantly, it handed the country's power over to Sidqi, who became the Commander of the Armed Forces and set a violent precedent for future regime changes in Iraq.
At the time of the coup, Iraq’s General Taha al-Hashimi was out of town, and thus, the acting Chief of Staff was none other than General Sidqi. With full control of the military, the coup was carried out with little resistance. It began with eleven military planes dropping hundreds of political pamphlets over the country's capital city of Baghdad. These pamphlets formally requested the resignation of Yasin al-Hashimi, threatened violence on the civilians who did not support the rebellion, and were signed by Bakr Sidqi himself.
The Defence Minister Jafar al-Askari tried to stop the large military forces moving toward Baghdad by talking to the officers. Sidqi responded to this by sending two men to assassinate him and Prime Minister Yasin al-Hashimi resigned. Although the government had already been overthrown, Sidqi paraded through Baghdad with the army, publicly seizing control of the country. It was a successful coup, but it would only last a year. In 1937, Sidqi was assassinated and before 1941, Iraq saw six more violent coups.
7 The Free Officers Movement
Leading up to the 1952 Revolution, Egypt was a country in political turmoil. With British occupancy dating back to 1882 and an elitist monarchy in place, it was no wonder that political opposition to these ruling forces began to grow and garner support from the people.
In late 1951, the Egyptian Resistance (fedayeen) began attacking British shipments and officers. Instead of arresting these rebels, Egyptian police protected them. In response, Britain attacked the Egyptian police station. Riots ensued and it became clear that Egypt was ready for change.
A group called the Free Officers, led by Muhammad Naguib and Abel Nasser, with support from the Muslim Brotherhood and the communist Democratic Movement for National Liberation, planned the coup. On July 22nd, the Free Officers began the coup by rounding up soldiers to arrest King Farouk’s men. Along with General Youssef Seddik, the military's General Headquarters was taken and the Free Officers sent their air force to fly over the country's capital. By the following morning, the Revolution was announced on radio stations across Egypt. By the 25th, Free Officers had taken Alexandria, leading King Farouk to abdicate from the throne. By the 28th, the coup leader, Naguib, became Egypt's first President, officially ending the Muhammad Ali dynasty.
6 Revolución Libertadora
Unlike most military coups that begin and end within a few days, this uprising in Argentina lasted months. Even though President Juan Perón of Argentina had been re-elected in 1952, his support quickly disintegrated across the country due to many economic problems within the region.
Revolutionaries were called into action and on June 16th, 1955, thirty aircrafts from the Army and Navy bombed Plaza de Mayo square. That night, Perón supporters set fire to multiple churches, fires that were not put out by firefighters. The country fell into violent turmoil and on September 16th, General Eduardo Lonardi, General Pedro Aramburu, and Admiral Isaac Rojas worked together to overthrow the President. But fighting in the country did not stop, and for many days, wars were waged in the streets.
On September 19th, the city of Mar del Plata was also bombed. Fearing an all-out civil war, President Perón fled the country and on the 23rd of September, the Argentinian military took over the country. Coup leader Eduardo Lonardi was given the title of acting head of state but was overthrown himself within a few days by his coup conspirator Pedro Aramburu, who officially became President of Argentina.
5 The Wuchang Uprising
Catching the enemy with their guard down is the key to any successful coup, but what happens when even the revolutionaries are caught by surprise? On October 10th, 1911, that’s exactly what happened in China after a group of revolutionaries who had actually been planning a coup had a bomb accidentally explode. Facing certain death, the revolutionaries had no choice but to begin the coup that day.
With assistance from China’s New Army, the mutineers took the city of Wuchang in less than a day. Surprisingly, the Qing dynasty responded slowly to this rebellion, and thus, gave the revolutionaries time to get things in order. This included finding a leader for the then leaderless Xinhai Revolution. General Li Yuanhong was forced at gunpoint to accept this position. But still, the Qing dynasty failed to act. This allowed the fifteen other provinces who also declared independence to meet with the revolutionaries and form the Republic of China, successfully ending a two thousand year imperial rule over the country.
4 Saur Revolution
Afghanistan during the 1970s was a turbulent country with political strife boiling over in coup after attempted coup. In 1973, Mohammed Daoud Khan led his own coup against the King and appointed himself the first President of Afghanistan. After overthrowing the monarchy, Daoud set to distance his country from the Soviets. However, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) had other ideas for the country. Sensing danger, Daoud began arresting leaders of the PDPA, but put one leader, Hafizullah Amin, under house arrest where he secretly planned the Saur Revolution. Sending orders to military officials through family members, Amin had the promised cooperation of the countries military and air force.
On April 27th, 1978 Soviet-made SU-7 fighter planes began firing rockets at the national palace. The aerial attacks continued through the night. In the morning, soldiers surrounded the palace and ordered Daoud’s surrender. Instead, Daoud charged toward the army guns-a-blazing and was shot to death. However, his death was not publicly announced, and it wasn’t until 2008 that two mass graves were found in Kabul that contained not only Daoud’s body, but the bodies of 27 others, including his wife and many of his children. In 2009, Daoud was given a state funeral.
3 The Night of the Long Knives
In 1934, Adolf Hitler successfully executed a coup against his own people which he referred to as a “blood purge”. Although it would go down in history as the infamous Night of the Long Knives, it was one of the most deceptive coups of all time. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the SA (Sturmabteilung) was proving to be a revolutionary force too great to control. Having used the SA for over a decade as the Nazi police force, they were hungry to take over as Germany’s national army. However, Hitler had other plans. He called a meeting with the SA under the guise of lecturing them about their treatment of foreign diplomats.
At 6am on the morning of June 30th, 1934 Hitler flew with a few men to a hotel in Munich and crashed an SA party. Caught literally with their pants down, top ranking officers of the SA including their leader and dear friend of Hitlers, Ernst Rohm, were arrested and brought to prison. By 10am, most of the SA had been rounded up. Three days later, most had been executed by firing squad. In his prison cell, Rohm was given a revolver with a single bullet. Refusing to kill himself, Rohm was executed by guards. It is impossible to know how many people died during the Night of the Long Knives since all evidence of it was destroyed and obituaries of the dead were forbidden. Some speculate that up to 1000 people were murdered.
2 The Other 9/11
On September 11th, 1973 the Commander in Chief of the Chilean army, General Augusto Pinochet, began his coup against Marxist President Salvador Allende. It began in the early morning when Pinochet declared over the radio that Allende must transfer police powers to the army. Allende refused to surrender and instead broadcasted his last speech as President about the freedom of Chile. Allende moved his family into the Presidential Palace and prepared for a shootout. In the palace, Allende armed himself with the machine gun gifted to him by Fidel Castro and waited. At 9:30am, tanks surrounded the palace and the battle was waged.
The President and his few loyal men shot at the tanks from the windows of the palace, continuously switching floors to confuse their attackers. After having enough of the shootout, General Pinochet threatened to bomb the palace, but President Allende still refused to surrender. Instead, he ordered the women and children out, while he and his bodyguards remained to fight to the death. Eighteen rockets were fired at the Palace, setting it ablaze. But before Allende could be captured, he turned his machine gun on himself. By mid-afternoon the coup was over and within the year General Pinochet had full control over Chile.
1 Operation PBSUCCESS
The 1954 coup in Guatemala was a covert CIA operation approved by President Eisenhower to overthrow the democratically elected leader Jacabo Arbenz. A year earlier, Arbenz had confiscated thousands of acres of land from the American company United Fruits and this angered Americans all the way up the line. In August 1953, the CIA began destabilizing the country and planning the coup. The CIA called this Operation PBSUCCESS. The plan: to secretly back an uprising in Guatemala without using any American forces.
Led by Carlos Castillo Armas, the 400+ rebel forces that would act in the coup were trained by CIA Case Officer Rip Robertson but would only be one prong of the attack. The CIA also began psychological warfare on the people of Guatemala by broadcasting as the “secret voice of the Army of Liberation” that was coming to “free the Guatemalan people.” On the day of the attack, the station announced rebel victories when in actuality the coup was on the brink of failure. To ensure success the US sent two unmarked F47 bombers to Guatemala. They bombed the city with harmless smoke bombs, creating an illusion that the rebel forces had complete control. President Arbenz resigned and ten days later Carlos Casillo Armas was sworn in. The CIA labeled PBSUCCESS the model for all future regime changes.