Top 10 Successful Coups in History
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco & Nick Roffey
You can't trust anyone. For this list, we're looking at the most well-known and impactful takeovers by small state political and military groups. Our countdown includes 1980 Turkish Coup d'Etat, 1953 Iranian Coup d'Etat, The Ides of March (44 BC), and more!
Top 10 Coups d'Etats
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the Top 10 Coups d'Etats.
For this list, we're looking at the most well-known and impactful takeovers by small state political and military groups. Our rank is based on how large these coups d’etat loom in history. We’re excluding failed coups, as well as mass uprisings and revolutions that aren’t usually considered “coups”.
In a few hundred years, which of these do you think will be most remembered? We’d love to hear YOUR opinions in the comments!
#10: 1980 Turkish Coup d'Etat
On July 15, 2016, an attempted coup rocked Turkey, with tanks rolling into the country’s capital Istanbul. The coup leaders cited the erosion of secularism and democratic freedoms under President Erdogan. The attempt failed, however, and Erdogan retaliated with a massive crackdown against dissent. This was far from Turkey’s first experience with coups; in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the government was overthrown thrice! During the most recent overthrow, in 1980, a council of Turkish generals decided to take control as the country spiralled into chaos and violence. They arrested over half a million people and sentenced hundreds to death. The council controlled Turkey until 1982, whereupon coup leader Kenan Evren (CANE-nawn AY-vran) was elected President.
#9: 1971 Ugandan Coup d'Etat
The life of Ugandan General Idi Amin may have inspired the 2006 film "The Last King of Scotland." But it was his military coup in 1971 that first set Amin front and center on the world stage. On January 25th of that year, Ugandan troops led by Amin blocked off airports and major roads in the nation while President Milton Obote (oh-BOH-tay) was in Singapore attending a conference. Nicknamed the "Butcher of Uganda", the general provoked international criticism during his reign, including accusations of violence, torture, and ruining Uganda's economy. Idi Amin was ousted in 1979 by exiled Ugandans and the Tanzania People's Defence Force, and fled to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until his death in 2003.
#8: 1952 Cuban Coup d'Etat
This coup may have been bloodless, but led to a brutal dictatorship and the Cuban Revolution. It was actually Fulgencio Batista’s second coup, after he led the successful Sergeants' Revolt in 1933. Batista served one term as President in the early 40s, then decided to run again in 1952. But the polls didn’t look good … so he just seized power instead. During his rule, Batista established a police state and close relationships with organized crime. Nonetheless, he enjoyed strong US support. The coup prompted one Fidel Castro to lead an armed revolt, which in 1959 would hand him control of Cuba’s destiny for over half a century.
#7: 1973 Chilean Coup d'Etat
Even as coups installed military governments throughout South America in the 60s, Chile clung to democratic rule … for at time. However, President Salvador Allende’s (sal-bah-DORE eye-YEN-day) socialist policies and nationalization of the copper industry infuriated the U.S.; on the advice of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the Nixon administration waged economic warfare against Chile and plotted a coup. As the country struggled with an economic depression and inflation, the CIA exacerbated unrest. On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet (ow-GOOS-toh) deposed Allende, installing himself as dictator. His bloody, decades-long reign saw the torture and execution of thousands of political dissidents, with declassified documents revealing that the CIA continued to play a supporting role.
#6: Spanish Coup of July 1936
While this coup became much larger and drawn out than intended, it was ultimately successful, juuust managing to meet our criteria here. In July 1936, the right-wing Nationalists staged a coup against the leftist government of the Second Spanish Republic. However, government forces managed to hold out through much of the country, resulting in a three-year civil war. In the end though, thanks to another coup within Republican forces, the Nationalists were victorious, and leader Francisco Franco took power. The atrocities that Franco and the Nationalists committed became known as the White Terror. Spain would only transition to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975.
#5: Egypt’s 1952 Coup d'Etat
In July 1952, a group of Egyptian nationalists known as the Free Officers Movement seized power from British-backed King Farouk (as spelled). Decrying the king as corrupt and beholden to foreign interests, they abolished the monarchy and made coup leader General Muhammad Naguib (nah-GEEB) Egypt’s Prime Minister and first President. Naguib was himself overthrown a few years later by Free Officer Gamal Abdel Nasser (guh-MELL AWB-dell NAW-sur). The shift in power led to widespread reforms, and eventually to the Suez Crisis, when the UK, France, and Israel invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal. It also inspired anti-colonial and anti-monarchical rebellions throughout the region. This wasn’t the last time Egypt’s government was overthrown; in 2013 the Egyptian army removed President Mohamed Morsi (as spelled), leading to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s (AWB-dell fet-TAAH el-sisi) authoritarian regime.
#4: 1948 Czechoslovak Coup d'Etat
The international tensions that defined the Cold War were just gaining steam by the winter of 1948. In Czechoslovakia, the government comprised a Communist Prime Minister, and a non-Communist majority and President. That wasn’t enough for the Communist Party. They purged non-Communist members of the police force, and had police and militias take over Prague. Fearing Soviet intervention, President Edvard Benes (ed-VARD ben-NESH) agreed to form a new, Communist-dominated government. The move became known as "Victorious February," and ushered in four decades of Communist rule. It was a pivotal event in the drawing of the Iron Curtain across Europe, and spurred on the establishment of the Marshall Plan and NATO. It wasn't until the non-violent "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 that democracy was restored in the country.
#3: 1953 Iranian Coup d'Etat
Iran’s history would have taken a very different course without this coup. In 1953, the US and UK orchestrated the overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (MOH_SAH-deck). The US referred to the operation as “Operation Ajax”, and the British as “Operation Boot”. Wrestling with Britain’s control of Iranian oil reserves, Mosaddegh decided to nationalize the country’s oil industry. The crisis that followed saw Mosaddegh face increasing pressure and fall back on emergency powers. With the help of the CIA and MI6, he was ousted by a faction of the Iranian Imperial Army. This eventually led to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (ray-ZAWWW pahh-lah-VEE) taking on a larger leadership role, which culminated in the Shah’s own overthrow by Ayatollah Khomeini (hhhhoh-mane-nee) during the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
#2: Coup of 18 Brumaire (1799)
A committee of five ruling members governed France from 1795 to 1799, until it was overthrown by a young military genius known as General Napoleon Bonaparte. This act effectively ended the French Revolution, and was committed without bloodshed by Napoleon on November 9th, 1799 or 18 Brumaire, Year VIII in the French Republican Calendar. Napoleon established a French Consulate, serving as First Consul until naming himself Emperor in 1804. He would rule France until 1814, when he abdicated the throne and was exiled after an unsuccessful military campaign into Russia. Bonaparte would briefly return a year later, but was exiled again after his infamous defeat at Waterloo.
Before we reveal our top pick, here are a few honorable, or sometimes dishonorable mentions.
October Revolution [aka the Bolshevik Coup] (1917)
Some Call It a Coup, Others a Revolution, But We’re Squeezing It In for Leading to the Creation of the Soviet Union
1941 Iraqi Coup d'Etat
This Nazi-Backed Coup Ousted the Pro-British Regime & Led to the Anglo-Iraqi War
1969 Libyan Coup d'Etat
After Overthrowing King Idris I (id-DREECE), Colonel Muammar Gaddafi Ruled Libya Until 2011
1979 Salvadoran Coup d'Etat
This Military Takeover Led to the 12 Year Long Salvadoran Civil War.
2017 Zimbabwean Coup d'Etat
Robert Mugabe’s (moo-GAW-bee) Long Rule Ended When the Army Arrested Him & Forced Him to Resign
#1: The Ides of March (44 BC)
“Et tu, Brute?” These words from Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” have become synonymous with betrayal. Roman general Gaius (guy-iss) Julius Caesar seized power in October 49 BC, but a coup on the Ides of March in 44 BC cut his rule short. Roman Senators saw Caesar as disrespectful and overreaching, and stabbed him to death at a Senate meeting! The conspirators included Caesar’s former friend - and possibly biological son - Marcus Brutus. The assassination plunged Rome into civil war, as Caesar’s ally Mark Antony and heir Octavian sought to avenge his death. They succeeded, but later turned on each other. When all the dust settled, Mark Antony - and his lover Cleopatra - were dead; Octavian was Rome’s first Emperor; and the Roman Republic was finished.