He began his military career by joining Colégio Militar in 1916. He became the Director of the Secretariado Nacional de Aeronáutica Civil (National Secretariat of Civil Aeronautics), General-Commander of the Legião Portuguesa, Deputy National Commissar of the Mocidade Portuguesa and Procurator to the Corporative Chamber.
Although initially a staunch supporter of the right-wing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, and the youngest general in Portuguese history, his passage as a Military Attaché and Aeronautic Attaché to the Portuguese Embassy in Washington, D.C. in 1952 pushed him into the defence of democratic ideals, and inspired him to run as a candidate to the Portuguese presidency in 1958.
In a famous interview on 10 May 1958, in the Chave d'Ouro café, when asked what would be his attitude towards Salazar, he made one of the most famous quotations of Portuguese politics: Obviamente, demito-o! (Obviously, I'll sack him!).
His outspoken attitude earned him the epithet of General sem Medo (Fearless General).
He was nevertheless credited with only around 25% of the votes in the highly rigged presidential elections of 1958, despite the consensual opinion that he was the true winner and some evidence of ballots filled with votes for the regime candidate by the secret police.
He was expelled from the Portuguese military, and took refuge in the Brazilian embassy before going into exile.
Delgado and his Brazilian secretary, Arajaryr Moreira de Campos, would be murdered on 13 February 1965, after being attracted to an ambush by the regime's secret police (PIDE) near the border town of Olivenza, when trying to enter Portugal clandestinely. The official version was that he was killed in self defense, but he was not even armed when he was shot, and his secretary was strangled. Their bodies would only be found some two months later, near the Spanish village of Villanueva del Fresno. Portuguese dictator Salazar, who approved the operation, when he found out about the killings, said simply: "Uma maçada" ("Such a boring thing"). He later appeared on national television claiming to be ignorant of the political police's involvement and blaming quarrels between opposition forces for the event.
Some historians claim that Spanish authorities knew about the involvement of the Portuguese secret police and staged the finding of the decomposing corpses by two local boys just not to be involved.
In 1990, Humberto Delgado was posthumously promoted to Marshal of the Portuguese Air Force - being the only person to hold this rank -, his name was given to an Avenue in Lisbon and his body was moved to the National Pantheon, in Lisbon. The significance of this gesture is that some former Portuguese Presidents are there.
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