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Essay: The involvement of South America in the World Wars

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The impact caused by the First World War and the Second World War on Latin America, still, an unattended facet of Latin American historiography, triggered an economic dependence that caused a displacement of Latin American trade routes through the Atlantic Ocean and the genesis of severe economic repercussions; the fundamental role of the Latin American press about the wars became the turning point for government support and its Position Statement on the present Powers, by declaring its neutrality or belligerence; the massive growth of certain Latin American economies as they developed as self-dependent expanding their destinations leaving the tendency of being agricultural-mining dependent of countries of the first order.

The First World War is considered one of the most tragic events that convulsed the foundations of the old European continent. All the great world powers were involved in the conflict and aligned themselves in two strategically opposed sides: The Allies against the Central Powers. For four incessant years Europe fought between trenches in a bloody battle that ended with the loss of more than 10 million human lives and ended up destroying dynasties, empires and hegemonies to impose a new world order led by a triumphant United States. Faced with this new world political order, Latin America watched closely the movements of Europeans.

One who has never studied carefully the commercial relations existing between Latin America and Developed nations such as the US and many countries in Europe and even more important: the economic dependence of the southern country on Europe, would be likely to conclude that the countries of Latin America are independent economically, thriving by trade among themselves. At least, it would be hard to conceive that these countries located thousands of miles away from the epicenter of the War in Europe would be likely to suffer to any perceptible threat. But, the statistics show to opposite to be true: the economic and financial depression produced in the wars had repercussions throughout the south American continent. The war was an economic earthquake for this continent, which was not the in the least prepared for the sudden simultaneous stoppage of maritime traffic, investment, commerce, immigration, and credit advancement.

Historically, historiography presents us with a Latin America absent from the First World War, while for the rest of the world this conflict is considered as a major fracture that marked the real entrance into the 20th century. For historians, the crisis of the 29th and the 30s constitute in a more decisive way the decisive moments of inflection for the Latin American world. Recent works of historians such as Armelle Enders and above all Olivier Compagnon, author of the recent book “Goodbye to Europe. Latin America and the Great War “, qualify this reading and show that the Great War also had an important influence on this region of the world.

Although all of Latin America suffered because money was tight in Europe, the exact nature of the crisis differed in each country.  The reasons for these apparent differences are several and long-standing. In the first place, beyond the precise skirmishes between the main contenders that took place in the subcontinent, the Latin American territory has not become a principle affected by the war actions; With the exception of Latin American citizens of German, French, British, Russian or Austrian origin, a reduced Brazilian contingent and an even smaller detachment of Cubans, very few Latin Americans in the future.

The Latin American territory became a marginal place for war operations, which are limited to minor naval battles in Coronel Bay in Chile and the Falkland Islands. The Battle of the Falklands was a battle fought on December 8, 1914 in the framework of the First World War between the German squad, victorious in the previous Battle of Colonel on November 1, in which two British ships were sunk by the Count Maximiliano Von Spee’s squadron, while the others withdrew and took refuge in the Malvinas Islands, off the coast of Chile, and the British Fleet in Puerto Argentino, in the Malvinas Islands. The skirmish ended with a British victory, the German fleet was destroyed and its admiral, Von Spee, died, the overseas campaign, the only naval confrontation between the rival powers before the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

All this helped to foster the perception that the region was not threatened by the conflict. The fact, in addition, of the Latin America arrived until then a remote periphery, our destinies seemed dictated from the cultural, political and economic metropolis of the Old Europe, seems to have paid to this unconcern. Finally, the assumption, so many times affirmed, that the Latin Americans themselves have been seen in the European war as something distant and alien, that in a short time has contributed to their life, the contribution in a way, at least partially, such I forget.

It is hardly surprising that the war’s destruction of the basic mechanism of international communication and economy should have had such a dramatic effect. In the first months of the war when the powerful, seemingly indestructible strands of credit, capital, trade, and shipping by which the entire system was bound together, were either severed or hopelessly entangled, there was a financial panic, commercial and industrial collapse, mass unemployment, falling livings standards and fueling governments a series of problems, which must have seemed unresolvable. However, a further analysis of the coverage given by the Latin American press of the European conflagration of design and design, on the contrary, has revealed, not only an internal debate among Latin American societies, but also a great social transformation. cultural background.

What was the official position of the Latin American States in the face of the conflict?

At the beginning of the war in August 1914, all Latin American states proclaimed their neutrality, as did Washington. The “European war” was perceived as the consequence of the old rivalry between France and Germany, of the affirmation of the nationalities in the Balkan peninsula or of the clash of imperialisms. In other words, as an event that had nothing to do with American history. But everything changed in 1917 with the German submarine war and the entry of the United States into the war in April. The countries of Central America and the Caribbean, which already belonged to the US zone of influence, entered the war immediately with Washington, as did Brazil, which had a strategic alliance with the United States since 1902. All other countries remained neutral until the armistice of November 1918 although some broke their diplomatic relations with Berlin. In August of 1914 there was virtually a total collapse of the financial and commercial infrastructure which underpinned world trade and upon which Latin America relied so heavily.

The war in Europe hinders the transatlantic trade, which caused social conflicts throughout Latin America. With the conversion of European economies towards activities directly related to war, the supply of manufactured products decreased, and, in addition, prices increased, affecting the daily life of all countries for four and a half years. Thus, strikes and social movements arose protesting against the rise in prices and explicitly associating the economic and social situation with the warlike European context (for example during the demonstrations of May 1, 1915 in the big Brazilian cities). On the other hand, economic growth is observed in some countries such as Argentina, which sold its cereals and its meat to the Allies; However, the Latin American economies were affected by the difficulties of the transatlantic trade and by the decrease in the price of second-hand goods such as coffee.

Logically, many job
s disappeared, which means that the years 14-18 were socially very difficult. Yet intelligent South Americans realize that, in any cases, their countries have not reached the level of technical development which would permit them to take over operation of mines and public utilities operated by British or North American interests, and that the sudden withdrawal of foreign capital might precipitate an economic collapse.    To appreciate the attitude of South Americans, it is essential to understand that the countries of that continent, far from seeking security within a closed Western Hemisphere system, want to preserve their trade connections with Europe and Asia. Until now, their principal exports have consisted of foodstuffs and industrial raw materials, such as oil, rubber, cotton, copper, and nitrates. When the United States was cut off by a two-ocean war from sources of strategic raw materials in Asia, it had become increasingly dependent on South America for such products as the tin in Bolivia, the rubber and manganese of Brazil, and many others necessary for war industry.

Europe cancels the emissions of capital to Latin America, which encourages the entry of US financial institutions except for the notable exception of Argentina that many historians consider as the “sixth dominion” British or as “a Australia where Spanish is spoken” until the end of the 30s, the first economic consequence of the war was the replacement of Great Britain by States United as the first commercial partner and first financial investor in all the countries of the region. Totally forgotten by the historiography of the Latin American twentieth century, this war finally appears as a fundamental moment to think about contemporary inter-American relations. The United States must demonstrate to South America that it is sincerely concerned with the long-run development and material welfare of that continent, and not merely with the purchase, for the period of emergency, of strategic rae materials formerly obtained from other sources.

The post-war crumbling Europe is no longer seen by Latin Americans as the cradle of modernity. That is when the nationalisms in Latin America begin to be reborn. This role was fundamental, although it remains unknown. For many Latin American intellectuals who lived in a blind cult of Europe as the center of all modernity and the heart of civilization, the Great War was interpreted as the suicide of the Old Continent that sought to lead the world while sacrificing ten million of its children in the trenches. Breaking with the traditional logics of importing European models, the 20s and 30s corresponded to the search for their own identities, both politically and culturally. Thus, a movement such as the Week of Modern Art that took place in São Paulo in February 1922 can be understood as one of the intellectual consequences of the Great War.

Thus, by July 1918, eight Latin American nations – Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama – had joined the Allied cause, while Bolivia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Uruguay limited themselves to breaking diplomatic relations with the Central Powers. The rest of the Latin American countries-notably Argentina, Chile, and Mexico-maintained their neutrality until the end of the war, despite US pressures.52 In their decision, the analysis showed that a greater influence of the United States in the region would have supposed a new escalation of US imperialism in the region, evident in recent cases such as the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the occupation of Veracruz by the marines that year, or military interventions in Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti.

The nations of Latin America that had declared war or had broken relations with Germany were invited to the Paris Peace Conference, where, however, they were little more than spectators, when they were denied a voice and a vote in the discussion of the agreements of peace, limited to supporting the “great project” of Wilson of a League of Nations. Ten Latin American states would become founding members of the organization and another six were invited to join the League Pact. Latin America’s role within this system was essentially the same as it has been in the colonial period, to supply raw materials and foodstuffs in exchange for manufactured goods.

Over time, all Latin American nations became full members – at least for a time. The United States never joined, and this abstention raised serious dilemmas for the nations of Latin America and the inter-American system. Beyond idealism and derived prestige, the greatest incentive for Latin American countries to join the League was Article X of the Pact, which guaranteed the political and territorial integrity of its members. This, many of them hoped, would serve as a counterweight to the hemispheric hegemony of the United States.

Forgotten by the historiography of the Latin American XX century, the First World War appears, nevertheless, as a fundamental moment for contemporary Latin America. At the end of the war, post-war Europe was no longer seen by Latin Americans as a symbol of modernity and as a model to follow. It was precisely then that nationalisms in Latin America began to resurface. In that awakening, the Parisian centrality will be gradually diluted throughout the twentieth century, to give prominence to other capitals: Mexico, Havana, Buenos Aires or Barcelona, as new center of propagation of ideas of the Latin American intelligentsia. Examples of this will be Mexican muralism, the Uruguayan school of Joaquín Torres García, the Brazilian cultural vanguards, raised by the Modern Art Week of Sao Paulo in 1922, the anthropophagic movement, or Argentines such as the Florida and Boedo groups, for quote a few.

The role played by the European hecatomb in the emergence of the Latin American avant-garde was fundamental, although it is still a little studied subject. For many Latin American intellectuals who had professed an obfuscated veneration of Europe as the focus of all modernities and the nucleus of civilization, the European war was interpreted as the suicide of the Old Continent, which sought to guide the world while immolating ten million of its children in the trenches. When breaking with the traditional logics of imitation of the European models, the decades of 1920 and 1930 corresponded in Latin America to the search of own identities, as much politically as culturally speaking.

Although Latin America, as a region, was not directly involved in the First World War and several Latin American nations maintained their neutrality, the war conditions, however, accelerated several tendencies already underway before the war, among them the rise of the urban middle classes in several Latin American countries and the coming to power of representative governments of such classes, such as those of Hipólito Yrigoyen in Argentina or Jorge Alessandri in Chile. In Brazil, the political machinery of the Old Republic, which Until then, it had worked relatively smoothly, it began to fail. The political culture of café com leite began to be the target of criticism from various sectors of society, especially among a new generation of the elite born under the Velha Republic, who denounced the corrupt way in which politicians ran the country. Many attributed the origin of these practices to the time of the founders of the Republic, whom they accused of having imposed on Brazil a liberalism for which the country was not prepared.

The positions towards the conflict depended to a large extent on the degree of influence of the United States and the interests of the different countries. The comparison between Argentina and Brazil is very illustrative. Brazil was the only country with an active participation in the conflict. He entered the war on October 26, 1917 and participated in the Conference of the Allies that took place in Paris in November-December 1917. Brazil was in charge
of a naval patrol in the Atlantic, installed a field hospital in France and sent soldiers to Europe shortly before the end of the war. There is a clear desire to act as the principal partner of the United States in the Americas and to play a leading international role.

Argentina had a completely opposite performance. Hostile to the growing hegemony of the United States since the end of the nineteenth century reinforced its neutral position with the election of Hipolito Irigoyen in 1916. However, the pressure of the Allies was strong. Argentina had to sign in 1918 with France and the United Kingdom a trade agreement that provided for the export of wheat.

At the Paris Peace Conference, Brazil played a decent, but modest, role under the leadership of politician and jurist Epitacio Pessoa da Silva, who would later be president of Brazil. The Brazilian delegation, supported by the United States, obtained good results with respect to its claims. The main concerns of Brazil at the summit had to do with the payment of the German seizure of Brazilian coffee in Germany and Belgium, and the final destination of the 70 German ships seized in Brazil after the declaration of war and that France claimed for yes. The coffee dossier was included in the Treaty of Versailles as one of the debts that Germany had to pay and, after intense negotiations, Brazil managed to keep the confiscated ships. When the United States Congress refused to join the League of Nations, Brazil took the opportunity to present itself as the main power of the Western Hemisphere in that organization and thereby obtained a seat on the Security Council of the newly established League of Nations.

The Great War and its conclusion supposed the end of the economic, political and cultural preponderance of Europe in Latin America and its relay by the new American hegemony. The war in Europe dislocated transatlantic trade, which caused serious social conflicts throughout Latin America, resulting from unemployment, scarcity and resulting scarcity. With the conversion of European economies towards activities directly linked to the war, the supply of manufactured products decreased, and, in addition, prices increased, affecting the daily life of all countries for four and a half years. Thus, strikes and social movements arose that protested against the rise in prices and that linked openly the depressed economic and social situation with the European war context (for example during the demonstrations of May 1, 1915 in the big Brazilian cities).

On the other hand, there was considerable economic growth in some countries, such as Argentina, which sold its cereals and meat to the Allies; however, the Latin American economies were affected by the difficulties of the transatlantic trade and by the decrease in the price of luxury products such as coffee. Obviously, many jobs were destroyed, which means that the years 1914-1918 were socially arduous for Latin America. Additionally, Europe abruptly canceled capital issues to Latin America, which would encourage the entry of US financial entities into the region.

With the exception of Argentina, a nation that many historians consider the British “Sixth Dominion” or “a Spanish-speaking Australia” until the end of the 1930s, the first economic consequence of the war was the displacement of Great Britain by the United States as the first trading partner and first financial investor in all the countries of the region.59 The British preeminence in terms of foreign investment in Latin America was not, in fact, seriously questioned before the First World War. It is estimated that up to 1913 the British investments represented 999.2 million pounds sterling, compared with 339 million pounds sterling for the United States, 329 million for France and 185 million pounds sterling for Germany.

Other possible repercussions deserve to be studied in greater depth. Certainly, a collateral sequel to the Great War, the fall of the czar of Russia and the subsequent revolutions of February (March) and (October) November 1917, had a great impact on Latin America as a whole. It is evident that the October Revolution attracted the attention of the reformist intelligentsia of Latin America, just when the dislocation of the region’s economies was generating massive unemployment and an increasingly militant labor conflict. This had unleashed an assertive economic nationalism among a small but important sector of Latin American elites. In a context of searching for an alternative model that could solve the economic and social contradictions of the region, the events in Russia created the impression, among many, of a solution to the serious social problems, apparently successful, at hand.

The possible influence of the suffragists – social movement directly linked to the profound changes bequeathed by the Great War in the respective European societies – on the granting of the vote to their Latin American counterparts. The fact that women have obtained such power relatively late in Latin America -1927 in Uruguay, 1929 in Ecuador, 1932 in Brazil, 1947 in Argentina and 1954 in Mexico-, that is, two or three decades after Germans, British and Americans granted the right to suffrage to women, has discouraged the initiative of work on these connections, although countless historical testimonies give account of such links. Suffice it to mention, for example, the invectives received by Uruguayan feminists in the 1930s, when the founders of the Independent Feminist Democratic Party were branded as the “laughingstock of Uruguayan politics, by imitating the grotesque ways of the famous lady (Emmeline) Pankhurst, the very caricatured English suffragette”.

After the crisis of 1929 the economic situation in Latin America was not good and to alleviate the shortage of European imported products due to the World War, small industries are created of very poor quality but that allow to satisfy domestic demand. In the face of social instability and the advance of communist factors, governments of repression are emerging that try to govern in a climate of violence. The nations are polarized among the sympathizers of the allies and the national socialists.

In January 1942, a conference of American foreign ministers was held in Rio de Janeiro, demonstrating against the pressure of the United States, which demanded a resolution that required the breaking of diplomatic relations with the Axis. The Washington Government wanted all American countries to break off relations with Japan because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. What irritated Washington was the lack of political support for all the initiatives that emerged from the White House, despite the fact that the United States was very supportive of Latin America through the granting of loans, since it was of vital importance premiums that came from this region: Colombia, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras.   South America is often described by some of its leaders as a ‘reflex’ continent, which has no political or economic initiative of its own, and merely reflects conditions in other continents, notably Europe and North America. But if South America reflects the influence of other countries, it is not the influence of Spain, or Germany, or Italy, or Great Britain, or the United States. For all the educated people in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and, to a lesser degree Peru, Latin-America had always been less developed and in disadvantage, but countries were heavily dependent of its production and exports.

Finally, the European war caused, for obvious reasons, the interruption of the migratory flow of Europe towards Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, a trend that had been constant since the 1880s. Conversely, many emigrants of European origin abandoned the host Latin American lands to join the armies of their countries of origin. Many would never re
turn. That fact would cause, in turn, new internal readjustments, both political and economic and social in the different countries that would merit being the object of analysis of new research.

Other issues, such as the resurgence of economic and cultural nationalism, the increase in labor unrest and the consequent union development, or the impact of the war on Latin American art and literature deserve to be addressed by researchers and scholars of science social and humanities. Throughout the present work it has been tried to show that the impact of the First World War has been an issue still little studied and that, however, offers a very rich vein for research.

In the end, Latin America’s contribution to the fighting was not at all decisive. However, the direct experience with the war paved the way for a new dimension in the relations between the continent and Europe and the United States. To sum up, the conflict in Europe confronted Latin America with significant challenges long before the first country of the American continent entered the war. Even though the major battlefields and conflicts were far away from Latin America, they still cast long shadows over the region and demonstrated a previously unknown dimension of connectedness and brutality. The boundaries between the civil, economic and military sphere in the conflict were becoming ever more fluid. They confronted seemingly distant regions with new weapons and technologies, especially submarines, which affected Latin Americans, too.

The Latin American governments could hardly regulate the new networks and troubleshoot using the traditional means of international law or national policy. In view of these conditions and increasing U.S. influence, their most important aim was to stay neutral and to safeguard national sovereignty for as long as possible. However, the economic, maritime and propaganda war led to a variety of repercussions not only for governmental circles but also for daily life in Latin America. Indeed, the war’s world-encompassing dimensions fundamentally changed the conditions of neutrality. Latin American governments were no longer able to keep a low profile. In fact, they could not remain on the sidelines.

Though Latin America did not make an impactful contribution to the fighting on the European continent, the experiences between 1914 and 1918 introduced a new dimension to relations between Latin America, Europe and the United States. The old order had been challenged, making way for a new beginning.


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