BOOK REVIEW: The Tango War

The Tango War
The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds, and Riches of Latin American During World War II
Mary Jo McConahay
St. Martin’s Press
(c) 2018 by the author

I like to think of myself as something of a WWII buff. I’m not one of those people who can argue the finer points of the various tanks used in the European Theater, but I know enough about the war to be embarrassingly wrong about some aspects. However, I do know that it was a truly World War, with battles raging from Spitzbergen to Madagascar, troops being pulled in from all over the world by their colonial masters, and a vast network of military and transport bases linking everything together.

If one is so inclined, one can take out a world map and mark it with all the places that were somehow affected by combat. One might soon spot a large gap on the map, where nothing much seemed to be happening.

What was going on in South and Central America?

Starting with a lot of personal interviews she conducted over her years as an independent journalist, McConahay has admirably filled in that gap. The Tango War is arranged more thematically than chronologically, which helps a great deal covering a place that wasn’t the scene of any real combat. Only two minor skirmishes in the “Battle of the Atlantic” are worthy of individual mention.

The lack of combat doesn’t mean that nothing at all happened, though. There were resources like rubber and oil that needed to be secured, bases to be acquired and built, and the usual diplomacy and espionage to be conducted. And countries did send men abroad to fight; Brazil sent an expeditionary force of some 25,000 men to fight in Italy.

There was also the matter of propaganda. A large German presence in the countries of South America spread the Nazi Party doctrine; the U.S. countered by sending Walt Disney (Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros) and Orson Welles to make movies promoting “Pan-American” goodwill (Disney produced Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros). Welles’ story is particularly interesting to film historians. Ostensibly to make a documentary “introducing” Brazil to the U.S., his proposed epic It’s All True came to naught – either because of his drunkenness and mismanagement, or because he ‘went native’ and started highlighting things that the governments of both Brazil and the U.S. would rather not draw attention to.

Speaking of things people wanted to forget, McConahay made this reader aware of a program that would certainly strengthen the arguments of the “U.S. has always interfered in Latin American countries to their detriment” crowd. With the help of bullied governments like that of Guatemala and complicit ones like Peru, the U.S. began “forced renditions”, where Germans and Japanese were kidnapped from their Latin American homes and interned in camps in the United States. Germans could have been spies, you know, and the Japanese were supposed to be exchanged for American citizens interned in Japan. This is a story that deserves its own treatment; I hope there’s at least one historian up to the task.

McConahay doesn’t stop at the end of the war. Argentina, for one, became known as a post-war haven for fleeing Nazis, and that part of the story gets its own chapter. She doesn’t suggest it openly, but it’s not inconceivable that the wartime fascism of German communities in Latin American countries somehow helped spread and grow the native fascist dictatorships, like that of Juan Peron. And such governments were our friends, as long as they were against Communism…..

The Tango War is a valuable addition not just to WWII studies, but to the history of Latin America as well. McConahay has to give some background on what all those Germans and Japanese and Jews were doing there, for one. Here in the U.S., we pay so little notice to our neighbors to the south – except when we want something from them. Maybe we can start being Good Neighbors by learning something of their history.

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