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Latin America


Photograph of warships transiting the Panama Canal

National Archives #80-G-455918

Latin America refers to those portions of South, Central, and North America colonized by Spain and Portugal, primarily during the 16th century. Between 1813 and 1822 most of these areas followed the example of the English colonists in North America who broke away from the mother country to form the United States of America in 1776. The United States responded to the revolution in Latin America with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which stated that any further European attempts at colonization or interference with the new states in the Western Hemisphere would be met by U.S. intervention.

The few areas of Latin America that remained under Spanish control (primarily Cuba and Puerto Rico) were taken from Spain by the United States following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Puerto Rico became an unincorporated American territory under the control of Congress, while Cuba became an independent nation. Residents of Puerto Rico were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, and Puerto Ricans such as Pedro del Valle made their contribution to Allied victory in the Second World War.

However, none of the nations of Latin America achieved the stability or prosperity of "The Colossus of the North". A series of American interventions, beginning with the "filibusters" (private adventurers from the southern American states prior to the Civil War of 1861-1865), and continuing with the "Banana Wars" of the 1920s, created wariness in the Latin American nations of their powerful northern neighbor. Roosevelt's promulgation of a "Good Neighbor Policy" from 1933 on enjoyed some success at relaxing these tensions, and after war broke out in Europe the United States provided military aid to many countries of Latin America.

The United States feared that Latin American weakness would invite the Axis to base espionage and sabotage operations in South America, to find safe havens for U-boats in ports of Axis-leaning Latin American countries, or even prepare the way for an invasion of the Western Hemisphere across the Atlantic Narrows between Brazil and Africa. There was also fear that the Axis might interfere with supplies of raw materials from South America, such as tin and tungsten from Bolivia, copper from Chile, oil from Venezuela, or manganese and bauxite from throughout South American and the Caribbean. On 1 July 1940, 550 Infantry Airborne Battalion was activated in Panama, where is was joined a few days later by 510 Parachute Battalion from Fort Benning. The two battalions had orders to be prepared to rapidly deploy to any Central American capital city in the event that pro-Axis elements attempted a coup d'etat.

Nine Latin American nations joined the U.S. declaration of war against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and another three broke diplomatic relations with the Axis. Sumner Welles, the American undersecretary of state who prided himself on his knowledge of Latin America, led a U.S. delegation to a conference of American states in Brazil in January 1942 where he sought a joint declaration by all the American republics severing relations with the Axis. Chile and Argentina were unwilling to go so far, in part because they feared the U.S. Navy could not protect their long coastlines and in part because of a significant population of immigrants from Axis nations. Rather than risk American disunity, Welles was forced to settle for a weak resolution recommending severing relations with the Axis as circumstances permitted.

Concern over the security of the long western coastline of South America led the United States to organize Southeast Pacific Force even before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because this area was a long ways from the Japanese, the only real concern was with commerce raiders, and Southeast Pacific Force never consisted of more than a handful of old cruisers and destroyers. Southeast Pacific Force was based at the Panama Canal Zone, itself an area of paramount strategic importance.


Photograph of pilots of Mexican 201 Fighter Squadron

Wikipedia Commons

Brazil received the lion's share of aid to Latin America, some 75%, because of its proximity to Africa and as a counterweight to Argentina. Brazil and Mexico both supplied combat units to Europe, but the only Latin American unit to see combat in the Pacific was Mexico's 201 Fighter Squadron (the "Aztec Eagles"). Several airfields were built in Brazil for patrolling the Atlantic that also formed part of an air bridge for aircraft headed to the Far East.

The Bolivian government was overthrown in late 1943 by a Fascist-leaning coup. The United States tried unsuccessfully to bring down the new government through diplomatic and economic pressure, but Bolivia and its vital tin remained nominally in the Allied camp for the rest of the war. Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina did not break diplomatic relations with the Axis until late 1942 or 1943, and all five nations declared war in 1945 in order to have a seat at the victor's table. Peru was something of an anomaly, breaking diplomatic relations in 1942, permitting the basing of U.S. forces, and patrolling off Panama but not formally declaring a "state of belligerency" until 1945.

U.S. diplomatic pressure on the more pro-Axis nations in Latin America was sometimes clumsy and overbearing. The British were particularly unhappy with the harsh U.S. attitude towards Argentina, which supplied half of Britain's meat imports but was led by a government dominated by the pro-Axis Juan Peron. The American attitude towards Argentina softened somewhat after Hull resigned as U.S. Secretary of State in December 1944.

Latin America received about 1% of total Lend-Lease aid, of which more than 70% went to Brazil to support antisubmarine operations in the Atlantic Narrows and an air bridge to Africa. Although the Latin American military contribution enabled by Lend-Lease should not be lightly dismissed, the greater significance of Lend-Lease was in encouraging economic and political cooperation.

Latin America was a long ways from the Axis and the chief concern of the Allies throughout the war was with preventing any distractions in the area that would divert resources from the struggles in Europe and Asia or would lead to postwar instability. The Allies were largely successful at achieving the first goal, but U.S. military aid aimed at achieving the second goal set a precedent for support of Latin American dictators that would prove unfortunate in the postwar world.

References

Devlin (1979)

Huston (1966)

Los Angeles Times Magazine (2004-7-25; accessed 2010-7-6)

Smith (1985)



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