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Latin America in World War I


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German armoured cruiser Gneisenau at the Battle of Coronel, 1-Nov-1914

Contributed by Ron Genini (r_genini@yahoo.com)
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Latin America in World War I
By Ron Genini

MIDI Background: Heitor Villa Lobos, Brazilian Cycle: Prelude No. 1 in Em (19k)
Sequenced by Reinhard Czwiertnia. Waiting on permission from ø The Classical MIDI Connection.

In their four general conferences prior to World War I (1889, 1901, 1906 and 1910) the American republics had not considered the need or advantage of collaboration to preserve their neutrality in the event of a foreign war, or to defend themselves against possible aggression. So, the outbreak of war in 1914 found them without any plan of action. Consequently, whatever measures of cooperation were undertaken had to be on a completely ad hoc basis.

The one instance of effective cooperation during the neutral phase (August 1914-April 1917) of the war was the meeting of the financial ministers in Washington in May-1915. This meeting, the First Pan American Financial Conference, was initiated by Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo, who had noted the economic and financial dislocations in Latin American countries brought about by the rupture of their European connections. McAdoo saw an opportunity for the United States to supply the needs of the southern republics and, as he said, "to develop the spirit, at least, of continental solidarity." The acts of the conference covered the categories of commerce, finance, and transportation. This conference was historic in that it marked the transition of Latin America's financial and economic dependence from Europe to the United States.

Aside from this conference, the record of Pan-American cooperation during the neutral phase was disappointing. With a few exceptions noted below, the Latin Americans saw the conflict as none of their business and saw little or no threat of any kind. For its part, the Wilson administration was late in recognizing the dangerous potentialities inherent in a world conflict and was thus without sufficient foresight to recommend some kind of defensive agreement.

When World War I began, the republics of Latin America as well as the United States hoped to stay out of it and to leave Canada as the only American nation involved on either side. In Aug-1914 most of those nations cut off international cable messages in either code or cipher and declared their neutrality. Wars disrupt trade and regular international financial transactions and this was the case for several of these countries - Brazil lost a British loan opportunity, Chilean industries were hard hit and unemployment rose, Bolivia had to borrow from an American bank to ride out the rupture of trade and all of Central America experienced trade losses. As time went on these nations began to benefit from the war. It is macabre but true that great wars in distant places can be good for business and these nations had resources which were now in demand by the belligerents.

Though all had declared their neutrality both sides claimed bias and both interfered with that neutrality. By the Hague Convention warships were permitted to anchor for 24 hours or risk seizure. In 1914 as the German Pacific squadron sailed near South America, Britain and France protested that Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile were assisting the German fleet by allowing naval ships to take on coal, use their wireless in territorial waters or overstay their 24 hour limits. The Allies asked the United States to use its influence to force neutral behavior and Secretary of State Bryan reported that the nations in question were indeed neutral and the Allies accepted that.

German ships were seized in Argentina and Chile, in the latter case the seizure was for the duration. The Germans and the Allies violated neutral rights - Panama complained that British and Japanese colliers were violating neutrality, Britain imposed the hated Black List which prohibited any trade by any company that was doing business with Germany or funded by Germans. In other words a company in Brazil would have its goods seized at sea if they were being sent to Germany or if the company was German-controlled. Germany complained that Argentina was being unneutral by allowing British steamers to carry Argentine horses to France, Britain complained that Cuba and Chile were being unneutral by allowing German ships to provision in Havana and Valparaiso, and Germany complained that President Wilson had closed the Panama Canal to belligerents in the interests of the Allies.

There were unfounded rumors that Chile's Easter Island and Ecuador's Galapagos Islands harbored German bases and that these were used to attack Allied shipping. In fact, Japanese and British warships moved freely about the Galapagos hunting for Von Spee's squadron. But the greatest British violation - attacking the German cruiser Dresden where it took refuge in Chilean waters at Juan Fernandez Island - was nothing compared to the German U-boat attacks on cargo and passenger ships. Such attacks would lead one republic into the war, put pressure on another to enter and, when it pushed the United States into the war inspired ten other countries to declare war or break diplomatic relations with Germany.

Regarding the Dresden, Von Spee, after raiding Tahiti, headed east toward South America, where he hoped to be joined by the Leipzig from North America and the Dresden from the South Atlantic. British Admiral Craddock had pursued the Dresden from the West Indies but was ordered to stay at the Falkland Islands and await reinforcements. Hearing that the Dresden was off Chile, he surmised that South America was Von Spee's destination. Craddock then took his ships around the Horn to look for Von Spee, who had arrived at Valparaiso and was cruising the coast. Neither admiral was aware of their proximity until they met and engaged in the battle of Coronel (1-Nov-1914), in which two British ships were sunk and the rest escaped back to the Falklands. Von Spee then went south to San Quintin Bay, about 300 miles north of Magellan Straits. British consternation at the defeat led to a wide commission for Admiral Sturdee to seek out and destroy Von Spee. When Von Spee rounded the Horn the two met in the battle of the Falkland Islands and only the Dresden escaped; hunted and helpless it was discovered by the Glasgow and the Kent at Juan Fernandez and sunk on 14-Mar-1915.

While none of the Latin American nations moved against Germany until after the United States had declared war, American neutrality wasn't always admired. Brazil's Ruy Barbosa had founded the Brazilian League for the Allies in 1915. This group engaged in propaganda and fund-raising. For Barbosa and his followers the U.S. neutrality policy after the sinking of the Lusitania became an object of contempt. He attempted to show how despicable was the position of a powerful country that was suffering all manner of insults and yet would not align itself on the side of right, honor and justice.

The many Europeans in South America, as well as Japanese on its west coast, were enthusiastic for their homelands at war. British, French and Japanese enclaves were clamoring for their adopted countries' support of the Allies, as were Italians after Italy entered the war, while German communities were just as enthusiastic for Kaiser and Fatherland. Many British and German immigrants returned in 1914 to fight for their homelands - especially from Argentina and Brazil.

The four major nations in Latin America were Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico.

After the United States declared war on Germany, Mexican President Venustiano Carranza declared that Mexico would maintain "strict and rigorous neutrality" in a statement with critical reference to its northern recent antagonist. This attitude was unfortunate for Mexican influence in the United States, for the suspicion was widespread that German money was backing Carranza and that he was a tool of German interests. The Zimmerman note tended to confirm this suspicion. It became known in the United States that several Mexican newspapers were subsidized by Germany and the attitude of the populace was frequently sympathetic to the German ambassador and antagonistic to the U.S. representatives. Carranza, having been helped into office by American pressure, did not increase the prestige of his country with the nation whose support he most needed.

The oil situation in Mexico might have made foreign intervention a certainty during the war, as Britain depended on the Mexican oil supply for her Navy. The oil wells near Tampico were in a territory controlled by the bandit Pelaey, who was paid protection money by the oil companies. When Carranza threatened to move against Pelaey, British oil men feared destruction of the wells. Further trouble threatened in Carranza's talk of an embargo on oil exports.

He had proposed a conference of neutrals that would seek to end the war by mediation, but that if this failed they should impose an economic boycott on all belligerents. Superficially this proposal seemed to be impartial, but actually it would have operated in favor of Germany, who did not have access to the food products and raw materials of Latin America because of the Allied blockade. The Allies enjoyed this privilege as a belligerent right; to deny it would have been a responsibility of neutrals under the Hague Convention. Carranza's proposal found no takers.

In Jun-1918 a number of Mexican editors visited the United States and were met by President Wilson. The President assured them that the U.S. had no intention of intervening in Mexican internal affairs and that the Monroe Doctrine, long seen by Latin Americans as a blank check for Yanqui intervention, was meant to protect rather than exploit Latin America. This was cooly received by Carranza who issued a statement that as long as the Covenant of the League of Nations contained a recognition of the Monroe Doctrine, Mexico would never sign it. Under another President, Mexico eventually joined the League in 1922.

Carranza was not so much pro-German as he was an anti-U.S. Mexican nationalist. Another was Argentina's President Hipolyto Irigoyen. Irigoyen detested the Anglophile cattle barons and the Francophile intellectuals and despised the many Argentines who looked to Italy as their mother country. He saw no reason to have his country do anything but profit from the sale of her war materials, which she was doing on an enormous scale, without bothering about the balance of power or international moral issues of questionable validity. German submarines and poison gas did not strike him as particularly odious. Probably the majority of the population supported him but there were great pressures on him to join the Allies. To Irigoyen, the entrance of the United States into the war was merely another good reason for Argentina to stay out.

When Wilson called on all remaining neutral states to follow the U.S. example and break relations with Germany, the Argentine government excused itself on the ground that it was distant from the scene of conflict. Fearful of German reaction, Irigoyen felt it was prudent to refrain from any public statement of sympathy for the U.S. cause "at so critical a juncture."

German U-boats had sunk two Argentine ships and the reaction was mass anti-German demonstrations in Buenos Aires. German Foreign Minister Alfred Zimmerman realized that Germany's stock in the Americas was rapidly declining, so he offered to apologize and to have the Argentine flag saluted. When two more Argentine ships were sunk Argentina presented an ultimatum to Berlin. The German response was slow and unsatisfactory: it would, if a German investigation proved that the Germans were at fault, make reparations. Germany then agreed to spare Argentine ships. The U.S.State Department had intercepted letters between Zimmerman and German Minister Karl von Luxburg which gave another side to the German position: it was poor psychology, Luxburg wrote, to allow news of such maritime losses to be circulated, therefore Argentine ships should either be left alone altogether or else sunk without a trace, which involved gunning the survivors in lifeboats. Luxburg went on to sneer at the Indianism of South America, make disparaging remarks about Irigoyen and Foreign Minister Honorio Puerrydon whom he characterized as "a notorious ass and Anglophile." These coldblooded remarks as well as the insults aroused public feeling and German-owned businesses and clubs were wrecked by angry mobs. Luxburg was expelled and in Sep-1917 the Argentine Congress voted 76-19 to sever relations with Germany. Irigoyen, however, was amazingly patient and ignored the clamor of the "best people", continuing diplomatic relations.

Immediately following the U.S. declaration of war, Irigoyen proposed a conference to be attended by only the Spanish-American states. His plan was to isolate the United States and possibly Brazil from the other American republics and to assert a dominant influence over Latin American affairs. Although most of the invited governments at first accepted the invitation, their enthusiasm soon cooled when they realized how unwise it was to exclude the United States. In the end only Mexico sent delegates, who arrived in Buenos Aires to find that the congress had been postponed indefinitely.

In Sep-1918 Argentina did agree to sell surplus wheat to Britain and France. This was a popular move with the pro-Ally population and was a solution to the problem of mounting surpluses. Perhaps Irigoyen's unpopular neutrality paid off: Argentina emerged as a creditor nation for the first time in its history.

After the war, when the League of Nations refused to include Germany and snubbed Argentina in a question about membership on the Council, Irigoyen withdrew his country from the world organization.

Chile's neutrality was not as unpopular as Argentina's. When Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare, Chile, which had become complacent after the Dresden affair, realized the threat it posed to maritime nations. There were a few pro-Ally demonstrations in the major cities but the Chilean government merely warned Germany that if there was no attack, relations would be preserved. On the other hand it's press promised "that Chile will be as friendly to the United States as Brazil and Uruguay." Leading Chileans regarded neutrality as "an essential step toward creating a bloc of truly independent South American nations capable of standing up to the United States in hemispheric relations." Without question Chilean neutrality reflected to some degree a combination of anti-U.S. and pro-German sentiment in the country.

If Chile had counted on a united South American front, she was sadly mistaken. With the exception of Argentina, Chile was isolated. To make matters worse, both Peru and Bolivia, seeking U.S. support for their anti-Chilean revisionist territorial ambitions, quickly rallied to Wilson's call for continental anti-submarine solidarity. It was this situation which, as the war drew to a close, was responsible for a lot of backtracking by Chile and belated efforts to curry favor with the United States.

Chilean help to the Allies was the taking over of German-owned nitrate plants. The plants were seized to defray the sequestering of Chilean government funds in German banks.

The war had brought an unprecedented demand for Chilean nitrates and copper. This had an effect similar to events in Europe. The masses, poverty stricken and unemployed after the end of the war threw thousands out of work in the nitrate fields, were attracted to Luis Recabarren, an admirer of the Russian Revolution who had founded the Chilean Communist Party. The reactionary government of President Juan Luis Sanfuentes was faced with urban rioting and bloody strikes and, as 1919 drew to a close, a class struggle seemed imminent.

The only large South American nation to declare war on Germany was Brazil.

German submarines had sunk neutral Brazilian ships. Some outrage had broken out when the Rio Branco, named for one of Brazil's greatest statesmen, was sunk in May-1916; the outrage died down when it was found that no Brazilian lives were lost and the ship was of British registry. When unrestricted submarine warfare was announced, Brazil warned that if relations were to be maintained, Brazilian ships would have to be safe. On 5-Apr-1917 the Parana was sunk off the French coast and the submarine fired into the stricken ship as it was sinking, killing three Brazilians. In Rio de Janeiro angry crowds attacked German businesses and on 11-Apr-1917 President Wenceslau Braz expelled the German Minister, von Pauli. To this, the press and public gave a hearty approval.

Brazil's position was anomalous until she finally entered the war. On 25-Apr-1917 she declared neutrality in the war between the United States and Germany. This was highly displeasing to many Brazilians, especially Ruy Barbosa and his League for the Allies. Barbosa advocated the ouster of Foreign Minister Lauro Muller on the grounds that, being of German origin, he was too complacent towards the Central Powers. A week later Muller was fired and replaced by Nilo Pecanha who openly declared that his policy would be pro-Ally. President Braz endorsed this policy with the statement "Brazil should adopt the attitude that one of the belligerents forms an integral part of the American continent, and that to this belligerent we are bound by traditional friendship and by a similarity of political opinion in the defense of the vital interests of America and the principles accepted by international law."

Brazil was formally neutral but Braz's statement led to the pre-seizure wrecking of some of the German ships in Brazilian harbors. Forty six ships were seized (and repaired) because of the threat of submarine warfare to Brazilian shipping. In Jun-1917 Brazil revoked its neutrality and U.S. and other Allied warships guarded Brazilian merchantmen. By October four Brazilian ships had been sunk and the captain of one taken prisoner.

On 26-Oct-1917 Brazil declared war, stating that Germany had forced the war on the country. Church and press endorsed this and the following month the Congress enacted the War Law. This was a seamy side to her participation in the Allied crusade - German assets, mainly banks and insurance companies, were seized as well as the 46 ships. The President was also empowered to declare any area "under siege" - an important move because of the Germans in southern Brazil.

These German settlers had never assimilated. Lutheran ministers from Germany, rifle clubs, German schools, clannishness, newspapers and the dual citizenship Germany allowed all seemed a threat. Never silent about making the area part of a Pan-Germany, these settlers rarely regarded themselves as Brazilians and still thrilled to the call of the Fatherland. Oppression of these people was debatably harsh but the region was kept quiet.

Brazil wanted to send troops to fight the Turks in Mesopotamia where her soldiers would be better prepared for "tropical" (hot) weather than the British, but transport was the main obstacle. Some military and naval missions were sent to Europe, a few of the missions took part in combat and were decorated, and some airmen were sent to Italy for training. The Brazilian Navy took over the watch in the South Atlantic, patrolling for German submarines and sweeping mines laid off the coast of West Africa. Troops were being prepared and if the war had gone into the next year there is no doubt that actual fighting units would have been sent to Europe.

Brazil's greatest contribution to the Allies was food - especially beef, beans and sugar. Another was the use of the seized German ships. Though the declaration of war was little more than a gesture, it was not an insignificant step in her rise to respectable status in world affairs and also heightened the sense of nationalism in the huge, disjointed republic.

At the Paris Peace Conference Brazil played a dignified role under the leadership of (later President) Epitacio de Silva Pessoa. Brazil's concerns were twofold: who would pay for the German seizure of Brazilian coffee in Germany and Belgium and what to do with the captured German ships, which France wanted. The coffee matter was included in the Treaty as one of Germany's debts and Brazil got the ships. When the United States refused to join the League of Nations, Brazil eagerly presented herself as the leading western hemisphere power in that organization and won a seat on the Council.

The Central American and Caribbean republics were officially pro-Ally. Of course Panama and Cuba were treaty protectorates, and Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua were de facto protectorates - so their declarations of war or severing of relations with Germany were less than fully free will.

The Cuban Congress endorsed the request by President Mario Menocal to join with the United States in pursuing international justice. As a practical matter he noted Cuba's geographical location would not permit a continued neutrality while the United States was at war. Cuba's sugar became a scarce commodity during the war and Cuba's readiness to cooperate with the United States made it possible for the sugar to be used to the best advantage for the Allies. Cuba's entrance also made it virtually impossible for German U-boats to operate in the West Indies and potential German sabotage was avoided by the internment of a large number of German and Austrian citizens in a camp. A draft law was enacted and 25,000 Cuban soldiers were ready for shipment to France when the Armistice intervened. A hospital unit of 100 Cuban doctors and nurses was equipped and sent to the Western Front.

Panama's main reason for existence was the Canal and its very existence was due to the United States. When the United States declared war on Germany Panama's President Ramon Valdez severed diplomatic relations with Germany by expelling all the German consuls in the country. He also announced that any plots by German agents against the Canal would result in all Germans being interned for the duration.

A month after the United States declared war Haitian President Sudre Dartiguenave asked the Haitian Congress for a declaration of war because of the destruction by a German submarine of a French steamer which had among its crew and passengers Haitian citizens. Congress refused but a few days later adopted a resolution condemning unrestricted submarine warfare and empowering the president to break diplomatic relations with Germany if that country refused reparations and guarantees for the future. Haiti eventually declared war, one of the last to do so.

The Dominican Republic, then still known as Santo Domingo, had been occupied by U.S. Marines since late 1916 and thus its government was obliged to sever diplomatic relations with Germany when the United States declared war. In Nicaragua, occupied since 1912, the situation was the same - a break in relations in Apr-1917 and a declaration of war a year later.

Honduran President Francisco Bertrand followed the United States' lead and broke relations at the same time Nicaragua did. In July 1918 it became the last nation in the world to declare war. This sympathy for the United States antagonized the large number of Germans living in Honduras and in 1919 they retaliated by supporting his political enemies in overthrowing him.

Costa Rican President Federico Tinoco had his own reasons for declaring war on Germany. Tinoco had seized power in a coup and had been refused recognition by President Wilson. Accordingly to gain recognition he broke relations with Germany in Sep-1917 and followed this with a declaration of war in the following May. With the breach of relations he also interned all of the German residents - more to prevent their assisting his predecessor to regain power. This record did not help him, as the United States continued to deny recognition and even prevented Costa Rica from taking part in the Peace Conference.

Like Tinoco, Guatemalan President Estrada Cabrera had his own reasons for declaring war on Germany. Over the previous twenty years Germany had gained control of the rich coffee lands and introduced scientific methods so that they controlled about 50% of the Guatemalan economy. These investments had meant improvements in utilities, transportation and communications. Cabrera, a ruthless dictator of the old caudillo type, admired Prussianism but wanted to free his country from this German stranglehold. Cabrera had no wish to antagonize the United States because he had seen it remove other Central American presidents who had been so foolish or bold. The excuse was presented by the German Minister, Kurt Lehman. Lehman had been active in plots and intrigues against the United States in all of the Central American countries, seeking to foment a Mexican invasion of Guatemala, and revolts and wars in the rest of the region to divert American attention from Europe to Central America. When these plots were discovered Cabrera broke relations with Germany and offered Guatemalan ports and railroads for the use of the United States. A year later the Guatemalan Assembly voted nearly unanimously that Guatemala was an associate of the United States in the war against Germany.

El Salvador was neutral but offered the use of its ports to the United States when the northern republic declared war. President Carlos Melendez stressed that this was a "friendly neutrality."

The lesser South American countries had their own reasons for breaking relations with Germany or remaining neutral.

Bolivia and Peru broke relations to curry favor with the United States in the hope that it would support their claims to land taken by Chile in the 1879 War of the Pacific. They were disappointed but economically both benefited. The Bolivian tin industry boomed as the British carried more and more of the metal away for their wartime needs. Peru's copper, cotton, rubber, oil and guano production spurted and some elements of the country enjoyed a dizzy prosperity for two or three years. The provocations that pushed them to take the step were due to German U-boats. In 1916 a neutral Dutch ship carrying the Bolivian Minister to Germany and his family was torpedoed; after a year had passed the upper classes and intellectuals were still angry and when the United States declared war Bolivia broke relations. The Peruvian ship Lorton was sunk in Feb-1917 off the Spanish coast and Germany refused satisfaction. Angry that larger Argentina had apparently been given concessions but that Peru wasn't, the Peruvian Congress voted 105-6 to break. Nine German ships were seized but they had been damaged by their crews. This was a pattern followed also in Brazil, Uruguay and Cuba. Peru's contributions to the Allied cause - besides the mineral exports - were fund raising for the Red Cross and patrolling the west coast of South America.

In Uruguay there was a real fear of the Germans living in southern Brazil who had long been loud in their plans to invade Uruguay and make it part of the German Empire. The revelation of the Luxburg dispatches from Buenos Aires showed the Germans to be stupid and cruel. When the United States declared war President Feliciano Viera revoked Uruguayan neutrality and the Congress gave him the power to break relations with Germany and to seize eight German ships at Montevideo. When Brazil revoked its neutrality, Uruguay's government announced that the principle of inter-American solidarity would be the criterion of its foreign policy: "no American country, which in defense of its own rights should find itself in a state of war with nations of other continents will be treated as a belligerent." Successive decrees repealed all neutrality proclamations as far as American belligerents were concerned and then non-American enemies of the Central Powers. Paraguay, a poor, landlocked country took little notice of foreign matters and remained neutral although the small white population which ruled the country had pro-Ally feelings and the government announced that Paraguay would support the United States' position.

Colombia was sternly neutral because the United States had joined the Allies. The nation still smarted from the help the United States had given to the Panamanian revolution. Venezuelan neutrality wasn't well received by the Allies because it was strict, insisting on the maintenance of good relations with all belligerents. For a time the government allowed the Germans to use their radios without hindrance at Maracaibo. Most of the stories of pro-German sympathies eventually proved to be false, the products of enemies of President Juan Vicente Gomez. The third Bolivarian country, Ecuador, broke relations with Germany because of Teutonic obtuseness and not because of any outrage at German submarines, Ecuador being a Pacific nation without a significant merchant marine. When Peru expelled the German Minister, Dr. Perl, he arrived in Quito and announced that he was also German Minister to Ecuador. The Ecuadorian government had not been notified of his appointment by Berlin so refused to receive him. Nevertheless, he acted as if had an official capacity at state functions, even crashing events the diplomatic corps had barred this parvenu from, while treating Ecuadorian officialdom with undisguised contempt. His obtuse, stupid behavior alienated Ecuadorian opinion, already inclined toward the Allies, further away from Germany.

Thus, by Jul-1918, governments representing 61% of the land area and 52% of the population of Latin America had associated themselves with the Allied cause. The most influential elements among the politically conscious had endorsed the Yanqui participation in the war and had gained a genuine respect for Wilson's performance in Paris.

How well did the Latin American countries meet the challenge of World War I? Despite their failure to cooperate, the seven belligerents measured up surprisingly well by their demonstrations of solidarity. That most acted spontaneously to support the United States proved that they recognized a continental community of interest.

The Latin American nations that had declared war or broken relations with Germany were invited to the Paris Peace Conference where, however, they were little more than onlookers. Being denied a voice in arranging the peace settlement, they threw their support behind Wilson's "grand project" of a League of Nations. Ten Latin American states became charter members and six others were invited to accede to the League Covenant. Eventually all of the Latin American nations became members - at least for a time. The United States never joined, and this abstention posed problems for the Latin American nations and the inter-American system. What most appealed to the Latin Americans, aside from the idealism and the prestige, was Article X of the Covenant, guaranteeing the political and territorial integrity of its members. This would serve, they hoped, as a counterpoint to the United States.

    Primary Sources
  1. New York Times Index
  2. Latin America in the War, Percy Martin, published by Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 1925
  3. Survey of US-Latin American Relations, J. L. Mecham, published by Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1965

© 1997 Ron Genini - All rights reserved

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