What if

If Bri­tain had con­vinced Chile and Ar­gentina to side with the Al­lies, the Great War could have been a truly global con­flict

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Jonathan O’cal­laghan

How would World War I have been dif­fer­ent if Chile and Ar­gentina had fought?

What was Latin Amer­ica’s mentality as a whole to­wards Europe dur­ing World War I? That would de­pend on where you were. Mex­ico was tilted into the con­flict as a re­sult of its prox­im­ity to the US, and be­cause of things like the Zim­mer­mann tele­gram [an in­ter­cepted com­mu­ni­ca­tion from Ger­many propos­ing an alliance with Mex­ico]. Some peo­ple in Latin Amer­ica were re­ally stirred by the con­flict. Cer­tain eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties, and the Bri­tish and the Ger­mans, im­me­di­ately jumped on boats and came back to Europe to join the forces.

Peo­ple were re­ally freaked out by the war when it started but in Au­gust and Septem­ber of 1914, the Latin Amer­i­can gen­eral pub­lic was re­ally in­trigued by the news of what was go­ing on be­cause so many of them were im­mi­grants — par­tic­u­larly Ital­ians and a fair num­ber of Bri­tish peo­ple. There were lots of peo­ple who still iden­ti­fied with Europe in cities like Buenos Aires. So many of those liv­ing there were im­mi­grants or their chil­dren. It re­ally was an im­me­di­ate thing, even though they were thou­sands of miles away.

The Antarc­tic ex­plorer Ernest Shack­le­ton was sent as a Bri­tish en­voy to per­suade Ar­gentina and Chile to join the Al­lies in 1917. Why was he was un­suc­cess­ful?

There were de­sires of the Bri­tish to get the Ar­gen­tines in­volved and there were some ways that they could in­duce them. They would have been al­lowed to more or less take con­trol of Ger­man ships in their har­bours and they could have done things like take con­trol of Ger­man busi­nesses.

But the Al­lied cause wasn’t pop­u­lar enough — es­pe­cially the Bri­tish cause. It wasn’t par­tic­u­larly favoured among the gen­eral pub­lic in Ar­gentina and def­i­nitely not among the po­lit­i­cal lead­ers dur­ing the war. Be­ing anti-bri­tish was pretty pop­u­lar.

I be­lieve they wouldn’t join the war be­cause the in­duce­ments were not enough. Shack­le­ton’s visit was big news when it hap­pened and there were later ef­forts too, like the high-level Bri­tish diplo­matic De Bun­sen Mis­sion in 1918.

The Ar­gen­tine lead­ers, like Pres­i­dent [Hipól­ito] Yrigoyen, didn’t see enough ben­e­fit in join­ing. Re­main­ing neu­tral was a great way for Latin Amer­i­can politi­cians to prove to their pub­lic that they were truly look­ing out for them — they were putting Ar­gentina be­fore Bri­tish busi­nesses and im­pe­rial gov­ern­ments. They could have taken con­trol of Ger­man busi­ness and there were po­ten­tial ben­e­fits but it would have been a po­lit­i­cal prob­lem to come down on the side of the Al­lies. Yrigoyen was seen as be­ing in the pocket of the Amer­i­cans and he was try­ing to change that.

Was there any­thing that could have con­vinced them?

Well, I imag­ine that there were all sorts of ru­mours go­ing around that mem­bers of his gov­ern­ment could be bought and then the story the Bri­tish of­ten told where some mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion were prob­a­bly be­ing bought off by the Ger­mans in or­der to push this neu­tral­ist stance. So I don’t know that there would have been a pos­si­bil­ity of brib­ing their way through the pol­icy.

Maybe they could have been more open, there could have been some sort of loan given to the Ar­gen­tines, although they didn’t re­ally need any sort of loan at the time. They could have been given in­duce­ments like large amounts of coal — they cer­tainly needed that for their rail­ways. But the thing is that the Al­lies ba­si­cally got what they wanted out of Ar­gentina dur­ing the war any­way. They were still get­ting as much food as they wanted.

“There were lots of peo­ple who iden­ti­fied with Europe in cities”

So did Ar­gentina kind of sup­port the Al­lies any­way?

Yes, just by its will­ing­ness to sell. Of course, it had to sell to some­one but it was will­ing to sell food to the Al­lies in 1917 and 1918. Half of the meat con­sumed by Al­lied sol­diers came from Ar­gentina, along with huge amounts of wheat and other grains. Some his­to­ri­ans ar­gue that th­ese were re­ally deals that ben­e­fited the Al­lies more than Ar­gentina but I dis­agree — I think th­ese deals re­ally served Ar­gentina, too.

It would have been sort of in­trigu­ing if they had joined the war. Maybe there would have been more do­mes­tic crack­down be­cause of the Ger­mans in Ar­gentina. It’s easy to imag­ine them crush­ing the Ger­man com­mu­nity more defini­tively.

Was Ger­many try­ing to get Ar­gentina and Chile on board with its own war ef­fort?

Ger­many’s main goal in South Amer­ica was to keep the na­tions there neu­tral — there was no at­tempt like the Zim­mer­mann tele­gram. They were very keen on keep­ing their con­nec­tions with South Amer­ica, and Ger­many had had a re­ally sig­nif­i­cant role in the Chilean mil­i­tary and a va­ri­ety of other armies in South Amer­ica be­fore the war, so they had long-term diplo­matic and com­mer­cial ties for quite a while. The Ger­mans cer­tainly hoped to keep those open post-war and they were quite suc­cess­ful.

If Ar­gentina and Chile had en­tered the war, what would have been dif­fer­ent?

I guess the long-term changes would have been to the Ger­man com­mu­ni­ties and Ger­many’s connection with Latin Amer­ica. The lat­ter prob­a­bly would have been the biggest change if Chile and Ar­gentina had de­clared their al­le­giance to the Al­lies. The way the war was fought, there prob­a­bly wouldn’t have been Chilean or Ar­gen­tinian sol­diers or navies float­ing on the seas. Brazil did join the war [in 1917] and there weren’t re­ally any sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary ben­e­fits from them join­ing.

Would it have changed Ar­gentina’s global stand­ing?

It would have in­di­cated a much closer re­la­tion­ship with the US than they ended up hav­ing — their ties were kind of touchy through­out the post-war years. Ar­gentina ac­tu­ally had a re­ally in­ter­est­ing po­si­tion in post-war global pol­i­tics. Be­cause it stood up and re­fused to join the war, it was con­sid­ered unique and led the group of neu­trals, which could be seen in its work in the League of Na­tions. Had they joined the war, it would have been pos­si­ble that Ar­gentina and Great Bri­tain would have had a very dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship through­out much of the 20th cen­tury. The Falk­lands War in the 1980s was a bit of an apoth­e­o­sis of the prob­lems be­tween the coun­tries. If they be­came closer, there was the pos­si­bil­ity for some sort of transat­lantic re­la­tion­ship for Bri­tain, be­yond the one with the US.

What about Chile’s stand­ing af­ter World War I?

Chile made a lot of money in the ni­trates trade dur­ing the war, which was very im­por­tant for ex­plo­sives, but that col­lapsed with peace and the cre­ation of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions that put ni­trates out of busi­ness. In many ways, Chile had a sim­i­lar wari­ness of Euro­pean im­pe­ri­al­ism to the Ar­gen­tines.

The short-term ben­e­fits of Chile join­ing the war would have been the same as Ar­gentina — they could have com­man­deered Ger­man ships in their har­bours and taken over Ger­man busi­nesses in their coun­try if they had wanted to. Then they could have cre­ated a longer-term transat­lantic re­la­tion­ship with the Bri­tish or the US. But there were no strate­gic ben­e­fits to ei­ther of them [for en­ter­ing the war] — there was no

Ger­man land they could grab.

If Chile had en­tered the war, would things have been dif­fer­ent there?

I guess one of the more apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios was that if the Chilean gov­ern­ment had joined the war, the half a mil­lion Ger­mans liv­ing there would have risen up out of anger. On the other hand, a lot of the Ger­mans were there be­cause they didn’t re­ally want to live in their home­land any more. Some of them were just happy to be im­mi­grants.

How would Chile’s re­la­tion­ship with the US have been dif­fer­ent af­ter the war if they had en­tered?

I guess it would have been sim­i­lar to what could have hap­pened with Ar­gentina. The US swooped in pretty quickly af­ter the Ger­mans were pushed out by the block­ade and the Bri­tish were fo­cus­ing on other mar­kets. Amer­ica was al­ready mov­ing in dur­ing the war, so his­to­ri­ans think Chile was more wor­ried by the Amer­i­can in­cur­sions into their mar­kets than the Ar­gen­tines were. Chile seemed so far away for the US.

You would have been hard pressed to find any­one in the US who cared if Chile joined the war or not.

Did Brazil en­ter­ing the war in 1917 — the only Latin Amer­i­can coun­try to do so — play a part in Ar­gentina not join­ing?

What Brazil got out of join­ing the war was a bit of sta­tus. They wanted to show they would sup­port the US, that it was a hemi­sphere sol­i­dar­ity. The Brazil­ians and Ar­gen­tines re­ally didn’t get along with one another at all, so it’s not at all sur­pris­ing that Brazil joined the war and then Ar­gentina re­fused to. What the Brazil­ians got out of the war was proof for them­selves and for other coun­tries that they were an im­por­tant gov­ern­ment.

Af­ter the war, the Brazil­ians were in­vited to the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence, so they brought a del­e­ga­tion. They didn’t play a sig­nif­i­cant role but they were try­ing to talk of them­selves as be­ing a real world power. At the con­fer­ence, for in­stance, there was talk about giv­ing Brazil a per­ma­nent seat on the coun­cil of the League of Na­tions, which was be­ing cre­ated.

The Brazil­ian-ar­gen­tine dy­namic was al­ways a rocky one but the Brazil­ians felt that they got more or less what they wanted from the war. They did get some pres­tige from it,and they were wel­come at the big ta­ble when it came to cre­at­ing the post-war world.

What did this do for re­la­tions be­tween Brazil and Ar­gentina?

You could find Ar­gen­tine pub­li­ca­tions that sneered at the Brazil­ians for join­ing the war. But then again you could find some Ar­gen­tines smear­ing their gov­ern­ment for not join­ing the war. When you bring Brazil into it, it high­lights the enor­mity of the ri­valry be­tween the two coun­tries. It would have been hard to imag­ine them both do­ing the same thing dur­ing the con­flict, es­pe­cially be­cause there was no Ger­man threat to ei­ther of them.

What ef­fect did World War I have on Latin Amer­ica?

World War I played a gi­gan­tic role in the devel­op­ment of th­ese na­tions. As a re­sult of the con­flict, they be­came in­creas­ingly against glob­al­i­sa­tion and more na­tion­al­is­tic in their eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal out­looks. In that way it was a turn­ing point in the his­tory of Latin Amer­ica in gen­eral.

Whether or not th­ese coun­tries en­tered the war, the war en­tered their lives — it re­ally im­pacted them tremen­dously. Latin Amer­ica was not alone in the 1920s and 1930s of striv­ing against eco­nomic glob­al­i­sa­tion and I think that, in some ways, their wari­ness of the rest of the world has been a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of Latin Amer­i­can re­la­tions with the rest of the world ever since.

“Be­cause it stood up and re­fused to join the war, it was con­sid­ered unique and led the group of neu­trals”

The 1914 Bat­tle of Coronel saw the Im­pe­rial Ger­man Navy de­feat the Royal Navy off the coast of Chile, could it have been dif­fer­ent with re­gional sup­port?

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