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