The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II by Mary Jo McConahay
The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II by Mary Jo McConahay, St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan Publishers, 320 pages
Seiichi Higashide, a teacher and shop owner from Hokkaido, Japan, had lived in Peru for 15 years when he was arrested in 1944. As he was told to strip naked by men carrying bayonets, “Higashide held on to one thought: he had committed no crime.”
It didn’t matter. He became a prisoner, an unpaid laborer who spent his days clearing underbrush in the U.S. Canal Zone. His captors were not from the country he called home; they were American. Higashide recounted, “I had felt that America was an ideal country that should be taken as a model for the whole world. Why, then, had that country moved to take such unacceptable measures?”
The American imprisonment of ethnic Japanese living in Latin America — many of whom ended up in isolated camps on U.S. soil — is one of the stark depictions in journalist Mary Jo McConahay’s new book about Latin America during World War II, The Tango War. While war raged on other continents, it simmered in Central and South America. There, spy networks flourished, prized resources like rubber and petroleum were the objects of international plots, and “trade bait” was extracted — namely, men like Higashide. Though many LatinAmerican countries declared neutrality early in the war, from the perspectives of the warring nations and those with interests to protect and expand, from the start, their lands were anything but hands-off. “The United States urgently needed ‘Japanese’ individuals to exchange for Americans held prisoner in Asia,” McConahay writes of the 2,000-plus ethnic Japanese who were taken from their Latin American homes. Another 4,000 ethnic Germans were taken, “not just Axis nationals but also native-born and naturalized citizens.” The kidnapping program was illegal, violating U.S. law and those of participating countries. Maya Sapper, a Guatemalan of German descent whose father was imprisoned at a Texas detention center, told McConahay that the Americans “were in charge of the continent, the way they saw it.”
Americans were not alone in their forays into Latin America, of course. Germany may have had as many as 800 spies in Latin America over the course of the war, according to FBI estimates, and the Nazi party cultivated a regional propaganda program among those with German heritage. In Central America, for instance, the newspaper
Deutsche Zeitung “encouraged strict ties with the ‘fatherland.’ ” (McConahay discusses America’s own propaganda machine in Central and South America, which included highly publicized visits from Walt Disney and Orson Welles — the former successful, the latter less so.) The Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas developed a following among the nationalist Integralists, known as the Green Shirts. “Among the good ‘Germans’ [by heritage] in Brazil, Nazis were influential,” McConahay notes, explaining that when anti-Integralist articles were published and complained about by the German or Italian embassy, the publications would become unavailable. AntiSemitism was rampant in Brazil and elsewhere; “Hitler’s rise spurred new Jewish migration, but just when refugees needed open doors most, Latin countries closed them,” McConahay writes.
While World War II raged on other continents, it simmered in Central and South America. Spy networks flourished and “trade bait” was extracted.
Yet Vargas sided with the Allies in 1942, and 25,000 Brazilians ended up fighting for the Allies during the invasion of Italy. McConahay dedicates a chapter to the Brazilian Smoking Cobras, named for a comment attributed to Hitler: “The Brazilians will fight when the snake smokes.” Their Italian campaign was beset by troubles — the forces were undertrained and had to contend with an unfamiliar climate, leading to, in one instance, impromptu ski lessons. McConahay powerfully depicts their valor and ultimate victory.
The euphoria of McConahay’s account of the Smoking Cobras quickly subsides when she describes how little known they are in Brazil today. She characterizes her book in its introduction as presented in “connected narratives, like tiles in a mosaic that, seen together, give a picture of the whole.” That mosaic spans from Mexican oil fields (nationalized in 1938) to Argentinian towns where Nazis such as Erich Priebke, perpetrator of a massacre of civilians in Rome, settled after the war. The book’s collage quality is perhaps most affecting when it looks ahead to the manifold consequences of the war across Central and South America. The Smoking Cobras returned to “a dictatorship that feared soldiers who had fought for democracy.”
As a reporter, McConahay chronicled the Cold War dictatorships that arose in Latin America, and here she draws parallels between European fascists and Latin American authoritarians. Hitler ordered resisters “eliminated without a trace”; 40 years later, the desaparecidos vanished just as mysteriously. Another conclusion also emerges: “Some four hundred thousand persons died or disappeared in political violence in Latin American countries in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them civilians, almost all at the hands of militarized governments supported by the United States.” — Grace Parazzoli