The Tango War: The Strug­gle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin Amer­ica Dur­ing World War II by Mary Jo McCon­a­hay

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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

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