Mary Jo McConahay's The Tango War is an engaging, extensive, well-researched, well-written account of a topic that still manages to offend me. World War II is sacred history in the United States, the ultimate clash of pure good and evil, the fundamental origin myth of the military industrial complex. It is the top subject of books, films, and shows. Finding a novel angle on World War II that has not yet been exhaustively covered is, at this point, a significant feat. Finding a whole continent is a major victory.
The Tango War tells the story of how Latin America was, at least tangentially, part of World War II. The book's introduction describes admiration for unrecognized heroes. It notes that "people of Latin American heritage are by far the largest driver of demographic growth in the United States." One gathers that for the prestige of Latin America, and for the self-respect of Latinos in the United States, South and Central America need to have been in on the most glorious of catastrophes. That's what offends me, or perhaps depresses me.
Some of the ways in which Latin America was in on World War II are a bit pathetic. The region's minor roles in the worst thing humanity has ever done to itself in any short period are not the biggest or most engaging stories in Latin American history. The place has its own histories, as McConahay knows well. Yet, the book turns out to be rich in information, drama, and historical connections. McConahay pieces together military, cultural, economic, and political history seamlessly and without apparent bias beyond the acceptance of the near-universal notion that participation in war can be a point of pride.
So, how was Latin America part of World War II? Well, to take just some of the highlights: Mexican oil fueled Nazi Germany. Brazil's forests were sacrificed for failed U.S. attempts to produce rubber using, among other outrages, forced child labor. Jewish refugees from Europe were shamefully turned away -- with various exceptions. People of German and Japanese ancestry were hauled from some countries north to the United States to prison camps, or to forced labor in Panama.
U.S. propaganda, for war purposes, sought to build friendly relations between the U.S. and Latin American peoples, in particular in Brazil -- a terrific side-effect of war that we could have used a lot more of during the Cold War or now or anytime. (There were limitations, as Nelson Rockefeller apparently did not want Orson Welles filming poor or black people.)
The two sides of WWII spied on each other in Latin America, sank each other's ships off the coast, and left their traces behind. Brazilians fought with the Allies in Italy, and veterans of that fighting established a U.S.-backed military dictatorship in Brazil from 1964 to 1985 -- a tradition Brazil has not yet completely left behind.
Argentina set up its own form of fascism under Juan Peron, and rat lines to Argentina became the Catholic Church's retirement plan for Nazis not tried at Nuremberg and not included in Operation Paperclip -- rat lines also used by Allen Dulles and U.S. "intelligence" types to protect Nazis.
The Tango War concludes with some consideration of the impacts of World War II in the decades that followed it -- mostly undesirable impacts, many of them exacerbated by horrendous U.S. government policies. I wish Costa Rica's 1948 abolition of its military had been included as a contrasting positive development from which the world might learn something.
Now I want to turn to a particular point because it interests me, although it takes up only about a single page in the book. When President Franklin Roosevelt claimed to have a Nazi map depicting Nazi plans for conquering and re-organizing South America, many in the United States were swayed in the direction he wanted, namely war against Germany. McConahay writes:
"Over the years researchers have suggested that the 'secret map' was a fabrication by the British Security Co-ordination to help Roosevelt achieve a mandate to enter the war. Neither Roosevelt, Stephenson, nor Donovan ever admitted deception. At any rate, a month later the chilling document was forgotten with the attack on Pearl Harbor."
That's a heck of an "at any rate." I think some questions could be asked at this point. Why would any of those individuals have confessed? What about another individual who did confess? In what context did Roosevelt make the claim about the map -- what did he say about it and do with it? Was the map actually fake? If it was fake, did it correspond to any similar maps that were real? If any similar maps were real, were they plausible or ludicrously delusional? If much regretted programs of kidnapping and imprisonment raise, as McConahay writes, questions about how a democracy conducts a war (never mind that no nation on earth allows a public vote on whether to fight a war), what does marketing wars on the basis of falsehoods say about how so-called democracies create wars in the first place?
I'll begin some answers to some of these questions. I cannot imagine any motivation for the people named to have confessed to forging a map to help get the United States into World War II, though I can imagine strong motivations for them to have kept quiet. But a man who worked for William Stephenson as part of the British operation to get the U.S. into the war, Ivar Bryce, Walter Lippman's brother-in-law and Ian Fleming's buddy, did publish a memoir just before he died claiming to have produced the first draft of the map. And I see nothing in McConahay's account of the war in Latin America to suggest that Nazi Germany taking over the Western hemisphere was anything other than fantastical fiction, whether indulged in by someone in Berlin or someone in Washington. As fantastical fiction, we should probably stop calling it "chilling."
Let's look at what FDR said on October 27, 1941:
"Five months ago tonight I proclaimed to the American people the existence of a state of unlimited emergency. Since then much has happened. Our Army and Navy are temporarily in Iceland in the defense of the Western Hemisphere. Hitler has attacked shipping in areas close to the Americas in the North and South Atlantic. Many American-owned merchant ships have been sunk on the high seas. One American destroyer was attacked on September fourth. Another destroyer was attacked and hit on October seventeenth. Eleven brave and loyal men of our Navy were killed by the Nazis. We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot. America has been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman and child in this nation. Illinois, Alabama, California, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arkansas, New York, Virginia-those are the home states of the honored dead and wounded of the Kearny. Hitler's torpedo was directed at every American whether he lives on our sea coasts or in the innermost part of the nation, far from the seas and far from the guns and tanks of the marching hordes of would-be conquerors of the world. The purpose of Hitler's attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas-to force us to make a trembling retreat. This is not the first time he has misjudged the American spirit. That spirit is now aroused."
This beginning to the speech that introduces the map is standard, and fundamentally dishonest, war propaganda. The ship sunk on September 4th was the Greer. The Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Harold Stark testified before the Senate Naval Affairs Committee that the Greer had been tracking a German submarine and relaying its location to a British airplane, which had dropped depth charges on the submarine without success. After hours of being tracked by the Greer, the submarine turned and fired. The ship sunk on October 17th, the Kearny, was a replay of the Greer. It may have mystically belonged to the spirit of every American and so forth, but it was not innocent. It was taking part in a war that the United States had not officially entered, that the U.S. public was adamantly opposed to entering, but that the U.S. president was eager to get on with. That president continued:
"If our national policy were to be dominated by the fear of shooting, then all of our ships and those of our sister Republics would have to be tied up in home harbors. Our Navy would have to remain respectfully-abjectly-behind any line which Hitler might decree on any ocean as his own dictated version of his own war zone. Naturally we reject that absurd and insulting suggestion. We reject it because of our own self-interest, because of our own self-respect, because, most of all, of our own good faith. Freedom of the seas is now, as it has always been, a fundamental policy of your government and mine."
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