Latin American History: Wars and the Military

Latin American military
Figure 1.--The military has played a major role in Latin American history. The Latin American wars of independence emerged from the same liberal traditions based on the Enligtenment on which the American Revolution was founded. Latin America did not, however, have a homogeneous, well educated population which had an experience of democratic self government for a century and a half. As a result, many of the countrie in the region experienced decaded of chaotic rule often punctuated by military rule. Military officers often were drawn from the middleclass, often the lower middleclass, and commonly had limited educations, commonly secondary educations in the 20th century. This meant that men with limited educations were running the different countries. This photograph was taken in the 1910s which we can tell by the clothing and Solio stamp box. We are not sure about the country, but it may be Argentina.

The first major war in Latin America was the Wars for Independence. These were a series of wars fought in primarily South America and Mexico in the early 19th century. They were made possible as a result of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe which weakened Spain. Several wars were fought in South America during the 19th century. The bloodiest was the War of the Tripple Alliance, between Paraguay and an alliance of its neighbors (Argentin, Brazil, and Uruguay). Another major war was the War of the Pacific involving Chile which fought agains Bolivia and Peru. Several wars were fought in Mexico. These involved the war against the United States (1846-48) and France (1864-68). Latin American became synonamous with revolutions and instability. Most of these revolutions were military coups and minor affairs. One stands out in particuklar, the Mexican Revolution evolved in a series of military campaigns (1910-20).

Pre-Colombian Native American Wars

Europeans during the Enlightenment developed the concept of a relatively pecful nobel savage. This was a highly idealized concept. Some native american peoples were relatively peaceful. Others certainly were not. As the advanced civilizations were just beginnng to develop a true written language and the Spanish destroyed mot manuscripts, we do not have a detailed record of tghese wars, although some information is available. The Aztec were one of the most war-like people in history, with an important objective of capturing victums for human sacrifice. TheMaya=obce thought to be relatoveky peacefulare now know to be extremely war like, engaing in perpetual warfare, many of which like the Aztec were to capture sacrificial victims. Yje Inca at the tgime of the Conuest were ebgged in a civil war. The less civilized tribes varies widely. Some were basically peceful farmers. Ohers were extrenely war-like people.

Conquista (16th century)

The Conquistadores were the 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese adventurers and soldiers of fortune who in Columbus' wake conquered the Indian civilizations of New World from Mexico south to the Southrn Cone. They are most notable for conuering the advanced native American empires of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca. Their conquests began in tghe Caribbean with Hispaniola and Cuba. These were, however, rather primative groups with limited resources. On Cuba, the Spanish began receiving rumors of immensely wealthy Native American empires on the mainland. This was in part a desire of the Caribean people to encourage the spabish to move on and in part glimers of informztion gleaned from trade contacts. The legend of the Conquistadores began with Hernán Cortés who led only 500 men with 16 horses conquered Mexico's poweful Aztec Empire with thousands of well-trained, but poorly armed wariors. A force from Mexico under Pedro de Alvarado subsequently conquered the Maya and other groups in Guatemala. Francisco Pizarro led an even smaller force into the hear of the Inca Empire, 180 men and 37 horses. His defeat of the Inca led to Spanish control of much of South merica. A companion, Diego de Almagro, led another force south into Chile. Further more limited expeditions expnded Spanish rule over much of South and Central America and the establishment of the cast Spanish Enpire. The Conquistadores were renowned for their bravery, they were also notorious for their avarice and brutality. Military sucess came with a combination of superior world view, weaponry, division among the Native Americans, and Europeans diseases which would devestate Native American populations. The Spanish monarchy both relied on the Conquistadores for acquiring vast colonial possessions, laying claim to great wealth and a vast colonial empire for Spain. Although at first disappointed with their new lands, the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas brought vast quantities of gold and silver flooding into Spain and through Spain the rest of Europe and had an enormous impact on the still largely feudal European economies. Many other new products were broughtb back to Spain. One of these, the humble potato, had an even more profound impact than the gold and silver. Coronado and Ponce de León expanded the Spanish claim to North America as well. At the same time, Spanish monarchs feared that they commit treason and establish independent kingdoms.

Indian Wars

Wars with Native americans did not end with the Spanish and Portuguese Conquista (16th century). The Inca and Maya managed to continue resisting by disappearing into remote jungle areas. Some authors contend that Amazonia indians resisted by reverse devlopment from settled agrivulture o hunter gaherers in remote areas. The Mapuche efectively resistenced theSplnish and Chileans. The Arauco War was a long-running conflict between colonial Spaniards and then the Chileans in the and the Mapuche people, mostly fought in the Araucanía. Perhaps the longest running Indian war was the Yaqui Wars in Mexico. In North Americam native American people survived by moving west, leading to a series of wars fought by various Plains and South westrn tribes. Before the development of repeating weapons, the Native Americans tribes essentially prevented Mexico from settling what is now the American Southwest. After the Ameruca Civil War, the ettlement of the West began kn earnet leading to wars fought by the U.S. calvalry and vious tribes. The targets of tribes lke the Chyne and Comnche were not only settlers, but the less war-like tribes. Unlike the Cinquisra, the Planes tribes acquired horses and orived veryskilled warriirs. They were eventually defeated by essentially killing off their fod sourse--the bufalo heards.

Latin American Wars of Independence (1806-26)

Latin America when the French Revolution erupted in Europe was largely controlled by Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese colony was Brazil with a capital at Rio de Janeiro. Brazil included much of eastern South America and the amazonian Basin. Spain controlled the rest of South America, Central America, Mexico, and a few Caribbean islands. Spanish South America was divided into the three Viceroyalties of New Grenada (Bogotá), of Lima and of Rio de la Plata (Buenos Aires). Spain restricted power in its colonies to a small European born elite, not trusting the criollos, people of European ncestry born in the colonies. The growing number of locally born colonists who had acquired wealth as important landowners and merchants resented the inferior status assigned to them as "criollos". They wanted a share in the governing of the colonies. Unlike English North America, there were no colonial legislstures in Latin America. The mother country also severly restricted economic activity. The colonies were only permitted to trade with the mother countries. And both exports and imports were taxed. The Enlightenment provided a challenge to the legitimacy of monarchies. The American Revolution (1775) and French Revolution (1789) showed agrieved Latin American criollos that change was possible. And than the Napoleonic Wars weakend both Portugal and Spain, giving Latin American criollos the oportunity to seize theur independence, especially when French armies crossed the Pyranees to invade Spain and Portugal. Napoleon deposed the Bourbon monarch in Spain and the Portugese court fled to Brazil. The result was a two decade struggle involving many fronts on which opposing armies fought on some of the most difficult terraine imaginable.

Mexican American War (1846-49)

The Mexican War was a conflict between the United States and Mexico. It is one of the most important wars fought by the United States because of the vast area of land annexed, about one-third of Mexio. It has, however, been given relatively little attention by American historians, possibly because it does not fit well into America's self image. Assessments of the War vary among both Mexican and American historians and among American historians. And these assessments have varied over time. The War began when Mexican units attacked U.S. troops in dispured territory between Mexico and Texas (April 25, 1846). Ther initial fighting took plasce in northern Mexico when General Zacrarry Taylor attacked across the Rio Grande. A small American force took New Mexico and California. When Mexico refused to make peace the United States invaded Mexico at Vera Cruz. The forced commanded by Gen. Winfield Scott moved inland and occupied Mexico City (September 14, 1847). A peace treaty was signed a few months later at Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848). Mecico recognized the U.S. annexation of Texas and ceded California and New Mexico to the United States. Mexian historians have always seen the Mexican War as naked agression by the United States. Some American historians in recent years have also come to this conclusion. This is considerable truth in this, but a strong jigoist element in Mexico desiring to retake Texas has to be considered. One often ignored question is why so few Mexicans moved into the northern territories. One reason the United States prevailed in the War was that so few Mexicans lived in California and New Mexico. The War is also notble because of the roles played by key figures in the coming American Civil War.

Franco-Mexican War (1863-67)

European Governments in retaliation to Juarez's default on foreign loans seized the customs house at Vera Cruz where they could use import duties to pay off loans. The French went a steo further. France was the major lender and the expanonist-minded Napoleon III decided to establish a French colony. He attempted to seize the country and convinced the Austrian Archduke Maximilian rto accept a Mexican throne. Napoleon's choice of an Austrian prince may seem curious, but some historians believe Maximilian's father may have actually been Napoleon II. Backed by French troops, Maximillian was able to establish control over most of the country, but was unable to completely defeat the Juaristas. Maximilian was at first supported by the Mexican conservatives who had fought against Juarez in the War of Reform. They assumed an Austrian archduke would persue conservative policies. The conservatives were, however, disappointed with Maximilian. Unlike his brother, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Mazimilian had a liberal outlook. Not only did he refuse to repeal Juarez's reforms, but instituted further reforns of his own. This cost him the support of the only group of Mexicans who had championed him. Juraez continued to resist Maximilian and the effort to maintain him in power became increasingly expensive for Napoleon III. The end of the United States Civil War (1865) meant increasing American oposition to the French intervention in Mexico. When Napoleon abandoned him by withdrrawing French troops, Maximilian was doomed. Juarez retook Mexico City (1867). Maximilian was executed by a Mexican fireing squad.

War of the Tripple Alliance (1864-70)

The War of the Triple Alliance, also called the Paraguyan War, was the bloodiest conflict in Latin-American history. It was a war fought by Paraguay against aan alliance of neighboring states (Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay). Only Bolivia among the countries bordering Paraguay did not enter the War. The countries between Argentina and Brazil (Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay) struggled in the 19th century to retain their independence and territory against their more powerful neigbors. Arggentiba during the War for Independence attempted unsuccessfully to include what becamme Paraguay and Uruguay in their new nation. Even after independence, a range of issues, especially boundaries were left unresolved. Argentina and Brazil claimed territory that Paraguay also claimed. Uruguay was also a bone of contention. Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II intervened in Uruguayan politics and assisted the leader of Uruguay's Colorado Party to overthrow the Blanco Party (1864). Paraguayan Dictator , Francisco Solano López, saw this as a prelude toward Brazilian interference in his country. He declared war on Brazil (1864). López had conducted a massive buildup of a 50,000-man army. It was the largest army in South America. Bartolomé Mitre, president of Argentina, concerned about Paraguay's military buildup, saw this as an opportunity to obtain long-saught territoiry, organized an alliance with Brazil and Colorado-controlled Uruguay (the Triple Alliance). They declared war on Paraguay (May 1, 1865). Many Latin Americans when the War began saw Paraguay as the agressor and a threatening nation. As the War went on and went against Paraguay, sentiment shofted and began to be seen as Mitre's war of conquest, even in Argentina. The Emperor gsve command of the Brazilian forces at the end of the War to his French son-in-law, the Count d'Eu. The War played an important role in the eventual abolition of slavery in Brazil. Slaves who volunteered for military service were granted their freedom.

War of the Pacific (1879-84)

Another major war was the War of the Pacific involving Chile which fought against Bolivia and Peru. Boundary desputes emerged between the three countries. As Peru, Alto (Peru), and Chile were for a long period all part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, there was no need to carefully delimit borders, especially in the Atacama Desert which was though to be largely worthless territory. The discovery of mineral resources changed this. And as independent countries, defined national frontiers were needed. Bolivia at the time had a western province streaching through the Atacama Desert with a Pacific coast and ports. Bolivia was such a poor country, that it did not develop mines in the Atacama. Chilean companies with foreign financing did. The most valuable resource at the time was prehistoric deposits of guano. Before German chemists developed a chmical process for producing nitrates, the guano used for fertilizer was very valuable. The Brazilian Government allowed the Chilean companies to build the mines and both sides agreed to tax payments. The Bolivian Government pledged not to raise the taxes. Hilarion Daza seized power in Bolivia (1878). He was the illegitimate son of an Italian acribat who emigrated to Bolivia. He proceeeded to raise tazxes on the Chilean guano mines in the Atacama. The Chilean Government ordered its Army to seize the mines and the surrounding territiry. The Bolivians joined by their Peruvian ally. The more professional Chile military won both land and sea campaigns and occupied Lima. Peru lost its extreme south Tarapaca district and Bolivia its western outlet to the Pacific, leaving it land locked. This left Chile in control of the desolate, but mineral rich (nitrate and copper) Atacama Desert. It also left the Tacna-Arica issue unresolved which complicated relations with Peru and Bolivia through much of the 20th century. Chile return much of the territory Peru lost (1929), but not the Bolivian territory. While the market for guano declined, the Chileans found valuable copper deposits which is an important componet of the modern Chilean economy.

Spanish American War (1898-99)

The Spanish-American War announced America's arrival on the world stage. While one of the lesser known American wars, the War had huge implications for America's world role in the 20th century. The path to war led through Cuba. Cuba was the last important Spanisg colony in the Americas. Attempts by the Cubans to ver throw Spanish rule failed. A new revolution broke out (1895) and was brutally supressed by Spanish authorities. American economic interests were damaged in the fighting. Some American began to see strategic interests in Cuba, especially as interest was building for a canal in Central America. The situation in Cuba was brough to the attention of the American public through "yellow journalism" reporting lurid details of actual and imangined Spanish attrocities. W.R. Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World competed with each other for the most lurid stories to increase circulation. War fever grew when a letter written by a Spanish diplomat disparaging President McKinley was published. The sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor made war inevitable. The United States demanded Spain withdraw from Cuba. Spain declared war (April 24, 1898). The American Pacific Fleet commanded by George Dewey was ordered to engage the Spanish Fleet at Manila Bay. Dewey destoyed the Spanish Fleet (May 1). The American Atlantic Fleet sought out the Spanish Atlantic Fleet, but it sought refuge in Santiago Harbor. The advancing American Army forced the Spanish Fleet out and it was destoyed (July 3). Santiago subsequently surrendered. An Armistace was reached (August 12). The Treaty of Paris ending the War was signed (December 10). Spain granted Cuba independence. The United States attempted to control political developments in Cuba, even after withdrawing by insisting that the Platt Amendment be inserted in the Cuban Constitution. Spain ceeded Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States and the Philippines for a $20 million payment. This ended the long history of the Spanish Empire in the America. It also began an involvement of the United States in Latin American affairs. America had earlier acquired the Hawaiian Islands. The acquisition of the Spanish territories also further involved America in the Far East.

Mexican Revolution (1910-20)

Mexico's Revolution came a century after independence. Francisco Madero became president after the Diaz tried to reverse the results in the 1910 election, eventually having to flee the country. Madero had received the support of the charismatic Emiliano Zapata who was conducting an uprising in the South. Madero did, however, last long as president. He was arrested and shot under orders of his own general, Victoriano Huerta. This launched the bloody phase of the Mexican Revolution. Huerta was forced to fight the Revolution on many fronts. He benefitted from a strong central position, but faced a formidable if tenuous alliance including Venustiano Carranza, General Álvaro Obregon, Emiliano Zapata (in the south) and Pancho Villa (in the north). These are many od the the most esteemed names in Mexican history and noth Carranza and Obregon went on the be presidents. The Mexican Revolution was the bloodiest period in Mexicam history since the Conquest. Huerta was eventually defeated. Carranza assumed the presidency. Both Villa and Zapata refused to recognize Carranza. They with their Armies of the North and South drove on Mexico City. Carranza and Obregon with their forces fled the capital. The Villistas and Zapatistas held racous celebrations after reaching Mexico City. They did not, however, have the organizational skills to organize an effective government. Carranza and Obregon retreated to Veracruz, Mexico's major port. There they reorganized and reupplied and launched a new offensive to retake the capital. In the fighting that followed, Obregon largely destroyed Villa's cavalry at Celaya (1915). Obregon lost his right arm, but won the battle. Celaya was actually a series of engagements which cnstitute the most massive battle ever fought in Latin America. Obregon commanded a modern force with artillery and machine guns. As Villa's calvlry was the major force of his army, Villa never seriously threatened the government again, although he was a continuing irritation in the North. Carranza called for a Constitutional convention (1916). He was elected the first president under the new Mexican Constitution of 1917. The Government finally dealt with Zapata. After a vicious anti-guerilla campaign weakened his forces, Zapata was lured into a trap by a government soldier and shot. Carranza tried to hold power by backing the election of a supporter (1920). When it became clear that Obregon would win the election, Carranza attempted a coup. Obregon escaped and organized a military campaign against Carranza. As Obregon approached the capital, Carranza fled, trying to reach the port of Veracruz where he could leave the country, the traditional route for failed Mexican leaders, There Obregon's forces arrested and shot him. A freustrated Villa in the North attempted to punish the United States for supporting Carranza. Villa killed several Americans in Mexico and then crossed the border to attack some U.S. towns. President Wilson ordered an incursion into northern Mexico to arrest Villa. This failed, but Villa finally decided to end his political career and became a rancher in Parral. He still had a following among the poor and was assassinated (1923). This meant of all the major figures of the Revolution, only Obregón still survived.

World War I (1914-18)

The outbreak of the War in Europe was most shocking to nationals of the beligerants resident in Latin America. Many men rushed home to join the military. Most Latin Americans were of Native America, Portuguese, or Spanih prigins. Spain was neutral and Portugal joined the War after it was well underway. Many Latin Americans of Portuguese and Spanish had lost contact with their ancestors. The most important immigrant group which took up the the War as a cause were the Italians in Argentina. Early in the War, naval battles between Britain and Germany occurred off Coronel, Chile (1914) and the Falklands (1915). The Latn American countries declared their neutrality. Some were affeced by trade disuptions, but most beneitted by expanded ordrs for raw materials and agricultural products. Neutral rights became the primary issue for most countries. Botht the Allies and the Central Powers violated neurtal rights. Britain imposed the hated Black List as part of its blockade of Germany and the other Central Powers. Latin Ameican countries protested, but British naval power and Allied war orders prevented any diplomatic ruptures. The situation was different fr Germany which began attacking neutral shipping, primarily with U-boats. This resulted in breaking of relations and several countries actually declared war. American influence here was important in several countries. The most important was Brazil. Only the Armistice (November 1918) prevented the commitment of Brazilian forces to the Western Front. In the end, the principal importance of Latin America in the War was a source of raw material and food supplies for the Allies.

Chaco War (1932-35)

The Gran Chaco is the large plain in the heart of South America. At the time of the War it was shared by the conttinent's two land-locked countries--Bolivia ans Paraguay. The primary reason for the War was the desire of both countries to obtain better access to the River Paraguay. This is one of the primary rivers in South America. The Paraguay River drained the Chaco Boreal. Bolivia's efforts to regain a sea outlet turned east and attempted to gain a port on the Paraná-Paraguay river system which led to the Atlantic. The Bolivians attempted to seize the the Paraguayan portion of the Chaco Boreal which included the Paraguay River (1932). This would have given Bolivia an Atlantic port. The Bolivians also believed there were valuable oil deposits in the Chaco Boreal. Smaller Paraguay put up a determined resistance. The resulting war devestated both countries. There were more than 0.1 million casualties, an horendous number for small countries. Paraguay emerged the victory with almost all of the Chaco Boreal. The Brazilian seizure of Bolivian territory (1904) was followed by the debilitating Chaco War with Paraguay. This cost Bolivia its area of the Gran Chaco. Modern Bolivia is now less than half of the poorly defined territory of Alto Peru at the time of independence. Bolivia and Peru before the War were two of the poorest countries in the Hemisphere. Both were devestated by the War.

World War II (1939-45)

Latin American countries, as in World War I, declared themselves neutral when war broke out in Europe. And like World War I, a naval battle occurred off South America--the Battle of the Plate resukting in te scuttling of the German pocket Battleship Graf Spee. The Graf Spee was at the time the finest ship in the German Navy. It was no accident that it was in the South Atlantic. It was engaging in commerce raiding. As in World War I, the primary importance of the Latin American republics was in supplyng raw materials to the Allies. Fascism had, however, had not only grown in Eurpe and Asia, but in Latin America as well. As this time Italy had joined the Germans, affecting the attitude of some Argentines. There was considerable sympathy for the German NAZIs and Italian Fasciss among the military in several Latin American contries. Col. Peron who seized power in argentina was an admirer of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Some countries tolerated NAZI spy rings. There was no appreciation in Latin America for NAZI racism as an important aspect of the War. Somme countries did not even seek to rescue their Jewish citizens interned by the NAZIs. There was little consideration of how Latin America would fit into a NAZI-controlled world or the NAZI racial assessment of Latin Americans. After Pearl Harbor, many Latin Ameican countries joined the Allied war effort and declared warin the Axis countries. Brazil made the largest cotribution to the Allies. The Brazilian Navy participated in anti-Uboat patrols. Brazilian units fought in Italy. After the NAZI surrender, a numberof NAZI war criinals sought refuge in Latin America, hiding among German communities.

Ecuadorean-Peruvian War (1942)


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Created: 2:09 AM 6/19/2008
Last updated: 12:47 AM 12/20/2011