Axis or Allies? World War II and Latin America

By Elaine ElinsonJanuary 15, 2019

Axis or Allies? World War II and Latin America

The Tango War by Mary Jo McConahay

AUTHOR MARY JO MCCONAHAY delves into an unfamiliar aspect of Latin America — its pivotal role in World War II — in her new history, The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II. Spanning several decades, McConahay’s book provides a series of interconnected narratives — from analysis of the continent’s natural resources that drove both the Allies and the Axis to seek control of those assets, to elaborate espionage efforts, to the US kidnapping of Latin Americans of Japanese descent, and the postwar influx of European fascists who shaped some of the most repressive regimes in Latin America during the Cold War period. McConahay echoes the mosaic writing style of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s trilogy, Memory of Fire, which incorporated incidents, anecdotes, and even myths to present a multifaceted picture of this diverse continent.

World War II conjures up theaters of battle in Europe and Asia, but McConahay asserts, “Latin America was up for grabs.” “The Axis and the Allies competed for the hearts and minds of the continent’s people, for their sea lanes and natural resources […] to feed their war machines,” she writes. “Each side closely shadowed the steps of the others, like dancers in a tango.”

The governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries, harboring deep resentments over decades of intervention and exploitation by their neighbor to the north, did not automatically fall into the Allies' camp. To help win them over, the United States waged a propaganda war, directed by Nelson Rockefeller, who recruited dozens of admen, journalists, and celebrities to boost the Allies' image. He enlisted stars like George Balanchine, Aaron Copland, and the biggest hit of all — Walt Disney, whose Mickey Mouse was already a beloved figure in Latin America.

In addition, on Navy Day in 1941, President Roosevelt publicly revealed a “secret map” snagged in Argentina by a British spy ostensibly showing a German plan to carve up Latin America. The map may have been fabricated by the British to give Roosevelt more cover to enter the war, something they desperately wanted. In the end, there was no need to use this pretext because only six weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thus sealing US military involvement.

McConahay is intimately acquainted with Latin America, which she has covered as a journalist for many decades. A former reporter with the International Herald Tribune and Pacific News Service, her articles have appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and numerous international publications. Her reporting memoir, Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest, won top honors from the Northern California Book Awards and an IPPY (Independent Publishers Award).

McConahay’s extensive reporting background serves her well. She has sought out people from all over the globe — many whose stories have never before been told and whose time for telling them is running out.

For example, she interviewed the three sons of Iwaichi Naganuma, a laundry owner in the Peruvian port of Callao, who was arrested along with two thousand Peruvians of Japanese heritage. The whole family was forcibly taken to the US Justice Department concentration camp in Crystal City, Texas. The United States wanted to use them in prisoner exchanges with the Japanese. They were not released until 1947.

She also talked to 92-year-old Nery Prado, one of the 25,000 Brazilians who fought with the Smoking Cobras, the only Latin American force to fight in Europe during World War II. And Gunter Seelmann, who, as a Jewish child in Germany, remembered Kristallnacht. Seelmann became a doctor in Chile and a public health advisor to Salvador Allende. When Pinochet’s coup toppled Allende, Seelmann was imprisoned and tortured by the Chilean DINA, known as Chile’s Gestapo.

McConahay’s vivid descriptions of Latin America — from the “semi-tropical wonderland of trees and streams on [a] Guatemalan coffee plantation” to the bustling streets of Callao, where eateries dish up Peruvian-Chinese fusion food and “[y]oung men dare to cross traffic pushing a wooden cart filled with plucked chickens” — are beautifully complemented with several dozen photos, many from private family collections.

The Tango War has the heft of comprehensive history and the drama of a spy novel. McConahay offers plenty of intrigue — detailing the German spies’ secret formula for invisible inks made from lemon juice, pulverized headache pills, and urine, as well as appearances from unlikely Allied espionage agents like Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene.

The early chapters take an in-depth look at different aspects of Latin America: aviation, oil, rubber, and communications. At first it seems like a very slow start, but as this skilled storyteller unfolds the impeccably researched history, the reader begins to understand how these resources and industries were key to Axis and Allies interest in the distant continent.

For example, McConahay describes how German and Italian airlines once dominated aviation in Latin America. A carefully constructed trap woven by an enterprising British spy led to the demise of those airlines and changed the direction of the war.

McConahay also introduces some surprising villains and heroes. For example, Fred Koch, the father of today’s Koch Brothers, developed one of the largest oil refineries in the world in 1935 in Hamburg, which fueled the Luftwaffe’s airplanes. On the other hand, Salvadoran army colonel José Arturo Castellanos, while serving as a consul general in Geneva, provided false Salvadoran passports for Eastern European Jews, saving some 40,000 from Nazi death camps.

In one particularly moving chapter, McConahay provides new details on the familiarly tragic story of the St. Louis, a ship carrying 400 German Jewish refugees who were denied entry into Cuba and the United States. She lauds the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, who ordered his staff to treat the passengers like “privileged tourists,” although many (including six Gestapo agents who had infiltrated the crew) objected. The Jewish children frolicked in the ship’s pool, and the adults attended dances and Sabbath services.

This description of shipboard life on the luxury liner provides a stark contrast to its doomed arrival in Havana, where it was not allowed to dock. “For three days, relatives of the passengers rowed or motored out to see their loved ones,” McConahay writes. “From the small boats, the relatives shouted over the sound of the waves until, unbelievably, amid cries and lamentations they watched the liner sail away.” Captain Schroeder was forced to turn the ship back to Europe. Although some of the refugees were taken in by England, Denmark, Sweden, France, and Holland, 254 eventually perished in Nazi death camps.

In one of the most chilling chapters, McConahay depicts the Ratline, which allowed fascist war criminals to flee to Latin America in the chaotic aftermath of the war. Their exodus was enabled by the Catholic Church, which provided false identity papers, safe passage, and entry visas for the war criminals. The “anticommunist ardor of certain princes of the Church [including top Vatican officials and two Popes] made the Ratlines work,” McConahay explains.

McConahay offers a rogue’s catalog of those fascists who ended up in Latin America, including Franz Stangl, who oversaw the death camps at Sobibor and Treblinka; Walter Rauff, who developed the mobile gas vans in which thousands died in the Holocaust and later served as an advisor to Pinochet; and Ante Pavelić, the Croatian fascist who massacred thousands of Jews, Serbs, and partisans and eventually became a security advisor to both Juan Perón in Argentina and Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

“Just as the tango can be danced fast or very slowly, even with one partner holding still while the other moves,” McConahay writes, “the rhythm of the competition between the Allies and the Axis” varied over this vast territory. In this exceptional history, she plumbs these intricate moves and rhythms of the Tango War.


Elaine Elinson is the former editor of the ACLU News and the co-author of Wherever There’s a Fight, winner of a Gold Medal in the 2010 California Book Awards.

LARB Contributor

Elaine Elinson is the former editor of the ACLU News and the co-author of Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Liberties in California (2009), winner of a gold medal in the California Book Awards.


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