Tango War: Why America Had To Win Latin America To Win World War II

Nov 12, 2018

Would America have won World War II if hadn’t won Latin America over to its side? Veteran foreign correspondent Mary Jo McConahay answers that question in her new book, “The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II.”

McConahay will speak at the Miami Book Fair this weekend – and she spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett from San Francisco.

Here are excerpts of their conversation:

READ MORE: Boca Raton: The Secret Weapon That Won World War II

WLRN: What drew you to this epic subject to begin with?

MCCONAHAY: While I was doing stories in Latin America, I would hear little bits about World War II. But I never had a chance to pursue them, and I was always curious. My dad was an officer during World War II, and one of the places he was based was in Latin America – and he too would drop little tidbits. So when he was gone I decided I had to satisfy my own curiosity and write the book I wanted to read.

You say he was a naval officer, and he and his crew would have shore leave in Argentina...

Yes – they were told to go around to three or four places at a time to make it seem that there were more Americans there, because Argentina was considered very pro-Nazi at the time.

Right – the book makes it fairly clear that in the 1930s and 40s, most of Latin America could just as easily have become the allies of fascist Germany, Italy and Japan. Why was this the case?

There was a great deal of admiration for fascism. Many of the leaders of Latin America fancied themselves in the mold Mussolini.

So why was it so important to get Latin America on our side?

Nazi spy and German movie star Hilda Kruger (right) with Mexican movie star Cantinflas in Mexico City in the 1940s.
Credit YouTube

Geography. The military made the defense boundary of the United States all the way down south of the big hump of Brazil. Also – Latin America had incredible natural resources that any war machine needed, and they had to be denied to the enemy. Things like gold, platinum, rubber especially – that was huge.

How did we get right-wing dictators like Getúlio Vargas not only to let us access all those resources – but join the fight for democracy? You suggest Walt Disney played a role.

Walt Disney, Orson Welles – all of these goodwill ambassadors, along with a lot of other propaganda efforts.

Remember at that time, the Nazis’ Third Reich propaganda was way ahead. Walt Disney made films meant to show both Latin Americans and people in the United States that they ought to be in this together. All of Latin America already knew Mickey Mouse. But Disney’s full-length features – “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros” – were a very important way to show Latin Americans that their future, if they went with the Allies, could be more like the United States.

There was a great deal of admiration for fascism in Latin America at that time. Many of the region's leaders fancied themselves in the mold of Mussolini. –Mary Jo McConahay

You recount fascinating espionage dramas all over Latin America – especially in Mexico, where the German movie-star seductress Hilda Kruger was operating. Why were Nazi spies in this hemisphere such a threat to the Allied war effort?

Because they were sent here to spy more closely on the United States. Some of the men Hilda Kruger had affairs with were very important people – like future Mexican President Miguel Alemán. Cuba was the place where most of the spies from both sides were – including Ernest Hemingway. The Battle of the Caribbean was very damaging to U.S. ships because German U-boats were constantly hammering them in that waterway.

I think my favorite chapter of the book, though, takes place in Italy, where an unlikely Brazilian army unit – The Smoking Cobras – helped the Allies beat back the Germans.

They got their name because Hitler apparently said, “The Brazilians will fight when the snake smokes.” They just threw it back in his face – and they captured 14,000 German and Italian soldiers and went home with their heads high.

Mary Jo McConahay
Credit St. Martin's Press

There are also a lot of disturbing stories, including the refusal of the U.S. and so many Latin American countries like Cuba to take in Jewish refugees at certain points during the Holocaust. But also the lesser known case of thousands of Japanese immigrants in Peru who were essentially abducted and exchanged for American prisoners held by Japan.

The United States seemed to tar everyone with the same brush, and kidnapped ethnic Germans and ethnic Japanese from many countries – but especially Japanese from Peru. Peru was quite happy to be rid of them. There was an equal amount of racism in Peru toward the Japanese. And they were taken to concentration camps in the States. And some of them were traded for U.S. civilians caught behind enemy lines in the Pacific. I was able to track down one or two of them. But most of those traded into Japan – we don’t know their fates.

Your epilogue deals with all the Nazi monsters who escaped to Latin America after the war through what were called “ratlines.” Was that a sign of Latin America simply reverting back to its affinity for fascism?

Not only that – during the Cold War these fascist-leaning leaders in Latin America were able to get the support of the Vatican and the United States because they were anti-communist.

Mary Jo McConahay will present “The Tango War” at the Miami Book Fair on Sunday at noon at the Miami-Dade College downtown campus, Building 1, 3rd floor.