World War II Regional Trends: Latin America

Figure 1.--

Latin America when World War II broke out in Europe was far from the fighting, but not unaffected by it. There wwere a few European colonies (English, French, and Dutch), especially in the Caribbean area. All of the Latin American republics declared their neutrality. Most were, however, exporters and thus affected by trade disruptions. And the War at sea between the British Royal Navy and German Kriegsmarine became one of the central battlefields of the War. One of the most spectacular battles of that war was fought in the Rio de la Plata in the first months of the War. There were also important immigrant groups in Latin America, most notably from Axis countries (Germany and Italy). This was of concern to the United States even before America entered the War. The United States organized meetings to work out a unified regional approach to the War. Some of the British colonies provided important bases, useful in the Battle of the Atlantic. The country which played the most significant role in the War was Brazil. Some NAZI war criminals found refuge in some Latin American countries after the War.

Axis Immigrants

Substantial numbers of Europeans emigrated to Latin America. This included emigrants from two of the Axis countries, Germany and Italy. There were especially large numbers of Italian emigrants in Argentina. There were also German emigrants in several countries. One estimate indicates there were about 1.5 million German emigrants in South America, most in Brazil. And unlike the Argentines in Iraly and the Germans in the United States, they were not assimilated into the general society and tended live apart from the overall population. As a result they tended to be a significant level of support for the NAZIs.


There were also German emigrants in several countries. One estimate indicates there were about 1.5 million German emigrants in South America, most in Brazil. And unlike the Argentines in Iraly and the Germans in the United States, they were not assimilated into the general society and tended live apart from the overall population. As a result they tended to be a significant level of support for the NAZIs.


There were especially large numbers of Italian emigrants in Argentina.

NAZI Policy

NAZI policy before the War was to expand influence in South America. It was not a major effort, but there was NAZI activity. This was done more through the NAZI Party than the German Government. The Party had an auslander office dealing with overseas (meaning outside Europe) German ethnic communities. The largest such community was the United States, but the German immigrants in South America proved more interested in NAZI ideology. The Party in some embassies replaced civil service diplomats with ideologically committed Party members. There were even pro-NAZI parties (Chile and Uruguay). Several countries had governments with sympathy toward Fascism. This was often the result of the important roles militaries played in Latin American governments. The NAZIs expanded German-language news servives. The Germans were aeader in commercial aviation and cintrolled commercial airlines in Brazil and Colombia. The German influence in Colombian aviation was of particular concern because it was so close to the Panama Canal.

American Concern

The Roosevelt Administration from the beginning of the War expressed concern about German penetration of Latin America. It is difficult to know how much of the President's concern was genuine and how much of it reflected public opinion. The President was severly restrained from the offset of the War by the public's deep-felt antipathy to any steps toward involvement in the European War. The public was much more willing to accept defensive moves, especially those restricted to the United States and even the Western Hemisphere. President Roosevelt explained at a cabinent meeting than 80 percent of Argentina's foreign trade was with Europe and a NAZI dominated Europe would give the Germany great influence in Argentina, even to influence other countries in the region (January 1940).

American War Planning (1939)

The American military (War and Navy Departmebmts) developed contingency plans for war. They had color coded names. The Navy's plan for war in the Pacific was the Orange plan. The Joint Planning Board drew up the first Rainbow Plan to deal with Axis intervention in the Western Hemishhere (1939). The focus was on Brazil because of both geography and the substantial German immigrant community in Brazil. ThevNavy was assigned thectask of interdicting Axis traffic accross the Atlantic. Pointedly, The U.S. Navy for its 1939 fleet exercise shifted to Latin America. Normally the Navy staged its annual fleet exercise in the Pacific where most of the fleet was located (especially the battleships) and its most likely opponent (Japan) was also located. The problem posed was a revolt in Brazil backed by a European power with weapons and advisors.

Declaration of Panama (October 1939)

The United States after war broke out in Europe promoted a conference in Panama for all 21 American republics. Secretary of State Cordell Hull chaired the conference. The conference passed a resolution barring all hostile actions by beligerants from the coastal waters of the Americas (October 3, 1939). The foreign ministers declared a "safety belt" around the hemisphere, extending from 300 to 1,000 miles from the eastern and western coastlines. Despite this declaration, one of the first important naval engagements of the War took place in the River Plate off Argentina and Uruguay (December 1939). The Declaration of Panama, however, was a move of some importance. While such a statement had no standing in international law, support from all 21 republics helped to give it some standing. It was remarkable in that all the Latin American countries joined with the United States. Several of the countries (especually Argentina and Mexico) had a long history of resisting any hint of American regional leadership. It probably reflects the concern of the various governments. The United States Navy began what was called a Neutrality Patrol. The primary importance was the precedent it set for the Battle of the Atlantic. The United States declared a ???? Zone. Admiral Dönitz from an early stage wanted to attack the Atlantic convoys as they were forming off Canada and subsequently the East coast of the United States. Hitler refused, however, to authorize this because of the potential impact on American public opinion. He no doubt was aware that it was unrestricted submarine warfare that brought America into World War I. Döenitz's inability to deploy his U-boats in the western Atlantic was a major impediment.

Act of Havana (July 1940)

Germay launched its long awaited Western Offensive (May 10). Within a few weeks, the Netherland and Belgium were occupied and the French Army shattered, irrevocably transforming the ballance of power in Europe. After the fall of France (June), the American foreign ministers met again. This time they met in Havana (July 21-30, 1940). They discussed the the implications of the NAZI military conquests in western Europe. Both France and the Netherlands had collonies in the Western Hemisphere. This potentially could give the NAZIs a foothold in the Americas. The foreign ministers unamimouly approved the the Act of Havana (July 30). They proclaimed that for the time being, the European colonies in Latin America could be made the collective trusteeships of the American republics so that unfriendly powers could not seize control. The Act authorized any of the American republics to in an emergency situation while the American Republics prepared concerted measures. ThecAct also declared that any violation of "the territory, the sovereignty, or the political independence of an American state by a non-American state should be considered an act of aggression against all of the republics."

Defense Planning with Canada (August 1940)

Canada, as a Dominion of the British Empire and a beligereant did not participate in the Panama and Havana conferences. The United States and Canada met separately. The two countries agreed to create a Permanent Joint Board on Defense (August 17, 1940). The Board was tasked with planning the security of the North America. Given that Canadat the time was a beligerant activeky fighting the Germans. This act by the the neutral United States was one of a series of decidely unneutral acts aimed at NAZI Germany.

America Enters World War II (December 1941)

The United States as a result of the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack was propelled into a Pacific War (December 7, 1941). Four day later, NAZI Führer Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States bringing America into the European War. Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama immediately declared war on the Axis powers. Other American republics over time followed suit.

Rio Conference (January 1942)

Following Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into World War II, the American foreign ministers met for a third time. They met in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (January 15-28, 1942). The foreign ministers again reached unanimous agreement. They resolved that each country should sever diplomatic relations with the Axis countries. All except Argentina and Chile did so immeduately. Chile did not do so until a year later (January 1943). Argentina did not break relations for 2 years, until Mussoline had fallen and it was clear that the Axis was losing the War (January 1944). Argentine sympathy for the European Axis was especially troublesome. Brazil and Mexico would send troops overseas to Europe. Brazil played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Policy Making

Latin American government officials followed developmebts in Europe even before Hitler and Stalin launched the War by invading Poland. They weiged a range of issues in the process of calculating nationl policy. This included assessing who was likely to win the War as well as commercial prospects. The Latin American countries were largely based on exporting raw materials. The War created demand fir rheir exports. The strength of the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy, however, meant that sales to the Axis were impossible. The German U-boat campaign impaired, but did not stop exports ti th llies. Another factor was immigrant groups in the various countries. German immigrant communities were small, but influential in several countries. The most important immigrant group was the Italians in Argentina, a factor in thgecountry's pro-Axi orintation until the final months of the War. Once the United states ebtered the War (December 1941), most of the refion decided to swing to the Allied side. This largely meant diplomatic steps, although Brzil offered basing rights. Most Americn bses in the refion were ain British colonial colonies. The only contry to commit combat troops was Brazil. Renarkably, the one issue that most affected Latin America ws completelu ignored by regional leaders--NAZI racial dimentia. Latin Americans were aware of NAZI anti-Semitism, but were unconcerned about it. They had small Jewish populations and basically unconcerned about the fate of Jews in Europe. Virtually ignored was the full extent of NAZI racial policies, including the very low NAZI assessment of Africans, Native Americans and mixed race people. Not only do Latin Americn leaders seem to have been oblivious to the full extent of NAZI race policies, but they also seem to have been compltely unaware of the centrality of race in NAZI policies abd war goals. Nothing could have affected Latin anerica more given the substantial population of these groups throughout the region. A misunderstandibg of the War was not only prevlent among policy makers, but also academics and lsome political fifures. Unlike policy government officials, many of tgese individuls had left-wing vies. Most were unware of the attrocities cimmitted by the Soviet Union, both against their own people and in countries occupied by the NKVD andRed Army. And absolutely unknown to leftists was the devestatung impact of socialists economics.

Country Participation

Details on the role ech Latin American country plsyed in World War II is available in our World War II country sections. Brazil plsyed the most active role. It cooperated in the Battle of the Altantic, Brazil sent combat trrops to fight in Italy as was preparing to send additional troops when the War ended. Argentina was the most pro-Axis country, but because of Britisg commsnd of the Sea was unable to lend much support to the Axis. The major Latin American contribution was to supply raw materials and food supplies to the Allied war effort.

Act of Chapultepec (March 1945)

The Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace convened at Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City (February 21-March 8, 1945. Argenties refusal to cooperate with the other American republics was of concern to the regional governments. It was most worrisome aspect of wartime diplomacy in the Americas. The Argentine problem was addressed by the delegated attending the Conference. Argenina was pointedly excluded from the Conference. The delegates declared in the Act of Chapultepec that the American republics were joint guardians of each against any aggression (March 8). They notified the recalitrant Argentine Government that she could be admitted to the future United Nations only if she adhered to the Act of Chapultepec and entered the war. The Argentine provisional government declared war on Germany (March 27, 1945). Italy was no longer an Axis country.


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Created: 6:19 AM 3/17/2009
Last updated: 6:50 PM 1/14/2015