World War II Regional Trends: Latin America

Figure 1.--The United States became the world's largest industrial power at the turn-of-the 20th century. At the same time American investment in Latin America (mostly the Caribbean and Central America) increased. And construction of the Panama Canal began (1904). The Panama Canal became a prime American security concern and bebefitted both the American economy and the economies of the Latin American countries. The United States intervened in several countries in the region during the early-20th century. This begn to chnge with the Good Neighbor Policy (1928). The U.S. Navy and Marine auxilery were the dominant military force in the region. . Here are sailors from the battleship 'USS Tennessee' with children in Panama City. The ship stopped in Panama City before transiting the Canal.

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.

American Interventions

The United States at the turn of the 20 century had become the largest industrial power in the world. Along with this development, American businessmen began investig in foreign countries. And this included Latin Anerica, especilly Central America and the Caribbean. Concern with the security if these investments as wll as the safety of national abroaded increased interest in the rgion. This interest escalated when construction pf the Panama Canal began (1904). The Canal opened just days after World war I broke out (1914). The security of the Canal became a major aspect of Americn foreign policy in the region. The resulted was a series of Americn interventions in the region (Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexcio, Nicaragua, and Panama). In addiition to the scurity of investments and nationals,local financial responsibility became an issue. The United states not only wanted loans to their nationals paid back, but European countries before the war insisted on repayments of loans due their nationals. This created a problem because they threatened intervention. This became known as Gunboat Diplomacy. The American Monroe Doctrine led the United States to opose that leading to potentially dangerous confrontations with the Europeans. The United States to avoid this promoted responsible fiscal policies which were common in the region. Whatever the rationle and nature of the interventions, they resulted in a great dealmof ill will throughout the region.

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 Italy 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. NAZI policy was to promote the formation of cultural associtions that coild be used for politicl purpses.


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 Italians in Argentinea 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 immigrabts in Argentina. There were also smaller, but important numbers in Brazil and Uruguay.

World War I (1914-18)

At the time of World War I, little regional organization was possible. Wurope except for a few neutralswas divided into warring camps, in part because so much of Europe was dominated by the great empires (Austria-Hungary, German. Ottoman, and Russian), al of which were belgerants. Most of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were colonies or proitectorates. The one world region where a degree of regional organizatioin was possible was Latin America, much of which achieved independence during or in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. While many of Latin American republics had been involved in major regional wars, they had not intervened in European wars. Their primary focus had been to prevent European interference, not on interfereing in Europe. The idea of regional organization had begun to percolate, but had not yet been much advanced in the years before the War. The Latin American republics, however, had a great deal at stake in a European War because there economies were so dependant on foreign trade.

Good Neighbor Policy (1928)

Latin American countries at the Sixth Pan-American Conference in Havana (1928) criticized the United states for its armed interventions. Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding and Cooldildge had all been involved in these interventions. At the time dring the Coolidge Administration, U.S. Marines were still in both Haiti and Nicaragua. This reflected a nadir in American relations with the United States. Newly elected President Herbert Hoover agreed that American policy needed to change. He coined the phrase, 'Good Neighbors'. Hoover went on a goodwill trip to Latin America after his 1928 election. He gave a speech in Honduras in which he declared, We have a desire to maintain not only the cordial relations of governments with each other, but also the relations of good neighbors." And during his presidency he followed up on ths by adopting policies to improve relations. The Clark Memorandum essentially retracted President Roosevelt's Corollary to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine (1930). The Roosevelt Cororollary asserted that only the United States could collect debts owed to foreigners by countries in the Western Hemisphere. The Clark Memorandum did not repudiate the American right to intervee. Hoover also withdrew the U.S, Marines from Nicaragua and planned their removal from Haiti which had been the greatest irritant in Hemispheric relations. Unfortunately the Wall Street Crash and ensuing Depression caused not only economic hardship in America, but other countries as well, including Latin America. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff was especially damaging (1930). President-elect Roosevelt at the behest of adviswers like Adolf Berle also concluded that a reset was needed in American relations with Latin America. The new President in inaugural address even raised the issue. He commited to improving regionaal relations. "In the field of world policy, I dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor — the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others." President Roosevelt continued Hoover's iniative. Secretary of State Cordell Hull was given the task of improving relatios with Latin America. Secretary Hull at the Seventh Montevideo-Pan-American Conference in Uruguay committed the United Sttes to a policy of non-intervention (1933). A major step was lowering tariffs. The impact of Smoot-Hawley Tariff had hurt Latin American economies, many of which were based on eporting raw materials. Cuba which was dependent on sugar had been especially hard hit. The United states also renegotiated the Panama Canal Treaty (1936). And the United States restrained from intervening when Mexico expropriated foreign mostly American oil companies (1938). The American Good Neighbor meant that well before the World war II crisis had begun, the United States had done a good deal achieve non-hostile neighbors to the south. This greatly eased the task of securing Latin American cooperation in the War effort, chiefly by maintaining the unterupted flow of petroleum and other crtical raw materials.

NAZI Regional Operations

NAZI policy before the War was to expand influence in South America. There were some supporters in the region, not only ethnic Germans but others impressed with te apparent success og=f Hitler and the NAZIs. Almos unknown at the time was the NAZI rcial view of Latin Americans. NAZI attacks on Jews were well known. Virually unknown in the region was the fact that they were among the NAZI racial targets. It was not a major effort, but there was NAZI activity. Several German agencies had operations in Latin America. The Abwehr (Military Intelligence) Amtsgruppe Ausland (Foreign Branch/Foreign Intelligence Group) was active. A major activity was Operation Bolivar. At first this invlved bth espionage and sabotage. The Foreign Ministry had embasies and consulates. The Foreign Ministry helped discourage Abweehr sabotage plans. Much of the NazI effort in Latin America was done more through the NAZI Party than the German Government. The NAZI Party had an Auslands-Organisation (Foreign Organisation -- NSDAP/AO). The leader with the rank of Gaulitier was Ernst Wilhelm Bohle (1933-45). Auslander meant German ethnic communities outside Europe. The largest such community was the Germans in the United States. German-Americans were, however, highly ssimilated. The German immigrants in Latin America were less so and proved respnsive to NAZI ideology. The Party in some embassies replaced civil service diplomats with ideologically committed Party members. There were even local 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 a leader in commercial aviation and controlled 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. The Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Securiy Office--RHSA), sometimes incorectly called the Gestapo, was also active. The NAZI effort in both the United States and Latin America was more limited than the espionage effort during World War I. NAZI officials did not expect much to come of it. In contrast because of the extensive German World War I activities, the United States probably over estimated the problem. [Mowry]

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 Hemisphere (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.

Outbreak of War (September 1939)

Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1, 1939). The imvasion was made possible by the NAZI=Soviet Pact. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany. The Allies immediately imposd a naval blockade on Germany as they maintained in World War I. The Allies hoped to starve out the Germans and deny critical raw materails to the German war economy rather than engaged in costly land battles. Latin America was for the most part far from the fighting, althiugh the first major naval battle was fought with the Geramn pocket battleship Graf Spee just off Montivedeo in the Rio Platt (December 13). Latin America was immediately affected by the German commerce campaign conducted by raiders like Graf Spee and U-boats. The Latin American economies were primarily based on exporting commodities. commodities needed by the beligerant powers. The Allied naval blokade of Germany meant that the Latin Americans could no longer sell to tne Germans. They could sell to the Allies and the neutral United States. The Germans sought to cut of shipments to the Allies. Thus the Latin American countries initially declared neutrality, but almost had to support the Allies as they has to find markers for their commodity expprts. And the Latin Americans as the War progressed, except for Argentina, would join the Allies.

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 (especially 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 combined air and naval to enforce a Pan-American Security 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. Dönitz's inability to deploy his U-boats in the western Atlantic was a major impediment.

Fall of France (June 1940)

The German victory in the West and the fall of France shocked the world. And it look like Briatain would also fall. The Latin America countries began to reconsider their foreign policies. If Britain had been defeated German ports would haved been opened and the Latin americans would have not wanted to offend such a powerul nation. Umder-Secretary of State Summer Wells, a close presidential adviser, wrote to the president using words excised from the public record, "The majorittyof the American Republics woyld run helter-skelter to Hitler just as so many remaining small neur\tral of Europe are doing today." [Wells] Nritain of course did not fall. The blockade of Germany remained in place even without France. Amd Amerivan and American purchase more than made up for the lost German purchases. American diplomatic pressure and rising prices for commodities also helped keep the Latin Americans on the Allied side and began breaking relations with the Germans andevntually dclaring war.

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 Canada the time was a beligerant actively fighting the Germans. This act by the the neutral United States was one of a series of decidely unneutral acts aimed at NAZI Germany. After Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the War, a wide vrange of arrangement between America and Canada were reached to maximize the two country's war making capabilities.

Pearl Harbor: America Enters World War II (December 1941)

The United States was very reluctant to wage another war in Europe. A powerful Isolationist Movement stuggle to keep the United States out of the war despite the military aggression of vicious totalitarian states (Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union) and their insuing attrocities on the occupied peoples. The Isolationists even opposed aid to the Allies The NAZI occupation of France opened theeyes of many americns (June 1940). A a result, public opinion swung to aiding Britain, but not to entering the war. Finally it was the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor that 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 developments 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.


Mowry, David P. "German clandestine activities in South America," World War II. Seies IV. Vol. 3 (Office of Archives and History. National Security Agency/Central Seurity Service: 1989).

Wells, Summer. Leter to President Roosevely (June 3, 1940).


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Created: 6:19 AM 3/17/2009
Last updated: 7:48 AM 5/13/2019