Mary Jo McConahay’s The Tango War is an engaging, extensive, well-researched, well-written account of a topic that still manages to offend me. World War II is sacred history in the United States, the ultimate clash of pure good and evil, the fundamental origin myth of the military industrial complex. It is the top subject of books, films, and shows. Finding a novel angle on World War II that has not yet been exhaustively covered is, at this point, a significant feat. Finding a whole continent is a major victory.
The Tango War tells the story of how Latin America was, at least tangentially, part of World War II. The book’s introduction describes admiration for unrecognized heroes. It notes that “people of Latin American heritage are by far the largest driver of demographic growth in the United States.” One gathers that for the prestige of Latin America, and for the self-respect of Latinos in the United States, South and Central America need to have been in on the most glorious of catastrophes. That’s what offends me, or perhaps depresses me.
Some of the ways in which Latin America was in on World War II are a bit pathetic. The region’s minor roles in the worst thing humanity has ever done to itself in any short period are not the biggest or most engaging stories in Latin American history. The place has its own histories, as McConahay knows well. Yet, the book turns out to be rich in information, drama, and historical connections. McConahay pieces together military, cultural, economic, and political history seamlessly and without apparent bias beyond the acceptance of the near-universal notion that participation in war can be a point of pride.
So, how was Latin America part of World War II? Well, to take just some of the highlights: Mexican oil fueled Nazi Germany. Brazil’s forests were sacrificed for failed U.S. attempts to produce rubber using, among other outrages, forced child labor. Jewish refugees from Europe were shamefully turned away — with various exceptions. People of German and Japanese ancestry were hauled from some countries north to the United States to prison camps, or to forced labor in Panama.
U.S. propaganda, for war purposes, sought to build friendly relations between the U.S. and Latin American peoples, in particular in Brazil — a terrific side-effect of war that we could have used a lot more of during the Cold War or now or anytime. (There were limitations, as Nelson Rockefeller apparently did not want Orson Welles filming poor or black people.)
The two sides of WWII spied on each other in Latin America, sank each other’s ships off the coast, and left their traces behind. Brazilians fought with the Allies in Italy, and veterans of that fighting established a U.S.-backed military dictatorship in Brazil from 1964 to 1985 — a tradition Brazil has not yet completely left behind.
Argentina set up its own form of fascism under Juan Peron, and rat lines to Argentina became the Catholic Church’s retirement plan for Nazis not tried at Nuremberg and not included in Operation Paperclip — rat lines also used by Allen Dulles and U.S. “intelligence” types to protect Nazis.
The Tango War concludes with some consideration of the impacts of World War II in the decades that followed it — mostly undesirable impacts, many of them exacerbated by horrendous U.S. government policies. I wish Costa Rica’s 1948 abolition of its military had been included as a contrasting positive development from which the world might learn something.
Now I want to turn to a particular point because it interests me, although it takes up only about a single page in the book. When President Franklin Roosevelt claimed to have a Nazi map depicting Nazi plans for conquering and re-organizing South America, many in the United States were swayed in the direction he wanted, namely war against Germany. McConahay writes:
“Over the years researchers have suggested that the ‘secret map’ was a fabrication by the British Security Co-ordination to help Roosevelt achieve a mandate to enter the war. Neither Roosevelt, Stephenson, nor Donovan ever admitted deception. At any rate, a month later the chilling document was forgotten with the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
That’s a heck of an “at any rate.” I think some questions could be asked at this point. Why would any of those individuals have confessed? What about another individual who did confess? In what context did Roosevelt make the claim about the map — what did he say about it and do with it? Was the map actually fake? If it was fake, did it correspond to any similar maps that were real? If any similar maps were real, were they plausible or ludicrously delusional? If much regretted programs of kidnapping and imprisonment raise, as McConahay writes, questions about how a democracy conducts a war (never mind that no nation on earth allows a public vote on whether to fight a war), what does marketing wars on the basis of falsehoods say about how so-called democracies create wars in the first place?
I’ll begin some answers to some of these questions. I cannot imagine any motivation for the people named to have confessed to forging a map to help get the United States into World War II, though I can imagine strong motivations for them to have kept quiet. But a man who worked for William Stephenson as part of the British operation to get the U.S. into the war, Ivar Bryce, Walter Lippman’s brother-in-law and Ian Fleming’s buddy, did publish a memoir just before he died claiming to have produced the first draft of the map. And I see nothing in McConahay’s account of the war in Latin America to suggest that Nazi Germany taking over the Western hemisphere was anything other than fantastical fiction, whether indulged in by someone in Berlin or someone in Washington. As fantastical fiction, we should probably stop calling it “chilling.”
Let’s look at what FDR said on October 27, 1941:
“Five months ago tonight I proclaimed to the American people the existence of a state of unlimited emergency. Since then much has happened. Our Army and Navy are temporarily in Iceland in the defense of the Western Hemisphere. Hitler has attacked shipping in areas close to the Americas in the North and South Atlantic. Many American-owned merchant ships have been sunk on the high seas. One American destroyer was attacked on September fourth. Another destroyer was attacked and hit on October seventeenth. Eleven brave and loyal men of our Navy were killed by the Nazis. We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot. America has been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman and child in this nation. Illinois, Alabama, California, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arkansas, New York, Virginia-those are the home states of the honored dead and wounded of the Kearny. Hitler’s torpedo was directed at every American whether he lives on our sea coasts or in the innermost part of the nation, far from the seas and far from the guns and tanks of the marching hordes of would-be conquerors of the world. The purpose of Hitler’s attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas-to force us to make a trembling retreat. This is not the first time he has misjudged the American spirit. That spirit is now aroused.”
This beginning to the speech that introduces the map is standard, and fundamentally dishonest, war propaganda. The ship sunk on September 4th was the Greer. The Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Harold Stark testified before the Senate Naval Affairs Committee that the Greer had been tracking a German submarine and relaying its location to a British airplane, which had dropped depth charges on the submarine without success. After hours of being tracked by the Greer, the submarine turned and fired. The ship sunk on October 17th, the Kearny, was a replay of the Greer. It may have mystically belonged to the spirit of every American and so forth, but it was not innocent. It was taking part in a war that the United States had not officially entered, that the U.S. public was adamantly opposed to entering, but that the U.S. president was eager to get on with. That president continued:
“If our national policy were to be dominated by the fear of shooting, then all of our ships and those of our sister Republics would have to be tied up in home harbors. Our Navy would have to remain respectfully-abjectly-behind any line which Hitler might decree on any ocean as his own dictated version of his own war zone. Naturally we reject that absurd and insulting suggestion. We reject it because of our own self-interest, because of our own self-respect, because, most of all, of our own good faith. Freedom of the seas is now, as it has always been, a fundamental policy of your government and mine.”
This strawman argument depends on the pretense that innocent ships not participating in the war were attacked. It’s a ridiculously transparent effort to manipulate the public, for which FDR really ought to have paid royalties to the propagandists of World War I. Now we come to the map:
“Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. But his submarines and raiders prove otherwise. So does the entire design of his new world order. For example, I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government-by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America, as Hitler proposes to reorganize it. Today in this area there are fourteen separate countries. The geographical experts of Berlin, however, have ruthlessly obliterated all existing boundary lines; and have divided South America into five vassal states, bringing the whole continent under their domination. And they have also so arranged it that the territory of one of these new puppet states includes the Republic of Panama and our great life line-the Panama Canal. That is his plan. It will never go into effect. This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself.”
FDR edited this speech to remove an assertion as to the map’s authenticity. He refused to show the map to the media or the public. He did not say where the map came from, how he connected it to Hitler, or how it depicted a design against the United States, or — for that matter — how one might have sliced up Latin America and not included Panama. Speculation that somehow there might be some shadow of truth to the thing seems especially strained in the context of the next section of the speech which immediately followed:
“Your government has in its possession another document made in Germany by Hitler’s government. It is a detailed plan, which, for obvious reasons, the Nazis did not wish and do not wish to publicize just yet, but which they are ready to impose-a little later-on a dominated world-if Hitler wins. It is a plan to abolish all existing religions-Protestant, Catholic, Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish alike. The property of all churches will be seized by the Reich and its puppets. The cross and all other symbols of religion are to be forbidden. The clergy are to be forever silenced under penalty of the concentration camps, where even now so many fearless men are being tortured because they have placed God above Hitler. In the place of the churches of our civilization, there is to be set up an International Nazi Church-a church which will be served by orators sent out by the Nazi Government. In the place of the Bible, the words of Mein Kampf will be imposed and enforced as Holy Writ. And in place of the cross of Christ will be put two symbols-the swastika and the naked sword. A God of Blood and Iron will take the place of the God of Love and Mercy. Let us well ponder that statement which I have made tonight.”
The next day, a reporter asked to see the map and was turned down. As far as I know, nobody even asked to see this other document. It’s possible that people understood this not to be a literal claim to have an actual document in possession, but rather a defense of holy religion against evil — not something to be questioned with skepticism or seriousness. FDR continued:
“These grim truths which I have told you of the present and future plans of Hitlerism will of course be hotly denied tonight and tomorrow in the controlled press and radio of the Axis Powers. And some Americans-not many-will continue to insist that Hitler’s plans need not worry us-and that we should not concern ourselves with anything that goes on beyond rifle shot of our own shores. The protestations of these American citizens-few in number-will, as usual, be paraded with applause through the Axis press and radio during the next few days, in an effort to convince the world that the majority of Americans are opposed to their duly chosen Government, and in reality are only waiting to jump on Hitler’s band wagon when it comes this way. The motive of such Americans is not the point at issue.”
No, the point seems to be to limit people to two options and get them into a war.
“The fact is that Nazi propaganda continues in desperation to seize upon such isolated statements as proof of American disunity. The Nazis have made up their own list of modern American heroes. It is, fortunately, a short list. I am glad that it does not contain my name. All of us Americans, of all opinions, are faced with the choice between the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of world which Hitler and his hordes would impose upon us. None of us wants to burrow under the ground and live in total darkness like a comfortable mole. The forward march of Hitler and of Hitlerism can be stopped-and it will be stopped. Very simply and very bluntly-we are pledged to pull our own oar in the destruction of Hitlerism. And when we have helped to end the curse of Hitlerism we shall help to establish a new peace which will give to decent people everywhere a better chance to live and prosper in security and in freedom and in faith. Each day that passes we are producing and providing more and more arms for the men who are fighting on actual battle-fronts. That is our primary task. And it is the nation’s will that these vital arms and supplies of all kinds shall neither be locked up in American harbors nor sent to the bottom of the sea. It is the nation’s will that America shall deliver the goods. In open defiance of that will, our ships have been sunk and our sailors have been killed.”
Here Roosevelt admits that the U.S. ships sunk by Germany were engaged in supporting war against Germany. He just seems to believe it more important to convince the U.S. public that it is already at war than to continue further with the claim that the ships attacked were wholly innocent. Here comes the real pitch for war:
“I say that we do not propose to take this lying down. Our determination not to take it lying down has been expressed in the orders to the American Navy to shoot on sight. Those orders stand. Furthermore, the House of Representatives has already voted to amend part of the Neutrality Act of 1937, today outmoded by force of violent circumstances. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has also recommended elimination of other hamstringing provisions in that Act. That is the course of honesty and of realism. Our American merchant ships must be armed to defend themselves against the rattlesnakes of the sea. Our American merchant ships must be free to carry our American goods into the harbors of our friends. Our American merchant ships must be protected by our American Navy. It can never be doubted that the goods will be delivered by this nation, whose Navy believes in the tradition of “Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” Yes, our nation will and must speak from every assembly line. Yes, from every coal mine-the all-inclusive whole of our vast industrial machine. Our factories and our shipyards are constantly expanding. Our output must be multiplied. It cannot be hampered by the selfish obstruction of any small but dangerous minority of industrial managers who perhaps hold out for extra profits, or for “business as usual.” It cannot be hampered by the selfish obstruction of a small but dangerous minority of labor leaders who are a menace-for labor as a whole knows that that small minority is a menace-to the true cause of labor itself, as well as to the nation as a whole.
“The lines of our essential defense now cover all the seas; and to meet the extraordinary demands of today and tomorrow our Navy grows to unprecedented size. Our Navy is ready for action. Indeed, units of it in the Atlantic patrol are in action. Its officers and men need no praise from me. Our new Army is steadily developing the strength needed to withstand the aggressors. Our soldiers of today are worthy of the proudest traditions of the United States Army. But traditions cannot shoot down dive bombers or destroy tanks. That is why we must and shall provide, for every one of our soldiers, equipment and weapons-not merely as good but better than that of any other army on earth. And we are doing that right now. For this-and all of this-is what we mean by total national defense. The first objective of that defense is to stop Hitler. He can be stopped and can be compelled to dig in. And that will be the beginning of the end of his downfall, because dictatorship of the Hitler type can live only through continuing victories-increasing conquests.”
Roosevelt is depicting the United States as already doing what he’s trying to promote, namely going to war with Germany.
“The facts of 1918 are proof that a mighty German army and a tired German people can crumble rapidly and go to pieces when they are faced with successful resistance. Nobody who admires qualities of courage and endurance can fail to be stirred by the full-fledged resistance of the Russian people. The Russians are fighting for their own soil and their own homes. Russia needs all kinds of help-planes, tanks, guns, medical supplies and other aids-toward the successful defense against the invaders. From the United States and from Britain, she is getting great quantities of those essential supplies. But the needs of her huge army will continue-and our help and British help will have to continue! The other day the Secretary of State of the United States was asked by a Senator to justify our giving aid to Russia. His reply was: ‘The answer to that, Senator, depends on how anxious a person is to stop and destroy the march of Hitler in his conquest of the world. If he were anxious enough to defeat Hitler, he would not worry about who was helping to defeat him.’ Upon our American production falls the colossal task of equipping our own armed forces, and helping to supply the British, the Russians, and the Chinese. In the performance of that task we dare not fail. And we will not fail.
“It has not been easy for us Americans to adjust ourselves to the shocking realities of a world in which the principles of common humanity and common decency are being mowed down by the firing squads of The Gestapo. We have enjoyed many of God’s blessings. We have lived in a broad and abundant land, and by our industry and productivity we have made it flourish. There are those who say that our great good fortune has betrayed us-that we are now no match for the regimented masses who have been trained in the Spartan ways of ruthless brutality. They say that we have grown fat, and flabby, and lazy-and that we are doomed. But those who say that know nothing of America or of American life. They do not know that this land is great because it is a land of endless challenge. Our country was first populated, and it has been steadily developed, by men and women in whom there burned the spirit of adventure and restlessness and individual independence which will not tolerate oppression. Ours has been a story of vigorous challenges which have been accepted and overcome-challenges of uncharted seas, of wild forests and desert plains, of raging floods and withering drought, of foreign tyrants and domestic strife, of staggering problems-social, economic and physical; and we have come out of them the most powerful nation-and the freest-in all of history. Today in the face of this newest and greatest challenge of them all we Americans have cleared our decks and taken our battle stations. We stand ready in the defense of our nation and the faith of our fathers to do what God has given us the power to see as our full duty.”
God perhaps. A public referendum certainly not.