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The Wall Street JournalThe Wall Street Journal

There are many books about World War II in Latin America, but precious few pull the various strands together coherently into one volume. With “The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II,” Mary Jo McConahay has produced a riveting account of the region during the war years. Though she focuses mostly on the 1930s and ’40s, her story spans many decades. The task is daunting—the strands are disparate, unruly—yet for the most part she succeeds, taking great pains to show that, far from being a backwater, the region was of vital importance to both sides of the war.

As a journalist, Ms. McConahay has written extensively about Latin America for some 30 years, often wondering about the prelude to the events she was covering. She eventually discovered that during World War II “a shadow war for the Western Hemisphere [had] reverberated in every country . . . in Latin America” as the Axis and the Allies competed for popular support, natural resources and military advantage. “Each side,” she tells us, “closely shadowed the steps of the other, like dancers in a tango.”

Foreign emigrants had been settling in South America by the thousands beginning as early as the turn of the 20th century, mostly in search of economic opportunity. Many Japanese settled in Peru to work in the cotton industry. The coffee trade drew Germans to Central America. Other emigrants established themselves in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela—countries that were strategically located near the Panama Canal and shipping lanes in the Caribbean and South Atlantic.
By comparison, there were few North Americans in these countries. But there were plenty of North American interests, not only in establishing military bases but also in raw materials such as rubber and oil. Henry Ford set up his own rubber plantations in the Amazon in the 1920s to guarantee a steady supply to the American automotive industry. Meanwhile German and Italian airlines expanded their range to span the continent, facilitating a de facto intelligence network that reached almost as far north as the Panama Canal, setting off alarm bells in Washington.

Once hostilities broke out, tensions intensified. There was a sense in Washington that the entire Western Hemisphere was to be exploited and defended—especially on account of the vital raw materials as well as the sea and air corridors along which they moved. There was a corresponding fear the Axis countries had a fifth column in South America that might undermine American interests. By contrast, the Axis goals were arguably more modest: mostly to deny regional resources to their enemies and to maintain ties to their expatriate communities.

And so the war years saw initiatives to influence public opinion and gather information. There was the exercise of soft power: The Nazis provided stories for regional publications, some even appearing to be signed by Hitler himself. They also sent the beautiful film star Hilde Krüger to live among the Mexican ruling class as a sort of cultural icon. The U.S. countered by sending Hollywood stars such as Rita Hayworth and Errol Flynn to tour the continent as “Goodwill Ambassadors.” Walt Disney produced films like “Saludos Amigos,” celebrating the friendship between north and south. There was also old-fashioned espionage, as German spies sent information on Allied shipping back to the Fatherland to help its navy find and sink cargo ships. Even the British got into the act, stirring up largely unwarranted North American fears of Nazi aggression. This wasn’t difficult to do, and the U.S. reacted with defensive measures, deploying FBI counterspies throughout the hemisphere.

Ms. McConahay is a seasoned storyteller. Her stories are gripping, especially when she dives deep into little-known waters. She tells us how Peruvians of Japanese origin were interned as enemy aliens and shipped off to the U.S., some to be sent back to a mother country they had never known. She recounts the achievements of a small squadron of Mexican airmen that flew for the Allies in the Pacific late in the war, ferrying aircraft over vast stretches of open water and making bombing runs over Luzon and Formosa. She memorializes the 25,000 Brazilian soldiers who helped breach the Gothic Line during the bitter fighting on the Italian Peninsula in 1944 and 1945. And she laments the fate of the more than 900 Jewish refugees on the St. Louis, the ship that in 1939 sailed toward safety from Nazi Germany but was forced to turn back when most of its passengers were not permitted to land in Havana.

When the author turns her focus onto the postwar years, however, her arguments can feel strained. It’s not clear, for instance, that the relocation and internment of enemy aliens during World War II is “the taproot” of the controversial rendition programs enacted following 9/11. Ms. McConahay also occasionally casts her net too deep for historical context. For example, she tells a compelling story about the struggle between a German U-boat and an Allied merchantman in international waters in the South Atlantic and gives readers a blow-by-blow account from each side. It’s a fascinating tale, a tango at sea, but the number of pages spent on this tale is disproportionate to its significance to the events on the continent. Similarly, the author goes into considerable background detail about some of the Nazi war criminals who wound up in South America. This is a natural topic for her to cover, but she ought to have placed more emphasis on what happened after these criminals arrived in South America.

In all, Ms. McConahay has produced an enjoyable, well-researched and well-documented book. It will take its place on my shelf among my books about World War II and, I expect, stay there for a long time.
Mr. Reynolds is the author of “Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy.”