Top 20 Must Read WWII Books of 2018
A fascinating narrative of the struggle for Latin America during World War II featuring untold stories of politics, propaganda, spycraft, and intrigue.
In her latest, journalist McConahay (Ricochet: Two Women War Reporters and a Friendship Under Fire, 2016, etc.) gives an account thick with detail and unexpected twists regarding America’s efforts to control the resources of Latin America. An army marches on its stomach, and a modern mechanized army requires oil, rubber, and steel as much as food. With Europe, Asia, and North Africa drawn into the conflict, the world turned to Latin America to power its war machine. As the author writes, “war once begun has few limits in time and space,” a point that her broad, exciting history bears out. Chronicling Mexico’s role in selling oil to an otherwise fuel-famished Nazi regime, the fight for rubber in Guatemala and Brazil, American kidnappings of Japanese residents in Peru, the Catholic Church’s assistance to the “ratlines” through which Nazi war criminals escaped to South America, and the “hydra-like Nazi system of intelligence and communications” that operated throughout the continent, McConahay displays scalpel-sharp precision with details and a nose for unintended consequences. Indeed, the dominant theme in the book might be American self-sabotage. Allied efforts in the region were consistently stymied by inexpert meddling in Latin American affairs, enforcing vast inequality and expropriation of wealth, and opposing democratic reforms. The debacle in Mexico, where the American oil industry’s boycott of its nationalized reserves drove the country into the arms of the Axis, is probably the most striking example. However, the repeated kidnappings of Japanese people living in Latin America to use in prisoner exchanges with Japan is what may stick in readers’ minds the strongest.
Fast-paced and informative, this is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand World War II and some of the forces that led to it.
During World War II, the United States urged Latin America to join the struggle. Washington aimed to deny Germany and Italy access to vital raw materials from the continent, disrupt fascist spy networks there, and protect transatlantic sea-lanes. The U.S. war machine relied on Mexican oil and Brazilian rubber; Mexicans replaced American farm workers diverted to military service; and a Brazilian expeditionary force fought bravely in the invasion of Italy. These facts have been well recorded elsewhere, but McConahay, a seasoned journalist, enriches her dramatic account of the period with sympathetic interviews of survivors whose lives were scarred by wartime disruptions. She reminds readers that U.S. behavior was not always noble. People of German and Japanese origin living in Latin America were kidnapped, shipped to remote prison camps in the United States, and sometimes bartered for American prisoners of war. And opportunistic U.S. firms seized market shares from their excluded Axis competitors. Distrustful of U.S. power, some Latin American countries leaned toward neutrality or even the Axis, but McConahay reveals the essential truth that, in a time of great peril, the United States and most of Latin America found common cause against a shared enemy.
McConahay dedicates a chapter to the Brazilian Smoking Cobras, named for a comment attributed to Hitler: “The Brazilians will fight when the snake smokes.” Their Italian campaign was beset by troubles — the forces were undertrained and had to contend with an unfamiliar climate, leading to, in one instance, impromptu ski lessons. McConahay powerfully depicts their valor and ultimate victory.
The euphoria of McConahay’s account of the Smoking Cobras quickly subsides when she describes how little known they are in Brazil today. She characterizes her book in its introduction as presented in “connected narratives, like tiles in a mosaic that, seen together, give a picture of the whole.” That mosaic spans from Mexican oil fields (nationalized in 1938) to Argentinian towns where Nazis such as Erich Priebke, perpetrator of a massacre of civilians in Rome, settled after the war. The book’s collage quality is perhaps most affecting when it looks ahead to the manifold consequences of the war across Central and South America. The Smoking Cobras returned to “a dictatorship that feared soldiers who had fought for democracy.”
As a reporter, McConahay chronicled the Cold War dictatorships that arose in Latin America, and here she draws parallels between European fascists and Latin American authoritarians. Hitler ordered resisters “eliminated without a trace”; 40 years later, the desaparecidos vanished just as mysteriously. Another conclusion also emerges: “Some four hundred thousand persons died or disappeared in political violence in Latin American countries in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them civilians, almost all at the hands of militarized governments supported by the United States.”
Nicholas Reynolds reviews “The Tango War” by Mary Jo McConahay.
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.”
Journalist McConahay (Ricochet: Two War Reporters and a Friendship Under Fire) tells the gripping and often overlooked history of Latin America during World War II. Despite its proximity to the United States, it was by no means a given that the region would side with the Allies—many ethnic Germans, Italians, and Japanese lived in the region, Axis airlines ruled Latin skies until 1941, and Latin oil flowed to Fascist forces. With great verve and detail, McConahay recounts the reverberating “shadow war for the Western hemisphere”: the competition for control of the region’s airways early in the war; the dramatic rivalry over its strategic resources; the vast surveillance networks constructed by both sides throughout the continent; thrillingly told espionage and propaganda operations; Atlantic sea battles; the U.S. program of political kidnappings of civilians whose ancestors came from Axis countries; and the flight of both Jewish refugees and fascist criminals to the region. McConahay brings in a wide cast, among them Japanese-Peruvian detainees, Brazilian soldiers, Nelson Rockefeller, and spies such as the Canadian-born British intelligence agent William Stephenson. Throughout, McConahay reminds readers of the damage the U.S. has wrought in the region over two centuries. This lively book, driven by colorful personalities, strikes the ideal balance between informative and entertaining. (Sept.)
McConahay is intimately acquainted with Latin America, which she has covered as a journalist for many decades. A former reporter with the International Herald Tribune and Pacific News Service, her articles have appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and numerous international publications. Her reporting memoir, Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest, won top honors from the Northern California Book Awards and an IPPY (Independent Publishers Award).
McConahay’s extensive reporting background serves her well. She has sought out people from all over the globe — many whose stories have never before been told and whose time for telling them is running out.
For example, she interviewed the three sons of Iwaichi Naganuma, a laundry owner in the Peruvian port of Callao, who was arrested along with two thousand Peruvians of Japanese heritage. The whole family was forcibly taken to the US Justice Department concentration camp in Crystal City, Texas. The United States wanted to use them in prisoner exchanges with the Japanese. They were not released until 1947.
She also talked to 92-year-old Nery Prado, one of the 25,000 Brazilians who fought with the Smoking Cobras, the only Latin American force to fight in Europe during World War II. And Gunter Seelmann, who, as a Jewish child in Germany, remembered Kristallnacht. Seelmann became a doctor in Chile and a public health advisor to Salvador Allende. When Pinochet’s coup toppled Allende, Seelmann was imprisoned and tortured by the Chilean DINA, known as Chile’s Gestapo.
McConahay’s vivid descriptions of Latin America — from the “semi-tropical wonderland of trees and streams on [a] Guatemalan coffee plantation” to the bustling streets of Callao, where eateries dish up Peruvian-Chinese fusion food and “[y]oung men dare to cross traffic pushing a wooden cart filled with plucked chickens” — are beautifully complemented with several dozen photos, many from private family collections.
The Tango War has the heft of comprehensive history and the drama of a spy novel. McConahay offers plenty of intrigue — detailing the German spies’ secret formula for invisible inks made from lemon juice, pulverized headache pills, and urine, as well as appearances from unlikely Allied espionage agents like Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene.
Aimed at general readers and centered on how the global fight against fascism played out in Latin America, each page of this thoughtful and empathetic work is a revelation. Journalist McConahay (Maya Roads) characterizes the web of naval clashes, spying, smuggling, diplomacy, extraordinary rendition, and dueling ideologies as "the shadow war for the Western Hemisphere." History is narrated as a series of compelling vignettes, often focusing on ordinary people caught up in events. Some stories are inspiring, some troubling. Latin American regimes deported thousands of their own people to the United States, where civilians faced indefinite detention because of their German or Japanese origins. It was also true that Latin America swarmed with spies. While Germans gathered intelligence and torpedoed merchant ships, the United States spread propaganda, including Walt Disney's film Saludos Amigos, to foster goodwill. The most inspiring story is of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, which fought Nazis in Italy. Troops fought so fiercely that they earned the epithet "Smoking Cobras."VERDICT McConahay sheds light on long-neglected history in this fantastic read that will have far-reaching appeal.—Michael Rodriguez, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs
Latin America is not often thought of as a factor in World War II. Indeed, considering Japanese forces bombed northern Australia, it might seem that South America was the only inhabited continent in the world that did not bear witness to some form of warfare between 1939 and 1945. But Mary Jo McConohay’s new book, The Tango War, shows that the war did, in fact, touch the region in many ways.[1. Mary Jo McConahay, The Tango War: The Struggle for Latin America’s Hearts, Minds, and Riches During World War II, (St. Martin’s, 2018).] These ranged from the role of early aviation in Latin America as a harbinger of a militaristic techno-optimism, Nazi efforts to infiltrate the Estado NoVo of Brazilian president Getulio Vargas, to American insistence that Japanese-Peruvians be interned—in the United States! McConahay shows how the common understanding of Latin America’s role in global affairs—that it only started after the Cuban Revolution—is both patronizing and wrong. She deprovincializes our understanding of the global reverberation of events in Latin America, demonstrating that if the conventional wisdom does not think Latin America was a global factor in the early part of the twentieth century, then so much for the conventional wisdom! But her great achievement, and the clear motivation for her writing the book, was to show that there is a connection between 1930s and 1940s fascism and later right-wing movements in Latin America, including the 1970s dictatorships in the Southern Cone and right-wing populist forces today. If World War II was never explicitly waged in Latin America, it also was never explicitly concluded. For instance, several Latin American militaries were very influenced by ex-Nazi officers whose methods of training and organization became highly influential. Thus, the fact that Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele ended up seeking sanctuary in Argentina serves nearly as an allegory of the way that, thirty years after Hitler’s fall—with the extreme-right thoroughly discredited in Europe and the US—fascism took power and ruled major countries that had significant previous democratic traditions (such as Chile, Argentina and Uruguay). These countries embarked on a brutal campaign of kidnapping, torturing, and killing tens of thousands of victims along the way. So, far from being immune to its influences, Latin America was fascism’s afterimage, and its storehouse.
Journalist Mary Jo McConahay uncovers this fascinating story in her comprehensive, colorful, and often-troubling new book The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II.
"Tango War" is especially captivating when it profiles people in crisis – conflicted Latin American leaders, the crew of a trapped German ship, and a propaganda maestro named Orson Welles who lives to regret his eventful foray south.
There are heroes here too. Bolivia and the tiny nation of Dominican Republic welcome refugee Jews, unlike so many other nations around the world. And 25,000 Brazilians head to Europe to fight for the Allies.
McConahay, a veteran Latin America correspondent, also focuses on compelling characters whose ordinary lives are transformed. Modern-day interviews capture the lasting legacies of the shadow war and, most disturbingly, expose the cruelty of an American-led practice that we'd now call extraordinary rendition.
Latin America was a sleepy backwater during World War II. So believe many Americans. But as San Francisco author Mary Jo McConahay convincingly shows in her new book, “The Tango War,” the battle for Latin America’s vital resources made the area a hotbed of Nazi espionage — or what she calls the “shadow war for the Western hemisphere.”
Ships leaving Latin American ports laden with raw materials such as oil and rubber were often destroyed by German subs. In 1942 alone, 609 Allied vessels were sunk in the waters from the South Atlantic to the Caribbean. For a time, Reich U-boats even controlled the Caribbean, and the first sea battle of the war occurred in 1939 just outside the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, when British ships sank the German battleship Graf Spee.
In “The Tango War,” she has done a masterful job gathering interviews and documents to tell arresting stories about, for instance, the so-called ratlines that helped Nazis fugitives flee to South America, and the role played by Walt Disney and Orson Welles to win the hearts and minds of Latin Americans. (Full disclosure: In the 1980s, McConahay was my colleague at San Francisco’s now-defunct Pacific News Service, where we both reported from Central and South America.)