Book Summary – The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America

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The Tango War: The Struggle For The Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America by Mary Jo McConahay

Book Summary

We have had six thousand years of written history. Certain subjects have been much more popular subjects, including on your history bookshelf. World War II is a very popular subject.

Each side closely shadowed the steps of the other, like dancers in a tango.

The Tango War, however, discusses an aspect of World War II that many people know very little about. Latin America covers two continents and has six hundred and fifty million people. Mexico shares a large border with the United States. Cuba and other islands are nearby, more than one part of the United States. How much do we study their role in WWII? 

Mary Jo McConahay has been fascinated by the history of World War II from childhood tales told by her U.S. Navy officer dad. She became a reporter, covering wars in Central America and the economics of the Middle East. Both of her parents served in the U.S. Navy.

McConahay is a well-informed observer of Latin America. She discovered many events she covered, including authoritarian rule and foreign relations with the United States, had roots in events before WWII. Then and now, natural resources, including oil and rubber, play a central role. The results are complicated, benefiting and harming the people themselves. 

She knew and loved the diverse people, made up of white Europeans, Native Americans, Asians, and descendants of African slaves. Germany, Japan, and Mexico all were involved in WWI, including having a role in an infamous telegram

Europeans and Asian immigrants in Latin America also played a central role in WWII, including in the development of air travel. All aspects of the war, a world war, in various ways, took place in and involved Latin America. Battles at sea, spy games, Brazilians who fought in Italy, and much more are covered. Toss in lots of pictures and personal stories with interviews. 

We also learn after the war, including how infamous Nazis wound up in places like Argentina and Brazil. This book is a very engaging addition to your bookshelf, especially if you want to know the complete story of World War II.   

Why I Read This Book (And You Should Too)

Mary Jo McConahay briefly discusses the role of the Catholic Church in helping Nazi war criminals to escape. Also, religion had a mixed role in the events she covered as a reporter. Conservative and liberal forces in the Catholic Church had competing views. 

I discovered her when she was promoting her most recent book, which addresses the Catholic Church’s role in far-right politics. Book lovers know the drill. Once you listen to or read about an author, the next step you take is to check to see what else they have written. 

I was happy with my discovery. McConahay is both knowledgeable and a very engaging writer. 

The book is well-sourced, including many personal interviews and visits to the locations covered. 

It is about three hundred pages long. Not enough to provide a comprehensive account. Nonetheless, all the significant issues are covered.  

The book is reliable.  I have no significant complaints but will offer a few suggestions. A basic timeline could have helped readers keep track of the historical narrative. More maps could have been helpful, including when the author discussed a naval battle.  The book has no endnotes.

My ultimate suggestion: Check it out.  

Latin America 

The book helpfully provides a map of Latin America with the major countries labeled. 

Latin America is so-named because they are the countries in the Americas established by various Europeans, who once were members of the Roman Empire (language: Latin). Mexico, the islands of the West Indies, and Central and South America are all parts of Latin America.

The primary languages are Spanish and Portuguese (Brazil). The diverse population speaks many other languages, including the original tongues of indigenous groups. 

There are also many religions. Catholicism predominates. The book examines how many Jewish people settled in the region. A Jewish airman was surprised to be able to haggle with a fellow Jew at the market. His unaware buddy thought he was merely very familiar with Spanish.   

Soft Power

The United States and Latin America has always had a fraught relationship.

The United States believed Latin America was its sphere of influence. The Monroe Doctrine declared that the Europeans should keep their hands off the region. 

But, the United States allegedly had every right to get involved in the affairs of the people there. The United States was a superior power and had the right (and raw power) to control the local, more inferior peoples there. This egotistical view did not go over well with Latinos. 

The Tango War explains how a Good Neighbor Policy arose. The United States decided to follow the policy of  “a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down.”  Use of force to retain supremacy, including seizing Veracruz in retaliation for Mexico daring to arrest sailors who broke the law, was rejected. President Coolidge started this policy; FDR ran with it.  

Various methods, including cultural (Walt Disney) and economic, were used to promote good relationships. This strategy is known as soft power, the obtaining of influence peacefully.   

The Long Arm of The United States 

General Sherman, the Civil War general, spoke of war being hell.

War is a horrible affair that generally does not only have the proverbial “good guys” and “bad guys.” Experience has shown that the good guys do many questionable things. 

World War II included. There are various examples. For instance, spying and espionage involved fraud, including fake papers to trick Latin American leaders into doing the Allies’ bidding. 

The book suggests there is evidence that an industrialist who (legally) worked with the Axis (enemy) powers was killed, perhaps by a British agent. Use of force, including nuclear weapons, involves a range of decisions about “just war” principles quite open to debate. 

A tragic example, now seen as very wrong, was the interning of millions of innocent Japanese (a majority American citizens, the rest not citizens often because the U.S. policy prevented them from becoming one) residents on the West Coast. However, this was U.S. territory.

McConahay explains how thousands of Germans and Japanese were arrested in Latin America and held captive in the United States. Japanese captives often were used as bargaining chips to obtain American citizens held by the Japanese. 

The belief that Germans had too much economic power in Latin America, challenging the interests of the United States, at times was the only reason behind the decision to arrest people. Our actions often broke international law and basic moral principles.  

She questions the logic of the Catholic Church officials who helped the Nazis because the Germans were fellow enemies of communism. The United States had its own “devil’s bargain.” 

“The End Without An End” 

We study history for a variety of reasons. History is exciting (and all the other synonyms for “interesting”), teaches lessons, and helps us to understand current events. 

The Tango War is not only about World War II. It is about today, including the members of that generation still alive today and their families. 

She argues that we have a responsibility to them. We should remember them, including knowing the full story of what happened in World War II. 

She also argues that the end of the fighting was not the end of the story of the people involved. For instance, many escaped Europe to South America via “ratlines.” An appropriate name for their escape route. It might defame actual rats. 

The Cold War followed. The U.S.-Latin American relationship had significant problems, with aftershocks that linger on until today. For instance, fascists in Argentina overturned the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The United States helped. 

The author spent decades reporting the horrible wars in Latin America. She ends with a message that she heard many times in her journeys:

People say they didn’t see what was happening, but the truth is they looked away. To say they didn’t know is a lie.

Studying history means not looking away.