A Brief History
From February 2nd through the 15th of 1945, various Latin American countries including Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Uruguay joined the Allied Powers by declaring war on Germany and Japan. They were neither the first nor last Latin American countries to do so but represented the most substantial cluster of Latin American declarations of war against the remaining major Axis Powers during World War II. These declarations occurred late in the war when the situation was essentially already hopeless for Germany and Japan. One may wonder why did these Latin American countries wait so long to choose sides in the war? Did the Axis have any hopes of gaining any Latin American countries as allies or did the Axis perhaps even ever have designs of dominating or conquering Latin America in the event of an Axis victory? In examining the question of what Axis intensions were toward Latin America, we can take a look at potential advantages for the Axis Powers in resources, geography, and military assistance, as well as the actual stated goals by Axis officials toward Latin America and the actions those Axis Powers took before and during the war.
Starting with potential motives for Axis Powers to have designs on Latin America, geography is the first aspect that comes to mind. Located adjacent to the United States, either via Mexico or the nearby Caribbean islands, Latin America would have made a most advantageous base for submarine operations and airbases, providing a ready and convenient location by which to better interdict shipping headed for the European theater. Another potential motive was to use Latin America as a possible staging area and jumping off point for an invasion of the United States, an invasion that would be nearly impossible without such nearby bases. We know Hitler wanted to bomb the United States and had his scientists and engineers do their best to come up with ultra-long range bomber aircraft or enhanced range V-2 (also known as A-4) rockets in order to carry out his desires. Even sub launched rockets or cruise missiles (V-1 types) were contemplated but having bases within range of conventional aircraft and rockets would have made the goal of bombing the United States many times easier than those other convoluted and technologically challenging schemes. Geographically speaking, another location of tempting strategic importance was the Panama Canal. Either possession of the canal or denial of its use by the Allies would have been of great advantage to the Axis Powers, especially Japan, as the United States relied heavily on the Panama Canal for the efficient transport of warships and cargo vessels between the East and West American coasts and between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Another of the great motives for either enlisting the cooperation of Latin American countries or even coercing them by force, were the rich natural resources located in that enormous area of the New World. Rubber and oil were two of the critical strategic materials needed to wage war, and not only were those resources valuable to the Axis Powers, the denial of those same resources to the Allied Powers was similarly an important goal. Vast quantities of food, lumber, and mineral ores were also available in Latin America, resources not readily available in Axis member nations.
Among the other great motivations for eying Latin America with the greatest of enthusiasm was the population itself. A potential source of soldiers and workers striving for the success of the Axis Powers presented a tempting target for the Axis, either directly as assisting the Axis war effort or by denying that same human resource to the Allies. Latin American farms, plantations, mines and factories provided the Allies with important resources, materiel that could have greatly aided the Axis war effort had the Latin American population been working for the Axis. Instead of Brazilian ships and aircraft hunting German U-boats, those same ships and airplanes could have been protecting the U-boats and their bases. Faced with overwhelming numbers of enemies, the Axis Powers could certainly have put extra manpower to good use, either directly in military combat or as workers if only the Axis had either successfully wooed the Latin Americans or coerced them by force. A hostile Latin America would have had the potential to tie down valuable Allied assets in that region, assets that otherwise could be used directly against Axis Powers.
Faced with ample motives for involvement in Latin America, the Allied planners were well aware of those factors that could lead to Axis involvement in the Americas as were civilians living in Allied countries who feared potential Axis inroads in Latin America. Before the formal entry of the United States in the war, the British apparently forged a map showing alleged Axis interest in Latin America. In October of 1941, American President Franklin Roosevelt referenced this forged map in an address to the nation as actual evidence of Nazi plans to reorganize Central and South America. In March of 1942, Life magazine presented scary at the time, although actually unrealistic, maps of what the Axis might have attempted. Such intentions by the Axis seem more imagined than real.
We do know, however, that the Germans had at least set up an ambitious espionage system in Latin America, both for the reporting on intelligence and the possible identification of avenues to pursue closer ties to those nations. “Operation Bolivar” was a failure, and the arrest of most of the German agents by 1944 had the opposite effect, driving those nations so penetrated closer to the United States instead of closer to the Axis. The fact that Germans cultivated Latin American avenues of escape for fleeing military and government persons and their families, especially potential war criminals is well known, and in fact many Nazi party members successfully ended up in Latin America after World War II to start a new life away from the prying eyes of Nazi hunters. Of course, some of these war criminals were later rounded up, perhaps most famously Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Holocaust that was captured by the Israeli Mossad while living in Argentina in 1960.
With strong trading ties to the United States and the Allied nations, Brazil, the largest of the Latin American countries, was never likely to become a realistic target of Axis wooing. Having joined the Allies (Triple Entente) during World War I and suffering from predation on Brazilian shipping by German and Italian submarines, Brazil agreed to host American air bases as early as 1942, and by 1944 had actually sent ground forces to the Mediterranean Theater to fight with the Allies against the Axis forces, making Brazil the only Latin American country to actually send combat troops to fight the Axis.
Other Latin American nations were likewise intricately tied by trade to both the United States and to Europe, and the intentions of Germany and Italy seemed relegated to merely attempting to ensure the neutrality of those countries rather than any overt attempts to invade or otherwise coerce cooperation between the Axis and Latin America. Spies and diplomatic efforts to spread Axis propaganda were most prevalent in Argentina and Chile, though such efforts did take place in other Latin American countries as well. German diplomats and propagandists tried to cultivate Latin American trade and cooperation by touting the “superiority” of German and Italian products and the “inevitability” of Axis victory. The Axis was certainly not without admirers in Latin America, and the Axis did find plenty of Latin Americans amenable to Axis ways and argument. Dictators in some Latin American countries were known admirers of Hitler and Mussolini, and even strove to emulate those Axis leaders through dress and mannerisms, though outright diplomatic and military support did not materialize. Meanwhile, the United States vigorously opposed such Axis efforts by strengthening trade relations and using Lend Lease as a means to provide economic aid to Latin American countries. A major beneficiary of the American Lend-Lease program was Cuba, strategically located where cooperation with Axis submarine warfare might have been disastrous for the Allied shipping effort. Instead, the Cubans actively patrolled the Caribbean hunting German U-boats. While Panama did not benefit directly from the Lend-Lease program, the United States lavished public works and foreign aid on the country in exchange for basing agreements to best protect the valuable Panama Canal.
Militarily, the European Axis countries, mainly Germany and Italy, were relegated to using submarine warfare off the Latin American coasts as their primary method of projecting combat power in the Americas. To a lesser extent, European Axis agents were also tasked with committing acts of sabotage against vital war materiel production in Latin America, as they attempted in the mainland United States, without notable success. Axis spies also reported on movement of shipping and information about cargoes of ships. As Axis spy rings were gathered up and arrested, Axis prospects for any sort of cooperation from Latin American countries evaporated. Meanwhile, American and British mastery of the air over the Atlantic and naval supremacy precluded any successful shipping of Latin American cargo to Axis countries, making efforts to establish such relations moot.
On the Pacific side of Latin America, Japan certainly had designs on attacking the Panama Canal, perhaps even occupying the Canal Zone, but the prospect of subverting Latin American countries to the will of Japan was not a realistic goal. Inherent prejudices against Japanese immigrants led Latin American countries to quickly follow the lead of the United States in rounding up and interning Japanese Latin Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack. In fact, many Latin American countries cooperated with the Untied States in the internment and deportation of persons of Japanese ancestry, without regard to legal citizenship. The U.S. rightly feared Japanese or other Axis efforts to directly attack or sabotage the Panama Canal, particularly the system of locks, the most vulnerable aspect of the canal. Conventional methods of attacking the Panama Canal, such as a cross Pacific movement of aircraft carriers or an invasion force were highly risky to the Japanese Imperial Navy, leading Japan to consider another, virtually astonishing option. Japan built 3 enormous submarines, called the Sen Toku class, that could each carry 3 torpedo bomber aircraft. While these giant subs could be used to attack the West Coast of the continental United States, a primary mission was to have been attacking the locks on the Panama Canal. An incredible 400 feet long with a beam of 39 feet, the I-400 class of aircraft carrying submarine was approximately 4 times the displacement of the typical American submarine of World War II, the 311 foot long and 27 foot beam Gato class. Plans were made for the giant subs to be joined by conventional sized submarines in an attack on the Panama Canal, but by the time the planned attack was to take place, the fortunes of war had turned so dramatically against Japan that the Panama attack was delayed to the point that the war was over before the attack could actually be conducted.
Did the Axis plan on conquering Latin America during World War II? Probably not, although Germany, Italy and Japan certainly did engage in some military planning and operations against Latin American shipping and the Panama Canal. Diplomatic efforts to subvert Latin American countries to the will of the Axis were largely ineffective and countered more effectively by American efforts to win and maintain the cooperation of Latin America during World War II. Had the Axis Powers prevailed in victory during World War II, subsequent designs on hegemony over some or all of Latin America would certainly have followed, but such planning was premature and never realistic during the war. Counterfactual “What if?” scenarios have envisioned such Axis conquering of Latin America in the event of an Axis victory in World War II, but such speculation is pure fantasy. The so called evidence of Axis plans to conquer Latin America seems to have been an Allied fabrication as part of a propaganda campaign designed to frighten Latin American countries from cooperating with the Axis. In the Atlantic, Allied mastery of the air and sea precluded an Axis invasion of Latin America on any sort of appreciable scale, and in the Pacific, the vast distances involved and extreme danger to a potential invading force kept any realistic Japanese plans from being developed. Other than submarine warfare, attacking the Panama Canal and espionage, Axis designs on Latin America were not a primary focus of Axis war planners.
Question for students (and subscribers): Why did Latin American countries wait so long before declaring war on the Axis? If the Axis Powers had won World War II, was an invasion of Latin America on their agenda? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
McConahay, Mary Jo. The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II. St. Martin’s Press, 2018.
Tsouras, Peter (editor). Rising Sun Victorious. Skyhorse, 2015.
According to Japanese Copyright Law (June 1, 2018 grant) the copyright on the featured image in this article, a 1942 Japanese pictorial map of the world during World War II, has expired and is as such public domain.
You can also watch a video version of this article exclusively at https://thearmchairhistorian.uscreen.io/programs/did-the-axis-powers-want-to-conquer-latin-america-during-world-war-ii_1mp4-593794 on Armchair History TV.