Pre-war Fears and Explorations
The chapter opens with a review of Brazil’s political and military history in the 1930s. It stresses the impact that the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia had on Brazilian military planning and its continuous concerns about Argentina, which had supported Paraguay and had concentrated troops on the Bolivian border. Military figures in Buenos Aires were openly calling for reabsorption of Bolivia, which had been part of the colonial viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. Brazil lacked arms and turned to the United States for help. Regarding their fleet Roosevelt told Ambassador Aranha that he would facilitate acquisitions, but it had to be kept secret. Because Brazil lacked gold and international currencies, it turned to Germany for arms which it could pay for with natural or agricultural products. Washington protested vigorously to this closed arrangement that detached Brazilian-German trade from the wider international system. Vargas committed himself to arming and equipping the military and building a national steel factory in return for military backing for extending his presidency with dictatorial powers that would eliminate politics. Defense policy produced the dictatorship called the Estado Novo.
In 1938 the Brazilian government contracted to purchase $(US) 55,000,000 in arms from Germany which raised suspicions in Washington. American worries should have been balanced against President Vargas’s friendly relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and the Brazilian leader’s unsolicited offer after their cordial meeting in Rio de Janeiro in late 1936 to discuss full military and naval cooperation, including building a naval base in Brazil for American use in the event of a war of aggression against the United States. The rapidity of events in 1939 and 1940 caused panic in Washington as planners imagined German ability to seize French territories in West Africa and leap across the Atlantic to seize positions in Northeast Brazil. American intelligence saw the Brazilian military as highly problematic. Its analysists were also concerned about the large German, Italian, and Japanese colonies in Brazil and an active espionage capability. The fascistic Integralista movement added to American anxieties.
In 1939, the Roosevelt government was so preoccupied with Brazil that it sent its newly designated army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, to Rio de Janeiro to assess the Brazilian army first hand and to begin negotiations. It was the first foreign trip in history for a chief of staff. The trip had been the idea of the Brazilian Ambassador Oswaldo Aranha and involved the return voyage of the Brazilian chief of staff. Marshall’s reception was overwhelmingly warm and positive. He stated that in case of attack the United States would defend Brazil. To be ready he wanted access to a port, where it could concentrate its ships, and bases in the northeast where it would set up deposits of munitions, arms, oil, and gas to facilitate operations. The Brazilian Chief of Staff General Góes Monteiro countered that in the event of war Brazil’s principal worry would be to defend the south against invasion from Argentina and against subversion among the numerous immigrant colonies.
It was difficult for the Americans to assess the size and quality of the Brazilian army. Brazil was a painfully underdeveloped country in which 60% of potential recruits were illiterate and nearly 50% were physically unqualified. At the time the American army was itself not impressive. Army appropriations were “grossly inadequate even to halt the normal deterioration of attrition and obsolescence, much less to develop and buy modern weapons to match those being acquired by America’s potential enemies.” The needs of the “absurdly small and ill-equipped” air force were especially cause for deep worry. Arriving in the United States, General Góes was fascinated by the country’s power and organization. Marshall pulled out all the stops to insure that the Brazilian general really saw the United States from coast to coast. Góes promised Marshall that his army would create new coast artillery and anti-aircraft units and would station an army division in the northeast, but he repeated again and again that everything would depend on arms from the United States.
American inability to provide arms and Brazilian suspicions of the supposed explanations complicated plans to establish bases in the northeast. Brazil tried desperately to maintain its neutrality while keeping the conversations going. Its officers kept emphasizing the need for arms. Germany did its best to give the impression that the war would end soon and so it would be to Brazil’s advantage to deal with them. In May 1940 the American got so concerned that they planned an invasion of Northeast Brazil, even though they lacked adequate shipping. It was the low point for the two future allies.