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The Tango War:
The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II
By Mary Jo McConahay.
336 pp. St. Martin’s Press, 2018. $29.99

FROM THE VANTAGE POINT OF NORTH AMERICA, it can be easy to forget that World War II—with its familiar fronts in North Africa, Europe, and across the Pacific—was indeed a globe-encompassing cataclysm. Few countries asserted neutrality and no continent or region remained untouched. In The Tango War, author and journalist Mary Jo McConahay offers a kaleidoscopic vision of just how profoundly this conflict shaped the Western Hemisphere.

Throughout American history, politicians and businessmen in the United States have long conceived of Latin America as their “backyard,” provisioned with riches to which they claimed to be providentially entitled. It’s hardly surprising then that war quickened the tempo of U.S. initiatives to extract oil, tin, zinc, and rubber from the region’s oil fields, mines, and rainforests. Such arrangements required high-level cooperation between U.S. and Latin American governments. So while U.S. industries zeroed in on Latin American mines, Washington’s propaganda agencies gathered individual minds and collective imaginations from Hollywood—from Orson Welles to Mickey Mouse—and sent them south to help foster better relations between peoples not always on the friendliest of terms.

Disney’s garish efforts to engineer mutual enchantment, steeped in stereotypes of Latin exoticism and machismo, may make contemporary toes curl. But the book’s most poignant chapters concern a secret program that went beyond mental captivation to wholesale bodily capture. In July 1942, multiple U.S. government agencies concocted a scheme, dubbed “Quiet Passages,” to kidnap Latin American citizens of Japanese ancestry and spirit them into confinement at internment camps in the United States. In part, this clandestine venture was inspired by racial animosity that sharpened fears of subversion in a region long home to substantial Japanese communities. But Washington was also in the business of securing human materiel with which to effect prisoner trades with Tokyo: holding Japanese Peruvians, for example, as collateral to broker the release of Americans captured in Asia. As a result, several thousand predominantly Spanish-speaking youngsters found themselves behind barbed wire in Crystal City, Texas, schooled in a language they barely knew as they were primed for “repatriation” to Japan—a country in which they had never set foot.

Written with the verve and pace of a lively cha-cha, The Tango War benefits from McConahay’s skill as a journalist, endowed with a sharp pen and a sympathetic ear. She draws stories not only from archives, but from personal encounters with survivors of the “Quiet Passages” program; veterans of Brazil’s “Battle for Rubber” (as the Brazilian government styled its campaign to drum impoverished recruits into backbreaking work collecting rubber in the Amazon), Latino compatriots who fought alongside the U.S. Army in Italy. As she convincingly demonstrates, the war’s Latin dimensions weren’t confined to that region alone, nor were they restricted to the 1940s. Washington continued its intrusive interventions across the Western Hemisphere for decades thereafter: a treacherous entanglement that has left an indelible imprint on millions of lives. —Susan L. Carruthers is a professor of history at the University of Warwick and author of The Good Occupation: American Soldiers and the Hazards of Peace (2016).

This review was originally published in the February 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.