The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II

The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II

by Mary Jo McConahay


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One of WW2 Reads "Top 20 Must-Read WWII Books of 2018" • A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of September One of The Progressive's "Favorite Books of 2018"

"Masterful...not only filled with engrossing history but includes a cast of characters who could be the subject of Hollywood movies." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Riveting...McConahay is a seasoned storyteller. Her stories are gripping, especially when she dives deep into little-known waters." The Wall Street Journal

"Fascinating...In McConahay's telling, wartime Latin America is a hotbed of skullduggery, violence, and cinematic propaganda straight out of Hollywood." —Christian Science Monitor

The gripping and little known story of the fight for the allegiance of Latin America during World War II

The Tango War by Mary Jo McConahay fills an important gap in WWII history. Beginning in the thirties, both sides were well aware of the need to control not just the hearts and minds but also the resources of Latin America. The fight was often dirty: residents were captured to exchange for U.S. prisoners of war and rival spy networks shadowed each other across the continent. At all times it was a Tango War, in which each side closely shadowed the other’s steps.

Though the Allies triumphed, at the war’s inception it looked like the Axis would win. A flow of raw materials in the Southern Hemisphere, at a high cost in lives, was key to ensuring Allied victory, as were military bases supporting the North African campaign, the Battle of the Atlantic and the invasion of Sicily, and fending off attacks on the Panama Canal. Allies secured loyalty through espionage and diplomacy—including help from Hollywood and Mickey Mouse—while Jews and innocents among ethnic groups —Japanese, Germans—paid an unconscionable price. Mexican pilots flew in the Philippines and twenty-five thousand Brazilians breached the Gothic Line in Italy. The Tango War also describes the machinations behind the greatest mass flight of criminals of the century, fascists with blood on their hands who escaped to the Americas.

A true, shocking account that reads like a thriller, The Tango War shows in a new way how WWII was truly a global war.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250091239
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/18/2018
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.28(d)

About the Author

Born in Chicago, Mary Jo McConahay is an award-winning reporter who covered the wars in Central America and economics in the Middle East. Her previous books include Maya Road and Ricochet.

AudioFile Earphones Award winner Elizabeth Wiley is a seasoned actor, dialect coach, theater professor, and dedicated narrator. She brings over twenty-five years of award-winning acting and voice experience to the studio to create memorable, compelling storytelling.

Read an Excerpt



Images of South American cities burst forth on movie screens across the United States in the 1930s, sun-kissed and glittering as in Flying Down to Rio or swank with hippodromes and landscaped parks as in Down Argentine Way — the kinds of places an American girl like Betty Grable might go on vacation. The far-off cities, alive with the music of samba and tango or the blithesome voice of Carmen Miranda, materialized before audiences as exciting and inviting. The picture was romantic, and in many ways true.

In Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, cash did flow. Cars, buses, and trucks shuttled people and goods from the ports and around the streets in effervescent movement. The Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, the continent's third-largest metropolis with European-looking buildings set among shady streets, prospered too, commanding commerce on the Rio de la Plata — the Plate River, named for silver, plata — upstream from Paraguay all the way down to where the wide river feeds the Antarctic seas.

Drive an hour or two outside these waterfront centers, however, and the isolation of most South American towns hit home with the first flat tire on a rutted dirt road or the first experience of a highway that had become an impassable river of mud. Rail travel was uncomfortable, with schedules undependable. Everyone wanted to fly. In the grand finale of the immensely popular Flying Down to Rio film, dancers perform on the wings of aircraft swooping high over city and shore while enthusiastic crowds watch from below. What the Hollywood movies did not show was how thoroughly German planes were masters of the air above South America. It was easier for passengers from the southern continent to travel to the heart of the Reich than to the heartland of the United States. Most routes were flown by German- or Italian-owned companies, or local companies using German pilots, or pilots who were naturalized German- born citizens. In 1934, when Brazilian generals wanted to map the country's remote interior, they contracted the new aerial photography unit of a German-controlled airline to record its every square mile. Whether the initiative for the mapping came from the Brazilians or in some way from the Germans is not clear.

Germans, and thousands of Japanese immigrants in agricultural settlements, lived in six countries on the Amazonian littoral: Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Bolivia. Few North Americans inhabited the resource-rich region, however, especially after Fordlandia, an Amazonian rubber-growing enterprise of Henry Ford, largely collapsed. An Associated Press editor sent his correspondent from New York on assignment to "tell us whether the South Americans are really our friends." The reporter, John Lear, survived a 1942 plane crash in the Peruvian desert to report that at regular distances, "over an area larger than the United States, the Amazon was lined with airports cut from the wilderness by German technicians."

The United States was well into the war by the time Lear wrote that "at least several times a week, sometimes each day, German planes piloted by German flyers came down on these airports on a fixed schedule." He noted that U.S. intelligence officers called the ubiquitous German pilots a threat to defense of the Panama Canal, only a short flying distance away. "Taking these planes from German hands would not deprive the Germans of their maps or flying knowledge of this almost unknown terrain," Lear wrote.

How did Germans come to be the virtual owners of South American skies? The answer lies partly in an unforeseen consequence of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I after Germany's military defeat. Signed in June 1919, Versailles, among its punishing terms, forbade Germany to have an air force. That ended the careers of many military pilots and eliminated an otherwise natural career path for German youth attracted to aviation. From their devastated homeland, German aviators joined thousands of entrepreneurs of all stripes in turning their eyes across the Atlantic to South America, with its reputation as a frontier region that offered fresh starts, especially where German colonies already existed.


Airlines, German-owned or not, grew in South America within a global atmosphere of enthusiasm for the potential of human conquest of the skies. The dreams began in 1903 with the Wright brothers' first short flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Poignantly, it seems now, some early designers and pilots saw aircraft as a technology that would knit the world together and make war obsolete. The Pomeranian Otto Lilienthal, considered the founder of the science of wing aerodynamics and an inspiration to the Wright brothers, represented this "gospel of aviation." In January 1884, Lilienthal wrote a letter to the Prussian naval officer Moritz von Egidy, a current of excitement rippling through his words.

Numerous technicians in every nation are doing their utmost to achieve the dream of free, unlimited flight and it is precisely here where changes can be made that would have a radical effect on our whole way of life. The borders between countries would lose their significance ... national defence would cease to devour the best resources of nations ... the necessity of resolving disagreements in some other way than by bloody battles would, in its turn, lead us to eternal peace.

In the United States men and women took to the air with what author Gore Vidal called a "quasi-religious" fervor. Vidal's father Gene, an intimate of Amelia Earhart and President Roosevelt's director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, served as an executive of three commercial airlines. Just as Henry Ford envisioned putting every family on the road with his Model T, Gene Vidal saw a day when the simple "Everyman's Plane" would put everyone on the skyways. "Flight would make men near- angels," wrote Gore Vidal, "and a peaceful world one."

* * *

Brazil's own air pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont, spent many evenings gazing at the starry skies above the coffee plantation where he grew up. Born in 1873, he read voraciously as a boy, especially Jules Verne. "With Phileas Fogg I went round the world in eighty days." Santos-Dumont moved to France, where he joined the enthusiasts called aeronauts, who were exploring the new technology of aviation. In 1901, the young Brazilian became one of the most celebrated personalities of the day by circling the Eiffel Tower at record speed in a dirigible. (He made history another way, too: he asked his friend Louis Cartier to come up with a timepiece that he would not need to pull out of his pocket in flight, resulting in what would come to be called the "wristwatch.") In those days before air traffic controls, Santos-Dumont could be spotted by morning drifting in his personal hydrogen gas–powered flying machine over Parisian boulevards, then lunching smartly dressed at his favorite café, Maxim's.

But Santos-Dumont was no rudderless dandy. He made the first controlled fixed-wing flight in France and developed a series of improvements for heavier-than-air craft, including a precursor to ailerons. He was showered with honors until his career stopped at age thirty-six, when he was stricken by multiple sclerosis. Tragically, perhaps affected by the depression that sometimes accompanies the condition, he burned his papers and drawings and hanged himself in 1932. Like the emblematic early Argentine flier Jorge Newbery, who died in 1914 and is interred in Buenos Aires, Santos-Dumont too lies buried under a massive statue of Icarus, in Rio.

If you come to Rio, you may land at Santos-Dumont Airport — the aeronaut remains lionized in Brazil as the father of aviation. But it took German presence and know-how to establish the industry on Santos-Dumont's native continent.

* * *

In 1919, a full five years before Delta, the oldest operating U.S. airline, began sending crop dusters over the Georgia cotton fields, Germans had already established the first carrier in South America. Called SCADTA (Sociedad Colombo-Alemana de Transportes Aéreos), the Colombian line flew German-made Junkers seaplanes from a base alongside an island in the Magdalena River near Cartagena. The money behind SCADTA, its pilots, and management all came from Germany after World War I. Some SCADTA pilots who had learned to fly in the war maintained their commissions in the Luftwaffe reserve.

As adequate airfields were built on the mainland, SCADTA soon was flying passengers and cargo throughout the Andes, to the enormous satisfaction of Colombians. Their country was divided by three high mountain ridges that made land travel a long, slogging nightmare. Anyone who could afford it now took a plane.

Six years after SCADTA began, the prosperous German community in Cochabamba, Bolivia, took up a collection to buy a modern, four- passenger Junkers F.13, the world's first all-metal transport aircraft. With no more than the single plane, they grandly founded Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB), purposely choosing the name to echo "Lloyd's of London," the British enterprise with a sterling reputation for security. Soon a fleet of LAB aircraft linked Bolivian cities to points in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and southern Brazil.

Given the size and wealth of the Brazilian German colonies, it was no surprise when an airline appeared in 1927 with the specific aim of serving teuto-brasileiros, the Germans of Brazil. Germans had been establishing agricultural settlements in South America since the 1850s; German businesses followed and thrived, with entire cities growing up around teuto-brasileiro industries such as cloth manufacture and meat processing. Sindicato Condor, a subsidiary of the German company Luft Hansa, provided overnight flights from Rio to other Brazilian cities, cutting days from overland journeys, and soon flew to Uruguay and Argentina. Luft Hansa also took a controlling share in the SEDTA (Sociedad Ecuatoriana Alemana de Transportes Aéreos) line of Ecuador, operated it exclusively with German pilots, and fought off U.S. airline penetration into the country.

When the Bolivian LAB and the Brazilian Condor airlines joined forces in 1936, German hegemony in southern skies took another leap forward. The companies brought their respective passengers to a central hub, the Brazilian city of Corumbá on the mineral-rich Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, where passengers spent the night. The next morning, passengers and cargo brought in by one company flew out on the equipment of the other, effectively giving each airline international connections neither possessed alone.

In the 1930s, German lines often used airplanes that were simply better than the competition in Latin America, including U.S.-owned airlines. Panair do Brasil, a subsidiary of Pan American, vied for the Brazilian trade but often lost out because it used only traditional seaplanes until 1937, limiting its routes to seacoast, lake, and river cities. Meanwhile, the Condor line was flying the most up-to-date product of the German aviation industry, the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, a four-engine monoplane suited for hard-surface runways. (In a sign of pride in the model, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop flew a Condor to Moscow in 1939 to sign the Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union.) Designed as a long- distance, high-altitude passenger carrier, which saved fuel by cruising at more than ten thousand feet while other planes flew at a maximum of five thousand, the Condor was later modified by the Luftwaffe for use as a warplane.

When the Italian LATI (Linee Aeree Transcontinentali Italiane) began to fly out of Rio in 1939, U.S. and British diplomats raised a warning flag. LATI flew regularly between South America and Rome, with connections to Nazi Europe.

Not every airline in South America was run by Germany and Italy. An airplane mechanic from the United States founded a line in Peru. The French Aeropostale, whose pilots included Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince and Wind, Sand and Stars, ran mail. Argentines established a spin-off of the Aeropostale amid national enthusiasm for flying balloons, and then airplanes, over the River Plate. The heroics of native aviators like Jorge Newbery, who began his love of flying when he met Alberto Santos-Dumont, inspired hundreds of tangos with titles such as "Night Flight" and "Chile by Night." A tango called "El Gato" was named for a flier renowned for surviving accidents the way a cat survives a fall.

The German and Italian airlines, however, worried the Allies the most. Reporting on Axis espionage in 1941, U.S. journalist Curt Reiss wrote, "In the case of South America, no intelligence apparatus had to be organized. It was already there in the many airlines which spanned the entire continent."

On the surface, the struggle for the southern skies looked like a fight between big international companies, but in reality it was a high-stakes duel among governments: the United States and Great Britain on one side, with Germany and Italy on the other. The grandfather of Latin airlines, SCADTA, flew routes within two hundred miles of the Panama Canal, constituting "an immediate and extremely serious threat to U.S. security" according to the Joint Planning Committee of the U.S. State, Navy, and War Departments. SCADTA and LATI had to be neutralized.

* * *

The effort began in Colombia, where a deep historical grudge existed against the United States. In 1903, Washington orchestrated the secession of Colombia's northernmost province, arming "rebels" and recognizing the region as a new country named Panama, making a deal with its government to build the canal. In the 1930s, feelings in Colombia still ran strong against the United States for the loss of national territory. President Eduardo Santos pledged that no attack on the Panama Canal would be launched from Colombian soil, but he could not be persuaded to eject the Germans. SCADTA had become vital to Colombia's economic growth, and it kept families and friends connected who lived far apart. Many of the company's Germans had taken Colombian citizenship; they participated in civic affairs and otherwise contributed to the life of the country. Why should Santos kick them out?

What the Colombian president wanted was beside the point to Spruille Braden, a blustering newcomer to the U.S. Embassy. A Montana businessman with stakes in companies active in Latin America — United Fruit, Standard Oil, and his own Braden Copper — the ambassador was not a diplomat at heart, but comfortable with political intervention. After the war, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, he made the cover of Time magazine with a story about him inside under the headline "DEMOCRACY'S BULL." Corpulent, with dark eyes that stared out from under thick brows, Braden led the charge against SCADTA. He liked the nickname "Buffalo."

For months after presenting his credentials in Bogotá in February 1939, Braden treated unsuccessfully with President Santos about removing Germans from SCADTA. Meanwhile, Juan Trippe, the shrewd, legendary founder of Pan American Airways, held information close to his chest that neither Santos, important Pan Am executives, nor key U.S. officials knew about who really owned the "German" airline in Colombia: he did. In 1931, Trippe had surreptitiously bought 85 percent interest in the company by way of a secret compact with its Austrian owner, who eventually also obtained Colombian citizenship. Making the transaction known would have stoked the anti-gringo ire of Colombians, reckoned Trippe, who had also failed to inform U.S. authorities at the time.

In March 1939 Trippe was summoned to Washington by military officials who knew he controlled SCADTA. The War Department generals told him to eliminate its "Germans," Colombian citizens or not, in the interest of U.S. national security. Pan Am, with its extensive air routes and responsibility for carrying U.S. mail, was considered by the State Department and the military as an arm of national defense.

Ambassador Braden had discovered the truth about SCADTA's ownership only on the eve of his departure for Colombia. In February 1940, he called a secret meeting with Pan Am representatives at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. It was the middle of the day, but the men arrived to find Braden's office dark, all the drapes drawn. The only light came from candles sputtering in their holders on a grand piano. Solemnly, as if he were delivering a death sentence, Braden announced that SCADTA must be "deloused." The Germans, like insects, were to be picked off and the airline purified.

Even with war coming, however, Trippe dragged his feet about "delousing" the airline, concerned that the state might take it over and he would lose money. Finally in June 1940, more than nine months after war had begun in Europe, and only after being assured his expenses would be covered, Juan Trippe bent to pressure from Washington and the "Buffalo's" diplomatic charge.


Excerpted from "The Tango War"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Mary Jo McConahay.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Stormfront

Part I. The Prizes

1. The Fight for Southern Skies

2. Black Gold, Oil to Fuel the War

3. White Gold, the Story of the Rubber Soldiers

Part II. The Undesirables

4. “Where They Could Not Enter”: Jewish Lives

5. Nazis and Not Nazis, in the Land of the White Butterfly

6. In Inca Country, Capturing “Japanese”

7. Inmates, a Family Affair

Part III. The Illusionists

8. Seduction

9. Spies, Masters of Spies

10. Operation Bolívar, German Espionage in South America

Part IV. The Warriors

11. The Battle of the Atlantic: Southern Seas

12. Smoking Cobras

Part V. The End without an End

13. Ratlines

14. Connections, the Cold War

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