By Kenneth Maxell
Frank D. McCann, professor of history emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, has long been an observer of US-Brazilian military relationships.
He knows both sides very intimately.
He taught at West Point in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. He met privately with the Vice-President of Brazil, General António Hamilton Mourão, during Mourão’s recent visit to Harvard.
McCann is a very careful scholar whose insights are based on fifty years of detailed research in Brazilian and US archives.
His new book is very timely.
President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are re-engaging on multiple fronts.
Brazil plays a critical role in these calculations since Brazil has a large land boundary with Venezuela.
Trump and Bolsonaro want to re-set the relationship and the military component could become very important.
But as Frank McCann shows there is a long history of US-Brazilian military relations.
These past hopes (and disappointments) are well worth recalling now.
WW2 was a critical moment in Brazilian-US relations and this period is the focus of McCann’s book.
The relationship was of the greatest importance to both sides and eventually brought together an unlikely partnership between the Brazilian dictator, Getulo Vargas, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a result of their strategic relationship Brazil sent an expeditionary force to fight in Italy under US command.
And Brazil provided the US with its most important overseas military air transport base in Natal, in the “bulge” of Northeastern Brazil, which was critical to the support of US forces in North Africa, and to the supply of (disassembled) American aircraft (47,874 aircraft were sent in this way) to the Soviet Union via the South Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, and the Indian Ocean via Iran, when supplies to the Soviet Union via the North Atlantic to Mourmansk became too dangerous and vitually impassable in winter conditions.
The US had an interest in developing a military relationship with Brazil before the war broke out in Europe.
General George C. Marshall, the newly appointed US Army Chief of Staff, was sent by President Roosevelt to Rio de Janeiro on the USS Nashville in June 1939 to assess the state of the Brazilian army, and to begin negotiations at the suggestion of Oswaldo Aranha, the Brazilian Ambassador in Washington between 1934 and 1938, who on his return to Brazil became Vargas’s foreign minister.
Roosevelt had visited Rio de Janeiro in 1936 on his way to Buenos Aires for a Inter-American Conference and had met Vargas (they spoke together in French).
General Marshall was interested in obtaining port facilities in the North East of Brazil. General Goes Monteiro, his Brazilian counterpart, believed that Brazil’s principal challenge was the threat of an Argentine invasion, and subversion within Brazil by German, Italian and Japanese immigrant communites which were particularly large and powerful in São Paulo, Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.
The Nazi party in Brazil was the largest in the world outside of Germany and had 2900 members in 17 Brazilian states.
The Nazi influence was strong within the higher ranks Brazilian army’s officer corps and within the Vargas Regime’s secret police in Rio de Janeiro commanded by the pro-Axis Anti-American chief-of-police, Filinto Muller.
In 1936 the Brazilian military was extremely weak.
The authorised force was supposed to be composed of 4,800 officers, 1100 temporary officers, and 74,000 soldiers, though in fact the number was 20% lower, with some 60,000 soldiers. The army had faced internal discontent among junior officers and sergeants, and a junior officer led Communist and Moscow supported uprising in November 1935.
By July 1941 US Army intelligence placed the number of Brazilian troops at 92,000 organized in 5 divisions, with 6,500 officrs. They evaluated their state as “fair” and the 192,000 reserves as “poor”. The navy of 17,000 “infrequently put to sea,” and the Air Force was only recently formed and made up pilots drawn from the Navy and Army and distributed in eight squadrons.
General Marshall wanted a US protective army force of 9,300 troops and 43 aircraft in Brazil since the fear for the Americans was that the seizure of the airfields and ports of northeastern Brazil could be achieved by forces already in the country acting in conjunction with a small German intervention force.
They were also worried about the deteriorating situation in North Africa where the German and the Italians were making major advances against the British, and Vichy France and the Germans threated to take control of Dakar.
Roosevelt lauched a major campaign to win hearts and minds in Brazil, and in August 1940 Roosevelt appointed Nelson A. Rockefeller to be the coordinator of Office of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA).
This cultural/political offensive had a major impact.
Leading Brazilian authors were translated into English, including Euclides da Cunha. Gilberto Freyre, and Jorge Amado. RKO, partially owned by Rockefeller, sent Orson Wells to Brazil to make a film, though Vargas did not like the project because Wells depicted the image of a poor and black Brazil and the funding was cut and the film was never completed.
Walt Disney was more successful. He portrayed a Bahia (Brazil’s most Afro-Brazilian City) without blacks, as well as creating one of the most enduring Brazilian film characters, Ze Carioca, who introduced Donald Duck to Brazil and to Samba and both to an American audience.
Roosevelt secretly approved projects whereby the War Department negotiated a deal with Pan American Airports Corporation, a subsidiary of the PanAm, to develop airbases and routes from the US via northeastern Brazil to Dakar and North Africa.
After the Japanese surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in Honolulo on December 7th, 1941, which the Japanese intended to neutralize US military activites in the Pacific, the Japanese launched near simultaneous attacks on the British in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Dutch territories, and on the US in the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island.
The US Congress on December 8, 1941 declared war on Japan and on December 11, 1941 and Germany and Italy declared war on the US.
The US Army in 1939 was the 17th in size among the world’s armies. It had 174,000 men in the regular army and a similar number in reserves. Its regiments and battalions were understrength and undertrained, its weaponey was old, as was its officer corps. The US generals who would command in North Africa, Europe, and the Far East, were still majors and lieutenants, and the war industries were few.
The extensive manoeuvres and training held in East Texas and Louisiana in 1940 and 1941 reshaped the officer corps of the army, army tactics, and weapons.
Brazil faced similar problems with infinitely meagre resources and had no training exercises.
The negotiations with the Brazilians were difficult and at times contentious, and disputes between the State Department and the US military did not help. The Brazilians were unwilling to have US troops on their territory, yet they needed US arms, training, and logistical support, and received lend-lease assistance which involved the support of the Volta Redonda Steel Mill, an important part of Brazilian industrial development ambitious.
But it was the personal intervention of President Roosevelt at critical moments, and of General Marshall, who sent his close personal friend and long time trusted colleague, Claude “Flap” Adams, to Brazil as military attache.
Roosevelt and Vargas meet at Natal in January 1943 when Roosevelt’s was on his way back from Casablanca, and together inspected the by then huge Parnamirim Air Base.
The sinking of the Brazilian passanger ship “Baependy” on August 15, 1942, when 16 army officers and 125 men of the Brazilian Seventh Artillary Group were killed among the 320 passengers who lost their lives as the result of an attack by a German submarine had outraged Brazilian public opinion.
By April 1943 the idea of a Brazilian expeditionary force had the backing of key policy makers in both countries.
The move still met with hostility among some facist minded regular officers, especially in Rio de Janeiro, and the American general sent to inspect the Brazlian units found they needed “a more realistic type of training” and that the standarization of weaponry “was badly needed.”
Joint military commissions were established one in Washington and the other in Rio de Janeiro to prepare the defense of North Eastern Brazil and to work with the American Army and Naval Missions to improve the combat readiness of the Brazilian Armed Forces. Vargas recognised that it would take a year for the Brazilians to be ready for deployment overseas. The first echelons of the Brazilian expeditionary force (FEB) which would eventually number 25,334, arrived in Naples in July 1944.
The FEB was to be totally integrated into the American Army.
It was a division in the army of an independent country voluntarily placed under US command. The FEB adopted the smoking cobra as it’s nickname, engaged in 229 days of combat and lost 447 killed. A Brazilian fighter squadron was part of the US 350th fighter group based in Pisa. The Air Transport routes via the base in Natal at Parnamirim became the busiest Air Transport base in the world.
But after WW2 the Brazilians were to be bitterly disappointed.
Brazil did not participate in the occupation forces in Europe. The FEB was withdrawn and disbanded. The promised economic assistence did not arrive and the Cold War between the WW2 Allies, the Soviet Union and the United States, soon took priority.
Roosevelt was dead, President Harry S. Truman was the President of the US, Getulo Vargas was overthrown and replaced by his war minister Enrico Gaspar Dutra, and Vargas’s pro-American Foreign minister, Osvaldo Aranha, a critical supporter of the de-facto US-Brazilian alliance was out of office. In the US the conflict within the State Department and within the military between those who supported a bilateral alliance with Brazil and those who wanted a broader multilateral Latin-Amercian wide alliance intensified.
George Kennan, after a visit to Brazil in 1950, which he did not like at all, wrote that “we have really no vital interest in that part of the world.”
Truman also opposed to the nationalization of Brazil’s petroleum resources with the foundation of Petrobras in 1953 by Vargas after his return to power in 1950 as the democratically elected president of Brazil.
The Americans also opposed the Brazilian nuclear program with Germany.
Brazil did not participate in the Korean War or Vietnam despite requests by the US. The Cuban Revolution transformed US concern with Latin America.
And Brazil’s participation in the Dominican Republic after the US invasion of 1964 produced more misunderstandings between the US and the Brazilian military commanders.
The military coup in Brazil in 1964 brought one of the key figures in the FEB, General Castelo Branco, into power, and the US was very well informed of the situation within the Brazilian army though the Military Attaché , Colonel Vernon Walters, who had been the translator and liaison officer with the FEB during WW2 in Italy.
The US had mobilized a fleet to support the rebels in the case of a civil war in Brazil. But the military regime proved much more difficult than had been anticipated. The military relationship did not improve. The relationship was plagued by conspiracy theories, which McCann does much to dismantle.
But the basic problem was suspicion on the Brazilian side and indifference and insensitivity on the American side.
The low point came during the administration of Jimmy Carter and Ernesto Geisel over human rights and Brazilian nuclear development and was more than Geisel could tolerate.
“We had to live and treat with the United States, as much as possible, as equal to equal, even though they are much stronger, much more powerful than us.”
As a consequence he intensified relations with England, France, Germany and Japan.
The cancellation of the 1952 military accord and the elimination of the mixed military commission that had existed since 1942 altered the nature of US-Brazilian Relations.
The irony was that Geisel was implementing a policy which was to contribute to the ending of the military regime in Brazil and conducting a foreign policy which recognized the newly independent states in former Portuguese Africa.
If Bolsonaro and Trump can reverse these years of disengagement and misunderstandings remains to be seen.
Rhetorically they will certainly attempt to do so.
Bolsonaro is after all “The Trump of the Tropics.”
But those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.
And with the occupant of the White House who has generated more than 30,000 text messages in office, perhaps he will not have time to read a history which might show a way ahead.
The featured photo shows Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump walking to a press conference in the Rose Garden on March 19, 2019.Brendan Smialowski / AFP – Getty Images