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'The Tango War' uncovers the shadow war pursued in Latin America during WWII

As World War II dawned, the US and Europe nervously watched a continent rich in resources and also riddled with pockets of Nazi sympathies.

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

As World War II begins, Americans peer nervously at potential enemies across the oceans. They don't realize that President Franklin Roosevelt and his administration are fretting over a dire threat looming from another direction entirely – the south.

As FDR well knows, Latin America is fertile soil for fascists in general and Nazis in particular. Dictators dominate politics, a long history of American aggression curdles friendliness toward the north, and large German communities – 1 million in Brazil alone – wear swastikas in the streets.

At the same time, Latin America is brimming with crucial wartime resources like oil, rubber, and manpower that could be the key to victory.

To keep Hitler at bay, the Western powers test limits in nations from Mexico to Cuba to Chile. They spy and cajole, they kidnap and kill, they test strategies that echo darkly through the decades to our own time.

Journalist Mary Jo McConahay uncovers this fascinating story in her comprehensive, colorful, and often-troubling new book The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II.

In McConahay's telling, wartime Latin America is a hotbed of skullduggery, violence, and cinematic propaganda straight out of Hollywood. "Each side closely shadowed the steps of the other, like dancers in a tango," she writes.

Round and round they go. On one side are Germany, Italy, and Japan, which have long been making inroads into Latin America. Indeed, "Tango War" begins with a remarkable imagined scene of women in a southern Brazilian planning a Nazi film night while men prepare to proudly march on Hitler's birthday.

On the other side, Great Britain is stung by an overwhelming Germany war machine that's largely powered by Mexican oil. Fortunately for the Allies, the British are masters at espionage, unlike the shockingly unprepared Americans.

In one of the book's many remarkable passages, British spies derail an Italian bid to build on Axis control of air service in South America. They forge a letter from airline brass and convince the Brazilian president that he's facing a coup, and perhaps even worse, mockery from Italians calling him a "fat little man."

He promptly orders the Italian flight crews out of the country, a move that helps to scuttle Axis control of the air across Latin America. This brilliant subterfuge reveals that there's more to effective spycraft than James Bond-style violence, gadgets, and sexual intrigue. A masterful forgery and an insult to vanity can get the job done too, no bloodshed or bikinis required.   

Even better, the Americans play an unwitting role in the whole affair and take credit for themselves. Deliciously, the Brits send along congratulations for a job well done.

As for the US, American officials must disentangle themselves from their infamous regional history of putting corporations first and locals last, especially in oil-rich Mexico. This, to say the least, requires tremendous finesse.

"Tango War" is especially captivating when it profiles people in crisis – conflicted Latin American leaders, the crew of a trapped German ship, and a propaganda maestro named Orson Welles who lives to regret his eventful foray south.

There are heroes here too. Bolivia and the tiny nation of Dominican Republic welcome refugee Jews, unlike so many other nations around the world. And 25,000 Brazilians head to Europe to fight for the Allies. 

McConahay, a veteran Latin America correspondent, also focuses on compelling characters whose ordinary lives are transformed. Modern-day interviews capture the lasting legacies of the shadow war and, most disturbingly, expose the cruelty of an American-led practice that we'd now call extraordinary rendition.

As Japanese people on the American West Coast are rounded up and sent to internment camps,  Peru allows the kidnapping of about 1,800 ethnic Japanese residents. One man tells McConahay about watching his Japanese schoolmates and their families suddenly vanish in Peru, while two brothers recall hiding with their family until FBI agents order them to board a US Army ship with only a single trunk between them.

Along with Japanese from other Latin American countries, they're sent to camps in the US and sometimes traded to Japan for Americans interned there. Many never return home.

This mass kidnapping is supposedly for safety's sake, but bigotry is at play too. And it could have been worse. Amazingly, the American secretary of state floats the prospect of "virtually cleansing the continent" of Japanese people.

McConahay notes that this story is often ignored in Peru and barely known in the outside world. "Those who remember portray a dark and complex moment," she writes, one that raises questions about "U.S. allegiance to its own principles."

The deep rifts exposed by the war don't vanish with Allied victory in 1945. McConahay vividly examines the post-war era when Catholic leaders help Nazi war criminals survive by stashing them in South America.

Now, more than 70 years later, the focus is on another Latin American tango, this one between the behemoth US to the north and the many nations to the south. As we look forward, McConahay's book gives us insight into the region's intricacies and the disastrous dance moves that belong in the past.

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