Latin American Neutrality During the First World War

Published: 2 November 2023

By Larry Slawson
via the Owlcation web site

Why did most Latin-American countries want to stay out of World War I

Why did most Latin-American countries want to stay out of World War I?

Latin-America’s Participation in the First World War

In recent decades, historians have expressed a newfound interest in reexamining the role of non-European countries in World War I, as well as the contributions that these nations made in regard to the diplomatic, political, and economic policies adopted by the Allies and Central Powers. While largely ignored in prior years, more recent historical works have focused on the importance of Latin America to the war effort, as well as the decision of many South American countries to remain neutral throughout the duration of the conflict.

This article seeks to examine these works through a historiographical analysis of trends surrounding Latin American participation in the Great War. Specifically, this article is concerned with the issue of Latin American neutrality during the war: why did it occur, and what causative factors have historians assigned to their decision to maintain a position of non-alignment?

Early Historiography

In the 1920s, historian Percy Alvin Martin offered one of the first attempts to answer questions such as these in his work, Latin America and the War. In his analysis of Latin American countries that remained neutral throughout the First World War, Martin argues that these nations sought a position of nonalignment due to their desire to “counteract” the growing influence and pressure of the United States over South America (Martin, 27).

Newspaper announcing Costa Rica’s declaration of war against the German Empire in World War I. Costa Rica was one of the few Latin American nations to do so.

Upon entering the war in 1917, Martin argues that the United States attempted to use its regional authority as a means of coercing “nations south of the Rio Grande” to follow suit in “the war against Germany” (Martin, 24). However, in the early twentieth century, Martin posits that many Latin Americans viewed any encroachment of the United States (whether diplomatic or political) with both “suspicion and distrust” as a result of America’s “past actions” in the War of 1848, the Panama Canal, as well as their recent establishment of political hegemony in several “Caribbean and Central American republics” (Martin, 24-25).

As a result, Martin argues that many Latin Americans “firmly believed the United States was aiming at the establishment of a political preponderance over the entire Western Hemisphere” and, in turn, actively sought measures to counteract this ambition from reaching fruition (Martin, 25). Consequently, Martin states: “Latin Americans honestly believed that the best interests of their own nations, and even those of civilization and humanity, could best be subserved by adherence to a strict neutrality” to the war effort, regardless of whatever sympathies they held toward the Allied cause (Martin, 29).

It is important to note that Martin’s work makes it clear that “neutrality did not mean indifference,” as “several neutral states” provided “raw materials, products, and resources” to the American and Allied cause (Martin, 29). However, Martin posits that any attempt to develop a “more cordial cooperation” with the United States was strictly limited due to negative past experiences with the Americans (Martin, 25). Consequently, Martin’s work demonstrates that Latin American neutrality served as a reflection of their desire to protect and develop a concept of “Hispano Americanismo” rather than President Woodrow Wilson’s vision for a “Pan Americanism” (Martin, 26).

Read the entire article on the Owlcation web site.
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