ARGENTINE GOOSE STEP
Fascism in the Americas! . . . While our soldiers fight Hitler overseas, Hitler’s imitators have scuppered democracy right in our own hemisphere
THIS morning you read your paper on the way down to the office . . . the paper of your choice . . . for or against, powerful or mild . . . but edited and bought freely.
Last night you probably went to see a film . . . the picture you wanted to see . . . without benefit of political censor’s shears.
This evening you’re likely to pick up the telephone . . . and dial or ask for a number . . . and you’ll have no fear that official eavesdroppers will be noting and remembering.
That’s true today not only in Canada but in almost any other country in the Americas, North or South. But it’s not true in Argentina.
In Buenos Aires these days you can’t read a free newspaper. Every editorial, every dispatch, every headline must be approved by the military regime now in power or the paper closes up . . . and the editor goes to jail. The papers you read to find out what really goes on are the underground papers . . . printed secretly in hideaway basements or hidden garrets and distributed on the streets at night.
You see nothing at the movies that might offend the Axis-admiring militarists, especially anything which paints the Nazis in too unfriendly a light or gives the United Nations the advantage of any doubt.
And you don’t have any telephone conversations on important subjects—especially subjects like politics
or elections or the colonels and admirals and generals in command—for you are likely to find yourself in a concentration camp, without even the benefit of trial.
But, you ask, isn’t that just like Germany? And, if that’s so, how could it have happened here, right in our own hemisphere back yard, at the very moment when the free nations of the world are fighting to destroy such Fascism everywhere? Furthermore, won’t it all collapse the moment Hitler and his gang are defeated in Europe?
The answer to the first question is that it is like Germany or Fascist Italy or militarist-controlled Japan. Freedom of the press, of speech, and of assembly and religion have been abolished—together with Congress, elections, free trade unions and schools, free business enterprise and free thought.
The answer to the second question and to the third need further probing; the kind of probing I was able to do during almost five years spent in Argentina as a newspaper correspondent, both betöre the militarists came into power in June, 1943, and afterward, until a few months ago.
This, therefore, is a report on what is going on behind the thick veil of Argentine censorship and suppression; behind the new promises of freedom and co-operation coming from the Rio de la Plata—but designed mainly for export.
The men who’ve chosen the Axis way in Argentina
provide the secret of how it came about and reveal the vital implications of where it is going. Know the men —and the forces behind them—and you find no mystery over how it could happen here, and how the aggressive, militant Fascism they represent threatens the very peace for which the Americas are fighting.
Led by Colonels
THE leaders of the military regime in Argentina are the colonels—German influenced, trained and inspired, but not German directed. This is important, for there is a mistaken notion that most of what has taken place in Argentina operates via direct line from Berlin. If this were true it might be fair to assume that when Der Führer gets the “unconditional surrender” treatment there would be no further difficulty on the Pampa.
The Germans operated their technique in Argentina and in Latin America in quite another fashion. As far back as 1912 they sent their first military mission to Argentina; gave the Argentine Army the goose step, which it still uses today, and the helmet and the high-collared uniform. But there was something else, the fundamental concept of a permanent Army officers corps with the basic, chosen duty of taking over the civilian administration when they believed the civilian administration had failed.
The Germans and the Nazis who followed them —picked Argentina because it offered the ideal “branch office” in this hemisphere. It was the only Latin country which had an almost pure European stock. It possessed rich agricultural and industrial possibilities, and it had the best-paid, best-trained Army in Latin America.
Chief mover in this scheme was General Wilhelm
von Faupel, who sold Hitler on the idea of founding the Ibero-American Institute, Nazidom’s .superorganization for Latin America. The Institute had two main objectives: a military drive to convince the Argentineans first of Nazi superiority and the value of a strong, centralized authoritarian system for the military itself; the second to develop a powerful nationalist group, which would operate against foreigners but chiefly against the United States and the British, whose holdings in Argentina exceed even those of Uncle Sam.
During the 30’s more and more likely young prospects in the Argentine Army were given free trips to Berlin to see the Panzer divisions and the Blitzkrieg battalions Germany was building up to use against us. And many of these young officers came back convinced. Nazi propaganda, operating efficiently, quietly, effectively in Latin America began to have its effect.
Argentina had been the freest, most liberal country in Latin America, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor things began to change. Old, tight-lipped President Ramon S. Castillo, backed by the Army, determined on a policy of neutrality. This meant, in effect, that you could do business with the Wilhelmstrasse and with London and Washington at the same time. Step by step things began to change. By the end of 1942 Argentine officialdom had clearly shown that despite Pan-American commitments it was going to follow its own course regardless of what the essentially prodemocratic people felt about it.
A so-called “State of Siege” was imposed, something like martial law, which gave Castillo the chance to decree that the Constitution no longer existed. And as the United Nations began working with Brazil and other Latin countries, establishing bases and sending more and more troops down for the
jump across the South Atlantic to Africa and invasion, Goebbels changed his propaganda line.
“The United States,” he said in countless ways, “is getting ready to conquer Argentina ... to make
It was farfetched, it was unbelievable, but it worked on the proud, sensitive, suspicious militarists who for years had been hearing variations on the same theme and who, partly because of this and partly because of U. S. mistakes, misjudgments and mismanagement of policy toward Argentina, had come to believe it.
THEN in June, 1943, the military officials, fearful that even the tightrope-walking Castillo might “give in” to the United Nations, took over. There was joy in some places—in London and Washington among others—but not among those of us who felt the cold chill of the Fascist coup in Buenos Aires. At first the leaders were unknown. A General Arturo Rawson (his name sounded English so some thought he must be all right) was deposed after he had been in the Casa Rosada—Argentina’s pink White House—less than 36 hours. Another general, who had been Castillo’s war minister, Pedro P. Ramirez came in. But unlike the history of Berlin or Rome the people were not involved—there was no Fascist or Nazi Party behind the gold-braided, sash-sporting officials who had chased Castillo onto a gun boat sailing down the river; only the handful of nationalists.
In the first days it was hard to tell what might happen. The air was full of promises and balconydelivered double talk to the crowds in tree-lined Plaza Mayo in Buenos Aires. As in Germany, the most presentable of the colonels’ clique were pushed forward to meet the diplomatic representatives from the United States, from England, from Canada and the other republics of the Americas. Promises were given to make us believe that soon—“just give us the recognition first, please”—steps would be taken against the Japs and the Nazis and the Italian Fascists who had been flourishing in Argentina.
Democracy, fading under Castillo, would be restored to be sure. Graft—which, of course, had no public supporters anywhere—would be eliminated and the country handed back to the people.
Once recognition was granted, however, the goose step down the totalitarian road began in earnest. First, as in the Reich, it was the Press, already gagged by Castillo’s state of siege. Military censors moved into editors’ chairs to determine what could get into type and what must be put on the “dead hook.” They stopped or ruthlessly blue-penciled all outgoing cables; decided what Argentineans could read. All this, of course, under the guise of maintaining neutrality and impartiality.
The radio—the largest commercial broadcasting setup anywhere in the world outside the United States—was next. With it came the films, especially the prodemocratic pictures, which the big, modern Argentine cinema palaces found drew the heaviest applause.
The Argentine Army was taking over in much the same fashion as the Nazi Army took over in France or Belgium or Norway. The civilian Cabinet resigned. Military men moved into their places. The Congress, based on that in the U. S., was abolished. Elections were called off until further notice, with all political Parties abolished until they could be “cleansed.”
Big prodemocratic organizations like the -Junta de la Victoria, whose women made bandages and knitted socks for Allied soldiers, were ordered dissolved. But the government-heiling groups, such as Acción Argentina, continued without difficulty, despite the fact that a Congressional Committee (whose activities were terminated) gave concrete evidence that the group was financed from the Nazi Embassy a few blocks away.
President Ramirez, who did the flag waving and official ceremony attending for the G.O.U.—the colonels’ secret lodge—rubber-stamped decrees with such rapidity that the story went the rounds that a janitor had been dismissed for leaving a sandwich wrapper on the President’s desk, for Ramirez had signed it, thinking it was an official statute.
Hustled to Jail
OFFICIAL intervention spread into even the tiniest details of personal life. As the Argentine censorship increased I had to get my cables out through Montevideo, across the river. I had to hide my diary and my papers. My phone was tapped, my mail opened. Businesses were interfered with or expropriated—all, as in Germany, in the supposed “interests of the State” and for the “improvement of
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the people,” who were never consulted.
I recall one particular incident. Taking seriously an official (designed for foreign consumption) announcement that freedom of speech had been restored, a group of 150 of Argentina’s most distinguished educators, scientists, doctors and lawyers put their names to a petition urging the colonels to reconsider their course before it was too late. The answer didn’t take long. Every one was discharged with a stinging rebuke. And the last jampacked lectures of some of the professors, men who had served for 25 years and brought world fame to Argentina, were as heart-rending as anything ever seen in the early book-burning days of the Reich.
Some of those men and far more others—labor leaders, teachers, civil service heads, lawyers, newspapermen who could not be silenced by threats— were hustled off to Villa Devoto, the famed suburban jail, or down to concentration camps in bleak, remote Patagonia and are there today. Plverything is advertised as a drive against Communism, and that term has become an all-inclusive for anything the jingoistic colonels don’t like. Even the slogans are similar—Spanish versions of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
These things are still true today but there is something even more dangerous. Not long before I left Argentina I was given a mysterious invitation to visit a “bicycle factory.” We drove out into the country on an especially dark night and then waited for a guide who was to get us in. It all seemed very mysterious and melodramatic until we were admitted through a side door. Then I understood the reason for the secrecy and the hush-hush. For they weren’t making bicycles in that factory, they were making tanks. And the tanks weren’t being made for any war to fight Fascism; they were being made as part of an intensive drive by the Argentine Army to build the most powerful force in Latin America to preserve, and to spread, the new Argentine way.
That factory was run by Fritz Mandl, former husband of Hollywood’s Hedy Lamarr. Mandi came to Argentina several years ago supposedly to open a bicycle plant. Today Mandl is the chief arms maker and adviser to the man who has emerged as the most important figure in the Argentine military regime—and the man to watch during 1945—Colonel Juan D. Perón, vice-president, war minister and secretary of labor and welfare.
Brilliant graduate of Argentina’s Colegio Militar, Perón was a boxing,
fencing and pistol champion at school, and one of the better younger officers when he received an invitation not long before the war to cross the south Atlantic and see what the Nazis were doing. He was taken everywhere, saw everything. He came home certain that the Nazis had the right idea. Other officers in the Argentine Army felt the same way, especially the younger officers, who believed the generals were interested more in their privileges and prerogatives, their prestige and their polish than anything else.
With Nazi inspiration Perón and others, especially Colonel Emilio Gonzalez, an apple-cheeked brassbutton disciplinarian, Colonel Elbio Anaya, blustering cavalryman, and Colonel Pedro Ramirez, rigid, cold, severe, formed the colonels’ G.O.U. from an aftergrowth of veterans of the 1930 Uriburu revolution in Argentina. Perón—an aggressive, strong-willed, subtle, dynamic leader—first kept himself in the background as the revolution was planned. The clique had the spiritual and moral help and advice of many a retired pronationalist Army man. One such was General Basilo Pertine, director of many a black-listed Nazi firm, including Siemens-Schuckert, the vast electrical trust. Pertine got his reward when he was appointed to the mayoralty of Buenos Aires.
After the revolution the colonels got stronger and stronger. Perón, playing his enemies off one against the other, obtained a more and more powerful position. And Nazi operations, business activities, espionage and fifth columning continued despite the frequent notes and diplomatic protests from the White House and 10 Downing Street.
Change in Presidents
In January, 1944, this espionage reached such a point that finally the U. S. and the British decided to act following the arrest of an officially employed German spy. That decision had quick results, for it was accompanied by a now-or-never warning. But once relations with Berlin and Rome and Tokyo were officially broken and the spotlight turned away, the Argentine militarists returned to their old tricks. When Ramirez and his Foreign Minister sought to implement the break, they were forced out. In Ramirez’ place came square-jawed Edelmiro J. Farrell, a nonentity even in Army circles.
The real power, however, remained in the hands of the colonels, and especially of Perón, who at this writing is preparing the groundwork for elections so that he might be legally and constitutionally elected. Perón isn’t stacking all his eggs in that basket,
however. As Labor Secretary, his first limelight winning post, he sought to win recognition in Argentina as the friend of the people. Raises were granted in certain industries, employees received Christmas bonuses and gifts, hours and working conditions were improved . . . but in almost every case employers got the bills and Perón got the credit.
When he took over the war ministry and the vice-presidency the moves were in another direction. Perón began tooling up for war production; not merely tanks but every other type of war weapon. In public speeches he said the keystone of Argentina’s international policy was to be military force, and that the entire economy of the country and the lives of its people must, as in Germany and Italy, be dedicated to war.
Hardly had the effect of this died down when Argentina announced a new type^of compulsory military service for boys and girls, men and women, from 12 years upward. The Argentine Army, now about five times as great as the 50,000 men it had when the militarists took over, is growing daily. The shift in the economy of the most prosperous country in Latin America has already shown itself in the increasingly heavy national debt which is worrying Canadian and other foreign financial institutions in Argentina.
The armed force is being built up with the aid of German and Italian Fascist technicians, many of whom have entered this hemisphere in the last few months via the Spanish boats which still call at Buenos Aires. Essentially the Argentine militarists feel that to protect the kind of setup they—and the Nazis—want in Argentina, it is necessary to build the Army to the point of undoubted supremacy in Latin America.
For the present the colonels seemingly have no plans to move into their cross-border Good Neighbor territories. They do want to be sure they would be ready for either expansion or anything else in LTruguay and Chile. But actually they fear far more from Brazil, whom they are certain the United States has armed specifically as a threat over Argentina.
In the back of their minds is the very definite feeling — rarely expressed publicly but often privately—that eventually a day will come when they will have to battle it out with the United States.
Our own Allied military authorities, both in Washington and London, were once wont to dismiss any such idea as an honest-to-goodness shootin’ war with a South American republic as preposterous. But now they are more than merely concerned with the military machine being created in Buenos Aires. Part of that concern is expressed in the fact that neither the United States nor Canada nor Britain have recognized the military government since Ramirez was forced out.
A few months ago professional exponents of the Good Neighbor policy were still pooh-poohing the idea that nothing was really wrong in Argentina that a few well-directed diplomatic pouch letters couldn’t cure. Today the realization has suddenly come upon them that Argentina is not only a weak link in the hemisphere chain but an out-and-out “deserter” of democracy.
Even more important, Argentina continues to be an aid to our enemies and to be promoting the things which the United Nations are fighting. It’s the postwar possibility that worries the authorities fully as much as the current situation. While tackling a Nazi stronghold in Latin America isn’t the battle for Berlin or the mop-up of Tokyo, it may be, in its own way,
4ully as difficult an operation and certainly one to make many hesitate about sending the boys home while a sword still hangs over us south of the border.
About the Solution
The military threat has become stronger in recent months because the Argentine links and outright aid to the Axis (despite window dressing to the contrary) have become apparent and unashamed. As to the solution, there are still several schools of thought in world capitals. Everybody agrees “something” must be done. The economic sanction imposers are sometimes in the lead and sometimes behind. They range from those who would cut off purchases of Argentine meat and wheat entirely (and letting Argentina try to work out her own salvation) to those who feel, like Sumner Welles, that recognition should be granted and the militarists then won over.
Opposed to sanctions, at least until now, has been the Allied High Command. They’ve insisted England needed the meat and wheat from Argentina to feed both her own people and the U. S. and Canadian troops in England and that cutting off our meat to spite the Fascists in Buenos Aires would be impractical.
But there is a solution say those who favor sanctions. Today the supply can be made up in the United States and in Canada . . . but it would mean more rationing. The effect in Argentina would be immediate. As the world’s greatest exporter of foodstuffs, cutting off purchases and sales would mean lightninglike economic collapse.
There are those who argue against sanctions as interference in internal affairs. The prodemocratic underground movement in Argentina itself disagrees with this view. It insists the military regime came into power through outside influence. Therefore, underground leaders add, if the United Nations refuse to buy Argentina meat and wheat and turn thumbs down on business, it is not interference, it is merely refusing to subsidize Fascism.
Two stumbling blocks lie in the path of sanctions. First, there is little doubt that if sanctions were applied an attempt would be made to make it appear that the Big Stick had returned to replace the Good Neighbor policy. Many Argentineans, finding the going tough, and reacting in characteristic fashion, would not unnaturally side with this idea and throw the blame on whoever the militarists told them was applying the pressure. Thus, it’s argued, sanctions—always a dangerous weapon—would defeat their own purpose by making enemies for democracy.
Second stumbling block is the amount of British, Empire and U. S. investments in Argentina which might suffer were an economic squeeze to be applied by the United Nations. There is something to be said for the strong objection from many businessmen and investors. Recently, though, even many who fear jeopardizing holdings in Argentina have become increasingly disturbed by Argentine moves to seize or expropriate their properties—at valuations which have no relation to the true investment.
“If we are going to lose by seizure,” some of these people believe, “we might as well do something while there is still time.”
As the Argentine question grows more intense and the danger greater to both Canadian and U. S. homes there is no unanimity of opinion. Our hemisphere’s number one headache needs a cure, however, and the longer it remains uncured the greater will be the postwar headache.