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Latin American Neutrality During the First World War

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Current map of Latin America

Current map of Latin America

Latin-American 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).

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).

In the 1970s, historian Emily Rosenberg echoed the arguments of Martin in her work, “World War I and ‘Continental Solidarity.’” In her analysis of Latin American neutrality during the war, Rosenberg argues that the First World War “revealed an inconvenient, even dangerous, disunity within the [Western] hemisphere,” in which American leaders “longed to rationalize Latin America into a harmonious group…all following the example of the United States” (Rosenberg, 333).

For many Latin American countries, however, Rosenberg argues that these ambitions were both unwelcome and undesirable since Wilson’s “New Pan-Americanism” was perceived as a “multinational endorsement of United States policies and values” (Rosenberg, 314). In a similar manner to Martin, Rosenberg points out that many Latin Americans viewed any sort of intervention (on behalf of the United States) as an attempt to broaden their control over South America (Rosenberg, 314). Therefore, as a result of this growing fear of American power, Rosenberg asserts that Latin American countries such as Mexico and Argentina maintained neutrality during the war as a means of protecting and maintaining “independence from the United States;” stressing “Yankeephobic doctrines” and “Hispanism” as a means to distance themselves from not only the war but also the pro-United States bloc of South American countries (led primarily by Brazil) (Rosenberg, 333). Thus, according to Rosenberg, Latin American neutrality did not necessarily reflect a stance against the ongoing war in Europe; rather, it reflected a fear of the United States and its growing power (and diplomatic control) over Latin America.

In more recent years, additional interpretations regarding Latin American neutrality have emerged that provide greater insight into specific localities and their policies of nonalignment during the Great War. In Jane Rausch’s article, “Colombia’s Neutrality During 1914-1918,” the author asserts that Colombian neutrality derived from an absence of hostile feelings toward Germany, as she argues that Colombia possessed no “specific complaint to rise against the Central Powers” (Rausch, 109). Unlike Brazil, which entered the war after suffering numerous losses from Germany’s unrestricted submarine campaigns, Rausch points out that Colombia suffered no comparable attacks and, in turn, had no reason “to declare war without any reason” (Rausch, 109).

More importantly, however, Rausch maintains that Colombia’s decision to pursue nonalignment stemmed from a separate causative factor linked to years of tradition. As she states, “Colombia’s declaration of neutrality reflected its historical pattern of international diplomacy” in which its past governments “consistently sought resolution through arbitration and international justice, even when such a policy worked against their own national interests” (Rausch, 106). Viewed in this manner, Rausch’s interpretation views Colombian neutrality as a simple continuation of its past history; a “realistic reaction with regard to the European conflict” (Rausch, 106).

Published around the same time as Rausch’s article, historian Phillip Dehne’s work, “How important was Latin America to the First World War?” also attempts to provide a sense of causation to Latin American neutrality. In a similar manner to Rausch, Dehne argues that nonalignment in South America derived from the absence of a credible (and potential) threat. While the war certainly affected the Western hemisphere (in regard to trade, diplomacy, and politics), Dehne points out that Latin America remained largely outside the reach and influence of the Central Powers. As he states, “the German government could not threaten anyone in Latin America with invasion or conquest” due to the geographical gulf that separated both Europe and South America (Dehne, 158). While neutral countries in Europe faced the prospect of invasion if their policies countered the wishes and demands of the Central Powers, Dehne points out that such measures were impossible to carry out in Latin America since German influence and power (including their international agents) posed no serious threat to the function of South American governments and their societies (Dehne, 158).

Dehne also explains Latin American neutrality from an alternate perspective and explains why particular South American countries chose to avoid the courtship of the Allies as well. In their attempts to limit trade and contact with the Central Powers, Dehne argues that the British implemented both blockades and “blacklists” to wage a supposed “economic war” against the Central Powers in Latin America (Dehne, 156). However, Dehne points out that such measures were primarily implemented to “help British companies permanently take over the market share of the trade in commodities vital to the health of the Latin American economies” (Dehne, 156). In doing so, Dehne asserts that Britain looked to obtain “permanent [economic] gains” in Latin America (Dehne, 156).

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According to Dehne, however, these maneuvers served only to alienate Latin American countries away from the Allies—who viewed these measures as a direct and unwarranted intrusion of their sovereignty and rights (Dehne, 156). Viewed in conjunction with German attempts to gain ground in South America, Dehne argues that “Latin American politicians and their publics were turned off by the awkward and unique diplomatic and economic wars fought by both sides in their countries” (Dehne, 162). As such, Dehne concludes that Latin American neutrality derived primarily from their incompatibility with the interests and goals of the Allies and Central Powers.

Why It's Critical to Understand These Experiences

As these historical works demonstrate, Latin America played a unique role throughout the First World War that is often ignored by modern historiographical trends. Why is this the case? Older works tend to stress the fact that neutral nations offered little military support (i.e. troops and weapons). As a result, the contributions and experience of Latin American nations have too often been relegated by prior scholars (with the exception of Martin), as their position in world affairs was deemed “as passive and uninteresting” (Rinke, 9). Yet, as more recent histories point out, the economic and political contributions that Latin Americans made towards the war effort should not be ignored. As historian Stefan Rinke argues, neutral countries of the First World War deserve greater attention since their “natural resources” and “strategic position” often played a significant role in the global war that surrounded them (Rinke, 9).

In conclusion, clear similarities and differences exist amongst historians and their views regarding Latin American neutrality during the First World War. While a clear consensus may never be achieved within the historical community on this subject, the field shows signs of incredible growth and potential as historians shift their focus to localities outside of the European continent. Understanding the experiences of Latin America is essential for historians, as their story forms a crucial component of the Great War that surrounded them.

Works Cited


Dehne, Phillip. “How important was Latin America to the First World War?” Iberoamericana, 14:3 (2014): 151-64.

Martin, Percy Alvin. Latin America and the War. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1925.

Rausch, Jane M. “Colombia’s Neutrality during 1914-1918: An Overlooked Dimension of World War I.” Iberoamericana, 14:3 (2014): 103-115.

Rinke, Stefan. Latin America and the First World War. Translated by Christopher W. Reid. Edited by Erez Manela, John McNeil and Aviel Roshwald. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Rosenberg, Emily S. “World War I and ‘Continental Solidarity.’” The Americas, 31:3 (1975): 313-334.


"History of Latin America." Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed July 29, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Larry Slawson

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