A Fact You May Not Know: Brazil Helped Invade Italy during World War II
The term “United Nations” was in large part derived from the large number of nations that joined in common cause between 1939 and 1945 to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy during World War II. Scores of nations joined the major Allied powers to contribute, directly or indirectly, to the defeat of the common enemy.
One of those nations was South America’s largest country, Brazil. The significant contribution of her wealth, resources, and blood of her own people is, unfortunately, little remembered today.
Latin America in World War II
Originally, Latin America was important to the United States for the resources it provided to a nation soon to be at war. In 1940, 90 percent of the region’s coffee, 83 percent of the sugar, 78 percent of the bauxite, 70 percent of the tungsten, as well as significant percentages of tin, copper, and crude oil were imported to the United States for both domestic and military consumption.
Although the United States was not yet at war, it had concerns about Latin America, for a dictator sympathetic to Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini might cause trouble for a United States that was trying to remain neutral. German propaganda took full advantage of the opportunity and distributed literature and films in Spanish to encourage dissension throughout Latin America. It even established a propaganda radio station in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Mexico was already at odds with the United States. It had expropriated American oil companies, and the United States was claiming that communist and National Socialist plots were prevalent throughout that country. And the Mexican government was ready to expel any American agents within its borders that were identified. Mexico also clearly anticipated a German victory, which the country was expected to use to strengthen its position with the United States. Mexico finally sent a squadron of fighter aircraft to the Pacific late in the war.
Other Central and South American countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru, and Venezuela wanted no part of the conflict and remained on the sidelines.
Brazil’s Road to War
In Brazil in June 1940, President Getúlio Vargas had already informed the German ambassador that Brazil fully intended to maintain its independence, despite Vargas’s known dislike of the democratic system and the appeal he personally felt for totalitarian states. Other states, like Argentina, were split in their loyalties. Chile, Uruguay, and Panama (of the Spanish-speaking countries, only Panama entered into a declaration of war) were sympathetic to the American camp, but the United States had to bring the entire continent onto its side.
To do so, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Inter-American Financial and Economic Committee, based in Panama. Then a number of conferences were held in Panama, Rio de Janeiro, and Washington, D.C., to settle differences between the members. The Chapultepec Conference held in Mexico resulted in an agreement that laid the foundations of the future cooperation of the American states. With Nelson A. Rockefeller as his coordinator for inter-American affairs, President Roosevelt loaned the Latin American states money, increased imports from them to the United States, and sent American technicians to modernize the economy of the various countries.
The Germans did much to push Brazil into the American camp. U-boat attacks off the coast of Brazil sank several Brazilian ships and killed over 600 of its citizens, including women and children. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Vargas decided to honor his nation’s commitments to the United States and, in January 1942, broke diplomatic relations with Germany, Japan, and Italy.
The Brazilian Navy immediately took steps to protect its shipping while the air force conducted offshore patrols to detect enemy submarines. Several Brazilian military bases were ceded to the United States for similar uses. The sinking of Brazilian ships continued, however, with another dozen ships gone by August 1942. Vargas and his government had enough provocation by this point, and in the same month declared war on Germany and Italy.
The Creation of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force
It took longer for Brazil to decide how to contribute to the Allied war effort. Concerns that the fascist forces in North Africa, which bulged too close for comfort just across the South Atlantic, might take some aggressive action against Brazil, kept her forces at home in a protective mode. But with the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 and the eventual defeat of the Axis forces there, Brazil turned to a more active role in the war.
On December 31, 1942, President Vargas announced in a speech that his government was beginning to “think on the responsibilities of an extra-continental action.” This idea would soon develop into the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, which would fight alongside the Allies in Italy in 1944 and 1945.
The first concrete steps were taken at a conference between Presidents Roosevelt and Vargas at Natal in northeastern Brazil on January 28, 1943. There the two heads of state agreed that Brazil would make some physical contribution to the Allied war effort beyond protecting its own borders. That March, President Vargas issued an “Explanation of Motives” written earlier by the war minister in which he proposed the organization of an expeditionary force to fight outside the continent. Thus was born the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, or BEF.