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February 20, 2015


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Suppose South America had seen an outbreak of violence on the continent during the 20th Century. Do you assume that would produce the same leveling found in the North Atlantic? Is there an argument that the War of the Triple Alliance aided egalitarianism? Didn't think so, just devastation.

Was there any plausible way Latin America could have shared in the North Atlantic experience?

Logan: This is interesting! I'm not sure that the War of the Triple Alliances proves your point, however.

There are two problems. The first is temporal. No 19th-century war aided egalitarianism anywhere, with the possible exception of the U.S. Civil War. But that was only because it ended slavery, a rather different mechanism.

So it's a bit of a sleight of hand to argue that the Paraguayan War has any relevance to a hypothetical mid-20th-century Great South American War. After all, one could have argued in 1939 that the upcoming war will have no leveling effects. After all, neither the Civil War nor WW1 produced any!

But that argument would have been very wrong.

The second problem concerns state-building more than egalitarianism. The War of the Triple Alliance was a total war for only one of the belligerents: Paraguay. And Paraguay, not coincidentally, had the most capacious state in the region up until its defeat.

For everyone else it was an unnecessary foreign adventure that worsened divisions at home and weakened rather than strengthened the state.

Consider Argentina. The Argentine was massacred in the debacles of 1866, all of which took place on Paraguayan soil. The result wasn't greater mobilization, but an eruption of anti-war sentiment which culminated in a series of provincial rebellions that ultimately killed around 5,000 people. (This wasn't really Buenos Aires against the provinces inasmuch as the federal government against everyone; antiwar feelings prompted calls for B.A. to leave the republic.) The government attempted conscription, which failed utterly. By 1868, Buenos Aires had to press captured Paraguayans into battle on pain of death.

Antiwar sentiment also meant that attempts to raise taxes for the war collapsed. Not only did Buenos Aires fail to raise taxes, it couldn't even raise domestic bond issues. It had to turn to loans from British and Brazilian banks.

Similar tumult in an 18th or 19th century European war -- hell, a 20th century European war -- would have led to foreign occupation, territorial losses, and reparation payments, if not a complete loss of independence. But in the War of the Triple Alliance, Argentine won.

It was fighting Paraguay, after all. Paraguay might have had a relatively cohesive and efficient state, but it still was, well, Paraguay. It's like Germany invading Belgium in alliance with France and the Netherlands, getting bogged down, taking five years to finish the war --- helped by a cholera epidemic in Belgium --- and then settling for bits of Luxembourg and half of Liege instead of the whole country.

Moreover, instead of ushering in revanchist sentiment and preparation for more wars, the war was pretty much it for interstate conflict in the southern cone. Argentina didn't get into another interstate dust-up until 1982.

In short, the European state-building mechanisms weren't in place. To be fair, the effects were more mixed for Brazil; the war may have strengthened the Brazilian state and indirectly contributed to the long-term unity of the country. That said, the war was a one-off for Brazil ... its only other two major international conflicts would be the short Acre War and the BEF in WW2. The latter, I have to stress, was not an all-out national commitment on the scale of the U.S. or Canada. Rather, Brazil sent the most that it could without engaging in any form of extraordinary resource mobilization. You wouldn't expect such a weak effort to produce much state building, and it didn't.

I'll write a full post if there's interest.

I would be interested.

Do a compare and contrast with Taiping episode!

Huh, just occured to me that another 19th century conflict, the Crimean War, ended up strengthening the resolve of Moscow wrt ending serfdom.

I'm skeptical. This paper, based on the earlier "history without evidence" work, has exactly one datapoint from pre-independence Latin America: New Spain in 1790. (That point happens to show that, by the inequality frontier analysis, that this was a tremendously unequal society.) The rest, including the (heroic) claims about pre- and post-1492, are just interpolations across 300 years using regression coefficients, from a relatively small and unrepresentative database. I read this as a provocative conjecture, not tangible evidence about Iberian colonialism, pernicious or benign.

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