Latin America in the War

By Benito Javier Perez-Verdia
Member of the Mexican Bar

[New York Times/Current History, February 1919]

Eight of the twenty Latin-American nations—Brazil, Cuba, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Haiti, and Honduras declared war on Germany, the last five having entered the struggle after April, 1918. Four republics severed diplomatic relations with the German Empire—Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, and Ecuador. El Salvador declared a benevolent neutrality toward the United States, which was understood to be more than a paper declaration, since it entailed the use of Salvadorean ports by United States warships and those of the Allies, regardless of the restrictions as to the length of stay of warships in neutral ports, set by international law.

Six Latin-American nations—Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, and Venezuela remained neutral. This neutrality in no way implied hostility to the policy of the United States; it meant that, as they had not suffered any direct grievance at the hands of Germany, their national interests received preference over every other political consideration. Thus in the case of Argentina, it meant that, as she filed her protest when the German submarines illegally sank the Argentine sailing ships Monte Protegido and Oriana and the steamer Toro, she succeeded in wresting from the German Government a promise to respect Argentine shipping and to pay an indemnity for all damages growing from the illegal acts.

Not all the Latin-American nations were treated alike by Germany. When the German Empire, on Jan. 31, 1917, instituted its submarine blockade of the British, French, and Italian shores, several Latin-American nations followed the lead of the United States and entered a strong protest against such a violation of international law. These nations were Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay. While the protests of Brazil and Uruguay followed the normal course of such diplomatic communications, the Guatemalan protest and others from small nations were received with the greatest contempt. Accordingly, the Government of Guatemala, in a decree dated April 27, 1917, stated that "as the German Government has not had even the courtesy to acknowledge the receipt of Guatemala's protest against the submarine blockade, either directly or through her representative in Guatemala, the only becoming action in the circumstances is the severance of diplomatic relations."

Haiti protested on May 11, 1917, against the submarine blockade, holding Germany responsible for the lives and interests of Haitian subjects traveling on the high seas. When several natives of Haiti lost their lives on the Karnak and Montreal the proper representations were made. Germany in reply handed the Chargé d'Affairs of Haiti his passports, thus compelling Haiti in turn to dismiss the German Chargé d'Affaires in June, 1917.


Of the Latin-American nations which declared war on Germany, Cuba and Panama were the first to throw themselves into the world conflict on April 7, 1917, that is to say, the day following the beginning of hostilities between the United States and Germany. President Menocal, in his message to the Cuban Congress, reviewed the causes which had brought about the state of war between the United States and Germany, and dwelt upon Germany's continuous violations of international law and of the rights of neutrals. The late President of Panama, in addition to the proclamation dated April 9, 1917, sent a friendly message to President Wilson following the declaration of a state of war between the United States and Germany. Panama on Dec. 10 and Cuba on Dec. 16, 1917, declared war on Austria-Hungary, thus identifying themselves with the policy followed by the United States in regard to the Central Empires.


As a result of the sinking of the steamer Parana by a German submarine without warning on the night of April 3, 1917, off Point Barfleur, with attendant loss of life, the Brazilian Government broke off diplomatic relations with Germany on April 11. Notwithstanding its declaration of neutrality on April 25, this status was maintained only a short time. The Brazilian Ambassador in Washington, in his note of June 4, 1917, to the Department of State, announced the passage of the law which revoked Brazil's neutrality in the war between the United States of America and the German Empire. The Republic thus recognized the fact that one of the belligerents was a constituent portion of the American Continent, adding: "We are bound to that belligerent by traditional friendship and the same devotion to the defense of the vital interests of America and the accepted principles of law. Brazil…could not longer stand unconcerned when the struggle involved the United States, actuated by no self-interest whatever, but solely by a love of international judicial order, and when Germany included us and the other neutral powers in the most violent acts of war." Finally, on Oct. 26, the Brazilian Congress proclaimed the existence of a state of war between Brazil and Germany.


Guatemala entered the war on April 21, 1918, when, through a decree of her Legislative Assembly, it was resolved that "Guatemala assumes in the present international conflict the same belligerent attitude as the United States against the German Empire. Nicaragua declared war against Germany, as well as against Austria-Hungary, making common cause with the United States of America and with the Latin-American republics which are at war with the said Imperial Governments," and Costa Rica, which had suffered the effects of a revolution either encouraged or promoted by Germans residing in that country, broke off diplomatic relations on Sept. 21, 1917, and on May 24, 1918, declared war on the German Empire. She was thus the third Central American republic to assume a belligerent attitude.

On July 19, 1918, Honduras declared war on Germany according to the following decree:

Considering that the motives which originated the severing of the diplomatic relations of this republic with the German Empire have become accentuated, being characterized every day by greater gravity for the international life of all peoples;

Considering that continental solidarity imposes upon the States of America the duty to contribute each according to the measure of its abilities toward the triumph of the cause of civilization and of right, which, with the allied nations, the United States of America defends, and consequently demands a definite attitude in the present conflict of the world;

Therefore, in council of Ministers, it is decreed:

That there exists a state of war between the Republic of Honduras and the Government of the German Empire.

The Government of Haiti declared war on Germany on July 12, 1918. The President, in a proclamation on the same date, said: "The small nations have in their international life a sole force—Right—which is the guarantee of their existence…. Germany, the formidable military power fighting against the nations, has declared herself in open rebellion against Right. Our place, therefore, is among the peoples which are fighting her, and which are fighting her with such heroism, supported by our powerful and natural ally, the United States."


The Peruvian bark Lorton was sent to the bottom on Feb. 4, 1917, while on her way from Callao to Bilbao with a cargo of nitrates; the sinking took place in Spanish territorial waters, completely outside the submarine zone decreed by Germany. Germany stubbornly asserted her right to submit the case to a German prize court, a proposition emphatically rejected by Peru. The unyielding attitude of Germany brought on a diplomatic rupture, although the Argentine claims in the cases of the Monte Protegido Oriana, and Toro had been recognized in full. This is a striking case of the discrepancy of German standards in her dealings with neutral countries. Attention must be called, however, to a very important difference in these cases in favor of Peru, as the destination of the Lorton was a neutral port, while the Argentine ships were bound to a belligerent port.

The President of Peru, in his message to the Peruvian Congress on July 28, 1917, indorsed the principles set forth in President Wilson's war message, saying:

Peru, which in all her acts of international life has endeavored to incorporate these principles of justice in the judicial and political relations of the American peoples; Peru, which in a war not far back sacrificed for these ideals the blood of her sons, her wealth, and her hopes for the future, cannot be indifferent to the words of President Wilson, and adheres, once more, to these noble purposes.


If Argentina did not sever her diplomatic relations with the German Empire, as did Peru on Oct. 6, 1917, it was because Germany had granted all her claims, besides making the solemn promise to respect Argentine shipping in an even more ample manner than that of the Sussex. It was during these diplomatic negotiations that Count Luxburg sent his notorious messages to his Government through the Swedish Legation at Buenos Aires, recommending the sinking of Argentine vessels without leaving any trace, "spurlos versenkt," as he said in a phrase which has found its place in the history of diplomacy.

The Argentine Government, two days after the publication of the messages, dismissed this unscrupulous diplomat, and Germany hastened officially to disapprove the utterances of her representative. The indignation which spread over Argentina was so high that popular demonstration against Germany acquired a threatening character, and the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a resolution urging the immediate severance of diplomatic relations with the German Empire. The resolution passed by the Senate on Sept. 19, 1917, read as follows :

The Argentine Senate is deeply affected by the conduct of the ex-Minister of the German Empire, Count Luxburg, in the matter of the telegrams transmitted to the German Foreign Office through the Swedish Legation in this capital and published by the Department of State of the United States of America; it believes that such conduct is an offense against diplomatic morals and the most elementary principles of humanity as contained in our laws, against the traditional policy of loyalty, honesty, and justice of the Argentine Republic, and against the right of free navigation of vessels carrying her neutral flag in the present war; it is firmly convinced that such acts may jeopardize the immunity of her flag, the lives of her nationals, and the neutrality of the republic as well as her territorial sovereignty, in exercising within her jurisdiction acts of espionage to the detriment of the commerce of the republic and that of the belligerent nations which are friendly to her. It believes, furthermore, that the attitude to be adopted by the Government in this emergency must foster the uninterrupted fraternal friendship which has united at all times the States of this continent, upon the basis of common democratic ideals and of international justice. The order of expulsion against the above-mentioned Minister from the territory of the nation is not, in its judgment, sufficient reparation for the seriousness of the offense and wrongs committed. The Senate of the nation accordingly decrees: That the proper step to be taken in the present circumstances is that the Executive Power sever diplomatic relations with the Imperial Government of Germany.

In the course of diplomatic negotiations on the sinking of the steamer Toro an Argentine doctrine was proclaimed regarding the immunity of national products which, in the words of the Argentine Minister for Foreign Affairs, are "the fruit of the efforts of the nation in its vital work, not to satisfy war requirements, but to meet the normal needs of humanity." This doctrine awaits the careful consideration of internationalists and Governments before being definitely accepted or rejected. It is unquestionably a step forward which would insure a victory for neutral rights over the unrestricted ambitions of belligerents. Its adoption would be a veritable conquest in international law—one of those conquests which have been ignored by Germany.

The Argentine doctrine of immunity of national products was not, however, the sole international doctrine proclaimed by the Latin-American countries in the course of the war. Uruguay, which proved itself to be one of the most zealous champions of international order, in a decree of June 18, 1917, revoking its neutrality, advanced a principle of American solidarity which goes far beyond any Pan-American doctrine heretofore announced. In this decree Uruguay established a precedent which may rank close to the Monroe Doctrine in importance. It is no longer the United States alone which, in the role of big sister, stands as the champion of the American continents against possible European aggression. It is now Uruguay a small country of 85,000 square miles and of 1,500,000 inhabitants which fearlessly declares that any American nation which fights in defense of its rights against a power of another continent shall find an ally in Uruguay. Complementing these statements, which mark a departure in American diplomacy, the Executive of Uruguay expressed in his message to Congress, Oct. 6, 1917, an earnest endorsement of the ideas of President Wilson on a League of Nations.


The President of Ecuador, in his message to the Congress, dated Aug. 16, 1918, made the following comment about the severance of diplomatic relations:

In December last we broke off diplomatic relations with the German Empire. In the sessions of 1917 the Congress had been already informed or our refusal to receive the German Minister, Mr. Pearl, a refusal which implied, of course, the suspension of our diplomatic intercourse with Germany. The attitude of Mr. Miiller and our duty to follow a course which should express our solidarity to many countries of America, which have already adopted a similar method or have gone even further in their expressions of international policy, have seemed to us sufficient reason to justify Ecuador, which is a democratic country with liberal institutions, in adopting such a course.

And the President of Venezuela in his message of May 3, 1917, announced the policy to be adhered to by his country as follows:

Up to the present there has been no act of German submarines by which Venezuela has been directly affected, and therefore it has not been involved in the complications which have drawn the United States into war with the German Empire. Notwithstanding this, Venezuela, in consequence of her respectful assertion of all her rights, reserves the right to defend the lives and the properties of her nationals. She follows the course of events with natural interest and is identified with the principle in defense of which the United States has entered the war, with the traditional friendship which has united us to that nation, and with those general interests that the republics of this continent enjoy in common.

This attitude, which was that observed by the rest of the neutral countries, was likewise proclaimed by the President of Chile on June 1, 1917, and reaffirmed on June 1, 1918. On both occasions the Chilean President took advantage of the opportunity of addressing the Congress to state that Chile had reserved to herself the right of taking the necessary steps in the event of any breach of the rules of international law affecting her.

Bolivia was the first Latin-American nation to break off diplomatic relations with Germany on April 10, 1917. The Bolivian protest against the submarine warfare as conducted by Germany was couched in very strong terms, and the Department of Foreign Eelations of Bolivia sought to unify Latin-American action to enforce the rules of international law. The Bolivian President in his message to the Congress, on Aug. 6, 1917, fully indorsed the stand taken by President Wilson in defense of the principles of humanity and justice.

Paraguay showed her friendship toward the United States, stating her regret "that military operations of the German Empire, opposed to the principles and conventions on which the rights of neutrals are founded and regulated in maritime warfare, have forced the United States of America to appeal to arms in order to re-establish the rule of law by the recovery of these rights," and declaring also that "Paraguay and its Government in these moments regard the course of the United States of America and the American Government with the most lively sympathy."

On Oct. 17, 1917, the Colombian Congress passed a resolution protesting against the submarine campaign and expressing the opinion that submarines should not be admitted in Colombian ports. The resolution was worded as follows:

Whereas, The use of submarines against all kinds of merchant vessels, whether neutral or belligerent, without any discrimination, is a practice contrary to international law and so qualified not only by the Government of Colombia, but by other neutral Governments: Now, therefore, the Senate of Colombia protests against the aforesaid practice. It is of the opinion that the submarines of the nations which use them as above described should not receive the same treatment as warships which follow the rules of international law. The Senate of the republic, therefore, believes that they should not be admitted into the ports and other jurisdictional waters of the republic, and that the nation should observe regarding these vessels the same conduct observed at the present time by other neutral Governments; such conduct is based on a sense of prudence and international safety.


The President of Mexico, on the occasion of the presentation of the credentials of the Belgian Minister in March, 1918, dwelt on the sacrifices of Belgium as follows:

It is a great pleasure for me to declare to your Excellency on this solemn occasion that Belgium, in taking up arms in defense of her neutrality, her honor, and her independence, has fulfilled the most heroic act of modern times to the glory and example of weak nations. Countries which are not ready to shed the last drop of blood in defense of their autonomy and their institutions have no right to be counted in the concert of free nations, and those which do not measure dangers or curtail sacrifices to preserve them, although they may be defeated and chained, may rest assured of the advent of the bright day of their liberty, because they are worthy of it, because they live for it, and were born to enjoy it.

It is true that in the case of Mexico there was some friction, caused mainly by German propaganda, which in Mexico especially was secretly at work to create a feeling of hostility and distrust between the two countries. A sample of this hostile effort was the famous Zimmermann note. No other country in America, however, had better reasons for remaining neutral than Mexico, without committing thereby any act of hostility to the interests of the United States. Mexico needed her neutrality to heal her own wounds, to repair the immense losses in blood and treasure due to her recent civil strife; to prepare effectively to undertake the tremendous work of reconstruction which is required to bring the country prosperity through a sound development of her inexhaustible resources. In attaining these ends, the stirring declarations of President Wilson to a group of Mexican newspaper men on June 7, 1919, were naturally a powerful factor for the betterment of international relations between Mexico and the United States.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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