War of the Triple Alliance [Lopez War] 1864-1870
The War of the Triple Alliance [Guerra de la Triple Alianza, also known as the Lopez War or the Paraguay War] is little known outside of South America, despite being the bloodiest war in South American history, and one of the bloodiest of the 19th Century. Fought between Paraguay and the allied countries of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, the war resulted in Paraguay losing 150,000 sq km of territory and a large part of its pre-war population.
In the middle of the 19th century that small South American country was cursed with a mad dictator - Lopez - who fancied himself a second Napoleon and who embarked on constant aggressions against his neighbors. So intolerable a nuisance did he become that the vastly more powerful states of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay combined to get rid of him. The Paraguayans stood by their tyrant with fanatical constancy. For five years Paraguay defended itself against attacks from every side. The struggle was terrible. Whole regiments of twelve year old boys fought in the Paraguayan armies. The women were used as beasts of burden to carry ammunition and stores, and when worn out were left by the roadside to die. During retreats Lopez ordered every town and village razed to the ground, every animal slaughtered, every growing thing destroyed, that the invaders might find neither shelter nor sustenance.
Confusion overtook Paraguay in the aftermath of the dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia death on September 20, 1840, because El Supremo, now El Difunto (the Dead One), had left no successor. After a few days, a junta emerged, freed some political prisoners, and soon proved itself ineffectual at governing. In January 1841, the junta was overthrown. Another coup followed sixteen days later, and chaos continued until in March 1841 congress chose Carlos Antonio López as first consul. In 1844 another congress named López president of the republic, a post he held until his death in 1862. Paraguay had its second dictator.
López, a lawyer, was one of the most educated men in the country. Until his elevation to consul, López, born in 1787, had lived in relative obscurity. Although López's government was similar to Francia's system, his appearance, style, and policies were quite different. In contrast to Francia, who was lean, López was obese--a "great tidal wave of human flesh," according to one who knew him. López was a despot who wanted to found a dynasty and run Paraguay like a personal fiefdom. Francia had pictured himself as the first citizen of a revolutionary state, whereas López used the all-powerful state bequeathed by the proverbially honest Francia to enrich himself and his family.
López soon became the largest landowner and cattle rancher in the country, amassing a fortune, which he augmented with the state's monopoly profits from the yerba maté trade. Despite his greed, Paraguay prospered under El Excelentísimo (the Most Excellent One), as López was known. Under López, Paraguay's population increased from about 220,000 in 1840 to about 400,000 in 1860. Several highways and a telegraph system were built. A British firm began building a railroad, one of South America's first, in 1858.
During his term of office, López improved national defense, stimulated economic development, and tried to strengthen relations with foreign countries. He also took measures to reduce the threat to settled Paraguayans from the marauding Indian tribes that still roamed the Chaco. López had the overriding aim of defending and preserving Paraguay. He launched reforms with this goal in mind. Trade eased arms acquisitions and increased the state's income. Foreign experts helped build an iron factory and a large armory. The new railroad was to be used to transport troops. López used diplomacy to protect the state's interests abroad. Yet despite his apparent liberality, Antonio López was a dictator who held Paraguayans on a tight leash. Congress became his puppet, and the people abdicated their political rights, a situation enshrined in the 1844 constitution, which placed all power in López's hands.
Foreign relations began to increase in importance under López, who retained Paraguay's traditional mistrust of the surrounding states, yet lacked Francia's diplomatic adroitness. Initially López feared an attack by the Buenos Aires dictator Rosas. With Brazilian encouragement, López had dropped Francia's policy of neutrality and began meddling in Argentine politics. Using the slogan "Independence or Death," López declared war against Rosas in 1845 to support an unsuccessful rebellion in the Argentine province of Corrientes. Although complications with Britain and France prevented him from moving against Paraguay, Rosas quickly established an embargo on Paraguayan goods. After Rosas fell in 1852, López signed a treaty with Buenos Aires that recognized Paraguay's independence, although the porteños never ratified it. In the same year, López signed treaties of friendship, commerce, and navigation with France and the United States. Nonetheless, growing tensions with several countries, including the United States, characterized the second half of López's rule. In 1858 the United States sent a flotilla to Paraguayan waters in a successful action to claim compensation for an American sailor who had been killed three years earlier.
Although he wore his distrust for foreigners like a badge of loyalty to the nation, López was not as cautious as he appeared. López recklessly dropped Francia's key policies of neutrality without making the hard choices and compromises about where his allegiances lay. He allowed unsettled controversies and boundary disputes with Brazil and Argentina to smolder. The two regional giants had tolerated Paraguayan independence, partly because Paraguay served to check the expansionist tendencies of the other. Both were satisfied if the other could not dominate Paraguayan affairs. At the same time, however, a Paraguay that was antagonistic to both Brazil and Argentina would give these countries a reason for uniting.
Born in 1826, Francisco Solano López became the second and final ruler of the López dynasty. He had a pampered childhood. His father raised him to inherit his mantle and made him a brigadier general at the age of eighteen. He was an insatiable womanizer, and stories abound of the cruel excesses he resorted to when a woman had the courage to turn him down. His 1853 trip to Europe to buy arms was undoubtedly the most important experience of his life; his stay in Paris proved to be a turning point for him. There, Solano López admired the trappings and pretensions of the French empire of Napoleon III.
He fell in love with an Irish woman named Elisa Alicia Lynch, whom he made his mistress. "La Lynch," as she became known in Paraguay, was a strong-willed, charming, witty, intelligent woman who became a person of enormous influence in Paraguay because of her relationship with Solano López. Lynch's Parisian manners soon made her a trendsetter in the Paraguayan capital, and she made enemies as quickly as she made friends. Lynch bore Solano López five sons, although the two never married. She became the largest landowner in Paraguay after Solano López transferred most of the country and portions of Brazil to her name during the war, yet she retained practically nothing when the war ended. She buried Solano López with her own hands after the last battle in 1870 and died penniless some years later in Europe.
Solano López consolidated his power after his father's death in 1862 by silencing several hundred critics and would-be reformers through imprisonment. Another Paraguayan congress then unanimously elected him president. Yet Solano López would have done well to heed his father's last words to avoid aggressive acts in foreign affairs, especially with Brazil. Francisco's foreign policy vastly underestimated Paraguay's neighbors and overrated Paraguay's potential as a military power.
Observers sharply disagreed about Solano López. George Thompson, an English engineer who worked for the younger López (he distinguished himself as a Paraguayan officer during the War of the Triple Alliance, and later wrote a book about his experience) had harsh words for his ex-employer and commander, calling him "a monster without parallel." Solano López's conduct laid him open to such charges. In the first place, Solano López's miscalculations and ambitions plunged Paraguay into a war with Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The war resulted in the deaths of half of Paraguay's population and almost erased the country from the map. During the war, Solano López ordered the executions of his own brothers and had his mother and sisters tortured when he suspected them of opposition. Thousands of others, including Paraguay's bravest soldiers and generals, also went to their deaths before firing squads or were hacked to pieces on Solano López's orders. Others saw Solano López as a paranoid megalomaniac, a man who wanted to be the "Napoleon of South America," willing to reduce his country to ruin and his countrymen to beggars in his vain quest for glory.
However, sympathetic Paraguayan nationalists and foreign revisionist historians portrayed Solano López as a patriot who resisted to his last breath Argentine and Brazilian designs on Paraguay. They portrayed him as a tragic figure caught in a web of Argentine and Brazilian duplicity who mobilized the nation to repulse its enemies, holding them off heroically for five bloody, horror-filled years until Paraguay was finally overrun and prostrate. Since the 1930s, Paraguayans have regarded Solano López as the nation's foremost hero.
Solano López's basic failing was that he did not recognize the changes that had occurred in the region since Francia's time. Under his father's rule, the protracted, bloody, and distracting birth pangs of Argentina and Uruguay; the bellicose policies of Brazil; and Francia's noninterventionist policies had worked to preserve Paraguayan independence. Matters had decidedly settled down since then in both Argentina and Brazil, as both countries had become surer of their identities and more united. Argentina, for example, began reacting to foreign challenges more as a nation and less like an assortment of squabbling regions, as Paraguayans had grown to expect. Solano López's attempt to leverage Paraguay's emergence as a regional power equal to Argentina and Brazil had disastrous consequences.
Solano López accurately assessed the September 1864 Brazilian intervention in Uruguay as a slight to the region's lesser powers. He was also correct in his assumption that neither Brazil nor Argentina paid much attention to Paraguay's interests when they formulated their policies. But he concluded incorrectly that preserving Uruguayan "independence" was crucial to Paraguay's future as a nation. Consistent with his plans to start a Paraguayan "third force" between Argentina and Brazil, Solano López committed the nation to Uruguay's aid. When Argentina failed to react to Brazil's invasion of Uruguay, Solano López seized a Brazilian warship in November 1864. He quickly followed this move with an invasion of Mato Grosso, Brazil, in March 1865, an action that proved to be one of Paraguay's few successes during the war.
Solano López then decided to strike at his enemy's main force in Uruguay. But Solano López was unaware that Argentina had acquiesced to Brazil's Uruguay policy and would not support Paraguay against Brazil. When Solano López requested permission for his army to cross Argentine territory to attack the Brazilian province of Río Grande do Sul, Argentina refused. Undeterred, Solano López sent his forces into Argentina, probably expecting local strongmen to rebel and remove Argentina from the picture. Instead, the action set the stage for the May 1865 signing by Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay (now reduced to puppet status) of the Treaty of the Triple Alliance. Under the treaty, these nations vowed to destroy Solano López's government.
Paraguay was in no sense prepared for a major war, let alone a war of the scope that Solano López had unleashed. In terms of size, Solano López's 30,000-man army was the most powerful in Latin America. But the army's strength was illusory because it lacked trained leadership, a reliable source of weapons and matériel, and adequate reserves. Since the days of El Supremo, the officer corps had been neglected for political reasons. The army suffered from a critical shortage of key personnel, and many of its fighting units were undermanned. Paraguay lacked the industrial base to replace weapons lost in battle, and the Argentine-Brazilian alliance prevented Solano López from receiving arms from abroad. Paraguay's population was only about 450,000 in 1865--a figure lower than the number of people in the Brazilian National Guard--and amounted to less than one-twentieth of the combined allied population of 11 million. Even after conscripting for the front every able-bodied man--including children as young as ten--and forcing women to perform all nonmilitary labor, Solano López still could not field an army as large as those of his rivals. Apart from some Paraguayan victories on the northern front, the war was a disaster for Solano López. The core units of the Paraguayan army reached Corrientes in April 1865. By July more than half of Paraguay's 30,000-man invasion force had been killed or captured along with the army's best small arms and artillery. The war quickly became a desperate struggle for Paraguay's survival.
Paraguay's soldiers exhibited suicidal bravery, especially considering that Solano López shot or tortured so many of them for the most trivial offenses. Cavalry units operated on foot for lack of horses. Naval infantry battalions armed only with machetes attacked Brazilian ironclads. The suicide attacks resulted in fields of corpses. Cholera was rampant. By 1867 Paraguay had lost 60,000 men to casualties, disease, or capture, and another 60,000 soldiers were called to duty. Solano López conscripted slaves, and infantry units formed entirely of children appeared. Women were forced to perform support work behind the lines. Matériel shortages were so severe that Paraguayan troops went into battle seminude, and even colonels went barefoot, according to one observer. The defensive nature of the war, combined with Paraguayan tenacity and ingenuity and the difficulty that Brazilians and Argentinians had cooperating with each other, rendered the conflict a war of attrition. In the end, Paraguay lacked the resources to continue waging war against South America's giants.
As the war neared its inevitable denouement, Solano López's grip on reality -- never very strong -- loosened further. Imagining himself surrounded by a vast conspiracy, he ordered thousands of executions in the military. In addition, he executed 2 brothers and 2 brothers-in-law, scores of top government and military officials, and about 500 foreigners, including many diplomats. He frequently had his victims killed by lance thrusts to save ammunition. The bodies were dumped into mass graves. His cruel treatment of prisoners was proverbial. Solano López condemned troops to death if they failed to carry out his orders to the minutest detail. "Conquer or die" became the order of the day. Solano López's hostility even extended to United States Ambassador Charles A. Washburn. Only the timely arrival of the United States gunboat Wasp saved the diplomat from arrest. Allied troops entered Asunción in January 1869, but Solano López held out in the northern jungles for another fourteen months until he finally died in battle.
The year 1870 marked the lowest point in Paraguayan history. Hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans had died. Destitute and practically destroyed, Paraguay had to endure a lengthy occupation by foreign troops and cede large patches of territory to Brazil and Argentina. When the last resistance ceased with the death of Lopez in 1870, not merely was the country a desert but the Paraguayan race was almost wiped out. At the beginning of the war the population had been 1,337,000. At its close there were left 221,000, of whom 28,000 were men, 106,000 women more than fifteen years of age, and 87,000 children. Since 1870 Paraguay's domestic history was far from peaceful, many revolutions, usually bloody, having upset the country.
Despite several historians' accounts of what happened between 1865 and 1870, Solano López was not wholly responsible for the war. Its causes were complex and included Argentine anger over Antonio López's meddling in Corrientes. The elder López also had infuriated the Brazilians by not helping to overthrow Rosas in 1852 and by forcing Brazilian garrisons out of territory claimed by Paraguay in 1850 and 1855. Antonio López also resented having been forced to grant Brazil free navigation rights on the Río Paraguay in 1858. Argentina meanwhile disputed ownership of the Misiones district between the Río Paraná and Río Uruguay, and Brazil had its own ideas about the Brazil-Paraguay boundary. To these problems was added the Uruguayan vortex. Carlos Antonio López had survived mainly with caution and a good bit of luck; Solano López had neither.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|