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Chaco War 1932-1935

Chaco War 1932-1935The Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-1935, was one of the bloodiest conflicts ever fought in South America. Nearly 100,000 men died during the course of the three-year war, fought during the height of the worldwide depression, between two of the world's poorest nations - Bolivia and Paraguay. Bolivians, especially after the war, generally held that United States and British corporate interests had supported Paraguay indirectly through Argentina. They believed (and most still do) that America's Standard Oil company and Britain's Royal Dutch Shell were behind the Chaco War. Historians have still to uncover definitive proof to support this popular Bolivian conspiracy theory, which is found in national history texts.

The origin of the war was a border dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay over the Chaco Boreal, an uninviting, sparsely populated wilderness of scrubland, dense forests, venomous snakes, and forbidding swamps. This vast area was largely undeveloped except for some minor oil discoveries by Standard Oil in Bolivia and Royal Dutch Shell in Paraguay. The Chaco, which Bolivia traditionally regarded as a province (Gran Chaco), became more significant to Bolivia after the latter lost its Pacific Ocean outlet to Chile. Bolivia hoped to gain access to the Atlantic Ocean with an oil pipeline across the Chaco to the Paraguay River. Despite mediation attempts by various countries, the increased number of border incidents led the military high commands of Bolivia and Paraguay to believe in the inevitability of war.

The 1920s was a period of political change in Bolivia. New parties emerged as the Republican Party split into several factions. One major opposing branch was led by Bautista Saavedra Mallea, who had the support of the urban middle class, and the other was led by the more conservative Daniel Salamanca Urey (1931-34). A military junta ruled until March 1931, when Salamanca (1931-34) was elected as a coalition candidate. Although he was an esteemed economist before taking office, Salamanca was unable to suppress social unrest and to solve the severe economic problems caused by the Great Depression. Criticism of his administration mounted in all sectors of Bolivian society. Initially reluctant to enter into an armed conflict with Paraguay, he nevertheless led Bolivia into war, a move supported by the military and traditional groups.

Salamanca used one of the border incidents to break diplomatic relations with Paraguay and increase Bolivia's military budget, even though the country had severe economic problems. Convinced that Bolivia's better-equipped, German-trained troops, which outnumbered the Paraguayan army, could win the war, Salamanca went to war in 1932.

When the war began, Bolivia had the advantage of a population three times greater than Paraguay's but was severely disadvantaged by the general apathy of its army and people, who had no appetite for war. Paraguay, however, had the support of its citizens, able leadership, and logistics lines of communications one-fifth the length of Bolivia's. Unfortunately, both armies greatly suffered for having siege and attrition mentalities straight out of the nineteenth century.

The war raged for the next three years. The Bolivians were defeated in all major battles, and by the end of 1934 they had been driven back 482 kilometers from their original positions deep in the Chaco to the foothills of the Andes. Serious strategic errors, poor intelligence, and logistical problems in reaching the distant battle lines contributed to the losses. In addition, the morale of the Bolivian troops was low, and the highland Indians could not adapt to the extreme climate in the low-lying Chaco. Despite the high command's decision to end the war, Salamanca was determined to continue at all costs. In 1934, when he traveled to the Chaco to take command of the war, Salamanca was arrested by the high command and forced to resign. His vice-president, José Luis Tejada Sorzano, who was known to favor peace, was accepted as president (1934-36).

Salamanca's overthrow was a turning point in the Chaco War. The Paraguayan troops were stopped by new, more capable Bolivian officers, who fought closer to Bolivian supply lines. On June 14, 1935, a commission of neutral nations (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and the United States) declared an armistice; a definite settlement was finally reached in 1938. Bolivia lost the Chaco but retained the petroleum fields, which Paraguay had failed to reach. Both countries suffered heavy losses in the war. In Bolivia alone, an estimated 65,000 people were killed and 35,000 wounded or captured out of a population of just under 3 million.

Conducting a senseless war of attrition, engaging in mindless slaughter, and rotating commanders quickly for sake of promotion and getting their "combat ticket" proved the undoing of the Bolivian armed forces. After three debilitating years, Paraguay gradually gained enough ground and declared victory. But the real winner was Argentina, which had supported Paraguay to protect its foreign investment in oil exploration, cattle, and ranching.

Chaco War 1932-1935The humiliating disaster of the Chaco War had a profound impact in Bolivia, where it was seen as dividing the history of the twentieth century "like a knife." The traditional oligarchy was discredited because of its inept civilian and military leadership in the war. Unable to deal with growing criticism, its members blamed the loss of the war on the low potential of the Bolivians and saw the earlier pessimistic assessment in Arguedas's famous novel Pueblo Enfermo (A Sick People) confirmed.

After the war, a group of middle-class professionals, writers, and young officers questioned the traditional leadership. This group, which came to be known as the "Chaco Generation," searched for new ways to deal with the nation's problems. It resented the service of the rosca on behalf of the tin-mining entrepreneurs and criticized Standard Oil, which had delivered oil to Paraguay clandestinely through Argentine intermediaries during the war. The Chaco Generation was convinced of the need for social change. Gustavo Navarro, now more radical than during the 1920s, raised the famous slogan "land to the Indians, mines to the state." The military, which came to power in 1936, tried to bring about change with popular support.

From the outset of the Chaco War (1932-1935), Bolivia's Aviation Corps--with forty-nine aircraft, including twenty-eight combat aircraft--established aerial superiority, flying frequent tactical support and bombing missions. Its transport element also was active in supplying the troops in the combat zone. Once mobilized, Bolivia's army consisted of nine divisions and more than 12,000 troops, a number that later rose to 25,000. However, in addition to being ill equipped, poorly supplied, and disastrously led, the army consisted largely of homesick, bewildered highland Indians (indios) from the Altiplano (highland plateau) who had been conscripted or impressed into service. They fought stubbornly and stoically, but the more resourceful, better-led, and determined Paraguayans, with a mobilized force of 24,000, gradually pushed them back.

Throughout the Chaco War, Bolivia's army Staff (Estado Mayor-- EM) feuded with the civilian leadership. The civil-military relationship deteriorated, creating a legacy of bitterness that continued into the postwar period. The war was a humiliating defeat for Bolivia, as well as for its German-trained army. Of a total of 250,000 Bolivian troops mobilized, as many as 65,000 were killed. Moreover, Bolivia not only had to give up most of the Chaco territory but also spent the equivalent of some US$200 million in its war effort, nearly bankrupting the already impoverished nation.

As a consequence of the debacle in the Chaco, Bolivia's army became more politically aware and ready to act as an institution in pursuit of its own political goals. It began by deposing Daniel Salamanca Urey (1931-34), the elitist president who had led the country into its disastrous foreign war. For the first time since 1880, the army returned to power. Although both Bolivia and Paraguay were required by the terms of the armistice to reduce their armies to 5,000 men, Bolivia circumvented the restriction by creating a military police "legion" as an unofficial extension of the army.

After the restrictions of the armistice lapsed with the signing by both countries of a peace treaty in 1938, Bolivia built up its battered army. The army retained its basic prewar organization, although units formerly assigned to the Chaco were necessarily relocated. In an effort to professionalize the military, the regime of Colonel David Toro Ruilova (1936-37) invited an Italian military mission to establish two military academies in Bolivia: the Superior War School (Escuela Superior de Guerra--ESG), the former CEM in La Paz for EMG officers; and the "Marshal José Ballivián" School of Arms (Escuela de Aplicación de Armas "Mariscal José Ballivián"--EAA) in Cochabamba, primarily for junior officers. The new schools provided instruction for the first time in such subjects as sociology and political science. Nevertheless, the Italian missions, along with other military missions from Spain and Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and 1930s, had little impact on Bolivia's Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas-- FF.AA.).

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Page last modified: 18-12-2012 19:19:27 ZULU