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This war nearly destroyed Paraguay and made a hero of a mediocre U.S. President

Francisco Solano López, today considered either the bravest leader in Paraguay's history, or a suicidal idiot
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: The Paraguayan War

What it’s about: Also known as the War Of The Triple Alliance, this pivotal moment in South American history is one of the most disastrous military conflicts (for the loser, anyway) in history. In 1864, Brazil began supporting a revolution in Paraguay’s longtime ally Uruguay. Paraguay pledged its support to Uruguay and declared war on Brazil. At first glance, the country was moving from a position of strength—Paraguay was the most affluent country in the region and had the biggest army, while Brazil’s army was small and disorganized. But Paraguay couldn’t get troops to Uruguay without cutting through Argentina. After asking permission to enter Argentinian soil and being refused, the army crossed the border anyway, and Argentina declared war. By the time the Paraguayans got to Uruguay, the revolution had been a success, Uruguay was a client state of Brazil’s, and Paraguay was at war with all three countries. The war stretched on for six years, with 400,000 combat deaths—three-fourths of them on the losing side. After Paraguay’s army was decimated, its citizens fought a protracted guerilla war. In the end, between the fighting and a wartime cholera outbreak, the country lost between 30 and 60 percent of its population (historians still disagree, but it’s a staggering number either way), and has never fully recovered.


Strangest fact: This South American country may have been brought down by an Irish woman. In the decades leading up to the war, the López family ruled Paraguay as if it were their private property. Francisco Solano López, president-for-life at the time of the war, had inherited the job from his father two years prior. As a young man, López the younger had received several titles from dear old Dad including brigadier general, minister of war, vice president, and European foreign minister in Europe. And while in France, he had developed a fascination with Napoleon, later equipping his army with Napoleonic uniforms, and having a replica of the Emperor’s crown made for himself. He also fell in love with a Parisian courtesan—Eliza Lynch, an Irish woman who had moved to France to escape the Great Famine. While they never married, López returned home with Lynch, they had six children together, and she acted as de facto First Lady while López ruled the country. According to some reports, she was his Lady Macbeth, the driving force behind his more ambitions schemes, including the Paraguayan War. However, there is no direct evidence, so there’s no telling whether this is slander against someone who must have been seen as a foreign interloper. She died in exile after the war’s conclusion, but a century later, her body was exhumed, and she was re-buried in Paraguay as a national hero.

Biggest controversy: One would think a war that claimed as much as 90 percent of the adult male population would be controversial in Paraguay itself, but Paraguayans seem to have been united in their fight to the bitter end (and then some), and López is still considered a national hero. The most controversial aspect of the war was in fact its aftermath. Argentina had proposed to simply divide Paraguay’s territory with Brazil, but Brazil wanted the country to continue to exist as a buffer between the two—these allies were already beginning to distrust each other. The two countries did still annex a fair amount of Paraguayan territory, but entered into a prolonged dispute over Gran Chaco, a stretch of nearly uninhabitable jungle nicknamed the “Green Hell.” Despite the questionable desirability of the land, neither party would back down, so they finally agreed to submit to an arbiter—U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. While the 19th president is remembered in this country (if at all) for his controversial 1876 election—and the resulting compromise that put him in the White House, but also pulled federal troops out of the South, effectively ending Reconstruction and beginning the Jim Crow era—Hayes is still considered a hero in Paraguay. He decided in favor of Brazil, and the Green Hell remained part of Paraguay. In fact, one of Paraguay’s states and a football club are named for him.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The war may have hastened the end of slavery in Brazil. Brazil has a history of slavery on par with the U.S., as they were the last country in the West to abolish the practice, and 40 percent of all slaves who crossed the Atlantic wound up in Brazil. But the Paraguayan War was a turning point. As the Brazilian army was smaller and less well-equipped than Paraguay’s, it was eager to recruit. The government compensated anyone who freed their slaves to enlist (this was sometimes compulsory, as the war went on), and the army accepted runaway slaves as recruits. Having so many former slaves fighting in uniform, and enjoying their freedom afterward, helped undermine the institution. The abolition movement gained significant traction, and unlike the U.S., slaveowners began freeing their charges en masse, to the point where 75 percent of African-Brazilians were free by 1872, although slavery wasn’t officially banned until 1888.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Besides the catastrophic death toll in Paraguay, the war also destroyed the most modern and successful country in South America. In the first half of the century, Paraguay had a strictly managed economy, with the government controlling all exports, putting high tariffs on imports, and ensuring the country was as self-sufficient as possible. As a result, Paraguay had no foreign debt, (unlike its neighbors), a strong manufacturing base, and an infrastructure of telegraph and railroads. In the aftermath of the war, what infrastructure hadn’t been destroyed had no one left alive to maintain it, and fell into ruin. Add to this that the peace terms left Paraguay responsible for all four countries’ war expenses, and that the country was also deeply in debt. Paraguay was a shambles for decades afterward, at one point having had 15 presidents in 18 years.


Also noteworthy: With the possible exception of Francisco Solano López’s magnificent neckbeard (see above), the most remarkable part of the story is Paraguayans’ absolute refusal to back down, even in the face of horrific losses. López himself personally led guerilla efforts after his army had been decimated, and after being wounded and separated from his troops, he was finally cornered by the enemy. When they asked for his surrender, insisting that he would be kept alive, López tried to attack his captors with a sword, shouting his last words, “I die for my homeland!” With his death, the war finally ended. While Paraguayans’ determination led to ruin in the Paraguayan War, it did win them a surprise victory against better-equipped Bolivia in the Chaco War of the 1930s.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: As South American history is barely touched upon in most history classrooms in the U.S., “List Of Wars Involving Brazil” is worth exploring, if for nothing else than that among the 29 conflicts the country has been involved in, are names like the Ragamuffin War, Lobster War, Operation Power Pack, and not one single defeat (although the Cisplatine War of the 1820s is considered a stalemate).


Further down the wormhole: The Paraguayan War had one of the highest casualty rates in modern history. Wikipedia’s page on modern history includes some hair-splitting explanations on the difference between the Early Modern, Modern, and Contemporary periods, as well as some individuals who helped usher in the modern age. Among them is Nikola Tesla, the favorite inventor of hipster contrarians who think Edison is way too mainstream and overexposed. We’ll look at Tesla’s revolutionary approach to technology next week.

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