The War of Paraguay: Chapter VIII, The Argentine Alliance

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Mitre had been maintaining the most well-considered neutrality in the fight between Brazil and Montevideo, and he had no motive to intervene in the war with Paraguay. “We don’t know if at the end,” he writes to Sarmiento, in Lima at the time, on 10 December 1864, “we will be engulfed by that tempest that more than a year ago we were avoiding, despite the fact that I’m working with perseverance and willpower to prevent it; I don’t know if I will achieve this.” However his sympathies were not in doubt. Whatever the thinking was about the platine enemies of Brazil, civilization’s best interest lay in the destruction of the new power that, with an incalculable force and threatening character, supported by the complete servitude of its people, soon arose in the Alto Río de la Plata (1).

Lopez’s victory over Brazil would’ve been a disaster of greater consequence for Buenos Aires, or at least for the liberal order (in its infancy at the time), than it would for Brazil, which, sooner or later, would’ve ended up imposing its law over Asunción with its battleships. Perhaps neutrality was the Argentine Republic’s political duty; but because they also had a genuine interest in maintaining it, they had to be sure of the Empire’s ultimate victory; and even so it’s likely, in this case, that that interest lay in allying themselves with Brazil, for a new Battle of Caseros, against a tyranny worse than that of Rosas. The destruction of López could not have been a natural desire of the free nations of the Plata, before the use that that man decided to make of militarizing the Paraguayan people was known; but once known, all the countries bordering Paraguay were equally interested in tearing that terrible weapon from the tyrant’s hands. Mitre instinctively felt that the whole Río de La Plata would find itself invested in Brazil’s victory, which would be at the same time civilization’s victory.

After the invasion of Corrientes by Robles’s army, an attack that could already seem to be an act of dementia, there only remained for the Argentine Republic the choice between these two resolutions: To make war with Paraguay on their own, or to ally with Brazil. It is clear that they should prefer the second option; and in effect, the treaty of alliance is made official on May 1st, with the new government that, thanks to us, had triumphed in Montevideo being represented in it.

But the alliance necessarily had friends and adversaries in Argentina. They considered it a national disaster, attributing to this union with Brazil the long duration of the war and the obliteration of Paraguay. It was a short time ago that these criticisms were ably analyzed in La Biblioteca de Buenos Aires, in a work in which some value is recognized in various instances of these critiques. The editor señor P. Grousac, after justifying in some way the actions of Mitre, formulates the criticism of the alliance in these terms:

“However, the treaty of the triple alliance remains, with its implacable, nefarious ironclad clauses, which are an attack on national sovereignty. ‘In five months,’ says General Mitre himself (Polémica, page 113), ‘despite the business with Basualdo’—the desertion of troops in Entre Ríos (2)—‘the enemy was expelled from our territory, leaving under our control, between the dead and prisoners, 18,000 to 20,000 men, with less than 5,000 lost on the allies’ side.’

“Why then were negotiations not initiated between the victor and the defeated? Because the treaty completely prohibited pacts with any of the allies without the assent of the others. Why did peace not come from the meeting between Mitre and López, when the latter offered it with all the guarantees Mitre could want, in September 1866, the campaign then being a series of Argentine victories, from the victory at Tuyutí up to Yataytí Corá and Curuzú, on the eve of the ill-fated expedition to Curupayty? Because the 6th article of the infamous treaty categorically declared that the war would continue as long as ‘the Paraguayan government had not been demolished.’ A deplorable clause, imposed without a doubt by the Brazilian government on the Argentine, since all of its advantages went to the former, and all of its problems went to the latter. From this clause emanated the evils produced without recompense by the long campaign, and if in the time of which the current letters speak”—the author is referring to the polemic between Mitre and Juan Carlos Gómez—“it was fit to found sincere hopes on the campaign’s future consequences—invoking the image of an assured continental peace, the issues of borders favorably resolved, and the fantasy of a new Paraguay, prosperous and friendly, revived from its former bloody ruins—then a few years were enough to show the flimsiness and transience of such dreams.

“In his third polemic (page 38) General Mitre thinks to destroy that capital charge made against the alliance, establishing this dilemma: ‘Either ally ourselves with Brazil, or impede them from fighting on our side.’ There is no such dilemma. Brazil found itself at war with Paraguay before the invasion of Corrientes, an attack which was a casus belli unrelated to the invasion of Mato Grosso; the Argentinian army could undertake a concurrent action, and its government could even enter into a defensive and conditional alliance without accepting the impositions of an absolute common action and, upon coming out the other end, of mandating the destruction of the aggressor, making a single cause out of two different ones. If the Argentine government could have tried for peace by itself, after licking its wounds, it would have had, aside from some material advantages, the enviable position of future mediator and maintainer of the political integrity of a country whose mutilation, as was soon to be seen, would be disastrous for South American stability.”

The Paraguayan War provided an advantageous opportunity to an Argentinian government bristling with ill intentions toward Brazil. Lopez’s importance, of which the Argentinians had little appreciation, was not even so well-known that he could inspire fear as an ally; the anti-dynastic prejudice that one could easily exploit, and the language that one heard during the war in Santiago, in Lima, and in Bogotá, would inflame spirits in Buenos Aires against the Empire. It should be said in honor of those Argentinian statesmen, that most of them did not even feel the temptation to capitalize on Brazil’s troubles. Initially the popularity in Buenos Aires that the cause Brazil was maintaining in Montevideo enjoyed contributed to this. In the Uruguayan War, Flores was a hero to the Argentine government, and Brazil an impartial protector that was doing what Buenos Aires would have wanted to do itself. Likewise, the counterweight that Urquiza’s influence made to Mitre’s contributed to the instability of the new liberal political scene, as did the suspicions which Urquiza aroused in Buenos Aires, where he was said now to be Brazil’s man, now to be Lopez’s man.

But the result is owed to the intuition, to the patriotic valor, of Mitre, the true creator of the new Argentine doctrine regarding Brazil, a doctrine that was the accompaniment to his task of national reconstruction. The rapid development of the Argentine Republic cannot, will not be owed to the seeds sown by Mitre, but the earth in which they so suddenly grew, he prepared that earth in great part through civil liberties and political unification domestically, and through his policy of alliance abroad.

Mitre understood that Brazil was, by temperament, by tradition, and because of its own territorial expanse, a peaceful country, and that it was not possible, as such, without flagrant injustice, to mark Brazil as a national enemy, before the Río de la Plata; but, given that this was the case, no doctrine would be as effective for Argentina’s defense as that of its own growth and development.

To take advantage of the benefits that its plains, its climate, and the European emigration gave it, that doctrine was the best defense against Brazil’s hostile intentions, and the best offensive to take. General Mitre had a clear perception of that policy, to which he remained faithful despite all, sacrificing to it at times the popularity that he could have gained by fomenting the animosity inherited from the Spanish tradition, or the animosity produced by the cultured, ideal republican of the Plata, opposed to the Empire’s monarchic constitution.

Bartolomé Mitre ca. 1870.

“The platine civilization has now profited from thirty years of peace,” wrote Saraiva in 1894, referring to the alliance. It is likely that this inspiration arose in Mitre’s spirt before 1864 or 1865, that is, back in 1851, when, finding himself exiled in Chile, Brazil lent its cooperation to Argentina’s liberal cause, sending an army of 20,000 men and a powerful squadron to the Río de la Plata, and placing a division of those troops under the orders of Urquiza. Does the loyalty of Mitre toward Brazil not date back to Caseros? Since perhaps it had its origins in that period in which the Confederation found itself divided into two governments, rivals and enemies (i), and Brazil did not attempt to exacerbate the division, resisting always the bad advice to join in against Buenos Aires. Mitre defended the alliance from its enemies until the end—from the old provincialism, jealous of the porteño influence, from the dissidence in his own party, and from the Pacific republics, for whom the Paraguayan war was nothing more than the extermination of a heroic, republican people by the Empire and its allies. To the spirit of justice and to Mitre’s sense of chivalry, the idea of a republican alliance in South America against Brazil was repugnant, when there was no cause to be plead for such a thing other than that of preserving the cultural institutions through which South America had proclaimed independence, and which in the Argentine Republic were established by Belgrano, San Martín, Rivadavia, Puyrredón, and the Congress of Tucumán (3). The attitude that he adopts in 1864 and 1865 against the American Congresses shows the lucidity of his patriotism, how he does not sacrifice the interests of the country itself and national sovereignty to the chimaera of an American amphictyony (4) organized now against Europe, now against monarchy.

One easily arrives at the conclusion that the alliance was disadvantageous by only taking into account the sacrifices and errors of the campaign, and worse if to these one adds the damages that, responding to Lopez’s aggression, the allies must have caused to Paraguay; countless damages, since, once driven back in his own territory, López resisted until his people’s last breath, resorting to firing squads, torture, seizure of property, and mass internment to prolong the fight. But no impartial spirit will be able to believe that the Argentine Republic would have reached Asunción alone in less time than it did with Brazil’s company. One must not even speak of the possibility of a separate Argentine action that could be favorable to Brazil, by virtue of the possibility that that republic, after taking advantage of the benefits obtained from Brazil, would have interposed itself as a mediator after having made peace with López independently. In such a case, war with the ally that Paraguay favored would be probable; and as a clash such as this would not be fit for Brazil nor for Argentina, one understands that they should not have sought this.

In 1865, Mitre’s power was still weak, as he attempted to organize and consolidate it. “The government that was organized under the presidency of General Mitre,” his Minister of State Elizalde wrote, “received chaos domestically and abroad.” “Militarizing the Republic in 1864,” says that very critic of the alliance in La Biblioteca, “between the montoneras of the provinces and the open insubordination of the caudillos, when neither years after nor in the presence of an enemy setting foot on their territory—doubtless relying on criminal connivances—could mass defections manage to be avoided!” What was happening was that under Mitre’s government the Argentine Republic was testing out the great task of its definitive unification, and such a task, which demolished so many interests, and with them an entire political system, and the most prestigious influences of a long historic past, was not possible to attempt even if the war with Paraguay had burdened the Argentine Republic more than it did, and it had to be done while also readying itself against Brazil as well. The alliance, by contrast, contributed to facilitating Mitre’s work and to consolidating Argentinian unity, as well as hastening the destruction of the caudillaje, of the Entrerriano rivalry, and of foreign allegiances. Additionally, it did much for the prosperity of Buenos Aires, and it diminished the effects of the setbacks suffered by the Argentinian army. It’s probable that military actions, like that of the Battle of Curupayty for example, would have had, without the alliance, worse consequences for Mitre and his party’s political status. The alliance not existing, and having to enter Paraguay on his own, perhaps Mitre would not have been so unconcerned with the election of his successor, as he could be when he saw the competition reduced to the names of Sarmiento and Elizalde.

It can be said that the alliance, demanded by the circumstances, was for the Argentine Republic an act of providence. It brought forth, like all historical developments, like all initial movements in the life of a people, the criticism of pessimists—that is, the criticism of those that always reserve their optimistic judgments for the things that didn’t happen and for the course of action that events have ceased to follow; but those spirits which are impervious to grand conjectures made against the march of History, cannot help but recognize that the alliance was one of the principal factors in the sudden prosperity of the Plata and the great opportunity, which, thanks to the lack of resistance, moral ballast, and political virtue in many of the governors, would cause the old customs and the old character to disappear. Mitre’s attitude was found to be justified, precisely because the war that Paraguay declared on Brazil was occasioned by the loyalty shown to him by the Empire upon denying aid to Urquiza, upon refusing to help him fight Buenos Aires, a denial that made Urquiza determined to separate from his ally at Caseros and appeal to López, López allowing to reside in his heart the belief, fatal for him, that in case of need he could count on entrerriano chivalry and Urquiza’s party.

The treaty negotiations between Otaviano (5) and Mitre are still not well known. On 18 April Mitre reported to the country the events in Corrientes, and thirteen days later the alliance treaty was signed. “The Viscount of Rio Branco,” says his son (note to Schneider 1-44), “made a futile effort to persuade President Mitre to unite with the Empire and the Eastern Republic.” Mitre confirms these authentic reports, and after saying that he would, in the face of Lopez’s attack on the Argentine Republic, invite Paranhos (Viscount of Rio Branco) to form a political-military alliance to wage war on Paraguay, offering him the position of commander in chief—which he refused, despite the war then being very popular in Buenos Aires, whose press demanded it—he adds: “When López attacked the Argentine Republic, commandeering our warships while in clear peace, bombarding our cities without a previous declaration of war, invading our territory and antagonizing us, not only as a foreign belligerent, but also promoting revolution in our own country, and proclaiming the fall of our internal constitutional order, Brazil returned to make the same offer to us, on equal terms as before, without taking advantage of the edge that our situation provided them, which honors them and honors the Republic to a great degree, because it shows how esteemed their alliance was, and how much trust and respect their government deserved.” (Fourth letter to Doctor Gómez.)

Paranhos had received instructions to get the government of Buenos Aires to make up its mind to intervene jointly with the Empire and the Eastern State, taking the element affiliated with General Flores as a foundation (instructions from 23 November 1864). Otaviano’s instructions (25 March 1865) said, “The main object of Y.E.’s mission is to prevent the Argentine government from trying to hinder, in any way, the Empire’s actions against Paraguay.”

After the invasion of Corrientes Brazil did not need to make the same concessions to the Argentine Republic to obtain their cooperation as before, or even to concede the right of passage through our territory. But Otaviano didn’t have time to receive our new rules of conduct from Río de Janeiro (dispatched on 28 April) which, in the new situation created in the Argentine Republic by the traitorous occupation of one of its provinces, he was supposed to follow. The English minister Mr. Thornton, in a communication to his government, dated 24 April, says he has noted “a coldness evident between senhor Otaviano and the Argentine government,” and he attributes that coldness to the Brazilian plenipotentiary’s demand, from which demand the allies’ respect for Paraguayan independence was agreed upon.

The disagreement, if there was any, and whatever its cause, did not delay the alliance’s realization. Mitre officially received Otaviano on April 20th, and on May 1st he signed the treaty. Few times has an international task of such importance been completed so hurriedly. The essential credit for that task lies in the Olinda Cabinet, which approved it and appointed its negotiator, naming him to the Ministry; but the initiative comes from the Furtado Cabinet, in whose time it was achieved. With the alliance treaty signed in Buenos Aires, it was hard for São Cristóvão to not approve it, imposing other conditions.

The conservative school of Brazil condemned the May 1st treaty harshly. The statesmen of that group always believed that said pact meant the abandonment of everything that was essential to the defense and security of Brazil, and the surrender, for the sake of the Argentine Republic’s aggrandizement, of every doctrine followed by the Empire up until then. These ideas were expounded with the greatest energy and vigor in the November 30th inquiry of that same year, 1865, signed by Pimenta Bueno (Marquis of São Vicente) and by the viscounts of Uruguay and Jequitinhonha.

It seems that the Brazilian government, reading that inquiry, comes to its senses, fearful of seeing itself unwittingly, without even planning it, involved in a scheme to dismember and conquer Paraguay for the benefit of the Argentine Republic. Further on we will see the conduct that, since then, continued to keep that war which Brazil was undertaking from becoming a war of conquest. We certainly could not stop the Argentine Republic from taking over the scarcely populated territories on the right border of Paraguay, the which seemed to them sufficient compensation for the sacrifices imposed by the war López brought to their territory; but we had the right to keep ourselves from collaborating in a conquest that would give that republic possession of the shore opposite the very capital of Paraguay, so coveted by Argentina. The question of whether or not the treaty of the Triple Alliance forced us to take over Paraguay, and to take it over on behalf of others, will be examined later, when it arrives to threaten relations between the allies.

We could protest with perfect sincerity, however, against the idea that such intentions lead us to form the alliance. On the contrary, the object of the alliance was to restore dignity to each one of the allied countries—in no way was it to obtain territorial advantages that could have benefited one of the allies, beyond what Paraguay had taken at the beginning of the war. Good sense later resolved this difficult and delicate issue. Argentina’s government itself stands as proof that the alliance’s goal was not acquisition, since it understood Brazil’s intervention and solicitude in favor of the defeated enemy to be an act of the most perfect loyalty, respecting as reasonable Paraguay’s desire to avoid subjugation and become the spoils for the victors, and understanding that Brazil could not resign itself to the possibility of having contributed, with its blood and its money, mortgaging its future, to a venture which would come to be the antithesis of all its politics. Such a venture would also force it, in conformity with the ideas of the time, to occupy the left border of that river, if its diplomacy did not manage to prevent the Argentine Republic from taking over the right border.

But the alliance should not be judged by the terms of the May 1st treaty, whose clauses were produced by the inspiration of the moment, neither because of this or that incident, but because of the spirit that made the very alliance possible, that inspired it, that maintained it throughout the five years of the war, and which later prevented the alliance’s degeneration in the long and perilous negotiations which ensued separately, preventing in those negotiations any feelings of ill will or resentment. In view of these feats, in its results and in the whole of its actions, the treaty of May 1st (without which it doesn’t seem likely that there could have been an alliance) should be held as an inspired flourish of political imagination, of trust in the good intentions of the allied nations (or what’s the same, of human nature), as an act of faith in modern civilization. That impromptu pact had greater solidity and elasticity, it functioned more unencumberedly, it did a better job fixing the resistance that it provoked while it was in effect, and afterward it gave greater stature to the allied governments and countries, than any of these alliances would have produced through a cold and calculated attention, these alliances in which each of the signatories leaves nothing to the benefit of the others, nor opens themselves to believe in the others’ loyalty and good intentions—not including in their clauses any point that could be redressed or altered by battlefield comradeship, by the emulation of glory, or by the magnanimity of victory.


i. After the fall of Rosas at Caseros (3 February 1852), Urquiza succeeds him in taking power; his provincialist inclinations produce the division of the Argentine Republic into two governments, with Buenos Aires withdrawing from the Confederation. Mitre is the protagonist of porteño supremacy, and after various ventures he is triumphant in the Battle of Pavón (17 September 1861), which restores unity to the country. Mitre’s presidency (1862-68) is succeeded by that of Sarmiento (1868-74), Avellaneda (1874-80), and Roca (1880-86).

Translator’s Notes

1. The northern region of the Río de la Plata basin, composed of Paraguay, Misiones and Corrientes, and the Brazilian provinces bordering Paraguay.
2. The “Desborde de Basualdo” was a mass desertion of Argentine soldiers, Entrerrianos under the command of Urquiza, recruited to fight Paraguay.
3. All important figures in Argentine independence. The Congress of Tucumán resulted in a declaration of independence of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata from the Spanish Empire.
4. A league of neighboring states in ancient Greece, sharing a common religious center.
5. Francisco Otaviano de Almeida Rosa, Brazilian poet and politician, plenipotentiary to the alliance.

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