The War of Paraguay: Chapter XI, The Fortune of the Alliance

Brief note: This chapter deals with the Uruguayan War. In the final version of this book, I may end up switching the order of it, so that it occurs closer to chapter IV, V, and VI. Just a heads up. It threw me for a bit when I was first translating it.

The best argument that can be made of the events in Rio Grande is to confess that all our resources together were insufficient to face the enemy; that the enemy’s errors were even greater than ours; and that if we had been wise, perhaps the enemy could have been wise too, crushing us. What’s certain is that everything happened in the best way possible for us. The audacious plans based on the offensive against Estigarribia, when he found himself in Misiones, could have produced a disaster; the very defense of São Borja, could’ve resulted in the union of the three separate columns, and the aid of them by Robles’s army. The only military error worthy of attention that is observed in this improvised war is that of having begun it with forces inferior to the enemy. If the enemy had known to take advantage of the superiority it had in those first minutes, no one can calculate the consequences, or at least the political consequences, of the panic that would have been produced.

All the problems in this war were resolved for us in the most unexpected way. López had no enemy so fatal as his own acts, so poorly directed that they seemed embattled by a hidden power, which entertained itself by scuttling them. His attacks always surprised us, but they lost their effectiveness because of an excess of optimistic recklessness, because of an overly strong surety of being victorious, although the very sluggishness of our movements seems to have helped us, purposefully causing despair in a belligerent who was isolated from the outside world, as Paraguay continued to be, with the river blockaded. The need López felt to attack Rio Grande, a province that he knew to be defenseless thanks to his friends in Montevideo, Corrientes, and Uruguay, became an obsession in the manner of those other despotic whims, and that obsession determined the character of the war. A slave to his fixed idea, he let himself be dragged by it up to the point of invading Argentine territory when he already found himself at war with a nation many times stronger, numerically, than Paraguay, and of a different refinement, wealth, and diversity of resources. If he had proceeded in another way and instead of invading Argentine territory to reach Rio Grande he had left his army from Cerro León and Humaitá to cover his lagoons and jungles, attempting to awaken the suspicions of the Río de la Plata against Brazil’s so-called domineering tendencies, perhaps the Paraguayan War, with Argentine neutrality secretly maintained, would have been the Empire’s ruin.

From this comes the great responsibility taken on by the government that began the Uruguayan War—the cabinet of 15 January 1864 (1). They surely did not foresee Paraguay’s intervention, and when this came about in the form of mediation, it already would be ungraceful to back out. But that is precisely what politics is; the player must always calculate the possible moves of their opponent. In everything we undertake we fight the unexpected; the most foresighted player always wins the game. In 1864 there was in our political sphere a genuine movement in favor of the Uruguayan War, and the Zacarias Cabinet had to yield to that “national unanimity.” It is not a sufficient defense for the cabinet to claim that no one contributed to that unanimity more than the conservative leaders, above all Pimenta Bueno, but it would be valid before a court of chancery.

Given the risk that we ran, the war in 1864 was “a leap in the dark” that the government made with the most absolute unawareness of the complications of the fall. It is quite certain that the complaints and claims that the state of our border produced did not justify the declaration of war to Montevideo, requested by the messengers from the countryside; at least not while the Montevidean government had to fight an armed rebellion. It’s also true that  the ministry of 15 January found in Saraiva a man that, through the sacrifice and nobility of his attitude, mended the toughness and wickedness that there could have been in our instructions, and gave the Blanco government an excellent opportunity to finish the civil war and ensure peace in all of the Río de la Plata; but that same government availed itself of such an opportunity to construct, with Urquiza’s resentment and López’s ambition, a system of forces capable of facing Brazil, once Buenos Aires’s superiority was destroyed. From that point arose an order of things full of dangers for us, in Montevideo, and fortune did not wish for the collision of the two coalitions in formation to remain deferred for a more unfavorable eventuality. In the exact moment in which a delay could have been attempted, which probably would come to facilitate, in the future, a combination of forces against Brazil, the ministry of 15 January falls.

On 31 August Furtado receives a situation that is impossible to modify, though he still wants to, because in place of Saraiva Tamandaré remains, the which considered diplomatic issues with the irritability of the mariner little disposed to measure the political consequences of his actions, so that his admiral’s honor and the brilliance of his flag remain intact before the foreign fleets, and also because in those decisive months of September and October Furtado himself found himself fighting with the great crisis of 1864 (2), which threatened to ruin the commerce of Rio de Janeiro. But the government only had one thought; any other person that would have occupied the seat of power in his place would have done the same; ignorance or calculation would give the same result. The Emperor, who was the permanent will of the country, didn’t think of backing out, but even if it had been proposed, events would not have permitted it. In one way or another López had to initiate the decisive match, and the adversary he chose was Brazil. Whatever the responsibility of the ministers that ran the risk of this war, for which the country did not find itself prepared, and which could have been disastrous, the campaign in itself can be considered (as much as it’s possible to calculate what would have happened if events took another course) as a true lightning rod of all the electricity that had been accumulating in the Río de la Plata.

Translator’s Notes

1. That is, the Zacarias cabinet, lead by Zacarias de Góis e Vasconcelos.
2. This refers to a financial crisis, involving a few major banks in Rio de Janeiro, which had been struggling due to a recent decline in global coffee prices (coffee being an enormous industry in the region.)

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