You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Brazil: The Fortunes of War’

- - Thursday, July 31, 2014

BRAZIL, THE FORTUNES OF WAR: WORLD WAR II AND THE MAKING OF MODERN BRAZIL
By Neill Lochery
Basic Books, $29.99, 345 pages, illustrated

Readers of Neill Lochery's book on neutral Lisbon seething with intrigue during World War II will know his flair for summoning up the atmosphere of a particular point in time and location as a fascinating sidelight into a larger topic. World War II may not have been won or lost in Portugal's capital city, but what went on in this hub of trade and political jockeying, with its tide of refugees and other travelers, mattered, as he showed. Now he has chosen to focus on the crucial role played by what was once its largest colony, which dwarfed the mother country with its vast territory packed with natural resources and lengthy coastline.

"Brazil: The Fortunes of War" makes a strong case for World War II really being the making of the place, transforming it from a huge, isolated backwater "largely cut off from the outside world During the course of World War II, this was all to change. Thanks in large part to an alliance with the United States in the 1940s, Brazil's industry, transportation infrastructure and political position in South America and the world underwent a radical transformation. The war led to the birth of modern Brazil and its emergence as one of the powerhouses of the world . Brazil itself thrived. Following World War II, Brazil joined the small list of countries that benefited hugely from the conflict."

By 1945, it was a member of the victorious United Nations, having even sent troops into combat in Europe. Perhaps even more importantly, it had served as part of a crucial supply route ferrying materiel as well as politicians, diplomats and even troops between the United States and Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

All this was by no means inevitable. As an essentially fascist dictatorship with close commercial and infrastructural ties to Germany, it might well have fallen into the Axis camp, with disastrous consequences for the United States and indeed for the Americas as a whole. Mr. Lochery shows how much time, effort and skill the Roosevelt administration invested in winning Brazil over to the Allies. In sharp contrast to what happened with Argentina, which dragged its feet for much of the war, this led to Brazil becoming the dominant nation on its continent. He pays a great deal of attention to the players who carried out this successful wooing, from Presidents Roosevelt and Getulio Vargas, their foreign ministers Cordell Hull and Oswaldo Aranha, those on the ground from the U.S. State Department such as Sumner Welles and Nelson Rockefeller, not to mention assorted players from Orson Welles to Walt Disney. In this book, the unique atmosphere of Brazil's cities and culture get a lot of attention as well. Characters and atmosphere dominate the book, sometimes to the detriment of geopolitical matters.

For all its qualities, "Brazil: The Fortunes of War" is, unfortunately, also marred by sloppiness in the form of inaccuracies large and small. It doesn't really matter when, during a discussion of the meeting between Presidents Roosevelt and Vargas in the Brazilian city of Natal following the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, we read that FDR's plane touched down at 8 a.m. on Jan. 8, 1942. However, when Mr. Lochery writes, "the American president's black tie and black armband spoke to his inner state. Roosevelt's son had died in the war, and he was in mourning — a fact that no doubt resonated deeply with the Brazilian president, whose own son was at death's door," readers might say, "Huh?"

All four of FDR's sons served in the United States armed forces during World War II, but they all survived to die peacefully decades later. Had one of them been killed, it would have been big news at the time and would have figured in the historical narrative of the conflict. Where on earth did he get this from? The footnotes certainly yield no clue.

Something like this does give one pause. I literally couldn't believe my eyes when I read it, kept going back to see if it really said something so preposterous. There's a great deal of justified criticism of the Internet being crammed with unfiltered, unedited text, which finds its way into the historical record, to be cited by other writers, students, etc., but what are we to make of a distinguished scholar at one of London's finest universities writing something like this? Moreover, why did no editor at his publishers catch such an egregious error? Can we now take on faith that the two presidents conversed in French — or a host of other assertions? Although I found "Brazil: The Fortunes of War" evocative of time and place and full of fascinating stuff, I cannot recommend it unreservedly.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.