Moore on Friedman, 'Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign against the Germans of Latin America in World War II'

Max Paul Friedman
Michaela Hoenicke Moore

Max Paul Friedman. Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign against the Germans of Latin America in World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii + 359 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-82246-6.

Reviewed by Michaela Hoenicke Moore (Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Published on H-German (May, 2004)

Max Paul Friedman tells the little known story of the deportation of ethnic Germans from a number of Latin American countries for internment in the United States during World War Two. This is a fascinating account with many subplots relating to the diverse ethnic German presence in Latin America, inter-agency conflict in U.S. foreign policy, problematic patterns in inter-American relations and the State Department's attempts to foil measures aimed at rescuing Jews from Nazi-dominated Europe. It is an excellently researched and superbly told story, one that relates with great care and nuance personal fates, diplomatic activities and economic warfare across three regions. The book represents international history at its best: Friedman conducted archival research in several languages in seven countries. His contribution is moreover of significant topical interest.[1] It is a severe indictment of an ineffective policy in the name of national security, based on poor intelligence, the use of group affiliation as a criterion for round-ups and the counterproductive consequences of disregarding national and international law. Friedman's argument is most powerful and convincing as a commentary on the flaws of U.S. intervention in Latin American domestic affairs, which continued, as his book shows, even during the era of Good Neighbor policy. The immediate context of the events detailed in this book, however,--the nature of World War II and in particular Nazi designs on the Western Hemisphere--do not always come sufficiently into focus. Terms like "deportation," "internment" and "expropriation" evoke, for most historians of World War II, a very different reality than the policies Friedman depicts in the three chapters with these titles.

Friedman describes a U.S.-orchestrated program of deporting and interning 4,058 Germans mainly from Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras and Panama between 1942 and 1945 for projected repatriation to the Third Reich. The discrepancy between American internal security measures that targeted less than 1 percent of its German immigrants for internment and the round-up of 20 to over 50 percent of German-born residents in select Latin American countries confirms that the United States had one set of rules for itself and another one for the "unreliable" sister republics to the South. The deportation program violated the tenets of the Good Neighbor policy and revealed an underlying paternalistic, condescending attitude towards the "vulnerable, dependent region where latinos are helpless and foreigners are real actors" (pp. 4, 49).

Yet even Friedman's nuanced interpretation testifies to the challenge of writing a balanced account of such a highly charged, complicated three-way story involving national security concerns, economic interests and personal tragedies across several national and ethnic boundaries. We encounter the deported and interned Germans largely as innocent victims with only a few references to the significance of the "enthusiasm for Hitler that some of them exhibited" in the context of this "life and death struggle against the Axis" (pp. 5, 100). The author's explicit statement of "what this book is not about" (pp. 8-9) retreats from the sweeping title of the book. The situation in Argentina, Brazil, Chile (where most of the million and a half ethnic Germans lived) and Mexico is largely disregarded. The author explains that these countries did not participate in the U.S.-inspired scheme of deportation. But the omission also allows Friedman to present the Nazi threat in Latin America as "largely imaginary" (p. 6). The same holds true for his acknowledgement that "this book does not focus on espionage and counterespionage in Latin America" (p. 9). The Third Reich's policy vis-a-vis Latin American countries is, for the most part, not the subject of this book, a brief portrait of Nazi ineptitude notwithstanding (pp. 22ff). But an account of Nazi designs in the Western Hemisphere would have established an important context.

As Friedman argues, the reality of German settlements in these countries was largely misunderstood by both U.S. intelligence and by the AO (Auslandsorganisation, foreign organization) of the NSDAP: the former feared, the latter hoped that there was substantial support and mobilization for Nazi aims among the Auslandsdeutsche (Germans living abroad) of Latin America. But while the author takes great care to sketch a balanced portrait of Latin America's Germans, he ends up arguing that even those who identified themselves as Nazis did not necessarily embrace the full spectrum of Nazi ideology (pp. 35-36). Yet that was true for Nazis back home, too, and as Christopher Browning has shown one did not even have to be an anti-Semite in order to participate in the murder of Jews. In other words, the diverse and often rational motives of ethnic German support for the Nazis--Friedman calls it "broad, but not deep" (p. 42)--would not have made these people less useful to Third Reich policies. Similarly the impression which the Nazi off-shore plebiscite on the annexation of Austria made on other inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere was not quite as quaint and folkloristic as the participants remember it fifty years later (pp. 37-38).[2]

Beyond Washington's fear that the Central and South American countries could not handle the "fifth column" threat by themselves, Friedman cites two further reasons that eventually led to the deportation campaign: the poor quality of U.S. information gathering designed to identify subversives in these countries and the benefit that American economic interests derived from the elimination of local German business. Friedman's detailed analysis of U.S. intelligence assessments is indeed a sobering one: "undertrained and inadequately sensitive to local conditions" FBI agents attached to diplomatic missions offered money for information and primarily received denunciations in return. As a result, in many cases, "U.S. pressure and assistance in cracking down on Nazi subversives was transformed into a useful tool for repressing domestic dissent" or to settle private scores (pp. 66-67). Over and over again American officials ignored the situation and interests of the countries in which they operated and categorized them as pro-Nazi at the first sign of resisting U.S. policies (pp. 82-83). This approach also greatly facilitated the realization of the last component in the American extraterritorial fight against the Nazi threat in Latin America: economic warfare, starting with the Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals (PL) in the summer of 1941. The PL began as a measure of preventing capital to return to Germany or to be used for Nazi propaganda; it was soon turned into a tool that allowed for "the elimination from positions of economic and social importance of those whose political ideas and policies rendered them undesirable," as Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson remarked (p. 93). It was this aspect of U.S. interference in several Latin American republics that caused the greatest resentment and bitterness in the hemisphere as even American officials realized, but it also provided the next stepping stone for deportation after Hitler declared war on the United States. Friedman identifies three components that came together at this point: the American objective "to identify and neutralize dangerous Axis nationals in Latin America," the willingness of some Latin American leaders to cooperate "for political and financial gain" and, finally, the traditional wartime practice of belligerents to exchange and repatriate diplomatic personnel (p. 105).

The previously detailed problems in collecting information, reliance on bribery and cooperation with corrupt regimes, seriously undermined the security aspect of this policy. In the case of Panama, more Jewish refugees than Nazi Party members were interned, "while the majority of the Nazis were left behind in Panama." Friedman found that "the record is similar for the four thousand deportees as a whole. Only about every fifth deported adult male was a member of the Nazi Party; four out of five were not" (p. 111). Both "the fancy skullduggery" and the gaffes continued. Upon arrival in the United States the deportees were asked for their visa. Following their incredulous reactions ("what visa--I was kidnapped!") they "became subject to detention or expulsion as the U.S. government saw fit" since they had entered the United States "illegally" (p. 117). Lax conditions in the internment camps combined with the wide range of political and social positions among the internees meant that "the camps were riven by the same conflicts that had divided the communities from which they came." In many cases real Nazis emerged as natural leaders and "Nazi teachers in camps schools, deported and interned to prevent them from propagandizing in schools in Latin America, now carried on their efforts literally before a captive audience (p. 137).

An important part of Friedman's story is inter-agency disagreement over the policies and measures detailed in his book. Within the State Department "Latin Americanists" with a "sophisticated understanding of inter-American affairs," local knowledge and language skills slowly lost their battle against the Wilsonian internationalists who subordinated Latin American matters to the war against the Axis and allowed figures like ambassador Spruille Braden ("the only bull to carry around his own china shop") with racist convictions to run the show (p. 81). Not surprisingly, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, notorious for his role in preventing the immigration of Jewish refugees to the United States, also proved largely successful in keeping around eighty Jewish citizens from Latin America in Texan internment camps, arguing that "we might be considerably embarrassed" should they turn out not to be Nazis (p. 157f). In this context, however, Friedman, finally, also has some news that restores the reader's confidence in U.S. wartime policies. The internment camps were under the jurisdiction of Justice Department officials and "as their surprise turned into dismay over the harmlessness of their captives, they began to insist that the program be altered" (p. 155). In early 1943 Justice Department lawyer Raymond Ickes (son of Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior) embarked on his first mission to investigate the cases of deportees as well as new lists of proposed "suspects." His conclusion was damning: "Experience has indicated that in too many instances we have had to accept for internment an inordinately large number of apparently harmless individuals disliked for one reason or another by the local governments, in order to get a very few persons who can properly be considered dangerous subjects" (p. 163). The result was doubly negative: little benefit for U.S. security interests, much damage to its standing in the region.

Friedman argues that over the course of the war this misguided deportation program evolved from "an undertaking primarily motivated by the need to ensure security against subversion into a long-term project of permanently weakening German economic competition in a region long claimed as "'America's backyard'" (p. 167). Increasingly U.S. authorities pressured Latin American governments to deport people and expropriate them, not because they were suspected of political subversion but because "they ran successful businesses." Local leaders eventually met and even exceeded these demands "turning them to their own private or national purpose" (p. 187).

Friedman's book fits into the growing literature that analyzes U.S. foreign and domestic policy during World War II primarily as a precedent for Cold War abuses and missteps (e.g. "brown scare," threat exaggeration). After the end of the war, "the Somozas and Batistas of the region easily switched from denouncing their rivals as 'Nazis' to labeling all opposition 'Communist.'" The point that interests Friedman is that they did so at the behest of the United States and with "military and economic aid from Washington" (p. 228). Naturally this focus on the problems with American foreign policy replicates a Washington-centered perspective. German foreign policy and the realities of individual Central and South American countries turn into a stage in which the drama of American ineptitude or economic interest plays itself out. No doubt Friedman unearthed an important, untold story from World War II pertaining to the relatively unaffected Western Hemisphere. It derives its significance, however, in no small measure from postwar patterns of U.S. intervention and, in particular, the current war on terrorism.

Friedman's arguments regarding the consequences of faulty intelligence generated with the help of local bribes, of disregard for national and international legal standards and of the close cooperation with corrupt, authoritarian regimes in a fight against a "greater evil" all resonate with the reader as familiar themes from cold war era and current American international adventures. As the advertisement plausibly claims "in our post 9/11 climate, with mass deportation cases, [this book] is critical reading." The author himself would probably be the first to agree that the daily delivery of milk bottles in the Texas internment camp stands in sharp contrast to the conditions in Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the Abu Ghraib prison. But Friedman is right to highlight the relevance of his story as a cautionary tale on the effectiveness of dramatic security measures. While locking up eighty-one Jewish refugees as well as many other innocent Germans, the program left a significant number of Nazis in Latin America untargeted. As Friedman makes clear this earlier instance of ignoring basic American values, disregarding legal principles, offering cash for denunciations and applying the principle of guilt by group affiliation not only led to injustice and the loss of international support for U.S. policies, it was, most importantly, ineffectual.


[1]. See Max Paul Friedman, "Guantanamo Evokes History of Past Mistakes" Miami Herald (January 25, 2004)., posted on H-German, February 3, 2004.

[2]. Gerhard L. Weinberg, The Foreign Policy of Hitler's Germany: Starting World War II, 1937-1939 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 255-260.

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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at