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When World War II erupted in 1939, Brazil seemed a world away. Beautiful, exotic, and remote, Brazil and its capital of Rio de Janeiro boasted world-famous beaches and five-star hotels, luring international travelers seeking adventure off the beaten path. Rio: at the end of civilization, as we know it, claimed Orson Welles as he set out for the Brazilian capital in 1942 to film Allied propaganda. But even as expatriates like Welles drank away their worries in Brazil's stifling heat, the country's leadership was edging it toward an encounter with the modern worldone that would catapult the nation headlong into the twentieth century.
In The Fortunes of War, acclaimed historian Neill Lochery reveals the secret history of Brazil's involvement in World War II, showing how the cunning politicians who ran the country extracted enormous wealth from both the Axis and the Allies, fundamentally transforming Brazil's economy and infrastructure during and after the war. Brazil's simplistic reputation as a faraway land of palm trees and samba dancers masked the country's immense strategic value to both the Axis and the Allies; its abundant natural resources made Brazil a crucial source of sustenance for Nazi Germany, while its geographical location made it a potential launching pad for a southerly invasion of the United Statesa danger that American leaders remembered all too well from World War I, when Germany had urged Mexico to carry out just such an assault.
Brazil's charismatic dictator, Getlio Dornelles Vargas, had himself long feared an attack from the country's rival to the south, Argentina, and understood that trade concessions from the Allies and Axisnot to mention weapons shipments from the Third Reichcould make his country a formidable force in South America. Vargas cozied up to Nazi Germany in the early years of the war, then deftly used his relationship with Germany to coax even better terms from the Allies, playing the two sides against each other in a dangerous game of bait-and-switch.
The riches that Vargas's statecraft brought to Brazil transformed the country virtually overnight, allowing him to develop a sophisticated industrial and transportation infrastructure in what had previously been an underdeveloped backwater. But Brazil's cozy neutrality was not to last. As Brazil's ties with the United States deepened, the German position in Europe was eroding, leading Vargas to sever diplomatic relations with the Axis in early 1942. Within months Vargas declared war on the European Axis powers, and eventually sent 25,000 troops to the European theater. But Vargas's forces arrived too lateand were called home too earlyto secure a significant role for Brazil in the postwar order. But within the country, at least, Vargas had made his mark: his leadership during the war ensured Rio's emergence as a major international city, and effectively remade Brazil as a modern nation.
A tale of world war, diplomatic intrigue, and the rebirth of one of contemporary South America's most dynamic powers, The Fortunes of War brings to life a fascinating yet long-buried chapter of the most pivotal conflict of the twentieth century.
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