Paraguayan War (War of the Triple Alliance)

Paraguayan War (War of  the Triple Alliance)
Paraguayan War (War of  the Triple Alliance)

One of only a handful of major wars fought among the newly independent nation-states of 19th-century Latin America, the five-year war between landlocked Paraguay and an Argentine-Brazilian-Uruguayan alliance resulted in devastation for Paraguay while transforming the states of the three allies, especially Brazil, in important ways.

The roots of the conflict lay in the territorial ambitions of Brazil and Argentina combined with the recklessness and hubris of Paraguay’s caudillo dictator Francisco Solano López. In September 1864 Brazil sent troops into Uruguay to support the colorados (reds) in their fight against the blancos (whites), Uruguay’s two main political parties.

Uruguay had been created in 1828, largely through British mediation, as a kind of buffer state between Argentina and Brazil. In response to the Brazilian incursion, Uruguay’s blancos solicited the assistance of Paraguay’s Solano López.

The Paraguayan caudillo responded by starting a two-front war, sending troops north into Brazil and southwest into Argentina’s northern interior provinces. Cementing an alliance in early 1865, Brazil and Argentina struck back and were joined by Uruguay in May 1865 after a colorado political takeover.

The war, which took place mainly on Paraguayan soil, proved exceptionally destructive. Despite overwhelming odds, the Paraguayan troops fought with great skill and tenacity, inflicting high casualties on the invading forces.

The allied armies, first commanded by Argentine president Bartolomé Mitre, then by the seasoned Brazilian military strongman Marshal Caxias (Luiz Alves de Lima), took Paraguay’s capital city of Asunción in December 1868. Still, Solano López fought on, until his own death in battle on March 1, 1870. The belligerents finally signed a peace treaty in June 1870.

The treaty forced Paraguay to relinquish roughly 40 percent of its national territory (about 140,000 square kilometers, most divided between Argentina and Brazil). It also created a provisional government, inaugurating a prolonged period of political instability in the ravaged and defeated country.

For many years, historians estimated Paraguay’s wartime deaths at between half a million and 1 million. More recent scholarship shows a decline from around 407,000 in 1864 to 231,000 in 1872, a death rate of around 43 percent, with only about 28,000 males of military age surviving the conflict.

The war destroyed Paraguay’s isolated protosocialist autocracy forged under the dictatorship of José Rodríguez de Francia, leaving the country not only decimated and impoverished but riven by factional strife. It also destroyed the country’s landowning class, opened the Upper Río de la Plata basin to commerce, and facilitated capitalist expansion into the interior.

The war had other important long-term effects for the allied nations, especially Brazil. Two in particular stand out. First, the war brought the issue of slavery to the fore, with many thousands of black Brazilian troops securing their freedom in compensation for military service.

In combination with broader antislavery trends in the Atlantic world and the cessation of further slave imports in 1850, the war intensified abolitionist sentiment across the country. The combination of pressures compelled Brazilian emperor Pedro II to support the Law of the Free Womb in 1871, ensuring slavery’s eventual disappearance.

Second, the war substantially enlarged the Brazilian army while catapulting into positions of political authority and power a new generation of military officers, more modern in outlook and disenchanted with the country’s increasingly archaic political system.

Scholars consider Brazil’s final abolition of slavery in 1888 and the fall of its empire in 1889 directly traceable to the social and political changes set in motion by its victory in the Paraguayan War.

For Argentina, the war added substantially to the national territory while accelerating the centralization and consolidation of the Buenos Aires–based national state. Smaller in scale but similar in effect were the war’s consequences for Uruguay.