- Conquistadors of the Sky. A History of Aviation in Latin America
With the exception of R. E. G. Davies' Airlines of Latin America since 1919 (1984), the ascent of aeronautics in Latin America has not attracted widespread attention from historians writing in English. Dan Hagedorn's lavishly illustrated book is therefore a welcome addition, offering a wealth of factual information. Hagedorn approaches his topic with a commendably wide perspective, covering historical developments from early experiments with balloons in the 1700s up to military and civil aviation in the 1990s. Within this framework, the author concentrates his study on developments in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1913 Mexico became the first Latin American nation to establish its own air force, soon followed by the largest countries in South America, who quickly realized the civilian and military potential of aviation. Not surprisingly, the interest in the use of aircraft was closely connected with the geography of the continent and the generally poor land transportation infrastructure. Even in smaller Latin American countries, aircraft played a role in consolidating a sense of nationality by connecting isolated areas with the rest of the country.
Most of the development in aviation taking place in Latin America between the 1910s and the end of World War II was a result of a competition between U.S. and European airlines and aircraft producers. The United States, France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain promoted aircraft exports to Latin America and actively tried to influence the local governments' air policies. By the 1930s, however, American firms dominated the Latin American market. The American influence was consolidated after 1938 with the arrival of U.S. military missions to Latin America and solidified with a series of postwar bilateral military agreements, which created "practically a U.S. monopoly" (p. 417). Developments in the civil field were not altogether different, also because the United States created the largest market for international air services from Latin America.
Hagedorn's treatment of such developments is, however, marred by a lack of structure in the book. From page 32 onward, the hitherto coherent story breaks down into unrelated geographical subdivisions that contain national aeronautical histories, arranged alphabetically in the fashion of an AAA road atlas. This gives the book the character of an anthology of loosely connected events, rather than the analytical history that a reader might expect from a book published by a scholarly press. There are, unfortunately, more problems with [End Page 189] this text as a scholarly book. For example, the author asserts, with some emphasis, that World War I marked the beginning of the hegemony of U.S. finance and technology in Latin American aeronautics (p. 94). Yet by reading the interwar chapters (pp. 115–308), which detail the close involvement of European interests in Latin American aviation, one would not immediately agree with this statement. And what about the British aircraft exports to Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador in the 1950s (pp. 117, 416, 467), the Spanish endeavors to gain control over several large airlines in Latin America (not mentioned at all), or the Argentinean efforts to jump-start a national aircraft industry using engineers exiled from (formerly Nazi) Germany (pp. 483–4)? Throughout the book, Hagedorn focuses too much on aircraft and aviators, at the expense of the larger political and economic context in which they operated. For a book on the present topic, the rise in the past decades of the Brazilian aerospace industry, Embraer, which will likely have a considerable impact on the future position and perception of Latin America in world aviation, receives little attention: barely more than two pages. There are also heuristic shortcomings that become apparent when examining the sources. Surprisingly, Davies' aforementioned groundbreaking book, which one would expect to be important to the author in compiling the present work, is mentioned no more than three times (and that in passing). In the chapter on World War II, to give another example, footnotes are not only...