Judith Ewell - The Paraguayan War, Volume One, Causes and Early Conflict (review) - Journal of Military History 67:1 The Journal of Military History 67.1 (2003) 250-251

The Paraguayan War, Volume One, Causes and Early Conflict. By Thomas L. Whigham. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8032-4786-9. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp. xvii, 520. $75.00.

The Paraguayan War (1865-70) pitted Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil against Francisco Solano López's Paraguay. The book jacket accurately calls it the "deadliest and most extensive interstate war ever fought in Latin America." In this volume, Thomas Whigham, professor of history at the University [End Page 250] of Georgia, focuses on the war's causes and the Paraguayan offensive of 1864-66, leaving the allied offensive, the stalemate, and the war's effects for the second volume.

Whigham locates the geopolitical roots of the conflict in the contest for control of access to the Plata River system. At independence in the 1820s, Uruguay and Paraguay became independent buffer states between Portuguese Brazil and Spanish Argentina. Yet the issue remained alive because of Brazilian national pride and their desire to guarantee river passage to their western Mato Grosso territory. When Brazil intervened in Uruguayan politics in 1864, the small mestizo nation of Paraguay responded to the Brazilian challenge.

Paraguayan president Francisco Solano López had inherited the presidency from his father. He combined a large ego, a patriarchal attitude toward his subjects, and a pride in his modern military organization. He feared that Brazil and Argentina would easily absorb his nation and Uruguay if war came, so he attacked the Brazilian Mato Grosso in December 1864. López planned then to drive to the southeast to reinforce Brazilian enemies in Uruguay. The Uruguayan campaign depended upon securing the allegiance of Argentine caudillos in the neighboring provinces of Entre Ríos and Corrientes, but López muffed the effort to win them over in time. His invasion of Corrientes in April 1865 spurred the formation of the Triple Alliance, pledged not just to defeat Paraguay, but to remove López from power.

López lost most of his navy in June 1865 and by November had fumbled away his chance at victory. His insistence on directing all aspects of the war and on leaving his officers in the dark as to his intentions undercut their confidence and capabilities. By mid-1866, the Paraguayan offensive had been checked, but the poorly coordinated allies foolishly did not press their advantage, thus contributing to a stalemate that would last for four more years.

Previously, historians have often portrayed López either as insane or as a nationalist hero. Whigham's contribution is a detailed narrative that reveals a López whose strategic and geopolitical instincts were sound but whose arrogance undercut his ability to lead. The description of the geographic setting and the vivid thumbnail sketches of many of the officers further elevate the account beyond that of one man's blindness. The reader understands the full history of a tragic war, lengthened because of incompetence and errors on all sides. If López's hubris was great, so too was that of the Argentines and Brazilians. They dismissed the Paraguayan as a madman or a "monkey," but their presumably superior nations and armies could not defeat him without great cost to themselves.


Judith Ewell
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia

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