The Institute of Inter-American Affairs and Its Health Policies in Brazil during World War II

By De Campos, Andre Luiz Vieira | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Institute of Inter-American Affairs and Its Health Policies in Brazil during World War II


De Campos, Andre Luiz Vieira, Presidential Studies Quarterly


In March 1944, the U.S. Institute of Inter-American Affairs (IIAA) celebrated the second anniversary of its "cooperative health and sanitation program" in Latin America.(1) George C. Dunham, the director of the IIAA's health and sanitation division, evaluated the program's accomplishments and goals. Although Dunham took most of his examples from Brazil, the IIAA's program was not restricted to that country. The institute had signed agreements with all but two Latin American republics: Cuba and Argentina.(2) In March 1944, the IIAA had 181 North American technicians working in eighteen Latin American countries. Most were physicians, nurses, sanitary engineers, construction engineers, architects, entomologists, and business managers.(3) By January 1944, another 13,000 nationals of the other republics were employed by the program, of whom some 600 were qualified technicians, working on a range of projects such as malaria control, environmental sanitation, hospital organization, dispensaries and health centers, professional training, and health education.(4) Of the original 821 planned projects, 451 had been concluded by July 1945.(5)

Roots of Cooperative Action

The IIAA's health and sanitation program was a product of the Good Neighbor Policy instituted during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, as a direct answer to Nazi economic and political expansion and its effects on the Americas. Although the program began to operate in 1942, its roots went back to the 1930s. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State A. A. Berle Jr. indicated to the Buenos Aires Conference of Foreign Ministers of the American republics in 1936 the beginning of economic cooperation in the hemisphere. He outlined the diverse aspects of the Nazi policy that was threatening the interests of the United States in Latin America.(6)

The main economic issue highlighted by Berle was related to the trade between Latin America and Europe, particularly with Germany. During the 1930s, Latin American countries had been the chief suppliers of raw materials for rebuilding the German war machine. Germany had introduced the so-called barter agreements to Latin America to tie its trade to its economy. Through this implementation, commodities imported from Latin America were paid in blocked currency, which means it could only be spent in Germany.(7) So the new economic hemisphere policy, referred to by Berle, was to shift Latin American trade to the United States.

The United States was concerned with this commerce that "offered a fertile field in which the Axis power could carry on propaganda activities."(8) The political dilemma became more evident in 1937, when "Nazi and Fascist propaganda" began to be "exported in large scale."(9) Significantly dangerous in the political discourse of that time were the would-be fifth columns: Germans, Italians, Japanese, and their descendants living in the American republics. An American governmental publication alerted that some 1,400,000 "Axis aliens" and approximately 4,450,000 citizens of German and Italian descent lived in Brazil, "most of whom lived in the South and Southeast."(10)

Feelings of insecurity increased within the United States after the fall of France in 1940, and the U.S. government, for the first time, felt that the German military threat could possibly reach the Americas. After the Nazi expansion in North Africa, Berle believed that "it was perfectly possible that aggressive powers might commence to operate in the Atlantic."(11) The War Department realized that northeastern Brazil could be reached by the power of German aircraft from western Africa. Concerned with U.S. security, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles suggested to the American ambassador to Brazil to have a "personal and confidential" talk with the Brazilian minister Oswaldo Aranha over the importance of the Fernando de Noronha and Natal areas, "both within ferrying range of European bombers operating from West African bases, and both of which could be used to facilitate the transfer of planes, men and munitions to the Western Hemisphere. …

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