WHILE EUROPEANS AND North Americans forged nations through inter-national and civil wars in the mid-nineteenth century, much of Latin America was embroiled in a ferocious struggle that pitted the small land-locked state of Paraguay against the combined might of the Brazilian empire and the Argentine and Uruguayan republics. The suffering it caused was immense but compared to the American Civil War or the wars of Italian and German Unification, this War of the Triple Alliance of 1864-70, or Lopez' War, is virtually unknown outside the countries involved. If remembered at all it is for the romantic figure of Elisa Lynch (1835-86), the charming but unscrupulous Irish mistress of the Paraguayan president. Francisco Solano Lopez (1826-70), and the subject of several racy novels and implausible biographies.
The conflict occurred at a crucial watershed in the history of modern war and that of Latin America. Land and naval warfare were being transformed by rapid technological advances that pointed towards the horrors of the First World War. The Spanish-speaking republics were emerging from the post-independence era, dominated by caudillos, or military strongmen, of whom Lopez was one of the most colourful. The combination of these developments produced in Latin America a conflict of stark contrasts: one in which armies led by republican idealists fought alongside those composed largely of black slaves and impoverished gauchos, the cowboys of Latin America. Spears and lances were used alongside breach-loading rifles, high explosives, and observation balloons, while canoes battled steam-powered ironclads.
The mid-nineteenth century found Latin American countries entering a crucial stage in their development. The continent was slowly emerging from prolonged political and economic instability following the bloody wars of independence against Spain and Portugal (1810-25). Growing European demand for Latin American goods provided the previously indebted governments with unprecedented wealth. While this improved prospects for political stability, it also gave the caudillos the means to assert their authority over recalcitrant regions and to settle the numerous boundary disputes left over from the collapse of Spain's colonial rule
The figures of Lopez and his scheming mistress loom large in most explanations of the war. Elisa was seductive, manipulative and extremely ambitious. Having escaped a life of relative poverty in Ireland, she married an undistinguished veterinarian in the French army, who disowned her after several affairs. Sent by his father to Europe to buy weapons and secure diplomatic recognition for Paraguay, Lopez met her in Paris in 1854 and was captivated by her. He took her back to Paraguay, much to the disgust of his prudish father and the local society ladies. She clearly encouraged his desire to westernise the country, but it is doubtful she ever exerted much influence over foreign policy, and it is significant that he never married her despite their seven children.
The three allies argued they were fighting Paraguay's dictator rather than its people, claiming Lopez wanted to make himself the Napoleon of South America by conquering Uruguay, northern Argentina and south-west Brazil. This propaganda masked longstanding Argentine and Brazilian expansionist ambitions that threatened both Paraguayan and Uruguayan autonomy. Neither of these two small republics was a match for Argentina or Brazil, the continent's two largest countries. Their independence depended on the two giants' mutual hostility and endemic internal problems, which pitted weak central governments against strong regional sentiment. However, from the 1840s, the Brazilian monarchy consolidated its grip under Dom Pedro II (1825-91). Argentina appeared to be moving in the same direction with the defeat of the main provincial leaders by Bartolome Mitre (1821-1906) in 1861, a year before he himself became president of Argentina. …