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Chaco War

The Chaco War was fought between Bolivia and Paraguay over control of a great part of the Gran Chaco region of South America, which was incorrectly thought to be rich in oil.


Though the region was sparsely populated, control of the Paraguay River running through it would have given one of the two landlocked countries access to the Atlantic Ocean. This was especially important to Bolivia, which had lost its Pacific Ocean coast to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1883).

Control of natural resources

Furthermore, the discovery of oil in the Andean foothills sparked speculation that the Chaco itself might be a rich source of petroleum. Foreign oil companies were involved in the exploration: companies mainly descended from Standard Oil, which backed Bolivia, while Shell Oil supported Paraguay.

In international arbitration, Bolivia argued that the region had been part of the original Spanish province to which Bolivia was heir. Meanwhile, Paraguay had begun to cultivate the region, making it the world's largest producer of yerba mate, while the small indigenous population of Guarani Indians was related to that country's own Guarani population. Paraguay had lost almost half of its territory to Brazil and Argentina in the War of the Triple Alliance and was not prepared to see what it perceived as its last chance for a viable economy fall victim to Bolivia.

The war

Border skirmishes throughout the late 1920s culminated in an all-out war in 1932, when the Bolivian army, following the orders of the President Daniel Salamanca, attacked a Paraguayan garrison at Lake Pitiantuta.

Paraguay had a population only a third as large as Bolivia's , but its guerrilla style of fighting, compared to Bolivia's more formal strategy, enabled Paraguay to win more battles. Paraguay received military supplies and intelligence from Argentina. The Paraguayans took advantage of their ability to communicate over the radio in Guarani language, which was not intelligible to the typical Bolivian soldier. Also, Paraguayans were able to send trained native guinea pigs carrying messages as a sort of messenger pigeon back and forth between lines of military operation, thus helping the war effort. Paraguay had little trouble in mobilizing their troops in large barges through the Paraguay river right to the frontlines, whilst the majority of Bolivian soldiers came from the western highlands, some eight hundred kilometers away and with little or no logistic support.

Moreover, Bolivia deployed at least five tanks during the war, in what was the first ever (and to this day the only) case of cross-border armored warfare inside the Western Hemisphere. These machines proved to be ill-suited to the terrain and weather of Gran Chaco, when compared with the lightly-armed Paraguayan forces. [*]

The Chaco War is also important historically as the first instance of aerial warfare to take place in the Western Hemisphere. Both sides made use of obsolete single-engined biplane bombers; despite an international arms embargo imposed by the League of Nations, Bolivia in particular went to great lengths in trying to import a small number of advanced twin-engined bombers masqueraded as civil transports - namely the Curtiss C-30 Condor (which were halted in Peru during deliveries) and the Junkers Ju 86 (which were delivered to Bolivia).

The deployments of these "advanced" weapons, however small in quantities, caused enormous strains on both countries, and particularly Bolivia's, and their impoverished economies were already stretched to their limit due to war spending.

The war was a disaster for both sides. Bolivia's European elite forcibly enlisted the large indigenous population into the army, though they felt little connection to the nation-state, while Paraguay was able to foment nationalist fervor among its predominantly mixed population. On both sides, but more so for Bolivian troops, the soldiers were ill-prepared for the dearth of water or the harsh conditions of terrain and climate they encountered. In fact, of the war's 100,000 casualties, more died from diseases such as malaria and other infections than from the actual fighting. At the same time, the war brought both countries to the brink of economic disaster.

On November 27, 1934, Bolivian generals, frustrated by the progress of the war, seized President Salamanca while he was visiting their headquarters in Villamontes and replaced him with the vice president, Jose Luis Tejada Sorzano.


By the time a ceasefire was negotiated on June 10, 1935, Paraguay controlled most of the region. This was recognized in a 1938 truce, signed in Argentina, by which Paraguay was awarded three-quarters of the Chaco Boreal. Bolivia did get a small strip of land that bordered the Paraguay River's Puerto Busch. Some years later it was found that there were no oil resources in the Chaco proper.

Many middle-class Bolivians were humiliated by Bolivia's quick military defeat during the Chaco War, which led to a mass-movement away from the traditional order known as the Generacion del Chaco, which was epitomized by the MNR-led Revolution of 1952.

Cultural references

Some aspects of the Chaco War are the inspiration for Tintin's comic book The Broken Ear by Herge.

The conflict inspired Lester Dent to write the Doc Savage adventure The Dust of Death in 1935.

See also

Vickers 6-Ton tank

Carden Loyd tankette

Junkers W 34

External references

Chaco War [*]

Armor of the Chaco War [*]

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Chaco War

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