IT WILL long remain a perplexing question why Argentina chose to alienate all of the American Governments and set herself against a united opposition to the Axis Powers. It is more puzzling still to account for her persistence in a design so seemingly perverse, when it must have become clear to the Argentinians that the Allies were going to win the war, that the course they were pursuing was fraught with danger to themselves and might well engulf Argentina in strife with her neighbors and pave the way for national disaster. To cite the effectiveness of German propaganda does not answer the question. That same propaganda had opposite results in the other American nations. If the people of Argentina proved themselves more gullible, more easily persuaded, if the siren's voice sounded sweeter and more enticing than it did to other peoples in this hemisphere, then there must have been a special receptivity in this nation for the newly elaborated German doctrines of force, glory, gore and racial superiority.

The voluntary offer of so profound a challenge to the American system of free and democratic government cannot be explained as merely accidental or purely personal with this or that leader. National policy has a certain inner logic and historical consistency. If Argentina was responsive to the call that issued from Germany, it must have been because the call sounded true and right; and it could sound so only if in some manner it fitted in with an age-old and persistent urge now come to the surface and containing the hope of present fulfillment.

Argentine statesmen, scholars and soldiers must have become obsessed with the idea that their country was being submerged by forces over which they had no control, that their nation was declining in power and prestige, and that it was, in fact, in real danger of entering a declining and decrepit old age before it had achieved the promise latent in a very vigorous adolescence. All about them the nations were expanding, increasing in population, growing in wealth and power. Their own country was showing evident marks of a stationary and even falling population; their economy was seemingly stagnating and their power declining. In fact, as one of their leading economists expressed it, Argentina was a "blockaded nation." This had dawned on them slowly, but with ever greater force, until looking out upon the world -- upon Brazil for whom they long had an openly expressed contempt as a "negroid nation," and the United States, which in their eyes was both materialistic and godless -- they saw a growing might against which they could only chafe and with which they could not compete.

The world was slipping from them and yet, only the day before yesterday, only a generation ago, it seemed evident that Argentina was not only the leading nation in South America, but destined to play an ever greater rôle in the world. The German example came as a promising way out. Axis propaganda fitted in with their traditional pride of race, their belief in individual prowess stemming from the days of the Gaucho, with their acceptance of the idea of one-man rule, that of the Caudillo, the leader, the strong man; it fitted like a glove the persistent nostalgia for the return of the lost provinces, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and southern Brazil as well; and the German denial of the sovereignty of the small nation made the hope of establishing the greater Rio de la Plata confederation something in the offing. If Argentina accepted the blatant propaganda stemming from the ruthless destroyers of Europe, it was because it seemed, for the moment at least, to offer the hope of breaking the closing circle and reopening the path that destiny seemed to have marked out for her. Argentina would again be a powerful nation, strong, proud, vigorous and self-assertive, as was consistent with her tradition and natural to her people.

II

The Argentine people have lived in a kind of dream world, where nature gave them freely and without pain all of those things which man has to achieve by suffering and toil. They were, and knew themselves to be, the favored children of God. He gave them a large, beautiful and rich country -- rich beyond the dream of man and theirs just for the asking. They had from the beginning a plenitude of food and water and fire, in a mild climate, under a blue sky, and they had it without man or beast to contend against, or master to lord it over them. When Buenos Aires was settled in 1580, the horses and cattle previously brought over had multiplied until the pampa teemed with wild animals. For the taking, therefore, this living mine, belonging to no one in particular and to everyone in general, was theirs to live on and live by. An open and unlimited horizon, dotted with millions of wild and free cattle, occupied by few people, each having an equal claim upon the wealth nature had so generously provided, conditioned the development of Argentina all through the colonial era and well into the nineteenth century. Within this new and exotic environment, a special people dedicated to the taming of the wild horse and the killing of animals came into being. In that kind of setting, the horse provided the rule of life and the knife the instrument of living. With a good horse, man was free -- free as a bird. Even more than that, his horse gave him security, pride, confidence and equality. A man well-mounted was any man's equal and rich as the next if he had a good knife and a bola at hand to lay hold of any of the millions of wild cattle roaming the pampa.

The Gaucho, for so he was called, had few needs. A rope made out of horsehair and armed with three stones at one end would provide him with either a new mount or something to eat; a knife would do to cut the tongue out of a young heifer for food; and hide, raw or dried, served a thousand purposes that in other places were filled by wood or iron. His wife he carried off -- with the young lady's consent -- as soon as he was old enough to consider the enterprise worth the effort; and mounted on his horse and armed with his two instruments, the bola and the knife, he was equipped for life and living. Out of a hide he made his bed, his table, and his house, his rope, his chair, his clothes in part; all came for the taking. A few hides stripped in the field would give him cash enough for his needs. His food was nearly-raw meat, turned on a spit, and his drink, maté; his only vegetables were onions and garlic, and he did not have those until very late in the nineteenth century.

The country was sparsely settled; the traveler would find lone houses ten or more miles apart, often surrounded by a dry moat, possessed of a drawbridge as protection against Indians. Land was so cheap it belonged to no one at all, or only nominally to anyone in particular. A man laying claim to fifty square leagues or more would have only half a dozen families on the entire property, all living in mud shacks which were covered with hides. It was a crude, barbarous, free and self-reliant community. This small population lived by the export of hides, hooves and horns. As late as the middle of the eighteenth century Buenos Aires had only some 16,000 inhabitants in the city and in the surrounding countryside together, and half of these were Negroes, mulattoes and mestizos, who did all of the work. The white man would do none of it. Cattle and horses were so plentiful that two horses could be bought for one needle, and as late as 1730 it was possible in the city of Buenos Aires to exchange a cask of aguardiente, worth 26 francs, for 18 horses. As late as 1800 a full grown ox was purchasable for four shillings. So plentiful were the cattle that they were killed just for the tongue, or for a piece of favorite loin, and the rest left in the field. In the immediate environs of Buenos Aires, the rotting carcasses of freshly-killed cattle were to be seen late in the eighteenth century. In a sense, cattle and horses were priceless and ownerless; they belonged to him who would have them for the exertion of catching them. Only if he slaughtered more than 10,000 head would he need to ask for a permit, and that as late as 1730.

The commerce in hides grew to great proportions in time, and in 1792 as many as 825,609 hides were shipped out of the Argentine. Gathering these hides was the main occupation of the people, excepting those confined to the small urban communities and dedicated to sedentary crafts or commercial pursuits. Eighteen or twenty men, well-mounted and armed with spears, would gallop at full speed through the pampa after the fleeing cattle and cut the tendon of one of the hind legs of the frightened beasts. In an hour of wild exertion, this troop of riders would have laid low some seven or eight hundred kine. Satiated with the excitement of the chase, and weary with the effort, they would dismount, rest and drink maté. Then laying hold of their sharp, long knives and leisurely walking from one crippled beast to another, they would deftly slit its throat, leaving it to bleed to death where it had fallen in its tracks. With that job well done, there was only the need to strip the hides from the butchered animals and cart them off to some convenient place for drying and sorting. The carcasses of the dead cattle were left to rot in the field, or to be devoured by the enormous dogs which had grown up as a complement to this rural art and economy. This was the main occupation -- the very source of livelihood of the Argentine people all through the colonial period and well after it.

The skilful rider and the deft wielder of the knife became the prototype of the national character. Boys grew to emulate these arts, and local fame and character accrued to those reputed to be dexterous in the management of the wild horse and adroit in wielding the sharp-edged knife against either beast or man. The knife became the traditional weapon of the Argentine people and folk songs lent enchantment to its keen blade. The lonely Gaucho, gathering with his fellows in some isolated pulperia for such fellowship as the place afforded, or at some country festival occasioned by a death or the rare appearance of a priest, would talk in whispers and embellish the prowess of some Gaucho whose arts in the use of the knife were superhuman and whose horse was as fleet as the wind.

The unexpected appearance of the knight of the pampa would stir enthusiasm and extravagant talk and between drinks lead to a sharp word, the flash of the knife and the expected entertainment. The two Gauchos, their knives drawn, the poncho wrapped about the left hand, would square off for the fight -- fair and clean and skilful, for the art required that the best man merely carve his opponent's face. The surrounding Gauchos, enthusiastic as a gathering around a cockfight, would cheer the opponents on to battle. It was a square fight, with the rules known to every man and the purpose to draw blood and not to kill. Death was unfortunate if it occurred. The gathered crowd sorrowed not for the dead, but for the living one who had disgraced himself by artless killing, and, in their sympathy, they would, if necessary, provide him with a fresh horse and urge him to leave before the rumor of the disgrace should bring the police on his heels. After a few months, when the unfortunate accident had been forgotten, he would be welcomed back and with added prestige -- especially if he had acquired a reputation as a killer. For then he became not merely a marked, but also a feared man, with a reputation and a life to defend. And, if he proved valiant, skilful and lucky, he would gather followers about him. Here was the beginning of a possible career that spread both terror and fame far and wide.

The Gaucho and his natural leaders were the base of Argentine society. And the skill in slitting a throat was more than a business in killing cattle, more than an art in self-defense -- it came to be something of a tradition.

III

The winning of national independence produced little change in these popular mores. In some ways it reinforced them. The overthrow of Spanish rule destroyed what central government there was and each province became a law unto itself, with its own Caudillo, owing obedience to no one, carrying on war against all of its neighbors. Local and national leadership was provided by men trained in the field as Gauchos, leaders of bands of smugglers, or captains of rural police -- montoneras, themselves Gauchos hired by the local authorities to keep the turbulent spirits of the rural districts in order. Many, if not most, of the important leaders of various Argentine provinces were drawn from these groups, and they converted the traditional use of the knife into a political instrument. To degollar prisoners taken in battle, or to cut the throats of political enemies privately and in secret, became an accepted means of enforcing public policy. One need but mention such figures as Rosas, Quiroga, López and Ramírez to make the point evident.

For thirty years or more, until 1852, the Gaucho ruled the new nation. Central government had disappeared and local authority had become symbolic with anarchy. The Gaucho answered the call to a rebellion with the same enthusiasm that he accepted an invitation to a country dance, and threw away his own life or took that of his opponent with equal indifference. The destruction of Spanish power in Argentina had, in effect, dissolved the bonds of organized society.

The other immediate consequence of independence was political dismemberment of the Rio de la Plata viceroyalty which, in addition to Argentina, had included what is now Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. When order was finally reëstablished and a central government organized, it administered a very much smaller territory than before. But it took a long time before any central government could be created, and it was finally achieved by the emergence of one of the Gauchos and the gradual elimination of his rivals by guile and assassination.

Rosas, who came to be the dictator of Argentina and for more than twenty years ruled the lives of her people with calculated cruelty and sleepless vigilance, was trained as a Gaucho. He took pride in his mastery of the arts so dear to the country folk and in his reputation as bravest of the brave. Fearlessness in personal combat with the pampa tiger, or Gaucho killer, and the hospitality with which he provided a haven of refuge on his large estates for the many criminals escaping from justice, gave him a following. With the support of the common people he ultimately gained political control of the country. Rosas achieved unification of Argentina, eliminated all opposition -- by assassination or other means -- exalted the military virtues of his rural following, kept the country in a state of constant tension, quarreled with all of his neighbors, and visibly conspired to reëstablish the hegemony of Argentina over the lost provinces. In its day, Rosas' method of government could scarcely be equalled in its mania for detailed manipulation of the individual lives of his subjects -- for "subjects" the people of Argentina came to be. No one dared utter a criticism, even in private, for fear of discovery; the press and public opinion were completely controlled. All of the important intellectuals were, in time, driven from the country. The private property of adversaries was confiscated. Political enemies were assassinated by the Mazorca -- a band kept at Rosas' service, skilled in the slitting of throats; and those that were not killed outright were tortured, among other ways, by stretching their limbs on the ground -- a method learned from the stretching of a hide to dry, as Darwin observes.

This man, honest in his way -- for he was never accused of personal peculation -- attending to every detail of administration and supervising the Argentine nation as if it were his private prison, managed to ingratiate himself by force, fear, favor and deliberate design into the apparent affection and admiration of his subjects to an extent rarely seen before. They dragged his picture, mounted on a carriage, through the streets of Buenos Aires, the women as well as the men harnessing themselves in the place of the horses; they spoke of him as "savior of the nation" and the "lion of the desert;" they wore the red which was his party symbol -- men, women and children, with "Death to the Unitarians" the delicate inscription on the pretty young ladies' ribbons. They painted their doorways in red, a little bit of red even on the altars in the churches, just to show a common fealty, or a healthy regard for the invisible hand that wielded the deadly blade. All of this and more went on for more than twenty years -- the people humiliated, degraded and treated like the beasts of the field. Rosas ruled with a sure hand, a keen eye and a distant reach; and his enemies' heads were, as a special favor, sent to him preserved in vinegar. (He would be sure that his enemies were dead.)

It was not until this man was overthrown, in 1852, that Argentina was in a position to enter into the current of economic and political progress that was to bring her to the fore within the next half century as a great and civilized nation. The country was poor, her commerce at low ebb, her population small. Argentina had less than half a million people in 1810, less than a million in 1850, and barely two million in 1873. Her export was still largely in hides, though dried meat and particularly wool were increasingly becoming export products. The Indians were still roaming the outlying districts of the pampa and it was not till after 1878 that, with great and indiscriminate slaughter, they were finally driven beyond the Rio Negro and the pampa made safe for settlers. In the vast area freed of Indians, land was parcelled out to favorites of the government in enormous estates of 50 and 100 square leagues. Instead of laying the foundation for a small land-holding peasantry, the new land policy merely accentuated an already established pattern of enormous haciendas in the hands of a few families.

And then a miracle occurred. It can be described only in that way. The Argentinians had nothing to do with it. Like the innumerable cattle which filled the pampa when Buenos Aires was settled, this new gift came to them without any effort on their part; and it came very suddenly, overnight in fact. The gift was barbed wire. In the period of the single generation between 1885 and 1915, it enabled this backward and unprogressive people to become the envy of the world and one of the great nations of this hemisphere.

Barbed wire was invented in the United States in 1873. Its introduction in Argentina precipitated a profound agricultural, economic and commercial revolution. No longer was Argentina confined to the export of hides and a little dried meat and wool. By enclosing the wild cattle and breeding them with good European stock -- an art brought them by English immigrants -- she could produce excellent beef on an increasing scale for the European market. This same barbed wire enabled the estanciero to devote part of his large estate to the growing of grain, an impossible thing while the pampa was open to roaming cattle; and it enabled him to sow alfalfa -- also brought by European immigrants -- in the fields after the grains had been harvested, thus greatly enriching the pastures and increasing the number of cattle that could be fattened per acre.

The improvement in refrigeration and the increased speed of steamships opened an expanding European market, whose rapidly growing urban population called for ever greater amounts of wheat and meat. Almost overnight, the untamed Argentine pampa became a cultivated field capable of meeting a seemingly insatiable demand with an equally inexhaustible supply. The first grain elevator in Argentina was built in 1882, and the first shipment of chilled beef was made in 1883. These sudden changes converted a poor nation into a wealthy one. European investments greatly increased, railroads were built, the cities were improved. Immigrants came by the hundreds of thousands. The old Argentine families grew so prosperous that it became proverbial in Paris to say "as rich as an Argentinian," for with their sudden opulence, upper class families flocked to France and made their presence known by lavishly wasting the wealth which had come to them so unexpectedly and effortlessly.

During the 20 years between 1895 and 1915 Argentina was living in a rapidly expanding universe. Even the most conservative Argentinian must have looked out upon a world full of the promise of good and great things. The population jumped in that short period from 3,900,000 to 8,000,000. Immigration from Europe was growing by leaps and bounds, and reached 323,403 in 1912, its peak year. Exports, which in 1864 had been valued at only 45,500,000 gold pesos (14.6 pesos per capita), had reached 215,100,000 in 1895 (30.1 pesos per capita). In 1915, the value of exports came to more than one billion pesos. The area under cultivation had jumped from 4,892,000 hectares to 22,301,000 between the years 1895 and 1915. The railway trackage had increased from 10 kilometers in 1864 to approximately 30,000 in 1915.

All the statistics tell the same tale. The world must have looked bright indeed to the generation of 1895-1915. Argentina, clearly enough, had some special grace peculiar to herself which brought her so much good fortune in this world with so little effort. Once more, all had come to Argentina as a matter of course -- just for the taking.

IV

The Argentine economist and statesman, looking back upon that happy period, perceives that the First World War marked a change in the expanding economy of the country. Since then the rate of growth has levelled off. The Argentine statesman expected that the population would continue increasing, doubling every 20 years, and would give the country at least 16,000,000 inhabitants in 1930, 30,000,000 or more in 1960, and perhaps as many as 100,000,000 at the end of the century; and even then Argentina would have a lower density of population than western Europe now has. But the facts are otherwise. In 1943 the country had a population of only 13,500,000 and a rapidly declining birth rate. In 1901 the birth rate was 38.3 per thousand and in 1937 only 22.9. Even this does not tell the whole story. Immigration has come almost to a standstill and the urban population has increased so rapidly that now 74 percent of the total population live in cities; and it is in the cities that the birth rate has most declined. In fact there seems evidence to suggest that if the present rate of change continues, the population will begin declining in 1950 and drop to 12,500,000 in 1978 and 11,500,000 in 1988. A more optimistic calculation places the figure at 19,000,000 at the end of the century.[i]

This unexpected change has evoked much speculation and alarm from heads of Church and State. But the very forces of nature seem to be working against Argentina now. The decline of the birth rate, the increase in the urban population and the decrease in the rural population have gone hand in hand. The cities are growing more rapidly than the total population is increasing, Greater Buenos Aires alone having more people than all of the rural districts and all of the communities under 1,000 in the nation.

This decline in the rural residents has given rise to the rare phenomenon -- a great agricultural nation without an agricultural population. More than two or three Gauchos have never been required to herd a thousand head of cattle, and the modern changes in that industry have not involved a material increase in the number of laborers needed. This has been true of the shee-praising industry: fifty to a hundred shepherds will run 100,000 sheep. Argentine agriculture uses many fewer people than do American farms. A family of three or four people will cultivate 200 hectares of wheat. The agricultural plant with its rich, flat, stoneless soil has been ideal for modern machinery, and the laying out of the estancia has fitted into the modern use of power tools in agricultural production. But all of this has accentuated a drift to the cities and contributed to a decrease in the rate of growth of the total population. It has done even more. It has made a breaking up of these large estates more difficult and less likely, and, for both economic and political reasons, has made an increase in immigration such as was stimulated by our Homestead Act improbable. In fact there is some evidence that the smaller properties have declined and the larger ones have increased in recent years.

This unexpected contraction of the rate of population growth is but a part of what seems to be a general tendency in Argentina. Up until 1914, as we have seen, the exports of meat and grain products increased with phenomenal speed. But after 1914 the increase tapered off until 1930 and actually showed a decline after that. In the three years 1919-1921, the average value of annual exports was 2.08 billion pesos; in 1937-1939, including the very exceptional year of 1937, the exports equalled only 1.573 billion pesos. If we exclude the year 1937, the exports per capita (in pesos) for the years 1930-1940 were lower than in any year since 1912. If measured by volume of production, the record goes the same way. In millions of tons and grouped in three-year averages since 1926, we have: 1926-28, 16.0; 1929-31, 15.4; 1932-34, 14.9; 1935-37, 16.3; 1938-40, 10.5. This general trend is further indicated if we examine the shift in area under cultivation. Between 1914-25, average acreage under cultivation was 259 hectares per 100 inhabitants; 1928-37, 230 hectares per 100 inhabitants. In the year 1936-37, it equalled only 224 hectares per 100 inhabitants. These figures are sufficiently revealing; and here again, all the evidence points in the same direction.

The alarm of the Argentine statesmen, soldiers and scholars is understandable. They fear that their country is losing ground, relatively and actually, in a world where power is the means of national survival. And while this has been taking place, their disparaged if not despised neighbor, Brazil, has been rapidly expanding in population, resources, industry, commerce, prestige and, last but not least, armaments. Nor is this all. The European countries, after the last war, developed a series of protective policies which tended to restrict the market for those very things which Argentina has to offer. There is scarcely a nation in Europe that has not attempted to increase local production of food supplies. And the Argentinians have seen no evidence that this policy was likely to be changed within any reasonable period of time. Even the British Isles -- the great customer of Argentina -- took the same direction in the Ottawa Agreements. Here again the evidence is more detailed than can be recorded in a short analysis.

During the First World War and after it, very considerable progress toward industrialization was made in Argentina, and the record is more impressive when we remember that as late as 1900 practically everything manufactured was imported from abroad. The figures tell a striking story. Between 1914 and 1940 there was a 122.3 percent increase in employment in industry. But Argentina has neither coal nor iron in sufficient amount for any important industrial expansion. Her oil production is insufficient, at present supplying something like half of the total requirements of the country, and the available substitutes, such as forest products, are neither adequate nor satisfactory. Nor can much be said for the possibilities of hydroelectric development, though what the future holds in this field is still a matter of conjecture. For the moment, at any rate, the high cost of transmission of electric current has made the development of the best power sites uneconomic; the power sites are at one place, the population centers hundreds of miles away.

Industrial development in the immediate future as in the past is seemingly dependent upon an expanding foreign market for meat and wheat products. The present flare-up of small industrial exports is due to war conditions and is unlikely to continue after the war. The country needs increasing exports to pay for the cost of industrialization but the markets for them, according to the best calculations, are not available. This is what the Argentine economist means when he speaks of Argentina as a "blockaded nation." If there is no outlet either in agriculture or in industry, then where can Argentina turn?

V

The answer seemed to be supplied by Hitler. Lebensraum, the argument ran, can be obtained by political and military means. Expansion is possible if there is the energy and the will, the readiness for self-sacrifice, the belief in destiny, sufficient hardiness, a willingness to work, a disregard for the rights of the individual, a contempt for democracy, a notion of racial superiority, a military, or, at least, a bravado tradition, a penchant for cruelty, a contempt for one's neighbors, a belief in the Führer prinzip and a disregard for one's plighted word. And the Argentine people -- or at least some of them -- looking back at their earlier history, felt themselves possessed of all these specialized competencies.

They would hitch their wagon to the dark star risen in Europe and ride in its orbit. Thus and thus only can the policy of the Government of Argentina from Castillo to Farrell be explained. Its objectives seem clearly described by its conduct, by its talk, by its self-adulation. The repudiation of solemnly accepted international commitments, the contemptuous suppression of constitutional procedure, the jailing and exiling of opponents and critics, the harboring of German spies, the resuscitation of Rosas as the great national hero, all the wild talk and action, is meant to "save" the nation. Save it from what? From a delusion of encirclement, a delusion half-believed and half-fostered for a purpose -- the purpose of reëstablishing the greater Argentina. It is an old dream. It has been declaimed upon for a hundred years, and it has been actively toyed with more than once.

This activity leads in but one direction, and, had the Germans won the war, its outcome was clear and inevitable -- the expansion of Argentina at the expense of her neighbors under the ægis of the new masters of the world. Here would have been a real game for Germany and a ready tool to play it with. But Germany is not going to win the war. That fact is slowly, though not even yet convincingly, dawning upon the present Argentine Government. It is hard to surrender a dream pursued with such avidity for so great a prize, seemingly so close at hand and so easy to fulfill. The military who have taken this enterprise so seriously have staked their very reputation, their prestige, their survival as leaders of the nation upon it. A change of policy comes hard, but the facts are pressing in upon them. And so we see a two-faced movement -- a seeming return to a less arbitrary rule, even if not a democratic one, and, at the same time, a continuance of military rearmament.

We thus see the Government of Argentina pressing for the production of arms small and great, the building of airfields, the procurement of tanks and planes, the mobilization of the population from ages 12 to 50 for military training, and, at the same time, requesting a meeting of the Ministers of State through the Pan American Union so Argentina may place her case before the bar of the American nations. The conscience of the present Argentine Government is uneasy. General Rawson, one of the early leaders of the nationalist revolution, recently said: "We must develop our diplomacy. Since we have the privilege of being part of the American nations, we must contribute to this Continent's unity and defense without making difficulties. We will not obtain anything by sheer force. . . . We must not aspire to gain supremacy over other Latin American countries." He was placed under arrest for the statement. It is indeed a revealing one, giving clear evidence of the hidden purpose and the sense of frustration that is gnawing at contemporary leaders of what was, until recently, a great and constitutional government.

[i]Cf. A. E. Bunge, "Una Nueva Argentina." Buenos Aires: Gmo. Kraft, 1940, p. 96-154.

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  • FRANK TANNENBAUM, Associate Professor of Latin American History at Columbia University; author of "The Mexican Agrarian Revolution," "Whither Latin America?" and other works
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