Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Amazon’s Greatest Generation? A Forgotten History of World War II

Reading Time: 5 minutesBrazil’s rubber “soldiers” paved the way for the region’s transformation.
Reading Time: 5 minutes


Reading Time: 5 minutes

Lourenço Canário da Silva never fought in World War II, but he was one of the unsung footsoldiers who contributed to the Allied victory. A poor laborer from the northeastern state of Ceará, Da Silva and some 34,000 other Brazilians were recruited to tap rubber in the Amazon forest between 1943 and 1945. The bounty from the “Battle for Rubber,” as the government of then-President Getúlio Vargas called the U.S.-subsidized effort, was used to make tires and other necessities for Allied armies. “I won a ticket from Getúlio Vargas and in return I gave my life,” Da Silva recalled decades later. “Everything changed.”

Da Silva was speaking about his own life—but he could have been speaking of Brazil and the Amazon as a whole. Vargas’s government used the wartime effort to stake its claim to a region that until then was barely integrated into the Brazilian nation-state. This process would also lay the groundwork for a model of state-centric economic planning that Brazil followed for decades to come.

It certainly wasn’t the first time in history that Brazilian rubber took on global strategic importance. Home to the Hevea brasiliensis tree, the primary source of crude rubber, the Amazon commanded 90 percent of global production in the late 19th century. But the spectacular boom went bust by the second decade of the 20th century, after Hevea seeds smuggled to the British Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew helped to create vast rubber plantations in the European colonies of Southeast Asia. Unlike Amazonian rubber trees, which were tapped in the wild over vast remote expanses of the forest, with typically no more than three or four trees per acre, their Asian counterparts flourished with heavy capital investment, state subsidies, facility of transport, and large pools of labor. Moreover, Hevea brasiliensis plantations in Southeast Asia had been spared the South American leaf blight fungus that ravaged rubber trees in close proximity in the Amazon, as Henry Ford painfully learned in his experiment at Fordlândia. By the 1930s, the Amazon produced less than 1 percent of global rubber.

President Vargas vowed to revive Brazil’s rubber production. Visiting the Amazon in 1940, he announced plans to develop blight-free trees, as well as a subsidized migration and rural settlement campaign dubbed the “March to the West.” The state-sponsored colonization of the nation’s vast and sparsely populated central and Amazonian regions underpinned the nationalist regime’s goals of leveraging Brazil’s rich natural resources and its strategic location to become an independent and influential player in the Western Hemisphere. But it was the U.S. wartime hunger for rubber that would offer a better chance for making this possible.

A Wartime Shortage

By March 1942, following the Japanese invasion of the Malayan Peninsula and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the U.S. lost access to 92 percent of its rubber supply. Rubber was indispensable for the tanks, trucks and airplanes central to modern warfare. It was also critical to equip the tires of more than 20 million civilian automobiles in the U.S. Although by 1940 the U.S. used as much rubber as the rest of the world combined, Washington remained perilously dependent on Southeast Asian supplies, due to its failure to subsidize a domestic synthetic rubber industry, expand its strategic stockpiles, or promote the successful diversification of corporate investment in other tropical areas.

Faced with a projected deficit of 211,000 tons for U.S. military use by January 1944 (in addition to the 800,000 tons of tire rubber required for civilian automobiles), President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Rubber Survey Committee endorsed government development of synthetic  rubber manufacturing plants. But the lag in synthetic rubber production and its unsuitability for heavy vehicle and airplane tires led the U.S. government to negotiate an agreement with Brazil in March 1942 for the sale of its exportable crude rubber surpluses at a fixed price for five years. The U.S. also committed to provide Brazil with a $5 million fund to improve raw rubber production in the Amazon. Brazil had given up its earlier declaration of neutrality in January 1942, when the Vargas government severed diplomatic ties with the Axis. Nine months later, in August, it declared war on Germany and Italy. The U.S. government supplied 40 percent of the startup capital of the Rubber Credit Bank—precursor to the Bank of Amazônia, the Brazilian government’s key lending agency for current-day regional agribusiness development. And to ensure a pliant labor supply for rubber extraction, Brazil committed to transporting up to 50,000 male workers to the Amazon with all in-transit expenses to be covered by the U.S. government.

The binational accords reflected the divergent priorities of Brazilian and U.S. policymakers. The former sought long-term developmental benefits; the latter focused on maximizing short-term raw material output. But the impact on Lourenço Canário da Silva and tens of thousands of other drought-stricken northeastern peasants and poor urban dwellers was profound. Most were drawn into the “Battle for Rubber” by economic need or opportunity and the offer of free passage. Extensive patriotic propaganda notwithstanding, many of the migrants soon grew disillusioned. Despite labor contracts designed to protect the wartime tappers from debt peonage, they were frequently overcharged for supplies and faced arbitrary fines for minor violations. Many of the new arrivals were stricken by malaria. Few of the rubber tappers possessed immunity to the disease, and they were far removed from the closest health clinics. Scores of laborers fled their abusive bosses and took refuge in squalid migrant camps in nearby Amazon towns.

Making things worse, in mid-1943, the U.S. government drastically reduced its commitment to subsidizing the Amazon rubber campaign. The lackluster output, which only slightly surpassed interwar levels, became political fodder for opponents of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy. More importantly, the synthetic rubber program, a $700 million government initiative undertaken in conjunction with industrialists and scientists, eventually compensated for the domestic shortfall, and crude rubber supplies from India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) met the need for specialized applications.

A Small Reward

Following the war, many survivors of the “Battle for Rubber” returned to their homes in northeastern Brazil. Others, like Da Silva, remained to eke out a living on the rubber properties or in Amazon towns. Their service remained unrecognized and their wartime wage and labor guarantees were ignored—until 1988. Only then, after Brazil emerged from more than two decades of a military dictatorship whose developmentalist project dispossessed thousands of peasants and indigenous peoples in the Amazon, would the newly drafted constitution grant the former rubber “soldiers” a small pension. In fact, the military government’s model for regional integration had built upon the public banking system, health and sanitation program, and airport development project created during the wartime rubber campaign, and reiterated Vargas’s promotion of frontier development at the expense of environmental protection.

Meanwhile, the Amazon rubber campaign has receded in U.S. memories. Perhaps that has served to paper over yet another failed foreign policy initiative in Latin America that claimed numerous lives. Or perhaps the Amazon’s wartime role as supplier of strategic raw materials and recipient of U.S. capital and technology transfers could find no place in entrenched popular depictions of an unspoiled Eden. 

Garfield is a professor of Latin American history and director of the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region, published by Duke University Press.

Tags: Brazil, The Long View
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