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Argentina's Military

By Don Mabry

As the educated estanciero class consolidated its power after the overthrow of Juan Manuel Rosas in 1852, it sought to establish national control over Argentina, which had been a country in name only. Local caudillos (strongmen or war lords) had controlled their respective territories and, for a time, there had been two governments in two different locales each asserting that it was the government of Argentina. One of the chief elements of this unification and enabling the national government to enforce its will on the states/provinces, was the creation of an effective national army.

The Colegio Militar was established in 1870 followed by the Escuela Naval (1872) to train and educate the officer corps. In the 1890s, there was a large-scale purchase of new German weaponry. In 1899, Argentina imported a German military mission to train staff officers. In 1900, it created the Escuela Superior de Guerra. By 1910, promotion had shifted from political favoritism to seniority and mastery of modern warfare. Promotions were decided by an all-military committee composed of commanders of army divisions and headed by the highest-ranking general. This process opened the officer corps to the middle class. Many of the newly-promoted generals were sons of immigrants. By 1916, the military was becoming a professional organization.

The professionalization of the military received a setback because of Hipólito Yrigoyen (President, 1916-1922, 1928-1930) for he began using the military as a source of patronage and promoted and assigned officers to posts for partisan political reasons rather than military efficiency. No doubt part of the reason was because his middle class Radical Party had finally replaced the upper class in power and wanted to put people like himself or sympathetic to the Radical Party in positions of power. In addition, since the army had been used to suppress revolts of the Radical Party, no doubt he wanted revenge.

Army officers resented this but were professional enough to stay out of politics until the second Yrigoyen administration when circumstances became so bad that some officers believed that they had to save the nation from Yrigoyen. The Great Depression, which began in 1929, was devastating to the Argentine economy as prices paid for its exports plummeted. Any government would have been threatened by this economic disaster, for there was little that Argentina could do to change the world economy. The Yrigoyen government, however, was especially corrupt and incompetent.

General Agustín P. Justo (an Antipersonalist Radical) and a group of young officers overthrew the government in 1930. No one resisted. Justo wanted to re-establish the pre-1916 rule, putting the upper class back in power. His government soon yield power to General José F. Uriburu (1930-32), who wanted a semi fascist corporate state, a hierarchical order based on social function. There was insufficient support, however, and regular elections were held in 1932.

Civilian politics in 1932-1943 disturbed the armed forces. Victories were often achieved through electoral fraud. The presidency seemed unstable. A quick look at this period can be found on this site . World War II complicated matters as various Argentine factions contended with each other for power' some wanting Argentina to stay neutral, other favoring the Axis, and still others favoring the Allies. Many in the military believed that the nation needed steady, sure, and evenhanded leadership. In 1943, the Grupo de Oficiales Unidos denounced President Ramón Castillo's administration for "venality, fraud, peculation, and corruption." The military overthrew his government, dismissed Congress, and established a dictatorship until it could "straighten out" the nation. General Arturo Rawson, the first military president, announced that "now there are no political parties, only Argentines;" political parties were banned in 1944.

The military had grown in size and budgetary demands. In 1930, the armed forces consisted of about 30,000 men. By 1943, there were 60,000. By 1955, there were 120,000. In the 1920s, the military consumed about 20% of the national budget; by 1945, it was receiving about 50%.

The military returned the country to civilian government but one of its own, Juan Domingo Perón, was elected president for the 1946-51 term and the re-elected in 1951, serving until his ouster in 1955. Perón created the air force and rewarded the military with raises, equipment, and perks. However, after 1949, he tried to indoctrinate cadets with Peronista ideas, his political philosophy which he called justicialismo. He also upgraded the lower ranks with flashy uniforms. Like Yrigoyen, he also had favorites promoted. Thus, the military came to face strong divisions of pro- and anti-Perón factions. When the military overthrew him in September, 1955, it purged its own ranks as well as those of the bureaucracy and the university system. The Peronistas were forbidden by the military to participate in politics until 1958. The continued strength of the Peronista movement (25-25% of the vote) caused the military to force governments out until it finally assumed control in 1966 with the intent of staying until it had changed Argentina fundamentally. Although civilians, including Peronistas, have run the nation since 1973, it is clear that the military has held the balance of power for decades.