For twenty-seven months between 1932 and 1935, Bolivia and Paraguay fought an active war over the Chaco Boreal. Sparsely populated by Indigenous groups, the disputed area lay north of the Pilcomayo River, where the two countries share borders with one another, Argentina, and Brazil. It was a punishing landscape for war, with few water sources except during the rainy season, when scrubland turned to mud and made the region virtually impassable. The conflict’s origins lay in boundaries that had been poorly defined during the formation of these nation-states in the nineteenth century, but the proximate cause was nationalist efforts to develop the region and improve export routes. Fought in the interwar period with the tools of modern warfare, the Chaco War holds important lessons for military historians. Airpower played a role, but it was primarily an infantry war because the terrain made cavalry and tanks of little use. The Chaco War was the deadliest interstate conflict in 20th-century Latin America. The belligerents depleted their coffers, mobilized between 10 and 15 percent of their populations, and suffered at least 25 percent casualty rates. Bolivia’s forces had three commanders during the war, including German General Hans Kundt (b. 1869–d. 1939), while Paraguay was capably led by Mariscal José Félix Estigarribia (b. 1888–d. 1940). Paraguay was the clear victor, gaining more territory than it claimed prior to the war but less than it held at the end of the conflict. In both countries, the war had profound effects and led to the end of the liberal period. In Paraguay, Colonel Rafael Franco (b. 1896–d. 1973) overthrew President Eusebio Ayala (b. 1875–d. 1942) in February 1936, in what is known as the Febrerista Revolution, and established a populist administration emphasizing veterans’ needs. Bolivia’s postwar period was characterized by instability until the 1952 Revolution by the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), which emphasized wartime sacrifice. The literature on the Chaco War is extensive, but most publications are Spanish-language firsthand accounts and partisan histories. This bibliographic guide contains most of the English-language scholarship available along with some of the more important and widely available titles in Spanish. Much work remains to understand this conflict and the impact of veterans on these societies, but scholars have begun to mine military archives to offer less nationalistic accounts and have made significant headway in revealing the impact on the region’s Indigenous inhabitants.
These texts offer a larger perspective on the war. Chesterton 2016 is a recent and concise introduction to the region, conflict, and historiography. Zook 1960 still offers the best detailed English-language overview of the causes, action, and peace process; Farcau 1996 is also widely cited and highly readable. Querejazu Calvo 1965 and Centurión 1970 are the most widely available texts offering an overview from the Bolivian and Paraguayan perspectives, respectively. Shesko 2020, Niebuhr 2021, and Lorini 2006 contain far less detail on operations but place the war in the context of Bolivian politics and society. Chesterton 2013 does similar work for Paraguay with a stronger emphasis on cultural history. A work of conflict archeology, Breithoff 2020 focuses on the Mennonite and Indigenous populations often omitted from overviews of the war in addition to presenting the belligerents’ perspectives.
Breithoff, Esther. Conflict, Heritage and World-Making in the Chaco: War at the End of the Worlds?. London: UCL Press, 2020.
Interdisciplinary approach to the war that attends to the wartime and postwar experiences of Paraguayans, Bolivians, Indigenous peoples, and Mennonites through the analysis of material culture, such as trench art, war debris, military outposts, and cemeteries. Offers a clear and accessible overview of the war but also draws extensively on theory to analyze landscapes and archival, oral, photographic, and archaeological evidence.
Chesterton, Bridget María. The Grandchildren of Solano López: Frontier and Nation in Paraguay, 1904–1936. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.
Cultural history of Paraguayan nationalism leading up to and during the war. Maintains that agriculturalists’ experiences as foot soldiers in the war led to the Febrerista Revolution and to a new nationalism focused on the memory of Francisco Solano López (b. 1827–d. 1870).
Chesterton, Bridget María. “Introduction: An Overview of the Chaco War.” In The Chaco War: Environment, Ethnicity, and Nationalism. Edited by Bridget María Chesterton, 1–20. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
Very concise introduction to the region and to the war’s causes, diplomacy, principal actors, major engagements, and historiography.
Centurión, César R. Breve reseña histórica de la Guerra del Chaco. Asunción, Paraguay: Editorial El Gráfico, 1970.
Most widely available and comprehensive overview of the war from the Paraguayan perspective. Written by a Paraguayan artillery officer for secondary students.
Farcau, Bruce W. The Chaco War: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932–1935. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.
Political and military overview of the war that emphasizes the Bolivian side. Highly readable narrative based on secondary sources. Argues that Paraguay won due to better leadership and Bolivia lost because of long supply lines.
Lorini, Irma. El nacionalismo en Bolivia de la pre y posguerra del Chaco (1910–1945). La Paz, Bolivia: Plural Editores, 2006.
Detailed analysis of elite attempts to consolidate and define Bolivia as a nation in the early twentieth century. Argues that Bolivia developed nationalism only as a result of the war.
Niebuhr, Robert. ¡Vamos a avanzar! The Chaco War and Bolivia’s Political Transformation, 1899–1952. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021.
Overview of the war’s causes, failures, and effects up to 1952 from the perspective of Bolivian elites. Uses the framework of populism to focus on state formation and politics with less discussion of military engagements.
Querejazu Calvo, Roberto. Masamaclay: Historia política, diplomática y militar de la Guerra del Chaco. La Paz, Bolivia: n.p., 1965.
Available in multiple later editions from different publishers, this is the best Spanish-language overview of the political, diplomatic, and military aspects of the war from a Bolivian perspective. Although written by a participant based on his campaign diary, it is a well-researched work of history based on archival research. Argues that Bolivia fought for honor, whereas Paraguay fought to survive as a nation.
Shesko, Elizabeth. Conscript Nation: Coercion and Citizenship in the Bolivian Barracks. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.
Overview of the role of the military in Bolivia’s society from 1900 through 1964 focused on conscription and the experience of obligatory military service. Emphasizes the continuities that spanned the period and led to Bolivia’s failure in the war and to its 1952 Revolution.
Zook, David H., Jr. The Conduct of the Chaco War. New York: Bookman Associates, 1960.
Still the most authoritative and comprehensive English-language history of the war. Argues that leadership was the defining factor, portraying Paraguay’s Estigarribia as inspired, especially in comparison to the ineptitude of Bolivia’s leadership.
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