There are very few English-language works available that discuss the 1864-1870 Paraguayan War , but the finest I have come across is Roger Kohn’s Weep, Weep, Grey Bird, Weep, taken from a translation of a sad nationalistic Paraguayan poem. And anyone who has studied the Paraguayan War in any detail knows that it is an immensely sad story, but a story that provides us with a useful context to discuss the mid 19th century, and so it is worth discussing the obscure Paraguayan War for the purposes of providing a context to the American Civil War as well as a way to provide legitimacy for certain groups of people to serve as buffers between others.
Between 1864 and 1870 Paraguay fought the combined armies of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, losing half of its territory and 90% of its male population (no, that is not a typo) in the process. Paraguay, being completely landlocked, was unable to get supplies or support from the outside world, while its enemies (especially Brazil) were able to purchase massive amounts of European arms to keep their armies fully stocked and well-armed. It is a miracle that Paraguay managed to fight for six years against such a combined force, and an even larger miracle that Paraguay survived in any fashion. Despite nearly hopeless odds, Paraguay managed to inflict serious damage on their enemies and show their nation to be worthy of respect. Even more remarkably, within a few generations they were able to recover to such an extent as to double their territory by defeating Bolivia and conquering the fairly worthless (to date) Gran Chaco. The people of Paraguay are truly very resilient, and that is a testament to their spirit, despite their immense suffering as a people because of one Francisco Solano, the so-called Napoleon of South America.
The partisans of the Confederate States of America like to claim a great deal of credit for their rebellion, claiming it was a great task to hold off the mighty Union army for four years. Considering that the CSA started out with immense territories, had coastal regions that it largely failed to exploit for European trade, and had a population of about a third to a half of the Union, the fact that it held out for four years and nearly destroyed its economy and people in the process compares unfavorably to the record of Paraguay, which was under vastly worse odds with far less territory to trade for time. With far fewer relative people and troops, a far worse supply and economic situation, and comparatively far stronger opposition, the Paraguayans did far better than the rebels in the Civil War. That ought to be humbling for the other men in grey.
But let us ask ourselves why the Paraguayans survived at all? After losing all of their land and 90% of their men, how did their nation survive at all? The rebels did not lose nearly so much of their population in the Civil War, but they lost their unworthy nationhood. The difference appears to be in their geopolitical position. Neither Argentina nor Brazil–both of which are immensely powerful nations in South America–were unwilling to let the other control Paraguay, so a small buffer state was preferable for either than to destroy Paraguayan independence altogether. And so Paraguay retained its independence as a small and backwards buffer state, and has ever since then. The South was not a buffer to any territory, so it was taken by the victor. Vare victus, after all.
It would therefore suggest that if one is a small state in between massive states (like Switzerland or Nepal or Andorra), there are a few strategies to ensure a Paraguayan (and Uraguayan) survival. If one has remote territory, all the better, but in this day and age no territory is too remote for others to exploit. A wise sort of strategy is to avoid interfering in the affairs of nations stronger than you are (that was Paraguay’s mistake in the first place, how it provoked a triple alliance against it) and playing off one power against the other to ensure one’s own independence. Being a buffer state is not a lot of fun when it comes to the adroit diplomacy necessary, but it beats the alternative.
After all, not all buffer states succeed in this task. Let us take the Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, with its former capital in Chiang Mai. At its height, the Lanna Kingdom was a pivotal kingdom between Burma and Siam, but failed in its buffer role when Burma used it as a base to sack Ayuttaya in 1767. Afterward, one of the first tasks of the Chakri kingdom was to retake the territories of Lanna and divide them up between smaller buffer kingdoms which were then slowly integrated into the Thai kingdom, only without the full respect of Thailand’s core (something that to this day causes problems).
So, one has to ask, would the people of Chiang Mai and the north of Thailand be better off as an independent buffer state or as second-class citizens within a larger nation? Is Thailand better off having more land and people, or would it be better off without territories (in northern and northeastern Thailand) that continually support outsider candidates in the hope of gaining more spoils from Thailand’s government expenditures? That is a deep question. Clearly, Lanna’s leaders failed in successfully playing off both Burma and Thailand to preserve their own independence, but Thailand might not have been that much better off (if at all) for seeking to gain the land rather than preserve a buffer state.
One always has to deal with tradeoffs and balances. Does what one gains from increasing one’s power and size pay off the added internal pressures that result from ruling over those who don’t want to be ruled? Does increasing one’s territory provoke a war with an equal or more powerful nation? These are the questions that must be answered when it comes to either business or geopolitics, and Paraguay teaches us a lesson that the small can retain their freedom of movement so long as others would prefer to see them free rather than swallowed up by someone else. It is a precarious freedom, but it is one to be treasured nonetheless.
As an aside, it turns out that Brazil paid pretty heavily for its successful war effort against Paraguay. The effort that was required to defeat the plucky nation of Paraguay ended up causing social unrest in Brazil that led its monarchy to be overthrown and slavery to be abolished within about two decades. In that sense, the Paraguayan War did for Brazil what the Mexican-American War did for the United States. Sometimes the land isn’t worth it if one wants to hold on to one’s social power within a given national culture. It was not only Paraguay that had to weep after the war that nearly killed its nation.