In the annals of human history, marked by the scars of warfare and conflict, a fascinating anomaly emerges: the Americas. Spanning from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, this vast continent, home to 35 nations and one billion people, has remained largely untouched by the nationalist wars that have ravaged much of the world since 1900. The few conflicts that its citizens engaged in were primarily Americans fighting outside of the Americas, such as their involvement in World War I and II, rather than wars within the continent itself. The sole significant nationalist war fought within the Americas since 1900 was the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia, which resulted in approximately 90,000 casualties. In stark contrast, outside the Americas, over 200 wars have erupted, claiming upwards of 150 million lives. This staggering number includes casualties from World War I (20 million), World War II (70 million), the Sino-Japanese War (20 million), and numerous ethnic conflicts with death tolls exceeding 100,000 each. Yet, the Americas have largely escaped this pattern, experiencing only minor border disputes or wars with relatively low casualty rates, like the Falklands War between the UK and Argentina, which claimed fewer than 1,000 lives on both sides. While the Americas have not been immune to violence – the Mexican Revolution, certain insurgencies, and high levels of criminality have left their marks – these conflicts have predominantly been internal in nature, distinct from the nationalist and tribal wars that have plagued other continents and inflicted horrendous casualties, including the Holocaust, where a single ethnic group, the Jews, was targeted for extermination. Nothing of this scale has transpired in the Americas since 1900. In fact, Jewish immigrants like my family, who arrived in Argentina around 1900, never experienced wars or deadly antisemitism and were not compelled to participate in any wars.
This leads to the question of why. What unique combination of historical factors and demographics has rendered the Americas an unlikely bastion of peace in a world where war is all too common? I posit that the difference lies in the immigrant composition of the Americas, which sharply contrasts with the ancient lineages and deep-seated ethnic ties found in European, Asian, Middle Eastern, and African nations. Since the 16th century, waves of people have flocked to the Americas in search of better lives, creating a tapestry of cultures, languages, and ethnicities where no single group predominates. Consequently, the type of nationalistic, tribal wars that have plagued continents characterized by homogeneous cultures, susceptible to divisive “us vs. them” rhetoric, are nearly non-existent in the Americas.
The Americas’ melting pot has molded national identities in a fundamentally different way from the cultural, ethnic, and religious homogeneity seen in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Nationalism in the Americas has often revolved around shared immigrant values, human rights, and the rule of law rather than ethnic or cultural purity. This divergence has made it challenging for virulent nationalism, which ignited 20th-century wars, to take hold. Consider Argentina and Brazil, for instance: despite historical disputes and differences, the idea of war between these nations is inconceivable. Their diverse populations make rallying around a singular, exclusionary nationalist cause unrealistic. Any rivalry that exists centers not on military conflict but on friendly competitions like soccer.
The Americas have witnessed their share of demagogues and would-be autocrats attempting to exploit divisions. When I was a child in Argentina, the fascist military dictatorship of General Videla, as well as that of General Pinochet in Chile, attempted to incite conflict between the two countries. However, these efforts largely failed to gain lasting traction, thwarted by the inherent diversity and heterogeneity of these societies. Argentines and Chileans, above all, remain good friends. The immigrant narrative in the Americas has weakened the grip of clan and tribal mentalities that prevail in nations built on singular histories, ethnicities, cultures, or religions. Families arriving in the Americas left behind old allegiances, forging new bonds based on shared ideals rather than bloodlines or birthplaces. In my native Argentina, descendants of those who fought in Europe’s wars intermarry and leave behind their combative pasts. In a country where you frequently encounter many different nations living in peace within its borders, it becomes exceedingly difficult to convince anyone to attack another like-minded nation. This shift has created a political landscape less susceptible to tribalism and intergroup violence, factors that have fueled conflicts elsewhere. Consequently, while immigrant societies may experience higher crime rates and internal violence, with the notable exception of the Bolivia-Paraguay War in the 1930s, they have largely avoided large-scale wars against one another.
Overall, the Americas’ history of immigration and resulting diversity have played a pivotal role in shaping a continent that stands out as a relatively peaceful exception amid the turbulent global landscape of the 20th century.
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