Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2015
Juan Domingo Perón: "Fenómeno"
By Lindon Ratliff
Juan Domingo Perón was what Latin Americans often like to call a Fenómeno. We might translate that best in English as a "paradox." He was a soldier who became the boss and idol of a trade union movement that had a long history of opposition to the armed forces and to militarism in general. He divided public opinion of his country more deeply and more bitterly than anyone in a hundred years, but when he returned to power after almost a generation he came as a symbol of unity and reconciliation. He was forced to live eighteen years in exile, having little personal contact with his rank and file followers but nonetheless he was able to maintain the strongest hold on their loyalty. He saw himself as a leader of major significance, but so successfully destroyed any subordinate figure who might possibly challenge his position that he left an inheritance of an almost leaderless political movement, the survival of which was highly problematical. He carried out economic and social policies that were long overdue, but he left his country in the grip of perhaps the worse economic crisis of its history.
Juan Domingo Perón was born on October 8, 1895, in the provincial town of Lobo in the province of Buenos Aires, about sixty miles south of the national capital. He is said to be the great grandson of an Italian senator named Peróni, who migrated to Argentina from the island of Sardinia. However, it must also be stated there has been great historical debate over whether he was illegitimate or not. This controversy is due to the fact he is noted in Wallechinsky and Wallace's The Book of Lists, as one of the twenty most famous illegitimate children.
Assuming he was not illegitimate, Juan was the second son of Mario and Juana Perón. His father was an employee of the local court. When Juan was five years old, his father abandoned the family. To make ends meet, Juana married a man who was a farm hand on the family estancia. When Juan was ten he went to live with his uncle in Buenos Aires so that he could begin his formal education. Perón was not an outstanding scholar, but it is clear that he did well enough to be regularly, if not socially promoted.
At the age of sixteen, Juan decided to follow the footsteps of many of the middle class men; he went to learn at the national military academy. Many scholars attempt to find out why he chose the military. Some have speculated he needed discipline in his life. Others have stated he saw this as an opportunity to gain power, which he ultimately would. Even with this said, many believe young Perón's decision to join the military was due to his economic situation.
I would like to now explain the atmosphere the military academy presented to the young Perón. The military academy had been established several decades earlier by a German military mission, and its faculty still contained a number of German members when Perón was a student there. Even though he graduated in 1915 with a rank of second lieutenant, he probably carried with him several pro German sentiments. Many historians are quick to point this out especially when they draw comparisons between Perónism and fascism, as we will see later.
Perón's early military career can be summed up with the words uneventful and apolitical. Throughout the 1920's Perón saw little if any action. The only event was the Semana Trágica (Tragic Week) in which he commanded a unit to curb a section of rioting in Buenos Aires. He spent the majority of the decade bouncing from one duty to another. He did write five books, as well as spending a small amount of time teaching at the military school. With this extra time on his hands, Perón concentrated on sports. He found enjoyment in boxing, archery, as well as horseback riding. Many researchers state he truly excelled in skiing but others point to his army championship in fencing. No matter which sport it was, what needs to be understood is the fact Perón was building up his physical image. In a military where power was attributed to physical appearance, Perón was six feet tall, dark hair and very muscular.
With this great deal of free time, Perón found time to meet, court, and marry, in 1928, a young school teacher named Aurelia Tizón, also known as Potota. In his later life, Perón seldom mentioned this marriage. Many have speculated he truly loved young Potota and always carried a memory of her. What we do know about her is that she was a woman of varied talents. She could draw and paint, read English, and reportedly translated a few English military textbooks for him. Even though the details are sketchy, it is apparent the young couple decided to adopt a female daughter. This complete family came to a sudden and sad end when Aurelia Tizón died in 1938 from cancer.
If the 1920's were a stagnate time for Perón's political career, the 1930's truly gave him the opportunity to rise. The first thing that occurred was the overthrow of the government of Hipólito Irigoyen by the military led by General José F. Uriburu. This revolution was of immense significance for the future of Argentina, and Juan Perón had an active, although minor, part in it. It was rumored Perón seized control of the presidential palace and the streets around it on September 6th. Even with this said, the revolution primarily strengthened his military power by making his name recognizable to his superiors.
Throughout the rest of the 1930's, Perón continued to rise through the military hierarchy. By 1936, he had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. That same year he was sent to Chile to serve as Argentine military attaché. From this assignment arises Perón's first controversy. Many newspapers of the time began reporting Perón was caught up in an espionage attempt while in Chile. Even though later in his life, Perón feverishly denied this story by blaming Eduardo Lonardi, the fact remains he was recalled back to Argentine and never received another assignment within Chile's border.
As soon as Perón arrived back from Chile he was sent, in 1938, with several other officers on a tour of duty to study the military organizations of Italy and Germany. Many researchers point out this visit along with the previous German-based training he had received in the military academy further sealed his favoritism towards a fascist dictatorship. In fact, it is true during his visit he was completely convinced the Axis were going to win World War II. While in Germany he saw some of the first victories of the Third Reich but Italy really fascinated him. In his later life Perón stressed he learned from Mussolini's mistake of trying to impose a corporative state structure on Italian society. Even so, Perón returned to Argentina in early 1941 with an overwhelming belief in the Axis cause as well as a need for "Mussolini" type power.
Juan Perón returned to Argentina from Italy with the new rank of Colonel and immediately joined the Group of United Officers. The GOU was a kind of organization which is by no means rare in Latin American armies. The group consisted of officers with the rank of Colonel or below. The ultimate goal of the GOU was to create a "lodge" or "brotherhood" of officers with the same ideals. The reason this organization is of such importance is the fact Juan Perón was one of the high ranking officers and it was so close to the 1943 revolution which would propel him to the top.
The world wind events of June 3, 1943 can be traced back to the forced resignation of Minister of War General Pedro Ramírez, by then President Castillo. Even though the revolution was brewing for several years, this was the trigger used by many groups. President Castillo was going to appoint Patrón Costas, a large landowner and pro-British aristocrat, to the newly-vacant position. This angered many pro-German military personal and thus launched the rebellion.
Within this situation arose the GOU. This group of military leaders met on the night of June 2, 1943 to discuss the planned military movement and substantial march on the presidential palace. Oddly enough, Perón was not present at this meeting but he did send his plan for troop movement to the meeting and it was well-received. The following day the GOU, along with many other groups, marched on the capital and on June 4th Castillo resigned and fled out of the country by boat. Even though the GOU were not solely responsible for the coup, this did allow them visible recognition especially among the generals who were now in charge of the country.
The three-year long military regime saw many opportunities for officers to be promoted, however, it was Perón who gained the most. The key Minister of War post went to General Edeliro Farrel, who before the coup had been Perón's immediate superior. In return for Perón's loyalty during the revolt, he was given the second position in the ministry, making him its secretary. Then in January and February 1944, allied pressure convinced President Ramírez to break diplomatic relations with the Axis power. What followed next was a struggle for power between people who supported the axis, supporters of the allies, and Perón's closes associates. The result of the crisis was an almost total reorganization of the military government. General Farrell became President and Perón was Vice President, Minister of War, Secretary of Labor and Social Reform, as well as, Head of the Post War Council. In other words, even though he was not president he was the most powerful man in the government.
Even though he commanded the army, Perón's ultimate power came from his position of Secretary of Labor and Social Reform. Perón and the GOU knew the military regime which controlled the country, had alienated the lower classes of people. The oligarchy and the Radical Party had never cared for the masses. Perón immediately made contact with the labor unions, no matter their political affiliations. Perón also reached to the common man by enacting laws for social security and paid vacations. However, Perón's major contribution came in his encouragement of all workers to unionize. Whether he knew he could ride this group's influence to power or not, he was creating a major following which lead him to the Presidency.
Before Perón could act on his rising power, an anti-Perón element led by General Eduardo Avalos seized power of the country. They forced Perón to resign all positions and, after being given a chance to make a radio address to his followers, was placed on the prison island, Martín Garcia, which was the traditional place of sequestration of the country's most important political prisoners.
Generally, the behavior of the anti-Perón forces in this period played into the hands of Perón and his supporters. They went far to confirm, in the eyes of many if not most of the workers, the claim of Perón that he was their only defender and that without him in power they would suffer severe attacks. For example, they canceled scheduled vacations as well as, went against the constitution by struggling for power with the Supreme Court.
At this time it is important to dissolve the myth that Eva Duarte was the sole rescuer of Juan Perón. It is true that she was his mistress while he was in prison and she did lobby to have him released. The former actress also made speeches to the labor unions but her primary job was to keep Perón informed of what was going on. She did this by including details in her love letters to him. The true organizer of the October 17 march on Buenos Aires were the heads of the labor unions with whom Perón had allied while he was Vice President.
After the massive march on the capital, Perón was released from exile. Instead of resuming his role as Vice President, Perón immediately recognized where his power lied and began his campaign for the 1946 presidential election. At this time he also married his long time mistress, radio star, and movie actress Eva Duarte. The election process was very difficult but Perón won the presidency by about 54 percent of the vote on February 24, 1946.
When Perón became president he had two choices for his government. He could continue to lean toward social reform and possibly a democratic government, after all he had been elected by a fair election, or he could become a dictator. Perón chose the second option. By installing an increasingly oppressive dictatorship but which had the trappings of democracy, Perón polarized the Argentine body politic irretrievably between his supporters and his opponents. He also removed all but one of the Supreme Court members. He went after the labor unions and attempted to take away their power. He also exiled two Catholic priest, a move that would lead to his excommunication. With all of these moves Perón ultimately created distrust between the people. He attempted to make a government where only pro-Perón could hold power. Even though he attempted harsh reforms in the field of economics he went too far. The process of transferring resources from agriculture to other uses went so far as to undermine the rural sector. This would ultimately mark defeat for his administration.
The beginning of Perón's fall from power can be set at the date of July 26, 1952, the day Evita died. Throughout the administration she had tried to garner the power of the people, which she successfully did. After her death, Perón fell into a deep depression. It is not known if this was for the love he had lost or because she had always been there to help him with the power struggles. What is known is that after her death, Perón went on what could only be called a "binge" of alcohol and young women. After his ouster, the military publicized his affair with a thirteen-year-old girl.
Also at this time a great economic crisis hit the country which was caused by Perón's original reforms. To solve this Perón attempted to reverse his original reforms but this was unsuccessful. All of this culminated with the first coup attempt in 1955. Even though this failed, it frightened Perón and hampered him politically as well as physically. To solve this problem on August 31th, Perón made a horrific speech from his balcony. He called for the all traitors to be found and jailed. Then on September 3rd he issued a decree establishing a state of siege. This was the last straw and on September 16th the second and this time successful coup took place. After several days of uncertainty Perón was allowed to escape by gunboat to Paraguay. He then went to Spain with millions of Argentine public money. He would be in exile for 18 years.
For the next 18 years his supporters continued to portray the image of his triumph return to power. Many times his supporters wanted to create a political organization back in Argentina. Perón vetoed this idea except that he told his followers in Argentina how to vote. Many researchers have stated his 18 years in exile were self-defeating and this was true. However, by just staying in contact with members in Argentina he kept his name alive and prepared the people for his return.
During his exile, Argentina saw tough economic times as well as suppressions against the labor unions. This aided the pro-Perón movement. No government could succeed unless it made deal with peronismo. Finally on June 20, 1973, Perón returned to his home country and a million people went out to receive him. His man, President Héctor José Campora, resigned shortly after Perón's arrival.
Perón was now set up for a run for political office. He first chose Ricardo Balbín to be his vice president but this was met with public outcry. Finally, Juan decided to choose his third wife Isabel Martínez de Perón which many people said evoked the memory of Evita. The Perón/Perón ticket won overwhelmingly by receiving 62 percent of the vote.
Instead of taking up a harsh line against opposition like he did before, Perón tried to make friends out of enemies. In fact, most of his term dealt with allying with conservatives, the very people who had hated him. His leftist supporters were stunned. Argentina suffered major economic problems. All of this was accelerated by Perón's bad health. In retrospect, it seems likely that Perón knew that he was a dying man when he took the office. He began to cancel appointments and many people saw the end was coming. Even with this said, it came as a shock when on July 1, 1974 it was announced Juan Domingo Perón had died. He was succeeded by his widow, Isabel.
Thus ends the life of such a controversial man. His first administration will always be remembered by the images of his second wife, Eva. However, it will also be marked by his decision to become a dictator. His second administration will be known as a economic catastrophe but it did see him attempting to remove the dictator image. Juan Perón was a power-hungry man who knew what he wanted but never really knew how to keep it.
Aizcorbe, Roberto, Argentina: The Perónist Myth. New York: Exposition Press, 1975.
Alexander, Robert, Juan Domingo Perón: A History. Boulder: Westview Press, 1979.
Alexander, Robert, The Perón Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.
Blanksten, George, Perón's Argentina. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.
Cowles, Fleur, Bloody Precedent. New York: Random House, 1952.
Falcoff, Mark, Prologue to Perón, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975.
Ortiz, Alicia, Eva Perón, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Taylor, James, Eva Perón: The Myths of a Woman, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Whitaker, Arthur, Perón's Fall, New York: Praeger Press, 1956.