Few political doctrines have a birthday, a singular point in time which represents the commencement of a new way of thinking and governing, a tipping point. Peronism, the dominant political force in Argentina for the past 71 years, is anything but straight forward. The ideology created by former President Juan Domingo Perón is complex and puzzling, it has many derivatives and interpretations. Peronism is many things seemingly contradictory; socially progressive yet, in some ways, inspired by Fascism, Socialist yet Authoritative, Democratic yet Populist. As complicated as Peronism is, strangely it all began on one historic day, the 17th of October, 1945. The years leading up to this date were disorderly and chaotic. The years that would follow would be similarly messy, but in an unprecedented way. This is the bizarre history of the day that gave birth to Peronism.
From 1930 until 1943 Argentina lived a period known as the ‘infamous decade’ a period so tumultuous that the decade would last 13 years. This epoch was characterized by military rule, corruption, anti-Semitism, persecution of the working classes and xenophobia. On 4 June, 1943 this would come to an end, when 6,000 troops marched on Buenos Aires, captured the Casa Rosada and removed from power then President Patrón Costas.
Colonel Juan Domingo Perón played an important part in the military coup, as a result he was awarded two coveted positions within the government; Secretary of Labor, and also the Minister of War, which he served simultaneously. In 1944 Perón was quickly becoming one of the most influential characters of the military government, and even began to create a political campaign for himself as the nation’s new leader, however at the time, the commanding military regime had no plans for holding an election.
Perón was heavily influenced by fascist leaders of the time, such as Mussolini and Franco. The Colonel was very ambitious and hardworking, within his role within the Secretary of Labor he was able to transform the entire perspective of labor within Argentina, thereby passing on enormous amounts of power to the labor unions, a current still pervasive in Argentina today. Perón personally received labor union leaders and was able to implement new systems for pensions, minimum wage, paid holidays, and medical care for many industries.
In January, 1945 Perón became the Vice President to acting President Edelmiro Farrell, however there was growing venom for him coming from both the military and conservative sectors of society. A major division was growing throughout the country; those who were with Perón and those who were against him.
To further complicate matters, Argentina’s society was largely divided over the fate of World War II. Many of the wealthy upper class were in support of the Allied powers, while the nationalistic lower classes, largely comprised by immigrants form Italy and Spain, believed Argentina should support the Axis powers due to lineage in fascist Europe. The Argentine military also had training guides translated from German, German weaponry, German uniforms and even practiced goose stepping in training exercises. In the end of 1945 World War II effectively ended and one of the largest political shifts in Argentine history was in its formative stages.
Argentina would remain neutral throughout most of the war, although in the final months, under great pressure, Argentina declared war against the Axis Powers, but never played a part in the conflict. This decision created a polarity in Argentina, as the nationalists within the Army felt betrayed and many of the country’s politically active, upper class citizens felt vindicated.
The Argentine military government became attacked and pressured from all directions and it seemed the situation would collapse or even create a civil war within the country. Many accused the military of controlling a fascist state, and much of these accusations came against Perón himself. During this period Perón was scrutinized by all political parties; socialists, communists, radicals, and conservatives. In July of 1945 the military government decided to convoke elections before the year’s end.
Perón was an obvious choice, however his opposition came from an unlikely source. The opposition candidate to Perón came from an U.S. citizen. Spuille Braden was a politician heavily involved in the U.S.-Latin American”Good Neighbor Policy”, in which Argentina refused to cooperate. Braden was former Ambassador to Cuba and Colombia, and heir to the copper mining industry in Chile. Due to Argentina’s rejection of U.S. regional involvement, Braden was an integral part of a plan to upend Argentine influence in the region from within as he launched his campaign against Perón as leader of the Democrat party.
In his campaign, Perón attacked Braden claiming that the Democrats were being controlled by foreign influences and ‘cowboy diplomacy’. Perón led a combative attack against the Democrats in the province and was successful in uniting the unions, working class, and even the army in his defense, only Buenos Aires city was still a territory for his opposition. The hostility between the groups manifested itself in a class battle, as each night as the elections approached, rioting and violence in the capital increased.
On 19 September, 1945 a the largest demonstration to date in Buenos Aires was launched by Braden rallying between 250,000 and half a million people, the crowd took to the congress building and marched toward the upper class North of the city. The largest rally ever seen at the time was largely devoid of the city’s working class and union representatives. The march disrupted the notion that the government represented the people. There was even a poorly organized military coup which was quickly put down.
The government panicked and put the city under a state of siege, imprisoning politicians, shutting down the press, and launching a savage assault on militant students. This reaction triggered by the military government was responded to by further political demonstrations, it appeared impossible for the military government to survive, or at least not under its same shape.
On 7 October, a rift was created that would separate Perón from his supporters inside the military, as a friend of his mistress Evita, was appointed to Secretary of Communications. The post was originally promised to a Lieutenant from a powerful military group, who protested that the appointment was improperly made. At a closed-door meeting with Perón, the General of the powerful military garrison, gave Perón an ultimatum, either cancel the appointment or face the wrath of the military. Perón stood by his decision and the troops were placed on alert to march on the city.
On the 8th of October, Perón’s 50th birthday, one last meeting was held and Perón informed the military that he would not resign. The following day a delegate informed President Farrell that if Perón did not resign immediately the troops would march on the city. Farrell rang Perón by telephone and obliged him to resign to save the city from more bloodshed. Perón with coercion from his supporters wrote out his resignation from military and government posts.
The next day Perón made a farewell speech on nationally broadcast platform, Perón took the opportunity to defend his policies while simultaneously initiating a general wage increase and proofing wages against inflation, he received a great ovation from a crowd of thousands of supporters.
This announcement infuriated military officers who hoped that Perón would leave quietly in the military tradition. The military made threats against Perón’s life and called for his immediate arrest and internment. Perón and Evita, met with his remaining supporters and discussed the possibility of leaving the country, many of his collaborators suggested that crossing the river to Uruguay was the best option, while other strongly urged against it.
Perón was informed that under pressure from the military, the authorities would soon arrive to arrest him, however the decision was reversed the following day. Perón and Evita left the city the following day for a small island in the Tigre river delta, this decision was based on the fact that if it were to become necessary, Perón and Evita could hire a launch and depart for Uruguay.
Upon hearing that Perón had left the city, the order was made once again to arrest Perón. Domingo Mercante was detained, a loyal supporter and confidant who knew the whereabouts of Perón and Evita. Mercante offered to take the chief of police to Perón’s location, believing it would be a better alternative than leaving his fate in the hands of ordinary police officers. The two men set out in police boats for the island, where they found Perón and Evita calmly enjoying a mate on the dock. The chief of police spoke with Perón and said that the President had ordered that he be detained because Perón’s life was to be endangered by the political situation. Perón was taken to a naval fortress on the island Martín Garcia in the Rio de la Plata and his whereabouts were strictly classified.
Evita returned to Buenos Aires, meanwhile Perón was imprisoned and politically defeated. Evita became a pivotal agent in history at this point, orchestrating events in support of Perón. Evita was as hated as Perón at this time, protests were held in front of her apartment and the media attacked her in newspaper articles. It is alleged that Evita asked labor unions and supporters to organize a general strike in protest to Perón’s imprisonment.
Miguel Angel Mazza, Doctor and Perón supporter, visited Perón in prison claiming that he was suffering from the ailment pleurisy and needed treatment. Mazza was able to smuggle a letter from Perón addressed to the President out of the prison, which demanded his freedom. Doctor Mazza had the letter published in several newspapers, therefore shedding light on the situation of Perón’s imprisonment. Perón still had his staff in place in the Secretary of Labor and they also sought to seek Perón’s freedom. As a result massive strikes broke out all over the capital and no one was sure who had ordered them, however the city was crippled.
On October 16th, Mazza once again visited Perón on Island Martín Garcia and secretly told Perón that he must not allow any other doctors to examine him in the navy fortress, for fear of them realizing that Perón’s illness was a fabrication. Perón followed the orders and protested that he could only be seen by military doctors in the military hospital in Buenos Aires, and after much debate Perón was taken to Buenos Aires and interned in the military hospital.
On the morning of the 17th of October, workers began to march on the city from the factory gates where they had begun to picket. A mass representing the working classes came from Avelleneda in the province crossing the iron Transbordador bridge giving access to the capital via the working class neighborhood of La Boca. When the police cut off access to the bridge the workers continued crossing the river by creating their own bridge made from debris.
The public transportation became inundated by the working classes trying to reach the city center. Workers even disconnected the cables on trams and forcing them all towards the Plaza de Mayo. The upper classes closed themselves in their houses, fearful that they were about to witness the lower classes rioting in rage, however what they saw, to their surprise, was the working class marching together in a synergetic spirit of joviality and calm.
General Avalos, underestimated the size of the crowd and hesitated in calling in his troops who were stationed 30 miles from the capital. After the realization that the demonstration was one the largest ever seen in Argentina, Avalos was not able to have the troops arrive before nightfall. The police had sided with the protesters, and many even joined in with the marchers. The crowd of unorganized strikers found themselves in control of the capital. The crowds began to chant for Perón, who had become the key figure in one of the largest peaceful political upheavals the country had ever witnessed.
General Avalos and President Farrell were incapable of placating the crowd, fearful that the alternative was revolution, they sought Perón’s help. Perón demanded freedom from political imprisonment, a return to political office, and a new cabinet of his choosing, all of which he was able to secure. At 11pm Perón appeared on the balcony of the Casa Rosada in front hundreds of thousands of working class Argentines.
Perón addressed the crowd in one of the most famous speeches in the history of Argentina. Perón announced that he had retired from the military so that he could better serve the Argentine people. Perón and President Farrell embraced in front of the crowd and Perón finally asked that the crowd disperse, however he said that the following day, which was scheduled for a national strike, that they not protest, but rather to gather to celebrate their victory. The crowd began chanting the slogan that would become a mantra throughout Perón’s years “Mañana es San Perón, que trabaja es el patrón” (tomorrow is the day of Saint Perón, the only one working is the boss).
The following day the factories remained closed as the country celebrated the 17th of October, Peronist Loyalist Day, as it would continue to do for many years. Until this date the country’s political swings had all come at the hands of military coups, however this would mark the first time the country’s working class would make a non-violent entry onto the national stage, ensuring that the working classes of Argentina could never be ignored again.
Following the event, the opposition would label those who supported Perón on 17 October as the ‘descamisados’ (the shirtless ones). Descamisado was originally intended to be a derogatory term, however it was eventually adopted by the proletarian class as a symbol of pride representing the entire country’s working classes. The relationship consummated on the balcony of the Casa Rosada between Perón and the mass of descamisados created a bond that would dominate Argentine politics for years and give rise to the power of labor unions in Argentine society.
Within a year Perón would become president, and with the help of his charismatic first lady Evita, was able to create the most powerful political forces Argentina had ever seen. The date of 17 October helped forge his political ideology, Peronism, which would become the major pervasive force in contemporary Argentine politics. More than 70 years later Peronists still celebrate the 17th of October as Peronist loyalist day with commemorations throughout the country.