Tragic Week

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Tragic Week

Argentina 1919


La Semana Trágica ("The Tragic Week") witnessed the deaths of more than 100 protesters in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after a general strike was quashed with machine guns by the army and by employers' private vigilante groups. The event dealt a blow to the moderate labor policies of the Radical Party administration under Hipólito Yrigoyen, who had previously refrained from using state force to end strikes. Under pressure from right-wing nationalist groups, Yrigoyen was unable to carry out his party's program of political and economic reform and instead resorted to massive spending schemes to gain popular support. Yrigoyen was later ousted during his second term in office by a military coup, which ended an era of constitutionally elected presidents dating back to 1862. La Semana Trágica was thus a decisive event that turned Argentina back from its path toward democratization and economic modernization and paved the way for the military-populist government of Juan Domingo Perón in 1946.


  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a terrifying new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States on 6 April declares war on Germany.
  • 1919: Formation of the Third International (Comintern), whereby the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles signed by the Allies and Germany but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1919: Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibits the production, sale, distribution, purchase, and consumption of alcohol throughout the United States.
  • 1919: In India, Mahatma Gandhi launches his campaign of nonviolent resistance to British rule.
  • 1919: In Italy, a former socialist of the left named Benito Mussolini introduces the world to a new socialism of the right, embodied in an organization known as the "Union for Struggle," or Fasci di Combattimento. Composed primarily of young war veterans discontented with Italy's paltry share of the spoils from the recent world war (if not with their country's lackluster military performance in the conflict), the fascists are known for their black shirts and their penchant for violence.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.

Event and Its Context

After securing its independence from Spanish rule in 1816, Argentina rivaled the United States as the country with the greatest potential for economic development in the nineteenth century. Its capital and largest city, Buenos Aires, served as an important transportation and shipping center for the southern cone of the Western Hemisphere. La pampa, a flat grassland extending across the country's midsection, held one of the most productive soils in the world and was an ideal environment for cattle ranching. By the end of the century, these factors combined to make Argentina a major exporter of grain, beef products, and wool. Between 1880 and 1890 its shipping traffic rose from 2.1 million tons to 7.7 million tons. Foreign investment from Britain, France, and the United States developed the country's infrastructure, while a surge of immigrants from Europe, particularly from Spain and Italy, provided the labor. In the 1880s alone, over 850,000 immigrants arrived in Argentina from Europe; an additional 1.6 million immigrants joined them between 1900 and 1914. With the gross domestic product growing by an average of 6 percent per year between 1890 and World War I, the remark to be "as rich as an Argentine" became a stock phrase in France, where many of the cattle barons vacationed.

Although Argentina had cast off Spanish rule in 1821, many of the forces that shaped the country's colonial period continued to dominate its development even after independence. Almost all of the country's economic and political power remained in the hands of the cattle barons, who made their wealth off of la pampa but lived in Buenos Aires. Also known as the "oligarchs," the country's political elite forestalled reforms such as universal suffrage, which could have democratized the republic. Further, the elites' interest in trade and export typically coincided with the interests of foreign capital, thereby linking Argentina's fate to outside forces that sometimes destabilized the country. The dominance of the cattle-based economy also prevented Argentina from developing a sizeable manufacturing base, because local capitalists had little incentive to invest outside of the lucrative livestock market. Above all else, the continued presence of the military in Argentine politics stunted its democratization and regularly contributed to domestic instability.

Calls for Reform

Argentina's vulnerabilities to world market forces were demonstrated with the onset of World War I in 1914. That year, net migration to Argentina dropped for the first time since 1891, and inflation staggered the economy. Adding to the tension, a pivotal shift had occurred in the nation's government. After the introduction of universal and compulsory suffrage for male citizens under the 1912 Sáenz Peña Law, the Radical Party under Hipólito Yrigoyen came to power in 1916, promising to reform Argentine politics along more democratic lines.

Hipólito Yrigoyen was born in Buenos Aires in 1852 and worked as a lawyer. In the 1890s he was drawn into the reformist politics of the Unión Cívica Radical (Radical Party), an off-shoot of the Unión Cívica de la Juventud (Youth Civic League), founded in 1889. Although Yrigoyen's leadership style was unassuming—giving rise to his nickname, "El Pelduo" (the armadillo)—in 1896 he assumed control of the Radical Party after the suicide of its founder, Leandro N. Alem. Yrigoyen attempted to overthrow the government in an abortive coup in 1905 but gradually used the party as a platform for institutional change. Largely because of the Radical Party's efforts, the country adopted the Sáenz Peña Law, which provided for a secret ballot, universal suffrage for all male citizens, and more thorough reviews of voter registration lists. Argentina's political elite allowed reforms, because they assumed that they would easily dominate the new, more democratic system. Their assumption proved wrong, and the Radical Party grew in strength after universal suffrage was introduced. In 1916 Yrigoyen captured the presidency by a one-vote margin in the electoral college.

In part, Yrigoyen's political agenda in office followed his party's populist roots, with an emphasis on expanding state subsidies for farmers and increasing the public sector. In a bid to win middle-class support by awarding patronage jobs to the party's supporters, Yrigoyen increased public spending by 50 percent between 1918 and 1922, to 614 million pesos. Yrigoyen also faced a restive working class during his first term as president. Although Argentina remained neutral during World War I, the war threw the nation's economy into chaos. Unemployment in Buenos Aires exceeded 19 percent in 1917; in former times, the largely immigrant working class of the city would return to Europe during hard times, but because of the war they were stranded in Argentina.

The end of the war brought an upswing in the economy, but inflation, which had increased food prices by 50 percent during the war, continued to erode purchasing power. Yrigoyen's mismanagement of the economy threatened to undermine the support he had won from the nation's workers for his moderate stance on labor disputes. One of Yrigoyen's first acts as president had been to offer arbitration in a maritime workers' strike in Buenos Aires. His refusal to use police force to break the strike was a significant departure from past policies.

The Bloody Week

Along with other trade unions seeking relief from post-World War I economic pressures, metallurgical workers in the capital announced their intention to go on strike in December 1918. During the first week of January 1919, the workers followed through on their declaration. The strike quickly turned violent, and an officer was killed in one of the first battles between the strikers and the Buenos Aires police force. Another confrontation left five people dead; all of the victims were apparently bystanders to the strike's violence. After the two fatal run-ins, a general strike was called for 9 January 1919 to coincide with the funerals of some of the previous days' victims.

Over the next few days, a series of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations rocked Buenos Aires. Rioting strikers burned automobiles in the streets, while other groups marched to protest the general strike itself. As the violence escalated, Yrigoyen failed to act decisively, and the army intervened by sending troops with machine guns to face the strikers. One such battalion was led by Juan Domingo Perón, who at the time was a young lieutenant in the army. Under Perón's orders, as many as 100 strikers were gunned down. After the strike was quashed, the violence continued in the hands of vigilante groups, many of them set up by antiunion employers eager for revenge. In addition to hunting down strike leaders, the groups invaded the city's Jewish quarter to beat and kill Russian Jews, who were labeled suspicious in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The week of violence became known as "La Semana Trágica" in Argentina, while international observers called it the "Bloody Week."

In light of the Yrigoyen administration's initial hesitation in reacting to the strike, the oligarchy increased its opposition to Yrigoyen. In 1919 the Liga Patriótica Argentina (Argentine Patriotic League) was formed as a nationalistic, antiunion, and anticommunist organization, and by the end of the year it claimed 833 brigades with 20,000 members across Argentina. A majority of the league's members were drawn from the landowning upper class, and although it contained some Radical Party members, it served as a pressure group against Yrigoyen. With the support of British interests, the Asociación Nacional del Trabajo (National Labor Association) also stepped up its efforts as an antiunion force by intervening in strikes and publishing antiunion material. Because of these efforts, trade union membership rapidly declined from its peak of over 68,000 members in 1920 to fewer than 27,000 dues-paying members the following year.

The Infamous Decade and Perónism

Yrigoyen managed to finish his first term in 1922 under increasing hostility from the elite, leaving behind an economy sliding into recession. In the 1920s Argentina's economy remained subject to instability, a fact that Yrigoyen used to make a political comeback to the presidency in 1928, with promises of renewed prosperity. The global depression at the beginning of Yrigoyen's second term sent his popularity plummeting. The league renewed its criticism of democracy, labor unions, and the opening of once elite institutions such as the nation's universities to the middle and lower classes. In September 1930 the military, under General JoséF. Uriburu, overthrew Yrigoyen in a coup. Although civilian government was ostensibly restored in restricted elections in 1932—from which the Radical Party was banned—the military remained in power for the rest of the "Infamous Decade," as the 1930s came to be known.

Argentina's competing trends of populism and militarism in politics came together after World War II in the commanding figure of Juan Domingo Perón. The minister of war in the closing days of the conflict, Perón survived a military coup by competing officers in October 1945 and won the presidential election in May 1946. Like Yrigoyen, Perón expanded the public sector and state-sponsored welfare projects to ensure popular support for his regime, yet depended on the military to suppress dissent. Three years into his second term in 1955, Perón was deposed in a military coup, largely a result of the country's declining economic fortunes. Along with Yrigoyen, Perón was the dominant figure in Argentine politics in the twentieth century and demonstrated the country's difficulties in implementing democratic reforms.

Key Players

Alem, Leandro N. (1842-1896): A major political figure in the final decades of the nineteenth century, Alem founded the Unión Cívica de la Juventud (Youth Civic League) in 1889. The group gave rise to the Unión Cí0vica Radical (Radical Party), led by Hipólito Yrigoyen. Alem committed suicide in 1896.

Perón, Juan Domingo (1895-1974): Perón began his military career in 1915 and rose to the rank of colonel at the end of 1941. Taking part in a military coup in June 1943, Perón became minister of war and was elected to the presidency in May 1946. He ruled until 1955, when he was overthrown in a military coup; he returned to power one year before his death in 1974.

Yrigoyen, Hipólito (1852-1933): A lawyer, professor, and head of the Radical Party after 1896, Yrigoyen was the most important politician of his generation. Elected to the presidency in 1916, he served until 1922. His first term was marked by an inability to manage the competing demands of the working class and the country's elite. Yrigoyen was returned to office in the election of 1928 but was deposed in a military coup in 1930.

See also: Peron Elected President.


Crassweller, Robert. Perón and the Enigmas of Argentina. New York: Norton, 1987.

Lewis, Paul H. The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Page, Joseph. Perón: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1983.

Rock, David. Argentina 1516-1987: From SpanishColonization to Alfonsín. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

—Timothy G. Borden