Vargas under the torpedo's sights

Image: Lara Mantoanelli


The interventionist nature of the contemporary State in the 30s and 40s, ina global view, is explained as a logical result of the development of monopoly capitalism

When on September 1, 1939 there was the initial demonstration of the war tactic "Blitzkrieg German” in Poland, a conflict broke out in Europe that in a short time would represent great tension for the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, and would put Brazil in a position of difficult maintenance. The crushing of France in the months that followed, with the conquest of Paris in record time, as well as the spread of the conflict to other continents, simultaneously immobilized Latin America under “neutral” observation, and had the power to speed up the pointer to the prominent need for decision-making by the Estado Novo about its side in the war.

A controversial man, but with unequivocal skills, Getúlio used the confrontation and polarization between the northern powers as a tool to pave the way for a solution to the dispute that mobilized the country in the last decade: how to industrialize Brazil?[I]

The course of the 1930s was a moment of effervescence in the debates held within the Brazilian government, for the first time effectively aligned with the desire to industrialize and modernize the nation. Unlike the United States, which after its liberation at the end of the 46th century made the choice to immediately join the Industrial Revolution, through a development model based on agriculture and industrialization, Brazil, whose independence would only come XNUMX years later after the North American one, it reaffirmed the model of export agriculture, based on racial slavery.

Indeed, this economic regime prevailed because it was what interested, for the most part, the landed elite of the time. It crossed the Empire, with slavery, and the entire First Republic, in its salaried version, but not without leaving notable consequences, felt, above all, in the long term, especially in the differences in per capita income between the United States and Brazil[ii].


Even in 1929, with the devastating effects of the world economic crisis on our balance, it was decided to maintain the agro-export model at any cost, reaching the point where it became a common strategy to burn entire coffee harvests to control prices. It was at that moment, however, that the industrial model began to emerge, timidly, through import substitutions, through gradual changes in relative prices, tariff increases for exports, and exchange controls. The result was that in 1932, the Brazilian GDP began to grow again, undoubtedly driven in part by the test of national industry.

With the end of the First Republic with the Revolution of 1930, institutional strength gained for the first time, the organized will to boost the industrialization of the country towards progress. Thus, it was in this context that the Second World War made a total difference to Brazilians.

During the 1930s, Brazil maintained good relations with the countries that would soon form the Axis, already administered by fascist regimes. In 1936, Vargas signed an agreement for the purchase of three Italian submarines, to be paid for with cotton and other Brazilian products. In the same period, Brazil imported military equipment from Nazi Germany. In a similar sense, it was no mystery that the Vargas government had members who sympathized with European right-wing regimes, nor that the Brazilian dictator himself gave speeches with positive references to “strong and nationalist nations”. In any case, between showing sympathy and closeness, and actually aligning yourself there is a brutal distinction.

At the same time, Brazil's relationship with the United States[iii] and England was deep in the sense of exporting primary inputs of great value to those countries, especially with regard to raw materials such as rubber, essential for war machinery. Thus, with the outbreak of the armed conflict and the construction of the Allied war effort – especially the British one –, the Brazil-USA-Europe supply route became central. Still, Vargas sought neutrality.

See if. If, on the one hand, the incoherence of the Estado Novo dictatorship was evident in its support of the allied democracies; on the other hand, a Brazilian alliance with the Axis carried even greater inconsistency, given that Brazil is a multiethnic country and fascist ideals preach racial supremacy and the extermination of “inferior” peoples.

In any case, the neutrality of the Estado Novo bothered both sides of the conflict.

The allies for seeing with fear the possibility of a turn by Brazil that would lead them to a disadvantaged position in the South Atlantic; and the fascists for understanding that the supposed Brazilian neutrality evidently favored one of the sides: the North American and English. The pressure became urgent with the beginning of the torpedoing of Brazilian merchant ships by Axis submarines, with a view to preventing Allied supplies.[iv]

This was the scenario that anchored Brazil's alignment with the Allied war effort, but not without something in return.

Vargas took advantage of the moment to negotiate with the North Americans the conditions to favor the national industrialization that surpassed the mere “substitution of imports”. In this sense, in contrast to the Yankee desire to establish naval and air bases in the Brazilian Northeast, the Estado Novo demanded a loan for the leasing of war material. Still, as a counter-proposal to President Roosevelt's desire to study the defense of the Brazilian coast, the granting of a loan, the delivery of materials, weapons and equipment, as well as the monitoring of the construction of the Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional, CSN, was negotiated.

In tune, in 1942, the “Missão Cooke” arrived in Brazil to work together with the Economic Mobilization Commission established by the government, with the objective of studying and producing a report with international participation on the conditions of industrialization in Brazil. The domestic market, labor, mineral and chemical resources, debt capacity and job opportunities in Brazil were analyzed. As a suggestion, industrial development measures were indicated, with the final objective of improving the living standards of the Brazilian people.

This event and the report produced represented a true milestone that ignited the debate, which is still current, regarding the industrialization of Brazil. In this context, the search for the role of the State in this process also gained prominence.

This is what this essay is about.

The Estado Novo was responsible for accelerating a substantial change in the historical conditions at the time when Brazil outlined the debate on its industrialization, that is: the appearance of the figure of the interventionist State.

Unlike the conditions posed for the countries that first started the Industrial Revolution, in which private initiative alone played an extremely relevant role in promoting industrialization, the world in 1930-1940 was already different. After decades of strengthening the ideals of political liberalism and economic liberalism, the latter's serious failures placed liberal democracies in a place of contradiction that denied the capacity for continuity of economic liberalism and germinated the figure of the interventionist State.

Therefore, in a fundamental complement to the problem of Brazilian industrialization, the figure of the intervening State gained prominence. José Eduardo Campos de Oliveira Faria teaches, in his doctoral thesis, that the interventionist nature of the contemporary State in the 30s and 40s, in a global view, is explained as a logical result of the development of monopoly capitalism, whose turning point was the crash 1929 and the unprecedented economic crisis that followed.

The hypertrophy of the Executive, historically, was the way found in which different types and levels of conflict were reconciled (between capitalists of one group and capitalists of another, and between workers and capitalists), due to the increasingly latent inability to self-control. regulation of the liberal economy, which became vulnerable to cyclical crises and pressures from oligopolies. In this way, the intervening State was responsible for paving the way for bureaucratization and planning as a form of regulation, control and economic direction. In short: to pacify conflicts.

Faced with such reality, the contemporary interventionist State was a double tool with the purpose of harmonizing conflicts and giving continuity to the system itself, as a mechanism destined to the maintenance and expansion of capitalism. Thus, the overcoming of political liberalism was already a latent reality at the time when the Brazilian debates about the industrialization model were taking place, not meaning in any way the contempt for economic liberalism, but, on the contrary, the assumption of its continuity and, in our case, input to its strengthening.

In this sense, the controversy regarding the industrialization of Brazil was, above all, a definition of what the role of our State should be, how it should organize itself and what tools would be at its disposal.

As part of the state's activity to select possible foci of social discontent - either to protect itself or to protect the economy -, converting political demands into economic demands, it was reasonable to think about the hypothesis of the existence of the duty (especially after the report of the Cooke Mission) of the Brazilian government to actively promote industrialization, with the aim of raising the living conditions of the population, and consequently avoiding more serious social issues. From this perspective, relevant intellectual currents had this as the objective of the Brazilian State at that time.[v]

At this point, the role of law in this process gains particular relevance, as an enabler of policies, either through jurisdictional validation, or through its functions to mitigate social complexity and guarantee the necessary predictability for the economic calculations inherent in such a grandiose movement. for the country, with a view to seeking to reconcile the multiple antagonistic interests involved.

The legislation of an interventionist State serves to interfere in social structures and regulate, direct and modify them. The point of attention here is precisely the role of law in countries where there is an ongoing process of socio-economic modernization, marked by industrialization. This is because in these countries, which was also the case in Brazil during the Estado Novo, there is a belief that only the State can create the conditions for the realization of long-term development plans.

It was possible to observe, in the movement of the States that were protagonists of the late industrialization, a latent approximation between the exercise of political power and the legal framework, however, without one being confused with the other. The idea of ​​the interventionist State gained muscle through its practical relevance in other experiences, in which this figure acted as controller, stimulator, planner and arbiter of the industrialization process, not only as a financier, but also, on different occasions, as a producer. For this experience, the law appears as a major tool.

Finally, with a view to closing, for the time being, the reflection placed here on the performance of the Estado Novo de Vargas in taking advantage of the geopolitical situation of the 40s to inaugurate the shift to national industrialization, it is important to point out the thinking of Myrdal, an economist supporter of democratic socialism and defender of the intervening state, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 alongside the liberal Friedrich von Hayek, whose thinking was diametrically opposed.

Myrdal's reputation for winning the Nobel Prize was due in large part to his concept of “cumulative circular causation,” which is at the core of his theory of development. This theory, innovative until then, describes a process by which it narrates that: left free to market forces, there is an inescapable tendency for poorer people and regions to become poorer, while richer people and regions become richer. This does not exclude occasional exchanges, nor does it deny the possibility of socio-economic mobility, but only describes trends.

His point of discovery in the enunciation of the theory is endowed with a novelty, namely: it is useless to look for an exclusive and determining factor, such as the economic one, to fully justify a social question. This is because when studying a social problem, it is difficult to understand in fact what an isolated factor would be, since everything is the cause of everything, in a circular way, but also interdependent[vi]. In this turn, he clarifies that if left unchecked, economic activity tends to concentrate only in favorable areas, putting pressure on regional inequalities, if not between countries.

Therefore, although at first sight it may seem that the attraction energy of an economic center can only be “favorable conditions”, the truth, according to Myrdal, contrary to what one might think, is that the attraction power of an economic center originates mainly from some fortuitous historical fact. At this point, the interventionist State is the agent capable of breaking with greater efficiency the vicious circle of impoverishment of a nation, as well as reestablishing generated imbalances, leading development, balancing regions, inserting underdeveloped countries in national and global development plans, global chains of value and technology.

In this vein, the performance of Vargas' Estado Novo to take advantage of the historical context of the outbreak of the Second World War and to negotiate Brazil's insertion in a more developed industrialization phase is in line with the idea that the State must intervene in the country's economic conditions with the in order to change its conditions and possibilities. It also adheres to the aim of improving the life of the Brazilian population by raising their consumption and income standards.

Using torpedo sights and political bargaining, the government of Getúlio brilliantly made the largest American nation transfer technology that until then did not exist in Brazil, forever changing the course of the country. However, the Estado Novo did not escape all the criticisms inherent to its anti-democratic character in Brazilian history, a government regime with which one could never freely agree.

*Vitor Piazzarollo Loureiro is a master's student at the Department of Philosophy and General Theory of Law at FD-USP.


DOS SANTOS, Wanderley Guilherme. Bourgeois order and political liberalism. Two Cities Bookstore, 1978.

VELLOSO REIS, The planning controversy in the Brazilian economy: presentation. 3rd edition, IPEA. 2010.

FARIA, Jose Eduardo. Law, modernization and authoritarianism: socioeconomic change vs. legal liberalism. 1981. Diss. Thesis (Doctorate in Philosophy, Theory and Sociology of Law)–Faculty of Law, USP, São Paulo, 1981.

JUNIOR, Ludolf Waldmann. “The Brazilian Navy’s Naval Refitting Policies, 1904-1945.” Navigator 15.30 (2019).

Luhmann, Niklas. “The Constitution as an Evolutionary Acquisition.” ZAGREBELSKY, Gustavo. PORTINARO, Pier Paolo. LUTHER, Jorg. The future of costituzione. Turin: Einaudi (1996).


[I] After a long period of uncertain walks regarding the solution to the severe problems that the oligarchization of the Old Republic brought to national development, the Estado Novo was the administration that first truly addressed issues related to national economic production. His question was: what is the “vocation” of Brazil?

[ii] A survey that appears in the presentation text by Reis Velloso in his work “The controversy of planning in the Brazilian economy” points out that in 1919 the North American per capita income fluctuated in values ​​between six and seven times higher than the Brazilian one.

[iii] The Brazilian rapprochement with the Axis countries was of great concern to the United States, which began to strengthen its ties with Brazil, with the objective of guaranteeing the alignment of the largest country in Latin America, including not to run the risk of losing other support in the region.

[iv] In all, 34 Brazilian ships were torpedoed, totaling more than a thousand victims. This event was essential to turn Brazilian public opinion against the Axis. In this period, the Brazilian railway and road systems were neither as integrated nor as developed, so that most of the distant and relevant displacements were made by sea, using vessels. Thus, it evidently created a fear for civilians of being attacked by German or Italian submarines on an interstate voyage.

[v] Mention is made here of the discussions that took place within the Ministry of Labor, Industry and Commerce between 1944/45, on the planning and industrialization of the Brazilian economy, with special emphasis on the clash between Roberto Simonsen, who proposed a major national mobilization to take place through through economic planning, and Eugênio Gudin, who defended that Brazil's priority should be agriculture, with a focus on productivity.

[vi] Note of curiosity, this thought is in extreme consonance with the figure of “ideal types” used by Max Weber in his works.

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