Skip to main content

A diplomatic historian delves into the records of relatively obscure nineteenth century conflicts between South American countries to discuss the phenomenon of “clientism,” sometimes called “clientitis.” The author clearly identifies this diplomatic affliction and assesses its impact – relatively limited — in the setting discussed. – Ed.

by Jerry K. Sweeney

One might aver that truth is irrelevant whilst perception is all. Mayhap, but absent sophisticated information parameters, the game is immediately up the spout. Of course, to become well informed a diplomat must sometimes engage in the patriotic art of lying for one’s country. The question at issue, however, is whether diplomats will practice selective mendacity. Will they confine their lies only to the government to which they are accredited? Obviously, a diplomatic appointment does not guarantee that the holder becomes perforce a paragon of virtue. Virtue, as with truth, is dependant upon many variables. Therefore, even the most veracious are wont to alter a perceived reality in accord with individualized assumptions.

Moreover, diplomatic interactions comprise, in equal measure, elements of prevarication and unsparing honesty —in short a seduction, a courtship. For inherent in a diplomatic charge is the expectation that a fruitful relationship with the host government will eventuate. Not surprisingly, a diplomat may engage in discretionary reporting when a policy directive might compel the construction of a new interpersonal matrix. Especially, when they are recipient of demands they deem uniformed, if not impressively ignorant. The creation of an effective relationship across cultural and language barriers is difficult enough without jeopardizing a hard won connection over a momentary aberration. More importantly, on occasion, those on the scene are co-opted by those to whom they present their credentials.

Those who cross the line from counselor to advocate are guilty of clientism. Clientism, in this instance, is the blurring of the line betwixt policy mandated by a central government and the private interests of an individual representative of that polity. As such, clientism is a factor that diplomatic historians ignore at their peril. It is always important to be aware of who is watching the watchers. It is equally vital to be aware of what hidden agenda might motivate those who stand and wait in otherwise relative obscurity.1

In May 1865, Paraguay found itself at war with Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. This was an action that compels favorable consideration of the proposition that humans are sometimes bereft of the intelligence required to pound sand down a rat hole. In any event, the War of the Triple Alliance was one of the most destructive conflicts in American history.2 The agents of causality were manifold: the pressure attendant upon the pattern of national development, the aspirations of the riverine nations, and the tendency of dissident elements to interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring states.

The reaction of the United States was hampered by its own internal struggle and the subsequent recovery. However, in October 1866, Secretary of State William H. Seward communicated a U. S. willingness to mediate the dispute. This offer was officially engendered by the American experience with the “dubious and terrible effect of modern warfare.” More to the point, Seward sought to gain for the United States the hemispheric position allowed by Mr. Monroe’s doctrine, and access to the commercial possibilities of the region.3

Unfortunately for Paraguay, its enemies rejected the offer. Brazil especially believed it possible to end the conflict without recourse to outside intervention. The war went on, and the butcher’s bill continued to rise. A further attempt at mediation in January 1868 was similarly unsuccessful. Another conflict expected to be short-lived, raged on until Francisco Solano Lopez died under arms five bloody years later. The war concluded without the United States playing any appreciable role in ending it. Nevertheless, the war is not without interest for much the same reason Sherlock Holmes was interested in a non-barking dog. In the matter of the Paraguayan War, the importance is not in what happened, but what did not.

The emotions evoked by the North American Conflict of 1861-65 are yet to disappear totally, and those who find the Paraguayan War as part of their own history are equally affected.4 The names of the battles continue to resonate, especially with the two leading contenders, Brazil and Paraguay. If such partisanship exists over time, it is plausible that clientism might have emerged within the American diplomatic community. To that end, it is mayhap important to examine those who represented the United States in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.5

James Watson Webb was born in Claverack, NY, and orphaned at an early age. Webb served with the United States Army from 1819 until his resignation in 1827, following several altercations and two duels. Soon thereafter, Webb became the editor and publisher of the New York Courier and Enquirer.

The combative spirit that surfaced whilst a soldier characterized Webb’s subsequent career. He escaped prison in 1834 only after obtaining a last minute pardon from Governor William H. Seward. With the collapse of the Whig party, Webb became a Republican. He served as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the Empire of Brazil, a position he loathed, from 21 October 1861 until 26 May 1869.6

Webb’s successor was Henry T. Blow. Blow served in the Missouri Senate from 1854 to 1858. He was prominent among those who endeavored to keep Missouri from leaving the Union. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1863, he remained in that body until 1867. Blow was persuaded to accept a Brazilian appointment in 1869, despite his reluctance to continue in public life. He served in that position until 6 November 1870.

The minister resident to the Argentine Republic at the outbreak of the war was Robert C. Kirk. Kirk was elected to the Ohio senate in 1856, and lieutenant governor in 1859. He served as minister to Argentina from 1862 to 1866 and to Argentina and Uruguay from 1869 to 1871.

Alexander S. Asboth replaced Kirk in Buenos Aires. Asboth fled his native Hungary with Louis Kossuth in 1849. He received a commission in the United States Army in 1861 and served with distinction during the war. Asboth presented his credentials as minister to Argentina and Uruguay on 20 October 1866. He remained at his post until his death on 21 January 1868.

Henry G. Worthington filled the post between Asboth’s death and Kirk’s return to Buenos Aires. He served in the California legislature in 1861, and moved to Nevada in 1862. Upon Nevada’s admission to the Union in 1864, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Worthington presented his credentials on 11 September 1868, remaining in Argentina until his recall on 8 July 1869.

The indefatigable Charles A. Washburn represented the United States in Paraguay for much of the Civil War. Although a member of a prominent political family, Washburn excelled in other arenas. Impatient, if not impetuous, Washburn joined the rush to the California. Success in the California allowed him to become the proprietor and editor of the San Francisco Daily Times and the Alta California. The Alta California was the first newspaper on the Pacific Coast to support the Republican Party. Washburn arrived in Paraguay with the rank of commissioner in 1861. He was promoted to minister in 1863. He left his post on 10 September 1868.

Washburn’s successor was Martin T. McMahon. McMahon joined George B. McClellan’s staff in 1861, remaining with the Army of the Potomac until Appomattox. McMahon presented his credentials as minister on 12 December 1868, and remained in Paraguay until his recall on 21 June 1869.

Webb and Washburn are the most likely candidates for clientism in consequence of their lengthy service. Webb’s dispatches display a consistent, if not virulent, animosity toward President Lopez. Webb notified the State Department in September 1866 that he concurred with Washburn’s assessment of Lopez “as the greatest Tyrant that ever disgraced humanity.”7

Webb presented a lengthy review of the origins of the conflict in a later dispatch concerning the failure of the first mediation offer. This dispatch is punctuated with indirect assertions of Paraguay’s guilt, and derogatory references to Lopez. Subsequently, Webb was admonished for the general tone of his September report, and reminded that it was unnecessary to “draw an injurious character of the opposing parties in the conflict.8 Reprimand notwithstanding, Webb’s hostility toward Lopez did not abate. Nor did his conviction that Brazil was free of any responsibility for the war diminish. In a formal note to Joao Lustosa da Cunha Paranagua, the Brazilian foreign minister on 27 January 1868, Webb asserted, “that Brazil is, and has been, right from the beginning no candid and intelligent man can for a moment doubt.” Webb also sought to persuade Washburn’s successor to abandon any thought of taking up residency in Asuncion. Webb informed McMahon “the United States are now in a state of war with Paraguay.” He further insisted that McMahon “would compromise the dignity of the government by approaching Paraguayan territory.”9

Webb was not unmindful of the deleterious impact of the war on Brazil. In early August 1866, he proposed a mediated end to the war lest its continuation “ruin Brazilian finances.” Yet, when Brazil rejected the offer, Webb sympathized with the Brazilian position, arguing, that if Brazil failed to achieve a decisive victory the Empire was in jeopardy.10

Charles Washburn developed a genuine attachment to the Paraguayan people, and a deep loathing for Lopez. In September 1864, he reported, without moderating sentiments, critical anti-Lopez comments by Edward Thornton, the British ambassador to Paraguay. In November 1864, Washburn remarked that Lopez could not depend on troops sent outside the country as no one who left “would ever wish to return so long as the present reign of tyranny exists.” Admittedly, Washburn supported a plan to remove Lopez from Asuncion aboard an American warship in October 1866. However, that was probably the result of his desire to end a devastating war, rather than any desire to assist Lopez.11

Washburn was an early advocate of the mediation to end a conflict, which promised, in his view, to produce the “extermination of a peculiar but brave people.” He renewed his charge of genocide in January 1868, when he averred the war was designed to destroy “a nation whose existence mars the symmetry of a neighboring empire. Although Washburn accepted the Brazilian claim that Lopez was solely at fault in his November 1864 dispatch, he maintained an anti-Brazilian stance. In February 1866, he declared that once the war was over Brazil would surely expand at the expense of their former allies. He returned to this theme in March 1866, when he noted that Brazil meant to have “something more than Paraguay in sending such enormous forces into the Parana.”12 Indeed, Washburn believed once Paraguay was defeated Brazil would seek to “destroy all vestiges of republican government in the eastern part of South America.” Washburn went so far as to charge that Brazil was shirking its part in the war to husband its forces for an attack on its erstwhile allies.13

Alexander Asboth shared Washburn’s fears regarding Brazilian expansion. Asboth’s dispatches depicted Brazil as an expansionist, power-hungry, slaveocracy bent on dominating the region. Asboth concurred in Washburn’s assertions that Argentina’s involvement with Brazil imperiled its republican institutions.14

Robert C. Kirk, on the other hand, had “no desire to interfere” in what he a purely local affair. Kirk was more concerned with leaving Buenos Aires than with the war. He did not indulge in personal attacks on the participants, and predicted that any mediation effort would fail absent any will to peace. Henry G. Worthington was equally dispassionate. Not even the news of mass executions in connection with the Paraguayan conspiracy trials of 1868 elicited an adverse comment. Henry T. Blow also avoided personal comments about the war or the personalities.

Martin T. McMahon was definitely concerned with the war’s progress and its effect on Paraguay. McMahon was so pro-Paraguay in his sentiments that Washburn avowed with his arrival, President Lopez “got a minister after his own heart.”15McMahon championed the Paraguayan cause to the extent that he suggested direct American intervention in the conflict. McMahon averred the war was not connected with any action by Lopez.16 McMahon was ordered to quit his post in March 1869, and instructed to refrain from designating a charge d’affaires.17 Diplomatic relations betwixt the United States and Paraguay were not re-established until John L. Stevens, of later Hawaiian fame, took up his duties as minister resident to Paraguay and Uruguay on 26 August 1870. McMahon left his post. He did not abandon his attempts to influence American policy toward Paraguay.18

Was the policy of the States toward the War of the Triple Alliance beneficial or inimical to the national interest? In all likelihood, it was of little consequence. Should the individuals previously discussed be praised or condemned? Given the lack of importance of the war to significant American interests, their actions would appear insignificant. Still, some reports from the scene indicate a measure of clientism, synonymous with later interventions by the United States. William Henry Seward was in a position to resist calls to play a more active role in the conflict.19 It was only later that the United States routinely went “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”20

Clientism was not a nineteenth century phenomena. The Portuguese ambassador to the Court of St. James advised the British government on the conduct of British propaganda during the Second World War.21 Nor, given the seemingly immutable nature of the human animal, is it likely to fall by the wayside. What remains constant is that while its practitioners may alter the course of events, those who perceive an alternative reality are not universally successful. Nonetheless, the practice and its consequences must be subject to scrutiny.

Finally, insofar as the issues incident to the War of the Triple Alliance are concerned, Paraguay again perceived a Brazilian threat to its sovereignty. So much so in fact, that it would forge closer ties, economic and military with the United States.22 


Joseph E. Davies, as Ambassador to the Soviet Union, reported one truth to his superiors, but “lied to his countrymen for their own good” after his return to the U.S, David Mayers, “Ambassador Joseph Davies Reconsidered.” Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Newsletter (September 1992), 15.


1. Joseph E. Davies, as Ambassador to the Soviet Union, reported one truth to his superiors, but “lied to his countrymen for their own good” after his return to the U.S. David Mayers. “Ambassador Joseph Davies Reconsidered.” Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Newsletter (September 1992), 15.
George F. Kennan, while stationed in Lisbon during the early days of World War II, effectively resisted an uninformed, and dangerous, demand by his superiors. George F. Kennan. Memoirs: 1925-1945. (Little, Brown and Company, 1967), 142-63. President Lyndon Johnson averred that India had two ambassadors representing its interest, the accredited one in Washington and Chester Bowles in New Delhi. Roger K. Morris. “Rooting for the Other Team: Clientism in the Foreign Service.” Washington Monthly (November 1973), 37-45.
2. The prewar Paraguay of 525,000 became a defeated nation of 221,000 with only 28,000 males of reproductive age. For decades, rumors circulated that the Roman Catholic hierarchy countenanced plural marriages as a means to restore the population. It was further asserted that the Brazilian occupation forces made every effort to redress the demographic imbalance.
3. Harold F. Peterson. “Efforts of the United States to Mediate in the Paraguayan War.” Hispanic American Historical Review (February 1932), 3-5. See Henry S. Kolakowski. The Diplomatic Career of Charles Ames Washburn, United States Minister to Paraguay, 1861-1868. Master’s Thesis, St. Bonaventure University, 1956, 3-11 for early commercial relations betwixt the U.S. and Paraguay.
4. The war surfaced in Brazilian politics in February 2005 because of demands for the opening of archives from Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship. The Brazilian press quoted anonymous government sources that documents pertaining to the war remain closed to review. (Last accessed 19 August 2005.)
5. The Minister Resident to Argentina held a concurrent appointment to the government of Uruguay until 1870.
6. James L. Crouthamel. James Watson Webb. (Wesleyan University Press, 1969), 68 ff and, Lawrence F. Hill. Diplomatic Relations between the United States and Brazil. (Duke University Press, 1932), 146. Further biographical material on Webb and the other ministers discussed herein is available in the Dictionary of American Biography, the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, or the Biographical Directory of the American Congress.
7.Citations to individual dispatches were eliminated in the interest of brevity. Some of Webb’s comments were considered so extreme they were excised from the printed record in Foreign Relations of the United States. As early as 1862, Webb informed Secretary of State Seward that the U.S. should endeavor to oust Lopez once the Confederacy was defeated. Crouthamel, 184.
8. Seward’s criticism in this instance was equally directed at Alexander Ashboth and Charles Washburn. Peterson, 13.
9. Webb was admonished again on 23 March 1868 for his “biased assessment of the responsibility for the war.” Crouthamel, 186.
10. Crouthamel, 185-186.
11. Washburn was informed that his proposal would compromise American neutrality. Washburn first incurred Lopez’s displeasure when he helped the Brazilian Minister and his family leave Paraguay when the war began. When his mission ended, Washburn had difficulty extracting himself and his family from Asuncion. John H. Saunders. “Diplomacy under Difficulty: U.S. Relations with Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, 1966) and Kolakowski present detailed accounts of both incidents.
12. Washburn expressed the hope that Lopez would “bite the dust,” before he destroyed any more Paraguayans friendly to the U.S. in a letter to his successor. When Washburn tried to return to his post after taking leave in the U.S., the Brazilian government sought to hinder his return. Washburn was not pleased. Crouthamel, 184-85.
13. Washburn remarked in July 1867: “Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay would make rich dowries for the daughters of the Empire.” Secretary Seward warned the Brazilian government the U.S. “would disapprove any attempt to subjugate or annex Paraguay. Washburn remained hostile to Brazil, but grew fond of the people of Argentina. Kolakowski, 96. Peter H. Wilson supports Washburn’s contemporary charge of expansionist intentions by Brazil and Argentina. “Latin America’s Total War.” History Today (May 2004), 53 and Diego Abente. “The War of the Triple Alliance: Three Explanatory Models.” Latin American Research Review. (1987), 64-65.
14. Webb maintained that in the last months before Asboth’s death the legation in Buenos Aires was controlled by a “confidential friend, if not a tool of Lopez,” to wit one Mr. Langdon. Webb went on to state that Langdon’s son was Asboth’s secretary, and that he could furnish proof as to the latter’s lack of qualification. However, Webb submits, in the same dispatch, the name of a friend for that selfsame position. Therefore, his credibility on this matter may be suspect.
15. Charles A. Washburn. The History of Paraguay (Lee and Shepard, 1871), II, 557. Lopez wrote to McMahon “praising him for his exemplary conduct while in Paraguay.” Saunders, 132. McMahon also befriended those American naval officers with whom Washburn quarreled. Kolakowski, 71.
16. Diego Abente avers that Lopez “started the war so as to redress a grievance against the status quo he perceived as detrimental to the national interest.” Abente, 63.
17. It is possible Elihu Washburne sought his famous 12-day appointment as Secretary of State to assist his brother in dealing with his opponents. Kolakowski, 75-76. It is further suggested that McMahon’s apparent agreement to serve as guardian for Lopez’s children was the proximate factor in his recall. Saunders, 130-35.
18. McMahon informed Americans that Lopez was a “true gentleman” and anything but the “monster…his enemies said he was.” Furthermore, Lopez’s only serious crime was “his attempt to defend the liberty of his country.” McMahon also insisted the U.S. “should have gone to the aid of Paraguay.” Saunders, 134. See also, Martin T. McMahon. “Paraguay and Her Enemies,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (February 1870), 421-29, and “The War in Paraguay,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (April 1870), 633-47.
19. The United States was far from done with Paraguay. President Rutherford B. Hayes was asked to arbitrate a boundary dispute between Bolivia and Paraguay over the Chaco. Hayes accepted the Paraguayan claim. “Paraguayans Knew JFK, and He Was No Rutherford B. Hayes, The 19th Century President Snubbed Back in the U.S. Is a Hero in a Land of ‘Green Hell’”. The Wall Street Journal, 10 April 2000, A1. Paraguay was later triumphant in a war with Bolivia (1932-1935) over the disputed area.
20. John Quincy Adams to the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4, 1821. (last accessed 9 October 9, 2005)
21. C. Robert Cole. Britain and the War of Words in Neutral Europe, 1939-45: The Art of the Possible. St. Martin’s Press, 1990, 71.
22. “Improbable Allies” The Economist. (1-7 October, 2005), 36-37.


The author earned a Ph.D. at Kent State University. Professor Sweeney recently retired from South Dakota State University, where he was head of the history department. In addition to several articles in American Diplomacy, he is the editor or co-author of A Handbook of American Diplomacy (1992), A Handbook of American Military History (1996), and America and the World, 1776-1998 (2000).


Comments are closed.