Facing death at the end of an unwinnable war against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, Paraguayan leader Francisco Solano López's reported last words were, “I die for my nation.” For Americans, López's sense of self-sacrifice might bring to mind the words of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, whose life ended at the hands of British executioners. Hale's last defiant words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country!” have inspired subsequent generations of Americans. López's words and image persist as well. His efforts leading his small nation against South America's greatest powers secured him a place in the Paraguayan “Pantheon of Heroes,” the building in Asunción where bronze statues memorialize Paraguay's greatest leaders. Almost 150 years after his death at the end of the War of the Triple Alliance in 1870, López remains an idolized figure in Paraguay.
A close examination of Paraguay's domestic and foreign policy under López reveals a country whose course and destiny resulted from the imposition of the preferences and beliefs of just one man. López had nearly complete control over Paraguay's domestic political institutions. The policy decisions he made that led to the annihilation of his people and the destruction of the Paraguayan state demonstrate how the will of a bold leader can shape its population.
In late 1864, under López's rule, Paraguay initiated the War of the Triple Alliance against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. On December 13 of that year, López declared war against Brazil after a relatively small-scale Brazilian military intervention against Uruguayan farmers who had sought support from Paraguay. The farmers’ request for assistance against Brazil's military provided the pretext that López had been waiting for; it was a war López wanted to fight. In response, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay formed the Triple Alliance to confront what they regarded as Paraguayan aggression.
While Paraguay was a relatively powerful country at the time, particularly for its size, the combined material assets of the Triple Alliance far outweighed Paraguay's capabilities. Once mobilized for war, the members of the Triple Alliance were able to crush the Paraguayan military. More than six years of fighting decimated Paraguay, its infrastructure, and its people. The war resulted in the death of almost 60 percent of its population and nine out of every ten males.