His ideas are known as Peronism, and while the ideology contains common elements such as laborism, corporatism, Argentine nationalism, and a Cult of Personality around Perón and his wife Eva, it primarily revolves around a constantly shifting narrative, making it difficult to define on the traditional left-right axis of political ideologies. While this arrangement allowed Peronism to court a broad support base guaranteed to steamroll any opposition through sheer numbers, it also made it more fragile compared to other populist leaders such as Brazil's Getúlio Vargas and Chile's Eduardo Frei Montalva, whose ideologies formed clear center-left directions. While it attracted the support of Argentine leftists historically, Peronism takes heavy inspiration from Italian Fascism and its corporatist economics.
After graduating from the military college, Perón started his military career, and married Aurelia Tizón, his first wife. He helped to depose President Hipólito Yrigoyen in the 1930 coup, but got reassigned elsewhere as a result of the internal military politics. Tizón died of uterine cancer in 1938, and the couple did not have any offspring.
A teacher of military history at the Argentine War Academy, he was sent to Europe in 1939 to study mountain warfare, attached to the Royal Italian Army. He was permitted to study at the University of Turin for a semester and tour Europe to study the governments of the time and their militaries, visiting Nazi Germany, France, Francoist Spain, Hungary, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Italian-occupied Albania, and the Soviet Union. When he returned, he wrote positive and praising reports about Fascist Italy and Germany, especially the former that he had spent most of his time in. He had great admiration for the ways the state controlled everything in those societies, although he claimed to dislike their totalitarianism. Those reports made no mention of The Holocaust, nor is there any known moment when he made reference to it (either supporting or rejecting it).
Promoted to Colonel for his hard work, Perón created a secret society ("lodge") within the military, the GOU (Grupo de Oficiales Unidos). They launched a coup against President Ramón Castillo; the new military government stayed neutral during WWII and only declared war on the Axis powers when Germany was already defeated, Japan was on the verge of defeat, and the victorious Allied armies were just about to enter Berlin. From a position as the Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare he started to outline his plans, banning several unions and replacing them with unions loyal to him. When the province of San Juan had a destructive earthquake, Perón forbade all independent charity donations, channeling all the welfare support through the government. He met the radio actress Eva Perón at this time.
Because of his friendly labor policies, Perón was unusual compared to the standard Argentine military officer of the time, who was very conservative and saw all unions as communist hotbeds. He became very popular among the working classes and won the lasting loyalty of many a Catholic trade unionist. Suspecting Perón of being a closet communist, the other military cliques forced him to resign, but a demonstration held on October 17 restored him to power. After his release he married Eva Perón. The military regime called elections and Perón ran for president under the Labour Party. Most other parties, fearing the emergence of an Argentine Mussolini, united in the Democratic Union. Even the American ambassador to Argentina, Spruille Braden, took an active role in the election by accusing Perón of being pro-Axis, but Perón won anyway. It was the only case in the history of Argentina that a military dictatorship called elections, took part in them and won. In 1947, Perón formed the populist Justicialist Party that would dominate Argentina for decades to come.
Initially, there was much prosperity, as the country made lucrative food exports to the war-ravaged European countries during and after the war. Eva Perón in particular was known for giving gifts to citizens, from dolls to sewing machines. Several services owned by foreigners, such as railways, were nationalized, and the international trade in agricultural production was seized by the state. The market economy was transformed into a corporatist one. Alas, this prosperity was short-lived as a result of the populist spending programmes, and mismanagement of the nationalized railways. Inflation reached spectacular rates, so a few years later Peron started an austerity program. As Perón had already been Secretary of Labor, he had little issue attracting the majority of the Argentine working class, who deserted the socialist and communist parties for Perón. They gratefully nicknamed him 'El Primer Trabajador' - the First Worker. Using loyal labor unions as a supporting base was a tactic taken from Fascist Italy and its 1927 labor charter, and indeed Perón's own labor charter is nearly identical to Mussolini's. Perón removed a great many non-Peronist unions to replace them with others loyal to him, with the dominant Peronist trade union being the CGT, the General Confederation of Labour. The CGT was socialistic but staunchly anti-communist befitting their base of Catholic workers, and later came into conflict with the communist Montoneros.
While he was legally elected, Perón did not tolerate any political opposition and ruled as a dictator: liberal leader Ricardo Balbín was jailed, academics that did not support Perón were fired from colleges and universities, rival union leaders were imprisoned and tortured for years, and newspapers were forced to print no criticism lest they be closed and expropriated. The electoral law was altered, so that Congress had as many Peronists as if the party had had a 90% to 100% victory. Regular people were forced to join the party and wear its badge in order to keep their jobs. Public figures such as singers or actors had to either display strong Peronist support or flee into exile. The educational system taught children to support Perón and Evita. Each October 17 was celebrated as a national holiday, and people were forced to attend it.
To safeguard Perón's popularity, Eva's friend and CGT official Raul Apold crafted a propaganda campaign based on the methods of Joseph Goebbels. This all-encompassing propaganda demonized the opposition to Perón and the state of Argentina before his arrival, and glorified him as a champion of the people, even attributing to him labor rights that existed since decades before. Perón attracted controversy for his sheltering of Nazi war criminals, but at the same time he protected Jewish immigrants and Argentine Jews. Eva rallied Argentine women into politics by enlisting them in the Peronist cause, although she followed a conservative model that was anti-abortion and against progressive feminism.
Naturally, all this created a powerful personality cult around Perón and Eva, so strong that it survives into the present day. Their speeches attracted enormous crowds of cheering supporters, hundreds of buildings were erected in their names, and portraits of Perón were everywhere. Perón's very visage became a symbol of the Justicialist Party itself, and he even had his own theme song that is still sung by supporters to this day, the famous Peronist March.
1952 was a bittersweet year for Perón, as while he was inaugurated for a second term after being re-elected in a landslide, Eva Perón died of cancer that year, and the economic crisis continued. Former allies of Peronism, such as the Church, Catholic unions and the military began to turn against Perón and plotted with the opposition. Conflicts escalated, with acts of violence on both sides, and Perón was overthrown in a bloody coup in 1955, where the rebellious armed forces bombed the Plaza del Mayo with jets, killing many civilians. As the leaders of the stratocratic and anti-Peronist 'Argentine Revolution" began to dismantle his work, Perón left the country and sought asylum in several places, until he settled in Spain. Peronism was outlawed, but remained a strong political force in Argentina, with its fanatical supporters resisting a nationwide crackdown on Peronism by the government and military by any means possible.
By this time the Cold War was in full force in Latin America, with the Soviet Union gaining a beachhead in Fidel Castro's Cuba, from which several communist insurgent armies were being trained and deployed all across South America, some with the help of Che Guevara.note The shockwaves of the Cuban Revolution and its turn towards communism had emboldened left-wing forces all across Latin America, and in Argentina this led to the rise of the Peronist left wing, officially called Left Peronists.
While he was enthusiastic about progressive reform and trade unions, Perón himself was no socialist despite the presence of socialists in his cabinet, regularly snubbed the Left Peronists, and was close friends with far-right strongmen such as Somoza Garcia, Trujillo, and Franco. But the Cuban Revolution was becoming very popular among most Peronist youth, and Perón decided to cash in by making vague statements on television about 'nationalist socialism' in Argentina. This fired up a rising new sector of the Left Peronists; young Marxist students from rich families. Believing that Perón would be an Argentine Castro, the students clamored around him and synthesized Peronism with their socialist militancy, forming the Peronist insurgent group known as the Montoneros.
Perón and the Montoneros both had a mutually beneficial relationship at the time. Perón had people weakening the military while he stayed in Spain, and the Montoneros had the proscription of Perón as a convenient excuse for their armed activities (especially as years passed and people began to forget about the Peronist years, that were increasingly idealized). Facing mounting instability from the constant Montonero attacks, the military finally allowed an election to be held with Peronist candidates running in them, leading to the election of Héctor Cámpora. Campora and his vice president resigned, and Perón ran in a new presidential election, alongside his new wife, Isabel.
The alliance between Perón and the Montoneros came to an end with the Ezeiza massacre, where far-right Peronists opened fire on Left Peronists minutes before Perón's plane landed in Argentina. Perón sided with the Right Peronists and ordered the Montoneros to disarm and disband, but they would not. As an anti-communist and an Argentine military officer, Perón was never willing to align with the Left Peronists, nor would he follow the example of the Cuban Revolution the Montoneros admired. The Montoneros deluded themselves that Perón was being manipulated by his close friends who were all fascists, and that creating enough instability in Argentina would rouse the masses to a Cuba-style revolution. So the Montoneros shot CGT leader José Rucci, rumored to be Perón's only true friend, after killing Rucci's secretary, Osvaldo Bianculli. Unsurprisingly, Rucci's murder escalated things even further, as he had ironically wanted to pursue a diplomatic approach to the Montoneros and welcome them into government. Enraged by Rucci's death, Perón expelled the Montoneros from the Justicialist Party, publicly insulted its members,note and created the AAA (Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance) to hunt them down and kill them. He then purged all the Left Peronists by having them forcibly dismissed from their posts, or arrested and jailed. But out of respect for Perón, the Montoneros waited until his death and funeral to resume armed operations, and many even believed that Perón was innocent and really a helpless puppet of the notorious fascist and occultist in his cabinet, José Lopez Rega.
Perón begun his third term in October 1973, but it was pretty obvious that he was in failing health. He suffered from an enlarged prostate and heart disease, and according to at least one account, he was beginning to show signs of senility by the time he was sworn in. As a result of this, wife, Isobel had to step in as acting president on several occasions. Perón's health continued to deteriorate throughout the first half of 1974, and he eventually suffered several heart attacks on 28 June. As a result, Isabel was in all secrecy called back from a trade mission to Europe, and sworn in on an interim basis on 29 June. Perón eventually suffered one final heart attack on Monday, 1 July, as he lay in his sickbed at the official presidential residence of Quinta de Olivos, and was declared dead at 13:15, at the age of 78. Perón's body, dressed in full military uniform, was taken to the Palace of the National Congress, where it lay in state over the next 46 hours. Finally on 4 July, the public funeral procession begun, with at least one million people turning out to see Perón's body off. Three days of official mourning were declared thereafter.
As Isabel was already acting president, it was perhaps no surprise that she that would get sworn in an official capacity with her husband's passing. And from there, things got even worse: the Montoneros and the communist ERP note restarted their armed campaigns separate of each other. The Montoneros attacked army barracks in the cities, and the ERP waged guerrilla warfare in the countryside, clumsily following the example of Che Guevara. The government signed decrees ordering the army to "annihilate the subversion". The police were sent to crush the Montoneros, while the army launched Operation Independence to crush the ERP in their stronghold of Tucumán Province. These operations soundly defeated both insurgencies, but came at the cost of many innocent civilians tortured and killed because they were thought to be subversives; a prelude to the horrors of the Dirty War.
Isabel's economic minister, Celestino Rodrigo, devalued Argentine currency by 60% in an ill-advised move that caused the biggest economic crisis of Argentina up to that date, the "Rodrigazo", which raised wages that were rendered immediately worthless by hyperinflation. Isabel Perón, who was just a former cabaret dancer and had no political experience of any kind before becoming president, was overwhelmed by all this. She was so overwhelmed that she willingly became a figurehead for her own political advisor - José Lopez Rega, who ruled the country de facto and vowed to be tough on all 'sedition'. Lopez Rega's effective control of the government enraged the Left Peronists, and political violence erupted as the Left and Right Peronists went to war, represented by the Montoneros and Triple A respectively. As fears of an Argentine civil war loomed, the traditional solution emerged; a military coup to restore stability. This created the monstrous junta known as the National Reorganization Process, which contrary to past trends would not step down and instead rule the country outright from 1976 to 1983, with disastrous results.
Thanks to a constant change of doctrines according to the times, glorification of Perón and Evita as national heroes and a constant reinterpretation of its past that would put Nineteen Eighty-Four to shame, Peronism and the personality cult around Perón have managed to stay as a powerful force in Argentine politics even to this day, whereas similar populists of its time have long faded into obscurity in their respective countries.
Like Cuba's Fidel Castro, Perón is perhaps the most polarizing figure in Argentine history, with fierce defenders and detractors alike. To his supporters, he was a great populist who was a true hero of the common people, the only politician Argentina ever needed, and the greatest Argentine to ever live. To his detractors, he was a fascist who damaged Argentine democracy beyond repair, an incompetent administrator who killed Argentina's chances at becoming a First World nation through his inept policies, and an egotistic caudillo just as bad as Juan Manuel de Rosas note .
Perón's mannerisms, such as him raising his hands in the air note before speeches as pictured above, and style of dress, particularly the army dress uniform◊ he proudly wore upon winning his first election, have become notorious in Argentine popular culture. His wives Eva and Isabel are also just as polarizing as their husband. Fittingly, Perón alongside Trujillo and Castro is one of the major inspirations for The Generalissimo in Latin American media.
Tropes seen in adaptations
- The Generalissimo: The example of this trope in all Argentine media.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Works by supporters of Perón generally downplay his authoritarian tendencies and his unsavoury methods of staying in power, as well as his affinity for Italian fascism (especially when created by modern Peronists, who tend to be generally left-leaning). His fondness for Nazi fugitives is also generally, omitted.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: In turn, whenever portrayed by anti-Peronists, Perón will be generally portrayed as a horrific fascist who ruined everything he touched, ignore the progressive achievements of his rule and, in case they mention his positive policies (such as female suffrage or granting rights to labour unions), portray them as simple political maneuvering.
- Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Someone who does not know about Argentine history and simply watches a story based on Evita may not fully realize it, but it was Juan Perón, not Eva Perón, the actual policy maker who had the reins of power. In her stories, Juan Perón is usually relegated to being a secondary character.
Works featuring Juan Domingo Perón
- La vida por Perón (by Daniel Guebel, 2004)
- Peronium (by Diego Bigongiari, 2018)
- Santa Evita (by Tomás Eloy Martinez, 1995)
- Eva Perón: la verdadera historia
- Juan y Eva
- La Señal
- Las palomas y las bombas
- Puerta De Hierro
- Padre Coraje is set in the years of the Peronist regime, but in a remote population, so politics always stay around the local Ultimate Authority Mayor. But there is a priest who can make miracles, so Juan Perón (played by Víctor Laplace, as in the films) shows for a couple of episodes to request him to save Eva Perón.
- Evita as the deutragonist.