Fieldwork has begun: The Story of the Plebiscitary Commission (1925-1926) from the US Archives

For the past month I’ve been scouring the archives of the Library of Congress here in Washington, DC and the National Archives in Maryland.


It has been a really productive few weeks looking at primary sources mainly from the 1920s when the United States government attempted to arbitrate Peru and Chile’s long-running border dispute. Since Chile’s northern territorial expansion during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), the two countries had been in fierce disagreement about the rightful ownership of the Tacna and Arica provinces. Peru and Chile had agreed in the Treaty of Ancón in 1883 that the residents of these provinces would partake in a plebiscite within ten years to decide sovereignty once and for all. Chile failed to hold the plebiscite within the timeframe and in 1922 asked the United States to aid them in the completion of a fair vote.

And so, in 1925, a group of US citizens, headed by General John J. Pershing, traveled down to Arica to determine whether the conditions in the region were stable enough to hold a ‘fair and free plebiscite’. I have been studying the official correspondence of this US Plebiscitary Commission as well as the diaries of Pershing and his secretary Major Quekemeyer which illuminate the experiences of the Americans in Arica over their 10 months there and the micropolitics which affected major diplomatic decisions.

Unfortunately the Commission deemed the completion of the plebiscite to be ‘impossible and impractical’, mainly due to violent and inhumane treatment of Peruvians in the disputed provinces by Chilean citizens and officials. The oppression, deportation and even murder of Peruvians meant that there was no way that the result of any vote would take the sentiments of Peruvians into account. The US Commissioners (now headed by William Lassiter who replaced Pershing due to illness) were therefore forced to return to the United States in 1926, their aim uncompleted.

Reading the details of why this hopeful mission failed has been fascinating and the intersection between international politics and the very human level of the individuals involved has been more interesting than I could have hoped for. Luckily Peru and Chile were able to resolve the border dispute in 1929 but that’s the subject of another blog post…

I am now coming to the end of my archival research here in the US and will shortly be moving on to Chile for 11 months to conduct further archival research but also ethnographic research in Arica. So lots more border stories to come!




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