To understand some of the long-term effects of this tussle with Mexico, we have to understand the background of the war and the debate over Texas.
The year was 1836 and Texans were high-fiving each other and shouting "Remember the Alamo!" as they celebrated their independence from Mexico. Mexico was looking the other way with its fingers in its ears pretending the whole thing never happened.
America, on the other hand, was debating the idea of annexing Texas to make it a part of the Union. Texas was all for it in 1836. The only hitch in the deal was that Texas had adopted a new state constitution that legalized slavery and banned free Blacks. That wasn't going to fly with the North.
Not willing to throw off the delicate balance of free and slave states and launch America into a Civil War, America passed on Texas. We were getting really good at dancing around the whole slavery issue again and again and again.
Strangely, avoidance wasn't solving the issue.
More and more Americans flooded into Texas over the next nine years, and by 1845, the population of Americans in the territory had more than tripled. More Americans meant more and more settlers eager for adoption into the United States. When America finally did give in to the desire for Texas, it paired it with the acquisition of Oregon to balance out the question of slavery.
All of a sudden Mexico was like "What the what? Texas is ours."
The war ended with American victory and a treaty that increased the nation's size by more than half a million square miles. Plus, the Oregon Territory was thrown in there, too, adding another quarter million square miles, creating a transcontinental nation-state.
Another plus? Developments like the railroad, the telegraph, and the postal system were under way, fueling theories of Anglo-Saxon supremacy that fused with national pride to produce Manifest Destiny, the conviction that white Americans were divinely ordained to dominate the continent, from sea to shining sea.
Score, Manifest Destiny—and President James K. Polk's expansionistic campaign promises—was going well.
Well, sort of well.
The issues that emerged with the acquisition of western lands, particularly in the Southwest, reawakened the sleeping giant of American politics: the controversy between North and South over slavery that most U.S. political leaders had spent a lifetime attempting to suppress.
Though President Polk and Manifest Destiny embodied the spirit, adventure, and triumphalism of the period, they also paved the way for the splintering of the Union in 1861.
A narrowly elected president. A controversial war. Sharp divisions over America's foreign and domestic policy and its future path.
Sound familiar? If not, you might want to pause here and pick up a newspaper or two.
Regardless of how you feel about the current state of affairs in American politics, warfare, and foreign relations, elements of our national history can only enhance your perspective and broaden your understanding of the country's position and reputation in the world.
- How did we come to be the way we are?
- When and how did we assume the national borders that are now taken for granted on the colorful maps adorning almost every American classroom?
Study of the Mexican-American War and the expansionist policies of mid-19th-century United States can help answer these questions. Iraq and Vietnam weren't the first controversial wars in national history. The notion that everyone in the country once zealously supported the chief executive, regardless of his party or his agenda, is a myth.
Not every square inch of American territory was gained by bloodshed, and many powerful historical figures thought that the land we did acquire was actually insufficient. If they had their way, our country would look very different today. The United States would include parts—or all—of Mexico, Nicaragua, the rest of Central America, Cuba, and a few other places, to boot.
So, what drove those ardent expansionists and why did they ultimately fail? 'Cause we'll tell you that most Americans did actually favor aggressive territorial acquisition.
Also keep in mind that in history, nothing can be taken for granted, and hindsight's always 20/20. Never assume that our country always looked the way it does today on a map, or—as in the ideology of Manifest Destiny—that we were destined to assume our present form.
Newsflash: History doesn't neatly unfold according to a series of predetermined—or deterministic—prophecies. No matter how Americans have rationalized their land conquests, or whether they were fighting Mexicans, Native Americans, or others, these were messy, bloody, protracted battles on all sides.
The outcome was neither obvious nor easy. To trivialize the process of westward expansion or imperialism as an inevitability is to oversimplify history. Even if we now know the end of this particular story—that we did in fact conquer the continent, "from sea to shining sea"—it is the how and the why that really counts. The but is also pretty important. In other words, what was the cost of westward expansion?
You could think about that question in terms of the lives lost—white settlers on the frontier, American soldiers, Mexican soldiers, Mexican citizens, Native Americans—or the tribal cultures that were decimated by disease and bloodshed along the way. Or the price of the many land treaties in cold hard cash, the dramatic alterations to the landscape and the resultant changes in the environment, or the impact on national goals, values, and ideas.
The Civil War must be part of that answer, too. Even if most 19th-century Americans agreed on the virtues of expanding the national boundaries westward, they disagreed violently over whether slavery should expand into the west as well.
date: 14 March 2018
U.S.-Mexican Relations from Independence to the Present
Summary and Keywords
Relations between the United States and Mexico have rarely been easy. Ever since the United States invaded its southern neighbor and seized half of its national territory in the 19th century, the two countries have struggled to establish a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Over the two centuries since Mexico’s independence, the governments and citizens of both countries have played central roles in shaping each other’s political, economic, social, and cultural development. Although this process has involved—even required—a great deal of cooperation, relations between the United States and Mexico have more often been characterized by antagonism, exploitation, and unilateralism. This long history of tensions has contributed to the three greatest challenges that these countries face together today: economic development, immigration, and drug-related violence.
Keywords: Mexico, foreign relations and foreign policy, U.S.-Mexican War/Mexican American War, immigration, trade, Mexican Revolution, World War I, Good Neighbor Policy, World War II, Bracero Program, Cold War, NAFTA, War on Drugs, violence
The Original Sin of U.S.-Mexican Relations
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, one of the most pressing problems that the new nation’s leaders faced was that of consolidating central power. In the last years of Spain’s rule, and throughout the long struggle for independence, regional autonomy had been on the rise. Local strongmen declaring themselves “federalists” or “liberals” resisted centralist efforts at political leadership. Mexico also had a very large indigenous population—about 60 percent of the total—that was poorly integrated into the new imagined community of “Mexicans.”1
Federalist intransigence and indigenous autonomy were especially significant problems in Mexico’s northernmost territories. Along this frontier, most of the land was either empty, tied up in large, inefficient estates, or owned communally by indigenous groups like the Caddos, Cherokees, and Comanches.2 Violent conflicts between Mexicans and independent Indian groups like the Apaches and the Navajos increased throughout the 1830s and 1840s, and Indian raids discouraged economic growth in Mexico’s northern states.3 Mexican intellectuals and politicians, similar to Thomas Jefferson in the United States, wanted to create a country of yeoman farmers cultivating small, individually owned plots of land.4 They passed laws facilitating the breakup of communal properties, hoping to attract new settlers and at the same time force the indigenous inhabitants to integrate into the national political and economic community. According to these 19th-century intellectuals, the ideal settlers of the northern territories would be white Catholic Mexican farmers, who would serve as modernizing examples for the Indians and act as a barrier between Mexico and the rapidly expanding United States.
Mexico’s early leaders, like those of New Spain before them, had not failed to notice that many of their U.S. counterparts were aggressive expansionists. After the original thirteen colonies declared their independence in 1776, U.S. territory quickly increased and spread west and south. Beginning with the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795, the United States started obtaining a great deal of what had been Spanish land in the Louisiana Territory and Gulf South, culminating with the acquisition of East and West Florida in 1821.5 It appeared that the only way to defend Mexico’s northern borders was to settle them.
Even though Mexico’s leaders preferred immigrants of European heritage, they also opened their territory to people of African descent fleeing from slavery and racial discrimination in the United States. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, thirty-six years before the United States. A free black man living in Florida published an article in a New York newspaper in 1831 in which he minimized Mexico’s own racial tensions and advised other blacks in the United States to “look toward Mexico as a place of safety and permanent refuge.” “Mexico,” he wrote, “has a pleasant climate for people of dark complexions and the land is vast and either entirely uninhabited or thinly settled with people who are mostly colored and entirely free from all prejudice against complexion.”6 As long as they professed the Catholic religion, fugitive slaves and free black men were given land in Mexico, along with civil and property rights. Most black immigrants from the United States ended up settling in the Mexican state that was most easily accessible: Texas.7
Texas was also the destination of thousands of white immigrants to Mexico, and their failure to integrate eventually resulted in Mexico’s devastating loss of more than half of its national territory. The fact that land was less expensive and easier to obtain in Mexico than in the United States attracted some twenty thousand Anglo Americans to Texas in the 1820s.8 In order to incorporate these settlers and ensure that they cut ties with their former home in the United States, Mexican law required that they convert to Catholicism and learn Spanish, and forbade them from settling within seventy miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.9 However, the Mexican government was not strong enough to enforce those laws, and most of the immigrants in Texas did not “Mexicanize.” They settled wherever they wanted, and continued speaking English, practicing Protestant forms of Christianity, and conducting most of their trade with the United States. By 1835, the population of Anglo-Texans outnumbered the Mexican-Texans ten to one. The Mexican government’s last-ditch efforts to reassert central authority and limit immigration led to tensions between national leaders in Mexico City, especially General Antonio López de Santa Anna, and local ones in Texas. The Texas Revolution began with a small skirmish over a cannon on October 2, 1835; within a year, Texas had gained independence and was soon petitioning the United States for annexation.10
In the United States, the question of whether to acquire Texas and other Mexican territories figured prominently in wider debates about slavery and U.S. expansion that would soon divide the nation in two. Critics of U.S. territorial expansion, like Henry Clay, saw it as a threat to U.S. democracy, arguing that “of all the dangers and misfortunes that could befall [the United States], I should regard that of its becoming a warlike and conquering power the most direful and fatal.” Clay and others also feared that the acquisition of Texas and other Mexican territory would encourage the spread of slavery and bring an “incongruous population” of non-white races into the United States.11 Meanwhile, advocates of expansion, including Texan independence hero Sam Houston, argued that it was the United States’ destiny to possess all of Mexico; as Houston declared to his audience at a public meeting in New York City’s Tammany Hall, “the Americans regard this continent as their birthright.”12
These debates came to a head in the presidential election of 1844. The narrow victory of expansionist Democrat James K. Polk over the Whig party’s Henry Clay would determine the fate of Texas and launch the U.S.-Mexican War (also commonly referred to as the Mexican American War). Polk ignored Mexican leaders’ repeated warnings that the acquisition of Texas would lead to war, and a little over a year after his inauguration, the Texan and U.S. governments agreed to annexation. What was more, Polk sent troops under General Zachary Taylor to occupy disputed territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers that, if recognized as U.S. territory, would push the border between Mexico and the newest U.S. state even farther south. Soon thereafter, in May 1846, Polk used the Mexican government’s refusal to receive his emissary and an isolated attack on a U.S. reconnaissance party in the disputed territory as pretexts to declare war.
The U.S.-Mexican War, known in Mexico as the North American Invasion, was extremely unequal; Mexico was almost destined to lose. Mexico’s central government was weak and unstable; the country’s elites constantly plotted against each other; what little army existed was untrained, undisciplined, and undersupplied; and the national treasury was empty. The government’s efforts to collect money for the war effort only inspired fierce resistance and further rebellion. Taylor defeated Santa Anna’s forces in the north, while U.S. General Winfield Scott launched an amphibious invasion of Veracruz from the east. Following the same route that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés had traced more than three hundred years earlier, Scott marched to Mexico City, handing Santa Anna yet another defeat en route. The sense of historical repetition was widespread. One Mexican politician wrote: “The leaders and officers declare that the Yankees are invincible, and the soldiers are telling terrible tales that bring to mind the Conquest.”13 In the final siege of Mexico City in September 1847, six young Mexican cadets famously chose death over surrender. One of the cadets wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped to his death from the walls of Chapultepec Castle. Santa Anna resigned the presidency and fled, but guerrilla fighting and further rebellions threatened to drag on until Polk and the provisional Mexican government agreed to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848.
The war between the United States and Mexico was the “original sin” of relations between the two countries. Mexico lost 55 percent of its national territory to U.S. conquest: not just Texas, but the modern states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming as well.14 Mexicans felt the pain of this loss immediately, especially as the California Gold Rush began the same year as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.15 The implications of the war also ignited political firestorms in both countries that resulted in civil wars a little over a decade later. Mexicans fought over who was to blame for their devastating loss and how to recover, while U.S. leaders debated whether to allow slavery to spread into their new territories. U.S. Civil War hero and president Ulysses S. Grant later reflected: “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.”16 Perhaps most importantly, the U.S.-Mexican War further distorted the distribution of wealth and power between the United States and Mexico, and the extremely unequal balance that resulted has continued to shape relations between the two countries to this day.
Building Nations and Mending Ties
After the war, the Mexican and U.S. governments had to decide what to do with the people who were most directly affected—the approximately one hundred thousand Spanish-speaking Mexicans living in what had suddenly become the United States. The two governments agreed to give the members of this stranded population a choice: they could move back to Mexico and maintain their Mexican citizenship, remain in the United States while still retaining their Mexican citizenship, or stay in the United States and eventually gain U.S. citizenship at some unspecified future date.17 The majority elected to stay and try their chances in the United States, where they quickly became an ethnic minority in their homeland and confronted discrimination and violations of their civil and property rights. Thousands of others moved south, some by force and others voluntarily, and formed communities on the Mexican side of the new international boundary.
Mexican leaders were even more determined than ever to fortify what remained of their northern frontier and once again turned to immigration as the solution. The Mexican government established a series of repatriation programs to entice these displaced citizens to “return to the homeland,” in the hope that they would prove more loyal and serve as better barriers and agents of civilization than the previous Anglo-American immigrants.18 One Mexican official wrote in 1855 that “there can certainly be no better colonists for our borders, than those instructed with hard experience, as with the falsehood of encouraging promises that the Americans are used to making to those . . . found in the most intimate contact with them.”19 He and others believed that negative experiences in the United States would make this group of returning migrants anti-American and therefore loyal to Mexico. What was more, the residents of this region were already used to living in the harsh desert climate of northern Mexico and capable of holding their own against skilled Indian warriors like the Comanches and Apaches.
This time around, Mexico’s immigration policy was more successful. About 25 percent of people of Mexican heritage from New Mexico, California, and Texas relocated to Mexico in the four decades following the U.S.-Mexican War.20 Thanks in large part to the efforts of repatriated citizens, further secessionist efforts failed and the government was eventually able to pacify rebellious indigenous groups. And in the later years of the 19th century, these repatriates provided a crucial source of labor for farms, railroads, and mines in underpopulated areas of northern Mexico where other immigrants and native Mexicans were less willing to live.
The permeable border between Mexico and the United States also allowed thousands of people to move in the other direction, and Mexican people and practices played crucial roles in settling and developing the southwestern United States. Mexican immigrants and the former Mexican citizens who chose to stay in the transferred territories provided not just labor but also local knowledge about effective mining, farming, and ranching techniques. Mexicans and Mexican Americans worked—and mixed—with people from all over the United States, Europe, and China as they built railroads and canals, extracted gold, silver, and copper from the subsoil, and established homesteads, farms, and ranches. Racial distinctions went through a period of extreme flux in the late 19th century in the former Mexican territories as these various groups encountered, comingled, and competed with each other.21
At the same time that the United States was developing its economy with the help of Mexican labor and practices, U.S. investors provided much of the money that Mexico needed to develop its own farms, railroads, and mines. By the late 19th century, the U.S. economy was booming—and occasionally busting—and investors were looking for new opportunities across Latin America. The U.S. government actively supported this economic expansion in the belief that it ensured domestic well-being and would guard against future busts.22 Relations between the Mexican and U.S. governments had improved significantly by that time as well, thanks in part to the support that Abraham Lincoln and other U.S. leaders had eventually provided Benito Juárez and his compatriots in their battle against French occupation.23 While the U.S. Civil War raged on, Lincoln was only able to provide Juárez with diplomatic recognition and moral and legal support. But two months after Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Grant sent forty-two thousand U.S. soldiers to Texas’s southern border in an implicit threat to the occupying French forces camped at Matamoros.24 Once Juárez had reestablished Mexican sovereignty, he and his fellow Liberals set themselves to the task of modernizing the country through economic development. Another hero of the fight against the French, Porfirio Díaz, seized power from Juárez’s successor in 1876 with the financial support of U.S. entrepreneurs from South Texas after promising them that he would build railroads connecting Mexico and the United States.25
Díaz kept his promise, and during the thirty-five years of his nearly unbroken rule, known as the Porfiriato, economic ties between U.S. and Mexican elites grew ever closer. U.S. and European capital funded Mexico’s modernization, while Díaz’s manipulation of state oligarchies and selective use of force provided the political stability necessary for foreign investors to amass vast wealth. The Mexican government offered tax exemptions and subsidies to attract investment and stimulate new industries. The majority of U.S. investment—more than 60 percent—was concentrated in railroads, while the rest went into enterprises like mining, ranching, farming, and industry.26 Mining, Mexico’s most important source of wealth since colonial times, came to be dominated by U.S. investors. By the early 20th century, U.S. companies controlled almost 75 percent of the active mining companies in Mexico and about 70 percent of the country’s metallurgy industry.27 One U.S entrepreneur, Thomas Brantiff, known as the “Midas of Mexico,” got his start working on the Mexico City–Veracruz railroad line and eventually gained a controlling interest in three railways, fifteen mining operations, and several public utilities. Brantiff, like other U.S. investors, was a close friend of Díaz and assisted his reelection campaigns.28 Díaz was always careful, however, to balance U.S. economic influence in Mexico by cultivating European investors as well, in order to avoid yet another round of conquest from either direction.
The United States also influenced Mexico’s economic development during the Porfiriato in other ways that were beyond Porfirio Díaz’s control. U.S. demand for Mexican mineral and agricultural goods, including precious metals, petroleum, henequen, coffee, rubber, and timber, drove Mexico’s export economy. Especially in the northern part of Mexico, where U.S. influence was strongest, international trade and investment encouraged commercialization, market production, and partial proletarianization of the local workforce. Even in areas like southern Mexico where U.S. influence was more distant, workers enjoyed higher wages and suffered less coercive exploitation from U.S. employers than Mexican ones. Across the country, contact with U.S. capital, markets, and workers led to a gradual process of acculturation, as many members of Mexico’s agrarian majority slowly transformed into a landless class of wage workers that adopted, to varying degrees, a new work ethic, new expectations, and new methods of organization.29 The United States thus played both a direct and indirect role in the formation of the modern Mexican economy and working class.
Figure 1. Mexican cotton pickers, ca. 1942. Because of the nation’s manpower shortage, which threatened the United States’ summer cotton crops, Mexican workers were asked to assist farmers near Corpus Christi, Texas, during the cotton harvest season. Library of Congress, LC-USE6-D-007281.
The Mexican Revolution and World War I
The utter chaos of the Mexican Revolution put an end to the mutually beneficial relationship that Mexican and U.S. elites had developed under the extended rule of Porfirio Díaz. Díaz’s efforts to modernize the country had come at the expense of the majority of the exploited and malnourished population. Even the middle and upper classes—the ones that had benefited the most from Díaz’s rule—eventually began to complain about the lack of democracy and the preferential treatment of foreign investors and workers. Díaz’s opponents saw a sign of hope when, in 1908, he told U.S. journalist James Creelman: “I welcome an opposition party in the Mexican Republic” and claimed that he would not run for an eighth presidential term in 1910.30 When Díaz reneged on that promise and decided to seek reelection yet again, wealthy landowner Francisco I. Madero founded an opposition political party and toured the country canvassing support. After Díaz imprisoned his opponent and declared himself the winner of the election of 1910, Madero escaped to safety in San Antonio, Texas, and issued a call for revolution.
The United States and its citizens played multiple, sometimes conflicting roles in the Mexican Revolution. U.S. territory served as a haven for Madero and other revolutionary leaders; after leaving San Antonio and making a brief foray into Mexico on November 20, 1910, Madero returned to the United States and set up a temporary base in New Orleans.31 Another hero of the Mexican Revolution, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, sought refuge in Texas and Arizona after he was briefly imprisoned in 1912. The U.S. government allowed localized revolutionary juntas to operate freely on its side of the border and did little to stop them from acquiring weapons and supplies.
At the same time that the United States provided haven and supplies to Mexican revolutionaries, however, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico was supporting one of the Mexican Revolution’s greatest traitors. A couple early defeats on the battlefield had convinced Porfirio Díaz to step down by May 1911, and Madero had won the presidential elections that October. But Madero proved incapable of containing the revolution that he had unleashed and immediately faced opposition both within his own ranks and from the Porfirian old guard that he had neglected to remove from power. Among that old guard was General Victoriano Huerta, a veteran military officer whom Madero increasingly relied upon to defend against revolts by Emiliano Zapata in the south, Pascual Orozco in the north, and Porfirio Díaz’s nephew, Félix Díaz, in the east. But Huerta turned on Madero. In a deal called the “Pact of the Embassy” that was brokered by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, Huerta formed a secret alliance with Félix Díaz.32 Huerta had Madero arrested in February 1913 and most likely orchestrated his assassination, then seized the presidential seat for himself.
At this crucial moment, the U.S. presidency also changed hands, from Republican William Howard Taft to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson, a defender of the principles of democratic rule, liberal capitalism, and self-determination, opposed dictatorships in general and Huerta’s in particular. He disavowed Ambassador Wilson’s role in Huerta’s coup and embargoed the export of weapons to Mexican Federalist troops under Huerta and Constitutionalist troops under the revolutionaries. Wilson did not stop Villa and other rebels from smuggling weapons across the U.S. border, however, and within a year he adjusted the embargo so that it would only apply to Huerta. Wilson further attempted to hasten Huerta’s fall from power when, in April 1914, he sent U.S. Marines to occupy Mexico’s principle port of Veracruz to punish Mexican federal troops for arresting U.S. sailors and to prevent the Mexican government from receiving a shipment of arms from Germany.33 U.S. workers in Mexico, especially those in the oil fields, panicked. Convinced that the two nations were about to go to war, they fled in droves.34 The six-month-long U.S. occupation of Veracruz, the first U.S. incursion into Mexican territory since the U.S.-Mexican War, exponentially heightened tensions between the two countries. It also increased the sense of nationalism in the Mexican Revolution, as Wilson’s unilateral action showed complete disregard for Mexican sovereignty.
Wilson again ignored Mexico’s territorial sovereignty in 1916 when he sent a punitive expeditionary force into Chihuahua under Major General John J. Pershing. Wilson’s support for Carranza had enraged Pancho Villa, Carranza’s former ally turned enemy. Villa decided to take revenge and incite an international conflict by sacking the small border town of Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916. His men looted, raped, and pillaged, killing ten civilians and eight soldiers in the process. The death toll among the attackers was even higher. Risking the wrath of Carranza, who was by then Mexico’s president, Wilson ordered Pershing to take forty-eight hundred U.S. soldiers into Mexican territory to capture Villa. The invasion force pursued the revolutionary outlaw for almost a year but ultimately had to admit failure.35
Wilson’s multiple incursions into Mexican territory, especially the occupation of Veracruz, generated so much antagonism between the two countries that Mexico refused to side with the United States in World War I. Despite its neutrality, the country ended up playing an important, if indirect, role in the war. The Germans had not failed to notice the growing tensions between Mexico and the United States, while the Mexicans were also closely following their neighbor’s escalating confrontation with Germany. Secretly, both the German and Mexican governments hoped to use each other to distract the United States or gain ground against it. Carranza sent an envoy to Berlin in 1916 proposing greater cooperation between their two countries and asking for German aid in strengthening Mexico’s military.36
The German secretary of state, Arthur Zimmermann, was hesitant to show open support for Carranza, but he believed that the Mexican leader could provide a useful diversion. He calculated that if Carranza were to stage another attack on U.S. soil similar to Villa’s raid on Columbus, the Americans would have to send another punitive expedition and entangle themselves in a long and costly war that would tie up troops that might otherwise be sent to Europe. To entice Carranza into cooperating, Zimmermann sent him a coded telegram in January 1917 offering to return Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico once the United States had been defeated. But Zimmermann’s plan backfired; the British got ahold of Zimmermann’s message, decoded it, and gleefully passed it along to the United States. Wilson, who was trying to convince Congress and the public to agree to take greater measures against Germany, published the telegram, and Zimmermann made the surprising move of publicly confirming its authenticity. U.S. citizens—especially those living in the Southwest—were so outraged by Germany’s secret offer to give U.S. territory to Mexico that they swung their support in favor of entering World War I.37
Figure 2. Ambulance corps leaving Columbus, New Mex. for Mexico in search of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, 1916. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-35149.
What Comes After War, Intervention, and Revolution?
The Mexican Revolution, the corresponding U.S. interventions, and Mexico’s role in World War I inaugurated a period of increased Mexican nationalism that strained ties between the United States and Mexico. Article 27 of Mexico’s new Constitution of 1917 declared that the country’s land and all of its natural resources were the patrimony of the Mexican nation and could only be used by foreigners with the government’s consent. The United States protested immediately and then began withholding recognition from the Mexican government after yet another violent uprising unseated Carranza in 1920. U.S. leaders used the recognition issue and denial of much-needed credit to pressure their Mexican counterparts to promise to protect the rights of foreign investors in the Bucareli Agreement of 1923.38 As a result, Mexico’s early post-revolutionary leaders made only infrequent use of their constitutional ability to confiscate and redistribute land or any other natural resources, and instead focused on consolidating central power.
But questions of foreign investment and intervention continued to dominate U.S.-Mexican relations. Even as the United States began transitioning away from its policy of “dollar diplomacy” and the use of military force in defense of economic interests in the mid-1920s, U.S. businesses and money kept entering the Mexican market. Dwight Morrow, a former president of J.P. Morgan Company who became U.S. ambassador in 1927, argued that military intervention was counterproductive to U.S. economic interests in Mexico.39 Such arguments laid the foundation for the United States’ Good Neighbor Policy, introduced by Herbert Hoover and implemented under Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Great Depression, combined with a series of disastrous interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, had driven U.S. policymakers to adopt a new approach toward relations with Latin America.40 “I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor,” Roosevelt declared in his 1933 inaugural address, “the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.”41 Roosevelt renounced the right to military intervention in Latin America and instead pursued a policy of increasing trade as a way to improve relations and lift the United States and its neighbors out of the Great Depression.
It was not long before a Mexican president came into office who put Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy to the test. During his extensive campaign tours in 1934, Lázaro Cárdenas had promised to revive the revolutionary economic nationalism of Mexico’s constitution. He delivered: over the course of his presidency, Cárdenas expropriated and redistributed more than six million acres of U.S.-owned property in Mexico, frequently in response to grassroots pressures from landless rural workers and smallholders.42 And in March 1938, an economic crisis and a dispute between U.S. and British owned oil companies and their Mexican employees drove Cárdenas to nationalize Mexico’s petroleum sector. Mexicans declared that March 18, 1938, was the day that Mexico gained its economic independence.43 Furthermore, Cárdenas’s nationalization of Mexico’s oil industry set a precedent for other manifestations of economic independence throughout Latin America. But Roosevelt stuck to his Good Neighbor Policy and, instead of invading or otherwise sanctioning Mexico, pushed the U.S. owners of the oil companies to end their boycott and accept adequate compensation.
Roosevelt’s restrained response to Cárdenas’s economic nationalism was due, in large part, to the increasing threat of another war in Europe. Cárdenas and his compatriots were keeping a close watch on the mounting tensions in Europe and calculated correctly that a new world war would compel the United States to secure its relations in the Americas.44 Germany, Italy, and Japan were the first three countries to agree to buy Mexican oil after the expropriation, and by the fall of 1939, Roosevelt was encouraging the U.S. owned Sinclair Oil Company to leave the united oil company front and pursue direct negotiations with the Mexican government.45 Germany was also pursuing a vigorous pro-Nazi propaganda campaign in Mexico, but by 1942, the United States had successfully countered with its own public information program that emphasized hemispheric security and trade cooperation.46
Mexico gave much greater support to the United States in World War II than it had during World War I. Mexico stopped trading with Germany in 1939, Italy in May 1940, and Japan in October 1940.47 President Manuel Ávila Camacho severed relations with Japan the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he cut ties with Germany and Italy three days later.48 In May 1942, Mexico declared war on the Axis powers. Mexico and Brazil were the only two Latin American countries to send troops to fight overseas; a Mexican expeditionary fighter squadron known as the “Aztec Eagles” gave tactically minor but symbolically significant aid to U.S. efforts in the Philippines in the summer of 1945.49
Even more important were the roles of Mexican producers and workers in the U.S. war effort. Mexico provided strategic metals, oil, rubber, food, and agricultural material.50 Ávila Camacho agreed to let the U.S. government conscript Mexican citizens living in the United States, and as many as 250,000 Mexicans and a million Mexican Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during the war.51 Under the auspices of the Bracero Program, a series of temporary bi-national labor contracts in force from 1942 to 1964, millions of Mexican “field soldiers” migrated to the United States to fill the labor shortage left by the war.52 These workers performed arduous yet essential jobs for low pay, keeping the United States and its soldiers fed throughout World War II.
From Allies to Partners
Wartime cooperation with the United States was a significant boon to the Mexican economy and laid the foundation for predominantly friendly relations between the two governments thereafter. Mexican entrepreneurs, workers, and consumers had been pushing for industrialization since before the war, but the markets and financing were lacking until the wartime redirection of U.S. industry opened the door for Mexican production and the profits from U.S. purchases of Mexican raw materials began to fill the country’s coffers. The United States also helped fund infrastructure projects in Mexico to increase output during the war, including building dams and canals and improving railroad lines.53 The Mexican government assured foreign investors that the period of economic nationalism and expropriations had ended. Mexican presidents shifted away from the model of state-led industrialization that had prevailed under Cárdenas and instead supported the growth of the private sector.
During and after World War II, the United States helped Mexico undergo an unprecedented amount of industrialization and economic development that came to be known as the “Mexican Miracle.” Between 1940 and 1970, Mexico’s economy grew at an average rate of more than 6 percent a year.54 In 1950, total foreign investment in Mexico had reached half a billion dollars, much of it coming from the United States.55 U.S. businesses, including Ford, General Motors, and Sears, eagerly struck partnerships with their Mexican counterparts in order to open stores and factories.56 Foreign investments helped build Mexico’s domestic industries as well, funding the Mexican government’s program of Import Substitution Industrialization.
Tourism also provided a significant boost to Mexico’s economy. By the end of the 1940s, some 300,000 U.S. tourists were visiting Mexico’s beaches, cities, and pyramids every year. The Mexican government established a powerful Department of Tourism to attract and protect its new visitors and financed thousands of miles of highways to facilitate travel. President Miguel Alemán (1946–1952) showed particular interest in the tourist industry and converted Acapulco from a sleepy town of six thousand to a booming beachside resort for the international jet-set.57 The infrastructure that tourism required—not just highways, but also airports, hotels, and skilled service workers—gave further impetus to Mexico’s modernization.58
Wartime cooperation also helped end the period of tense relations that the U.S. and Mexican governments had experienced as a result of the Mexican Revolution, Wilson’s interventionism, and Cárdenas’s nationalism. Ávila Camacho and subsequent Mexican presidents were much more accommodating to U.S. interests than Cárdenas had been, while U.S. presidents continued to honor Roosevelt’s promise to stop intervening in their neighbor’s domestic affairs. Cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican security organizations, begun during World War II, increased as well. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation helped organize Mexico’s Department of Federal Security, while the Central Intelligence Agency established contacts at all levels of the Mexican government and assisted their intelligence operations.59
This improved relationship gave Mexico more flexibility and room to maneuver on the international stage in the Cold War than most Latin American countries. When Mexican leaders praised the Cuban Revolution and refused to cut ties with Fidel Castro in the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy and others tried to pressure the Mexican government into joining the anti-Castro crusade. But eventually Kennedy relented, after President López Mateos convinced him that Mexico’s defense of Cuba was crucial to Mexico’s domestic stability.60 Mexico challenged U.S. foreign policy again in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, this time in Central America. While President Ronald Reagan and other U.S. leaders were fueling civil wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Mexico supported Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and led the efforts to find peaceful resolutions to the conflicts ravaging the region.61 As in the earlier case of Cuba, U.S. leaders resented Mexico’s opposition to their hemispheric policy, but grudgingly accepted it.
Even more importantly, the United States also refrained from intervening in Mexico’s domestic politics during the Cold War. When student protests threatened to destabilize the country right before Mexico hosted the Olympic Games in 1968, U.S. leaders practiced caution. Instead of intervening, the United States watched from the sidelines as the Mexican government violently quashed the student movement in the Massacre of Tlatelolco.62 For the most part, U.S. leaders knew that their Mexican counterparts shared their anti-communist orientation and trusted them to manage their own affairs, both at home and abroad. Both governments appeared to have a tacit understanding that the United States would accept Mexico’s right to challenge U.S. policy on matters that were fundamental to Mexico, like relations with Cuba, while Mexico would cooperate with the United States on issues that were of vital importance to the United States, like stability and opposition to domestic communism.63
During the Cold War, Mexico also served as a sanctuary for political exiles from across the Americas, including the United States. Numerous African Americans moved from the United States to Mexico in the mid- to late 1940s to seek refuge from racial discrimination and political persecution, just as their forebears had done in the 19th century. The U.S. government tended to view opposition to racism as “disloyalty” and a form of communism, and so, in order to avoid redbaiting, blacklists, and congressional subpoenas, many artists and intellectuals of all racial and ethnic stripes fled from the United States to Mexico.64 One African American artist, Elizabeth Catlett, recalled that she chose to move to Mexico in 1946 because “it was the nearest place without racism and segregation.”65 Catlett and many others integrated themselves into the thriving community of Mexican cultural producers and participated in a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas with their adopted community. Exile filmmakers, for example, played a seminal role in both Mexican independent film production and the Nuevo Cine movement, while African American artists, including Catlett, were influenced by the Mexican muralist and printmaking traditions and conveyed that influence back to the Black Arts Movement in the United States.66
Development, Drugs, and Immigration
Though relations between the U.S. and Mexican governments have remained relatively friendly throughout the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, three interrelated issues have continued to challenge both countries: economic development, immigration, and drug-related violence. The United States and Mexico have seen very mixed success in these three areas, in spite of both governments’ efforts to work together and independently over the last few decades to resolve them.
The so-called Mexican Miracle could not last forever, and by the 1980s Mexico’s economy was in bad shape. Major problems had begun to surface in a boom and bust cycle the previous decade, during which time Mexico’s national debt more than tripled as the government took on nearly $100 billion in foreign loans based upon projected revenues from newly discovered oil reserves.67 The bottom fell out in 1981, when crashing prices brought the oil boom of 1977 to an abrupt end, ushering in Mexico’s “lost decade.” Mexico’s leaders took out even more loans in a desperate effort to stave off disaster, then, when the American Federal Reserve Bank increased interest rates, declared a ninety-day suspension of payments. The situation only got worse, however, and at the end of 1982 Mexico signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to reschedule debt payments in exchange for austerity measures and neoliberal economic reforms.68 Mexico became more open to foreign trade and investment and, as ever, U.S. investors and businesses were ready to step in. Within a decade, trade between the United States and Mexico more than doubled.69
The United States and Mexico, along with Canada, deepened their economic ties yet again in 1994 with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Mexican president Carlos Salinas had initially been wary of free trade overtures from the United States when he first came into office in 1988, but after the European countries showed little interest in Mexico he turned back to his closer neighbors.70 The negotiations over NAFTA took two years to conclude and had to overcome substantial domestic resistance in all three countries, especially the United States. President Bill Clinton spent much of his first year in office campaigning to get the public and congressional support necessary for NAFTA’s approval. When the agreement went into effect on January 1, 1994, an indigenous group calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) staged a media-savvy armed uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas to protest NAFTA and the Mexican government’s embrace of neoliberalism at the expense of the poor majority of its own citizens.71
In the twenty years since it went into effect, NAFTA has had very mixed results. The agreement succeeded in lowering barriers to trade and investment, and Canada and Mexico are now two of the United States’ three most important trading partners.72 NAFTA has helped transform the U.S. automotive industry and increased U.S. exports of certain manufactured goods like computers and fabrics.73 The agreement has had an even greater impact in Mexico; Mexico’s exports—most of which go to the United States—have jumped from $60 billion in 1994 to almost $400 billion in 2013, and U.S. investment in Mexican industries has helped manufactured goods replace oil as Mexico’s main source of export revenue. Consumers in all three countries have been able to buy a wider range of products at cheaper prices. However, NAFTA has not produced the job growth that its promoters promised—except in exploitive factories known as maquilas along Mexico’s northern border—and government-subsidized U.S. agricultural products like corn have driven millions of small farmers off their land and increased Mexico’s already staggering levels of rural poverty.74
NAFTA’s uneven results have contributed to another longstanding source of tension in U.S.-Mexican relations: immigration. The end of the Bracero Program in 1964 did not mean an end to Mexican migration to the United States; millions of Mexican citizens have continued to make their way to the United States in search of work. In the two decades after the Bracero Program, the number of legal immigrants rose steadily from 38,000 in 1964 to 67,000 in 1986, while the number of illegal border crossings skyrocketed from 87,000 to 3.8 million entries per year. The economic crisis of the “lost decade” in particular drove millions of Mexicans to seek work in the United States. President Ronald Reagan signaled a significant shift in U.S. policy in a 1985 speech in which he described illegal immigration as an “invasion,” and immigration increasingly came to be seen as a matter of national security. The next year, Congress passed the Immigration and Reform Control Act (IRCA), which allocated new resources to the Border Patrol to secure the southern border, sanctioned U.S. employers who knowingly hired illegal workers, and offered amnesty and paths to legalization to long-term undocumented residents and agricultural workers. The unintended effect of IRCA has been to decrease the number of seasonal, temporary migrants and increase the number of permanent immigrants. U.S. immigration policy backfired; offering paths to legalization encouraged more Mexicans to move north, while tighter border security discouraged them from going home.75
At the same time, nativist concerns about Mexican workers taking jobs and depressing wages continued to spread in the United States, beginning in the border states like California where the majority of the immigrants relocated. As NAFTA negotiations were taking place, workers’ unions in the United States voiced such loud opposition that the final agreements failed to include any provisions about the free exchange of labor. The same year that NAFTA went into effect, the voters of California adopted Proposition 187, which denied undocumented residents access to nearly all public services, including schools and hospitals. In 1996, the U.S. Congress approved similar anti-immigrant legislation, and other states have since passed their own versions of nativist bills. In an effort to help its citizens abroad defend their rights, Mexico’s Congress approved a constitutional amendment in 1996 that allowed Mexicans to possess dual citizenship. Mexican immigrants responded by flooding the offices of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services with millions of petitions for naturalization, hoping to gain the security and voting rights necessary to defend against further attacks. Like IRCA, both NAFTA and nativist legislation have had unintended consequences: neoliberal economic reforms hit hardest in Mexico’s already poor rural areas and pushed more people to seek better prospects in the United States, while anti-immigrant legislation has forced Mexicans who had been content with legal residency to seek full citizenship and greater political participation.76
The issue of immigration has continued to strain U.S.-Mexican relations in the 21st century. Since 2000, more than seven million Mexicans have migrated to the United States. The flow peaked in 2007, however, and by 2011 it had declined enough to reach an almost “net zero” level with as many people moving to Mexico as the United States each year.77 Both the U.S. and Mexican governments have focused their efforts on making it more difficult to migrate, rather than effectively addressing the reasons that people choose to move in the first place. The U.S. government has taken numerous unilateral measures to “secure” its border, such as building fences, increasing the numbers of National Guard members and Border Patrol agents, and even deploying drones. Interviews and surveys of border crossers suggest that these measures have not been very successful; most migrants who are determined to cross eventually find a way.78 The Mexican government, meanwhile, has not been proactive in reducing or protecting its migrants. Most visibly, Mexican officials have protested unilateral U.S. actions and promised to prevent Mexican and Central Americans migrants from making the deadly ride north on the freight train known as “The Beast.”79
Many of the people who cling desperately to the sides or roof of The Beast are fleeing the last of the three major current challenges in U.S.-Mexican relations: drug trafficking and the corresponding violence. This is not a new problem, but it is one that has gotten drastically worse over the past century. Modern efforts to control the use and sale of potentially dangerous substances at the national and international levels emerged more or less simultaneously in Mexico and the United States in the early 20th century, and by the early 1930s the two governments had agreed to exchange information in order to better control drug traffic across their common border.80 But Mexico remained both a source and a transit point for drugs to fill the demand in the nearby U.S. market. Mexican farmers continued to grow opium poppies and marijuana, while Mexican traffickers decided to expand their business and joined together in cartels that began transporting South American cocaine in great quantities in the 1980s. Mexican officials for the most part looked the other direction and frequently even facilitated the drug trade in exchange for a cut of the profits.81
Figure 3. Mexicans entering the United States, 1938. United States immigration station, El Paso, Texas. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b32436.