Like few other historical phenomena, the Mexican Revolution has attracted the interest of the nonprofessional historian for years. Perhaps it is the magnetic romanticism inherent in the movement itself which prompts the lawyer, the novelist, the traveller, the newsman, the dilettante, and various academic types to try on Clio’s mantle. Perhaps we historians have failed in our own work to communicate with the layman. Whatever the reason, library shelves devoted to Mexican Revolutionary history are increasingly crowded with histories compiled by those whose only common credential is a facile pen.
William Johnson, a professor of journalism at UCLA, covers the first thirty years of the Revolution, but his real interest lies in the initial decade, to which he devotes 364 of the 425 pages of text. On one hand, the narrative is lucid, spiced with interesting historical anecdotes, and in most cases factually accurate enough to warrant a cautious endorsement for the nonspecialist. On the other hand, the professional will be made uneasy by the constant oversimplification and the propensity to present one side of a controversial issue as an established fact Examples exist in every chapter, but by way of illustration one can cite Johnson’s categorical statements that Pascual Orozco wanted to execute General Juan Navarro after the capture of Ciudad Juárez in May 1911 (p. 62); that Victoriano Huerta ordered the execution of Gregorio Ruiz on the first day of the Decena Trágica (p. 99); and that the whaleboat carrying the United States sailors at Tampico in April 1914 was flying the American flag (p. 140).
In addition one receives the distinct impression that the presentation of the material, rather than being a means to an end, upon occasion becomes an end in itself. It is easier to forgive the inclusion of the trivial, because it is interesting, than the omission of the significant, because it is prosaic. Johnson’s cursory treatment of the Constitution of 1917 affords the most obvious case in point.
But this amateur venture into Mexican Revolutionary history is better than average. The author consulted most of the important secondary works and even modestly sampled some of the primary documentation. His work is one of the first in print to utilize the monumental documentary series edited by Isidro Fabela and the Comisión de Investigaciones Históricas de la Revolución Mexicana (Documentos Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana), and the use of this documentation will be obvious to those familiar with the collection. In short, Johnson’s treatment is unpretentious and conventional. There is little to provoke enlightened controversy or occasion reappraisal, but the author does unfold a good tale.