This review of Professor Robert Freeman Smith’s excursion into the history of U.S.-Mexican diplomatic, political, and economic conflicts in the immediate post-revolutionary period that brought both countries several times to the brink of military confrontation has been written at the moment when the relations between the two countries are again far from satisfactory. After some thirty years of friendly relations (1940-1970), one witnesses south of the Rio Grande another wave of the “intensification of nationalism, the growing concern over unregulated foreign enterprises, and the mounting agitation of reform in all areas of Mexican life” that according to Smith “characterized the decade from 1900 to 1910” and “. . . foreshadowed the developments of the revolutionary era” (p. 30). While from the Mexican vantage point it is impossible to predict what form the present nationalist evolution in that country will eventually take and whether and when it will spill over into a new “revolutionary era,” it seems rather clear that the U.S. policy toward the Mexico of the seventies and the eighties will play a very important role in the shaping of the country’s future.
While in general one may agree that the only lesson offered by studying history is that history does not teach any lesson, this proposition does not seem to apply to Mexico’s recent history and the development of U.S.-Mexican relations. Since the beginning of the present decade, Mexico’s political, social, and economic structures have become more and more similar to those prevailing in the final stages of the Porfiriato, and the country’s external relations are overshadowed by the undue dependence upon the powerful northern neighbor. This dependence, concentrated in the economic field through the massive U.S. private investment and Mexico’s indiscriminate public and private borrowing in the U.S. financial centers, represents to many Mexicans the most important single obstacle to badly needed domestic social and economic reforms that would make reality out of the nationalist objectives of the 1917 Constitution.
The literature on post-revolutionary Mexico and its relation with the United States is staggering in quantitative terms but on the whole quite unsatisfactory in quality. Most of it originated in the past quarter century with U.S. apologists for the official policies of Washington or with Mexican demonologists who blame the U.S. for all the short-comings of the country’s socio-economic development since the end of the revolutionary strife in 1929. Together with the other recent contributions by such scholars as E. David Cronon (Josephus Daniels en México, Madison, 1960), Berta Ulloa (La Revolución intervenida, México, 1971) and Lorenzo Meyer (México y Estados Unidos en el conflicto petrolero 1917-1942, México, 1968), Professor Smith’s study sheds new light upon the complicated U.S.-Mexican relations and the strength of the Mexican defensive stance in the twenties and thirties in light of the pressures of external forces that for ideological and—even more important—global economic reasons were unwilling to accept the emergence of the Mexican post-revolutionary state.
As Professor Smith stresses throughout his study, the new relations with the U.S. sought by post-revolutionary Mexico were not just a problem of bilateral accommodation. For both official Washington and U.S. economic interests led by giant oil companies, the Mexican rebellion against the traditional type of dependent relationship upon the U.S. represented the most dangerous precedent that would have affected deeply the U.S. hegemonic position world-over and not only the working of the Monroe doctrine in the Western Hemisphere. As Professor Smith writes:
If Mexico could encourage the spread of the principles of the revolutionary nationalism then she might gain supporters and even allies in her struggle to limit foreign involvement in her domestic affairs. Mexico would no longer stand alone as a proponent of nationalistic reforms and, in addition, would gain national prestige as a leader of the underdeveloped nation’s quest for development, economic independence, and equality of treatment in international relations. (p. 79)
The Washington position vis-à-vis the Carranza doctrine of 1919, to give one example, represented a perfectly rational attitude of the defenders of the imperial order, hidden behind the principles of the “free trade,” the sanctity of foreign investment, and the superiority of the enlightened U.S. white society. The coincidence between the ideologists of that imperial order and the powerful private interests made the conflict between the U.S. and Mexico irreconcilable for a long time. If finally the conflict became disarmed in the early thirties it was partly due to the events beyond U.S. control (The Great Depression), partly to the short-term considerations of certain sectors of the U.S. interests (New York banking groups), and in part also to Mexico’s immediate needs for economic reconstruction as perceived by Plutarco Elias Calles and his entourage after the end of the revolutionary strife.
Once the U.S. realized that the “Mexican challenge” could not be taken care by more resolute and drastic means, ways of domesticating the “revolutionary beast” had to be found and were eventually found. While this period of U.S.-Mexican relations falls outside of the scope of Professor Smith’s study, the final chapters of his book offer a preview of the accommodation that was to come during the Roosevelt period within the framework of the good neighbor policy. In the case of Mexico this accommodation lasted some thirty years—from 1940 to 1970. It is presently questioned again, this time not only by Mexico but by the whole underdeveloped world proving the prophecy of a statement made in 1929 by the then main architect of the U.S.-Mexican rapprochement, Dwight Morrow. In spite of being a rather conservative banker, Morrow was aware that the Mexican Revolution of 1910 raised basic issues concerning the economic and political place of the developing countries in the twentieth-century world. These issues were as far from settled in the inter-war period as they are settled today. In the last paragraph of his excellent study, Smith quotes Dwight Morrow’s remark: “It sometimes amuses me when people say ‘settle the Mexican question.’ You and I know that neither the Mexican nor the Cuban question will be ‘settled’ in the lifetime of anyone now living” (p. 265).
Without leaving the confines of this continent one sees that in 1972 the United States faces not only the Mexican and the Cuban question but the Canadian, the Chilean, and the Peruvian questions, among others, as well. If this is so, then Professor Smith’s book is more than just another competent historical exercise. Since it deals indirectly with the past and the present of the U.S. relations with the developing world, it represents a required reading for anyone interested in the world-wide shape of things to come within the near future.