Journalists who write history have advantages not enjoyed by historians. In addition to their often more felicitous style, they tend to be more persuasive, unencumbered as they are by the experience of protracted research that produces conflicting evidence and tempers certainty about the meaning of past events. Fernando Benítez says in his prologue that he lacks the patience needed for “forced labor in archives,” and that, although he consulted three hundred books in preparing his study, he does not know if they are the essential ones. (Some of them are, but his bibliography is spotty; for example, he cites only fourteen works by North Americans, all of them in Spanish translation with the exception of Edith O’Saughnessy’s (sic) A Diplomat’s Wife in Mexico.) Still, he is not apologetic. The real historians, he tells us, have always been novelists whose art recreates the past by giving it “deep, transcendental spirituality.” Such candor properly puts scholars on their guard, and if it also holds out hope that these volumes contain transcendental insights that even historians might ponder with profit, anyone acquainted with the literature on twentieth-century Mexico will be generally disappointed.

Benítez aims to place Lázaro Cárdenas in the context of the Mexican Revolution, and his thesis is both clear and familiar: the Revolution stumbled incoherently for twenty-four years as one leader after another succumbed to the corrupting influences of power; Cárdenas harnessed the movement and gave it its authentic orientation, which consisted of developing the country’s human and natural resources from a base of worker power, ejidal organization, and economic nationalism; after 1940 the Revolution lapsed into bourgeois populism under the rule of misguided and devious men who abandoned Cárdenas’ policies and ignored his attempts to keep alive a dying dream. Benítez concludes that Mexico faces chaos if it does not revive its commitment to social justice and to establishing the equilibrium of interests that Cárdenas promoted. The author is not optimistic about the prospects. In all, it is a tale of nostalgia and frustration redolent of the Revolution-is- dead genre that came in vogue in the 1950s.

The first two volumes can safely be ignored by scholars. They are a commonplace chronicle occasionally enlivened by anecdotes and imaginary dialogue. The third volume, which covers Cárdenas’ presidency and the subsequent thirty years until his death in 1970, is worth reading. Benítez had access to information provided by the Cárdenas family, including, it appears, some of the General’s papers. Included are intriguing references to such matters as Cárdenas’ opposition to Mexico’s entry into World War II, to President Miguel Alemán’s flirtation with the possibility of reelection in 1952 and Cárdenas’ part in blocking it, and to the General’s defense of the railroad strikers in 1959 and his efforts to free the jailed leaders. We are told that Cárdenas attempted to fly to Cuba on the day of the Bay of Pigs invasion but was prevented from doing so by President Adolfo López Mateos. Unfortunately little of this is documented, but some of the assertions are specific enough to sound credible—the fruit, perhaps, of solid journalistic effort. Some of the material might be pursued as sources become more available. Historians, however, who must display their evidence, may have a long wait before they are able to construct a satisfactory account of the career of this remarkable and enigmatic man.