Friedrich Schuler’s well-researched account of Mexican foreign relations during the 1930S makes an important contribution to the postrevisionist literature on the administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas. Based on United States and Mexican archival material, and to a lesser degree on British and German primary sources, Schuler undermines dependency theory by accurately demonstrating that Mexico was not a pawn in the battle between the great powers. Rather, Mexican officials outmaneuvered their United States and European counterparts and expanded their country’s political and economic sovereignty by manipulating the opportunities generated by World War II.
Mexico’s international success during the Cárdenas administration, according to Schuler, stemmed from the establishment of a professional-technocratic diplomatic corps during the postrevolutionary era. Until then, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry was filled mostly with political hacks. However, the Great Depression, and the emerging consensus regarding the need to modernize agricultural production and accelerate industrialization, along with the chance for Mexico to increase its exports of raw materials to the Axis and Allied powers, impelled Mexico City to fill its foreign and domestic ministries with professionals who had the skills to promote state intervention in national economic development and capitalize on the war’s economic benefits.
As for Cárdenas, Schuler argues that he was not the “alpha and omega” of Mexican policymaking. Instead, Mexican federal bureaucrats, especially those in the Ministry of Hacienda under Secretary Eduardo Suárez, used their technical expertise to help shape Mexicos domestic and international policies. Cárdenas appears less as a doctrinaire leftist and more as a pragmatic capitalist who sought to industrialize Mexico and integrate the country into the international commercial market. According to Schuler, Mexico’s severe economic crisis of 1937 was the watershed that led Cardenas, for economic and political survival, to expropriate the petroleum industry and to pursue more conservative policies during the second half of his sexenio. Some may question Schuler’s contention that the oil nationalization was the “lifesaver” that stabilized the Mexican economy. Not only does Schuler fail to substantiate some of his claims with statistical evidence, but he does not mention, or plays down, the fact that in 1939 and 1940 Mexican exports, oil and agricultural production, ejidal credit, private bank loans, foreign exchange holdings, and government revenue all fell, while inflation, the importation of basic foodstuffs, overdrafts at the Banco de México, and capital flight increased.
Likewise, Schuler’s description of U.S.-Mexican relations as a “good relationship” is somewhat misleading. He claims that the United States “secretly” provided financial support to the Cárdenas administration after the oil expropriation, yet the book provides no examples. United States purchases of Mexican silver on the open market after April 1938, when Washington canceled the silver purchase agreement in retaliation for the oil seizure, were hardly secret. More importantly, Schuler ignores the fact that Washington blocked much-needed loans to Mexico from the Export-Import Bank as well as private New York banks, lowered the world price of silver, and maintained a low import quota on Mexican oil. Thus, the United States did flex its economic muscle in a vain attempt to force the Cárdenas administration to compromise over the agrarian dispute and oil crisis, this all despite Good Neighbor rhetoric. Schuler also disregards the precedents that were set in bilateral relations over the expropriation of American-owned agricultural property, which began in Mexico in 1935.
Finally, Schuler calls for more scholarly attention to be paid to Mexican “elites,” given that during the 1930s “a small group of individuals influenced the course of the lives of millions of people” (p. 2). While this is true, Schulers elites seem to operate in a vacuum. Although he correctly notes that “Mexican foreign policy makers never adhered to a strict separation between domestic and foreign affairs” (p. 3), Schuler does not demonstrate how Cardenista officials responded to the pressures exerted upon them from below. To gain a more complete understanding of Mexico’s domestic and foreign policies, scholars should not limit their analysis to either side. Rather, they should synthesize the role of the elite and popular groups while integrating domestic and foreign policy issues.