Mexico organized the great 201st Fighter Squadron when it declared war on the Axis powers on June 11, 1942. The squadron was a select group of exceptional Mexican pilots with Carlos Faustinos amongst the ranks. Thirty-five officers and 300 enlisted men received extensive training in Mexico. The pilots then were sent to Pocatello Air Base in Idaho to be given additional training by the U.S. military. These pilots managed to destroy machine gun nests, drop 181 tons of bombs, and made significant progress in the war. These pilots proved themselves to be valuable assets to America with their skill and bravery. Seven of their pilots were killed in action, a sacrifice that will not go forgotten.
Opposition candidate General Juan Andreu Almazán lost the presidential election in July 1940. The inauguration of president-elect Ávila Camacho did not take place until December 1940. The interval offered the right-wing opposition forces almost five months to change the course of Mexican history. As expected in 1939, Almazán did not accept defeat in the presidential election without a serious challenge. He left for the Caribbean, as his supporters organized a publicity campaign in the United States and Central America, challenging the outcome of the election. Inside Mexico, a small number of his followers who had lost races for local and regional offices staged limited uprisings. Another group, in contact with former Mexican president-in-exile Calles, bought arms on the U.S. market to supply a larger military uprising. From Spain, Serrano Suner announced the departure of Spanish Falange agents to promote subversive activities in Mexico. Germany was approached to contribute a small number of tanks, heavy weapons, and airplanes. Delivery to the Pacific Coast of Mexico was supposed to be made via Japan.
Fortunately, this effort failed, because of unprecedented cooperation between U.S. and Mexican security forces, the reelection of President Roosevelt, and the German refusal to act at that particular moment. Presidentelect Ávila Camacho’s supporters systematically enlisted the help of the U.S., asking for early diplomatic recognition by that country and therefore giving international legitimacy to Ávila Camacho as the official winner of the 1940 presidential election. His campaign manager, Governor Miguel Alemán, succeeded in obtaining this recognition in the early fall of 1940. The White House and the State Department recognized Ávila Camacho even before the U.S. presidential elections and the Mexican inauguration.
After losing the political battle over recognition, the Almazanistas moved toward large-scale armed rebellion. These conspirators in the United States, along the U.S.–Mexican border, and inside Mexico were systematically shadowed and their preparations disrupted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. military intelligence, and agents supplied by the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of the Interior, and the military. The military quashed local uprisings in the north and patrolled both coasts to prevent the landing of revolutionary troops or weapons deliveries. When Almazán wanted to slip into the United States to spearhead his rebellion, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service gave him a public welcome. The White House and the State Department refused to meet with the Almazanistas, who wanted to make their case in favor of their candidate. The German Foreign Ministry decided against joining Spanish efforts opposing Mexico, because Ávila Camacho seemed to be more pro-German than the outgoing Cardenas. Hitler himself preferred a neutral Mexico over a revolutionary one at that time. Consequently, the Almazanistas never received the military hardware necessary to mount and sustain a serious military operation inside Mexico.
Finally, the reelection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in November 1940, guaranteed a continuation of the pro-Mexico policy in the White House over the next four years. To make this point, President Roosevelt appointed U.S. vice president-elect Henry Wallace to represent the United States at the Mexican presidential inauguration in December 1940. This was the first public demonstration of how close the Ávila Camacho and Roosevelt administrations had become during the joint U.S.–Mexican battle against profascist forces during the past five months. It also suggested a major break with the Cárdenista foreign policy that had preferred Mexican cooperation within a multilateral Latin American framework against the United States. In the end, defeated presidential candidate Almazán recognized reality, publicly admitted his defeat, and returned home to profit as a member of the economic elite. The last major regional revolutionary warlord turned entrepreneur. Revolutionary politics and development had finally completely replaced the era of violent revolution.
As early as 1936, Mexican domestic observers had suggested that during the next global war, U.S. and European military powers would be more dependent than during World War I on Latin American raw materials to sustain a long-term fight. Therefore, Mexico might find itself in the unique position of being able to sell its raw materials more expensively than in peacetime and generate new state income to finance domestic development. Petroleum sales after 1938 had confirmed the expected effect that international rearmament was having on the international oil trade. It took until the spring of 1939 for Mexico to return to more planned national industrial development. A few months later, Europe and Asia were ablaze in war. Now, the engine that would fuel the industrialization of Mexico would be the external stimulus of rearmament and wartime raw materials needs. As soon as the Roosevelt and British administrations would accept Cardenas’s offer of supplying democratic countries with petroleum, planners could use the money to acquire U.S. know-how and technology to expand the manufacturing base. If everything went according to plan, at the end of the war, new factories could satisfy the pent-up demand for consumer and durable goods, freeing foreign currency for other developmental needs.
The step from policy idea to economic reality was much more complex. Even before Ávila Camacho’s inauguration on December 5, 1940, U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and Mexican government representatives had agreed in principle to use the coming months to reach comprehensive settlements on the most critical unsolved bilateral issues. Indeed, from December 1940 on, an unprecedented degree of Mexican–U.S. diplomacy unfolded. Bilateral committees negotiated terms of cooperation in the areas of military, naval, and air defense. A planned exchange of Mexican raw materials for U.S. manufactured goods and industrial technology was organized according to Washington’s bureaucratic war economy rules. One commission resolved the continuing oil expropriation conflict with U.S. oil multinationals. Additional groups discussed bilateral water rights, agrarian expropriation, agricultural labor, revolutionary claims, the joining of U.S. armed forces by Mexican citizens, and other wartime financial issues. By November 1940, most of the major U.S.–Mexican conflicts of the previous twenty years had been resolved. War in Asia and Europe had given the U.S. government unprecedented clout to pressure unpatriotic multinationals into complying with national war needs. Exceptional diplomatic goodwill on both sides had cleared the road for even deeper bilateral cooperation in the years to come.
Mexican developers organized their concessions to the United States in such a way as to produce the greatest economic benefit for their developmental vision. For example, an April 1940 flight agreement opened access to U.S. Lend Lease funds and brought military planes to modernize Mexico’s air force. The seizure of German and Italian boats in Mexican harbors brought, overnight, previously unavailable, nationalized tanker space to export Mexican oil to the United States and earn foreign currency. The enactment of the Allied Blacklists in July 1940 provided a powerful legal smokescreen to move Germany’s chemical and pharmaceuticals industrial facilities and patents into national guardianship and to prepare for the later final expropriation of the German monopoly after the war. On July 15, 1940, Ávila Camacho’s negotiators signed an all-encompassing U.S.–Mexican commercial treaty guaranteeing Mexican goods a U.S. market at protected prices for the surplus production of strategic materials. From the beginning of the depression, Mexico had not enjoyed a similar preferential situation. In addition, Mexico reached special silver purchase agreements and gained access to U.S. currency stabilization funds. The agreement over the nationalization of the oil industry in November 1940 made the Mexican action legally irrevocable. More important, it further isolated the British oil claims and confirmed Cárdenas’s idea that the expropriation had been a sound risk. War had forced the multinational corporations to give in to economic nationalism. Critical petroleum technology and expertise were again allowed to enter Mexico, helping with the development of the nationalized property. The Roosevelt administration also provided Ávila Camacho with a much-needed overhaul of the expropriated railway system, as well as financing for the continuation of the Pan American Highway, Baja California road projects, and harbor modernization.
Most important, from a long-term perspective, the national foreign debt was reduced by almost 90 percent. Minister of Finance Suárez decided that Hitler’s complete control over Europe warranted the cancelation of most of Mexico’s European debt. As expected, the external stimulus of the war was providing financing for vital national infrastructure projects and the equivalent of Works Progress Administration job programs. If Mexico could escape the war without experiencing fighting on its own territory, it would emerge with a strong national infrastructure and an attractive financial position vis-à-vis international investors and banks. Brilliant negotiators were repositioning Mexico’s international macroeconomic position to accelerate development with foreign loans after the end of the war.
The creation of advantageous macroeconomic features did not translate into improvement for workers and peasants. On the contrary, in some agricultural sectors the United States requested crop changes that caused famine and regional economic dislocations lasting for years in previously functioning local markets. Only the determined personal intervention of U.S. Ambassador George Messersmith avoided a more serious hunger disaster and a public relations nightmare. A torrent of financial flight from the United States and Europe, as well as massive financial reimbursements for raw materials, created an expanding inflation that ate away at the already meager purchasing power of workers. Labor rights were even more restricted, and many of the political freedoms that union members had gained in the 1930s were repressed. In short, the war became a pretext to attack the political left. U.S. government bureaucrats were far less demonstrative in their support of Mexico than were the White House and the U.S. ambassador. The relocation or construction of manufacturing plants and sophisticated technology failed to materialize. U.S. war needs remained more important than Mexican development. Few U.S. planners acknowledged that Mexico’s raw-materials deliveries fueled 40 percent of the U.S. war industry. It was the most significant Latin American contribution to the fight against the Axis powers. Finally, U.S. military support for financing projects in Mexico ended overnight when victory in the Battle of Midway made a landing of Japanese troops on Mexico’s Pacific Coast unlikely.
By 1943, experienced economists recognized that the enthusiastic U.S.–Mexican wartime economic cooperation of the last three years was becoming less and less justified. Minister of Hacienda Suárez reminded the cabinet that bilateral wartime cooperation had been a temporary exception, not the beginning of a long-term U.S.–Mexican relationship. To the political left, former Cárdenistas and more radical politicians resumed their criticism that U.S.–Mexican wartime cooperation was little else than a simple pretext for U.S. imperialists to establish a lasting hegemony over Latin America. As early as the course of the war allowed, Minister Suárez and the head of the Bank of Mexico, Eduardo Villaseñior, resumed their prewar outreach toward their European, Asian, and Soviet economic partners, exploring alternatives to U.S.–Mexican economic exchanges. The traditional Mexican diplomatic stance between the United States and Europe was being reconstructed, only now within the context of the expected winners of World War II: Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, and the soon-to-be-reconstituted countries of France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Scandinavia.
Reacting to the growing nationalist frustrations in Mexico, Presidents Roosevelt and Ávila Camacho made determined personal efforts to continue the early positive wartime cooperation into the postwar era. During a presidential exchange visit in 1943, a special bilateral study commission was created that sought solutions to the problems that came with uneven wartime development. The bilateral bureaucratic rules and inertia were more powerful. Still, Mexico was the only Latin American country that received such special attention and genuine U.S. goodwill from the White House.
With the majority of Mexicans continuing to be apprehensive about wartime cooperation, President Ávila Camacho and Foreign Minister Ezequiel Padilla could not push openly for a declaration of war against the Axis powers. In the fall of 1941, the German decision to close Latin American consulates in occupied Europe had given the National Palace the opportunity to close Axis consulates in Mexico. This step eliminated many clandestine bases for Axis subversive operations. Following the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the German declaration of war against the United States later in the same month, the Ávila Camacho administration broke diplomatic relations, but did not declare war against Germany. The smaller Latin American countries did declare war against all the Axis powers; it took repeated German submarine attacks against Mexican ships in the Gulf of Mexico after February 1942 to create a strong enough case for Padilla and Ávila Camacho to overcome popular reservations and convince Congress to enter the war, formally, on the side of the Allied powers.
Ávila Camacho strengthened this fragile domestic front by inviting former president Plutarco Elías Calles to return from exile in California, by naming the nationalist former president Lázaro Cárdenas as minister of war, and by entrusting the defense of the Gulf of Mexico to conservative former president Abelardo Rodriguez. The labor union caudillo Vicente Lombardo Toledano was further constrained through restrictive labor-government agreements that forced him to become active outside Mexico, certainly a project doomed to fail, in light of the continuing political conservatism of the rest of Latin America.
By then, popular cultural exchanges, nurtured by a relentless Allied propaganda in the media—print, radio, movies, even postage stamps—brought some sense of wartime emergency to the small but important Mexican urban middle class. U.S., British, and French propaganda machines took over the reporting of all foreign affairs. Those who could not read learned about the war in public spectacles, such as dramas performed in the Zócalo (central plaza) in Mexico City following the sinking of the Mexican tanker Potrero de Llano by a German submarine. Special propaganda aimed at priests enlisted the small number of pro-Allied priests to influence their local parishes. Almost surreal civil defense “emergencies” and real-life military war games engaged Mexicans against the Axis powers long after the Axis forces had the resources to launch a sustained attack against Latin America. Never before had the revolutionary elite and its foreign supporters enjoyed so much influence over the political opinions of its citizens. The threat of an Axis invasion gave the Ávila Camacho administration the opportunity to promote a new conservative national consensus that tried to bridge serious divisions of geography, race, and class.
The administration feared a possible German or Japanese landing on Mexican soil, a surprise act that would have been answered immediately with an invasion by Allied forces and that would have turned the country into a battlefield. To ensure that the Axis powers would stay away from Mexico’s shores, Ávila Camacho allowed extensive operation by U.S. secret forces. Under the leadership of FBI agent Gus Jones, U.S. advisors trained and cooperated with Mexico’s counterintelligence forces. These advisors also helped in writing Mexico’s first law against espionage, subversion, and sabotage. In addition, a stream of U.S. undercover agents from naval military intelligence and the Office of Strategic Services toured every bay along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, investigating rumors of German and Japanese landing preparations. None of these searches found foreign troops on the beaches.
Nevertheless, U.S. secret forces and representatives of the Mexican ministries of government and Treasury, the military, and the presidential security service unmasked Germany, Italy, and Spain’s sophisticated network of agents and saboteurs north of the Panama Canal before Hitler could change his mind and order large-scale sabotage operations in the Americas in 1941 or cooperate in a Pearl Harbor-like attack on the Americas. Because Axis subversion systematically exploited ethnic groups’ discontent to prepare military invasions, the Mexican government removed the Japanese, Germans, and Italians from Mexico’s coastal zones. As long as Spain remained neutral, the presence of pro-Franco Spaniards along the coasts had to be tolerated. Following the arrest in 1942 of the Japanese naval attaché and German spies, U.S. and Mexican investigators learned of contingency plans to attack and conquer the port of Acapulco, damage U.S. airplane production in San Diego, and attack the Panama Canal. Indeed, after the 1942 Mexican declaration of war, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop angrily suggested sabotaging the oil fields. After 1942, Mexican vigilance kept the remaining Axis amateurs from trying to inflict serious harm on the country. Just as Venustiano Carranza had protected Mexico from the dangerous consequences of German subversion and sabotage during World War I, Ávila Camacho’s cooperation with U.S. and British secret forces protected the nation and everyday Mexicans from German designs for the second time in this century.
The declaration of war in June 1942, following the sinking of the Potrero de Llano, embarrassed U.S. military leaders in Washington into taking Mexico’s military dedication more seriously and to admit at least a symbolic fighting force to a European or Asian war theater. The development of a modern Mexican air force emerged as a compromise that accommodated continued popular hesitation to fight abroad and promised respect and legitimacy to all of Mexico’s professionalized armed forces. At a time when Brazilian forces were preparing for deployment in Italy and the Mexican military’s official role in politics was being eliminated, World War II offered high Mexican officers much-desired glory. President Ávila Camacho himself expressed a personal wish to fight abroad, saying that only the presidency was keeping him from action.
Mexican air force pilots received training in the United States during 1944 and fought valiantly in Pacific air battles in 1945. The pilots who died in the campaign and the air force squadron itself came to personify Mexico’s unwavering commitment to the cause of the Allies during World War II, and, just as important, Mexico’s rightful claim to sit at the side of the victors. In the United States, the bad memories of Carranza’s World War I policy were being replaced by a recognition that without Mexican raw materials in U.S. factories, Foreign Minister Padilla’s Latin American diplomacy, Mexican bracero workers in U.S. agriculture and industry, and Mexican soldiers, as well as Mexican–American volunteers in all branches of the U.S. armed forces, the war effort of the United States against the Axis would have been less strong and self-assured. Most likely, a politically weaker Mexico would have been tolerant of German anti-American activities carried out from its territory. In Spanish-speaking Latin America, the Ávila Camacho administration’s relentless prodemocracy action justified Foreign Minister Padilla’s demand to act as mediator between the United States and Latin America, but also came as a distinctly Latin American voice within the newly formed United Nations. Mexico’s experiences and lessons from the Pan American Union of the 1920s and the League of Nations in the 1930s were now translated into the United Nations.
Then, the sudden retirement of Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles and the death of President Roosevelt removed the staunchest pro-Mexico advocates from Washington. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and other members of the U.S. State Department resumed the Cold War against the Soviet Union within the Western Hemisphere as early as 1943. They revived unilateral pressure politics that failed to comprehend the particularities of Mexico’s leftist political culture. The departure of U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Messersmith removed the last remaining pillar of the special U.S.–Mexican wartime relationship. Ezequiel Padilla continued his tenure as Mexican foreign minister and represented Mexico with distinction during the creation of the United Nations at the conference in San Francisco in 1942. His lone determination was not enough to avoid negative change.
Those in the United States who preferred to see the Western Hemisphere as one regional block, not as a set of discrete political entities with their own unique political agendas, were gaining ground in Washington. In the Western Hemisphere, World War II evolved into the Cold War. Miguel Alemán defeated Padilla easily in the 1946 presidential election and established his own relationship with the Truman administration.
Fueling the popular Mexican love–hate relationship with its neighbor to the north, the war had given new proof of the financial possibilities of mass tourism. The closure of the Pacific and Atlantic, the overhauling of the railway system, and the opening of the Pan American Highway had brought an unprecedented number of U.S. tourists south of the border. The penetration of Mexican movie houses by Hollywood films also continued after 1945. There was no alternative. Great Britain was bankrupt. The economies of Germany, France, Italy, and Japan were destroyed, and the Soviet Union was not interested in industrializing Mexico. Raw materials from other Latin American countries continued to compete with those from Mexico. More so than after World War I and the Revolution, the United States was the focus of Mexican foreign relations. From then on, the new context of the cold war produced a new variation on an all-too-familiar theme.