The Sextant Christopher Newport University’s On-Line History Journal

Vol. 9, Fall/Winter 2012-13


As seen by their repeated disputes over oil ownership, early 20th Century relations between the United States and Mexico ’s revolutionary government were continually plagued by opposing conceptions of national sovereignty and private property rights.  Mexico , capitalizing on the revolution’s fervor for land reform and social justice, repeatedly attempted to seize private oil industries on its own soil.  Mexican presidents such as Plutarco Elias Calles and Lázaro Cárdenas believed that foreign ownership of Mexican oil created adverse social conditions that compromised their sovereignty and nationalistic agenda.  The US government and private businesses, as noted by President Calvin Coolidge, perceived that a US citizen’s property was “part of a general domain of the nation, even when abroad,” and could not be infringed upon by opposing governments. [1]   The US ’s attempt to protect its large oil corporations and orient the Mexican government towards its economic agenda produced a significant backlash from the Mexican populace.  As World War II approached, many observers believed that the Mexican government, given its population’s resentment of US intervention, would harshly resist any wartime arrangements with the United States , or even align itself with the Axis Powers.

However, Mexican presidents Cárdenas (1934-1940) and Manuel Avila Camacho (1940-1946) perceived that Mexican security was “inexorably linked” with the United States ’ World War II efforts. [2]   The Mexican government cooperated with the US war efforts as much as its suspicious citizenry allowed.  It agreed to a mutual defense arrangement with the US, provided strategic materials for the Allied cause, severed diplomatic and economic ties with the Axis powers, and contributed to the US worker shortage through the Bracero Program.  Mexico ’s 201st Fighter Squadron even flew in a number of combat missions under US guidance in the Pacific.  Although its security contributions to the war effort were very minimal from a practical sense, Mexico ’s military alignment with the United States served an undeniably important symbolic end.  Mexico ’s efforts helped display the solidarity of the Americas against Axis aggression, and their willingness to risk its own citizens for the cause of the United States .  Mexico ’s economic contribution to the Allied cause was much more significant from a material perspective.  Through the Bracero Program and other economic arrangements, Mexico played a vital role in assuring that the US government could simultaneously sustain its war efforts and provide for the basic sustenance of its population.  Mexico ’s symbolic military involvement and substantial economic contribution both played an integral role in confirming Allied victory and the security of the western hemisphere. 

The United States perceived that Latin America was a vital component of “the frontline against fascist expansion.” [3]   By 1940, the German U-boats were dominating the Atlantic and Japanese-American tensions were continuing to mount. [4]   The United States could not defend its own borders much less contribute to the Allied cause in Europe if it failed to unify the Western Hemisphere .  With a pending two-front war in the Atlantic and Pacific, the United States could ill-afford to lose some of its most important trading partners and vital resources like the Panama Canal, or divert its military’s attention to its border with Mexico. [5]   US security and a successful war effort, therefore, depended upon a unified and effectively defended Western Hemisphere . [6]  

For a number of reasons, the United States and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were concerned about the possibility of Axis infiltration into Latin America .  At the 1938 Pan American Conference, several Latin American countries gave the United States the impression that they were sympathetic to the fascist cause. [7]   Propaganda efforts, trade agreements, and arms sales all indicated that the Nazis were attempting “to convert the Latin American republics into virtual dependencies.” [8]   The United States was especially wary about the anti- American developments in Mexico .  Mexico ’s German, Japanese and Italian populations, which numbered at about 20,000, had all established important footholds in society, especially in business. [9]   Mexico ’s German population by 1940 continued to grow as supposed “tourists” set up temporary residencies. [10]    US intelligence officials feared that German operatives were cultivating popular anti-American sentiments so that they could more easily distribute German propaganda and “create local disturbances” against the Allied cause. [11]   Mexico ’s so-called “fifth column” even spread rumors that the overly-aggressive United States was planning an invasion of Mexico . [12]  

The US-Mexican tensions related to oil disputes exacerbated the United States ’ fears.  In the spring of 1938, President Cárdenas decided to nationalize Mexico ’s oil fields. [13]   The nationalization caused a dramatic rift in Mexican-American relations and significantly curbed their economic cooperation.  The United States responded to Mexico ’s nationalization by halting their silver exports into Mexico , lobbying other American countries to do the same, and implementing an embargo on other Mexican products. [14]   Buoyed by the popular support for the expropriation of Mexican oil and the increased international demand for fuel, Cardenas was undeterred by the United States ’ economic sanctions.  Instead, Mexico increased its transactions with the Axis powers to fill the void left by its slowed economic arrangements with the United States .  Every Axis power was desperate for oil and Mexico had become an uncommitted oil provider. [15]   By early 1939, Mexico had agreed to barter its own oil to every Axis power in exchange for various goods and services. [16]   One of the most famous transactions between Mexico and the Axis Powers was the oil for rayon (which was needed for Mexico fledgling textile industry) deal with Italy in April, 1939. [17]

Because of the importance of the Western Hemisphere, the United States understood the need to unify Latin America through positive diplomatic action.  The United States abandoned the Monroe Doctrine approach, where it unilaterally responded to any aggression seeming to threaten their hemispheric interests. [18]   Instead, the United States promised its neighbors that it would not interfere in their internal political affairs. [19]   In the case of Mexico and oil expropriation, the Roosevelt Administration refused to militarily or clandestinely intervene on behalf the US oil companies.  Instead, the US government sought a “quick political solution” that would satisfy both governments and improve US-Mexican relations. [20]   President Roosevelt, through his so-called “Good Neighbor Policy,” believed that healthier relations with Mexico and other Latin American countries would provide the proper means of orienting the Western Hemisphere toward the Allied cause.  The US hoped that its neighbors would ultimately perceive that accepting US leadership represented the most effect way to protect the collective interests of the Americas . [21]    In 1940, the Good Neighbor Policy evolved into mutual continental defense organization, which would include joint military operations. [22] The US hoped that its unification of the Americas would provide the “hemispheric security” needed to resist the Axis advance. [23]  

President Cárdenas’ reaction to US-proposed hemispheric solidarity was shaped by the existing state of Mexico ’ domestic politics.  Cárdenas understood that a full commitment to the Allied cause could produce a popular backlash, especially given Mexico ’s overwhelming apathy toward the war and its suspicions of the United States . [24]   Many Mexicans perceived that an alliance with the United States would contradict the Party of the Mexican Revolution’s (PRM) emphasis on Mexican nationalism and social reform.  Despite popular sentiment, Cárdenas understood that the PRM’s international legitimacy hinged upon American support.  With the prospect of a tight presidential election between Andreu Almazan and the official candidate Manuel Avila Camacho, Cárdenas proclaimed to American and Allied diplomats that the primary objective of his last months in office was to improve and maintain US-Mexican relations. [25]    Coordination with the United States also presented a dramatic revenue opportunity for Mexico .  If the United States perceived Mexico ’s economy and defense as an important arm of its war efforts, it would feel the need to modernize Mexico ’s military, industries and transportation systems. [26]   The US support, given the international legitimacy and modernization that it provided, undoubtedly assisted the PRI’s efforts to consolidate its reign over Mexican politics.  Additionally, Cardenas perceived that Mexico ’s domestic security was “inexorably linked” to strong relations with the United States . [27]   A “self-centered” position of neutrality and indifference for the war effort would lead to Mexico sharing the same fate as the small European countries that were conquered by the German army. [28]   Cardenas and his presidential successor, Avila Camacho, delicately accepted the alliance with the United States despite the popular nationalism opposing it.   

Consequently, Cárdenas and Avila Camacho’s PRM government adopted a number of policies that assured Mexico ’s alignment with the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere .  In an attempt to alleviate US fears regarding German operatives in Mexico , Cárdenas submitted that the Mexican government had already taken measures to control it, and would not “permit any activities in Mexico inimical to the US or designed to create trouble between Mexico and the US .” [29]  Even more importantly, President Cárdenas’ approach to the oil conflict was very similar to Roosevelt’s emphasis on easing tensions between the two states.  Cárdenas agreed to compensate the oil companies for their losses of land and promised that oil expropriation would not lead to further nationalization efforts. [30]   The November 1941 formal agreement, where Mexico agreed to give $40 million to US oil companies in exchange for the resumption of silver transactions, helped ameliorate the tensions between the two sides and assure that their relationship could play a leading role in producing hemispheric solidarity. [31]   Cárdenas also submitted that Mexico was not as cooperative with Axis powers as it may have appeared, and was willing to support the Allied mission.  The Mexican government, according to Cárdenas, had refused Italy ’s offer to send an aviation mission and a number of experts in chemical science to Mexico . [32]   Cárdenas’ successor President Avila Camacho agreed to the Joint Mexican-American Defense Commission once taking office in late 1940. [33]   The agreement assured that Mexico would cooperate militarily and economically in case the United States was brought into the war. [34]   More importantly, it indicated Mexico ’s commitment to the Allied cause and hemispheric security. 

Mexico ’s initial, and one of its most significant, contributions to the war effort was its increased trade arrangements with the United States and the rest of the Americas .  At the beginning of 1941, Mexico and the other Latin American countries made the exportation of “strategic materials” exclusive to Western Hemispheric states. [35]   The United States hoped that its export controls on the Western Hemispheric market would make many vital resources significantly more accessible, while crippling the opponents’ efforts to obtain these resources. [36]   Japan ’s war machine, for example, was greatly impeded by this arrangement, given its heavy reliance on the Latin American market for resources like mercury and mica. [37]   Mexico was willing to uphold the trade agreement and forfeit its arrangements with the Axis Powers on a couple of conditions.  Mexico would have to be able to sell its exports at a favorable price within the American market, and the US would be required to provide Mexico with the materials it previously received from the Axis powers, like rayon and iron. [38]   The United States agreed to Mexico ’s demands, because of the importance of US-Mexican solidarity in resisting Axis advance.  Of the Latin American states, Mexico ’s assistance in hemispheric economic coordination may have been the most vital to the US war effort.  With German U-boats interrupting the Atlantic supply line, the United States desperately needed a safe and efficient transportation of goods and resources from Mexico . [39]   Mexico also provided the United States with many resources that other neighboring states could not provide.  Mexico had superior oil wealth, and a large and almost untapped supply of metals and minerals (like lead, copper, zinc and mercury) that were essential to the war effort. [40]   Consequently, trade with Mexico became one of the most integral components of the United States ’ “arsenal of democracy.” [41]  

Avila Camacho’s government also agreed to a number of bilateral arrangements with the United States .  Mexico and the United States agreed to ban any restrictions on the importation, sale or distribution of any products between the two countries. [42]   Each government would have to notify the other if it was planning to place any restrictions or tariffs on a given item. [43]   Mexico and the United States also created a “black list” of corporations with ties to the Axis powers, and all German, Italian and Japanese property in Mexico was embargoed and placed under the supervision of the Avila Camacho government. [44]   Furthermore, a number of arrangements between the US and Mexico exemplified that Mexico ’s importance to the US superseded that of the other Latin American states.  In April 1942, the Suarez-Batemen agreement provided Mexico a 25% price increase on its exports of copper, lead and zinc, and allowed them to export these resources to the British Empire and its mandate territories, the Soviet Union and China . [45]   Mexico , because of its unsurpassed ability to supply all of the Allies with important raw materials, was granted an exception to the previously established policy of restricting all exports to the Western Hemisphere . [46]   The agreement ultimately helped satisfy a vital Allied demand for strategic materials, while assisting the Mexican economy through increased production and exportation. [47]

In addition to the economic arrangements between the United States and Mexico , Mexican workers also fulfilled a vital component of the US cause through the Bracero Program.  The United States , once it began conscripting young men to fight in the war overseas, found itself with an extreme labor shortage on the domestic front, which made it difficult to sustain the war effort abroad and to ensure the basic sustenance of the citizenry at home simultaneously. [48]   The United States , without an influx of labor, faced “an undetermined loss of needed perishable foodstuffs, both for military and civilian use.” [49]   The most dramatic worker shortages existed on western US farms and railroads. [50]   In order to rectify the labor shortage, the United States hoped to establish a joint US- Mexican program that would temporarily assign Mexican working-class men to US employers. [51]   On August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexico agreed to the Bracero Program, which gave five million Mexican workers sixth month contracts to work in the US farming and railroad industries. [52]   The program was primarily modeled after the highly criticized Bracero Program during World War I.  Many workers under the earlier program deserted their employers because they rejected the low wages and harsh discriminatory treatment that came with their jobs. [53]   In order to ensure that the Mexican workers were willing to participate in the new program, the United States emphasized that it guaranteed a higher wage and standard of living, protection against discrimination, and return transportation to Mexico . [54]   The Avila Camacho government agreed to the program because it provided Mexican workers extremely important work experience that they could later apply domestically, and the Mexican economy had a vested interest in ensuring that the United States overcame its labor shortage. [55]

The Braceros, despite the physical and emotional challenges they faced, provided a vital service to the US cause.  Braceros had difficulties communicating with their distant families, were extremely segregating from local communities, had very little experience with the jobs that they were given, and were not paid satisfactory wages by US standards. [56]   Many of the safeguards that guaranteed the braceros a certain level of living conditions were not properly enforced.  Although the US government commissioned the War Manpower Commission and the Railroad Retirement Board to oversee the program, US agricultural and railroad corporations were largely expected to adhere to the policy on their own account. [57]   The conditions were especially difficult for railroad workers.  Since many of the railroad companies did not build an adequate number of workers’ housing units, braceros were often relegated to living in makeshift shelters, like tents or abandoned boxcars. [58]   Because of the braceros’ lack of experience on railroad crews, the work was also exceptionally dangerous.  Many braceros suffered the ultimate price for failing to understand the importance of wearing proper equipment.  In 1942, the year the program was enacted, 9,451 railroad workers lost their lives and another 35,208 suffered from a job-related injury. [59]   The year preceding the program, there were only 749 fatalities and 25,265 injuries. [60]   Because of the difficult conditions, one out of every ten braceros deserted their employers prior to their contract expiring. [61]   The braceros, despite the adversity they faced, still were a vital cog in the US war machine.  During the program, agricultural commodities were produced at an unprecedented level and railroads were maintained at optimal conditions so that troops, war supplies and basic food stuffs could be easily transported. [62]   The United States would not have had nearly the same production capacity, which represented one of its greatest advantages during the war, without the labor that the braceros provided. 

Mexico ’s limited military contributions to the war effort largely took place after Japan ’s bombing of Pearl Harbor .  The Avila Camacho government ended all diplomatic ties with the Axis powers, immediately froze all Axis bank accounts, and outlawed coded messages and foreign languages in long-distance calls. [63]   The Mexican government took further action after German U-boats attacked two Mexican oil tankers, killing twelve, in May of 1942. [64]   Mexico responded by declaring war on the Axis Powers, and becoming an official combatant as a member of the United Nations Pact. [65]   In the United Nations, Mexico cooperated militarily in a number of ways.  Mexico allowed the landing of US bomber planes at Mexican airports, the establishment of US radar systems on Mexican soil, and the operation of a small number of US military personnel within Mexico . [66]   

From a practical perspective, Mexico ’s military contributions to the war effort were still very limited.  The American and Allied cause lacked sufficient popular support to garner Mexico ’s full military cooperation. [67]   President Avila Camacho, as a result, declined a number of the US Defense Department’s requests.   Mexico refused to a deploy Mexican troops to fight the war abroad, and would not agree to a joint military command with the United States which could have resulted in US troops on Mexican soil. [68]   Some of Avila Camacho’s top generals wanted to commit Mexican troops to the war effort, but the president was wary of possibly empowering the military at his own expense. [69]   As seen by his focus on public opinion and keeping his own military in check, Avila Camacho was undoubtedly hoping to maintain the governing authority of the PRI.  The Avila Camacho government also continually opposed the establishment of US naval and air bases on Mexican soil, because it would compromise their national sovereignty and potentially lead to a loss of territory. [70]   US military interventions at Vera Cruz in 1914 and Northern Mexico in 1916-17 were still very fresh in the minds of many Mexicans. [71]   Many government officials believed that the “imperialist sectors in the United States ” still had designs on particular pieces of Mexican territory, especially Baja California . [72]   Mexico , given some of its military hesitancies, did not provide the total war effort like that of the Allies’ principal actors.  However, Mexico ’s limited cooperation and joining of the United Nations had clear symbolic significance.  With Mexico ’s consent, the United States was able to consolidate the Western Hemisphere against Axis aggression. 

Mexico ’s most significant military contribution, from a strategic and symbolic standpoint, was its deployment of the 201st Mexican Fighter Squadron to the Southwest Pacific. [73]   The Avila Camacho government could not possibly commit to a total war effort, because it could produce a number of negative consequences at the domestic level.  However, the government believed that a number of benefits could be accrued to Mexico by actively participating as a combatant, even if it was only in a limited manner.  It would give the Mexican government much needed international prestige, allow Mexico to possibly participate in postwar peace negotiations and increase their military’s experience with modern technology and strategies. [74]   In November of 1943, President Avila Cardenas announced that Mexico was ready to send an expeditionary air force to fight “shoulder to shoulder” with the Allied forces. [75]   Mexico ’s 201st Fighter Squadron, after receiving extensive training in both the United States and Mexico , called into active duty under US supervision.  The Mexican pilots flew in 53 combat missions in Luzon , Philippines and four long range missions in Taiwan during the summer of 1945. [76]   In most of its operations, such as its July mission to dislodge stray Japanese troops in the Philippines , the 201st Squadron was primarily used to support the American 58th Fighter Group. [77]   US General Churchill Kenney asserted that only two Mexican pilots “[could] be called satisfactory leaders,” and, thus, the US military could not possibly count on the Mexicans to fulfill the duties of a traditional US unit.  The 201st Squadron’s contribution to US victory in the Pacific was undoubtedly very minimal.  Of the 42 officers and 249 enlisted men that participated in the program, there were only seven casualties (most of which were the result of faulty equipment or failed practice exercises). [78]   However, Mexico ’s willingness to send its own citizens in harm’s way for the sake of the Allied cause demonstrated its commitment to its alliance with the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere .  Mexico ’s deployment of the 201st Squadron to the Pacific theater clearly represented the height of Mexican-American military collaboration in the 20th Century. [79]

Despite the contentious oil disputes, Mexico ’s Cárdenas and Avila Camacho government perceived that Mexico ’s interests would be best served through an alliance with the United States .  The government, while simultaneously keeping the US at an arms distance, was able to use its powerful neighbor’s economic and diplomatic assistance as a means to consolidate its authority.  Despite its limited collaboration with the US , Mexico played an instrumental role in securing hemispheric solidarity against Axis intervention.  Mexico ’s bracero workers and 201st Fighter Squadron best exemplified the significant contributions that Mexico provided.

[1] Maria Emilia Paz, Strategy, Security and Spies: Mexico and the US as Allies in World War II (University Park, Pa: The Pennsylvania State University Press) 1997, 3. 

[2] Stephen R. Niblo, War, Diplomacy and Development: The United States and Mexico , 1938-1954 ( Wilmington , De: Scholarly Resources Inc.) 1995,  76. 

[3]   Ibid,

[4] Stephen I. Schwab, ÒThe Role of the Expeditionary Air Force in World War II: Late, Limited but Symbolically Significant,Ó The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Oct 2002)  1116. 

[5] Ibid.. 

[6] Paz, 2. 

[7] Niblo, 64. 

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Sumner Welles, ÒMemorandum of Conversation by the Under Secretary of State (Welles),Ó Foreign Relations of the United States: The American Republics, Vol. 5, 1940, 24 May 1940. 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Pierre Boal, ÒThe Charge in Mexico (Boal) to the Secretary of State,Ó Foreign Relations of the United States: The American Republics, Vol. 5, 1940, 11 Jun 1940. 

[13] Niblo, 45. 

[14] Niblo,, 54.,and Paz, 4. 

[15] Niblo,, 71. 

[16] Paz, 4. 

[17] Friedrich E. Schuler, Mexico Between Hitler and Roosevelt: Mexican Foreign Relations in the Age of Lazaro Cardenas, 1934-1940 ( Albuquerque , NM : University of New Mexico Press) 1998,  103.

[18] Paz, 3. 

[19] Paz, 6. 

[20] Niblo, 64. 

[21] Schwab, 1116. 

[22] Welles, ibid. 

[23] Schwab, 1116. 

[24] Niblo, 83. 

[25] Boal, ibid. 

[26] Paz, 7.

[27] Niblo, 74. 

[28] Ibid  74. 

[29] Shelden Chapin, ÒMemorandum of Conversation, by the Liason Officer (Chapin),Ó Foreign Relations of the United States: The American Republics, Vol. 5, 1940, 11 Jun 1940; Boal, ibid.

[30] Niblo, ,  54. 

[31] Ibid,  54. 

[32] Welles, ibid.

[33] Josphus Daniels, ÒThe Ambassador in Mexico (Daniels) to the Secretary of State,Ó Foreign Relations of the United States: The American Republics, Vol. 5, 1940, 6 Dec 1940. 

[34] Ibid

[35] Cordell Hull, ÒThe Secretary of State to the Ambassador in Mexico (Daniels),Ó Foreign Relations of the United States: The American Republics, 1941, 13 Mar 1941. 

[36] Paz,  81. 

[37] Ibid,  83.

[38] Daniels, ibid

[39] Niblo, ,  92. 

[40] Ibid. 

[41] Ibid, 82. 

[42] ÒThe Department of State to the Mexican Embassy,Ó Foreign Relations of the United States: The American Republics, 1942, Apr 1942. 

[43] Ibid. 

[44] Niblo,  82. 

[45] Paz,  87.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Welles, ibid.

[49] Erasmo Gamboa, ÒOn the NationÕs Periphery: Mexican Braceros and the Pacific Northwest Railroad Industry, 1943-1946,Ó Mexican-Americans in World War II (Austin, Tx: University of Texas Press) 2005,  282. 

[50] Welles, ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Richard B. Craig, The Bracero Program: Interests Groups and Foreign Policy ( Austin , Tx : The University of Texas Press) 1971,  36. 

[53] Gamboa, 275. 

[54] Ibid. 

[55] Craig,  42. 

[56] Gamboa,  275

[57] Barbara A. Driscoll, The Tracks North: The Railroad Bracero Program of World War II ( Austin , Tx : University of Texas Press) 1999,  104. 

[58] Ibid106. 

[59] Gamboa, 282.

[60] Ibid, 282.

[61] Ibid,  285.

[62] Ibid,  274.

[63] Schwab, 1119. 

[64] Ibid..

[65] Ibid,  1120. 

[66] Paz,  6.

[67] Niblo, ,  76

[68] Paz,  6.

[69] Ibid  220

[70] Herbert Bursley, ÒMemorandum by the Assistant Chief of Diversion of the American Republics,Ó Foreign Relations of the United States: The American Republics, 1940, 13 Jun 1940. 

[71] Schwab, 1116. 

[72] Niblo, 76; Bursley, ibid. 

[73] Schwab, 1116. 

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid, 1124.

[76] Ibid, 1117.

[77] Schwab,  1134.

[78] Paz,  223. 

[79] Ibid.